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Origins of Engineer Aviation Battalions

Created in 1939, Engineer Aviation Battalions (EABs), were self-contained units which became the core of World War II aviation engineering efforts. These skilled construction and engineering troops constructed, repaired, camouflaged, and if necessary, defended small airfields. Well-equipped and well-manned with about 800 enlisted men each, twelve EABs were formed by the time of Pearl Harbor and sent to the Philippines, Southwest Pacific, and the Aleutian Islands.

Many of the enlisted men were volunteers with considerable construction or engineering experience. As a result, a special "esprit de corps" developed among these men who saw themselves as well-trained professionals, and they often resented new, untrained recruits.

Engineer Aviation Battalions accomplished a remarkable record for building runways and roads at lightning speed in desolate areas under adverse conditions.  These units often consisted entirely of African Americans, whose contributions had a positive but unacknowledged impact on the war’s outcome.

African Americans Segregated into Separate Units 
The newly formed Army Air Forces (AAF) was forced to accept Black recruits for the first time in 1940 after the Selective Training and Service Act prohibited racial discrimination. While some African Americans became pilots, like the well-known Tuskegee Airmen, most served in support units. All too often, it appeared to Black soldiers that they had no mission except to do menial labor and that their units served no real purpose other than providing a place to segregate Blacks. The institutional bias, combined with the professional pride exhibited by engineers, meant that any Blacks (especially unskilled men) entering EABs faced enormous difficulties.

Training Experiences
Despite the Army's reluctance, thousands of Blacks entered the AAF, and of the 157 EABs that served in World War II, 48 were segregated Black units. Black troops often had substandard living and recreational facilities, and they encountered suspicion and hostility from White units and local White civilians. Even more detrimental to morale, Black units frequently had their training interrupted to do housekeeping chores.

End of Segregation
After the war, a board met to evaluate the aviation engineer experience and discuss the future of Black engineer units. Using the flawed justification that “technical skills are relatively seldom attained by individuals of the colored race,” the board recommended that Blacks remain in positions of unskilled labor. The following year, however, institutional and individual bias gave way to the growing success of the Civil Rights Movement when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ordered the desegregation of the Armed Forces.

Airfield Construction
Aviation engineers used the same basic construction techniques around the globe. After an area had been cleared of trees or other obstructions, tractors cleared the area. Once the dirt runway had been leveled, engineers laid pierced steel planking to create an all-weather runway.

The construction of these airstrips proved key in achieving victory. For instance, after the invasion of Leyte in the Philippines in October 1944, heavy Japanese attacks forced the U.S. Navy to withdraw its aircraft carriers. The only airpower available to American ground forces came from aircraft flying from hastily constructed airstrips made by aviation engineers.

WWII Airborne Tractor
The small size of the Clarkair Crawler Model CA-1 tractor permitted airlift by glider or other cargo aircraft to locations where it could be used to construct landing strips or other facilities. In one such example behind Japanese lines in 1944, more than 30 gliders carrying men, pack animals, lighting equipment, and tractors of this type landed at a jungle clearing designated as "Broadway." In just 24 hours, the engineers had prepared a 5,000 foot long landing strip ready for gliders and C-47s.

This tractor was donated to the museum by members of the 876th Airborne Engineer Aviation Battalion Reunion Association. It was restored for the museum by the Clark Equipment Co., Cassopolis, MI.

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