Before and during WWII, logistics and flexibility of options to deal with men and equipment guided technology. With the expanded use of air power, addressing the logistical needs of aircraft became imperative.
“The most recent information from operations now in progress abroad indicates that permanent runways are out of the question in modern warfare (causing) the development of landing and take-off mats to assume the highest possible priority.” (Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps)
Runways for bombers based in rear areas could be built like standard highways. These plans for simple construction were almost obsolete as soon as made, for the Air Corps was even then designing heavier planes which called for runways of greater bearing capacity.
Constructing runways at the front and more elaborate ones farther back, as the planes being contemplated in 1939 dictated, would take a long time—long enough to interfere seriously with the striking power of the air arm.
The Air Corps expressed immediate interest in news that the British and French were laying down portable steel mats as a substitute for hard-surfaced runways.
In December 1939, the Air Corps asked the Engineers to develop a similar landing mat. Since practically nothing was known about the subject, the two services agreed that the Engineers would attempt to get more information from abroad, would canvass the American market for likely materials, and, after conducting field tests with loaded trucks, choose the most promising types for service tests with planes.
The military command noted, “The requirements may be divided into two separate categories: First, pursuit and observation, ie, light weight types; Second, bombardment, ie, heavy load types.” It seemed possible that “if no delays are incurred and if this project is pushed that some concrete decision can be arrived at by the first of the Fiscal Year 1941.”
A pierced steel plank was developed at Waterways Experiment Station, an Army Corps of Engineers research facility in Mississippi. The 21st Engineers, under the command of Col Dwight Frederick Johns, was assigned the task of investigating techniques for the rapid construction of air bases.
In November 1941, the first major aerial operation experiments took place at Marston, North Carolina. The 21st Engineering Regiment (Aviation) constructed a 3,000-foot runway on virgin ground for use by the 1st Air Support Command. The job took 11-days and used 18-railroad carloads of a new product known as pierced steel planking. (Gabel)
It met expectations; and early in February 1942, the Engineers and Aviation groups agreed on a minimum of 15,000,000 square feet of mats. Thereafter demands increased rapidly.
By midsummer, the total required production of pierced plank mat was at 180,000,000 square feet—an amount that would consume from 70,000 to 100,000 tons of steel per month (about one third of the nation’s sheet capacity.)
While the Corps called it ”pierced (or perforated) steel planks (PSP,)” it adopted a name associated where it was initially tested – Marston Mats (named for the North Carolina City.)
The standardized, perforated steel matting was pierced with 87 holes to allow drainage; it was 10-feet long by 15-inches wide and weighed 66-pounds; a later aluminum version came in at 32 pounds.
The mats were often laid over the local vegetation, which varied depending on the location from loose straw to palm fronds. The sandwich of steel and vegetation absorbed moisture and cut the dust kicked up by heavy aircraft.
While the first planked airstrip took 11-days to install, by the end of World War II an airfield could be carried across the Pacific within a single cargo hold of a Liberty ship, and could be ready for aircraft to land 72 hours after unloading. (AirSpaceMag)
During raids, sometimes the mats were hit/damaged. The Seabees constructed “repair stations” along the runway, each with foxholes for the repair crews and packages of 1600 square feet of Marston mat, the amount that experience showed was necessary to repair the damage from a 500-pound bomb.
Trucks were preloaded with sand and gravel and concealed around the runway. Following a hit on the runway, the repair crews would clear away the damaged Marston mat as the trucks were brought out to dump their loads in the crater.
100 Seabees could repair the damage of a 500-pound bomb hit on an airstrip in forty minutes. In other words, forty minutes after that bomb exploded, you couldn’t tell that the airstrip had ever been hit. (Budge)
At first the US had Marston Mats to itself, but eventually the invention was shared with its Allies, including Russia under the Lend-Lease program.
Two-million tons of temporary runway were produced in WWII to bring American airfields to each island captured from the Japanese. Marston Mats have been used in every war since. (AirSpaceMag)
The pierced plank mat continued to be the type requested by theater commanders. The Engineers admitted that the pierced plank mat “turned in a creditable performance through-out the world.” (The Corps of Engineers)
Among other places, Marston Mats formed the 6,000-foot temporary runway at Morse Field – South Point, Hawaiʻi. Likewise, the Kualoa Airfield at Kāneʻohe Bay had a Marston Mat ramp. Kahuku Army Air Base started as a Marston Mat runway that was later paved.
In the later ‘reuse’ category, my mother found that aluminum Marston mats made great benches and re-potting surfaces for her orchids.
The image shows pierced steel planks (PSP) (Marston Mats) at Kualoa Airfield on Kāneʻohe Bay in the 1940. . In addition, I have added some other images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.