Lt. Eldon Mengel built the phone line to ‘Burma Road’

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 Eldon Mengel of Venice, Fla. was about a week away from becoming a “90-Day Wonder.” The 89-year-old local man joined the Army almost a year earlier because he had a low draft number and he knew he would be called once war broke out.

Furthermore he wanted to join the Signal Corps. Since high school he had studied electronics through a mail-order study course.There was little likelihood a young man from Baker, Mont. without sufficient funds would be attending college any time soon.

His first year in the Army was spent primarily learning about communications and telephone transmission through coaxial cables. By early 1942, Mengel and the men of the 311th Signal Aviation Company shipped out to the China, Burma, India Theater of Operation. It was a long, long trip on slow-moving liberty ships in a convoy that went from San Francisco across the Pacific to Tasmania. from there, his unit sailed on to Ceylon and finally to Calcutta, India.

By the time Mengel arrived in Ledo, Assam, India where the “Stillwell Road” began, it was just getting started. Eventually the road would tie into the old “Burma Road,” built by the Chinese in the 1930s at the beginning of the Second World War, hundreds of miles further east.

The newly-minted 2nd lieutenant was put in charge of a construction crew whose job it was to string coaxial phone lines beside the dirt and gravel road being built through the jungles and mountains and eventually connect India, an English colony, with southern China more than 1,000 miles away.

Since 15,000 mostly black troops from the American 45th, 823rd Engineering Battalions did much of the road building. The primary purpose for the road was to supply Chinese troops fighting the Japanese in China. The only other possibility was to fly supplies over “The Hump,” the Himalayan Mountains, in all kinds of weather with C-47 transport planes or other cargo planes.

Menzel was in charge of an Indian work crew of some 800 men at times who made telephone poles from trees cut down in the jungle. He also oversaw the stringing of coaxial cable about the size of a person’s index finger that provided telephone communication along the way.

“In the winter of 1944 I was taking a train east of Mongong, Burma when we came around a bend and heard the Chinese troops calling out ‘Japanese! Japanese!’ I saw two Japanese soldiers trying to escape from Myitkyina by running along the railroad tracks.

“I was riding with the engineers and pulled my .45 pistol out and shot them both. I saw a third Japanese down by the river so I jumped off the train, ran right at him shooting as I came, but missed. About that time, a British officer got off the train and offered me his Browning Automatic Rifle.

“This time I tried again with his BAR and got him. The British officer took the dead Japanese soldier’s weapon as a souvenir. I took a medal out of his pocket that read: ‘In honor of faithful service to the Mayor of Mongong.’

A short time later, while stringing phone lines along the road that by then had reached the Myitkyina area where the Japanese had a big air base he learned about a downed Japanese Zero fighter plane. This was the base Merrill’s Marauders captured after trekking through the jungle for weeks.

“The Zero got in a fight with one of our P-40s or P-38s and lost. I took a Jeep and went looking for the airplane after I borrowed a hacksaw from the motor pool,” Mengel said. Fifteen minutes later, I located the plane, nose down in the jungle without a pilot.

“I cut a hunk of propeller off the plane for a souvenir. I took it back to camp, put in my duffle bag and brought it home with me. I’ve still got it,” Mengel said.

Two years after he and his unit started, they had installed thousands of telephone poles, strung hundred of miles of phone cable and worked their way through the jungle, over mountains into Burma and from there further east into southern China. They tied the “Stillwell Road” into the “Burma Road at Wanning, China.

”About 120 miles southeast of Kunming, China we quit. The war was over and that was that,” Monel said.

It would take him three months to reach home by way of India, the Mediterranean and a slow boat that sailed through the eye of a hurricane before reaching New York Harbor sometime around Thanksgiving 1945.

1st Lt. Eldon Mengel of Baker, Mont., was home again. He was ready to begin the rest of his life.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, July 21, 2005 and is republished with permission.

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Mengel, Eldon R.
April 3, 1916 – June 29, 2008

Eldon R. Mengel, 92, Venice, formerly of Baker, Mont., died June 29, 2008.

Services will begin at 11 a.m. July 9 at Calvary Bible Church in Venice. Burial will be at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. Ewing Funeral Home in Venice is in charge of arrangements.

Survivors include his wife, Frances; children Irene Tolen of Portland, Ore., Ray of Glendive, Mont., and JoAn Bjako of Fort Collins, Colo.; two grandchildren; sisters Ione Sinclair and Betty Frank, both of Coos Bay, Ore., and Gretchen Cyr of Seattle; and a brother, Lester of Montana.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Calvary Bible Church, 2936 Venice Ave. E., Venice, FL 34292; or TideWell Hospice and Palliative Care, 5955 Rand Blvd., Sarasota, FL 34238.

Published in Herald Tribune on July 2, 2008

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