Monday, June 26, 2006

Chapter 12: "The Canal" and our "Baptism of Fire."

We always called the island "The Canal." Many others referred to it as "Guadal." Either way you said it anybody would know it was Guadalcanal you were talking about.

Guadalcanal was already historical when we got there on April 5, 1943, and the first men we met were fully aware that they had made history. They were some Marines and some soldiers who had seen action. Guadalcanal had a reputation, thanks to the excellent news coverage given the Marines' operations there, and the men who fought there and survivied already wore a mantle of the legendary and picturesque, at least to the uninitiated like ourselves. Of course it was not entirely a Marine show, as we were pugently informed one day by an infantryman. "Who saved the Marines' necks," the fellow demanded belligerently, "when they were pinned down on Henderson Field? The infantry. The ____ Infantry Regiment," he repeated, naming the number of th eregiment. We did not argue. We only knew what we had read, and what we had read had given practically full credit to the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marine Corps had a habit of eclipsing (in news stories) the Army, and it tenaciously clung to that habit throughout most of the Southwest Pacific operations and occasionally elsewhere in the Pacific as well.

Guadalcanal seemed the essence of jungle warfare as Americans at home and overseas came to know it. Its malevolent dense growth assailed one both physically and spiritually with a sinister atmosphere which was no less tangible than the shell-tattered, fantastic banyans and mangroves, and the detestable wait-a-minute bushes and other foot-tangling plants.

The fighting had ceased weeks ago, but we still, in the course of our wanderings about the island, could find the reeking ruins of a Jap bivouac area, some rusting assault and landing craft, airplane wreckage of both Japanese and American aircraft. In fact, for about the first month we were there, stretches along the main road which ran from Kokumbona past Koli Point and Henderson Field to Lunga Point were toped off and marked with signs proclaiming the danger of mines. (It was slong this stretch, incidentally, that the survey sections of the 136th F.A. Battalion ran an extensive traverse.) On a "policing" detail, which I shall describe later, one fellow in Headquarters Battery had the enormous good fortune to find a wrist watch on the remains of a Jap. The band, if it was leather, had surely rotted, of course, but the watch itself was perfectly all right, and it responded immediately to winding. For a while at least, this island was profoundly more invigorating to the spirit than was Viti Levu during our last two or three months there, for it was that much more diverting.

For one thing, we would be rid of the trammels of a garrison life. The change was more apparent than real, I suppose, but it was felt all the same. Although a "full uniform at all times" was prescribed and generally enforced, (later, one could see men running about clad only in shorts) the uniform was no longer sun tans, or chinos, as we called the summer dress uniform we had worn in Fiji. Instead, we wore the green herringbone twill, or "fatigue" uinform altogether. Perhaps that one thing alone contributed much to the general feeling of liberality and easier discipline. Another thing was the irregular eating hours and lack of a work schedule. This last deficiency was soon adjusted, however, much to the disquietude of everybody.

"Aside from the dangers involved, you'll find combat conditions a lot easier around here." When Lieut. Fornuto made that remark to the instrument section one day on Viti Levu, we laughed him to scorn with "Aw, nuts!" and other expressions of incredulity. That was like saying that if you weren't swimming around in it, you'd find the ocean just as dry as the land. Paradoxical as it sounded, Fornuto's statement did prove more or less true, up to a point. We got a glimpse of that truth up on Grenade Hill, Guadalcanal, for although we were not actually engaged in combat or even in a technically combat zone*, we were in danger of being bombed many times. Yet, as Fornuto had said, life, for a week or two, was not tedious, regulations in regard to military were far from exacting, and there was a certain familiarity between officers and men that often goes with sharing a new adventure. The exceptions to Lieut. Fornuto's pat prognosis came later, of course, following one another like a battalion salvo and with terrific impacts, usually.

Seldom, while we were overseas, did we have three consecutive months as crowded as were the first theree we spent on Guadalcanal. After unloading our equipment and setting up camp - several days were consumed doing that - the battalion, either as a whole or in units, built up a corduroy road, ran a survey of several miles of coastline, set up a new camp, dug new howitzer positions, improved the camp area, went to school, held firing problems for two weeks, handled rations, gasoline and equipment at the beach and at their respective dumps, and went on "policing" or salvage details.

Nearly every one of these projects had an interesting highlight to it. For example, there was the survey of coastline which was done by the instrument and survey sections of all batteries. In "chaining" the distance from the Kokumbona River to the Lunga River we not only passed uncomfortably close to areas which were still mined, but took ourselves, in an endeavor to keep the traverse in as few legs as possible, chest-deep in water offshore. We clambered over vicious-looking rocks and coral whose surfaces would cut a man grutally if he were to fall on them, balanced precariously on the slippery hulls of LCVP's, and dangled from overhanging limbs of trees growing at the water's edge. After the first half hour, the steel 100-foot tapes got so rusty that we could hardly read them. And what a job we had, at day's end, de-rusting our old Springfield rifles!

Building roads in Guadalcanal's hilly terrain would be difficult, but not insurmountable, with proper, mechanized, roadbuilding equipment. True, wome of the large pieces of machinery would have difficulty getting about on some of the ridges. There are some ridges, for example, that are so narrow that a single jeep-trail is all they will allow. But with power shovels, earth-moving conveyor belts, bulldozers, etc., roads, very good roads, too, could be and were built. Perhaps there were not any giant earthmovers or conveyor belts, but there were other things, notably trucks, trucks galore.

All such things, however, belonged exclusively (except the trucks) to the Army Engineers and the Navy Construction Battalions (the immortal Seabees.) When Lieut.-Col. Henry L. Shaver launched his 136th F.A. Battalion on a project subsequently known variously and sardonically as "Shafer's Folly" and "The Shafer Turnpike", therefore, he did it with GI brawn and very little else. The road connected our new area with our old and in one place dipped down into swampy land between wo hills or ridges. It was in this low place and on the sloaping approaches to it that the Battalion built a corduroy road to nullify, to a degree at least, the effect of Guadalcanal mud on vehicular traffic. Incidentally, during the rainy spells - which were frequent - we had to use chains on the wheels of all vehicles to get traction in the mud. And mud could be just as slippery, just as much of a nuisance - and just as dangerous, as snow.

The work on the Turnpike (strange, with what straight faces we thus referred to the road!) went on for several days, I do not know exactly how many. It produced a crop of lively and vitrioloc comments; hardly a day passed but what an A Battery man would burst into his tent, after a day's work, with, "Say, did you hear about the latest damn fool thing some jerk up in Headquarters dreamed up?" I can think of no quicker way a man could get an audience in those days. Indignation, of course, always ran at high pitch at the end of the day, and at supper the men were never too tired to discuss the fabulously stupid things that went on in the Army, including "giving that man, Shafer, a commission in the first place." "How he ever got to be even a second looey, I'll never know, let alone lieutenant-colonel." "Let him come down and swing a pick or an axe with the rest of us, and see how well he likes it." The tragedy of it all was, however, that we simply had to make that road right, now that we were situated in our new area, or else we would face utter isolation, for at that time, and for some time afterward, that was the only route to the new area. The initial mistake, as everybody saw only too clearly, was choosing this site for a camp and gun position in the first place. Was not the other area, on Grenade Hill, just as good? It was good enough for the artillery outfit that had occupied it just before us. (They had left their tents and their howitzers behind when they went back to Fiji for a rest.) Col. Shafer's answer was that shellfire from this position could not reach the beach - it overshot it. Thus, to be able to drop shells on the beach, the howitzers must be moved back. That is, A Battery's guns had to be moved; apparently the other batteries were situated all right. So, in spite of its almost inaccessibility, Shafer chose, as the necessary rearward position, the area that lay just the other side of the corduroy "Turnpike." And so we moved. The distance, by road, was something less than half a mile, but a straight-line distance between the two areas was nearer a quarter of a mile. In spite of that short way to go, however, moving the camp, equipment, and everything occupied more than a full day. When we came to uphill grades, two of our powerful Diamond-T prime mover trucks were needed to pull each howitzer up them.

The new camp was duly set up, and its location had at first glance, one and only one thing in its favor: namely, it was well shaded. The enlisted men were assigned the lower land where mosquitoes abounded, while the officers took the higher, breeze-swept ground and pitched their tents just off the road. With all the diligence of the proverbial beaver, we turned to building elaborate frameworks for our tents (in compliance with an order from Division Headquarters.) For timber, we went to the jungles about us and felled trees right and left with our axes, although I think it would have been more in keeping with the general tempo and spirit to have gnawed the trees down. This housing program continued for practically all the three months we were there.

First, we were told we must build frames for our tents. Now, each of our pyramidal tents generally came equipped with a 12-foot center pole and six short poles - four for the corners and two for flanking the entrance. The equipment was scant but practical and generally satisfactory. But that was not enough for Division staff. In place of the regulation center pole they insisted on a 15-foot job, which of course had to be hewn from the jungle. Instead of the corner poles, which were about four feet high and 1 1/2 inches thick, they prescribed massive logs 6 inches in diameter and 8 feet long, with 2 feet of that length to be sunk in the ground. That will give you a fair idea. There had to be beams of corresponding proportions extending along the sides, and these in turn needed additional uprights to support them. The drawings will show the evolution from the regulation tent to the elaborate affairs we ended up with and eventually left for the termites. Nobody would have minded doing the work when and as he could and in the manner most suited to his needs. But this project we pursued was compulsory, and officers came around every now and then to check up and see that we were doing it according to specifications. Well, we finally finished the tent frames, got our bunks moved in, and heaved sighs of relief. But, "Wait a minute," we were told, "you're not finished yet!" Then it came. Somebody thought it would be a nice idea to construct barracks bag racks in the center of each tent. It was to be a square platform of logs or bamboo, raised about a foot and a half off the ground. Plans were even drawn, showing the dimensions and everything. Before we had recovered from that, the brass had another surprise for us. We could no longer hang our mosquito bars from the tent beams or prop them up any old way. We had to build racks for them too. And so it went during April through June of 1943, whenever we had "spare" time - Saturday afternoons and Sundays. If the Division staff had had the imagination to conduct this building project on an initiative plan, the tents would have been fixed up more quickly, probably a lot better, and definitely with less griping. Making it something that we had to do was , from the start, a psychological error on their part.

As if the enforced building program were not irksome enough, we were dtailed to "dock work" - handling of cargo at the beach as it was brought in on barges or the amphibious GM "ducks". It had been our impression that this was the job for the Service Command boys, or the "Service Commandos" as we, in our bitterness, sarcastically called them. The service Command was a then newly organized unit of the United States Army Service Force. Its duties were quite varied, and "handling of supplies" could be interpreted in its broadest sense as being one of those duties. But, as usual, the Ground Force men were the fall guys. It seemed unfair in the extreme that men who were soon to be in combat were obliged to serve as labor battalions before that time. But if that seemed unfair then, we were destined to be shown greater injustice after our return from New Georgia. Even now most of us seethed and simmered. A fact that made the situation the more galling to the southerners in our outfit, and to some others as well, was that we were working under the supervision, more or less, of members - non-coms, it is true - of a Negro Service Command unit. Their duties, it seemed, consisted solely of driving trucks and watching us load and unload the trucks. There would usually be a Negro corporal or T/5 with each loading group, directing the group which stuff to lead, and checking off the material, whether it was "C" rations or drums of gasoline. One of our men, exasperated, spoke up: "Hey, boy, why don't you give us a hand here?" To which the Negro replied: "I can't; I'm a checker."

This innocent reply was the basis for a grim - if overworked - joke around the Battalion, "Ah cain't; ah's a checkah" got to be the stock gag if one of the men asked another to do something. "Damn niggers," they would wail, "what else are they good for anyway?"

It need hardly be added, I suppose, that the estimation of the Negro race was never very high. The curse of the Almighty was invoked not only on the Negroes of the Service command and the port companies, but on Negroes of Combat Engineers, the Navy Seabees, M.P.'s, and other combat or semi-combat units. The 24th Infantry Regiment, an all-Negro outfit, performed well some extremely hazardous patrol duty on Bougainville, a fact which was blandly ignored by most of the men of the Battalion. Yet, strangely enough, the artillerymen played many games of softball with numerous Negro teams with never a skirmish over the racial issue. That should prove something. You can draw your own conclusions.

While we were on a detail hauling gasoline to Henderson Field, we received an eye-opening revelation. Our mouths dropped open, too - in astonishment. The procedure of the detail was as follows. A gang at the beach loaded the full 50-gallon gasoline drums on the new GM trucks, and the trucks brought them to us at the storage point. There the drums were opened, and the gasoline (100-octane) was poured into a trough which carried it into a large storage tank sunk in the ground. The non-com who was there instructing us about the job concluded by telling us that any drum that contained gasoline that was not 100-octane aviation fuel (87-octane truck fuel, for example) was to be emptied on the ground. We gasped. On the ground? Just - dump it - on the ground? Yes, on the ground. It is of no use at Henderson Field.

"But that is good gasoline for trucks," we protested.

"It don't do no good around here," was the reply. "The commanding officer says that any that ain't a hundred octane should be dumped."

"But we can use it. Can't we take it back with us?"

"I don't see how you can. It's against orders. Better do what the CO wants - dump it on the ground. A guard at the gate might search the truck if he thinks hou got a full drum."

We had heard it all.

The non-com left with a parting shot. "Be sure to check those drums good. We don't want no gas that ain't a hundred octane. Every once in a while they slip us some of the other stuff."

That "other stuff" would have seemsed like gold to the folks back home, we reflected. We wondered just how often "they" did get a drum of truck gas up to Henderson Field by mistake. And each drum containing fifty gallons ... It took our breaths away! During our first week on Guadalcanal our trucks had been "on the deadline," that is, idle, because of a gasoline shortage, yet there was no telling how long this wastage at Henderson had been going on. It was entirely possible that while we wanted, the Air Force wasted.

We did not spend all our time at our base camp. We were two weeks in the vicinity of the Americal Division where we had firing practice. And we were a week on the beach up Kokumbona way, near the Piva River. We would have stayed at this place longer than we did, but when we had been there that long an event occurred which precipitated the sudden evacuation of the entire battalion. The whole incident was perfectly ludicrous, and many of us enlisted men privately had a good laugh when it was over and we were back at base camp.

The purpose of this temporary encampment was not a recreational one, although a few of us did take time out to go swimming (until chased away by a shark.) The real purpose was to comb the countryside for salvageable materiel. Although te daily expeditions we took were mostly fruitless, there were days when one party or another would bring back something worth while, or anyway, interesting. Thus, by the time we left, we had assembled on the beach almost a complete battery of assorted Japanese artillery, ranging from a small anti-tank gun something like our 37-mm AT gun, to the big 15-cm howitzer, the Japs' counterpart of our 155-mm Schneider howitzers. This latter piece, we learned later, was a real find, for although the Japs were suspected of having such a weapon, no one had ever found it or determined exactly where it was emplaced. However, if that was the case, American artillery evidently landed a lucky shot in the vicinity of this gun, for the outside of the tube (barrel) was scored and battered, and its breech block damaged beyond repair, by shell fragments.

Besides this formidable if useless booty, we deposited on the beach chest after chest of machine gun ammunition, both Japanese and American, odds and ends of rifles, gas masks, (the Japs evidently lived in mortal terror of the possibility of our using gas on them) in fact, practically everything but tanks, which we found, but which were too heavy for us to tote along.

This rpresented about a week's collections. As I said, we were prepared to stay longer, or rather, our officers were. We enlisted men were quite willing to call it quits right then and go back to base camp. This "policing up", as we called it, was getting tiresome. The only worthwhile souvenir was the wrist watch which a fellow in Headquarters Battery had plucked from the remains of a Jap officer. But Colonel Henry Shafer was determined to stay. Perhaps he would uncover a secret master strategy plan o fthe Japs'. Anyway, there was probably more scrap in them thar hills.

Then a Japanese bomber paid Guadalcanal a visit. We heard the faint rumbling of the bombs that were dropped. It was from the direction of Lunga Beach, some miles away. Soon we heard the plane overhead and Shafer screaming to all of us to get the lights out and stop smoking. Some of us dashed for foxholes, some of us crept for them, but most of us stood on top of the ground and looked up through the palm trees, searching for the invader. Then came another sound, the heavy throbbing of a P-38 night-fighter. It was on the prowl after the Jap plane. Then everyone was on top of the ground looking up eagerly and waiting for the fireworks.

We didn't have long to wait, for like sparks being blown from a chimney came the tracers from the P-38's four nose guns. It must hav been a really devastating burst, for when the sound reached us, it sounded like the noise made by a knife being drawn across a stretched piece of heavy canvas. In reply came a desperate but ineffectual burst of a few rounds from the enemy craft. Bits of orange light spurted suddenly, and we knew that one plane had been hit. Which one was it? We listened to the sickening low whine of the doomed plane, then, as we heard above that awful sound a full-voiced roar that filled the atmosphere, we knew that the Japs had lost that battle, and we sent up a hearty cheer.

Our watch followed the stricken plane as it fell. Once or twice the flame mass would momentarily expand, and after the reports of the explosions had reached us, we knew that it was curtains for the sons of Nippon. Those explosions were the gas tanks blowing up, and one could imagine the fate of that bomber crew.

It was some timme during the next night that the Battalion was startled by a short two- or three-round burst of machine guns, one of the .30's. Someone loudly loaded his rifle, and everybody wondered what was up. Soon we learned that the machine gunner thought he saw someone sneaking around the area, so he let go with a short burst. He fired only when there had been no reply to his challenge of "Halt!" All the guards in the camp area were instructed to be especially watchful from then on, and all personnel in general was advised to remain in the tents and not to prowling about, except of course when on guard duty, or when relieving a guard.

The next morning a report reached us that the crew of that bomber had not perished in a blaze of glory for the emperor and old Nippon at all, but had quite sensibly bailed out. Whether that report was true or not, I am not certain now, but I know that from that report it was but a short step to the assumption that the machine gunner had seen someone and that that someone had been one of the Jap bomber's practical crew. I think it is fairly safe to say that the report was received and the assumption arrived at with something less than aplomb by Henry L. Shafer. The man who had stood so regally on the bridge of the President Monroe a year before and delivered a Memorial Day speech somewhat reminiscent of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was now, I think, not so much inspired with the remembrance of things past as spurred into action by the supposition of things present - and uncomfortably close. Thus was begun the first rout (and the only one, I hasten to add) of the 136th F.A. Battalion. In an incredibly short time the trucks were loaded with men and their equipment, and a grateful battalion reached base camp that afternoon.

That was not the first air raid we experienced on Guadalcanal, nor was it the last, but it was certainly more dramatic than most. We seldom got a chance to see the maurauding plane or planes shot down.

The most dramatic raid, I think was the one in which two Japanese bombers were shot down by one night-fighter pilot in something like 90 seconds. That event was even recorded in one of the newsmagazines, Time or Newsweek. The pilot was a daredevil of a youngster who was slightly drunk that night. Acting against orders, he took off and hovered around in the air while the American AA batteries pumped away at the two planes. These planes skillfully maneuvered around in such a way that both could not be hit by the same barrage. If the flak was pretty heavy around one bomber, the other would wander off somewhere and simulate a bombing run to confuse us and draw our fire. All the time the searchlights were kept on at least one of the planes, and sometimes there would be two gleaming, moving dots up there in the blackness. Then, without any warning, the night fighter, a P-38, dived recklessly into the murderous flak and ripped the air with a long burst of fire and then another, shorter one. There was only token return fire, then Jap plane number one went down. For some reason number two circled around and came back. This proved to be its undoing. Perhaps its crew intended to avenge the other crew. Anyway, if it had continued steering a course straight and true away from the hot spot, the night-fighter never could have caught it. But it swung around, was picked up by the lights again, and the night-fighter was ready for it. Its finish was just as swift as the other's had been.

The P-38 pilot was grounded and fined. No decorated hero, he. The charges against him were, I believe, disorderly conduct, disobedience of direct orders, and endangering government property. (That he endangered himself apparently was not mentioned.) His reply was that since the ak ak was not hitting the Jap planes, he figured it wouldn't hit him either. This was a truthful, if unkind, commentary on the effectiveness of our anti-aircraft batteries. In all the raids I watched in the Solomons, I saw not more than two planes go down as a direct result of anti-aircraft fire from the ground; but more about that in a later chapter.

We had air raids from our very first day on The Canal. We were told the day we arrived that we should expect one, because always there was an air raid there whenever a convoy arrived. Since that proved to be true in our case, se considered a lesson learned, a truth which we could apply wherever we went. It was not a meaningless generality, for only after we reached Manila could we be sure of having no more air raids.

We had landed - a la Marine Corps - on Lunga Beach in the middle of the morning of April 5. We started, apprehensively, at the sound of artillery. Could there be a war going on? (It was probably merely firing practice.) A grim, this-is-it feeling welled up in us momentarily but only momentarily. For, after we had assembled on the grey sands of Lunga, we were amazed to hear a familiar sound: the Division Artillery Band playing the Field Artillery March! That was reassuring; we knew that the band would not find its way into a combat zone. (This was an erroneous assumption, however. Members of the band, sans music and instruments, were stretcher-bearers on the front lines in Bougainville.)

So far so good. Atop Grenade Hill we found our cmap set up for us. It had belonged to a 155 Howitzer outfit of the Americal Division which had left the island for a rest. We had lunch there, including our first atabrine tablets. Then the Battery was split up, half of it going back to the beach to unload the ship, the other half remaining at the camp to take care of the equipment as it came in. We worked off and on throughout the afternoon, and when night came, we turned into our bunks. The rest of the Battery remained on the beach that night. Sometime in the night, I can't recall the hour, I was awakened by the sound of a siren some distance off. I sat up and listened for a moment, then I flopped back on my bunk. I mumbled sleepily and not very intelligently, "I guess it's only a practice alert. It doesn't mean anything. Guess they must be testing the alarm system." I was almost asleep when I heard a commotion outside the tent and the voice of one of the sergeantswho was calling, "Everybody up! Grab your helmets, canteens, and rifles!"

I don't know where I got the idea that it was only a practice alert, maybe it was a carry-over from a dream, but in my first semi-consciousness that is what I thought it was. Now that I was outside the tent, however, (with my helmet, canteen, and rifle) I could see that it was nothing of the sort. The sky seemed unnaturally light, as I could not recall that it was time for a full moon. I looked up and saw flashes of orange light dancing madly about. What I saw were bursts of ak ak shells. I then became aware of guns thumping and booming all around us. I was not conscious of these at first, although they had been firing for some minutes. Then I heard the eerie plop, plop of the ak ak shell bursts thousands of feet above us. Amid the rumbling of the gun batteries someone said, "Listen! Hear the bombs?" I confessed that I couldn't distinguish between the bombs and gunfire, and someone else said that he doubted that anyone could.

We were told to go over to the foxholes near the edge of the crest of the hill, and there we waited until getting the "all clear" signal. There, one of the men noisily wondered wy we had to take our canteens and rifles with us. The why of the canteens I could not figure out. I couldn't imagine we would be pinned down for any length of time. As for the question of the rifles, I tried to rationalize that by surmising that there might be a ground movement by the Japs, coordinated with the air attack, perhaps just a harrassing activity while we were preoccupied with, and more or less limited in movement by, the air raid. That was the best I could dope out. Nobody came up with another answer, better or otherwise.

As I have already said, an adventure - such as this - shared by officers and enlisted men alike, awakens an informal and friendly atmosphere which nearly everyone feels. So we all laughed and felt better when we heard Lieutenant Gawthrop say waggishly, "Ah yes; I can see the papers now. Banner headlines on the front page. 'A Battery of the One Three Six Field Artillery Battalion has had its baptism of fire. Officers and men performed admirably throughout the ordeal and won the praise of their commanding general.' How about that, men?"

After the interruption, which lasted an hour or more, I was ready for sleep again. I lay down on my bunk. Then I heard Don Hayes in the next tent so I called out to him. "Hey, Don, my pass to Lautoka starts today. How about it?"

"I'll get you on the next boat back, Mac," Don promised.
*This technicality was a cause for grievance among us, because we were not entitled to a combat star, representing the Southern Solomons, on our Asiatic-Pacific campaign ribbon. One of the two stars that appeared on our ribbons was for New Georgia and Bougainville (Southern Solomons), and the other was for Luzon. We thought we ought to have at least one more than the men who joined us at Bougainville a month before we shipped out had, for they had two also.


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