Background of US Navy Airfields on Ponam & Pityilu


 

Location

Ponam and  Pityilu are both small coral islands in the Admiralty Islands group, situated two degrees south of the Equator, about two hundred miles north of the New Guinea coast and more than 2,000 miles from Sydney.   The Islands of Ponam and  Pityilu are 22 miles apart, lying close off the northern coast of Manus Island, the largest of the Admiralty Islands.

The climate is hot (100 degrees F and higher), with a very high humidity and an annual rainfall of over 150 inches - footwear and clothing could be turned green with mildew within forty-eight hours.
 

Beginnings

First discovered by the Dutch in 1616 and named by Captain Carteret in 1767, the Admiralties were annexed by Germany in 1880 and mandated to Australia in 1920. In 1939 the native population totalled approximately 13,000, much studied by anthropologists. The islands were also home to forty-four white men, mostly cocoa plantation managers.

Manus, the largest of the Admiralty Islands is a hilly, heavily wooded island some fifty miles long and four wide, Ponam and Pityilu are small islands that lie a few miles of the northern coast of Manus.

The Japanese occupied the Admiralty Islands almost casually in 1942 and although they built airstrips at Lorengau on Manus, and at Momote on the neighbouring island of Los Negros, they did not develop the islands. They made little strategic use of the airstrips, and had no serious plans, nor military positions for the defence of the islands.

The Allies wanted to capture the Admiralty Islands with the aim of acquiring a suitable deep-water anchorage for the large fleet being built up for the coming actions in the Pacific which would lead to the invasion of, Japan. Seeadler Harbour on Manus Island suited this purpose; it was fifteen miles long and four miles wide, with a depth of water ranging from twelve to fifteen fathoms. An anchorage such as this could shelter the large task forces that were proposed, and there was ample level ground for airstrips to be built on Manus, Los Negros, Pityilu and Ponam.

Allied troops recaptured the islands in March 1944 after 6 weeks of fighting. The American military wasted no time in establishing installations on Manus; this was a huge operation, which it is estimated saw over a million servicemen either stationed there or passing through it. The base served as a re-supply depot as well as the staging area for the American invasion of the Philippines.

The British element at Manus was to take the form of a small liaison team, a Captain, titled ‘Senior British Naval Officer (Manus)’ with a staff of thirty. This team was to grow during the next year as plans progressed for the formation of a British contingent to join the fleet for operations against Japan. Prior to the arrival of MONAB IV a British Naval Air Liaison Office was set up at Momote airfield on Los Negros Island, runways, lay-bys, and huts for stores and mail were temporarily allocated for use by the RN.

Servicemen were cautioned upon arrival at these tropical islands about Malaria. To prevent this disease personnel were ordered to take anti-malaria tablets such as Atabrine, little yellow tablets with an unfortunate side effect; anyone taking them would have their skin turn as yellow as the tablets that they had just swallowed.

Ponam island lies some nineteen miles NNW of Manus, the Americans had resettled the native population onto other islands and built an 'overflow' airstrip to serve the US Naval Air Station on Pityilu Island. The US navy’s ‘Seabees’ 78th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) built the facility in 10 weeks, during the summer of 1944. The 78th were replaced by 'A' company of the 140th Battalion which completed work on Ponam from August and undertook station maintenance duties until April 14th 1945, before rejoining the main body located on Manus

The Naval Airstrip opened at the beginning of August 1944, and in the seven months before it's loan the R.N. was home to Carrier Aircraft Service Unit (CASU) 13.  The first squadron to operate from Ponam was  VMF-312 (US Marines) with 24 FG-1Corsais for CAP and escort duties between late August and early December. There appears to have been a squadron of Avengers arrive at the airstrip shortly after it opened but no unit details can be found. VP-130 with 15 Lockheed PV-1 Vega "Ventura" aircraft arrived in mid-October, via Pityilu, to continue training and provide ASW and anti-shipping patrols. VP-130 departed November 1st for Owi Island.  The entertainer Bob Hope made an unscheduled visit to Ponam in late 1944, a show was organised for personnel form the surrounding bases before his party moved on.

VC-75 is thought to have operated out of Ponam some time during Nov and Dec ’44, operating Wildcats.

MONAB IV was to share the island with another detachment of the USN Seabees, Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) 587, which took up residence from April 1945 replacing the elements of the 140th NCB, the unit, was still stationed there at war's end.

Ponam Island was only one and a half miles long; 400 yards wide and had four miles of roads. It was completely surrounded by a coral reef. There was only one jetty to service the ferry carriers which had to lie a long way offshore; this meant that reserve aircraft had to be hoisted onto lighters and ferried through the reef to be unloaded.

The station was fully equipped; there were workshops, a small hospital, cinema, church, officers and ratings messes, and a cookhouse. In fact the station had almost all of the equipment and facilities of a functioning naval airfield when loaned from the Americans. This was to make MONAB IV somewhat unique amounts the MONABs in the theatre of operations, the majority of its mobile equipment was not required and remained packed for the duration of the units stay at Ponam.

Pityilu is a small island on the outer reef of Seeadler harbour, about 5 miles N. of Manus; it was selected to become the site for an airstrip for the use of the U.S. Navy, together with a Rest & Recreation facility designed to accommodate up to 10,000 servicemen a day. Construction was carried out by the 140th Naval Construction Battalion, which arrived at Manus during June 1944, the airfield facility comprised of a single runway, made of crushed coral, and living areas for squadron personnel and about 5,000 other servicemen. c The Airstrip was home to Carrier Air Support Unit (CASU) 42 of the US navy.

As with Ponam a detachment of the 140th NCB, one company, operated on the island until April 14th 1945, they were replaced by Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) 587 which arrived at Manus March 30th, 1945 this unit being permanently quartered at Pityilu. At war's end, the unit was still stationed there, with a detachment based at Ponam Island.

The single strip of bright white coral, which formed the runways of both Pityilu and Ponam airfields, reflected the heat of the sun causing a build up of hot air above the runway. This gave extra lift to any plane flying down the runway on take-off, this being lost once the plane passed over the sandy beach and out over the cooler air off the dark water. Once the extra lift disappeared the plane began to ‘sink’ and lose some of its airspeed giving the crew a feeling of settling towards the water.

The living quarters were Quonset huts that housed about 20 men per hut. These were corrugated metal huts constructed within coconut palm groves; it was necessary to be careful where you were walking because of the danger from falling coconuts. It was not uncommon in the middle of the night to have a coconut drop onto a Quonset hut, which would make the corrugated iron structure ring out like a giant bell and shake up the sleeping occupants. The toilet facilities (the ‘heads’ in naval terminology) at both Pityilu and Ponam were somewhat primitive, a covered hut at the end of a dock built out over the waters inside the reef. The sides were laced with strips of olive coloured cloth that gave no feeling of privacy. The showers were out in the open and there was usually a string of naked men walking back and forth wearing only a towel.

 

RN Control

The first RN elements arrived on the island at the beginning of March when part of MSR 4 was disembarked from H.M.S. Unicorn. The stores and equipment of MONAB 4 arrived on board the S.S. Clan Macaully on the 11th of March, being joined by the advance party and other elements of MSR 4 on the 13th, disembarking from HMS Speaker. The main party arrived at Ponam on the 25th of March on board the S.S. Empire Arquebus,

On the 2nd of April 1945 the former U.S. Naval Airfield Ponam commissioned as HMS NABARON, Royal Naval Air Station PONAM.

The station was to operate under harsh tropical conditions for the next seven and a half months, providing reserve aircraft for the BPF together with training and limited R & R for carrier based personnel.
 

Lodger facilities were granted on Pityilu Island from early in 1945, the air strip being utilised by HMS Unicorn for test flights before the RN Forward Aircraft Pool No 1 arrived on June 21st to form a permanent presence. 

 

The RN Forward Aircraft Pool No 1was withdrawn from Pityilu on September 17th 1945.

 

MONAB 4 was withdrawn from Ponam island  on October 31st 1945, the last of her personnel and equipment was evacuated by HM Ships Unicorn and Chaser.


H.M.S. Nabaron and MONAB 4 paid off on November 10th 1945. The airfield returning to USN control.
 

 

Post War
There is no recorded use of the airfield on Ponam by the US Navy after MONAB 4 withdrew
Pityilu was closed by the US Navy on September 1st 1947.