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Naval History and Heritage Command

U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

CAPT Wilfred L. Painter, CEC, USNR: A Civil Engineer Corps adventurer in World War II

<p>Portrait of William Painter</p>
Captain Wilfred Painter, CEC, USN

CAPT Wilfred L. Painter was perhaps one of the most dramatic and flamboyant individuals to ever hold a commission in the CEC.

Wilfred Painter was born on 26 May 1908 in Dryad, Washington, the son of Lewis W. Painter and Clemmar B. Choate Painter. After completing primary and secondary education, he attended the University of Washington and received a degree in civil engineering in 1926.

During the summers, while attending the university, and later during 1926 and 1927, Painter worked in lumber camps and gained experience in locating and building logging railroads, and in pile driving and rigging. Painter enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in July 1928 and was assigned to flight training. He was, however, relieved from active duty on 24 September 1928 after failing primary flight training.

In 1929 the Texas Company (China), Ltd., of Shanghai hired Painter as designing engineer for a group of new oil installations and supporting facilities in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dairen, Tientsin and Hangkow, China. Approximately $10 million was spent on building these facilities, which included wharves, oil tanks, factory facilities, and power plants. Painter was the chief draftsman and designer in charge of all plans and specifications for these facilities. The majority of the installations were located in the countryside at considerable distances from existing utilities.

This necessitated the construction of water filtration and purification plants or the digging of deep wells to supply potable water. This type of construction experience would prove useful to Painter during World War II when construction in inhospitable locations was the norm.

In 1933 Painter resigned from the Texas Company and formed his own firm, W. L. Painter Company, Engineers and Contractors, headquartered in Shanghai. During the following two and a half years, Painter designed a number of installations for Chinese interests using Soviet products, which were similar to those built for the Texas Company. These facilities included fifteen steel tank lighters. He also designed and was awarded the construction contract for the largest graving dock hitherto built in China.

The dock was built for the Chinese government at the Kian-nan docks in Shanghai at a cost of more than $1 million. It was designed to accommodate American Mail Line boats running into Shanghai and was 80 feet wide, 640 feet long and 30 feet deep. The dock was a unique construction which utilized a permanent double wall of steel sheet piling and was equipped with two 36-inch diameter propeller pumps. The dock was built under very adverse conditions, as the ground in this vicinity had been formed by mud brought down the Whangpoo River.

In addition to the dock, Painter designed and constructed a 10,000-gallon per day alcohol distillery which utilized molasses imported from Java. Painter's company also designed a large paper board mill in Shanghai. Finally, he designed and supervised construction of hangars and seaplane ramps for the China National Aviation Company (a Pan American subsidiary) at Lungwha, China; and designed numerous other facilities and buildings in the Far East. It was as a result of these projects that Painter established himself as the foremost American construction engineer in China at the time.

In 1935 Painter entered a partnership with John Graham, one of the best known architects in   the U.S., and formed the company of Graham and Painter, Architects and Engineers, with offices in New York, Seattle, and Shanghai. Because of the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese political situation was such that the firm was finally compelled to close its Shanghai office. Painter had arrived in China in August 1929 and remained there until October 1937. In addition to his professional commitments, Painter served with the Shanghai Volunteer Corps (SVC} from 1930 to 1937 and was a member of the American Cavalry Troop of the SVC, first as a private then as a Lieutenant in 1937. While a member of the SVC, Painter participated in the defense of the International Settlement in 1932 and again in 1937.

Painter made the firm's Seattle office his new headquarters. In 1938 Painter's firm undertook design and construction of one of the largest rental projects built under the Federal Housing Administration. Located in Seattle, the project involved construction of more than 1,000 rooms. While working at the Seattle office, Painter attended the University of Washington on a part- time basis to study soil mechanics and concrete structures. Painter was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and was President of the Seattle Chapter of the State of Washington Licensed Engineers.

On 30 July 1938 Painter was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve.  He served with the 2nd Marine Division Fleet Marine Forces, Marine Corps Base, San Diego, California, from June 1940 until February 1941. On 3 February 1941 Painter resigned his Marine Corps commission and accepted a commission in the CEC Reserve with the rank of lieutenant. LT Painter, CEC, USNR, reported to the Naval Base, Long Beach, California. He served in California until 16 December when he reported to the Commander, Service Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, at Pearl Harbor, to assist in salvaging naval vessels sunk during the Japanese attack.

LT Painter was made officer in charge of raising the battleships USS CALIFORNIA and USS WEST VIRGINIA. It took him only 45 days to raise the first ship which was placed in dry dock in April 1942; and an additional 30 days to raise the second ship which entered dry dock in May.

Homer Wallin in Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal says that “In the Salvage Division, by far the hardest worker and the one who set the pace for all others was Lieutenant Wilfred L. Painter....Lieutenant Painter was everywhere and spread enthusiasm and initiative.” For his efforts, LT Painter received a Letter of Commendation, with authorization to wear the Commendation Ribbon, from the Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet. LT Painter is reputed to have hardly left the work-site during the whole 75 day period, working day and night to get the job done. When there were delays, he personally took over and by his own example and his somewhat forceful way of expressing himself overcame the problem.

Shortly after raising the USS WEST VIRGINIA, LT Painter was transferred on temporary duty to the Commander, South Pacific, first under VADM (later ADM} Robert L. Ghormley, USN, and then under VADM (later FADM} William F. Halsey, USN. Painter remained in that assignment from July 1942, when he was promoted to lieutenant commander, to January 1943. At that time, a proposal was made to establish a branch office of the Pacific Division of the Bureau of Yards and Docks in Noumea, New Caledonia, with Painter in charge.

The Commander in Chief, Pacific, however, disapproved the proposal and Painter was sent to the Commander, Air, South Pacific, for duty with the Commander, Naval Bases, South Pacific. From this time until May 1944, Painter had overall responsibility for airfield reconnaissance and airfield construction in the South Pacific Area. He personally carried out many reconnaissances on enemy-held islands, especially for siting airfields during the Munda drive. He practically sited and laid out all the airfields in the South Pacific Area, including those on Guadalcanal,  Russell Island, New Georgia, Vela Lavella, Bougainville, the Green Islands, and Emiru. The Seabees subsequently built between 60 and 100 airfields at locations scouted by Painter.

The reconnaissance followed a prescribed routine. Acting on secret, verbal orders, LCDR Painter and a few companions would land in a rubber boat from a submarine on an enemy-held island. After identifying suitable landing sites, they would make their way inland marking out airfield locations and identifying water supplies and other useful features. Sometimes they met coast watchers -- planters who hid in the jungle among the natives and provided valuable intelligence via shortwave radio on Japanese troop dispositions. The Japanese never discovered any of Painter's survey parties, even on islands where they had long been in occupation and had the natives thoroughly cowed.

Painter, who was promoted to commander in February 1943, particularly distinguished himself during Operation TOENAILS, the capture of New Georgia, Munda, and Rendova. Part of the invasion plan called for a "quickie" airfield to be built during the initial phase of the attack on New Georgia so that air support could later be maximized against Munda. Following a preliminary reconnaissance, Painter identified a coconut plantation near Segi Point as the ideal site for the airfield. When the necessity for speed was emphasized, after he had submitted his report to the Commander, Air, South Pacific, Painter said that, “A survey party could sneak in  ten days early and mark the grades. Then the bulldozers could fling dirt as soon as they came off the boats.” Painter estimated 30 days to build the airfield, although he maintained that "any damn fool could do it in fifteen. If he's good, like me, he should have the field operating ten days after the bulldozers go ashore. His boss immediately assigned the job to Painter and gave him fifteen days to build the field, but added that he had better have it operational in ten if he did not want to be considered any damn fool."

On 21 June 1943 two companies of the 4th Marine Raider Battalion landed at Segi and drove the enemy back from the plantation. Painter and his survey party went ashore with the 103rd Infantry the following day and during the next ten days laid out the whole air station. On 30 June 17 officers and 477 men of the 47th Seabee Battalion arrived and construction began on the airfield. The men worked 24 hours a day, despite nightly air attacks, and much to Painter's relief got the airfield operational within 10 days. Supported by fighters from the new air field, U.S. forces took Munda on 5 August and on 15 August Seabees went ashore on Vella Lavella and began building a new airfield on another site selected by Painter. For his actions during this period, Painter was awarded the Legion of Merit with Combat “V” and a Gold Star in lieu of a second Legion of Merit with Combat v."

Perhaps Painter's most daring enterprise was the “Painter Expedition” to China which took place from July to October 1944. In early 1944 the allies were planning a landing on the Chinese     coast as a springboard for a later attack on the Japanese homeland. For this landing to succeed, detailed intelligence about the occupied coastal region was needed. Painter was selected to lead the survey party because of his reconnaissance exploits in the South Pacific and his knowledge of China, gained during his eight year residence there. In May Painter was ordered to the Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington, DC, to prepare for the mission. He was also promoted to captain at this time which, at 35, made him the youngest captain in the Navy. After sifting through available intelligence information in Washington, he arrived in China in June, gathered men and equipment from the local U.S. commander, and with a fellow Civil Engineer Corps officer, CAPT Charles M. Noble, set off in a C-47 for the survey area. This was a mountainous region (elevations to 6,000 feet) approximately 200 miles wide by 500 miles long extending from the Ningpo Peninsula to Arney Island. The survey party was to make an engineering appraisal of potential landing sites, harbors, inland waterways, roads, railway facilities, and airfield sites; determine the availability of building materials; and formulate a cost estimate for equipment, manpower, and materials needed to support a major military operation in the region. The party was also to gather information on existing food supplies, climatic conditions, indigenous diseases, the disposition and effectiveness of enemy forces, and the availability and effectiveness of local labor. Finally, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek requested that the party also locate and evaluate the Nationalist Chinese military forces in the area.

CAPT Painter divided the survey party into subgroups and assigned a portion of the survey area to each. One of the first accomplishments of the survey party was the erection of an automatic radio recording weather station to provide the U.S. Fleet with information on eastward moving weather systems. After the survey got underway, radio communications between the subgroups failed and communications could only be sporadically maintained by runners. To complicate matters, the Japanese initiated a major offensive to eliminate Chinese resistance by gaining control of the Hankow-Canton Railway, reinforcing the coastal areas, and capturing the airfields from which the U.S. Army Air Force was attacking Japanese military forces in the China Sea. By August the Japanese had gained control of the railway and turned west to attack the airfields.

CAPT Painter and his subgroup barely escaped the Japanese on the Ningpo Peninsula by marching 60 miles in 21 hours and slipping through Wenchow while Japanese marines were landing on the waterfront and Japanese soldiers were entering the western suburbs. Following the narrow escape from Wenchow, Painter sent the rest of his group to Chien-yang, with the information thus far gathered, while he headed south via foot and sampan with one Chinese companion to the region of Amoy Island where the Japanese had a major base. CAPT Painter again joined the survey party on 11 October 1944 and all personnel were shortly thereafter flown out of the area. In Chungking, a report consisting of documentation and photographs was prepared which weighed 480 pounds. Thus, the daring Painter Expedition reached a successful conclusion. The expedition earned Painter a third Gold Star for his Legion of Merit with Combat “V.”

In October 1944, CAPT Painter returned to Washington with the Painter Expedition report and was subsequently reassigned to the Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Area, at Pearl Harbor, as Special Reconnaissance Officer with the Commander, Service Force, Pacific. He assisted in making plans for the Okinawa and Leyte operations and was sent to Leyte to study developments there and at Samar. He subsequently returned to Washington, DC, with a report and recommendations for Navy installations on Leyte and Samar and was awarded a fourth Gold Star for the Legion of Merit with Combat “V.”

In the spring of 1945 CAPT Painter headed the Painter Board which set construction limits for Army, Navy, and Marine Corps installations in the Marianas. He then left for China in July to serve as staff advisor to the Commanding General, U.S. Forces, China. He served in this position until October and was awarded the Army Bronze Star Medal as well as another Legion of Merit for his services there. On 5 November CAPT Painter was ordered to the Naval Personnel Separation Center in Washington, DC. The war was over and his Naval service was coming to an end. After four months leave, he was detached from active duty, effective 8 March 1945. Thus, ended the colorful military career of CAPT Wilfred L. Painter.

Painter's adventures, however, did not end with his Navy career. He went to work for the Pacific Bridge Company in San Francisco, returning briefly to Shanghai for that company. He next joined the firm of Starr-Parke & Freeman in New York City as head of the Construction Department. He subsequently was employed by the firm of Guy F. Atkinson in San Francisco. In early 1946, in Shanghai, Painter married Galla Feiderinchika, the daughter of a Russian emigre, Baron Feine Feiderinchik. CAPT and Mrs. Painter subsequently had two sons, William and Douglas.

After joining the Atkinson firm, Painter went to Athens, Greece, as project manager for a $64 million USA Engineer War Department construction contract, undertaken jointly by Atkinson and Johnson-Drake & Piper of Minneapolis for the reconstruction of highways and railroads in Greece.

In April 1948, VADM William L. Calhoun, USN, one of CAPT Painter's former bosses, recommended that he be promoted to commodore in the Naval Reserve, stating that in 1945 Painter had been selected to command a Naval Construction Brigade with a promotion to commodore; however, at the personal request of the Commander in Chief, Pacific, CAPT Painter had been retained on his staff. No action was taken on the recommendation and Painter's life was have its last dramatic act approximately a year later.

While on a visit to Washington, DC, on Sunday, 10 July 1949, CAPT Painter was among the guests at a luncheon party which was to be held aboard the yacht, Halcyon. However, during refueling at the yacht club, there was an explosion aboard the vessel which killed CAPT Painter and another guest, Major General Vernon E. Prichard, USA. Thus, while emerging without a scratch from numerous harrowing escapades during the war, Wilfred Painter was killed in an accident prior to a luncheon on the Potomac.

Published: Fri Jan 31 13:57:56 EST 2020