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Article:
U.S. Army Construction of Airstrip on
Grand Turk in 1952,
(The Grand Turk Tracking Station)
by
Charles F. Hummel

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Grand Turk Island LST landing
Figure 1: LST (Landing Ship Tank) approaching the beach landing,
Grand Turk Island.

(This article was specially written in 2003 by the author for Joseph J. Frasketi, Jr.
after he saw the web site article on the Grand Turk Tracking station)

I am a 78 year old native of Boise, Idaho and a retired architect. I was a combat infantryman in Europe in W.W.II who re-enlisted in the army reserve. I received a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers after obtaining a degree in architecture. At the end of the first year in a graduate program at Columbia in 1951 I was recalled to active duty, sent to Fort Belvoir VA for a “refresher” and then to the 937th Engineer Aviation Group at Orlando AFB FL. The Group included three battalions of Aviation Engineers, SCARWAF (Special Category Army With Air Force). I was assigned to the 838th Engineer Aviation Battalion from September of 1951 until October of 1952 when I was released from active duty. I then completed my master's program and returned to Boise with my wife and first son (who was born in Orlando) and we have lived here happily since then.

Obviously, these comments are only my own and based on what I experienced, knew, or heard of as a junior officer.

Figure 2: Unloading material from the LST, Grand Turk Island. Truck is 2-1/2 ton dump type which is the only type of truck used in this operation. We also had Jeeps. Site is on the leeward side of the island.
Unloading LST at Grand Turk Island In Orlando FL I learned that: (1) The units at Orlando had just returned from duty in Korea. (2) They were racially integrated (probably among the first in the Army). (3) Their equipment lists were huge with heavy construction capability to build airfields and all supporting facilities. (4) The personnel were expert and experienced equipment operators and mechanics but not very “soldierly” from my standpoint as an old infantryman. (5) There was no observable racial tension among the men with both white and black noncoms in about equal numbers but only a few black officers. (6) The fact that off base Orlando was segregated was painful to everyone.

Finding jobs for these units to keep up their capabilities was a problem and it was understood that stateside construction projects of any consequence was not possible because of Congressional restrictions due to pressure from the Associated General Contractors and the unions. For instance, our groups were doing some clearing and initial grading for what became the nearby Pinecastle AFB FL. But the work had to be ordered as only for “training” and for a limited time.

Figure 3: Company formation. Good indication of the size of the unit. (Lt. Hummell is the officer standing in front).
Company formation at Grand Turk Island The missile tracking station projects came at just the right time for these units. We heard about them late in 1951 and it was early in 1952 when augmented companies from Orlando started to work on islands in the Caribbean – which corresponds to Frasketi's historical summary. Units from the 937th Group were sent to Grand Bahama, Eleuthera, Mayaguana, and Grand Turk. The equipment and some personnel left from Miami by LST (Landing Ship Tank) or by air from Patrick AFB FL. Each unit supposedly had a tour limit of 120 days because they were officially in a training status. The units were company size with some augmentation from the Group's assets. I never knew how the units were rotated after 120 days, but I know that Company B from my battalion may have replaced another unit which had arrived earlier. I was reassigned from Company A to Company B as a replacement early in May of 1952 and was flown from Patrick AFB in a DC3 with many stops along the way to Grand Turk. It landed on the airstrip which had been graded as a dirt field. I do not know if some kind of airstrip had pre-existed there prior to the arrival of the Army.

Figure 4: Equipment at the coral rock quarry.
Equipment at the coral rock quarry, Grand Turk Island Shortly after I arrived we started to lay and compact a crushed coral rock base on the airstrip, working half of the runway width at a time. The rock came from a coral outcrop not far from the strip where we had a quarrying and crushing operation which employed a lot of the local people. We also built a water catchment facility, erected water storage tanks, a wood frame control tower and some small permanent buildings at the strip. The unit was housed in tent frames with wood floors and canvas roofs and sides. It was located near the sea on a beautiful beach.

Unfortunately, I do not have a map of the island but my recollection is that our camp was on the leeward west side, with the airstrip running NW-SE between the camp and the town. I believe the town was about two miles north of our camp. While I was there the Navy brought in an undersea cable and there was a conflict about its alignment which the Navy insisted had to go under the airstrip. There was an embarrassing delay in getting that snafu resolved. A civilian contractor also showed up to start construction of the permanent tracking station buildings under Air Force direction.

Figure 5: Typical D-8 tractor/bulldozer and towed scraper at work on the airstrip.
tractor/scraper equipment on the airstrip, Grand Turk Island About two weeks before I left late we started to pave the airstrip using the roto-tiller system which mixed hot asphalt in place with gravel. We soon found out that the coral rock gravel was either too soft or dusty to produce an asphaltic surface which could be reliably compacted. Actually the coral base course itself provided an excellent landing surface except it required watering and compacting for its maintenance. But of course it could not serve all year in the rainy season and for extended use and would have to be paved. I believe what happened was that we had quarried out the hardest coral for the base courses and got into softer coral when it came time to stockpile material for the pavement.

Figure 6: Compacting the asphalt/gravel mix on the runway. On the left is a 13 tire wobbly-wheel compactor and on the right a flat-wheel roller.
Compacting the asphalt/gravel mix on the runway, Grand Turk Island The poor compaction problem had not been solved before I left and, frankly, I was happy to get out before the big flap which would occur because of it. I flew back to Patrick AFB near the end of September 1952 in a DC4 in one flight with two cases of duty-free liquor and a magnificent sun tan. My wife and our infant son had left earlier in the summer for Boise. I received early active duty relief in order to re-enter Columbia for the fall term and my wife and son joined me there in October. I remained in the inactive Army Reserve for two years and opted out in lieu of an automatic promotion to 1st Lieutenant. I have no idea how the field construction was completed and neither did the other officers of the unit because they were rotated off Grand Turk not long after I left and I had very little contact with them after that.

fig 7: A work crew of local men, who were employed at the quarry and for work in the kitchen and mess hall.
local men work crew, Grand Turk Island Aside from missing my wife and son the four months on Grand Turk were enjoyable and busy. I learned more than I needed to know about heavy construction. I was fascinated with the local people and their hardscrabble life. It was interesting to observe the interaction of our roughneck black engineers with the people. We all spoke English but our men's diction and accents were laughed at by the locals whose Jamaican sound and nearly perfect diction was nearly indecipherable to our guys. We also had some problems when our men became a little too friendly with the island's ladies and there was some, but not a lot of, trouble with the men of the island and our men. There was the usual complaint about American troops abroad: “over paid, over sexed and over here.”

Figure 8: Rain water catchment basin under construction with 3 water storage tanks, a D-8 cat is in the foreground pulling a ripper.
water catchment basin, Grand Turk Island I was not put off by the barren look of the place. It was very much like the sagebrush hills and deserts of southern Idaho and the climate was agreeable thanks to the nearly constant trade wind. Most of all the sea was incredibly beautiful and we spent a lot of our off time swimming and snorkeling where we found (and hauled out) old cannons from ships which must have gone down just a little way from the beach. It was a quiet year for hurricanes and the few there were passed well to the north.

Figure 9: Loading platform for transferring asphalt to heaters used to take the hot asphalt to the airstrip.
preparing asphalt for airstrip, Grand Turk Island The small English contingent manning the United Kingdom communication facility was hospitable to our officers and we entertained each other about every two weeks at dinner and for cards. My assignment included various military justice duties which brought me in contact with the island's constabulary and I was several times at the picturesque local gaol (jail), in court or for some other reason. While I was there Kingston Jamaica sent a magistrate to Grand Turk to adjudicate the complex land ownership issues involved in the reorganization of the salt business. He was a charming, learned man and the spit and image of a very black Charles Laughton, especially in court in his robe and wig. His wife accompanied him and they lived in a nice house reserved for the visiting judges from Jamaica. He entertained a few of us one evening at home with a wonderful dinner and music by his wife who was an accomplished musician.

Figure 10: A control tower for the airstrip under construction, built of wood lumber shipped in from the states.
Original airstrip control tower, Grand Turk Island I noticed something about airplane crashes on Grand Turk and the other islands. I have not read the articles as yet. It is possible that the first accident classified by the Air Force as “major” occurred while I was there and practically on top of me. My duty that afternoon was to patrol the strip, chase off the goats and move the landing markers for incoming flights (only half width of the strip was usable at that time.) A DC4 buzzed the strip and I moved to the landing overrun area. The plane came in low and just before it got to the end of the strip the usual trade wind totally stopped blowing. The plane came belly-down like a rock and bounced about fifteen feet in the air before skidding down the strip with its landing gear smashed and losing propellers. There were no injuries but the crew was horror-stricken because they were flying the general's personal DC4 which was also used for cargo service when necessary. It took a lot of work to get it off the strip and clean things up before other planes could land. And they did come in with more Air Force brass than I had ever seen. The classification as a major accident was due to the amount of damage to the plane and the trouble it took to make repairs on the ground before it could be flown out safely. I was questioned at length and my first-hand account of the sudden stoppage of the trade wind and immediate loss of the plane's air speed helped to clear up the question of pilot error.

Figure 11: Paving equipment on the airstrip. Asphalt tank truck connected to and towing a roto-tiller tractor.
Paving equipment on the airstrip, Grand Turk Island We got in trouble with headquarters because the work was behind schedule for the reason that our mechanics were fighting a losing battle with the salt on the ground which ate up the equipment and eventually dead-lined at least half of it. We could not get enough spare parts because of the project's status as a training mission. In order to keep some work going we cannibalized the dead-lined equipment – which was a violation of the Army/USAF standing orders. That doubled the outrage expressed by every visiting field grade officer from Orlando. We Reservists didn't give a damn but the poor regular army officers and non-coms caught hell.

There also was some tension between us and the local government over the question of our guns. We did have a few of the 30 caliber carbines which were standard issue for engineer troops but were required to keep them out of sight and under strict lock and key. It was impressed on us that we were visitors and the treaty did not permit us to be armed. One Sunday a few men took out some carbines and drove to the far end of the island and did some random shooting. It was immediately reported to the constables and there was a delicate negotiation with them which fortunately stymied a diplomatic incident. Our men who were involved were severely reprimanded but I do not think they were court marshalled.

What is evident now is that the three services were extremely anxious to participate in the effort to create a missile program by embarking on these joint missions. We could see that much of the effort was uncoordinated and hastily planned. Eventually it must have all worked out in time to track the arrival of the Snark. I always noted the mentions of Grand Turk when the later great missions were flown and the base played such an important role. Frasketi's recording of that history in the collection of the Turks and Caicos stamps and first covers is a great service in that wonderful history.

It is only recently that I became aware that Grand Turk is now a destination and part of the general Caribbean tourist business. I am amazed at the development which is advertised. I assume that the airfield on which I played a small part is still in use and facilitates the tourism which, along with the tracking station, must have brought some prosperity to the lives of the people who live there.

Constructing the Grand Turk Island airstrip
Figure 12: The airstrip showing the runway half-width construction with the coral rock base course.


(These photos were taken by the unit photographer assigned to
Company B, 838th Engineer Aviation Battalion).


Click on the titles below to see other Grand Turk articles:
The Grand Turk Island Tracking Station.
The Grand Turk Island Connection with The Project Mercury/Glenn Flight.

Featured on Island Search!

Grand Turk Island tracking station covers for purchase
can be found on these price lists

Apollo 13 | Apollo 14 | Apollo 15 | Apollo 16


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