Massawa and Gura in WWII

By Jim Hatfield

Lest We Forget - Jim Hatfield 1922 - 2007

Jim Hatfield's WWII Pictures

The SS Mariposa anchored just outside the harbor of Massawa, Eritrea on the morning of January 29, 1943. The luxury liner of the Matson Lines had been at sea since leaving Newport News, Virginia on December 21, 1942 with five thousand American military on board. She had been unescorted, with refueling stops in Rio de Janeiro and Aden… depending upon her speed and the changing of course every three minutes for her safety.

[Sideline: Mariposa Journey: Left NewPort News, Virginia, on December 21, 1942 without escort. Overnight refuel at Rio De Janeiro on January 3, 1943. Continued journey through the south Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and then on to Aden for overnight refueling - January 26, 1943. Entered the Red Sea and disembarked at Massawa, Eritrea, on January 27, 1943.]

The huge ship could not dock because there were about thirty-seven Italian merchant ships in the harbor… all scuttled and blocking the harbor from use. Only the tops of the masts of some of the ships could be seen protruding from the water. Others were in more shallow parts of the harbor and more visible… one had been simply run aground just to the south of the harbor. It was a pitiful sight to behold… a whole harbor filled with sunken ships! Over in a sort of an inlet on the northern part of the harbor a huge floating dry dock could be seen, and there were many men working on it.

The 104th Station Hospital was to disembark from the Mariposa for assignment in this Italian colony now occupied by the British. A colony that had resulted from an invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini about seven or eight years before. In that short time the colony of Eritrea had been turned into a settlement of Italians on the East Coast of Africa… with an excellent port on the Red Sea. The salt fields at sea level had been developed, and truck farming on the higher levels of the mesa extending over much of the colony.

But when the colony was surrendered to the British early in WWII, Mussolini ordered a good part of the Italian merchant fleet into Massawa Harbor to be scuttled in a move to prevent the Allies access to the excellent harbor facilities… which included a very modern, floating dry dock. It too was scuttled!

When the personnel of the 104th Station Hospital had been taken ashore in launches, the Mariposa continued toward the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.

Johnson, Drake, and Piper, a salvage firm out of New York, had only two or three more months of work and the huge dry dock would be ready for use again. To service the many American workers on the dry dock, there was a small British military hospital on the water’s edge in the northern area of the harbor. The 104th was to replace the British hospital for the duration of the work on the dry dock… the medical facility in support of the American civilians working there.

British occupation was not too visible in and around Massawa at that time… it was more concentrated up on the mesa where most of the Italian population had settled. One of the administrative responsibilities of the occupying British was to control the surrendered segments of the Italian Army that had surrendered in Eritrea. Technically these Italian military personnel were prisoners of war! However, none of them were ever confined. Rather there was a sort of ‘parole system’ in effect that required them to report in to their British ‘keepers’ about once each month. A number of these ‘prisoners of war’ were employed in and around the hospital. I was a surgical technician. The sterilization of all the hospital needs was done by autoclaving. One of those prisoners of war manned a small boiler set up on the hospital beach to furnish the steam for the autoclave.

During the three months that it took to complete the work on the dry dock, the only military personnel around Massawa were a few British and American military police and the 104th Station Hospital. The patient population, though, included various Allied military from that part of the world… and, of course, the personnel of a place we knew as ‘Radio Marina; up in Asmara… a trip of about 35 miles or so from sea level to about eight thousand in elevation.

When it was time for the American workers to leave, the 104th was to pack up that hospital for shipment by sea to a huge medical depot in Cairo. We transported all the patients to a Douglas Aircraft Hospital at Gura Air Base, up on the mesa near Decamare. The 104th was to follow and merge with that civilian hospital. We worked day and night after transferring all our patients, and at the end of about three days the whole works was loaded on a ship that was anchored out beyond the scuttled ones.

Our work was all in vain, though, because that ship was sunk just a few hours out of Massawa!

The last time I saw Massawa there was no activity as yet on the raising of any of the ships that Mussolini had scuttled.

More on Massawa

Gazelle were plentiful on the expanse of desert just to the north of Massawa. Someone from the salvage company raising the dry dock had made a hunting frame out of pipe. It fitted on the bed of a weapons carrier. A number of men could stand and strap themselves to the pipe frame for hunting gazelle. I went on one such excursion, and the gazelle were real smart. The weapons carrier would take after one in chase across the vast expanse of sand. We couldn’t ever get close enough to fire at one… they would change course so quickly that the weapons carrier could not change as fast as they did… and we would lose them. I never did hear of anyone actually getting a gazelle! They were too fast and too smart for us.

On that hunting excursion we came across a tiny village of maybe twenty or thirty people. We all emptied our pockets of all the candy and gum we could come up with to the most excited little kids one could ever imagine!

An incident in Massawa that stays in my memory was my finding the body of an Italian man who had been murdered! Yes… early one morning I had gone for a ride with a buddy, Charles Foley from Texas, to deliver the morning report to an office not too far away from the hospital. We came back the long way along the beach just across from the dry dock. We stopped and were looking around when I spotted something unusual out a ways in the water. Charlee drove down closer to the waters edge and sure enough it was the body of a man… face down in the water… just his rump sticking out of the water.

I stayed there as Charlie went for military police. It was almost three hours before anyone came, and I saw that the tide was coming in, so I pulled the body up out of the rising tide. When I did this I noticed that there were tracks under the water that were fast vanishing. The tracks showed clearly that the body had been dragged there by someone… and then that someone had walked back out into the deep water.

It ended up that the man had been in a bar the night before and had become quite drunk. The police were called. A native policeman responded. Instead of taking the Italian home or to jail, he took the drunken man out in a boat… drowned him and dragged him to where Charlie and I found him the next morning. The policeman confessed….

Gura- WWII

When Rommel was beating on the doors of Alexandria and Cairo, the Allies didn’t know which direction his intentions would take him… if he took Egypt… South to South Africa or East to the Middle East.

Gura Air Base was hurriedly set up as a repair base for fighter aircraft in case Rommel turned south. It was operated by Douglas Aircraft, and was not really a military base! There were only a few GIs stationed there. There were the military police, the tower operations, and the 104th Station Hospital which merged in with the Douglas Aircraft Hospital when it moved there from Massawa in the spring of 1943. There were more than five thousand employees of Douglas Aircraft stationed there as civilian aircraft workers and support people. They had signed work contracts with Douglas without any knowledge of where they would be going.

Rommel was turned back and Gura was never used at all for the intended purpose. It was used to a small extent as a sort of alternate base for the Air Transport Command’s supply route into the China-Burma-India Theatre of Operations. (Described in a separate article).

The hospital was a somewhat large complex of permanent buildings… connected by wooden walkways. The barracks for the enlisted medics was in the most Southeast corner of Gura, and just beyond to the south… perhaps less than a mile… was a very small village. There in that village a large building had been arranged to house our movie theater. A short distance beyond the village to the southeast was a huge fort on a hill top that was supposed to have been one of the major battle sites when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.

Oddly enough, there were no fences around the base at all. Just a few yards to the south of the two prefab medic barracks was a hill with a Coptic Chapel on the top. It was also a cemetery with the graves covering most of the hill. I observed the funeral of the wife of a local Chieftain as the ceremony took over half a day… parts of the ceremony at each of the hairpin turns of the path leading to the Chapel. The graves on that hill were small… only a small mound of rocks on each grave, because the bodies were buried in a standing position. It was a favorite pass time of the GIs to sunbathe in that cemetery and shoot at the camellias… a small lizard that changed colors according to where it was… as they crawled around over the rocks of the graves. The sunbathing stopped though, when it was discovered, by the burial of the Chieftain’s wife, that it was a cemetery!

There was a Catholic Priest who came with the Douglas people. He solicited the help of the Douglas people and the GIs to build a rock church on the west side of Gura to be used by the population of Italian truck farmers in the area. A matching rock wall enclosed a cemetery alongside the church. Very shortly after the church was finished the Priest was the first to be buried in it! In assisting a local Italian farmer with the inoculation of his cattle for anthrax, the Priest contracted anthrax and died.

A heart warming incident in my life occurred after the war in Canon City, Colorado while managing a mortuary there. After a priest had said a Rosary one night, he and I discovered by pure accident that he was the brother of the priest buried at Gura! He and his family had no knowledge of what had happened to him…. I was able to tell him all the details of his brother’s life at Gura….

The two major visitors to Gura while I was there was Cardinal Spellman and Jack Benny. Time off from Gura was spent in either Decamare or in Asmara. When a GI from Gura spent a weekend, or over night in Asmara, it was always at Radio Marina. The barracks there always had some available bunks for visitors! The 104th provided the dispensary at Radio Marina, and some of our medical personnel were assigned to that duty… and were quartered at Radio Marina.

When it was apparent that Rommel was driven out of Africa, Douglas ceased their operation of Gura, and the civilians were ready to go home…. BUT, the Army started drafting many of them right there at Gura. Although many did go home, there were about six or seven suicides to keep from being assigned to an Army unit in that area!

The Dispensary at Radio Marina was enlarged and became the 104th Station Hospital of a smaller size. The majority of the personnel of the original 104th at Gura became the 367th Station Hospital, and remained at Gura to pack up all the equipment of the Douglas Hospital for shipment to the Medical Depot in Cairo.

All the civilian equipment had to be turned into Army nomenclature and units. This was quite a task, and took several weeks to accomplish. Douglas had really stocked up on medical supplies. When everything was packed, it was loaded on to a convoy of old Italian Army trucks. With Italian drivers. One of our doctors and two medics accompanied the trip across the desert to Cairo. The 367th then moved on to their new assignment at Wadi Siedna on the Nile River in The Anglo Egyptian Sudan. It was said that this was the first for attempting a cross desert convoy of trucks, and the convoy was not heard from for almost two months. They were assumed to have perished in the desert. Planes saw nothing of them… and then one day they came rolling into Cairo!

An unoccupied Gura, with the longest run way in that part of the world, became only an emergency landing strip for planes flying the air supply route from Miami to Karachi….

I had the privilege of returning to Asmara some months later where I spent about a week at a Rest and Recuperation Center that had since been established in downtown Asmara…..

More about Gura and Radio Marina in WWII

Just a few yards east of the Coptic Chapel on the hill with the cemetery surrounding it, there was a ‘mud hole’ that was really a sort of slow seeping spring. Each morning the native women for miles around would come there to get there supply of water for the day. Each had a square tin container that held about two or three gallons. They would fill them with the mud saturated water and then carry the water back to their homes.

They were most interesting to watch as this was a great social gathering for them each morning! It took so long for enough water to accumulate for each can that it gave them time for gossiping and visiting. We always assumed that by the time they arrived back at their homes the heavy silt in the water would have settled to the bottom and the water was usable…. An interesting sight to observe!

There were a host of natives who worked for Douglas, and one day one of them was repairing a roof on a hangar… he fell off and fractured the femur in both legs. The surgeons told Joe Lauria, from White Plains, New York to take care of the man ourselves. Joe was the other surgical technician. It was early afternoon when it happened, and when we finished setting the legs and casting him from waist to ankles he was taken home by a Douglas ambulance. Joe and I did not go along. He lived in a rather large village just to the east of the runway… about 2 miles or so….

That evening Joe and I made a follow up visit to check on swelling and see if the cast too tight or not…. The streets of the village were too narrow for the ambulance. So we stopped at the edge, and some children went running to get someone to come and see what we wanted.

In moments a man wrapped in a white sheet – the way all the natives dressed – came walking out of the village and greeted us in perfect American style English. He escorted us to the man with the cast, and everything checked out okay.

The man was very friendly, and walked back with us to the ambulance. On the way he was inquiring if anyone in our outfit was from Detroit…. Then he pulled a wallet out from under that sheet he was wearing and showed us a paid up union card from the Auto Workers Union in Detroit where he had worked for years!

There were some seven or eight middle aged men at Gura, who did odd jobs around the base. I talked to them frequently. I felt very sorry for them as did everyone else…. They had been over there working for several years before the war started and had overstayed their allotted time. All of them had lost their American citizenship! Douglas managed to send them some where else when they left and we never did know what happened to them…. Very sad….

I was off duty every other afternoon and night… on duty and on call the rest of the time. There were two Italian prisoners of war, who had been surgical technicians in the Italian Army that surrendered to the British. They worked for Douglas… full time in surgery, and reported to the British once a month as though they were on parole. I visited their home in Decamare many times… having dinner with them to include Christmas of 1943.

One day I was in Asmara and was to be at their home that evening for dinner. There was an Italian operated bus line that went between Decamare and Asmara which was used quite frequently by the few military at Gura, as well as the civilian workers. I went to get on that bus that afternoon, and as I came up to it, it started moving. I ran to try and get on it, but after almost a block of running, and banging on the side of it for entry, I gave up and waited for a GI truck that would be making the trip a bit later.

That night at dinner, I found out that the bus I had tried so hard to board had been ambushed by a group of natives. Remember… the Italians had come in and forcibly taken over their country only a few years before, and there was still plenty of animosity hanging in the air. The natives had set up an ambush where the road was close to one of those deep, deep ravines. As the bus passed they machine gunned it and everyone on it was killed as it went crashing over the edge of the precipice. Lucky me!

At the time when Gura was closed and we were waiting for transportation to be set up for leaving, and part of our unit had already moved to Radio Marina to operate the enlarged Dispensary there, just about everyone left at Gura went to Asmara to attend a USO show at the Odion Theater. It was Nelson Eddy, the singer and movie star! A great performance and a great show!

A lot of us hung around Radio Marina for a few days…. So did Nelson Eddy. He had some kind of ailment and had cancelled his shows to stay there at the dispensary and be treated for it. It was a minor ailment and we had a lot of soft ball games with Nelson Eddy playing with us! At that time there was a soft ball field just in about the middle of a rather small complex of a few buildings and the tower.


If you, the reader, served at Kagnew Station after World War II, you should think about ‘Tract A’ of Kagnew Station as you read this article….

The original Radio Marina didn’t look too different from the radio stations beside a trestle type tower antenna that you see in towns across America. Radio was quite the thing in the mid-thirties when the Italians took Eritrea from Ethiopia. No doubt that was who built the original radio station there. It is not impossible that it was already there on the arrival of the Italians. As I remember it was located just to the west of what one might call the South East Corner of Asmara. The buildings of Asmara came right up to it, and there wasn’t much of anything to the south of it. I envision it as a radio station on the south edge of Asmara when the British took over from the Italians. And perhaps the Italians had used it for transmissions back and forth from Italy. All that is supposition my part until it was taken over early in the war by the Americans.

The American Military Presence in Eritrea was very small in that the Country was occupied by the British. All of the American Presence was a part of what was called ‘Lend Lease’… a sort of sharing of things by Britain and the U.S. during the war. Apparently the original Radio Marina was a part of ‘Lend Lease’ as the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army took over Radio Marina as a radio relay station for military messages.

The Signal Corps personnel lived at Radio Marina, along with a few Military Police and Medics. In fact the cooks and medics were personnel of the military hospital at Gura Air Base… and then the original 104th Station Hospital was assigned to Radio Marina as a much smaller unit.

At about the time that Douglas Aircraft pulled out of Gura as it was closing down was the last time I remember actually being at Radio Marina. It was late 1943 or early ’44, and I am going to describe what Radio Marina was like at that time by focusing in on a softball game I watched in the afternoon of that visit….

Yes.. the very center of Radio Marina was a sort of make shift soft ball diamond with home plate being on the north. Just off to the west of home plate, about thirty feet away, is where I sat on a dirt bank that afternoon and watched a softball game. I was facing in a sort of southeasterly direction, and right on the other side of left field… about 40 or 50 feet beyond it… was a one story building with several rooms in it that was at the base of a large trestle type radio antenna tower.

To the south of center field was nothing but some trees and bushes and the fence. Over my right shoulder and about 50 feet west of first base were several pre-fab buildings that housed the personnel stationed there and where we visitors to Asmara would sleep as guests.

To the east of third base, and across a sort of dirt parking lot was a permanent two story building that contained the mess hall and the dispensary. The entrance gate to Radio Marina was between the tower and that two story building. From the parking lot a dirt road came around home plate and behind me to the pre-fab barracks buildings. Now what was on the north of that road around home plate is as vague as vague can get… except that beyond the fence were the buildings of Asmara. And, it is vague but seems there was an office or orderly room just to the north of the two story building… over in the northeast corner of the complex….

The original Radio Marina wasn’t a very large place… just a few buildings around a baseball diamond of sorts! And you remember the place where I sat on that dirt bank and watched a paunchy guy in blue denim bib overalls… Nelson Eddy, the movie star… pitch a softball game! yes… you remember this same place as ‘Tract A’… and it was actually the original Radio Marina….

Air Supply to CBI Theatre

Early on Gura was used sometimes in the air supply to the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. Later, after Douglas moved out of Gura, it was no more than an emergency alternate as well as was Asmara.

The route was patterned after the route of the Pan American Clipper which flew out of Miami to Natale in South America… then to Ascension Island in the Atlantic… then to Boloma in Portuguese Guinea… then to Accra on the Gold Coast… then to Dakar in the Senegal… then to Lisbon in Portugal. These flights of the Pan American Clipper continued throughout the war.

The military air route skipped Boloma and flew from Ascension Island to Accra. There it split with one route going on to Dakar and then to Casablanca. The main route flew out of Accra right across the belt of Africa… to El Kano… to El Fascia… to Wadi Siedna… then over Asmara and Gura to Aden… then to Karachi in India….

There was a steady stream of C-47s, C-46s, and C-54s… going both ways. And when the B-29s came in there was a lot of them came through going one way… east….

On leaving Gura, the 367th Station Hospital spent about a year in Wadi Siedna and then to Dakar for the remainder of the war.

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