by Jack McKillop
Physical Description & History
New Caledonia (21°21'S, 165°22'E) is a 7,359 square mile (18,575 square kilometer) island in the South Pacific. The island is about 250-miles (402-kilometers) long and 31-miles (50-kilometers) wide with two high parallel ranges of mountains separated by a central valley, extending through the center of the island. Numerous rivers, and fresh water is plentiful. The island is almost entirely surrounded by a barrier reef, with a spacious channel, varying in depth from 120-to-300-feet (37-to-91-meters), between the shore and the reef.
New Caledonia is a French colony, which has also under its administration several outlying islands -- Isle of Pines, the Loyalty Islands, the Wallis archipelago, Futuna and Alofi, and the Huon Islands. Minerals are plentiful, nickel being of special value. The island is about 750-miles (1,207-kilometers) east of Australia and 930-miles (1,497-kilometers) northwest of New Zealand.
The British explorer James Cook sighted the island in 1774. Whalers operated off New Caledonia during the 19th century. In 1843 missionaries from France began arriving on the island and France claimed the islands as part of an attempt by Napoleon III to rival the British colonies in Australia and New Zealand. However, the British objected and their claim was subsequently withdrawn. France initiated a formal annexation and in late 1853 an expedition raised the French flag. In 1854 Port de France (now called Noumea) was established. France used the territory as a penal colony and established a prison on Nou Island off the coast of Noumea. France sent a total of 22,000 convicted felons to Nou Island and other sites along the southwest coast of New Caledonia between 1864 and 1922. This number included regular criminals.
New Caledonia joined the Free French organization of Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle in September 1940. Before the entry of the United States into the war, an Australian garrison was stationed on the island. On 7 March 1942, by agreement with the French, U.S. Army forces under Major General Alexander Patch occupied the island, and most of the Australian garrison was withdrawn. On 10 June 1942, a U.S. naval officer took over duties as Captain of the Port. With him were eight other officers and 143 men whose purpose, in addition to forming an administrative unit, was the installation of underwater defenses.
Noumea (22°16' 33"S, 166°27' 20"E), at the southern end of the island, was developed as the main fleet base in the South Pacific, assuming the extensive functions planned originally for Auckland, New Zealand. The base officially named Naval Operating Base Noumea and served as a staging area for the development of other advance bases, such as Guadalcanal; and on 8 November 1942, became headquarters for the Allied Commander of the South Pacific.
Noumea, with a population of about 11,000, was the chief French city in the Pacific and the seat of government for New Caledonia and the only port on the island, its harbor affording shelter to vessels of any size. Between Noumea and Ile Nou (22°15' 55"S, 166°24' 09"E), an island in the harbor, is a channel 3-miles (4.8-kilometers) long and about 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) wide, providing anchorage in any part, with the advantage of complete security and facility of defense.
The development of Noumea proceeded slowly at first, for effort was being concentrated on the construction of facilities at Auckland, 1,000-miles (1,609-kilometers) south. However, in July and August 1942, two Seabee units, originally intended for Auckland, were diverted en route, one to Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, and the other to Noumea. The Seabees unloaded at Noumea formed the nucleus of the subsequent base development. At that time, the only project scheduled for Noumea was a tank farm, providing 30,000 barrels (1.26 million U.S. gallons, 1.05 million Imperial gallons or 3.78 megaliters) of fuel oil and 20,000 barrels (840,000 U.S. gallons, 699,446 Imperial gallons or 3.2 megaliters) of diesel oil. The first Seabees arrived at Noumea on 26 June 1942, to erect the tank farm, but shortly thereafter, the project was cancelled.
Plans for building up Noumea as a main air and naval base were soon put into execution, and Seabees began construction of facilities on Ile Nou. With tents, mess gear, and canteens borrowed from the Army, the Seabees set up camp. No construction equipment or material was available until mid-August, however, so the early projects were completed with borrowed equipment. The Army loaned a tug and enough pipe for a 2-inch (5.1-centimeter) water line along a shoal from Noumea, and a distribution network on Ile Nou. Later, with the increase in population, a 4-inch (10.2-centimeter) line was run from Noumea, and storage tanks were installed.
The French power cable to the island had been accidentally cut in March, so the Seabees erected a power plant on Ile Nou. A 225-kva generator with a 260-hp diesel engine taken from a Japanese mine at Goro, dismounted and stored in Noumea, was the only power equipment available. The Seabees overhauled the machinery, built missing parts, and erected and operated the power plant.
The Royal Australian Air Force had a modest seaplane base on Ile Nou which was taken over by the U.S. Navy as the Noumea Harbor Seaplane Base to provide fueling and re-arming services for patrol planes and quarters for their personnel. The U.S. Army undertook the construction of a seaplane ramp and apron capable of taking three patrol aircraft. Army personnel completed the excavation and grading, and the paving was laid by the Seabees. By early 1943, the Seabees had constructed 71 pre-fabricated New Zealand-type huts, 180 Dallas huts (a pre-fabricated wooden structure that was assembled in the field as a 'kit'), seven 40-by-100-foot (12-by-30-meter) warehouses, seven Quonset hut hangars, and a floating pontoon pier. In August, they began assembly of pontoon barges, both with and without propulsion units. Most of them were turned over to the Army transportation pool for use in ship unloading. On 1 December, they assumed the operation of a 75-ton (68-metric ton) crane and its pontoon barge, which they had assembled. The crane was used to unload motor torpedo (PT) boats, landing barges, tank lighters, landing craft, tanks (Mark 5) and Lockheed P-38 Lightnings.
Noumea had a large harbor, but servicing facilities were meager. Nickel Dock, 800-feet (244-meters) long with a 24-foot (7.3-meter) water depth, could take one large vessel. The wharf was equipped with three 7-ton (6.4-metric tonne) cranes, but it had little storage area. Le Grand Quai, 1,400-feet (427-meters) long, with water depth of from 20-to-26-feet (6.1-to-7.9-meters), had some 68,500-square-feet (6,364-square-meters) of space in transshipment sheds, but had no crane.
A shortage of stevedore personnel impeded the unloading of ships during the summer months. All Navy personnel available were used for unloading, and the Seabee battalions, as they arrived, handled most of their own unloading. When 600 additional Seabees arrived in Noumea on 21 October 1942, they concentrated their attention on stevedoring activities. Unloading at Noumea in the first half of December 1942 averaged 5,000-tons (4,536-metric tonnes) per day, but was still not enough to keep up with the rate at which cargo was arriving, and a serious congestion of merchant shipping in the harbor resulted.
In November 1942, Seabees started building an advance base construction depot, the first in the forward area, comprising 11 Quonset huts, one steel and two timber warehouses, an electric system, and an area for receiving, sorting, and shipping construction equipment and material. They also operated the depot. For the Marine base depot, the Seabees constructed two large piers, one 300-feet (91-meters) and one 200-feet (61-meters) long, and 20y frame warehouses having concrete decks. A vehicular bridge, 20-feet (6.1-meters) wide, was built at the depot to unload vehicles from barges. The Seabees also built warehouses for various naval activities, and operated a rock quarry and crushing plant, a silica pit, and a gravel pit.
Construction of a 600-by-72-foot (183-by-22-meter) timber pier at the northern end of the Nickel Dock commenced on 1 January 1943. The Army Engineers had been working on the pier for several weeks, but because of inadequate equipment, lack of materials, and a shortage of skilled personnel, they had completed only a small portion of the approach. To the newly arrived Seabee battalion was assigned the completion of the project. The Seabees developed a pile driver by altering a floating crane. About three-fourths of the bolts and drift pins for the pier had to be made by hand, in a small French forge shop. Holes for bolts and drift pins were bored by hand, and most of the piles, of hard native wood, were also cut by hand. In spite of these difficult conditions, the pier was finished and placed in service on 28 January. Its completion increased by more than half the berthing capacity of the port.
Seabees and Army engineers, extended the waterfront facilities with pontoon assemblies. A Navy landing pier was constructed of two 3-by-12-foot (0.9-by-3.7-meter) bridge sections for the wharf and two 2-by-12 foot (0.6-by-3.7-meter) bridge sections for the approach. Two 5-by-12-foot (1.5-by-3.7-meter) wharf units were installed at Point Chalix for use as a barge landing for the aviation supply depot. Approaches consisted of a landing ramp at each end, hinged to a concrete abutment.
In the fall of 1942, the decision had been made to ship the 15,000 pontoons needed in the Pacific area for 1943 as flat plates and rolled shapes and to assemble them into pontoons at a mobile plant to be located in the South Pacific, because units shipped in knockdown form would conserve much valuable cargo space. Due to this decision, a pontoon assembly depot was established at Ile Noumea. By March 1943, Seabees had completed the erection of buildings needed to house operations and had installed a narrow-gauge railway in the plant and storage area. The Seabees were charged not only with the manufacture of the pontoons, but also with their assembly into barges, wharves, and other units as required.
During the first half of 1943, the construction at Noumea grew rapidly. Facilities at Ile Nou were increased to include an amphibious boat pool, a ship repair unit, Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) facilities, a pontoon assembly depot, an aircraft engine overhaul base, a tank farm for aviation gasoline storage, a section base, and an anti-aircraft school.
The construction at the amphibious boat pool was completed, a marine railway was completely rebuilt, and two houses were erected for Landing Craft, Infantry (LCI) storage, and the size of a pontoon pier was increased and relocated.
At the repair base, facilities were provided for the repair and servicing of vessels as large as destroyers, and the base was also equipped to go into the stream and make repairs and alterations to vessels of the transport type. Sixteen 40-by-10-foot (12-by-3.0-meter) steel-arch buildings, 40 Quonset huts, five frame storage buildings, and five stone buildings for shops, were erected, together with camp facilities for personnel. A 300-by-70-foot (91-by-21-meter) pontoon pier and a 30-by-141-foot (9.1-by-43-meter) small-boat pontoon pier were provided, as well as Floating Drydock Two (ARD-2) and Floating Mobile Drydock Nine (AFD-9).
Facilities for the NATS were established at Ile Nou including the erection of Quonset huts for housing and all camp facilities, warehouses, two double nose hangars, and the extension of the existing seaplane ramp. By October 1943, the Seabees had also completed a tank farm for aviation gasoline, consisting of six 1,000-barrel (42,000-U.S. gallons, 34,972-Imperial gallons or 159-kiloliter) tanks.
Owing to the lack of a pool of spare engines in the South Pacific to permit rotation of aircraft engines for overhaul, an engine overhaul base was set up on Ile Nou, with a capacity of 100 engines per month. This project was started in February 1943. Facilities erected included a water-bound macadam apron and a 4,500-square-foot (418-square-meter) concrete ramp, numerous steel warehouses, engine test stands, shop buildings, Quonset huts for quarters, and necessary utilities. The work was completed by August 1943.
A section base at Ile Nou had facilities to operate and maintain harbor defense and detection units, to make minor repairs to small craft, and to provide small-boat service for all naval activities around the harbor. There were also two pontoon piers, 120-by-40-foot (37-by-12-meter) and 120-by-14-foot (37-by-4.3-meter), and camp facilities for operating personnel.
Navy medical facilities at Noumea consisted of two 2,000-bed hospitals using prefabricated metal huts, native structures, and frame buildings. A convalescent camp was later added at one hospital.
At Noumea, also, a supply depot was established to serve the South Pacific. The construction of some 85 steel warehouses established the depot's camp, including barracks, administration building, shops, messing facilities, and all necessary utilities. Steel magazines for an ammunition depot and warehouses for an aviation supply depot were also erected.
Seabees also constructed additional facilities for the USAAF field at Tontouta (22°00' 59"S 166°12' 58"E), now La Tontouta International Airport, where two runways had been built by the Australians and the Free French. The USAAF took over the field in the spring of 1942 when the runway were 5,000-feet (152-meters), resurfaced the runways, lengthened one runway, and provided additional quarters. This airfield was the final refueling stop on the aircraft ferry route from Hawaii to Australia. The Seabees surfaced 180,000-square-feet (16,723-square-meters) of airplane-parking area, with nickel ore covered with mesh in addition to constructing hardstands, shop areas, and buildings, a nose hangar, service roads, and complete facilities for a camp.
The land-plane facilities at Noumea were, in general, under the cognizance of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). On the west shore of Magenta Bay, however, an auxiliary field with a single fighter runway was built for the Navy. (This field, now Magenta Aerodrome, is located at 22°15' 30"S, 166°28' 22"E.) Light rod-and-bar mat was laid, covered with coral fill, and tar primer was applied to the surface of the entire runway. To provide additional parking and assembly area, the Seabees hauled material to fill the swampy area at the runway's southwest side. Two taxiways, 4-acres (1.6-hectares) of plane assembly, and parking area, shops, dispensary, storage facilities, and housing in tents and Dallas huts were provided.
Two additional airfields, built in the 1930s, were on the island, Koumac Airfield and Plaine Des Gaiacs Airfield. Both were acquired by and used by the USAAF. Koumac Airfield (20°32' 47"S, 164°15' 20"E) was located on the western coast about 185-miles (259-kilometers) northwest of Noumea. This airfield was built before the U.S. entry into World War II and was used by the Allies. Today, the airport is named Koumac Airport.
The second airfield was Plaine Des Gaiacs Airfield (21°12' 51"S, 164°52' 21"E) located on the west coast about 126-miles (203-kilometers) northwest of Noumea. This field was built in the 1930s by the French colonists but after the fall of France in June 1940, the Free French took control of the field. The airfield was expanded into two massive sealed runways by the USAAF. Initially used as a command and control base, the airfield later become a staging and training base for aircraft bound for Australia or north to the New Hebridies. The airfield was abandoned after the war and is overgrown with vegetation.
One other interesting location on the island was Camp Paita, a Japanese prisoner of war camp located on the west coast north of Gomen Bay (20°44' 09"S, 164°23' 35"E). Japanese Army and Navy personel captured in the Solomons were detained here. After a POW was killed by an Army MP in early 1944, ill feeling increased and led to a series of demands by the prisoners designed to gain face-saving concessions from the camp authorities. A plan to overthrow the guards during the evening of 9 January 1944 was developed after the arrival of particularly hard-line senior petty officer. Though the attack was thwarted, mostly owing to intelligence from a Japanese informant, 22 of the prisoners committed suicide in the days and weeks following.
On the Ducos Peninsula (22°14' 13"S 166°26' 48"E), the Seabees erected a tank farm for 370,000 barrels (15.5 million U.S. gallons, 12.9 million Imperial gallons or 58.7 megaliters) of fuel oil and 30,000 barrels (1.26 million U.S. gallons, 1.05 Imperial gallons or 4.77 megaliters) of diesel oil. Minor tank facilities were provided at Magenta.
Starting in March 1943, the Seabees constructed three Marine Corps camps, each of 2,000-man capacity and also drained Lake Gaettege for future Marine camp sites.
Because of the continued, and even increased, use of New Caledonia as a staging and rehabilitation area and the island's position on the line of support to the forward areas in the Pacific, roll-up at Noumea did not get under way until late in 1944. The only activities moved from Noumea were those whose mission could no longer be completed in the rear areas, such as the pontoon assembly plant, the aircraft engine overhaul unit, a portion of the advance base construction depot, and a few minor facilities. The reduction of the naval base left the airfields at Tontouta and Magenta, ship and boat repair facilities, refueling facilities for ships and aircraft, and one hospital.
NOB Noumea was disestablished on 27 May 1947.