Background of US Navy Airfields on Ponam & Pityilu
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
There is no recorded use of the airfield on Ponam by the US Navy after MONAB
Pityilu was closed by the US Navy on September 1st 1947.