New Caledonia knows generally how much it owes to the American presence during the Second World War. The allied troops made a large contribution to the development of the territory's infrastructures. The Plaine des Gaïacs military aerodrome at Pouembout is a notable example of this.
Located in the municipality of Pouembout, to the south of Koné, on the west coast, the Plaine des Gaïacs is highly symbolic of the enormous construction effort undertaken locally by American troops during the last world war.
Right from the time that the United States entered the conflict, New Caledonia, which remained faithful to the Free French of General de Gaulle, took on strategic importance. Its geographic location made Grande Terre a natural rear base in the war in the Pacific. Between 1942 and 1946, more than one million GIs passed through New Caledonia, which became a kind of giant aircraft carrier!
Two runways to accommodate the American air force
In Pouembout, the work of development of the Plaine des Gaïacs started at the end of 1941. Two runways were planned: one of 1,400 meters parallel with the shore, and another oriented north-east, measuring 1,200 meters, that cut across the first at its southern extremity. Started by the French (with more than 400 men working on the project), the works took on a new dimension as from April 1942. At that date, General Patch, Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Corps in New Caledonia, assigned 720 men from the 810ème Bataillon du Génie de l'Aviation [810th Engineering Battalion of the Air Force] to the construction of the aerodrome. Once enlarged and consolidated, the runways were then coated with compacted iron chrome and reinforced with metal grilles at the ends. The two runways were then metaled during 1943, to make takeoffs and landings easier and safer.
An American memorial in homage to the US presence
The first aircraft deployed to defend the isle landed on May 17, 1942. The aerodrome could take up to 40 bombers and 75 fighters simultaneously, but lost its strategic importance at the end of 1943. The theater of operations moved north, as the allied forces advanced, and the aerodrome was closed at the end of the war when it fell into disuse. The Plaine des Gaïacs then returned to its peace of the past.
However, as a homage to the American presence, a memorial was built immediately after the fighting finished, on the edge of the aerodrome and the original dry forest. The homage is more than symbolic, because the long stay of the allied military forces brought New Caledonia into a new era.