SEAGOING BREATH-INFLATED
BOATS AND PNEUMATIC RAFTS

A JUNGLE PLATOON TAKES TO SEA

During the grim days after Japanese forces had seized parts of New Guinea and had begun preparations to invade Australia, the first Jungle Platoon of the 158th Infantry Regiment was shipped out of Panama. Its 62 infantrymen were the only troops aboard a small freighter, a solitary, unes-corted ship bound for Australia. They were picked Arizona National Guardsmen who had received three months of jungle training in Panama but had been issued none of the new jungle warfare items except machetes, small meteorological balloons to use for flotation bladders, halazone water-disinfecting tablets, ď612Ē insect repellent, and Atabrine anti-malarial tablets. The most memorable man in the platoon was its first sergeant, George C. Ferguson, a 6-ft.-4-in. all-around athlete, a rising professional boxer in civilian life, an expert knife fighter in the Army, and a born leader. See Fig. 3-1.

His boyhood in Texas and Arizona, and his inheritance prepared him for a strenuous, dangerous life: his father was a Texas Ranger and his maternal grandmother a Comanche.


Fig. 3-1. George C. Ferguson, Command Sergeant Major of all U.S. Army troops in the Continental United States, receiving the first production model of the M-14 from Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker on Oct. 8, 1959. Fergusonís decorations include 12 Purple Hearts.

Before the freighter reached Brisbane Lieutenant Houvir, the platoon leader, became seriously sick and was hospitalized on landing. Sergeant Ferguson was given command of the Jungle Platoon and proved so able that no commissioned officer replaced him for the 23 months before a Japanese soldier knifed him almost fatally and he was hospitalized back to the States.

George Ferguson told me in 1992 that he assumed that a U.S. Admiral had requested a jungle-trained platoon be shipped to Australia to perform missions such as Navy SEALS later were trained to carry out. In Brisbane Fergusonís platoon, the first American ground force to reach Australia, was tasked to the 7th Australian Army then fighting in the Buna area to contain the Japanese invasion of New Guinea. Ferguson and his men were the first American soldiers to reach that pest-ridden island.

Most of George Fergusonís platoonís later missions, reconnaissances of some 40 Japanese-held islands, were ordered by Admiral Nimitzís and General McArthurís staffs. Teams of three, five, or seven men typically were delivered and extracted by submarine. Teams usually went ashore paddling small rubber boats or rafts, or pushing them while swimming. Many of their 1- to 10-day missions were up to hundreds of miles ahead of the American ground forces that reconquered Pacific islands after making landings extending from New Guinea to the Philippines and beyond.

The few accounts that I had heard or read of George Fergusonís and his menís exploits were impressive but lacked descriptions of the equipment they had used or wished they had had. That information is needed if present and future generations of SEALs, Rangers, and other American seagoing specialists are to benefit from the costly lessons learned by their war-winning predecessors. So in 1988 I went to talk with Ferguson in Yuma, Arizona, his home town. There he gave me useful information previously unreported.

Ferguson explained that his teamsí missions on Japanese-held islands almost always were reconnaissance: enemy strength and capabilities, defensive positions, beaches, coral reefs, tides, hills, caves, vegetation, etc. They typically avoided contact with the enemy, but were well prepared to fight when necessary.

The only boats initially provided for Fergusonís infantry platoon were those on the freighter that transported it from Panama to Australia: eight or ten doughnut-shaped rubber life rafts, each capable of carrying two men and their equipment. He told me that those pneumatic life rafts, like the Navy 5-man boats and all of the other rubber boats they later used, were much too heavy to carry with them on missions ashore. Also, pumping them up and deflating them required too much time. Deflating a boat with valves that had to be held open while air was being squeezed out, or that greatly restricted airflow after being opened, caused anxious delays before even a small pneumatic raft or boat could be gotten through a submarineís hatch. (A breath-inflated, multi-bladdered boat like those used by General Stilwellís infantrymen in Burma can be deflated in about a minute merely by jerking open all the snap-straps that close its rubber-tube valves, and then rolling it up. Rapid deflation is more important than quick inflation for seagoing pneumatic boats and rafts used to land men on a hostile shore, then be hidden, and later used to get away to be extracted by submarine.)

Japanese troops guarding one of the islands that Ferguson reconnoitered found his buried deflated rubber boat and cut it up. This forced him and his men to swim out to their night rendezvous with a submarine. To help themselves swim they partially inflated and put under their shirts small meteorological balloons, which they carried at all times. (Had they been equipped with bulky, heavy life jackets like those currently worn by SEALS when practicing landings on hostile shores, Fergusonís team probably would have lost their buried life jackets along with their buried boat.)

ďRendezvous was always on our minds,Ē George Ferguson emphasized. A team had to reach the submarine at an agreed hour on any one of three different days. If the third rendezvous failed, the team was abandoned. Several of the 62 men who had been in his platoon when it shipped out of Panama were lost without a trace in this way. Ferguson and his men knew that oriental torture followed by sure death would be the fate of any of them captured by the Japanese. So members of some missions on enemy-held islands made compacts among themselves that if one of them were too badly wounded to be carried and floated out to rendezvous with a submarine, his buddies would cut his throat. A shot would be too noisy, likely to alert Japanese defenders.

Incidentally, in 1995 remarkably able, tough, and lucky George Ferguson was the sole survivor of his close-knit band of patriots. He had been on 16 sorties (the Navyís term for missions) by submarine, and several by PT boat. On one by submarine, a storm caused him and his team to miss the third and last rendezvous. Abandoned, they stole a boat and made it back by night stages, reconnoitering several additional islands on the way.

Fergusonís most important exploit was the destruction of the large Japanese relay station on San Cristobal Island. With three of his men he reconnoitered that strategically important communication center shortly before our Marines invaded nearby Guadal-canal. His report convinced his superiors that the San Cristobal installation was even larger than they had believed and should be destroyed. They ordered him to blow it up.

About three days later the submarine Trout took Ferguson and six of his experienced men to San Cristobal. That night, before leaving the submarine while still well offshore, they inflated their five small rubber rafts and loaded them with their weapons, other gear, and 300 pounds of TNT made up into pre-set waterproofed charges. They tied their boats together with 6- to 8-ft. lengths of rope to keep them from becoming separated in the dark, and tied them in a circle when near the breaker line. From prior experiences they had learned this was the best way to keep several loaded boats together while they were being swept by surf toward or onto a beach. (See Fig. 3-2.)


Fig. 3-2. Typical life rafts used as boats by George C. Fergusonís seagoing infantry teams for reconnoitering and raiding Japanese-held islands. Ferguson mailed this sketch to me in 1989. On both rafts note the two rubber eyelets, useful when tying rafts together.