Love, War, and the 96th Engineers (Colored): The World War II Diaries ofCaptain Hyman Samuelson, edited by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, University of IllinoisPress, Champaign, Ill., 1995, $26.95.
When Japan attacked American holdings in the Pacific in December 1941, U.S. forces in the area were ill-prepared to meet the onslaught. As part of their campaign to wrest conquered lands from Japanese control, the Allies began building new assault teams in Australia. It soon became clear that the Pacific islands had to be protected by airstrips hewed out of jungles and resupplied by naval forces, which would need docking facilities. Trained engineers were sorely needed.
Among the engineers assigned to the Southwest Pacific was a young Jewish officer from Louisiana named Hyman Samuelson. Military authorities assigned Samuelson to a segregated African-American engineers unit, believing that Southerners could “handle” blacks better than Northern officers. The 96th Engineers was a general service regiment whose duties included building roads, airstrips and docks.
Samuelson, an able civil engineer, kept a diary of his activities in the Pacific theater, particularly in New Guinea. Tropical conditions hampered construction, but Samuelson and his engineers hacked landing strips out of the jungle, reinforcing the runways with steel landing mats that were laboriously hauled through the forest by native laborers.
Torrential downpours and typhoons were a constant threat to the engineers, as were raids by Japanese bombers. Working east of Port Moresby, the engineers successfully built and maintained airfields that were used to strike back at the enemy.
Samuelson’s diaries relate the activities of the regiment as well as the misery faced by its men. Government red tape often delayed the delivery of badly needed equipment. Since the 96th was a black unit, it was often relegated to the end of the list for promotions, supplies and periods of leave. In Australia, when leave time was granted for the engineers, racial problems with Australians and white American regiments often surfaced. Malaria, dysentery and skin ulcers plagued everyone. In some instances, the strain led to insanity and suicide.
As is evident throughout Samuelson’s journal, he grew to care about the men under his command. He instituted classes to train the men in mathematics and writing. When he was later promoted to captain, Samuelson was forced to shuffle his noncommissioned officers to obtain the maximum effort from his company. Although Samuelson’s notions were unpopular at the time, his men later accepted them, responding to and respecting their commander’s orders.
Samuelson, who had married Dora Reiner just after the outbreak of the war, often commented on the loneliness of overseas duty. Their letters and his diary entries reflect the poignancy of long separation, his absence at the birth of their son and his agonizing months in New Guinea while his wife slowly died of cancer. After more than two years in New Guinea, Samuelson finally received leave time to visit her before her death.
Captain Samuelson’s diaries and letters are ably edited by his niece, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a professor of history at Rutgers University. They provide valuable insight into the race relations and social isolation of the officers and men of a noncombat unit in the Pacific theater. Their efforts lacked the glory of hitting the beaches or storming enemy strongholds, but their strenuous labors under debilitating conditions were a key to the success of the operations and are all too often overlooked.
Kennneth P. Czech