Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Pacific Driftwood / Jottings

Collected writings from the soldiers of the 136th Field Artillery Battalion in World War II.


"YANK" the Army Weekly had a column appearing from time to time on one of its pages called "The Poets Cornered". Much fine poetry was published there. I hope that some day the editors of "YANK" will publish a book containing the best of these literary works by, for the most part, Army enlisted men. Each one represent a soldier's point of view on a certain subject. The variety of ideas, the originality of themes, and the eloquence achieved are frequently remarkable. Some of the verses were composed in the United States, some were composed overseas in non-combat theaters, and some carried the unmistakable breath of the frontlines. After the war, many of these men will probably continue writing with the same, fine literary sensitiveness, when they have become civilians once again.

But there are verses which have never seen light of day on any page of "YANK" nor any other publication, for that matter. These were scribbled modestly on the backs of envelopes, on note-book paper, or daringly included in some letter home. Their writers may never write another line of verse or prose, for perhaps they were written in a short burst of poetic inspiration which was short-lived. However, what was written might be worth noting. That is the purpose of this book. Perhpas these unknown writers will take heart, seeing their works in print, and be encouraged to write more. I have personallly known most of these men, who prefer to remain anonymous. Some of the writers I have not even met; their works reache me indirectly, either through letters from friends who know I was collecting verse by obscure writers, or by coming across them myself, in waste paper baskets, in old bivouac areas and a dozen other equally unlikely places. It has been quite an adventure for me during my theree years in the Pacific, ranging from the Fijis to the Philippines.

I give you "Pacific Driftwood."


From a letter:
On a trip along the beach near Munda Air Strip, strolling among wrecks and remnants of Japanese defense installations which had been blasted to oblivion by our intense shelling and bombing, I examined some huge holes made by our high-explosive missiles. At the bottom of one such hole a tiny but sturdy zinnia bloomed defiantly. I looked around some more, and there were others similarly growing, as well as some which had sprung up at the roadside in the company of deceptively delicate petunias. It was a touching sight, and it gave me a strange, indefinable feeling. Later, when moved to write a few lines on what I saw, I tried vainly to put into words that strange, awed feeling, and am still inarticulate. Here are the lines I wrote:

(Munda Point)

On this island Mars still plays his hand.
The beach is quiet now; he has moved inland.
Beneath the sun, men toil;
Digging, clearing, piling soil on soil.
Between them and the sea - a fringe of sand.

On this fringe of sand Mars left his seal.
Here, craters deep abound: imprints of his heel
In some the sea has crept;
Others remain empty - all except
For flowers, growing there with quiet zeal.

A flower grows on a war-scarred ground
Amid man's shattered tools of war strewn around.
Amid war's after-gloom
It flourishes, hanging bloom on bloom.
How strange a home this zinnia has found!
It is not alone here on the beach;
Yonder springs - oh, if it could only reach! -
Another common flower,
Dainty, fragile, holding yet some power
To draw its strength from the reluctant beach.

Zinnia and petunia, hand in hand
In Mother's garden casually appearing
Now in this almost flowerless land
Become at once exotic, rare, endearing.

I found the next item, written on a mud-splattered bit of stationefy. Like most of the poems in this collection, it was anonymous. There is an underlying bitterness in it, and in the last line, the poet tries to fling one final bit of defiant irony at the jungle itself in an attempt to overcome the sense of frustration in the jungle.

THE JUNGLE (Guadalcanal 1945)

You greeted me with sultry languor,
I greeted you with grim misgiving
Into your leafy depths I gazed
And shuddered.
For man had fought and man had slaughtered
But now he lay in dark oblivion
Inside your leafy depths he lay
And rotted.
And you - you stood serenely waiting,
Yes, waiting for your wounds to heal up -
The wounds that fighting man had made -
You could wait!

I stood upon the grassy hillock
And studied you with contemplation
And from your leafy depths there stirred
A whisper.
You looked enchanting in the sunlight,
Revealing naught, your air enticing,
And at your beckon all but mute,
I yielded.
I entered by a winding pathway.
How miserly you were with sunlight
As in your dark, foilescent shrine
I wandered.

The lizards stirred, alert and graceful,
Their turquoise tail shined iridescent,
A flower caressed the atmosphere
With fragrance.
But suddenly there loomed before me
A grotesque tree, a gutted dirt-clod.
And there, a head macabrely grinned ...
And maggots!
And going further, I encountered
A shambles that was once a stronghold,
And there you stood, in silence mocked ...

I went my way, but all night long
A dozen savage birds derided,
A dozen birds in savage voice
Yet taunted:
"Man has desecrated this our home,
And murdered his own kind before us.
He chose this place: we chose him not,
Nor approved."

Soon I'll leave you and your taunting birds,
Ascend once more to grassy hillsides.
You look enchanting in the sun -
From hillsides.


Here is an original, merry mad bit of escapism. I see no particular reason for including it among the war-inspired verse, but it does show that a soldier's mind does turn to other things. In this, I believe he let himself go, giving imagination free rein.

SONG OF THE EARTHBOUND - A Poem Fantasy (Fijis Jan 1943)

The jagged peaks,
The pounding sea
Upon the ageless shore,
The hastening wind
Through hollow, cross meadow -
These are the heritage
Of the Earthbound.

The Earthbound sing:
An anthem old,
Religion's sacred themes,
The sweet gospel hymns
At home or in chapel -
Melodies born in hearts,
Nourished with tears.

The whippoorwill,
The coveyed quail,
The swallow on the wing,
Their magical flight
Through thicket, cross water -
These are the idolized
Of the Earthbound.

A longing aches,
An envy pains
And fancy chases thought.
"Oh, God, give us wings,
For flying, for soaring!"
Thus the supplications
Of the Earthbound.

"Oh come to the carnival, ride in the planes,
See all the crowds below!
It's just half a dollar, now, tell all your friends
That you flew way up high!"

And homeward now
The Earthbound go,
A longing satisfied.
The circling planes
O'er fairground, o'er playground -
These were the ecstasy of the Earthbound.

The earthbound sing:
A happy theme
Of Broadway's favorite songs.
They've conquered the air
In planes at the fairground!
Oh, have your revelry,
Happy Earthbound!

Here is bitterness of the most acute sort expressed in the following lines which some unknown soldier scrawled on an ink-splotched piece of paper. I cam across it while in Fiji.


Where's your hatred now?
You haven't any? But you ought to have.
Remember the advice we gave.
Where will you be anyhow
If you forget that you must fight,
That they are wrong, and we are right?
You must make their heads to bow.

"I will fight because I must.
My hatred falters. In the heat of war
The hatred that was once a sore
Festered with a bitter lust,
Becomes a heartache, throbbing deep,
So that I cannot help but weep
Seeing comrades fall to dust."

Why that tear-wet eye?
Your fallen comrades you won't see again?
Remember, this affair is plain:
You may be about to die
Like them; but while you live, be strong,
For right will conquer all that's wrong.
Fight till they for mercy cry.

"You are right, my hatred's gone,
But I remember they are human too -
Those boys who in a sick world grew,
Groping - while afar, the dawn
Awaits to shine on them again
As it has on Freedom's men.
Can I , hating, speed the dawn?"

Spare no love for those
Who try to tear down what we want to save.
They're bestial, and they're not so brave.
Bring conflict to a quicker close:
Destroy their tanks, destroy their planes;
It is this Justice ordains.
Give them death if death they chose!

"I will wreck their tanks and planes
And let their cities fall, for all I care,
And in the name of right, I'll tear
Their bowels out, and smash their brains,
(For you, my country, killed my soul)
And as we approach the goal,
Clamp them in Revenge's chains!"

Bear it for a while,
And if you find no hatred for the foe,
Hate, then, the evil that brought woe.
Hate the greed and hate the guile.
Hate, then, the motive, not the man.
Love the Truth, for if you can,
Soldier, you have won God's smile.

The following is an extract from a letter which attracted my attention. I asked the author of it if I could copy it, and he agreed. It is just a word picture of the front-line "doggie" or "dogface", the Infantryman.

This is the New Georgia doughboy, returning from the front. He's wearing his green-and-brown-mottled camouflage suit - the one he has been wearing continuously for the past three weeks. It has seldom been off of him, even to be washed - the rains take care of that. If his unit happens to be anywhere near a creek, he washes himself, but that happens only once in a while. Oh, yes, and that camouflage about his face is not really camouflage. Can he help it if the dust, kicked up from the road, sticks to his sweaty, bearded face? All available water is used for drinking, but even with the supply on New Georgia augmented by purified water from neighboring islets, he has to exercise rigid economy. His daily supply which he carries with him in two canteens doesn't last very long in New Georgia's baking sun and steaming jungles.

This doggie, like most of his buddies has been in combat for around twenty consecutive days. That means that during that time he has no hot food. His meals when he could get them, were C rations eaten right out of the can. Sometimes his fare wasn't even that sumptuous. Sometimes he subsisted on a bar of D ration chocolate a day. Now he returns, stripped down to barest essentials, without even the light battle pack he started out with. He still has his faithful M-1 Rifle with possibly some ammunition left, his precious water, first aid packet, and sulfanilamide tablets.

He trudges along the dusty road, his trousers legs rolled up to just below the knees, revealing a dirty, soggy, reeking pair of green canvass jungle boots. He walks along the road which Army engineers and Navy Sea Bees have hewn out of the jungle. But the soldier doesn't always find the road dry and dusty; all too often he slogs through channels of knee-deep mud which must serve as travel routes. On this isle of the dead and living dead, the stench of this mud suggests that decaying bodies are blended in with the soil, but the smell is more probably from rotted vegetation. When it rains in New Georgia, this is what the soldier eats in, sleeps in, lives in. Now, as he walks along with expressionless eyes focused on the ground a few paces ahead of him, his presence adds a poignantly personal touch to the procession of peeps and three-quarter tons which are laden with supplies for the front. Daily he (for "he" represents all such front line men) passes our gun positions with an air of mingled apprehension and respect. He dreads being near them when they fire, yet he wants to get a good look a t the guns that probably helped save his life. "How do you guys stand it? How do you stand the noise?" he asks with a seriousness that dumbfounds us. How do we stand it! He's been sniped at, mortar-shelled, has our artillery barrage seventy-five to one hundred yards ahead of him, and he asks us that! He comes up to the guns once in a while when there is a lull in the firing, and pats a howitzer affectionately. "I could kiss these babies," he says with a wan smile. Once he asked if we'd let him pull the lanyard that would send a 95 pound shell on its destructive mission. He was tickled as a kid with a new toy when we let him fire on the next fire mission.

He sits and exchanges a few words with us; he's never very talkative - sits and broods a lot. As he gets up to leave, his valedictory usually is: "Keep shootin' them out there. It sure is good to hear them land." Though they go through hell, that is all that he and his buddies ever ask of us, that we keep shootin' out there, and they'll carry on their share.

And they more than live up to their word.

Here is another extract from a letter (again, taken with permission of the author) written somewhere near Baguio, on Luzon in the Philippines. It certainly is a novel outlook which he has. I might call it his


It was pure curiosity which led me to investigate a Japanese who had been killed about eight hours before, during the night. Before I saw the body itself, I saw a heap of clothing - or rather, rags - and I thought to myself: Is it possible that that shapeless object is a man? As I got closer, however, I saw the fallen enemy. After the first brief shock at the sight, I went ahead, dispassionately, coldly looking at him.

He was lying on his back, resembling a piece of wax statuary, with one hand flung across his waist, holding a bloodstained handkerchief (he had been machine-gunned in the stomach), and the other arm was crooked up with the hand resting near his head. His age was certainly under eighteen, and his youthful flesh was firm though colored a strange, waxy, yellow-white hue. His head was turned to one side, revealing a clean, bloodless hole in the neck where he had been shot by one not knowing he was already dead. His eyes were slightly open, and his lips parted. His boyish, beardless face was not entirely expressionless. On it I fancied I could see an expression revealing a boy trying to solve one of the great mysteries of life, a mystery that was beyond his grasp. He could not understand life, particularly this business of war. In his last few moments of mortal existence was he asking himself if the Emperor was worth dying for, after all? At least, the cruel arrogance and fatalistic defiance which contort so many a Jap face with hard lines, was entirely absent, but there was a look of disillusionment, or so it seemed.

It was well-nigh impossible to reconcile mentally this fallen form which was no longer man, to that human geing who, around midnight, had crept into our battalion area armed with a Nambu light machine gun and a few grenades. A few hours before daylight this form had been a man, a live, moving target for our small arms fire. Now the man was absent, leaving an inanimate something simulating man. As I gazed at him, a subtle voice whispered something within me. "But is this man?" it asked doubtingly. "This is not God's man, nor was it ever. For God's man is spiritual, which plainly this object is not. Therefore, be not shocked at what you see here, for what you see here is not man. See, what little difference there is between this form, now so inanimate, and the animated form it once was! A beating heart, respiring lungs - that's really the only difference, and one is no more the real Man than the other, so be not disturbed at this sight."

I didn't stay long. An instinct, deeper than educated morals or proprieties, deeper too than metaphysical suggestions or speculations, prompted me to leave the dead in peace. I had trespassed long enough. While it ws not Man, it was, or had been, a man's property, and deserved something better than the stare of the morbidly curious which was accorded it. Let it be put away then, into the Earth, gently, quietly. And let there be an end to the indignities of being regarded as some kind of curiosity. As I left, I hoped it would soon be buried - and forgotten.



So now we are in the jungle and are learning what jungle warfare is. It is a strange sort of business. We have learned too, all the implications of the phrase: "Island Warfare" because of inter-island strategy as well as intra-island strategy. It is a dangerous business, too, for here we are fighting a practically invisible enemy which has been trained far more thoroughly than we have. It is here that inactivity plays on one's nerves as much as activity. The one saving grace has been the sense of humor exhibited by all the men, by and large, even durprisingly enough, by the men on the front lines. I met one Tennessee fellow whose unconscious humor and accent was something you think only exists in Hollywood or on the radio. He said the boys in his outfit were all in high spirits and could see the funny side of things. With great gusto and plenty of sound effects he described how a Jap machine gun nest was silenced by one of our own machine guns. Credit and praise a thousand fold greater than mere words can express is due the infantrymen.

Out of this jungle, where all growth is vertical, "Sea Bees" and the Army Engineers are hewing roads. Without these men, prosecution of our strategy here would be well-nigh impossible. The vine-fettered jungle rings with axe blows and cries of "Timber-r". These men are fighting too; fighting nature which is as stubborn and tenacious as our real enemy. Roads aren't roads around here, until they are corduroyed; they are unvegetated lanes of mud. But the Engineers and Navy Construction Battalions are winning.

Mosquitos here almost negligible in number but the flies are many times thicker than anywhere else I've been.

We arrived at Guadalcanal early in April and that very night got our "baptism of fire", our first air raid. I was alarmed naturally, but more frightening moments were ahead; the Fourth of July raid on Rendova, for example, while we were at mess below decks on an LST. We were all shaken, mentally, that is, but thre was nothing we could do except finish our meal and try to enjoy it. With wry humor some of the fellows said if they were going to die, they might as well do it on a full stomach. It is a helpless feeling, being locked up below deck and just listening - listening to our 20mm, 40mm, and 3-inch guns, and an occasional bomb dropping near us. One of the most, if not the most terrifying experience I had was on New Georgia. There was a bombing raid one night. I don't know how many enemy planes there were but there were more than one. Eight bombs were dropped and a small group of us were in a direct line with them and between where the fourth and fifth lighted. The first four kept getting closer, and we were positive the fifth would hit us; but it went beyond, as did the remaining bombs. The swish of those bombs hurtling earthward with hellish fury is something I won't forget for a long time.

Guadalcanal was a sad and beautiful spot. If one could detach the beauty of the island from the ugly atmosphere of war and reminders of war which still clung to it, he would not find it the terrible place it is reputed to be. The green, grassy hills, fringed with trees are lovely in the sunlight, even though the shell holes pock-mark them, making them look like humps of green, moth-eaten carpteing.

Our first camp there was on the site of much fearful carnage Grenade Hill. The melancholy scent of sweet tragedy filled the air. The jungle at night was redolent with the sad, sweet smell of some jungle flower; sad because of the seeming futility of it. The once-savage jungle now seemed subdued. In this green, foilescent shrine lay the men who died gloriously and ingloriously - Yank and Jap. In Guadalcanal we [saw the] reason our forces had such a time routing the enemy: the huge, grotesque, white-mottled banyan trees between whose high, wide-spread roots the enemy entrenched himself. These trees were found wherever there was jungle, most of them, their roots and trunks riddled with bullet holes. Further evidences of the attention the Japs paid to digging in were seen on New Georgia. There they made use of the huge chunks of coral, a substance heavy and hard as rock. Enough of this coral piled around a hole three to four feet deep made a shelter surprisingly resistant to shell concussions.

The day we landed on New Georgia at Lambeti Plantation, we were able for the first time to appreciate fully the devastating effectiveness of our artillery. All the land that had undergone the terrific artillery fire was all but denuded of live vegetation. Shattered remnants of coconut palms drooped pathetically, resembling gaunt weeping willows. The Air Force contributed to the destruction of this area. I could see this as I walked along the road from the Plantation to the Munda Airfield. All along the way were holes that could have been made only by 100 or 200-pound bombs. There was something curious about these bomb craters, something besides the fact that they were used as water points and swimming holes; it was grass and flowers which had sprung up in the inside. Most of the bomb craters looked like freshly made excavations with the sand, coral, etc. thrown outside around the edges. But some looked like natural depressions in the naturally uneven ground, so overgrown were they. Symbolic, it seemed, were zinnias - just common pink, garden zinnias one finds in the garden at home - growing from the depths of bomb craters. Yes, in a way they were symbolic of the good, the God-created, the enduring, and everlasting, which reappears untouched after the fury of man's wrath has spent itself.

War theaters are no place for civilians, particularly women and children. A war is something that only those in the service of their country should experience. War is brutal and no longer are civilians spared of its hellishness simply because they are civilians. It is brutal enough for men under arms when giving and taking blows; it is tragic when civilian populations can only take blows. I am grateful that so far I have been spared witnessing this great tragedy of war; for over here the civilian population is composed of a handful of natives who have been virtually untouched by war. Principally, the Solomon Islands have been a theater of operations in the strictest sense of the word, the site on which the armed forces of both sides have met in conflict to help determine the course of the war. It is a fighting man's land with no place for the frailties of a civilian populace, a land-and-sea battlefield.



We had two short months of combat in our first campaign, and some more months to come in the next one. Meanwhile we are at Guadalcanal again.

I was down on the road along the beach the other day, and studied the familiar landscape. Behind a slate-blue veil of haze, wearing cloud banks on their heads like huge turbans, the mute hills sat, immovable, cold, detached, indifferent to everything else, especially to man, who, more industrious than ever, was busy landing, unloading, loading, and hauling.

But the results of man's efforts are there, challenging, impossible to ignore. The miraculous change wrought by Army's Engineers and Navy's Sea Bees has now removed all vestiges of what was once a battlefield. Shell holes, bomb craters, and shattered palms are only dim memories of the past. In this busy place all vestiges of the past are brusquely pushed aside, into the background, into oblivion, for the new Guadalcanal must rise, and is doing just that. It is now a complete and efficient Army and Navy base. Air raids are non-existent for the enemy's air force and its activities in this area are non-existent.

We'd better enjoy this place while we can (if we can) for in a short while we will be in Bougainville for another jungle campaign.


This is a large convoy.

Some of us who wnet to New Georgia on D-plus-four and Bougainville on D-plus-seventeen remember only small convoys of LST's and other craft. This time it is D and D-plus-one, and the gigantic convoy is comprised of hundreds of ships and small crafts of many types.

It began placidly, as other convoys, in a matter-of-fact way, on schedule, at 0830. We stood along the rails as we always had, and watched the island diminish in the distance. The ship rolled gently to the accompanyment of the vague throbbing of the engines and the steady roar of the blowers which supply ventilation to the troop compartments below decks. Little flutters of white all over the deck indicated card games; poker, casino, cribbage.

Out on the Pacific, still that same remarkable, incredible blue, ships were everywhere; you could not look anywhere without seeing a transport or warship most of which were cleverly camouflaged.

This war has brought into usage the term, "staging area" which is just another way of saying rendezvous point or final springboard from which the ultimate assault is to be launched. Manus Island in the Admiralties was our staging area and our destination after laying over a few days in Lae, New Guinea. As we approached our staging area, we viewed it with the same glum curiosity we've viewed all the other dozen or so islands we've visited. The [dominant] feature about it was, I think, the amount of water traffic. It was here that the nautical gamut was run; from barges to baby flat-tops; boats you'd never dream of seeing in such a remote Pacific island; coal-burners, oil-burners; native dugouts and non-descript sailboats; sleek, fast cabin boats which made the harbor look like regatta day at the yacht club. Planes from our carriers swooped and circled in mock attacks.

Night, as usual, stole in while our backs were turned. We always seemed to be at supper during the transitional twilight. Coming up on deck, sweaty after being in the hot mess hall we were atonished the first night, and mildly surprised on subsequent nights, to see that it was already dark. Most startlingly of all, however, was the amount of lights which extended along a considerable portion of the shoreline. They were lights in the corrugated metal huts which were laid out row beside row. All over the spaceous harbor too were lights, the lights of shps: green ones, red ones, amber ones, lights of the blue of an electric arc, beside which the white lights appeared yellowish. They blinked frantically, irrelevantly, in an unrhythmic dissonance of light. Then, as the call to quarters was heard piped on our own and one or two neighboring ships, troops trickled below, activity on the ship was diminished, and the frenzied, hysterical glitter of lights subsided, for they too were tired of talking. There remained only a few red or green lights which hovered over their respective ships like lights on second floors of houses back home, kept on by stay-up-lates. On deck there was still an occasional glow of a cigaret and the hum of desultory conversation. A half-moon with a misty collar hung in the sky, and one fancied he could see it rush toward the tip of the mast, then retreat before quite touching it; rush and retreat, rush and retreat. The blowers whirred a bereceuse. The time for sleeping was at hand.

A glorious sunrise the beignning of each day. On e morning, a day or so out from land, clouds in the distance made interesting patterns. Some simulated huge skulking, huddling figures marching on two legs in procession. On the tip of the mast of one of the ships, a cloud created an odd optical illusion: a gigantic weathercock perching on the mast tip. Then, gradually, it metamorphosed into a rather grotesque turkey with an extended neck. Finally, even that illusion faded and there was nothing left but a smudge of cloud.


Lingayen Gulf was our destination, and now it is S-day, the day of days. The letter S, by the way, was used in this operation to signify the day of assault, rather than the letter D. Early in the morning our ship was resounding with jolts which sounded like gloved fists pounding on sheet iron. On deck the sound was sharper and more distinct. The air was electric. It was one of those rare moments when you can feel the tingle of excitement. You know what the excitement is about - know only too well, and you feel that every molecule of moisture in the clouds, every particle of dust and smoke in the air, every grain of sand on the yonder beach, and every salty drop of Lingayen Gulf must know about it too. For hours the air has been reverberating with gunfire. During that thime there had been hardly a second's silence, an instant when some gun somewhere has not been heard.

By now nothing surprised us, not even the staggering number of ships and boats. They moved about in all directions, and the appearance was rather chaotic, but that was purely illusion, for in reality every movement from the BB down to the LCVP was carefully planned and faithfully executed.

So off goes the Infantry. H-hour is 1000, a rather unique time for beachhead landings which are usually made at dawn. Three and a half hours later a shore party from our ship, composed of artillery men and of which I was one, went ashore, dug in about 100 yards in and waited for the first boatload of rations and ammunition. The surf was moderate (very rough on subsequent days), and we waded ashore in knee-deep water which became waist-deep with every wave. It was incredible. It was extraordinary. It was the quietest beachhead I'd ever heard of. The naval shelling had ceased in our sector, and the infantry was so far inland by now that if there was any fire, we could not hav heard it. Soon we learned of the first man killed in our sector - he was gored to death by an angry caribao. Enemy opposition was light. That night many of us slept in fox holes - a needless precaution, as it turned out. During the night a GMC with its lights brazenly bright came down and took away a load or rations or ammunition. There were two or three air raids but they were on the shipping and most of the night was quiet and uneventful. In keeping with the incongruous nature of everything, guards sat on ration boxes in the ration and ammo dump, smoked, and talked easily and relaxedly in low tones - so as not to disturb the men who were sleeping. There was a lot to talk about. That Jap suicide diver, for instance, whose plane narrowly missed our shp and the one next to ours, but crashed in the water and splattered, scattering fire and wreckage in all diirections. In retrospect we tried to analyze our feelings during the day. As I said, we ceased being surprised at anything. During the pre-landing shelling there was hardly a man below decks. We all found the highest point of vantage on the ship we sould, without being chased off, and watched the fun, determined not to budge for anything short of a Jap sea or air armada. There on the beach we also recalled the fateful hour of 1330 when we struglled down the debarkation nets with packs, carbines, and cumbersome kapok jackets. We grimly and solemnly averred that this was by far the worst phase of any campaign. Sweating and gasping, we reached the LCVP and took off for shore. A few minutes from the ship we exhibited nervous curiosity over a lone Jap plane streaking across the night sky midst a thick storm of 20mm shells. It was far off and we agreed we'd be satisfied if that was as close as any would come. And so the night passed. And in the morning we listened incredulously to the far-off crowing of a rooster. Civilization!


This poem by an unknown author speaks for itself. I forget where I got it; I came across it one day tucked away with a lot of letters. It speaks for itself.

ON SHIPBOARD (August 1948)

At night upon the lurching sea
I seek the stars for consolation.
The blessed stars hang o'er the ship
So permanent, so reassuring.
When petty trials wax sickening,
And faces radiate displeasure,
I look across eternities
To gain perspective and proportion.
They're always there, though men contest
And calculate with puny measures.

But there are times, when often clouds
Will separate me from the stardust;
And then I peer out over the rail
Into the firmament below me
And watch the gay processional
Of tiny, dancing water-stars.
Their bubbling frivolity,
Though captivates and cheers a little,
It buoys not the weighted thought.
So I glance heavenward, but now I see
A cloudless sky; and all is right;
For there they are again - the stars!


I was caught in the act of looking over the shoulder of the man who wrote this. I wanted to see what it was that he was writing. Reluctantly he showed it to me. I took a fancy to it, and asked if I could have a copy of it, explaining that it was sort of a pastime of mine to collect odds and ends of verse. He agreed to let me copy it but insisted that I omit his name. He held up his end of the bargain; I'm holding up my end. This poem makes a fitting end for this little volume.


At the first hesitant strains
I stopped and listned.
Through an open window cam
Music of a violin.
It rang out in the stillness
A brave and lone voice.
Fragmented patterns
Of Bach and Paganini
Were its halting narrative,
Until, abruptly,
It stopped; and silence
Continued where it left off.

A few choked up syllables,
Then shattering wood -
I heard a voice say:
"I've outlived my usefulness.
My service to the public
Had its day to live
And today is gone.
The world these days is sober
And has no time for music.
Though such diversioin
I would gladly give,
Yet my violin rings out
Like laughter at a funeral."

All was still again.
Then, from down the street
A cry was hard. A newsboy
Was calling all to hear him.
What was he saying?
"The war is over"?
It's over! Let there be joy!
And did the tidings reach him
Who by the window
Sat and brooded long?
I think they did, for even as
I departed thence away
I heard him sobbing.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chapter 15: The Cannoneers Had Radar Ears

There was equipment - thousands of dollars' worth - on each island we were on, representing the ultimate in the technology of aircraft destruction. We of the artillery regarded all this equipment with the proper amount of respect, of course, but still, we continued to think very highly of our own natural ears.

It did not take us long to develop radar ears. I think I developed mine as quickly as anyone else did his. Some were more sensitive, perhaps, but not more quickly developed. Early I learned to recognize any Jap plane that came over, whether a Zeke, Hamp, Dinah, or Betty, as a Jap plane, though I never could identify each separate type as I could our own planes. But there was a characterisitic, hollow, metallic whine to the Jap planew which no American plane had, so hearing that sound was really all we needed to put us on our guard and start us edging toward foxholes.

There was good reason for our reliance on our ears. On many occasions a Jap plane would be above us for as much as five minutes (and presumably within range of the radar detectors for longer than that) before the sirens would make it officially an air raid. Since we had been aware of the plane's presence for some time before the alarm was given by the siren, there was much derisive laughter and comment when we finally did hear the siren. "Well, well, well!" we'd apostrophize. "So you finally woke up! Thanks for letting us know." Sometimes the plane would come, circle around, go into its bombing run, drop the bombs, and fly off even before we'd get a "condition red". Then the laughter and remaks would be more bitter than ever. "Condition red, men. That means it's safe now. But if you hear a condition green 'all clear', look out!" It sound strange but it is quite true that this was the case more than once. The plane would come in and drop its bomb load, then scoot away before the condition red sounded. After everything was quiet, the condition green would sound, and then, of course, the plane woudl return!

One of the most reliable aircraft detectors in the battery was Harry Heilman. And, never one to ignore what his ears heard, he was about the first (I think Abe Kantrowitz, the medic, was speedier) to reach a foxhole or bomb shelter. He was assistant to Charlie McCrory, the supply sergeant, and he and Mac slept in the same tent. Heilman would jump up suddenly in the night and call to Mac, "Come on, McCrory, get up! Tojo's comin' over!" McCrory would sit up, listen in vain for the sound of "Tojo", and way, disgustedly, "Aw, Heilman, quit it. You're just dreaming you heard Tojo." "No I hain't. That's Tojo." Harry would then hurriedly put on his clothes and vanish from the tent. Eventually Mac sould hear the plane too and decide that once again Heilman had been right.

The ubiquitous "Tojo" was, of course, an abstraction. Unlike "Jerry," which was used in reference to the Germans, Tojo was used only in the singular. It was always "Tojo" or "he" who released the bombs, piloted the plane, or fired a machine gun in strafing or in self-defense. It was "Tojo" too who fuzed and loaded the shells, pulled the lanyard, and observed the shell burst on those occasions when we were the target of Japanese artillery. The two situations were invariably summed up with "Tojo's comin' over" and "Tojo's throwin' stuff at us," regardless of the fact that there were many men involved in each operation. I suppose it was the result of our attempt - whether conscious or unconscious, I wouldn't know - to personalize something in a war which was so unmitigatedly impersonal.

My ears were also quick to catch another sound, although for a long time I had difficulty in convincing anybody except Audley Long that I had heard it. Audley long had heard the sound too, but his corroboration of my story was hardly satisfactory because brother Long was what I might euphemistically describe as eccentric. However, before a general re-appraisal of my mental equipment could take place, Ray Green, of whose mental stability nearly everyone was sure, fortunately came to my aid and said that he also heard the sound.

The sound in question was a kind of popping or thumping noise which seemed to emanate from the intruding Jap plane, and preceded the noise of the falling bombs. It was only audible at night when everything was quiet. The roar of the plane seemed almost lost in the immensity of the silence, so there was plenty of room, so to speak, for another sound to be heard without being crowded. At first I thought the poping was the backfiring of the plane's engines, but soon I noticed that that the pops corresponded to the bomb explosions both in number and in rhythmic pattern. That is, if there was a short interval of time between the first and second pops and a long interval between the second and third, the intervals between the first explosion and the second, and betwen the second and third would also be short and long, respectively. There were various guesses as to what the popping sounds actually were, but the most reasonable was that they were the sounds of the bomb fuzes being "armed" - that is, ready to detonate on impact.

By listening to these pops we could predict how many bombs would fall - if anyone was interested. Once on Bougainville I heard so many of these pops that the effect was like machine-gun fire. In fact, someone said, "Tojo's strafing." I said, "No, that's bombs. He must be shoveling 'em out of the plane." We took for cover, and sure enough, there was a veritable deluge of small bombs, dozens of them. They were anti-personnel, fragmentation bombs, so did not pack much of a concussion, but they were capable of spraying the area with a nasty cloud of red-hot, jagged steel fragments (mis-called "shrapnel"), so I was glad we were all under cover. They did not land in our immediate area, but a few fragments went singing by.

Another sound we learned to identify quickly was the sound of a falling bomb. First of all, I want to say that bombs do not ordinarily whistle, Hollywood to the contrary notwithstanding. I have heard at least a hundred bombs, and every one of them swished; there was never a peep from any of them. If a bomb whistles, it is because a whistling device is attached to it. A whistle os not standard equipement, and I am quite sure that most bombs are dropped without any noise-making accessories. I hasten to add, furthermore, that a whistle on a bomb would have been superfluous, as far as we were concerned, for the psychological effect of the whistle was admirably achieved by the standard model, swish-bomb type. That is, we hit the dirt and shuddered quite satisfactorily under the swish-stimulus. So conditioned were we that one night in Guadalcanal, returning from a movie, a crowd of us heard a swish and dropped flat on the spot, and some moments had passed before we realized that there wasn't a plane to be seen or heard and that no condition red had been given. Then somebody said that maybe it was "one of them damn birds." He was referring to one of the huge, vulture-like birds, grotesque, black creatures with yellow necks and heads, that lived in Guadalcanal's jungles and made a swishing noise when they flew. At this, we got up, dusted ourselves off, and made metal notes to go bird-hunting the next day.

Chapter 14: Out of the Wide, Blue Yonder

The American and Allied Air Forces earned our respect early. We got our first close-up views of the Lockheed P-38 Lightnings the day we landed. Two were warming up for the take-offs on Henderson Field, and great clouds of coral dust billowed up behind. They were unique planes, these twin-tailed crafts, with their pilots riding atop the wings in teardrop nacelles. Propelled by two powerful Allison in-line engines, a P-38 in flight set up a majestic roar. At low altitudes a whistle could be heard accompanying the roar, and this is the plane about which I first heard it said that the Japs named one of our planes the "Whistling Death." Later I heard the same thing said about the Vought Corsair and the Grumman Hellcat, both Navy fighters.

The P-38 seemed to be strictly an American's plane, that is, it was never popular with the RAF or the RNZAF who preferred single-engine fighters. But the men from down under loved the old P-40's. These Curtiss planes, called War Hawks and also Tomahawks, were of the type made famous by the Flying Tigers, and, in the opinion of many U.S. airmen, had seen better days. But let there be a "condition red," that is, an alert for air attack at Guadalcanal, and the New Zealanders would take off in their P-40's to intercept the Jap planes. A short time later, back they would come, swoop over Henderson Field, and execute "victory rolls" signifying that they had downed enemy planes. More than once I have seen a single RNZAF plane do three victory rolls, meaning that its pilot had got three Jap planes that trip.

The P-39, the Bell Airacobra, was, in my opinion, the most graceful looking aircraft in the sky. Powered by a single Allison in-line engine, which was located amidships, the Airacobra had a long, poiknted nose and trim, slender lines throughout. We used to see this ty pe quite often in Fiji and learned to recognize it by the sound as well as ty its silhouette, for P-39's based at Nanadi frequently used to fly over our Sigatoka area, seemingly skimming the trees. The engine purred "like a sewing machine," I used to say. Americans were not keen on this type of plane either, I understand, although the Russians could not get enough of them. The Airacobra was an unusual plane too. Besides having the engine located in an unorthodox place, it was the only fighter at the time that carried a 37mm. cannon in its nose. This gave it unique value as a tank-buster, which is why the Russians liked it. Having its engine mounted behind the pilot instead of in front of him gave the plane a peculiar invulnerability for quite a while: the enemy, seeking to immotilize it, would always fire at tis nose - where its engine ought to be.

These, then were the first Army aircraft we saw overseas, and for many months the only Army fighters. The Navy strength was better represented in the islands, and we saw the new Corsairs and Hellcats of the Navy (the latter planes replacing the Grumman F4F Wildcats) long before we saw the Army's newest, the Thunderbolts and Mustangs, which were being introduced in Europe. They gave us a tremendous lift; there is something inspiring about a flight of planes, something irresistible in their roar which draws all eyes upward toward them no matter how often they pass overhead. They were such miracles of mechanical ingenuity and workmanship that we couldn't conceive of the Japanese - or of anybody else, I guess - as having aircraft even almost as good as ours. There was a little false optimism in such thinking, a little over-done national pride, but not much. It was the United States, after all that had developed the Norden bomb sight, the multitudes of excellent fighter craft for both the Army and Navy, and those colossal heavy bomber, the B-17, the B-24, and later the B-29. And American aircraft were flying in all corners of the world, with nearly a half-dozen different national emblems on their wings. There were few of us earthbound soldiers, I guess, who did not respond with awe and respect to the sight of these planes.

Another type of aircraft won, not our awe, but a kind of humorous affection, and that type was the small reconnaissance and liaison plane, which was represented by the L-4 (the famous Piper Cub) and the L-5 (built by Stinson.) They were used by Divison Artillery first, and later by each separate artillery battalion, for spotting enemy installations such as gun implacements, troop bivouac areas, motor pools, or supply and ammunition depots. They were flimsly looking, "parasol-wing" monoplanes, reminiscent of the "crates" of World War I, and their air speed was probably not over 90 miles per hour. They were reliable little crafts, however, and I believe we lost only one in all the time our division was using them (which was from the beginning of our New Georgia campaign in July 1943 to the end of the war.) They frequently flew over Jap anti-aircraft batteries of all calibers, but they were never fired upon. The enemy knew that our Cubs had direct communication with our artillery and that if they could not bring down the plane with one shot, so to speak, there was no sense in firing and giving away the position. The Germans also had similar respect and restraint toward the liaison plane. They dubbed it the German equivalent of "First Sergeant" because they always ran for cover when they saw it coming.

On rare occasions we would see one of these planes flying in "combat" formation, and the incongruity of these fragile, unarmed little planes simulating a flight of tough, heavily armed fighters or bombers always amused us. Then a stream of whimsical chatter would usually follow, like this:

"S'pose they're gonna bomb or strafe?"

"Bomb, I guess. They can carry a bomb load of two hand grenades."

"What kind of guns to they carry."

"Oh, a pistol mounted in each wing, I guess."

"I hear the new ones got heavier armament."

"That so?"

"Yeah. A pistol on each wing and a carbine mounted in the nose. Boy, they'll be able to blast hell outa things then!"

"I hear they're gonna carrier-base them Cubs."

"Sure. They're buildin' flight-decks on some of the LST's."

Perhaps I should add that this joking was not malicious or sarcastic - just good-natured. All of us appreciated the value of these small planes, and I imagine we were a little proud of them.

I have said nothing about the bombers - the Flying Fortresses (B-17's), the Liberators (B-24's), and the Billy Mitchells (B-26's) - but then, they spoke pretty well for themselves. They were always a superb sight, whether singly or in formation, especially the Forts and Libs. We saw between thirty and forty on a mission to Munda, and we whooped with joy at this display of air strength, the like of which we had not seen before in our theater of operations.

The sight that really stopped us, however, was the return of a B-17 from an air battle somewhere in the Central or Northern Solomons to its home base on Guadalcanal. (We were still at our Grenade Hill camp, neophytes in the Solomons, and so were pretty impressionable anyway.) The bomber was coming in low and laboriously, because two of its engines had been put out of action by enemy fire. As she passed overhead she was low enough for us to view the battle scars, and we felt like doffing our caps, I think. We could see daylight through a couple of spots in the wings, and some of the gun turrets, or "blisters," were shattered. The tail gunner's place looked especially grim. The gun itself, still and stark, was pointing downward, and the plexiglass housing had been shot all away. Someone reminded us of the saying among Air Force men about the tail gunner on a bomber. "If, after the end of a mission, the tail gunner doesn't get out with the rest of the crew, you don't lift him out - you wash him out with a hose."
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