His bold and gallant action in the face of overwhelming odds enabled his teammates to escape without loss; he was awarded posthumously the Medal of Honor.
Despite his small size, his physical problems, and his thick glasses, Rodger managed to hide just how serious were his hearing and sight problems. He was a good soldier, training hard and with the same big heart that had always enabled him to achieve beyond what others might have expected, given his stature and appearance. In 1942 the 37th Infantry Division (Ohio National Guard) was sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi to train for combat. Rodger and Webster went together, the older brother now married and renting an apartment near the post for his young wife.
As a young National Guard private, Rodger Young pushed himself to achieve in such manner that his determination and enthusiasm could be seen by all. At Camp Shelby, that same drive pushed him to new levels, earning him the respect of all officers, NCOs, and the other enlisted men. One of the proudest moments in the life of Rodger Young was the day his dedication was recognized with a promotion. Three chevrons were pinned to the sleeves of Rodger Young's uniform, and the kid who was one of the most unlikely of soldiers, was now a sergeant in the United States Army. Excitedly, he wrote home to share the wonderful news with his parents.
Rodger also developed a new hobby - photography. He loved taking pictures, his favorite subjects: "Pretty girls, scenery, buddies and family." Weekends, he could be found still in uniform, leisurely and contentedly relaxing on the swing suspended from the porch of Webster's apartment. And there, the camera caught up with him, providing for those who would remember the smiling little guy with the big glasses, a most memorable portrait of the Army's proudest sergeants.
While Rodger and Webster Young were training at Camp Shelby, the United States Marines launched the first major offensive in the Pacific at a small island named Guadalcanal. On the night of August 6, 1942 the men of the 1st Marine Division began arriving on the island that was pivotal to the Japanese control over the Solomon Islands. General Alexander Vandergrift and his untested Marines landed almost unopposed, only to find themselves in a 6-month battle for their lives. From August until October, heroism abounded, generating such legendary heroes as Manila John Basilone, Mitchell Paige, Joe Foss, Douglas Munro, Merritt Edson, and even the intrepid Marine commander himself. During the period the Marines fought bitterly, endured much, and suffered incredible losses. Their valiant effort gained a small foot-hold on the island however, and on Veterans Day 1942 the Army's 182d Infantry Regiment began landing to bring some relief to Vandergrift's Marines. The following night the Japanese responded in a naval battle in The Slot just beyond Guadalcanal that left several American warships burning or sinking. On the morning of November 13th, the USS Juneau was sunk by an enemy torpedo as the American vessel limped away from the scene of the previous nights engagement. Going down with the USS Juneau were the five Sullivan Brothers from a small town in Iowa, along with 7 other sets of brothers. None of the young sailors survived.
By February 1943, after heavy losses and continued bitter fighting, the American forces finally gained control of Guadalcanal. A few months later the 37th Infantry Division departed San Francisco for Guadalcanal, the fresh troops being prepared to continue the effort to wrest control of the Solomon Islands from the Japanese. Among the young soldiers of the Ohio National Guard departing the shores of their homeland for combat in the Pacific, was a small-built, be-speckled young man named Staff Sergeant Rodger Young.
The SS President Coolidge transported these fresh troops, most of which were former Ohio National Guardsmen, first to Fiji. From there the 37th Infantry moved on to Guadalcanal, now firmly under American control and a training and staging area for planned assaults throughout the Solomons. Upon arrival on Guadalcanal, the soldiers began additional training to prepare themselves for war in the jungles. Staff Sergeant Young pushed his soldiers with great dedication, fully understanding that within weeks their survival in combat would be decided in large measure by their preparations for war. In those preparations Staff Sergeant Young developed the confidence in his soldiers that they could meet the enemy and defeat him...that they were at last ready for war. It was during this period that the young NCO from Ohio also began to realize that perhaps he was NOT!
From his earliest childhood, Rodger Young's heart had always been much larger than his body...his determination far stronger than any perceived weakness. Now, for the first time, Rodger Young realized that he had to come to grips with some of his own limitations. He had been proud of his accomplishments, his yellow sergeant stripes among his most cherished achievements. But preparing his soldiers for war brought a realization that he must make the most difficult decision of his life. He did, and in typical Rodger Young fashion.
It was late in June when Staff Sergeant Young went to see the 148th's Regimental Commander, drawing himself up to his full 5'2" height to render a salute, the chevrons of a Staff Sergeant prominent on his sleeves. Plans were underway for sending the 148th into combat on the nearby island of New Georgia to take and hold the vital Munda airstrip. The planning was intense, and the C.O. was at first rather preoccupied when the little guy with the thick glasses said: "Sir, I would like to request permission to be reduced to the rank of private."
It was an unusual statement from any NCO, and caught the commander rather unprepared. After a moment he looked at the young man before him and asked rather brusquely, "What is your reason for wanting to be busted, Sergeant?"
Sergeant Young steeled himself for what he knew he must do. He loved his stripes, his role as a leader and the fact that he had accomplished so much despite his size and his failing health. Choking back his emotions he blurted out, "Well, sir....you see...my ears are going bad. I can't hear very well any more and I don't want any of my men killed in New Georgia because of me."
It had been a tough decision, but he knew it was the right decision. He had forced himself to come here now, to face his commander, and admit to his own frailty. It was perhaps, the most difficult thing he had ever done in his life. Now he was stunned and angered when the commander replied rather curtly and with some distaste, "What's the matter Sergeant? Don't you want to fight?"
The response cut into him deeply...the decision he had struggled with for so long and finally forced himself to make, was being mis-interpreted as COWARDICE! His commander thought he was trying to fabricate medical problems to get himself shipped home and away from the looming combat action on New Georgia.
"Sir," Rodger Young replied resolutely, "I don't want to leave the outfit. I want to go on -- but as a PRIVATE, so I'm only responsible for myself. I don't want to get any of my men hurt because of me." He paused for a moment, looking the senior officer full in the eyes and continued, "If I thought I'd be left behind because of THIS, then I'd rather drop the whole thing."
That afternoon the company physician checked out Rodger's physical condition, and reported to the captain that indeed the little soldier with the sergeant's stripes was approaching deafness. The captain even tendered the brave young man an apology with the doctor's recommendation that he be sent to a field hospital. Sergeant Young emphatically refused to be sent away, and returned to his unit to join his friends. There was no way he would leave them now. They had been together far too long, most of them from his home state and some from his small hometown, such as his boyhood friend fellow NCO, Sergeant Walter Rigby.
Sergeant Rigby would retain his stripes in the coming action, but on the following morning Staff Sergeant Rodger Young was reduced to the rank of private. Ironically, he would serve under Sergeant Rigby in the coming action...one that would demand an even tougher, and far more costly decision, than his decision to give up his cherished chevrons. The Ohio National Guard was on its way to the island of New Georgia, just 200 miles from Henderson Field at Guadalcanal, to claim an airstrip of their own...
Operation Cartwheel was a plan hammered out in April 1943 by General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral William Halsey, a strategy to topple Japanese control of the South Pacific. Its' ultimate objective was the Japanese garrison at Rabaul. To smash the large enemy force there, MacArthur's troops would battle their way across the large island of New Guinea while Halsey's forces would continue a northwesterly advance across the Solomon chain.
Halsey's strategy was to begin an island hopping assault, moving northwest out of Guadalcanal across the islands of New Georgia, Kolombargara and on to Bougainville, which would put his forces within 200 miles of Rabaul. On June 30th he began landing the first of his ground forces, soldiers of the New England National Guard (43rd Infantry) on the island of New Georgia. For two weeks they slugged their way across mountainous jungle, enduring the tropical extremes in both climate and geography, all the while battling a fierce, well-entrenched, and often hidden enemy. The prize would be the Munda airstrip on the western coast of the island. If the American forces could take and hold the Munda airstrip, they would have an airfield 200 miles closer to their ultimate objectives than Henderson field at Guadalcanal.
The Japanese commander on New Georgia was Major General Nabor Sasaki, and he took every step available to defend his airfield. Fortifications were dug into the ground, reinforced with logs hewn from the jungle and carefully camouflaged to allow the advancing Americans to advance nearly upon the positions before his soldiers turned their machineguns loose. At night his seasoned Japanese soldiers would creep into American positions, killing quickly and silently, and waging a very effective battle on the psyche of the green young combat troops from the United States. It was an effective tactic that preserved his hold on the Munda airstrip, and demoralized the American soldiers.
Two weeks into the campaign, Admiral Halsey committed two more divisions to the island in efforts to shore up the faltering men of the 43rd Infantry and reinforce the battle for the Munda Airstrip. In addition to the 25th Infantry Division, the men of the 37th Infantry Division were landed at New Georgia. Private Rodger Young's 148th Regiment, young men of the Ohio National Guard, were about to receive their baptism of fire. Also landing with the 37th was the 145th Regiment.
By July 27th, the 37th Infantry had battled its way to the foot of Horseshoe Hill, a well fortified position overlooking the main inland approach to the airstrip. As machinegun fire and enemy mortars rained down on the American soldiers from the enemy positions above, casualties began to mount. Private First Class Frank Petrarca, a National Guardsman from Cleveland, Ohio could hear calls of "medic" all around him. His forward patrol had moved within 100 yards of the enemy position before the devastating enemy fire ripped heavily into them. Quickly the young medic did his best to treat the most seriously wounded. One of them was Private First Class Scott, his body so badly battered that he could not even be moved--despite the fact he was laying within 75 yards of the enemy position.
Heedless of the rain of mortars and machinegun bullets, PFC Petrarca did his best to treat PFC Scott and two other wounded Americans nearby. As mortar fire erupted closer to their tenuous position, Petrarca used his own body to shield the wounded Scott, remaining with him until he finally died of his wounds.
Frustration was high among the embattled young American soldiers, many suffering from battle fatigue. Morale was falling as heavily as the daily rains that soaked their uniforms and flooded their positions, and the Japanese continued to snipe at them from hidden positions during the day, and probe their encampments during the night. On July 29th First Lieutenant Robert Sheldon Scott of Santa Fe, NM was leading his platoon in the lead of a company assault on the enemy positions.
Advancing up a hill overlooking the airstrip, Scott's platoon moved within 75 yards of the hidden Japanese position, when the enemy counter-attacked. Swarming out of their bunkers and foxholes, throwing grenades and firing in volleys, the Japanese soldiers overwhelmed Lieutenant Scott's small platoon, forcing them to quickly pull back...all but the intrepid lieutenant.
Ducking behind the blasted remains of a tree stump, Lieutenant Scott stood his ground against the enemy assault. Firing his carbine and throwing grenades, alone he turned back the wave of enemy soldiers. In the brief lull that followed he replenished his supply of grenades, then continued to hide behind the meager shelter of his blasted out tree stump. From his vantage point, he had a good view of the enemy bunkers. He continued to fire on them until an enemy round struck his carbine. A shrapnel round opened the flesh on his head, but he refused to leave his position behind the stump. A wound to his left hand didn't inhibit him from continuing to throw grenades with his right, his accuracy destroying enemy bunkers and positions one after another. Watching from a distance, the rest of his company was amazed and inspired [at] the lieutenant's one-man stand and rushed forward, taking the hill. When they did, they found that the intrepid young officer had thrown nearly three dozen grenades, and a total of 28 Japanese bodies were counted in the bunkers he had destroyed.
His battle won, the wounded and weary officer finally rose from the shelter of his small stump to join his victorious company. It was amazing, not only what he had done, but how he had accomplished it from the small protection of a skinny tree stump, shattered in half only a few feet above ground. Lieutenant Robert Scott was no little guy, like Rodger Young, who would be well concealed behind a small tree stump. At 6'5" tall, Lieutenant Robert Scott was one of the tallest men to ever be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Advances and small victories such as the one achieved on Robert Scott's hill overlooking the airstrip continued the following day. Slowly the Americans were gaining ground and were now within 1,000 yards of their objective. On the last day of July, small platoons of American soldiers all around Munda continued to move forward. The desperate Japanese, determined to fight to the last man, furiously resisted every advance.
Only 20 yards from the Japanese lines, two soldiers of the old Ohio National Guard huddled in a muddy foxhole as the mortar fire rained around them. Suddenly one of them struck close enough for the shrapnel to reach their sheltered position. A short distance away, PFC Frank Petrarca heard the cries of the wounded.
Grabbing his aid bag, he prepared to go to their rescue. One of the soldiers in his platoon grabbed his arm and urged him to remain where he was. In order to reach the wounded, he would have to move over a barren hilltop, fully exposed to the enemy. From a distance of 20 yards, he would be an easy target. PFC Petrarca shook off his comrades warning. There were wounded Americans, and he was their medic. He had a job to do.
Amazingly, considering the hail of fire directed his way, the fearless medic managed to move within two yards of the wounded men when a mortar round fell at his feet. The words of his subsequent Medal of Honor citation state, "Even on the threshold of death, he continued to display valor and contempt for the foe; raising himself to his knees, this intrepid soldier shouted defiance at the enemy, made a last attempt to reach his wounded comrade and fell in glorious death." The date was July 31, 1943. It was PFC Frank Joseph Petrarca's 25th birthday.
It was nearing 4:00 in the afternoon when the lieutenant began withdrawing his platoon, hoping to return to the Company B bivouac area before darkness set in. As the patrol moved silently down the trail, high above them five Japanese soldiers monitored their movement from a well-concealed machinegun nest. The well placed enemy position gave the Japanese a commanding view of the trail, and they held their fire until the patrol was well into the open and only a short distance in front of the muzzle of their guns. Then they opened fire.
Two soldiers fell dead in the initial volley, as the remaining eighteen men dug frantically for cover. Above them the enemy soldiers held down the trigger of their machinegun, pouring unrelenting death on Sergeant Rigby and his men.
The lieutenant attempted a mass maneuver to remove his men from danger. It was an utter failure, and two more Americans fell to the deadly fire. All the sixteen survivors could do was press their bodies to the earth and pray. They were trapped from above, unable to move, and darkness would set in before long. "We didn't know how we were going to get out - we were surrounded by the Japanese," Private William Ridenour later recalled. "We were all in a semi-circle, and we lit up our ammunition. We had to burn it up. That's one of the lessons you learn, not to leave any ammunition for the enemy to use on you."
Sergeant Rigby did his best to rally his men, but it was heart-rending. "We (had) walked right into a trap," he remembered. In the opening moments, four young men from his home-town area had fallen. Unlike the regular Army, when a National Guard unit goes into war, a company or a platoon is often heavily made up of a group of young men who all come from the same city or region.
As the young NCO struggled to carry out his orders: "We had been ordered to burn our rations when we were told to withdraw," he noticed movement from another of his hometown soldiers. It was his boyhood friend, Private Rodger Young.
"Rodger was bound and determined to get that Japanese machine gun. In his position he had to know he was going to get killed. When I gave the order to retreat, I saw one of the boys beside him poke him with a stick and tell him to draw back but he had his sight on that pillbox and started after it."
Inching forward, his rifle cradled in his arms, the young private with the thick glasses had come to another of those tough choices in his life. As he slithered past the lieutenant, the officer reached out to try and stop him by grabbing his leg. Roger shook himself free and pushed on. The Japanese saw the flicker of movement and loosed a volley of fire in that direction, one round singing the lieutenant's hand and causing him to pull it back. Rodger Young continued crawling forward.
"Come back here!" The Lieutenant shouted. "It's suicide." The young private ignored the lieutenant's concern. If someone didn't knock out that enemy gun, the entire patrol would probably die. "Come back Private Young....THAT'S an ORDER!" The lieutenant shouted again.
For a moment the young private paused, turned to look back at his lieutenant....and smiled. "I'm sorry sir," he said. Then he smiled again. "You know sir, I don't hear very well." And then Rodger Young turned away from his lieutenant to continue crawling forward.
From their vantage point the enemy could see the movement of the grass as the American soldier crawled towards them, and unleashed the full fury of their machinegun. The other 15 men of Young's patrol returned fire, hoping to keep the enemy gunners pinned down as their friend and comrade continued his intrepid advance.
A sudden blow struck Private Young in the shoulder, rendering his left arm useless. The same round shattered the stock of his rifle, and he left it along with the trail of blood that marked his painful progress as he continued to crawl determinedly forward. Miraculously he was getting closer to his goal, when another stream of enemy fire raked the left side of his body from thigh to ankle. "Stay where you are," the lieutenant shouted above the din of battle. "We'll get you out somehow!" Rodger just shook his head.
The pain must have been unbearable, but it couldn't deter him. As always, Rodger Young had more HEART than body, and today his heart would carry him. Five yards from the enemy position, Rodger Young had dropped his shattered body into a depression in the ground deep enough to place him below the muzzle of the machinegun. Slowly, painfully, he used his good right hand to reach down and pull a grenade from his belt and raise it to his face. With his teeth he pulled the safety ring, released the lever and rose to his feet. Fifteen feet directly in front of the machinegun, there was no hope for the young man from Green Springs, Ohio. The full force of the automatic weapon caught him full in the face. But Rodger Young, even in death, had more heart than body. As his thick glasses imploded upon his young face, and moments before his 5'2" body slumped to the ground, he mustered the strength to throw the grenade. It was a throw that would have made any athlete proud, strong and true...destroying the enemy position and saving the lives of his comrades, including his boyhood friend, Sergeant Rigby.
It was after nightfall when the fifteen survivors of Sergeant Rigby's patrol finally reached the Company B bivouac area. Between them they carried a heavy burden wrapped in ponchos, the bodies of five hometown boys of the Ohio National Guard.
The company commander sat down and wrote letters home to the mothers of five young Americans who had given everything they had in the defense of freedom. That completed, he began writing a special report on one of them. It was the recommendation for the Medal of Honor, to be awarded posthumously to Private Rodger Young. In the recommendation he included the sentence, "Disregarding the orders of his platoon leader to come back, Rodger Young moved forward into the face of enemy fire."
The commander of the 148th Regiment reviewed the recommendation, and approved it with one minor change. He altered the previous sentence to say, "Not hearing the orders of his platoon leader to come back, Rodger Young moved forward into the face of enemy fire."
No one in his regiment disobeyed orders.
http://www.west-point.org/users/usma198 ... rYoung.htm
Also, the Nelson Eddy collection on iTunes has his rendition of the song, done shortly after WW2 available for purchase.
Having been on New Georgia and the Solomons, that is a nasty piece of real estate to fight a major war in.
Now with post from Kaufschtick (where are you these days?) and timerover51 I find myself reading about a place and time that my Dad very clearly wrote about. I’d like to post some excerpts from his diary that relate to these events from his point of view. With that said here are his words:
We left Koli Point, Guadalcanal, on 29 June, 1943. We were on our troop transport as part of the task force on our way to invade Rendova. The Japs had built an airstrip on the island of Munda. The airstrip was our objective. We were going to make our beachhead on Rendova, right next to Munda and use Rendova as a staging area for our jump off to Munda. The landing on Rendova was made on the 30th of June 1943.
It was the dawn of the 30th of June, 1943, when we went over the side of our transport, down the landing nets, and into our Higgins boats and circled around until given the signal to head for the beach. Before we headed for the beach our ships bombarded the beach with 16-inch shells and scores of rockets. Our planes were swarming in over our heads strafing the beach. The thoughts running through my head were: “This is it. When that ramp goes down, you’ll probably run right into a Jap machine gun nest. There is nothing you can do about it. If you live through today, nothing can ever worry you again, because you will be living on borrowed time anyway.”
The landing craft hit the beach. The ramp went down, exposing my body to the whole Imperial Jap Army. I ran forward through the surf, onto the beach, and I hit the dirt behind a fallen coconut log. I was on the beach and still alive. As it turned out, the beachhead landing was all screwed up. The non-combatant CB’s (Naval Construction Battalion) came in ahead of the Infantry and hit the beach on the first wave. Lucky for them, the Japs had pulled back to the cover of the jungle and our beachhead landing was unopposed except for some sniper fire which was bad enough if you happened to be the target. We moved up to the edge of the jungle and dug in. As the Company runnier and telephone and communication man, Sgt. Jennies, our communications Sergeant, had me and Frank Parks laying commo wire for our company command post to the Battalion Command post. While I was laying wire our ships in the harbor were unloading tons and tons of barrels of gas, shells, rockets and all manner of artillery pieces. Small arms ammo, you name it, everything needed for the coming invasion of Munda was being piled on the little strip of beach that stuck out into the water like a finger. There were in a great hurry to unload vulnerable cargo ships so they could pull them out of harm’s way. Consequently, the beach was piled high with all this equipment. First Sergeant Flood called some of us together and told us that some of the Japs were evacuating the island by barges. He was assigning us to patrol the channel between Rendova and Munda. We were assigned to a landing craft with a Coast Guard crew and twin 50-Cal. Machine guns to find and destroy the Japanese barges. The curtain of the night came down pitch black. It was like being in an inkbottle. Our engine made so much noise that we could not hear any Jap barges, so every so often w shut down tour engine and just drifted through the black, black tropical night. We did this all night through until the dawn. Then another crew came out to relieve us.
Flying in Low
We had not seen or heard any Jap barges. My shoes were sopping wet from wading to and from our gunboat. So I laid down to sleep among the piles of ammunition and drums of gasoline bare-footed. When I heard someone yell, “Look at how low our bombers are coming in!” I looked up and could see 4 or 5 bombers right over my head at tree top level. They had the Jap raising sun markings. Then all hell broke loose. I know that I’ll never go to hell because I’ve been there. The bombers came flying in low hopping over a small mountain that hid them from our radar. The Jap bombers were strafing and bombing our beachhead. We were packed tight in our little beach peninsula, actually just a little finger of land sticking out into the water. The Jap bombers were doing a devastating job of blowing up everything. In addition to the blast of the bombs, the stacks of ammunition and shells were exploding. The drums of gasoline were bursting into flaming liquid, shooting high into the air. Hundreds of men were running every which way and being cut down by the explosions. I saw all this while I was still lying right in the middle of all of it. It was all shooting back and forth right over my head. My first instinct was to get up and run, but my stunned mind could not make my body move. If I had gotten up I would have been cut in half. All I could do was say “Oh God!”
The Jap bombers were gone as fast as they had come, leaving behind a shattered and bleeding beach and the dead, dying and wounded. Now the Bombers were bombing our cargo ships which were lying off the beachhead. I stumbled to my feet and saw bodies and pieces of bodies all around me. I recall one GI had tried to seek cover in a large field cook stove. He and the stove were riddled with shrapnel. I waded out into the water up to my neck, cutting my bare feet on the sharp coral. A native canoe went close by me. I could see that some of the natives were wounded. Then It occurred to me that if they dropped another bomb the concussion of the water might get me. I waded to shore and came right in upon an anti-aircraft gun. Its’ dead crew were draped all over and around the gun. One man had his shoes blown off or had taken them off before the raid. Either way, I did not hesitate to put them on my cut and bleeding feet. I came across a wounded GI sitting on a log with his arm blown off. At this writing I recall some additional discussions with Dad about this powerful moment. Dad told me that he had attempted to knock out the poor man with a blow from his fist. It didn’t work and that the fellow just looked up and Dad with an expression of confusion – As if to ask,” why did you do that?” I knew this moment must have haunted his memories for all these many years.
I tried to comfort him and do what I could for him, but I was still in shock myself. Two GI’s came by and put him on a stretcher and another GI tended to his wounds and got him off the beach and towards the edge of the jungle. I was wandering around half dazed. Someone yelled at me to pick up a box of ammunition and head for the jungle. “Get the hell off the beach”. I picked up the heavy box of ammo and staggered to our perimeter at the edge of the jungle. Now let me say that I could not have picked up that box under normal conditions, let alone pick it up and put it on my shoulder, as I did that day. We started to sort ourselves out and reassembled our Companies and returned to the beach. We carried the wounded to the hastily set up field hospital unit. The ships were still burning in the harbor. We carried these poor men whom the medics declared dead, up to the edge of a huge bomb crater. This bomb crater was large and deep enough to have held a house. This was due to the fact that the bomb had hit a soft sandy spot on the beach. Once we had piled up the dead bodies they were pushed into the crater by a bulldozer and covered up. This had to be done because thousands of blowflies were starting to infest their bloating bodies. Dad later injected: “We knew they were not going to be there forever. A team would come in and rebury them.”
An air raid siren sounded for an air raid alert. Naturally we expected another bombing. I dove for the cover of the nearest foot trench and dove head first into a latrine. The bombers did not come. It was a false alarm. But I was covered with S---, I had to head for the water in the bay.
We were now ready for our assault on Munda. We loaded into our landing craft, crossed the channel and touched down on Munda. The ramp came down and I rushed to shore to seek cover on the edge of the jungle. We received no hostile fire of any kind. We moved in through the jungle to a wide-open plan. We moved across the plan standing up and walking forward with guns at the ready. We were spend out and exposed with men in front of me and the rear of me, on each side of me. Lt. Schultz was at my right as we moved towards the enemy concealed in the jungle in front of us... When swish, Boom... an explosion and a puff of smoke happened and Lt. Schultz was blown to pieces... right next to me! Then Jap mortars kept coming in on us. I hit the ground and we dug in.
We had set up a perimeter on the jungle edge and were sending strong patrols into the jungle... Advancing deeper and deeper, killing pockets of Japs as we went, until we had pushed the Japs up into the foothills.
After a time we were moving forward again.
Sgt. Flood hollered to me “Harris, stay behind with the Chaplin Priest and help him bury our dead in their old fox holes. The Priest and I rolled dead GI’s into the foxholes and covered them with earth with our entrenching tools. The Priest gave them last rights. We took their dog gags and put one on each of their rifles that we stuck up at the head of the grave. As we went along on burying detail the Priest became more nervous and kept muttering that these boys were from his parish back in Vermont. It struck me that he was only concerned about the men from his own parish, Whoosh! Wamp! A mortar shell landed right on the foxhole where we had just covered up a GI’s body. That mortar blast threw the dirt and parts of the bodies all over the priest and me and I was knocked down and in a daze. Through the daze I could see the Priest staggering off by himself. I heard that after the war, he ended up in an asylum. I laid there for while and started to look for my rifle which I could not find. As I was staggering around, Sgt. Steel came up from the jungle. I explained what had happened, and he said “Here, Harris, take this 45 pistol and get down behind those coconut logs. The trees are full of snipers. We took cover for a time. Then a group of our fighting men moved up to our position. Sgt. Steel helped me to the first aid station on the beach, where men were being treated for wounds. They had the red badge of courage with blood stained bandages. The first aid man looked me over. I was not wounded, but the medic said I was suffering from shock. He tagged me and put me on the evacuation boat for a trip to a nearby island MASH unit. While in the open boat, to the MASH unit, I saw Sgt. Jennings with a bloody bandage. Wounded GI’s were lying all over the little boat. One boy was shaky and holding his head with his bloody hands. I’m convinced that Dad did not feel right being with this collection of wounded men. He had no bloody bandages... What was he doing on this boat? When I talked to him about this he told me... “ I felt like I stood out, not having a wound myself. It was my mind that was bleeding, however. I felt guilty not having a wound and being with these wounded men.”
All of a sudden one of our planes swooped down and ejected an empty gas tank. As it was coming down, it sounded just like a bomb. The boy who was sobbing now started crying more. Everyone was shaking. I saw Pvt. Mustard in the boat. The rest of them I did not know. We landed on the little island with the MASH unit. The doctor looked us over and broke us down to two units. Some later thought’s of Dad’s about this Pvt. Mustard – He hated the army. Was a draftee. Wanted to get out of the war. He was a college graduate and hated serving with all these idiots, as he put it, but liked me. Never saw him after that day.
I was tagged for the first unit and sent to a little island nearby. The second unit of wounded was sent back to the main hospital on Guadalcanal, which at this point in the war was considered out of the combat zone, except for an occasional air raid The island that I was assigned to was a rest camp. We helped set up tents and just relax.
A day or two later I was feeling fine and had been swimming naked. I was out of the water and lying on the beach and heard the load aircraft engines. A Jap two-seater fighter aircraft was skimming the beach. It came in right over my head. I looked up and the Jap in the back looked right down on me. As the plane swooped by me, I jumped stock naked into a foxhole. The Jap plane swooped up and away disappearing into the sky with one of our P-38’s hot on his tail.
Glad to be Back
The doctor came to our rest camp and examined us. He said that I had been suffering from anxiety neurosis but that I was better now and he sent me back to duty on Munda. I rejoined my Company. They were dug in on a 2nd beachhead that they had made in my absence. Here I was on the front line, under enemy fire, but I was really glad to be back with my Company and the familiar faces of your comrades. It was dank, wet and very, very unpleasant there in the wet jungle. The worst was at night when it got dark... so dark that you could not see your hand in front of your face. You could hear the Japs rustling the foliage in the jungle around you. We slept two men tin a foxhole. PFC Frank Parks was the other radioman with me and we shared a foxhole. At night one would try to sleep for two hours while the other would stay awake listening. Sometimes we would both fall asleep. He later added: We were human, exhausted, need of sleep sometimes overwhelmed you. Even if you knew it was dangerous.
Every night when I did fall asleep, I went back to the United States where it was safe and friendly. I’m sure the worst part of the war for me was those dark nights. He later added: You think that every bush is moving with a Jap behind it. The sounds were often muzzled by the rain. As I said, at night I would dream of being back in the States. The funny thing was when I did get back to the States; I kept dreaming that I was back in the jungle.
A Very Depressing Place
Rain, rain, rain. See the jungle when it was wet with rain, and you’ve living in a dug out hole in the ground with nothing over you but a shelter-half and the wet rain is dripping from your heavy steel helmet down your neck. We were eating could C-rations. The kind of rations that built up a solid lump in you stomach. We tied the empty rations cans together and strung them out and around our foxhole so if the Japs were us in the dark they would rattle the cans and then we could open up with our rifles and machine guns. This happened almost every night because the Japs were strongly entrenched in the jungle and all around us. They tried to infiltrate our perimeter at night to bayonet our men.
This was a very depressing place to be because at night you could swear that every bush around you was moving with a Jap behind it. We had dug our foxholes in a sort of horseshoe arrangement, with the Company command post (CP) in the center. When darkness settled over us we were ordered to shoot anything moving above ground... even if it was in back of us... because sometimes the Japs would slip through and come up from your rear. The Japs were shelling our lines at night. They had taken their anti-aircraft guns and used them for artillery and were really pouring it in on us. Dad later added: Sometimes there were airburst that the foxholes provided no protection from.
Just imagine laying there in your wet foxhole in the pitch black of a rainy jungle night and those dame Jap shells coming in on you. You would rather be any place but there. You are wet, clammy, and scared as hell. One young GI broke. He got up and ran... zigzag to the rear. Remember: We had orders to shoot any movement above the ground. Well, this GI ran through a maze of our own foxholes. Everyone was shooting at his dark figure running through the night. He must have zigzagged between a dozen foxholes before ending up jumping into a sandbagged machine gun nest. It’s a wonder that the machine gun crew hadn’t shot or bayoneted him, but they didn’t... he made it ok.
I tell you, it took all of our will power to stay in our foxholes with the Jap shells coming in on us and they did kill and wound some of us. Remember, our objective in Munda was the Jap airstrip. So our movement through the jungle was towards that airstrip. To reach it we had to fight the Japs lodged in the jungle and we did manage to open a path through the jungle that we call the Munda trail. Dad later added: No safety of being behind the front line. The Japs were everywhere. This trail lead from the beachhead down to the Jap infested jungle to what you might call the front line, except that it was not a line but different outpost scattered around a perimeter. Each outpost sent out patrols to probe deeper into the jungle and eliminate any Jap resistance. But a lot of times, when you have eliminated the Japs, they would slip right back. So carrying supplies down the Munda trail was like always going through Indian Country. Dad later added: You could be ambushed at any time. Many a carrying party was ambushed along the trail.
In a clearing along the Munda trail, we set up a forward aid station to take care of the wounded from the front line and make them as comfortable as possible until carrying parties could move them through the jungle back to our beachhead, and put them on landing craft to our hospital ship. I was assigned, along with the platoon, to guard this forward aid station. We dug in and set up a perimeter around the aid station. We were there about 3 days until they sent another platoon to relieve us. We went back down the Munda trail carrying what stretcher cases that we could carry. About 4 or 5 hours after we had got back to the beachhead, we got the word that a large party of Japs had broken through to the aid station, bayoneting our wounded GI’s as they laid on their stretchers and wiped out the medical men along with the rifle men guarding them.
I was in Company F, of the 2nd battalion of the 172nd Infantry Combat Team, 43rd Divison. Our objective was to push through the jungle and take the foothills overlooking the Jap airfield. It was rough going in the jungle and steep hills. We kept coming up against Jap machine gun nest and very formidable pillboxes. As one of our sergeants was leading a group up against a pillbox, and of course he was under machine gun fire, he felt a bump on his leg and reached down and felt his leg all wet. “I’m hit, I’m hit” yelled the Sergeant, but it turned out, lucky for him, that a Jap bullet had hit the canteen and the wet was not blood but water from his canteen. I was right behind him carrying the radio. The Sergeant Kept going and we wiped out the pillbox with hand grenades.
We finally broke through the jungle to the foothills of the highest hill. The Japs were using this hill to pour fire on us ever time we would try to move. Our Captain called in the Navy dive-bombers to blast the Jap pillbox that was stopping us from advancing on the hill. This one dive bomber came in, screaming straight down, then swooping up after dropping its’ bombs right on us. I was standing right next to a shell hole along with four other GI’s watching the bombings. I looked up and actually saw two bombs coming down, but I could not move. I was frozen in place. Sergeant Steel (Dad’s platoon sergeant) was standing next to me and shoved me into the shell hole and jumped in after me. Only one of the bombs exploded. It felt like I was hit on the rump with an oar. The dirt and shrapnel from the bomb had grazed my butt as I was tumbling into the shell hole but Sergeant Steel and myself were not hurt. The other men who had been nearby were killed. As I looked up out of the shell hole, for just an instant, frozen in time, I saw Pvt. Hendricks standing upright with the top of his head blown off. Then he toppled over and died... dropped dead! Dad Added later: Captain D’Angelis and I discussed this event in detail so he could write a report. Later he shared with me a letter Hendricks sister had written him. You don’t get too close to people during the war. It hurts too much if they got killed.
Calm and Cool
We continued to slowly advance up the hill overlooking the airstrip. The Japs continued firing at us with their anti-aircraft guns, which they were using as ground artillery. A private, I can’t remember his name, was hit in the back with piece of shrapnel from one of the Jap shells and started to run. The shells were still coming in all around us. I grabbed him and pulled him down into a large shell hole and ripped open the back of his shirt and calmed him down until the shelling stopped and it was safe for me to dress his wound and send him to the rear aid station. I was very calm and cool through this entire shelling. Dad later recalled and remarked: I was a perfect fighting machine at this moment. I surprised myself – fear had ceased to be a factor.
What is amazing in war is that sometimes you are scared and nervous and other times you are cool and efficient. A man is not the same day after day. It seemed that when you are waiting to get into action you’re more nervous than when you are right in the thick of action and you don’t have time to be scared. Let me say that, when you are under fire from the enemy, day after day, you are not the same person you are normally. All of your animal instincts surge forward and you can do things that you would never dream of, Like: plunging right into the thick of jungle to lay telephone wire right up to the Jap liens, or confronting the toughest GI when they break down and cry and help them get back into shape. You hear them cry, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”
The Stink of the Dead
At one point we got bogged down in a streambed and the Jap mortars were coming in all around us. One GI yelled “Jesus Christ, they’re shelling us with mortars”. A general who happened to be with us replied, “What do you expect... Cream puffs”? That broke everyone up and relieved the tension and we moved forward through what had been jungle but now were torn and twisted palm trees sticking up, knocked down and splintered... the mess of an overly shelled area... with the dead and parts of Jap bodies intermingled with the underbrush and blowflies and maggots eating the bodies. Stink! Nothing stinks like a dead body in the hot tropical sun. We had to move through this area and at times were stalled right in the middle of this hell and had to seek cover among the Jap dead as the Jap shells came pouring down on us. Inch by inch, foot by foot we made our way up to the last Jap held hill, digging out the Japs dug in along the way. When we did finally fight our way to the top we found a criss-cross of trenches, dug outs, and tunnels with dead Japs piled up in heaps. They had sustained so much heavy shelling and bombing from us that a great many had their skin ripped off and the bare bones of the skeletons were everywhere... the stink of the dead flesh was overwhelming. Dad later added: It could make you sick to your stomach.
From the top of this hill we could see the larger part of the island of Munda. Looking down at what had been dense jungle, I saw it was now a torn and twisted battle area with bomb and shell holes covering the landscape. And there it was, right at the foot of the other side of this hill... the Jap airstrip... the Munda airstrip, our objective, from our position, we could see the fighting on the airstrip. We moved down off the top of the hill towards the airstrip. Getting off that open graveyard of a hill was a very welcomed maneuver. We dug in on the end of the Jap airstrip and were served hot chow. Now we had new blankets and dry socks. We just sat and relaxed and enjoyed being alive.
Also, the unit I served with in Alaska was the 172nd Infantry Brigade. Conditions in Alaska were about as different as is earthly possible to get from the jungle of the Central Solomons. I have also actually landed on the Munda Airstrip, which is still in use today.
I am so envious of your travels to that part of the world. To land on that airstrip would have such significance to me. But my following in the "foot steps" would have to also lead me to the banks of the Drinimour River in New Guinea and the Jungles of Luzon in the Philippines.
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