A Long Journey

  • Published
  • By Ms. Evelyn J. Dole
  • HQ Air Force Weather Agency History Office
In the early months of World War II, weather support was unorganized and consisted of small groups of forecasters and observers attached to bombardment groups. In order to provide organization and centralization of weather services, the 15th Weather Squadron was created. The 15th Weather Squadron was established April 10, 1942, and activated at McClellan Field, Calif., April 22. With approximately 235 men, the squadron moved from McClelland Field to a staging area in the International Harvester Building in Oakland, Calif., June 16. Thus began the 15th Weather Squadron's long journey to the South Pacific. The following chronicles the journey of some of those men.

The evening of June 21, 1942, the men were loaded aboard trucks for a ride to the Oakland docks. The men cheered wildly and sang as they crossed the San Francisco Bay Bridge. After arriving at the pier, they lined up to await their orders to board the Matson liner SS Matsonia, a luxury cruiser that had been converted into a troop ship. They sailed just to the west of the Panama Canal Zone, joined a convoy of eight other vessels and proceeded southwestward for what was to be almost a month-long voyage. Because regular sea-lanes at this early period of the war were unsafe, the voyage took the convoy as far south as New Zealand where all of the convoy except the SS Matsonia and one escort vessel put into harbor at Auckland, New Zealand. The SS Matsonia with the 15th Weather Squadron continued across the Tasman Sea alone to Melbourne, Australia. During the trip over, there were the usual rumors of submarines sightings, men falling overboard, and other unwarranted tall tales. The men raced atop deck to their assigned abandon ship stations for the lifeboat drill each day. Midway in the voyage, as they crossed the equator, the traditional "high jinks" occurred and a ceremony held by King Neptune's Court initiated the "rites of the deep" changing the landlubbers aboard from gollywogs to honored "shellbacks."

Staff Sgt. Chester T. Langan recalled during the voyage the men were using water faster than the evaporators could make fresh water from ocean water. Since the 15th WS was the only organized unit aboard, the men guarded all of the water taps to ensure no one was wasting water. Staff Sgt. Langan's duty station was the water taps in the officers' mess. Several of his fellow weathermen tried to buy his station assignment because, while everyone else was standing in line eating G.I. chow, he was eating at tables with tablecloths and silverware and ordered real dinners, lunches and breakfasts from the menu.

On July 16, 1942, the SS Matsonia docked and the men disembarked in Melbourne, Australia, two days later. After marching through the cobble stone streets, they arrived at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds and proceeded to set up camp in the stands. This was the middle of the Australian winter and it was cold bedding down. The men used newspapers as a lining between the blankets for insulation to stay warm, related Staff Sgt. John F. Whittemore. The 15th WS men began the last leg of their journey to their new duty stations after two weeks at the University of Melbourne where they had classes in Austrian history, geography, terrain, vegetation, climate, weather, and weather codes.

In the later part of July and first part of August, the Headquarters in Melbourne were busy sending men to different weather locations in Australia stretching from Melbourne to Cape York. About half went on a long rail trip north to Townsville, Queensland (approximately 1,000 miles). The trip these men and the other groups that traveled along the seacoast of this continent was as follows: At 1500 hours, the group assembled, loaded themselves aboard trucks, and departed to the railway station. This trip lasted six days in three distinct laps, due to the changes in trains at the border of every Australian State because of the differences in rail gauges. The rail compartments of the first leg of the journey would have comfortably accommodated four people but the weathermen were six to a room, making sleeping almost impossible. The first stop was Albury, which necessitated moving all equipment by hand from that train to the Brisbane-Sydney-Townsville bound train. At each stop, the men again had to unload and reload their equipment. Also along the way, one or two members would depart occasionally for their new unit.

From their new headquarters location in Townsville, the squadron could better support the network of stations located throughout Australia and New Guinea that were providing reliable weather information to the heavy bombardment groups then actively bombing Japanese installations in Papua and New Britain. Here the men were further broken into smaller numbers for deployment to their new duty locations. Staff Sgt. Langan recalled the train left from Townsville to the end of the line at Mt. Isa. There were no dining cars attached to the train, so the men would jump off and run to the dining room in the station, eat as fast as they could and get back to the train before the engineer was ready to leave. The train traveled so slowly the men could go up to the first car, get off and walk along side the train, climbing aboard the last car as it came by. Eventually the men arrived at Mt. Isa where they joined a quartermaster outfit. The men unloaded their equipment and climbed aboard trucks for the second leg of their journey. Their destination was Tennant Creek, 400 miles away. This was a four-day trip. The truck outfit had set up compounds consisting of a mess hall and a shower building about a day's drive apart. Each day for lunch the driver would put cans of meat on the exhaust manifold and they would have hot Spam or Vienna Sausages along with canned fruit.

After arriving at Tennant Creek, they boarded a narrow gauge train to Darwin. It resembled a toy tin-plated train with each car having only four wheels. The seats were metal benches running the length of the car. When the train reach a hill it would stop and unhitch half of the cars so the engine could make two smaller trips up the hill. Upon reaching Katherine, the men were met by a driver who took them to their final destination of Fenton Field. The 15th WS would have many more weathermen make much of the same journey before the war would end.

By the end of World War II, more than 719 weathermen were assigned to 21 units in Australia, 23 units in New Guinea, eight units in the Philippines, and 17 units in the East Indies. The weathermen of the 15th WS were daring, courageous, and brave in their attempts to record the weather for the Army Air Forces. Besides the daily job of observing and forecasting the weather, the forecasters and observers attached to bombardment groups accompanied the planes on their missions adding in-flight weather information to the data and weather reports that were being transmitted over the network of weather and communications systems. Some came under attack by the Japanese, suffered the same routine of nerve-wracking bombing raids, ground attacks, disease, and discomfort that other ground and service forces endured. When the Japanese Army's advance was stopped, the men in the 15th WS accompanied US Army troops and services forces to set up new weather stations at each of the islands they took back. In addition, some of the weathermen of the 15th Weather Squadron were selected for special training in guerrilla warfare for duty in the Philippines and in other areas of the Southwest Pacific. They served with guerrilla units or invasion team units as related by Sgt. James H. Heaney and Chief Warrant Officer Lucien (Luke) V. Campeau.

Information gathered for this article came from the following sources: Memoirs of CWO Lucien (Luke) V. Campeau, Sgt James H. Heaney, SSgt Chester T. Langan, CWO Alford L. Rushing, Staff Sgt. John F. Whittemore, and from the History of the 15th Weather Squadron, April 22, 1942-September 24, 1945.