Thursday, January 26, 2006

Chapter 10: " ... And glad to go, too."

There was always something going on in the area outside Sigatoka, it seemed. On the theory that men were happiest when they were busiest, the Division made every effort to see to it that our every moment was ecstatic. Therefore, when daily field problems grew monotonous, we had protracted field problems lasting three days. These eventually palled, too, so there followed a series of week-long maneuvers. Our area of operations for these extended all the way from the town of Sigatoka -- actually about twelve miles from our camp -- northward to Nandi and Lautoka, a distance of some hundred miles. Sometimes we had good bivouac areas, but more often the places we camped were open fields that were shadeless and subject to inundation in heavy rains. Regardless of the condition of each bivouac area, however, we wre always happy to get back to base camp; it was a comfortably familiar place.

Adding to the fullness of our days (and months) at this area were various diversions such as speed marches, swimming instructions, improvement of the area by building bures, movies about three nights a week, announcement of more candidates for OCS, promotions among both the commissioned and non-commissioned ranks, a hurricane warning and subsequent preparation for the big blow, infiltration exercises, and athletics. One of the most talked-about events was the announcement of men selected to go to the States as "cadre." Coming as it did near the close of our first, and probably longest, year overseas, that announcement had considerable repercussions. They came in the form of noisy protestations from those among us whose names were not on that selected list. That was natural. We had had ten weeks, pleasant weeks, in New Zealand, it was true, but we were also rounding out eight months in Fiji, nonths that were far from pleasant, generally speaking. The men who were leaving for home were targets for not only the normal flow of envy but also for the downright hostility of many of the rest of us who regarded them as undeserving of such good fortune. Some of the men picked had had courts-martial on their records, and most of them had been conspicuous for their poor performance with the battery, one way or another. It was as if the captain had found this "cadre" project an excellent chance to get rid of "dead weight." Other batteries, we learned to our irritation, were not sending all their "worst" men, but, rather, some of their best ones. One peculiar aspect of the whole business, however, remained a mystery to me until about three years later, when Bob Glanton supplied me with the missing pages, so to speak. The reason I had showed such a keen interest throughout and an effort to dig out the rest of the facts was that at one time I was supposed to be one of the cadre myself.

As it was finally explained to me by Bob Glanton one day at Battalion CP in Tuguegarao, Luzon, there were two lists drawn up by Major Poston, the Battalion's executive officer. If he was to accompany the group of men to the States, he wanted the men of one list, if he remained with the Division and another officer went in his place, the men on the other list would go instead. Believing that he would remain with the Division, Major Poston submitted the second list. For some unknown reason, however, he was assigned to the group, but the list of the men chosen from the Battalion had to stand. My name was on the other list.

Had I been one of those to go, my rating woula have changed from Pfc. to Staff Sergeant overnight, and I would have returned to the States as an instrument sergeant. Instead, I remained a Pfc. until the day of my separation from the Army. The merit and undesirability of this and certain other similar critical situations would be debated indefinitely without reaching any conclusion. I mean, who could say whether I was better off remaining with the Division or going back to the States with a new rating? On the face of it, it seemed that the latter course would have been the more desirable. But generally, the men who returned to the States did not remain long, but were reassigned to other outfits on th eway to Europe and other places. When I thought of that, which I did now and then, I was just as glad that I was "sweating it out" with the 37th in the Pacific. A critical situation which affected all of the Division was the burning of the "Normandie." At Indiantown Gap we had been marking allour crated equipment "APO 37, New York." We had been alerted, passes were cancelled. Then suddenly the alert was called off, and limited passes and furloughs were issued. The address of the APO had been changed to San Francisco. The "Normandie" lay, a charred hulk, in New York. I thought of that, too, especially when we heard and read of Anzio, Salerno, the Bulge.

Of the men who did go back, only about three deserved their new ratings. They were Bob Mull, a Pfc who got T/4 radio operator's rating; Jim Bishof, whose grade jumped from basic private to T/5, a clerk's rating; and Walter Gravdahl, whose month-old Pfc rating was replaced overnight by a supply sergeant's Staff Sergeant rating. All three were conscientious, or , at least, not outright gold bricks. They were not aggressive or sparked with any amount of initiative, but they had conservative service, records, uncolored by AWOL's or courts-martials. That was more than could be said about most of the others.

The rating of first sergeant went to a cocky youngser, Harvey Heck, who, still an adolescent in mind, was sadly deficient of the qualities that would make even a fair first sergeant. To give him a rank equal to that of Don Hayes, our own First Sergeant, was practically an insult to Don, whose steadyness, fairness, intelligence, and energy made him one of the best-liked men in the battery, and probably the best First Sergeant that A Battery of the 136th Field Artillery Battalion ever had. We learned, with some satisfaction, that Heck's rating was taken from him hardly more than twenty-four hours after it was so ill-advisedly bestowed on him.

Jeff Duncanson, who was Walt Gravdahl's section chief used to get letters from Walt, or "Ol' Grahvy" as he called him. Walt probably made out better than anyone else, for he remained in the United States as a battalion supply sergeant somewhere. But, characteristically, he still complained. "Ain't that just like Ol' Grahvy," Jeff would say, after reading one of Walt's letters. He complained that he was doing a tech sergeant's job without the benefit of the extra stripes -- or the extra pay. "Some guy's," observed Jeff, "don't know when they're well off." Jeff was still a line sergeant.

The large dent left in our battery by the departing cadre revived the cherished conviction that we wre not ready for combat duty. We simply could not go into combat under-manned. To those of us who held such beliefs, the citing of our first extensive training in the field made little difference. "Anyway," the invevitable clincher would come, "you can't use 155's in the jungles." The answer to that, four months later, was, of course, "The hell you can't!" Without such a conclusive answer yet demonstrated, however, we remained serene in our convictions. "We'll be here a long while," we breathed with satisfaction as we watched the Fijians, in their usual dilatory way, erecting the bures. Some with longer memories reminded us of the Suva area we left behind, recalling that the feverish building program was still going on there almost up to the very day we vacated.

No, there was no use in kidding ourselves. Our days on Fiji were numbered. Reflecting the common distatste for anything unknown and persumably dangerous, we were, in a way, all for postponing the evil day of combat. Nevertheless, in another way, many of us were growing restless, eager to get off Viti Levu. I know I was. I was sick of the extremes of aridity and wetness (although we got no relief from these until we returned to the States); I was sick of the sight of moping Indians, sick of the half-dead atmosphere of the very life of Viti Levu, sick of the millions of toads of all sizes that used to come out at night and populate the very ground under our feet. We would be leaving, one of these days, and would be glad to go, too.

We were not quite certain when the Fijians' work on the bures stopped. One day they were apparently working, the next day there was not a Fijian in sight. We looked in vain for the trucks that usually brought them. Their share in the building project was finished. The next move was up to us; in short, we were to put in concrete floors. Therefore, while most of the battery was over in Nandi or Lautoka on field problems, a few of us, under Jeff Duncanson's direction, remained at base camp and laid the cement floors. It was not easy work, but the group was congenial, and I preferred this work to being with the battery where I would have to run surveys and waste a lot of time on OP's. We usually went swimming in Cuvu (pronounced "Thuvu") Bay after knocking off work. Occasionallly we would go to the bar of the Sigatoka Hotel for one of the rarest of all luxuries in a British country: ice-cold drinks, in this case, beer. One afternoon we encountered Tom Hulse, our mess sergeant, who seemed to be spending -- and enjoying -- his furlough in quite fluid fashion. He greeted us warmly and munificently ordered all drinks on him, so we all had a beer. Still feeling magnanimous, he repeated his invitation, and we accepted. Sam Beechan and I stopped judiciously after our second, but most of the others had a third, also, I think, on Tom. Some refrained, I think, on the fear that Tom's generosity might exceed his material resources. It turned out to be a groundless fear, however; Tom was amply supplied with shillings to keep the bartender setting up drinks until closing time, which was 6 p.m.

The mess hall floor was finished by the time the battery returned. The kitchen floor had been finished previously, so there were at least two bures that we could use for a short while before shipping out. It was certainly more conducive to eating than truck bumpers and ration boxes, though I can't say that it inspired our cooks to greater culinary efforts. Still, we flocked to the mess hall each morning, noon, and night at the first note from Jim Roepken's bugle, sometimes before. Vern Friend, section chief of the 3rd howitzer section, was almost always the first one in line. One evening, finding that his first place was about to be challenged by someone who appeared to be reaching the starting place ahead of him, he broke into a run, tripped over a tree root, and went sprawling, his mess gear flying in all directions. Ken Sterling, our machine gun sergeant, was a fellow with a sharp, sometimes cutting, sense of humor. He was also skilled in sketching with pencil or brush, so after watching Vern make his spectacular spill, he went to work and produced an amusing sketch which he posted up on the bulletin board outside the kitchen, and which gave us many a chuckle for several days. It showed a figure, with a hog's head and dressed in fatigues with staff sergeant stripes on the sleeve (Vern had recently been raised from a line to a staff sergeant), sliding along the ground on his tummy, with dust flying all around. A little way off was the mess gear, its component parts widely scattered. Underneath the picture was the caption, "What chow hog recently made this four-point landing?"

After the battry returned to base camp, there was definitely a moderating in the tempo of our work and other activities. The howitzer sections had, in the past few months, dug gun positions all along the coast from Lautoka on north. Now they could even forget the positions just across the road from the camp area. Our time was devoted more to lectures on the world situation and on maintenance of our equipment. Now we knew it was only a question of a few weeks, or even less than that, until our departure would be a reality. The great physical tension was about over. No more getting up before daylight, gulping breakfast down, and dashing off to a vacant field somewhere to hold simulated fire. There was the letdown from all that. But there arose a different tension, now, a tension resulting from uncertainty over the details of an event that was, in itself, an absolute certainty. When were we leaving? Where were we going? Were we getting some replacements? Would we be given new howitzers, new trucks, new rifles? This tension grew a little from day to day.

Well, here was the area that we were leaving. From the main road up to the first bures, the orderly room, the kitchen and mess hall, the land was open, uneven, and uninteresting. These bures were at the intersection of two small ridges from which smaller ridges fingered out. The living quarters of the battery were dispersed widely over the tops of these ridges. The instrument tents were farthest away from the orderly room and mess hall, and each day we trudged along three distinct ridges to reach the mess hall. There was no stream nearby, so we bathed and swam in Cuvu Bay (where I got battered by breakers one day) or in the river that flowed into it. A short time before we left the area, showers were rigged up, but until then we had to carry water back to our tents, and take sponge baths out of our helmets. The area itself was more isolated than the Suva area had been, and to see a movie we had to drive miles to the area of the 129th Infantry to the north of us.

The curtain was about to fall on our Fiji adventure. Each day we could sense a little more keenly the uselessness of our being there. Guadalcanal had fallen to the Marines and Infantrymen. MacArthur's New Guinea forces, including the justly-famed 32nd Dvivsion, were starting to roll and gain momentum having taken Lae, Salamaua, and Finschafen from the Japanese forces after stopping them at Fort Moresby. The threat to the Lower Melanesian islands had practically vanished. The New Year had come almost unnoticed, but the song, "White Christmas," full of poignant significance, was sung wistfully each night. On Christmas eve many of us went to a special service at the 129th area chapel, and it helped tremendously. In March of 1943 it was announced that men wanting five-day furloughs to either Lautoka or Suva could have them. There could not be more than five men away at a time, however. Jim Bishof and I deliberated, then decided to take ours together in Lautoka. The date decided on to begin our furlough was April 5.

On April 5, Jim, I, and the rest of A Battery were watching our first air raid from the top of Grenade Hill on Guadalcanal.


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