Dateline 1941. Colonel “Smokey” Joe Wood and Lt. Ed Rowny were among white officers commanding the 41st “Singing Engineers,” a regiment of entirely black soldiers in America’s segregated Army. The soldiers, all from the South, were renowned for their awe-inspiring singing of Negro spirituals while performing drill parades — parades so dazzling that LIFE featured the Singing Engineers in a 15-page spread on Fort Bragg. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the regiment became the first U.S. unit dispatched overseas.
The Singing Engineers were headed to Liberia, on the west coast of Africa. They were to build an airbase that would serve as a midway point for ferrying U.S. supplies to the Soviets. It was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s effort to appease the Soviets since they complained they were doing all the fighting while the U.S. was still mobilizing. Though Liberia was a neutral nation, it would benefit from an airport and its heritage was tied to the U.S.; it was founded with freed American slaves in 1822 during President Monroe’s tenure, thus prompting Washington to decide that sending a black unit to the country would now be symbolic. Liberia was also one of the few rubber-producing areas of the world, its lush jungles filled with trees that oozed latex used to make plane wheels, tank treads, lifeboats and more. The Allies needed to tap into this key rubber source, cultivated on the vast Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia — and keep those resources from falling into enemy hands.
The 41st Engineers sailed toward Liberia on a converted cruise liner. Washington wanted to send out its first black regiment in style, and transport ships, like everything else needed for war, were in short supply. Ten days later, the 41st fleet neared Liberia minus one supply ship struck by a German torpedo; ten stevedores had been killed while survivors had been plucked from rough seas in their lifeboats.
The 41st Regiment now gazed at the glorious beaches of Liberia, palm trees swaying in the breeze like a scene from “South Pacific.” Bare-breasted women in colorful skirts waved lined the shores and jiggled their wares, while a dignitary stood out as a paradox, meticulously clad in a finely tailored suit.
Talk about a welcoming committee, thought Rowny. This is going to be interesting. He glanced around at the half-naked women and the eyes of wide-eyed troops, wondering how much work they would all get done.
The women proved to be only the half of it. First, Col. Wood and Lt. Rowny had to convince Firestone to cooperate with the military. U.S. barges were ill equipped for unloading equipment in the rolling surf whereas Firestone had 50 seaworthy vessels. Mr. Firestone, however, insisted his company was not a “charitable organization” and refused to cooperate. U.S. officers commandeered his boats, practically at gunpoint, in the name of the United States.
The 41st Engineers soon began tackling the challenge of building an airbase amidst termite hills and jungle terrain. On top of it all, they had to cope with a mountain of beer. Someone in DC, it seems, decided that a beer a day per soldier might help moral among the all-black regiment. But they had miscalculated and sent a case per man, per day. For a 90-day supply, that amounted to nearly 3 million cans of beer, all in cardboard cartons and with the rainy season fast approaching.
“Pretty soon, we’re going to have 3,000 soldiers sliding and tumbling on rivers of rolling beer cans,” griped Ed Rowny.
Guards were assigned to protect the beer bounty, but the troops quickly lost interest in warm beer in an even warmer climate. They let the natives have a heyday with the jungle brewery, which resulted in a free-for-all as though golden riches had been heaped upon the people.
While a can crisis was averted, there was less success with the more serious problems of malaria and venereal disease. Both began to run rampant among the troops. Mosquito nets and quinine pills helped to a degree with malaria. Averting a plague of venereal disease was trickier. It was hard to reign in men when hundreds of naked women were roaming about. Add in the threat of battle and possible mortality in the not-too-distant future, and it made for decisions born of spontaneity. In Colonel Wood’s view, losing men to battle would be bad enough; losing them to disease before even entering combat was unconscionable. In a preemptive strike, he charged Rowny with constructing an “official” Army brothel, one that would have scheduled time slots and a physician to dispense penicillin regimens to keep the ladies clean. Wood figured better to reign in the chaos than leave things to chance. Needless to say, when word filtered up to Army brass, they were not amused. The brothel was short-lived.
Somehow, despite it all — the plethora of obstacles and torrents of rain that pounded upon the tin roofs like machinegun fire — cargo planes were able to begin landing on the 41st Regiment’s airfield only four months after they had arrived. The runway was an engineering marvel, constructed on an elevated slice of land with concrete wall sidings protecting it from flooding. It would stand the test of time, serving as the country’s main airfield for decades to follow.
Wood was then promoted to brigadier general, Rowny to captain, and they were ordered back to Alabama to head a cadre in the newly formed 92nd Infantry “Buffalo” Division. The rest of the 41st Singing Engineers stayed on in Liberia to continue airfield work.
But things were only beginning to heat up in Africa.
by Anne Kazel-Wilcox, PJ Wilcox with Lt. Gen. Edward L. Rowny