Sad Story Of The Base
At Manus Island
The decline and fall of the great U.S. naval and air base at Manus Island;is an obscure passage of post-war history. While visiting Manus, I have tried to supplement the information published on the matter by questioning people who- were on the island since the war and saw some of the queer things that happened there.
BUILT up in about six
months in 1944, thc base was an astonishing feat of American construction. On the eve of the invasion of the
Philippines late in that year,
there were more than 800
ships in Seeadler Harbour, Manus Island. The base in- stallations, stretching round the harbour for about 20 miles, included large wharves and floating docks, four major airfields, 25 miles of roadway, living quarters for 150,000 men, a 3,000-bed hospital, and fuel depots, supply stores, and repair shops for giving every service to warships.
After the war the U.S.A. at first intended to maintain the base, then decided to abandon it. According to American Press re- ports, the decision to leave Manus was made in September, 1946,
By A Staff Correspondent Who is Visiting Manus
after President Truman had ordered economies in naval ex penditure.
In May, 1947, Congress cut the Navy's appropriation of money to 11 per cent, less than was requested and the Navy announced that the Manus and Attu bases were being closed. By that time the U.S. Navy had almost entirely withdrawn from
Australia got only a small fraction of the vast quantity of equipment left at the base. Thc U.S. in 1947 sold a portion to the Chinese Gov- ernment, and Chinese were on thc island for more than a year collect- ing it. Australia bought what wai left in 1948. the most importani items being about 1,500 serviceable Quonset huts.
By the time Australia began col- lecting her remnant of the salvage in 1949, three years of neglect jungle growth, salt air, sun, and tropical rain had reduced most of the remains of the base to ruins, Many Quonset huts were buried deep in vegetation, stacks of timber lay rotting, and machinery was covered with rust. Also, much equipment had been wilfully de- stroyed.
Moved To Guam
That is an outline of the story. Here are some of the details, as told to me at Manus:
Before they left, the Americans removed some equipment, chiefly to Guam. They also destroyed a great deal. L.S.T. loads of motor vehicles were sunk by gunfire, typewriters and refrigerators were dumped out at sea, landing barges were scuttled, and bonfires were made of aircraft engines. At Momote airfield a U.S. Navy officer wrecked the last re- maining serviceable aircraft, a float- plane,- by crushing it with a bull-
Thc American officers said they were under orders to carry out this destruction, because an agreement had been made between the U.S. Government and American manu- facturers of war equipment that the equipment would not be returned to
Some of the wreckage since found on the island may have been caused either by the Americans or by the Chinese; nobody seems to know. At Lombrum, where the R.A.N. base is how being built, there are lorries lying in the sea at the water's edge. Commonwealth works and housing men have found ice-shaving ma- chines and hundreds of hot-water systems riddled with bullets. Six 75-kilowatt generators, worth £5,000 each, had apparently been destroyed by flame-throwers.
Some of the ruined machinery left behind was junk accumulated in thc normal way by the U.S. forces while the base was operational. This is the probable explanation of the Lombrum dump of hundreds of rusty motor vehicles, piled five or six deep, which was shown last year in a newsreel. The dump con- tains, among other items, staff cars, lorries, tip trucks, water-tank trucks, oil-tank trucks, ambulances, bull- dozers, graders, cranes, mechanical shovels, scoops, caterpillar diesels, and jeeps. Most of the tyres, cylin- der heads, and headlight bulbs have
For a few months in 1947 a firm
in the Philippines, the Luzon Steve- doring Corporation, sent a party to Manus to collect salvage. Its Fili- pino employees acquired a reputa- tion for incompetence. Some of them piled up lorries at high speed and landed themselves in hospital. Others went about smashing electric light bulbs because they liked to hear them pop.
To gather the salvage bought by the Chinese Government, about 300 coolies were sent to the island in 1947. .The loading of cargoes was organised by ."the Vinnell-Bosey Cor- poration, an American stevedoring firm under contract to the Chinese Government. Chartered American merchant ships, carried the salvage to Shanghai.
The material which the Chinese took away included motor vehicles, drums of oil, cranes, earth-moving equipment, tools, paint, scrap copper and brass, refrigerating machinery, timber, and large stores of clothing and medical supplies. They arc said to have bought it at a flat rate per ton, but the price and the quantity taken are not definitely known.
Much of the salvage was resold by the Chinese to buyers from the U.S.A., South America, and else- where.- New York clothing dealers wandered about Manus looking for possible purchases. An official of the Australian Department of Works and Housing went to China to buy earth-moving equipment salvaged from Manus.
While the coolies were on the island they had quarrels with the American employees-of the Vinnell Bosey Corporation, and tore parts out of some motor vehicles in order to annoy them. There was a fan- tan school at Lombrum and a rou- lette school at Lorengau, much saki was drunk, and the Chinese brawled frequently among themselves. The detachment of 12 Chinese police beat up their officer in charge, and when he was replaced they beat up his successor. Some coolies came into conflict with the Australian Ad- ministration when they tied up and flogged a native who had stolen
U.S. Army Air Corps officers at Momote saw Chinese take two drums of aviation spirit from the Air Corps supply dump. They sent a message demanding the return of these drums, and the Chinese, with apologies, sent back more than 5,000 gallons pf petrol. Thc Air Corps men were left wondering how much of it the Chinese had really taken. ,
Thc coolies did a good deal ot damage through what appeared to be mere stupidity. They caused a water shortage by turning on all the showers they, could find, and leaving them on; they had not seen shower baths before. They entered locked huts by driving trucks through thc doors. When they found
machinery covered with plastic in- sulation to protect it against the weather, they peeled the plastic off to see what was underneath; then they left the machinery to rust.
The Chinese, already on bad terms with thc local administration, became still more anti-Australian when thc Commonwealth Govern- ment told them they would have to depart from Manus by a definite date. Before they left, late in 1948, they carried out some vandalism to prevent material from falling intact into Australian hands. They gashed open tins of paint and drums of oil with axes, and smashed toilet bowls and wash-basins with crowbars.
This depressing recital of events leaves various things unexplained. It is not clear, for example, why the U.S. Government should have ordered the destruction of overseas equipment, and yet been willing to sell part of thc equipment as salvage.
The most important question un- answered is whether the U.S.A. offered to sell Australia the entire contents of the base before the deal was made with the Chinese. If so, what was thc price, and why was the
Mr. R. J. Booker, D.C.M., manager of the store at Manus, is one of several people I have met who were friendly with U.S. navy officers at Manus before the Ameri- can evacuation.
U.S. Offer Of Base
Mr. Booker was awarded the Sil- ver Star and Bronze Star for ser- vices to U.S. forces during the re- capture of Manus.
According to him and others I have interviewed, U.S. Navy officers said that Australia had been offered the base as a walk-in, walk-out pur- chase, and had declined to buy.
Officers believed also-and with some resentment-that Australia had refused to buy because she ex- pected to get the equipment left on Manus for nothing.
The Anzac Pact (between Aus-
tralia and New Zealand) virtually gave the United States notice to quit Manus and other mandated territory, even before the war ended. -
In April, 1946, Dr. H. V. Evatt, then Minister for External Affairs, said: "The Government will enter into no commitments which will
lessen the control of the Australian, people over their own territories."
During 1946 and in later years Mr. Chifley's Government was severely criticised for not allowing the United States to maintain its base at Manus Island.
Following this criticism. Dr. Evatt said in the House of Representatives on February 18, 1949: "Australia has never refused the United States the use of Manus."
He added that 'if an emergency arose in the Pacific, United States
naval forces would use Australia's Manus Island base and Australian naval forces would use United States bases.