James W Schell was born on November 9, 1917 in
Quincy, Illinois to parents Carl J Schell and Beatrice Markus Schell. He was 25 when he enlisted for service in the US Army on January 7, 1942 at Camp Grant, Illinois. Jim was a member of the 807th Engineer Aviation Battalion. They played a little known, but very important part in the Pacific theater of World War II against the Japanese. This battalion was sent to the Aleutian Islands… the chain of islands the extends southwest from the Alaskan Peninsula toward Asia.
The Japanese had invaded the islands of Kiska and Attu in June, 1942. At midnight on August 31, 1942, two companies of the 807th followed the assault party and took Adak Island. The plan was to build an air base, but estimates were that it would take 3-4 months to construct this base. High surf and bad weather made the landing of supplies very difficult. Since a Japanese attack could occur at any time, they had to disperse their heavy construction machinery so as to not provide the enemy with an easy target as Battleship Row had been at Pearl Harbor. And they had to build some crude roadways in order to carry out this dispersion. The nearest source of replacement equipment was Seattle; so they couldn’t afford to lose a lot of equipment.
The 807th completed an amazing task by having an adequate base for fighter planes built within 10 days! Remember, the estimate was 3-4 months! This involved building a dike to keep ocean water out and bulldozing a new channel for a creek so the water wouldn’t back up behind the new dikes.
By September 10, American fighter planes were landing at the new base unbeknownst to the Japanese. The first American attacks on Kiska Island followed on September 14. The Japanese did not discover the new base on Adak Island until the end of the month. By that time the 807th had constructed a runways for bombers. In order to construct this bomber runway, the engineers had to remove sand and replace it with soil from nearby hills. The skill and excellent construction practices of the American engineers was far and above their Japanese counterparts on Kiska which used convicts for labor and only had small dumps trucks.
In early 1943, the Americans invaded the island of Amchitka which is located next to Kiska. They ran into many problems with this adventure. The winter was very severe, the Japanese were able to easily attack since they were close, and construction was taking longer than had been planned. On May 30, 1943, one-third of the 807th unloaded at Massacre Bay on the Japanese-held island of Attu. I do not know if Jim was a part of this particular invasion force. The initial assault party had landed there two weeks prior. While attempting to construct a base there, they had to contend with Japanese attacks, rains, and uncomfortably low temperatures. By July 29, 1943, the Japanese had evacuated the Aleutian Islands that they had held.
You may wonder why this action in the Aleutians was so important to the war effort. The Japanese plan had been to invade the Aleutians and set up bases there from which they could carry out future attacks on the United States. It would have been far easier for them to carry out attacks from Alaska than to travel all the way across the Pacific Ocean to attack.
I learned a couple of side stories about Jim’s service from his daughter, Judy Waumans and his wife, Jean. It seems that his group constructed their own whiskey still. That made them quite popular up there in the extreme cold weather! I guess their engineering skills were not just for building bases! Jim became good friends with one of the cooks; so he was always able to get a little extra food. Sounds like a survival skill to me! When they got their allotment of wood to burn in their stoves, many times they would burn much of it that first night just to savor some warmth for a little while. And they also told me that Jim had to have all of his teeth pulled while serving over there…. without the advantage of novocaine! I cannot imagine that, nor do I want to imagine that!
Jim married Jean McComb in Spokane, Washington
Next: Charles A Schell
I have a blog on the maternal side of the family at happekotte.blogspot.com