G.I. Loggers in Burma (1945)

As I was digging through old documents related to the Penn State wood collection, I came across this article, a release of February 16, 1945 by the National Lumber Manufacturers Association. Too bad it wasn't made into a movie script. You loggers and mill hands who think you've got it tough today will feel better after reading about these guys.

I've reproduced it here as closely as possible to the way it looks on the original paper.


C.B.I. Roundup, service newspaper of the troops on the China-Burma-India front devoted a front page feature in its December 28th issue to the herculean feats of the Army forestry units to keep the Burma drive supplied with lumber from native timber. The story is graphically told by field correspondent, Sgt. John R. McDowell. A copy of the issue was sent home by Lt. Col. Ben Benioff, formerly an engineer with Summerbell Roof Structures, Los Angeles, now on Ledo Road, and was forwarded to the National Lumber Manufacturers Association.

Excerpts from Sgt. McDowell's article follow:

*   *   *

Capt. E. v. Roberts is not in character with the popular conception of a timber king. Quiet and unassuming, the captain is a product of the Forest Service, with which he served as a regional survey director in the Appalachian Forest Preserve Experimental Station. Today, as commanding officer of the first G. I. forestry outfit in the Far East, he has exploited the vast virgin timber resources of Assam and Northern Burma to such an extent that lumber is now the Army's No. 1 industry here.

When I first met Roberts, he was a mighty weary man. His two mills in Burma's Hukawng Valley had just completed what was probably the largest miltary order for lumber ever given a G. I. forestry outfit; a million board feet in 30 days.

The order was placed during the height of the summer monsoon. And it was a rush job. Engineers decided to construct a causeway across a 



flooded area.

The causeway meant lumber--lots of it. Pilings, cross beams, supports, flooring, railing--two miles of lumber which eventually added up to 1,000,000 board feet.

For 30 days, the men worked 10-hour days, seven days a week, to fill the order. The two mills, equipped with 60-inch circular saws and 90 horsepower Allis Chalmers edgers, turned out as much as 43,000 board feet of lumber during that hectic month. (According to specifications and performance guarantees, the Corinth Mill used by the Army has a top production level of 12,000 board feet per day.)

In discussing his outfit's record output, Roberts says, "There's only one factor which made it possible for us to fill that order. That is experience. Practically every man in my outfit is a veteran logger or mill man."

In a clearing beside the Ledo Road, a G. I. was operating a crude derrick mechanism which was mounted on the body of a dilapidated truck. The derrick consisted of a long pole, controlled by a network of cables, and a main line on the end of which was large steel tongs which bit into huge logs which were lifted high in the air and loaded on trucks. To my inexperienced eye, it resembled a gin pole on wheels.

The captain pointed to the machine. "That," he said, "is the pride and the joy of the outfit. It's a home-made jammer, designed and built by two of our men."

The Army T. O. for a forestry unit calls for the use of stiff legs in the loading of logs. Roberts' men, however, found the stiff legs to be awkward to handle in the sense Burmese jungles, so Pfc. Walter Nourse of Portland, Oregon, and Sgt. Pat Treat, of Priest River, Ida., both veteran far western logging contractors, designed the jammer, patterning it after equipment they had used in civilian life.

The resulting home-made rig was a conglomeration of "midnight requisitioning" and discarded equipment. Drums were taken from a shovel, gears were taken from TD-18 tractors, a motor was taken from a Dodge weapons carrier. The framework was formed with lengths of scrap welded together in the outfit's heavy equipment shop. A pole was fashioned from a log. And the whole contraption was mounted on an English lorry.

Nourse was operating the jammer. Every time ge'd push or pull a lever, the jammer would creak and groan and a heavy log would lurch off the ground, dangle in midair for a moment, then swoop gently down on the truck, scarcely jarring the vehicle.

Looking at the mass of levers and cables and gears with which Nourse toyed so casually, I remarked, "Don't you ever miss the truck when you're loading logs?"

Nourse grinned and and pushed a faded fatigue cap back over his straight black hair. "Brother when you've operated one of these things as long as I have, you could use it to serve a 12-course dinner and not spill a drop of gravy."



Deep in the jungle, we found the loggers at work in a stand of giant hollong trees. Cpl. Wright Vander Wegen, of Thorp, Wis., and Pvt. John Spaulding, Ketchikan, Alaska, were preparing to fell one of the giants.

Back at the loading area, we followed a loaded truck down the Lado road to the sawmill. As the converted 6x6 started out, sagging under its load of six logs, Roberts said, "Don't ever let anyone sell American equipment short. We've been using those 6x6's to haul our logs for months now. Each trip with a load averages between five and 10 miles, and a truck carries a 600 per cent overload. So far, we haven't had a single breakdown despite such punishment. Brother, that's performance!"

Lt. Marvin S. Houston, who owned a sawmill in Pitkin, La., before the war, is in charge of the outfit's No. 1 mill. "Since January of this year," he said, "my boys have turned out 7,000,000 board feet of lumber. Which isn't hay for a small G. I. mill."

The mill turns out lumber in sizes varying from one inch by two inch by 10 feet to 12 inch by 24 feet. Some pieces of lumber run as long as 31 feet, but the average length varies between 14 and 18 feet. Most of the mill's orders are for bridge timber and culvert abutments, although lumber also is produced for office furniture and military installations in North Burma. And idea of the forestry unit's output can be obtained from figures showing that its two sawmills have produced lumber for nearly 1,000 bridges and hundreds of revetments and culverts on Ledo Road.

Ninety percent o the timber run through the mills in North Burma is hollong (Dipterocarpus macrocarpus) or makai (Shorea assamica). Both trees, 100 to 150 years old when ready for cutting, are common to Asia. The wood, when cured, is similar to North America's walnut, oak, or maple and, if exploited commercially, could be used for furniture and interior finishing.

The hollong produces the heaviest wood yet used for lumber. It weighs 100 pounds per cubic foot and is one of the few known species of tree which is too heavy to float. The makai, on the other hand, is of average weight for a hardwood, weighing 55 pounds per cubic foot. A few nahor, or ironwood, trees are found in North Burma and have proved quite satisfactory for bridge timbers. Roberts has seen bt one conifer, and that was in the middle of a swamp.

Roberts' proudest record is that his men lost only five working days during the past monsoon. Prior to the rains, it was feared that continuous mill operation would be impossible during the period from May until October. But the mill ran seven days a week, noth after month, with but few exceptions during the rainy season.

The only solution to the mud was the constant construction of new access roads into the jungles over which the logs could be skidded out to the loading area. The men built corduroy roads, plank roads, gravel roads, and when each road would bog down and become impassable they would construct another.



At the forward logging camps in Burma, where heavy equipment was not available during the monsoon, elephants were used to drag the timber from the swampy jungle to the road. The elephants were driven by natives, and each beast made on the average of three or four trips into the jungle per day.

This was slow but sure process. Each elephant would slowly drag a heavy length of timber out to the road, sometimes sinking up to its belly in mud and stagnant water. Each trip took nearly an hour, and a couple of trips a day exhausted even the largest and most powerful elephants.

Farther south in Burma, the forward contingent of Roberts' unit, with Lt. James Pouncey in charge, will tell you that they've been the real trail-blazers of the G. I. loggers. Once, the No. 2 mill detachment--their offical designation, set up logging and sawmill activities beyond the point of the Ledo Road, within sound of Jap gunfire. Since then, they have moved forward with Road Headquarters as the Ledo Road pushed on south into Burma, supplying timber for advance bridges and military installations.

Lt. Pouncey, who was in the lumber business in Stevenson, Wash., before the war, has his share of timber veterans, too. Such men as Sgt. Eugene Raymond, of Clallan Bay, Wash.; Sgt. William Buchanan, of Riverside, Calif.; T/3 Carl Blakeslee, of Union City, Pa.; T/Sgt. Clark Hobbs, of Manassas, Va.; Pfc. Harry Fredy, of Sagala, Mich.; Pfc. Jack Plotts, of Troy, Mont., and Pvt. Carmen Hernandez, of Salina, Kan., are typical of the veteran lumbermen who are carrying their civilian skills on over into Army life.

I don't know wether it has anything to do with the tree that is reputed to grow in Brooklyn, but Flatbush has its representation in the Forestry outfit. "I don't suppose any of the three ever saw a tree before they got in the Army," Pouncey chuckles, "But they're really making up for lost time over here."

I remarked, "There must be great amounts of timber in North Burma which still haven't been touched."

Roberts agreed. "And it's a high-grade lumber, too. Cured properly, it would make fine furniture or interior finishing."

"Then, do you believe the British will be able to exploit these timber resources after the war, using the Ledo Road?" I asked. Roberts shook his head. "Defintely not. There is no market in this part of the world for lumber. Too many impoverished people who build with bamboo and mud. And transportation costs by road and rail to the ports at Calcutta or Rangoon would be prohibitive."


Tip Amount


David C Clark said…
I like the last comment about the difficulties of exporting logs from Burma. The now Myanmar Government continues it's attempts to stop illegal logging. The bulk of the the logs are being shipped into China.Transport costs have not been proved to be prohibitive
Dennis Wilson said…
Very interesting article. I really enjoyed reading it. Wish I could have some of the slab cuts from those timbers.
Chuck Ray said…
That would be amazing, wouldn't it?

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