91ST ENGINEERS GENERAL SERVICES REGIMENT
IN AUSTRALIA DURING WWII

 

The 91st Engineers, a Negro unit, travelled from New York to Brisbane with 25 Officers and 1193 enlisted men. Negro units were nearly always commanded by white officers.

The 91st left Brisbane in 4 trains on 10 April 1942 with no equipment, arriving in Townsville on 11 April 1942.  They arrived with another Negro unit, the 96th Battalion. The 91st relocated to a railway siding called Woodstock about 50 kms south of Townsville, where they began building the landing strips at Woodstock and Giru using hand tools. The 91st Engineers and the 46th Engineers both helped to build the Woodstock airfield in April 1942.

The 91st Battalion then moved to Giru in May 1942 and built 3 landing strips for fighter aircraft in the form of a triangle at Giru.  Two of these landing strips can still be seen from the main highway.  The third runway became part of the Woodstock to Giru road.

The local farmers provided poultry for the canteen run by the 91st battalion.  The troops used to frequent the current Giru International hotel for entertainment. Many of the units of the 91st were transferred to Port Moresby in August and September 1942.

John Barr worked with Mick Statham at the Goods Shed in Ayr during the 1980's. Mick was in Coastal Defence, and in Commonwealth Construction at Garbutt. One of the subjects they talked about was the landing of Japanese troops on Australian soil. One of these "stories" suggests that some American Negroes based at Woodstock were brought down by train to Cromarty to capture 106 Japanese Marines that had been spotted coming ashore at Cromarty 

The story suggests that a short battle ensured. Apparently two Negroes were wounded and a number of Japanese Marines were killed. They were taken and held at the cutting at Kissing Point in Townsville. These were the same Negroes that held the demonstration for their basic rights near Stuart Station during WW2. I wonder if this is referring to the riot at Laudham Park involving the 96th Battalion. The 91st Battalion was the Negro unit that had been cased at Woodstock for a while.

The 1st Provisional Battalion was assigned the job of immediate construction of an advanced landing strip on the northern part of Cape York. Battalion Headquarters and Company "B" moved inland to Magenta Plains, the site of the runway, from Red Island Point on 12 August 1942 and work was immediately started to clear and survey the strip.

On 15 August 1942, another accident occurred, when Pfc. Willie Vertison of Company "B" was killed by a large tree which fell on him during the clearing operations. He was buried on Thursday Island the following day. He was later reburied at the Townsville US Cemetery on 12 April 1943.

Private Gilbert E. Lee, Company "E" was killed on 21 October 1942 by a stray .303 calibre bullet, while working on the jetty at Horn Island. He was buried on 23 October 1942 on Thursday Island. He was later reburied at the US Cemetery in Townsville on 12 April 1943.

The bodies of Pfc. Willie Vertison and Private Gilbert E. Lee were then exhumed again and reburied in the US Cemetery in Ipswich in July 1945. They were exhumed again after the war and moved back to the USA for final burial based on their family's wishes.

 


 

The NARA Photo is incorrectly titled:- "An American Cemetery at Townsville, Australia where twenty-six men
 of the 2nd Service Squadron are being buried. They were killed in an airplane take-off. April 1943."

 

Peter Murray in Townsville contacted me in November 2013 and commented that there is some doubt about the accuracy of the caption on this above photograph. After some collaborative research with Peter Murray, it is now confirmed that the above caption under the burial photograph is incorrect by stating that all men were members of the 2nd Service Squadron. There were men from three aircraft crashes and Pfc. Willie Vertison and Private Gilbert E. Lee from the 91st Engineers all buried on that same day. See below for details of the 26 men buried on 12 April 1943:-

 

91st Engineers accidents

Vertison, Willie 34046295 USA killed by tree falling on him on 15 Aug 42)
Lee, Gilbert E. 34061958 USA killed by stray bullet on Horn Island on 21 Oct 42

 

Crash of B-17E Flying Fortress, #41-2655, near Horn Island on 14 July 1942

Budz, Edward B. 0-426508 USA -
Houchins, James E. 6994369 USA -
Rice, Houston A. 6290594? USA -

 

Crash of B-25C Mitchell #41-12904, 8 miles north east of Townsville on 8 April 1943

Carlow, D.T. 20957230 USA -
Atkinson, Courtney B. 0-662973 USA -
Neyley, Paul L. 0662973 USA -
Haggerty, John J. Jnr. 11020201 USA 2nd Service Squadron, 4th Air Depot Group

 

Crash of B-17E Flying Fortress #41-2421, at Horn Island on 16 July 1942

Humphreys, Rufus B. 20467589 USA -
Wood, Vernon D. 7031437 USA -
Wood, William C. 6914948 USA -
Penick Lucius C. 0-413487 USA -
Schofield, Walter F. 6581360 USA -
Moore, Atwell E. 20487595 USA -
Silva Louis T. R45343? USA -
Kaup, Adrian F. 17011549 USA -
Harvey Frank A. 6580257 USA -
Bond, Marvin C. 6912315 USA -
McPherson Clarence E. 0-22396 -
Weisner, Walter W. 6754182 USA -
Moore, Albert W. 34102085 USA -
Hanson, Newell H. 11015176 USA -
Mills, Phillip R. 34102201 USA -
Welch, Frederick B. 15059629 USA -
Hart, Albert M. 0-346934 USA -

 

African-American soldiers in Australia during WW2

 

Were the 91st Engineers ever camped at
the northern end of Mount Louisa in Townsville?

Were they ever involved in building underground bunkers,
tunnels or command centres in the Townsville area?

 

REFERENCES

Manson Park Burials Register - City of Ipswich

Find A Grave web site - B-17E #41-2421

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank John Barr for his assistance with this home page.

I'd also like to thank Peter Murray and Eric Evans, for their assistance with this web site.

 

Can anyone help me with more information?

 

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 Peter Dunn 2015

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This page first produced 5 July 1998

This page last updated 14 January 2017