855th Engineers


The 855th Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAB) was activated on January 1st, 1943, at March Field, CA. They staged at Camp Stoneman, California. It was comprised of one of the earlier African-American units to be sent to serve in the Pacific theater. The 855th EAB was comprised of 811 officers and enlisted men. As was customary during this period of segregation, the African-American enlisted men were led by white officers.

The unit was an aviation engineering and construction battalion, part of the Army Air Corps, with the goal to help build and repair air strips. Although according to ‘Army Air Forces in World War II - Vol. VII: Services Around the World, Chapter 10 – Aviation Engineers in the War with Japan (Chapter by John E. Fagg, New York University);

Aviation engineers and Army engineers and sometimes [Navy] Seabees labored on whatever engineering projects had to be completed—the two hundred runways built between Australia and Okinawa, roads, camp sites, docks, hospitals, depots, storage facilities, and many other construction jobs—with little or no effort to segregate aviation engineers for purely air force tasks.

The 855th was one of approximately fourteen African-American Engineer Aviation Battalions to serve in the Pacific.

I was able to locate a newspaper clipping that provided some info, and some of the survivor’s families have contacted me since the page on the Cape San Juan was first released, and until recently no one has been able to provide much info about the unit itself.


While searching for more information on the unit I stumbled across an on-line obituary for a William Parker of Philadelphia, PA, which provided a link to his record on the American Battle Monuments Commission website, which showed he was listed on the Honolulu Memorial within the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific near Honolulu, Hawaii.

The site allows the user to search their database not only with the name of the person, but the unit with which they served. Using this service I was able to identify 99 of the 855th’s losses during the Cape San Juan sinking:


With the help of Tom Gauthier, in June of 2012 I had the honor of speaking directly with 91-year-old Bolden Eugene Hines. “Gene” Hines, as he is known, was a 21-year-old TEC Sergeant with the 855th when the event occurred. He was in the Number 2 hold when the torpedo hit and the sea came rushing in. He had an injured leg but he escaped the hold by climbing up a tarpaulin. The tarp was likely part of the hatch cover, an artifact of the Cape's original freighter design, which was blown up by the force of the explosion and then collapse back down into the hold opening.The tarp formed a steep ramp which many survivors were able to clamber up.

He would later receive a Purple Heart. Gene's memory was excellent and he was able to provide some corrections and new details which I’ve incorporated.

Cape San Juan survivors from the 855th Engineer's waiting to disembark from the USS McCalla on November 14th, 1943. All survivors currently unidentified. Man standing on far left with bandaged head and eye has "MARTIN" written on bandage. Note oil stained clothing and that it was nighttime and starting to rain when they arrived. Also note Carley float in right foreground. Photo by Pfc. Jerry J. Kroutil. Photo courtesy of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center; Colonel Stanley Wolfe Collection.

Some of the men were taken to Noumea, New Caledonia on the Edwin T. Meredith, and the others were taken to Suva, Fiji, where the photo above was taken. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to identify the men in the photo.

Using the Fold3.com service, I was able to locate a list of 470 survivors that were brought to Fiji on the Naval vessels and perhaps the PBM:

Based on known names of other 855th members, I assume the following seven men were brought to Noumea on the Edwin T. Meredith:

Subtracting the 470 survivors brought to Fiji, and the 99 casualties from the overall 811 unit strength would suggest that 242 of the 855th's survivors were picked up by the Edwin T. Meredith.

After they were reunited in Noumea they traveled on to Brisbane, Australia for two months where they resupplied and received replacements. The survivors campaigned in Finschhafen, New Guinea and Luzon, the Philippines, mainly at Clark Field where, according to Hines, the Japanese had left quite a mess. The 855th deactivated at Nichols Field on December 31, 1945.

Gene Hines got out of the Army shortly after the war and eventually went to work at a Chrysler plant in California were he retired.

According to the November 12th, 1994 edition of ‘The Baltimore Afro-American’, veterans of the unit had been meeting annually for the past 17 years (so since the late ‘70’s), and had most recently met in Baltimore in September of that year. Credited with putting the reunion together was Mr. Clarence Boatman (75) from Silver Springs, MD and a Mr. Glen DeBeal (72) of Baltimore. The article included the following group photo, but unfortunately the quality is quite poor.

The photo listed the following survivors:

      • Willie Blue of Hillsboro, NC

      • Clarence Boatman of Silver Springs, MD

      • William Jones of Cleveland, OH

      • John Thomas of Louisville, KY

      • Jessie Davis of Detroit, MI

      • George Gill of Cleveland, OH

      • William J. Hill of Columbus, OH

      • Howard Chambers of Oberlin, OH

      • Robery (sic Robert) E. Blue of Concord, NC

      • Glen DeBeal of Baltimore, MD

      • and honorary member, Gretchen Bryant of Pittsburgh, PA, the niece of one of the survivors.

Herbert Edward Bass

As mentioned above in 'The Attack' section, there was a heroic attempt by one of the 855th's officers named Herbert Edward Bass to rescue the injured men in the hold.

I was fortunate to have been contacted by his grandson, Dave Bass, in January of 2014, first through my comments page and then through a series of e-mails.

Dave is in the process of researching his grandfather’s military career, of which the Cape San Juan incident is an important milestone. I was honored to have helped Dave fill in many of the missing pieces he had on the Cape’s loss, and he in turn was able to help me tell you the reader more about his amazing grandfather.

Herbert Edward Bass was born on February 19th, 1920 in Chowan County, North Carolina. He went by “Ed” to his friends and family. His parents were farmer Herbert Victor Bass (1899 - 1979) and Artemesia M. White (1897 - 1966). He had a younger brother, Leonard Johnson “Poss” Bass (1924 - 1986), and a little sister, Artemesia “Artie” White Bass (1927 - unknown).

His brother Leonard also served in the war, as a corporal in the US Army, with service in Scotland, England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. He received two Bronze Stars, a Good Conduct Medal and a Unit Citation. Apparently it runs in the family.

Ed also started his military career as an enlisted man, enlisting in the Army National Guard Medical Corps on September 16th, 1940.

Company D of the 105th Medical Regiment where Ed Bass served as a Sergeant. Ed is standing in the back row, third from right. Photo courtesy of Dave Bass.

He was discharged as a Tech Sergeant and went to Officer Candidate School for Army Engineers at Fort Belvoir, VA, graduating as one of twenty “Tar Heels” and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant on July 12th, 1942. I believe this may have been tied to the Army’s high demand for white, specifically southern born, officers to lead the increasing number of African-American units entering service, like the 855th. In the segregated Army of World War II, the prevailing "wisdom" was that southern whites were better suited to leading black men.

Newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant Ed Bass in October of 1942. Photo courtesy of Dave Bass.

Ed was asked to provide his recollection of the Cape’s loss after the Meredith delivered some of the survivors to Noumea. Below is Ed’s account in his own words:

21 November 1943



From: Lieutenant G.S. MUELERISEN USNR

To: C-in-C,

Subject: SS CAPE SAN JUAN, Torpedoing of.

re: Interview with Captain Herbert Edward BASS,

Corps of Engineers, Company Commander, 855th

Ordnance Aviation Engineers.

1. Captain Herbert Edward BASS, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, was interviewed on 20 November 1943, at NOUMEA, and volunteered the following statement, in substance:

(a) “At the time of the torpedoing I was in my bunk in hold No. 4, starboard side, officer’s quarters. This was located in the upper ‘tween decks. The first thing I heard or felt was a scrapping sound and a big jar like the ship had run on a sand bar. I immediately ran to hatch No. 2, my abandon ship station, on the port side. There were about 200 enlisted men at that station. I observed them coming up the ladder out of the hold and, in my opinion, there was not much confusion. I ordered the men to stand by until the abandon ship order was given, but a few of them had already gone over the side. The majority of them stood by until the abandon ship signal was given on the ship’s whistle. The nets had been cut loose prior to the abandon ship order and the rafts at my station were cut loose at the time the whistle blew. There were probably 30 or 40 men swimming in the general area where the rafts would land if they were cut loose. For this reason we hesitated in cutting the rafts loose, but when the men did not move it was necessary, for the safety of all concerned, that we cut the rafts loose. I observed one of the rafts strike two men as it hit the water. Both of these men went straight down. As soon as the men at my station began going down the nets, I proceed to hold No. 2and climbed down into the hold with Captain WHOLLEY, 1st Lieutenant MUTCHLER, Sergeant Chester L. RIVERS, 1st Sergeant SHELTON, and Private Monroe BARKLEY. The enlisted men were all negroes. There were some men injured in the hold, many of them were calling for help. One man was pinned beneath a collapsed “I” beam. We worked for some time with our knives, cutting away the canvas hatch tarpaulin which had fallen down into No. 2 hold covering several men. I noted that three of the knives used were too dull to cut the canvas. I think it is a good idea to have good sharp knives for use in emergencies such as this.

(b) After we got the canvas cleared we tied a rope on the “I” beam and a group of men up on deck raised it. In this manner we were able to extract the man who was pinned under the beam. We then heard a man screaming down in the lower-between-decks in No. 2 hold. It was very dark down there and the water was within 6 feet of the hatch leading from upper No. 2 hold to lower No. 2 hold. We discovered that the injured man was on the extreme starboard side of the hold which, due to the ship’s list, permitted about two feet of head clearance. Every time the ship rolled the man’s head would go under the oily water. He was blinded by the oil and was hanging onto an overhead “I” beam with both hands.

(c) We put a rope on Private BARKLEY and sent him below. He slowly worked his way to the injured man who was later identified as Private HARRIS. BARKLEY was carrying another line and attempted to hand it to HARRIS, but HARRIS appeared to be out of his head and would not release his grip on the overhead beam. BARKLEY then tied the rope around HARRIS’ left leg and told us to pull. This procedure was unsuccessful due to the fact that HARRIS would not release his grip.

(d) At this point I went below - working my way over to HARRIS by hanging to an “I” beam and stepping on submerged bunks, barracks bags and bodies. When I got to HARRIS he still would not let loose so I struck his wrist causing him to release his grasp. I then ordered the men at the other end of the line to pull HARRIS out. It was a slow process because I had to hold HARRIS’ head above water with one arm and my weight with the other as I worked along the overhead “I” beam. Pvt BARKLEY assisted me by telling the men on the line when to pull. The water was rising a little all the time but we finally got HARRIS out. BARKLEY was also pulled out, but I was unable to get out under my own power. The stairways had been broken away and all that was left was an oil covered ladder railing. I had gone under a couple of times and was covered with oil. 1st Lieutenant MUTCHLER stood by and pulled me out by the collar. By this time the water was about 6 inches from the upper-between-decks.

(e) I counted about 20 bodies down there in the water. They were all covered with grease and oil, making it impossible to recognize any of them. We were in the hold for about two hours. Private BARKLEY did a fine job, and I am going to commend him to our Commanding Officer.

(f) After getting out on deck I vomited several times as a result of drinking oily water. I then changed clothes and rested on the side of the ship watching the sharks. I would say there were about 40 or 50 of them in the vicinity, but I do not think they molested any of the swimmers.

(g) In regards to safety measures, I believe that a more strict supervision should be imposed wherever a possible bottleneck exists. I think that an officer should be stationed at the foot of every ladder in the hold. As the men leave the hold there are 4 lines from 4 different bunk areas reaching the ladder at the same time. Unless these men are supervised there is a possibility of a serious bottleneck. Had it not been for the fact that the hatch cover collapsed, permitting a natural runway for the men to escape over, I believe the casualties might have been higher. This would have been especially so if we had received another torpedo. There were approximately 744 men in hold No. 2 and approximately 150 men in the other 2 troop holds.

(h) The only suggestions I can make, in addition to supervising the men more carefully, would be to distribute them more evenly about the ship.

2. The individual interviewed appeared to be honest, intelligent and reliable.


Lieutenant, USNR.

I had originally thought that the young soldier that Ed and Private Barkley pulled from the hold was Theodore M. Harris from North Carolina, who was one of the men that died of his injuries while the Meredith was enroute to Noumea. However that man was listed as a TEC5, or sergeant and the man they rescued was noted as being a private. The name Harris was fairly common, so his true identity remains in question.

Ed married Lola Marie Allan (1918 - 2005), an Army nurse stationed in Australia in 1944, I assume while he and the unit was recuperating in Australia after the attack.

Captain Herbert Edward Bass. Photo courtesy of Dave Bass.

Ed and Lola had three sons, William “Bill” E. Bass (Dave’s father) (1945-Living), James “Jimmy” Bass (1946-Living), and Robert “Bob” Louis Bass (1948 - 1996).

After the war Ed stayed in the Army Air Corps, saw the transition to the United States Air Force and served in the Korean War as well. His Grandson is still piecing together his records, but knows that he served in Alaska after the Korean War and later at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, NE, coincidentally where his grandson Dave, would also later serve. Judging by the badge on his uniform below he was in involved in some way the the Air Force's missile program.

He retired on April 20th, 1962 due to a heart condition, but not before reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Edward Bass on right upon his retirement from the U.S. Air Force in 1962. Photo courtesy of Dave Bass.

According to his grandson Dave;

My Grandfather spent his retirement years in Edenton, NC where he was very active in the VFW. I used to get to spend summers there with him since that is where most of our family was from.

Dave went on to say:

He didn't get home much due to the War. My grandmother had to get out of the Army when my dad was born in 1945. She had 3 boys and when the youngest was about 2, my grandfather came home from Korea. When they met him at the airport he said "I know you… You're Major Bass! “I think it was his first trip home from the War. My uncle didn't even realize it was his dad. We still laugh about that today when the family gets together.

Ed Bass passed away on January 20th, 1977, much too early, at the age of 56. His death occurred at the US Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, MD while undergoing open heart surgery. He is buried at Beaver Hill Cemetery in his hometown of Edenton, Chowan County, NC.

According to Dave: “He received not only the Soldiers Medal for the Cape San Juan incident but at some point he was also given a Bronze Star which I knew nothing about.

Return to main Cape San Juan page.

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Most of the information on the Cape San Juan itself came from Chester Driest via Tom Gauthier initially, and then from the Driest family directly.

  • Interview of Herbert E. Bass, Captain, Corps of Engineers, US Army, November 20, 1943

  • Interview of Monroe J. Barkley, Private, 855th Ordnance Aviation Battalion, US Army, November 20, 1943

Finally, there were a few sources I found that provided some additional info:

  • American Battle Monuments Commission website for information on Cape San Juan casualties.

  • Bass, Dave for information and photos of his grandfather Herbert Edward Bass.

  • Fold3.com for list of survivors brought to Fiji.

  • Hines, Bolden E. - for his help on the 855th Engineers.

  • Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Colonel Stanley Wolfe Collection - for the images of the survivors arriving in Suva, Fiji.