New Hebrides Islands
by Jack McKillop

     The New Hebrides Islands (now the Republic of Vanuatu) (16°45' 28"S, 168°08' 56E) are an archipelago of 12 principal and 71 smaller islands of volcanic origin. The islands are in the South Pacific Ocean located 500-miles (800-kilometers) west of Fiji and 1,100-miles (1,770-kilometers) east of Australia. They extend about 530-miles (853-kilometers) from north to south and cover 4,706-square-miles (12,189-square-kilometers). The land area is limited, roughly 1,815-square-miles (4,700-square-kilometer); most of the islands are steep, with unstable soils, and little permanent freshwater. Most of the islands are mountainous and of volcanic origin, and have a sub-tropical climate with about nine months of warm to hot rainy weather and the possibility of cyclones and three to four months of cooler drier weather characterized by winds from the southeast.
     The first Europeans to visit the islands were the members of a Spanish expedition who arrived in Espiritu Santo in 1605. In the 1880s France and the United Kingdom claimed parts of the country, and in 1906 they agreed on a framework for jointly managing the archipelago as the New Hebrides through a British-French Condominium. An independence movement arose in the 1970s, and the Republic of Vanuatu was created on 30 July 1980 and they joined the United Nations in the same year.


     Efate Island (17°40'S, 168°22'E) is the third largest island in the New Hebrides Islands with a land area of 347-square-miles (900-square-kilometers). The first European to visit the island was the British Captain James Cook in 1774 and he name it Sandwich Island. Efate, the most important island of the New Hebrides group, is 25-miles (40-kilometers) long from east to west, and 18-miles (29-kilometers) wide. The northern half of the island is mountainous but the southern part is almost flat. The two harbors, Havannah, in the northwest, and Vila, in the southwest, afforded anchorage for large vessels. The basic formation of the island consists of a laval substratum covered by coral and a shallow top soil of rich humus. The vegetation is tropical and a large part of the island is covered by dense jungle. Several mountain ranges which rise to heights of 2,300 feet (701-meters) are on the island. The island is well watered by brooks, streams, and small rivers and, even in the dry season. Water satisfactory after chlorination may be obtained from the larger streams and enough distillation equipment had to be provided to supply drinking-water for the U.S. forces.
     The base at Efate was established to serve primarily as an outpost for supporting both New Caledonia (q.v.), 300-miles (483-kilometers) to the southwest, and the Fiji Islands (q.v.) to the east, and subsequently to serve as a minor air and naval base for offensive operations. The U.S. Army moved into New Caledonia on 12 March 1942, and the Japanese occupied Guadalcanal, 700-miles (1,127-kilometers) to the north, on 28 May 1942. The U.S. forces advanced to the New Hebrides Islands to build airfields from which they could start bombing the Japanese on Guadalcanal Island, Solomon Islands (q.v.) and prevent them from completing the airfield which later became Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.
     Before the U.S. entry into the war, there were a few Australian troops and a seaplane base on Efate. The harbor at Vila (17°45' 15"S, 168°18' 43E)  contained several small piers in water with a maximum depth of 6-feet (1.8-meters) at low tide. There were no facilities at Havannah Harbor (17°34' 07"S, 168°15' 34E). The charts showed ample space for the building of an airfield of any size. Seaplane operations could be carried out in Havannah Harbor, but the water was reported as rough in Mele Bay (17°43' 48"S, 168°14' 08E). Vila Harbor would not support patrol-plane operations, but small seaplanes could be used. There was no road between Vila and Havannah and all traffic between them was by water.
     Admiral Ernest J. King, USN, Commander in Chief U.S. Fleet, distributed the joint basic plan for the occupation and defense of Efate on 20 March 1942. Under its terms the Army was to defend Efate and support the defense of ships and positions. The Navy was tasked (1) to build, administer, and operate a naval advance base, seaplane base, and harbor facilities; (2) to support Army forces in the defense of the island; (3) to construct an airfield and at least two outlying dispersal fields; and (4) to provide facilities for the operation of patrol bomber seaplanes. Navy personnel was to consist of 80 officers and 1,184 enlisted men; Army forces were to total 4,811.
     The Seabees landed on 4 May 1942. The first and major job at Efate was the construction of an airfield and when the Seabees arrived they found that the Marines had already cleared and surfaced with coral about 2,000-by-200-feet (610-by-61-meter) landplane runway near Vila (17°41' 58"S, 168°19' 12"E). The responsibility for construction was immediately assumed by the Seabees, who cleared, grubbed, and graded a 6,0000-by-350-foot (1,829-by-107-meter) runway with finger coral being used as surfacing material. By 9 June, a squadron of Marine Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats were based here and a U.S. Army Air Forces bombardment squadron equipped with Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses was based here from 22 July to 21 December 1942.  The airfield was subsequently named Bauer Field in 1943.
        Available construction equipment was meager. Even after the Seabees pooled resources with the Army and Marines, the total equipment included one crane, ten trucks, two motor patrol graders, one pull grader, seven bulldozers of various sizes, and one scarifier. To keep the equipment from breaking down was a continuous job. Seabees, soldiers, Marines, and natives worked steadily under difficult conditions, and on 8 May, the first planes landed on the field.
     At the same time, the Seabees rushed construction of Naval Air Station Efate, a seaplane base at Havannah Harbor (17°33' 31"S, 168°15' 44"E), to serve a squadron of Consolidated PBY Catalina seaplanes. The Seabees built two ramps of coral, surfaced with wire mesh, and provided buoys for mooring 14 seaplanes. By 1 June, the PBYs began operating from the new base, bombing the Japanese positions on Guadalcanal Island. In addition to the ramps and moorings, two small piers, two nose hangars, one 40-by-100-foot (12-by-30-meter) seaplane workshop, four 5,000-U.S.-gallon (4,163-Imperial-gallon or 18,927-liter) underground gasoline tanks, and housing facilities for 25 officers and 210 men in Quonset huts were constructed.
     Another project, a 600-bed base hospital, of Quonset huts, was also begun. A site at Bellevue plantation, about 3-miles (4.8-kilometers) inland from Vila, was chosen because of its favorable location from the standpoint of drainage, safety, and cover, freedom from malaria causes, and accessibility to other island facilities. Concrete piers were used for support. Mess halls were H-shaped, with a serving hut in the center. Vertical panels in several huts were omitted for ventilation. The hospital began to operate on 15 September when wounded Marines were brought in from Guadalcanal.
     Two other airfields were soon under construction. Near Quoin Hill (17°32' 60"S, 168°24' 60"E), on the northeastern corner of the island, a site was chosen for a bomber strip in an area of hot springs and was completed in January 1943. The work on the 6,000-by-200-foot (1,829-by-61-meter) runway was begun early in October and was completed by the middle of January 1943. A 3,000-by-180-foot (914-by-55-meter) fighter strip was also built at Port Havannah (17°34' 12"S, 168°15' 45"E) in the early fall of 1942. Fighters were able to land 26 days after construction began, and in another 15 days the field was completed. Two nose hangars were also erected.
     In addition to the major facilities constructed, the Seabees built gun emplacement, Quonset hut camps for naval personnel, structural-steel storage buildings, pontoon piers, and barges. The main naval camp was located at Malapoa Point (17°46' 51"S, 168°17' 06"E), where, by February 1943, fifty Quonset huts housed from 400 to 500 men. New roads were built, and some of the original roads, made impassable by heavy traffic, were resurfaced.
     At Malapoa Point seven 1,000-barrel (42,000-U.S.-gallon or 34,972-Imperial-gallon or 158,987-liter) bolted-steel tanks for aviation gasoline were completed, as well as two 10,000-U.S.-gallon (8,327-Imperial-gallon or 37,854-liter) diesel storage tanks. At Vila Airfield, four 5,000-U.S.-gallon (4,163-Imperial-gallon or 1,927-liter) buried welded-steel tanks for aviation gasoline were provided. Eight similar tanks were built at Havannah Harbor.
     In the summer of 1943, the Seabees began construction at Quoin Hill for the Marines, the improvement of the camp at Quoin Hill, and the extension of the hospital to a 1500-bed capacity.      By the early part of 1944, the principal authorized construction had been completed. The mission of the base was reduced to an emergency landing field and minor fleet operating and communications setup. The base hospital was dismantled and crated for shipment and other facilities were prepared to be moved forward. The base was disestablished and abandoned on 17 February 1946.

Espiritu Santo, Naval Operating Base     

Espiritu Santo Island (15°26' 21"S, 166°53' 35"E) is the largest island in the New Hebrides Islands. With a length of about 75-miles (121-kilometers) and a width of about 45-miles (72-kilometers), the total area is 1,527-square-miles (3,956-square-kilometers). It has an irregular outline, with numerous small islands near its shores. The highest peak in the New Hebrides Islands is the 6,154-foot (1,879-meter) Mount Tabwemasana in west-central Espiritu Santo. Three other peaks that are more than 5,600-feet (1,700-meters) high rise from the mountainous spine that runs almost the full length of the island’s west coast. The island is heavily wooded and has broad fertile, well-watered valleys and the much flatter southern and eastern coastal strips had been developed for cattle grazing and plantations.
     A Portuguese explorer, working for Spain, established a settlement in 1606 at Big Bay (15°03' 08"S, 166°52' 59"E) on the north side of the island. During the time of the British–French Condominium, Hog Harbour (15°08' 34"S, 167°06' 12"E), on the northeast coast, was the site of the British district administration, while Segond (15°33' 22"S, 167°08' 14"E), near Luganville was the French district administration.
     When the Japanese moved into the Solomons and began construction of an airfield on Guadalcanal, an Allied air base in an advance area became needed. The choice of Espiritu Santo, 630-miles (1,014-kilometers) southeast of Guadalcanal as a site for a major Army and Navy operating base, brought the U.S. bombers 400-miles (644-kilometers) closer to the Japanese positions and provided a staging area for the forthcoming Allied invasion of the Solomons. The base provided aircraft facilities capable of supporting heavy bombers, fighters, and two carrier air groups; an accumulation of ammunition, provisions, stores, and equipment for offensive operations; repair and salvage facilities for all types of vessels. It became a important link between Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and the airfields at Noumea and Efate. In highly fictionalized form, it is the locale of James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific and the subsequent Rogers and Hammerstein musical play, South Pacific.
     The need for occupation of Espiritu Santo as a defense for Efate became apparent to the U.S. Army and Navy and a request that 500 troops be sent to Espiritu to prevent the Japanese from moving in. The troops were drawn from the garrison at Efate landed on 28 May but they were not allowed to construct an air base on Espiritu Santo. The best that could be done was to run a survey of a site for the field, construct a road to it, then sit back and await orders to complete the project, orders he knew would come in time.
     On 8 July 1942, a small party of Seabees of the Efate detachment arrived on the island with a Marine anti-aircraft battery and a company of black infantrymen to begin work on Turtle Bay Airfield (15°22' 41"S, 167°10' 45"E). The Seabees were given 20 days in which to construct the field and they worked day and night, in the race against time. Equipment for heavy grading was not available and they had to make out with six tractors, two scrapers, one grease truck, one gas wagon, three weapon carriers, and one 50-kilowatt generator. Assisting them were 295 infantrymen, 90 Marines, and 50 natives. A 5,000-by-200-foot (1,524-by-61-meter) runway was cleared and surfaced with coral in time to met the deadline. On 28 July, a U.S. Marine squadron with Grumman F4F-3P Wildcats landed and was followed two days later by U.S. Army Air Forces’ (USAAFs’) Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses. Only eight B-17s could operated from the field because of a lack of taxiways and dispersal areas. USAAF and Marine personnel poured into the island shortly thereafter, and after the Marines landed on Guadalcanal on 7 August, the new airfield gave significant support to that action.
     On 11 August 1942, additional Seabees arrived and immediately began construction of more extensive air facilities to support the Guadalcanal campaign. In sixty days, they completed a second airstrip, Fighter Field Number 1 (about 15°30' 06"S, 167°14' 45"E). The runway located on Pallikulo Bay was 5,000-by-150 feet (1,524-by-46-meters), of steel mat on an 8-inch (20-centimeter) coral base. Additional Seabees reached Espiritu Santo on 13 October 1942 and were assigned the complete overhaul of the grading and drainage of Fighter Field Number 1 to make it operational for bombers. They also added taxiways, revetments, and a 1,000-foot (305-meter) extension for air transport operation. When completed, the airfield was redesignated Bomber Field Number 1. Working in cooperation with a company of the Army Engineers, Seabees also cleared, graded, and surfaced with coral a runway of the same dimensions at Bomber Field Number 2 at Pekoa (15°30' 17"S, 167°13' 11"E). They also completed the construction of a 7,000-foot (2,134-meter) runway, having a steel-mat surface on coral, and built taxiways, revetments, and miscellaneous structures. This airfield is now Santo Pekoa International Airport.
     Seabees also renovated the grading and drainage of Turtle Bay airstrip, extended its length 500-feet (152-meters), and provided it with additional taxiways, revetments, and access roads. They were also engaged in providing other necessary facilities for the base as a whole. The Seabees erected 60 Quonset huts to be used as galleys, wards, operating rooms, dispensaries, and the like for a hospital, and 40 Quonset huts and warehouses for a second hospital. Another hospital of 100 beds, including quarters, wards, mess hall, operating building, and other structures, were also established. In cooperation with Army engineers, the Seabees built quarters, wards, laboratories, and messing facilities for the an evacuation hospital. They also provided surgery and storage buildings and handled electrical and plumbing work. These medical facilities proved to be extremely important for the Guadalcanal campaign in the latter part of 1942.
     For a seaplane base (15°30' 59"S, 167°10' 26"E), the Seabees constructed a parking area, two pre-fabricated 85-by-100-foot (26-by-30-meter) nose hangars, warehouses, Quonset huts, and two seaplane ramps in Segond Channel.
     IN 1943, The Seabees also established a motor torpedo (PT) boat base, with extensive facilities to overhaul engines. By 1 May 1943, the base was overhauling 10 to 12 engines a month but this increased to 54 engines a month by 1 November.
     Ten camps, varying in capacity from 100 to 1,000 men, with all facilities, roads, and drainage were also built and seven additional camps for various base activities. An outstanding project was the enlisted men's galley and mess hall, equipped to feed 1,000 men in one serving. All decks were of concrete, and complete drainage and plumbing systems were laid out and built with 6-inch (15-centimeter) quick-coupling pipe and parts of empty oil drums. Improvised indirect lighting from discarded tin cans was also completed.
     The original network of roads, 26-miles (42-kilomeers) of new and 8-miles (13-kilometers) of rebuilt roads, were also established. In 1943, the Seabees assembled pontoons and Base Hospital Number 3 (500 beds). Another 1943 project was the construction of Luganville Airfield (about 15°29' 30"S, 167°10' 37"E) with a runway, 6,800-by- 300-feet (2,073-by-91-meters), with 27,000-feet (8,230-meters) of taxiway and 75 hardstands, cut out of dense jungle, was completed in 120 days. Nearly a fourth of the runway was in solid-coral cut ranging from a few feet to 35-feet (11-meters) in depth; 3,000-feet (914-meters) of taxiway and six hardstands were also in solid coral cuts averaging 10-feet (3.0-meters). Coral for surfacing and necessary fill was obtained from the cuts and from borrow pits. Because of the heavy rainfall in the area, the surface of the coral was treated with an emulsified asphalt binder.  
     Additional facilities constructed for the operation of Luganville Airfield included a tank farm of six 1,000-barrel (42,000-U.S.-gallon, 34,972-Imperial-gallon or 158,987-liter) steel tanks, two truck-loading stations, two repair areas, fifteen 40-by-10-foot (12-by-3.0-meter) arch-rib warehouses, one 100-by-90-foot (30-by-27-meter) hangar, eighteen 20-by-48-foot (6.1-by-15-meter) Quonset huts for living quarters, six mess halls, and all necessary utilities. Fifteen miles (24-kilometers) of two-lane road, for access to and operation of the airfield, were cut through dense jungle.
     The Seabees were also sent to Pallikulo Bay to build a pontoon wharf. It consisted of four 6-by-18-foot (1.8-by-5.5-meter) pontoon barge sections hinged together and connected to a steel cofferdam by eight 72-foot (22-meter) bridge sections. There was a at least 33-feet (10-meters) of water at the end of the pier.
     An aviation engine overhaul base was also constructed. This project provided housing for 250 officers and 1,800 enlisted men, as well as facilities for the overhaul of 200 aviation engines per month. The work, begun in February 1943 and completed in June, involved the construction of 85 Quonset huts for housing, 18 standard 40-by-100-foot (12-by-30-meter) arch-rib shop buildings, messing facilities, four Quonset huts on concrete decks for offices and instrument shops, and all necessary utilities. Construction was also begun on facilities for the overhaul and servicing of torpedoes for the Fleet. This project consisted of the erection of three arch-rib buildings and the installation of torpedo-overhaul equipment, including air compressors and connecting piping, and the construction of all utilities. The work was completed in May.
     An aviation supply annex of 20 arch-rib buildings, and six 1,000-barrel (4,200-U.S.-gallon, 3,947-Imperial-gallon or 15,899-liter) gasoline storage tanks at Bomber Field Number 2, with a connecting pipe line to a tank farm at Bomber Field Number 1. At Luganville Airfield , the Seabees constructed aviation-engine overhaul facilities, additional camp buildings for South Pacific Air headquarters, and further extensions to the road system of the island. A 7-acre (2.8-hectare) ammunition dump and ordnance facilities, and rebuilding of a portion of the 7,000-foot (2,134-meter) airstrip was also completed.
     Motor repair facilities and a 300-foot (91-meter) steel-pile bulkhead were built at the PT-boat base, and 75 steel magazines and 16 open bomb-storage areas were constructed for an ammunition depot. The Seabees undertook the operation of two coral pits, and the construction of storage tanks, hospital facilities, a boat pool, five piers, utilities for various camps, and an Advance Base Sectional Dock.
     Upgrades to Base Hospital Number 3 included building 25 Quonset huts for quarters and wards, four steel warehouses, and extended the water system, lighting and roads. 
     On Aore Island (15°34' 31"S, 167°09' 58"E), 1.8-miles (2.9-kilometers) southeast of Luganville, Sebees erected Quonset huts for housing, 30 magazines for mine storage, and other installations for the mine-assembly, target-repair, and mine-recovery plants. On the same island, they constructed fifty 10,000-barrel (420,000-U.S.-gallon, 349,723-Imperial-gallon or 1.6-megaliter) bolted tanks for fuel storage, 25,000-feet (7.6-kilometers) of 12-inch (30-centimeter) spiral pipe, and 50 pump units. Other oil facilities provided on Espiritu Santo included seventeen 1,000-barrel (42,000-U.S.-gallon, 34,972-Imperial gallon or 158,987-liter) tanks for motor gas storage, two 10,000-barrel (420,000-U.S.-gallon, 349,723-Imperial-gallon or 1.6-megaliter) tanks for diesel storage, and twenty-three 1,000-barrel (42,000-U.S.-gallon, 34,972-Imperial gallon or 158,987-liter) tanks for aviation gasoline.
     Pontoon assembly was a major activity for the Seabees. Pontoons were assembled into barges with propulsion units, two seaplane drydocks, bridge units, and numerous wharves. They also constructed a cruiser drydock, 840-feet (256-meter) long, 55-feet (17-meters) high, beam inside 140-feet (43-meters), width outside 180-feet (55-meters), with 5-foot (1.5-meter) wing walls.
     Seabees also built additional facilities for the seaplane base and for Base Hospital Number 3. Hangars were erected at Bomber Field Number 1 and at Luganville. The Seabees also participated in the repair and restoration of several warships which had been damaged in battle and put into Espiritu Santo for repairs.
     No local labor was used, but native materials played an important part in construction at Espiritu Santo. Coral quarried from numerous local pits was used for roads. Coral fill for foundations and as aggregate for concrete was useful in the building of Quonset huts and warehouses while palm logs were used for Quonset hut footings.
     The naval base at Espiritu Santo was disestablished 12 June 1946.