Sunday, December 18, 2005

Chapter 8: In the night watches.

One of the most unusual places on which I had to do guard duty was an OP overlooking Suva Bay. It was on the other side of Suva and many miles from camp. This distance made it necessaryt to abandon the conventional guard duty schedule of two hours on and four hours off. The system decided on was a six-hour shift per man during the approximately twelve daylight hours, with the twelve hours of darkness being broken up by two men on the OP at the same time, the time divided as they saw fit.

The OP (Observation Post) had a magnificent command of the harbor and the water beyond. We were equipped with a BC 'scope* and one or two pairs of six-power binoculars, and we found plenty of occasion to use them. We studied the movements of various Naval combat craft, and when the visibility was good enough, the structures and details of those ships. I doubt if we could have told the difference between a Japanese mine sweeper and a British corvette in those days, but our scrutiny of anything in the water that moved was of the greatest diligence, and we carefully noted whether a vessel had three funnels or two, or whether the radio mast was far forward from the main superstructure. We were intensely interested in all identifying features, but somehow we hated to be pinned down and asked specifically what such and such a ship was. I passed an entire afternoon that way. When I got through, however, all I had was a collection of unclassified observations.

There were many great things to see, however, besides the array of vessels which were constantly creasing the blue water of Suva Bay and beyond. Always an impressive sight was the arrival or take-off of the great flying boats: the gull-winged, twin-engine PBM Martin Mariner; the great, four-engine PB2Y Consolidated Coronado; and the lazy, clumsy, but extremely valuable Consolidated Catalina, the PBY. The whole air throbbed when one of these monsters went into action and pulled itself out of the water

Sometimes I would scan the sections of the town that were visible; one time the pantomime of little Indian girls, dressed in the blue uniforms of their school, at play in the schoolyard over a mile away; another time a Chinese vendor of fruit trotting along with his wares balanced in baskets at ends of a bamboo pole that rested on his shoulders. He reminded me of the old fellow (maybe he was the same one!) who used to sell bananas at Cunningham road, always proclaiming the price of a bunch as "qua'ta dolla, qua'ta dolla!"

Near to the OP was a radar post, with its rectangular antenna mounted on a mast above the shack. Our interest in that place always intensified, and maybe there was a tinge of anxiety, when that antenna began swinging slowly, sweeping the air to trap an unwelcome signal. The incongruities which typified warfare in the Pacific Islands, presented thus by the radar post but a stone's throw from jungles, did not really end here, they began here. Everywhere we went we woud see the stark contrast between the tools of war of Western man (and copied by Oriental man) and the primitive conditions of the "unenlightened" man of the islands. The world of glittery aluminum and steel thrown open in harsh relief against the world of bamboo and palm.

That this world of bamboo and palm was not mute was demonstrated for Paul McCandless and me one night as we sat on the OP, slapping mosquitoes and scratching bites. It began at eight oclock. At the bottom of the hill and to the rear of us, where the road winds away from the OP, a drum began thumping, not very loud or very determinedly. It sounded quite tentative. Then it stopped, as if it hadn't accomplished anything. Voices. The soft, liquid voices of Fijian girls laughing. The heartier voices of the men. Talking; pleasant, friendly, subdued. More talking: a little louder and mingled with laughter. A few more tentative drum beats. Then a song, a Fijian song in full four or six part harmony, legato and mellow as only the Fijians can sing. At its conclusion, exclamations of "Vinaka! Vinaka!" More chatter, flowing now like a party in full swing. It was a party, or as such tings are called in Viti Levu, a "tra-la-la." Reflected light flickered in the treetops; the fires themselves of the celebrants were not visible from our vantage point. Niether, of course, were the celebrants. That made it all the more fascinating. Sometimes, after a short spell of comparative quiet, there would be an explosion of laughter, perhaps at a story, perhaps at some antics. We itched to see. Another pause might mean a bit of refreshment -- kava, of course. And so on and on. At midnight, the gaiety had not diminished in the least, but about 1 a.m. it did begin to lessen to a trickle. At three oclock quietness once more assumed its normal role in the sunless part of the day. How dull the OP seemed then!

Another OP of vastly different character was being manned at the same time. Located near the camp site on Cunningham Road, this OP gave us more headaches, heartaches, and backaches than anything of its size I can think of, excepting, perhaps, the command posts and fire direction centers that the FDC team set up on Luzon. This OP, located right across the road from the historic KP's stairs, was to be an underground affair, snuggled comfortably against the hill, its seaward side open for visibility. It called, therefore, for an enormous amount of digging in soil of the exact same nature as the soil in which the gun positions were dug: heavy clay on top, slatey substance beneath it. Its dimensions were, roughly, 6'x6'x6'. It was hard work, digging a hole that size. In those days, our officers were not prone to be appreciative of the conditions under which the enlisted men worked, mainly because they themselves never tried it. So, one day, when Lieut. Samuel J. Fornuto found us working at a tempo he considered lackadaisical, he made some bitter comments. "I can't see that you've done a damn thing," he fumed. "You might as well be back down there in your tent lyin' in your bunks." He was utterly speechless, therefore, when one of the men dropped his shovel and said, "Okay, then; let's go men." And back we went to our tent and did lie on our bunks!

This OP was supposed to have a roof over it, but neither Fornuto nor Lieut. Paul Conrad, nor Capt. Lange could arrive at any decision as to how the roof should be made or of what material. Fornuto snarled at us about that too, once. That brought me up out of the hole with one leap. "Listen," I told him, "if some of the powers-that-be around here could make up their minds what they want us to use and get us the material, we'd do it, but we can't do it with the few sticks of bamboo we have here. We're not mind readers, you know. We don't know what you want."

Well, he said, he would see to it that we got the right material, but he told us to use some initiative ourselves. That last suggestion received a snort of bitter derision from us, who knew only too well the Army often discourages individual initiative.

The roof was finally constructed, as I recall, with heavy bamboo poles laid fairly close together which supported two or three sheets of definitely second-hand corrugated iron. For better or worse, that was our roof, and the space under it, our OP. We then covered it with earth and planted bans there for camouflage. It was a monument to the endurance, patience, and plain sweat of six men. It was also an abomination. It leaked like the proverbial sieve, but long after the leaks stopped (which they did after the rain stopped) it remained dank and a happy hunting ground for Fiji's finest mosquitoes. There for company the men onduty had, besides, the mosquitoes, a BC 'scope, a telephone, a plotting table which came in handy for a rummy game in case one of the boys dropped in, a chair or two and that was about all.

The scope was placed so that its two periscopic lenses peered out of the small observation slit facing the ocean. The man on duty was expected to keep his eyes glued to the instrument regardless of the visibility outside. It was because of the obvious futility of looking through the instrument when all one could see was dense fog or rain that two of us on duty one time decided to sit back and take things easy until the visibility improved. (I don't recall now why there were two of us instead of one.) Anyway, we settled down to enjoy a rummy game, and as might be expected, the omnipresent Lieut. Fornuto made his appearance. He was very annoyed to find us so occupied, not, I think, because we were not tending strictly to our duties, but because we were just having too good a time. We remonstrated, pointing out with unassailable reason, we thought, that looking at the water through the 'scope was a waste of time because we couldn't see any water, that is, any salt water. The only water we did see was what was descending from the skies. Nevertheless, he admonished us to leave the cards alone and go back to the instrument.

So long as we remained in the Suva area, the Instrument section was not required to do any guard duties other than OP work. After we had moved to the vicinity of Sigatoka, however, there were several guard posts, and everybody in the battery was required to do guard duty on any or all of those posts. At the pinnacle of one ridge the OP was combined with a machine gun post, where, in my naivete, I wondered pessimistically how one man could load and fire the machine gun, let alone observe also. Luckily, we were never called upon to fire from this or any other machine gun post on Viti Levu.

This Sigatoka area, which I shall describe more fully later, was very spread out. It took fifteen minutes to walk from the main road to the farthest tent (an Instrument section tent, by the way), a distance of nearly a mile. On the other side of the main road were the howitzers. The tents were laid out erratically, following the aimless ridgelines. Fortunately, telephone lines were laid to connect all OP's and other guard posts with each other and with the Orderly Room. Later, when we got a recreation hall built, a phone was put in there next to the radio, and anyone on guard duty who wished could listen in to the news via telephone, if the phone at the radio was kept open. Later, greater technological steps were made; Switchboard was able to supply us with additional radio programs from the 6th F.A., via the line to that outfit. Our officers did not discourage this, probably because they realized it was a good way to keep the men on the posts awake.

Keeping awake was indeed difficult, especially in the morning hours before daylight. Darkness and silence always sat heavily on one's shoulders during guard duty, but seldom, I think, with such crushing weight as it did between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m. There was no radio then, so as one sat staring out into the blackness, he would jump eagerly to the phone lying beside him if he heard a whistle through it. It would mean one of the other guards, just as bored as he, was going to ask for the time as an excuse to exchange small talk to dispell boredom. Don Mock and I used to do this quite a lot. He was usually at the machine gun post and I at the observation - machine gun post. We would go over the day's events, swap rumors, and discuss radio programs. When one of us would get tired of talking, that one would say with a yawn, "Well, I guess I'll get up and stretch my legs for a while. We haven't got much more of this guard to sit out, anyway." Thus conversation was tactfully terminated, and flat statements of boredom avoided.

In retrospection I try in vain to select the most trying night of the many I spent on guard. It might be the second night on Guadalcanal, when I was assigned the post at the gun position. It might be on night at the guns in our Sigatoka where, in the drippingly humid air, particularly savage and numerous mosquitoes tried to carry me away. Or it might be the night on Bougainville when extra guards (of whom I was one) were posted for security around the battery while not far off members of the 148th Infantry Regiment, a notoriously phlegmatic outfit, were scaring the living daylights out of us by machine gun and rifle fire. We found out next morning what they were shooting at. A banzai charge? Not at all -- a goat, and somebody's laundry that was hanging on a line. It was of some comfort to us to learn that the regimental commander gave those men several kinds of particular hell for doing that, with the advice, "I want to see some Jap bodies the next time there is shooting like that.
* Short for Battery (or Battalion) Commander's telescope.


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