Operation Bobcat in ‘a place of great beauty’

Second of four parts

One summer day in 1940, my Uncle Sam walked down a street and blacked out. After he came to, he felt weak and his head throbbed. His doctor said he’d had a “digestive disturbance,” a “bilious attack.” A few days passed before he felt all right.

Sam Venditta

The spell gave Sam a scare. He’d never experienced anything like that before. He hoped it wouldn’t happen again. 

The next year, four months before Pearl Harbor, he was inducted into the Army in Philadelphia after a medical exam found him fit for military duty. He was twenty-four. He stood 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighed 132 pounds and was well-developed and muscular, with a normal nervous system. After reporting to the Army Reception Center at New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, he was on his way to becoming an artilleryman.

The Coast Artillery Replacement Center at Fort Eustis, Virginia, trained him in antiaircraft gunnery. He joined a highly touted Delaware National Guard unit, the 198th Coast Artillery Regiment (Antiaircraft), called to federal service in 1940. It had seventy-five officers and 1,300 enlisted men. After the Pearl Harbor attack, they moved from Fort Ontario, New York, to East Hartford, Connecticut, to protect aircraft engine maker Pratt & Whitney from any air attack by Nazi Germany.

Uncle Sam gave this photo to my dad. Could these be Polynesians on Bora Bora? The back is stamped “Passed by Army examiner.” The soldier who snapped the picture penned his name, Corporal Frank A. Cugino. He was in the Army Air Forces in the South Pacific, and Bora Bora had an Army airfield beginning in 1943. Frank and Sam might have been related. Cugino was my grandmother’s maiden name. She grew up in Landisville, New Jersey, Frank’s hometown.

Late in January 1942, the 198th shipped out of Charleston, South Carolina, its destination a secret. It was the largest of a dozen Army units in an expedition code-named Bobcat Task Force. Hundreds of sailors were also part of the venture, most of them Seabees geared up for a tidal wave of construction work. The entire group of 4,400, with Sam among them, traveled in a convoy of six troopships with Navy escorts.

Just a few hours into the voyage, one transport had its first abandon-ship drill. “They’re not wasting any time,” the 198th’s regimental intelligence officer scribbled in his diary. Later, he heard Franklin D. Roosevelt say on the radio that the “Samoan Expeditionary Force is on its way.” He wondered if the president was referring to Bobcat.

The ships passed through the Panama Canal into the Pacific. After three weeks, they arrived at a spit of land 2,700 miles south of Hawaii, 140 miles northwest of Tahiti, and far off the regular shipping lanes. This was the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora. War planners in Washington wanted to make it a refueling station for ships sailing from the West Coast to Australia and New Zealand.

“It is a place of great beauty with huge mountain peaks rising from the ocean, deep harbors and luxuriant tropical vegetation,” the intelligence officer, Ervan F. Kushner, wrote in Bogged Down in Bora Bora, a book based on his diary. “There are a few hundred Polynesians, some Chinese, and two or three Free French officials on the island.”

My copy of the 1984 book by the 198th Coast Artillery’s regimental intelligence officer

Operation Bobcat would transform the sleepy isle with roads, housing, docks, fuel storage tanks, warehouses, electric power plants, sewage and water systems, a 250-bed hospital, and big guns. It was “the first American experience in rapid deployment and support in World War II,” an Army historian later asserted. Sam and others in his regiment pitched in with the labor while providing the defense.

On its eleven square miles, Bora Bora had two large sites for dropping anchor. To reach them, ships had to enter a narrow passage through a coral reef. The French, who colonized the island in the late nineteenth century, had widened the path by dynamiting portions of the reef.

Now the Americans would work at that as well, and it would be my Uncle Sam’s undoing.

COMING NEXT: Felled by a mystery ailment

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