by Jack McKillop
Physical Description & History
The Leeward Islands (16°43' 59"S, 151°23' 49"W) are in the western part of the Society Islands in French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity of France in the South Pacific. (The eastern group is the Windward Islands, q.v.) The Leewards consist of nine atolls and islands with a total area of 153-square-miles (395-square-kilometers). The islands are about 1,275-miles (2,052-kilometers) east of American Samoa and 1,700-miles (2,736-kilometers) south-southeast of Palmyra Atoll.
The first European to visit the archipelago was the British explorer James Cook on 12 April 1769 during the British expedition to observe the transit of Venus. On this first voyage (Cook subsequently revisited the islands twice), he named the Leeward group of islands Society in honor of the The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. After France declared a protectorate over Tahiti in 1843, the British and French signed the Jarnac Convention, in 1847, declaring that the kingdoms of Raiatea, Huahine and Bora Bora were to remain independent from either powers and that no single chief was to be allowed to reign over the entire archipelago. France eventually broke the agreement, and the islands were annexed and became a colony in 1888 (eight years after the Windward Islands) after many native resistances and conflicts called the Leewards War, lasting until 1897.
Bora Bora Island (16°29' 45"S, 151°44' 38"W), the site of Naval Station Bora Bora, is an atoll in the western part of the Leeward Islands. The island is 15-square-miles (39-square-kilometers) and is about 4.5-miles (7.2-kilometers) long and 4-miles (6.4-kilometers) wide. In the center of the island are the remnants of an extinct volcano rising to two peaks, Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu, the highest point at 2,379-feet (725-meters). A steep barrier reef, a mile or two (1.6-or-3.2-kilometers) offshore, almost completely encircles the atoll; the natural passageway through the reef is curved, adding protection to the harbor. James Cook sighted the island in 1770 and landed that same year and the London Missionary Society arrived in 1820 and founded a Protestant church in 1890. Bora Bora was an independent kingdom until 1888 when its last queen was forced to abdicate by the French who annexed the island as a colony.
On Christmas Day, 1941, Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief United States Fleet, requested the War Plans Division to "proceed at once to study the matter of a fueling base in the central South Pacific area -- the Marquesas, Society, or Cook Islands." Five days later a recommendation was made to establish the the base in Teavanui Harbor on Bora Bora, in the Society group, which was under the control of the Free French government. The establishment recommended was one that would provide tank storage for 200,000 barrels (8.4 million U.S. gallons or 7 million Imperial gallons or 31.8 megaliters) of fuel oil and 37,500 barrels (1.575 million U.S. gallons or 1.31 million Imperial gallons or 5.96 megaliters) of gasoline, a seaplane base, the installations necessary for a defense detachment of 3,500 men, and suitable harbor facilities. Admiral King approved the recommendation. On 8 January 1942, a "Joint Basic Army and Navy Plan for the Occupation and Defense of Bora Bora" was issued, code named BOBCAT, which called for the expedition to depart from the U.S. on 25 January.
Despite much confusion, the convoy carrying about 5,000 troops sailed from Charleston, South Carolina on 27 January, only two days behind schedule. After an uneventful voyage via the Panama Canal, Task Force 5614 arrived at Vaitape, on Teavanui Bay, the the principal town on Bora Bora Island, on 17 February. This force consisted of the U.S. Army’s 102d Infantry Regiment (minus the 3d Battalion), the 198th Coast Artillery Regiment (Antiaircraft) and the Bobcat Detachment of the First Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees). This was the first operational deployment of the Seabees. The population of the island numbered about 1,400, with less than six permanent white residents.
Immediately, problems arose which overshadowed those encountered during the planning and mounting of the expedition. The terrain of Bora Bora was different from what had been shown on the mid-19th century French map that the planners had to use. The existing water supply the expedition expected to use turned out to be a myth and as the dry season was approaching, rapid steps had to be taken to insure an adequate supply of water. Within two weeks after the landings, construction of a water system was initiated by building dams on the main streams. At the end of two months, four dams had been built and a distribution system, comprising 13-miles (21-kilometers) of 4-inch (10-centimeter) pipe, supplied the camps scattered along the perimeter of the island.
Above all, cargo had been badly loaded in the ships. Equipment needed immediately had been stowed deep in the ships' holds and important items of equipment had been omitted from the outfitting lists or left on the wharf in the United States. The unloading operation took six weeks to complete because no weight-handling equipment was available (it took three weeks to locate and unload the first crane). Pontoon barges could not be assembled until the tie rods and accessories needed had been uncovered from beneath other cargo.
Rain and mud added to the difficulties. Bridgeheads to the beach had to be established, as there were only two small coral piers, at Vaitape and at Fanui, available, and these would not support heavy loads. Large quantities of construction materials, such as cement, tools, heavy pipe, and special fittings, were scattered along a 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) beach. Eventually, causeways were built out to deep water and a marginal pier, large enough to permit discharging cargo from two hatches, was constructed.
Another problem was transportation because there was only one single-lane road with several small bridges. The heavy Army trucks soon damaged the small bridges and culverts and tore up the roadbed. Road work had to be undertaken at once, but without the proper equipment for there was no road-building machinery available and only one small rock crusher. A large portion of the Seabees’ continued effort was expended in attempts to improve and maintain in passable condition the roads connecting the installations.
Because of these difficulties, the start of construction of the tank farm which was BOBCAT's primary reason for existence did not begin until 2 April.
Work on the defense batteries was also slow, but by the middle of March, construction on this major project was well under way. Eight 155 millimeter guns had to be mounted on skids for hauls 1,000-to-2,000-feet (305-to-610-meters) up the side of 45-degree slopes. Besides the gun emplacements, eight magazines, four battery command posts, and one harbor-defense command post were built.
By the time the Seabees were released from unloading duties, the personnel assigned to Naval Air Station Bora Bora had installed temporary facilities sufficient to permit operation of seaplanes. On 11 April, the Seabees took over completion of the project and began work on a concrete seaplane ramp, a compass-calibration rose, permanent gasoline-storage facilities, and the erection of huts for shops and personnel. Ten 5,000-U.S.-gallon (4,163 Imperial gallon or 18,927-liter) tanks were buried in the mountainside just behind the camp and connected by underground feed lines with the gasoline pits near the ramp. A hangar for OS2U Kingfisher observation aircraft was constructed from a 40-by-100-foot (10-by-30-meter) Quonset-hut storage building by raising the entire building 2.5-feet (76-centimeters) above the ground and leaving one side open. There was enough depth of water and length of runways within the lagoon to permit the take-off of any seaplane in any direction. The base could accommodate one patrol squadron of 15 planes. PBY Catalinas were the heaviest planes that could be handled over the ramp. Concealment of both ramp and aircraft at the naval air station was effective because of the heavy growth of coconut palms.
Thus, construction of the fuel-oil depot, the major facility of BOBCAT, was greatly delayed by the many demands on the extremely limited number of skilled men and the amount of construction equipment available. Rough terrain further complicated the building. Areas had to be blasted out of solid rock, and the soil encountered with the rock was a clay which was difficult to handle when wet. The tanks were erected by fashioning a guy derrick from two tubular-steel radio masts. By setting up the derricks at the tank center, the sides were hoisted into place and bolted together in a continuous circle, at the rate of 2½ to 3 days per tank. About 725 Army personnel worked with the Seabees seven days a week on three shifts to complete the construction of the first eight tanks by 9 June so that the first tanker to arrive could be promptly emptied. On the day of completion, sea-loading connections were made and pumping to the tanks was begun while some of the bolts were still being tightened. The completed fuel depot consisted of twenty 10,000-barrel (420,000-U.S.-gallon or 349,723-Imperial gallon or 1.6-megaliter) storage tanks, two 10,000-barrel diesel-oil storage tanks, and five 1,000-barrel (42,000-U.S.-gallon or 34,972-Imperial gallon or 158,952-liter) aviation-gasoline storage tanks.
Soon Australian, French, New Zealand and U.S. ships began to fuel at Bora Bora on the average of one or two ships per week. Since the docking facilities were poor, the ships had to pull up to one of the two cruiser moorings, anchor, and take on the fuel hose there. Nevertheless, by mid-sumer of 1942, Bora Bora became a filling station for ships going to the Southwest Pacific.
The U.S. Army Air Forces planned to ship fighters to the island, assemble them, and fly them from one island to another on the way to the front and construction of an air depot was proposed in October 1942; the Army was to furnish the necessary equipment and materials and the Navy was to provide the construction personnel. Work was started on 16 December 1942, on a 24-hour day, 7-day-week schedule, on the reef islet of Motu Mute (16°26' 46"S, 151°45' 16"W). Construction of an asphalt-paved 6,000-by-400-foot (1,829-by-122-meter) runway with 100-foot (30-meter) shoulders for bombers and a 3,000-by-150-foot (914-by-46-meter) airstrip for fighters was completed in seven weeks, together with installation of radio direction devices and permanent camp facilities for Army flying and operating personnel. By 5 April 1943, all authorized work on the airfield and depot had been completed and Seabee personnel moved back to the fuel-depot construction work. Because of the rapid progress of the war, mail and transport planes made only occasional use of the strip.
The Seabees kept an organized crew available for the repair of convoys of the recently commissioned Tank Landing Ships (LSTs), Landing Craft, Tanks (LCTs), Motor Mine Sweepers (YMSs), and Submarine Chasers (PCs) which passed through Bora Bora on their way to the Southwest Pacific. The Seabees repaired refrigerating plants, diesel engines, electrical wirings, and occasionally performed a major overhaul job on these vessels.
Camouflage activities began early. Protective concealment painting was applied to the tanks, and netting was used to hide their circular outlines. Native labor was employed in planting such trees, shrubs, grass, and local vegetables as could be used to the best advantage for camouflage. Native labor was seldom used for other purposes, partly because the island had just enough manpower to take care of its own needs. Moreover, when native labor was used, they were found to be unskilled and required much supervision. Money was of little value to them.
In early 1943, the war had moved ahead so rapidly that the island's other facilities were no longer needed and the Army’s 198th Coast Artillery Regiment (Antiaircraft) departed to Efate in the New Hebrides Islands on 27 February 1943. In May 1943, orders were received from headquarters to dismantle and crate half the huts and equipment for shipment. By 30 June 1943, surplus material and equipment were shipped to Noumea, New Caledonia. The tank farm remained intact.
In the fall of 1943, construction of a fuel wharf with a network of fuel and water lines to service LCTs began. The new facility shortened by 10 percent the time previously required for fueling these craft, and permitted them time to arrive at forward zones several days earlier.
By 1 April 1944, the base had been placed in reduced status, its mission being to provide a fueling and minor repair depot for small diesel-driven craft en route to the South Pacific. The U.S. Army’s 102d Infantry Regiment departed for Espiritu Santo on 8 April and the airfield was maintained as an emergency landing field.
Naval Station Bora Bora was disestablished June 2, 1946 and the remaining facilities were transferred to French authorities.