Shortly before the United States entered World War II, Congress and the War Department approved the transfer of military construction responsibilities from an overtaxed Quartermaster Corps to the Corps of Engineers. The shift was implemented piecemeal. After the Destroyers for Bases Agreement of September 1940, the chief of staff, General George Marshall, assigned the Corps the job of constructing air bases in the string of British Atlantic territories from Newfoundland to British Guiana, thereby initiating a program of overseas base construction by the Corps of Engineers that long remained one of its most important functions.
In November 1940, Marshall ordered the transfer to the Corps of Engineers of all air base construction in the United States, excluding the Canal Zone. Finally, in December 1941, Congress transferred to the Corps the responsibility for real estate acquisition, construction, and maintenance for Army facilities, including training camps, government-owned munitions plants, air bases, depots, and hospitals.
Domestic base construction peaked in 1942, as the nation geared for war. U.S. military construction expenditures in July of that year alone exceeded those spent during the entire period of 1920 1938. By the end of 1942, the Army could house 4.37 million soldiers and provide hospital beds for 180,000 more. It had built 149 munitions and aircraft manufacturing plants and constructed depots with 205 million square feet of storage space. Domestic military construction has remained an important function of the Corps of Engineers since 1942, but never again did it reach the level of that year.
During World War II, Army engineers placed floating and later fixed bridges across the rivers of Italy, France, and Germany, supporting hotly contested crossings of the Rapido, Roer, and Rhine rivers. Engineer troops prepared and developed beaches for assault landings, both in Europe and the Pacific. On the beaches of Normandy, engineer troops, operating under heavy enemy fire, cleared lanes for landing craft by destroying the mine-bearing steel structures that the Germans had implanted in the intertidal zone and bulldozed roads up the narrow draws through the cliffs lining the beaches. During the Battle of the Bulge, quick engineer actions destroyed critical bridges in the path of advancing German forces, slowing and diverting them while Allied forces regrouped. The engineers also opened road connections traversing the long wilderness reaches between the southern Canadian road net and interior Alaska and between British-ruled Assam Province in India and Yunnan Province in southwestern China.
Outstanding Army engineer support continued in the Korean War. Army engineers destroyed bridges over the Naktong River and built fortifications that helped American and South Korean forces hold the Pusan perimeter in the southeastern corner of the peninsula while General Douglas MacArthur prepared his assault landing at Inchon near Seoul. When Chinese forces entered the war and forced the Americans to retreat, the engineers built lateral roads behind new defensive lines that permitted the rapid movement of forces and equipment to areas subject to heaviest attack. This helped American commanders stabilize the front.
In Vietnam the engineers helped provide access to enemy strongholds in support of concerted U.S. search and destroy missions. To assist in these efforts and to reduce enemy attacks on military convoys, the engineers introduced the Rome plow, a military tractor equipped with a protective cab and a special tree-cutting blade. Engineer troops also constructed 900 miles of modern, paved highways connecting the major population centers of the Republic of Vietnam and monitored the construction by private American contractors of an additional 550 miles of Vietnamese highways.
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