Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chapter 13: More Yarns About Guadalcanal.

During our last few weeks at Guadalcanal we had a two-week period of firing practice and Divison problems. That period differed from the maneuvers we held in Fiji in that the Battalion remained in one location the whole time. That was fortunate indeed, for we had rain almost every day, and moving howitzers in and out of position in mud is no easy task.

I was seldom at the gun position. Usually the entire instrument section was assigned to the OP. There were few specific duties for us; we operated phones or radios if the communications sections were short-handed, we prepared grid sheets or overlays for maps when needed, and that was about all. The main object in our being there was to pick up what we could on artillery observation and OP procedure.

The procedure for fireign problems as related to OP work was as follows. Targets were picked out, usually by the Commanding General of Division Artillery, Brig. Gen. Leo N. Kreber, or by the Div. Arty. Executive Officer, Colonel Kenneth Cooper. These targetw were designated on the firing charts or maps which were in the hands of the Battalion staff. Then each RO (Reconnaissance Officer) was assigned a problem.

For example: The Battalion executive, Major James Nellis, would say to A Battery's RO, "Gawthrop, take the next problem. Group of trees just short of the draw that's 400 yards to the right of the Base Point. Enemy personnel with maybe some light artillery or mortars.

Gawthrop: Battalion concentration ...

Nellis (interrupting): No! Wait a minute. What are you going to waste a whole battalion's fire power on that area for? One battery's enough for that. Now, go ahead.

Gawthrop: Able Battery adjust, shell HE, charge 5, fuze quick. (He pauses while the operator relays these commands. He studies the terrain, inspects the firing chart, and refers to his firing tables.) Base deflection ... right ... two eigh. (Pauses again.) Number two ... one round, at my command. Quadrant ... three seven zero.

The operator reports the commands and then becomes the center of attention as everybody waits for him to receive the message "Number two ready" from the battery operator. When he does, he repeats it.

Gawthrop: Fire.

Operator: Fire. (Pauses, then winces a bit as the phone brings in the blast of the howitzer as it is being fired.) On the way.

Then all eyes ar turned toward the target area, as everybody watches for the shell burst. A ball of dark grey smoke appears, suddenly, like a raindrop on a window pane. Gawthrop then makes his sensing, that is, tells whether the burst is over, short, right, or left of the target. He calculates his adjustment and sends down the next command which he hopes will compensate for the miss. Assuming that it does, that the next shot is a direct hit, he may call for all four guns of the battery, usually as a volley or volleys (all four guns firing in unison). Usually Nellis gives the command, "Cease firing, end of mission," for he is interested in using only as much ammunition and time as he feels is necessary to illustrate the problem. He then gives his critique in his characteristically crisp and laconic speech.

The procedure is repeated with each officer present. Some do well, and some blunder all about the place. When they do, they usually get their ears burned to a crisp by Colonel Cooper if he is around. This doughty old colonel was an officer in the old tradition. He had risen from the ranks of private in World War I, and now, wearing a full colonel's silver eagles, he knew practically all the answers. He had an uncanny eye for sensing bursts and could land a direct hit with one adjustment almost any time he wanted. But any lesser officer beware who thinks that anybody could do it!

One of the first things that even enlisted men are taught about OP fire control is not to "creep up on a target," that is, if the first round is short, don't make the next shot land short also. Increase the elevation of the gun or guns enought to take the second round well over (beyond) the target. Bracket the target, in other words. That was dinned into our heads so much that we thought that any OCS grad would know at least that much. But we saw one who didn't. Or else he was so sure of himself that he did not think it was necessary to bracket the target. He could make a direct hit in one jump. Like Cooper. He thought.

Well, he never finished his problem. After three adjustments of 100 yards each, the target still looked just a hundred yards away from the burst. Then Cooper caught on to what he was trying to do, and he told that second lieutenant to sit down in a truly impressive and elaborate way.

Whenever Lieutenant Colonel Henry L. Shaver came to grips with a firing problem there on the OP, there was always the interesting speculation on whether he was going to blast us all off the top of the hill this time or the next. Before leaving the camp for the OP we used to tell the rest of the men in the Battery: "We may not see you fellows again; Shafer's firing a problem today."

To illustrate: One day Shafer stepped up confidently to fire a problem. In his nasal drawl he described the target he had selected. The first response was a collective blink. Perhaps we had misunderstood. One of the other officers spoke up. "You mean that spot over there near that draw, Colonel?" Shafer said no, no, he meant the spot about five hundred yeards nearer. Well, that was practically the base of the forward slope of the hill we were standing on. Doubting glances were exchanged all around, but nothing more was said.

This probem actually was to be fired by Fire Dirction Center, that is, given the target, FDC plotted it, computed the firing data, and converted the data into firing commands which it sent to the battery assigned. Shafer was to give only the sensings. Soon the message from FDC came: "Unsafe to fire. Quadrant will be below the minimum elevation."

Shafer was annoyed. He got on th ephone and talked to someone at FDC, probably the S-2. "Unsafe to fire!" he snorted disbelievingly, and asked the S-2 to show him. Apparently the two agreed that there was a slight margin of safety, enough to permit firing the problem, anyhow. With a smile of victory on his face, Shafer stood straight up and addressed us. "It's safe to fire, but everybody get back off the hill. Everybody get back behind the top of the hill; but it is safe to fire."

Laughing at this retreat of Shafer's to a compromise position, we nevertheless complied swiftly, searching for little hollows on the side of the hill away from the target area and far below the top of the hill. Then, in those hollows, we held our breaths as, a few minutes later, we heard Shafer give the command, "Fire." We heard the shell pass over us so close that it seemed as if we might have touched it just by reaching up. We heard the burst: very close indeed. Shafer ran to the top of the hill to catch sight of the smoke before it had drifted too far. Well, he hadn't killed us with the first shot; he would try again. We groaned as he sent down his sensings. Then came the second round; we could almost feel its hot breath. From ths sound, we couldn't tell whether the second burst was closer to us or not. Shafer had a nother look. Then he surprised us all by giving, "Cease firing, end of mission." Had the second burst really hit the target, or was he afraid that another adjustment would wipe us all out? We never found out. Probably only Shafer knew the answer. Of one thing we were certain: we were glad Shafer had finished his problem.

Firing problems always meant that time for moving was not far off. The Battalion had done well, we were told, in the Guadalcanal problems. Too well, some of us reflected glumly.

We returned to our base camp to find that the mosquitoes had taken over. Until we had got them smoked out, the more susceptible of us had to go around even in the daytime with mosquito repellent smeared all over our faces and hands. The mosquitoes used to flock about me so much that for a couple of days I worked outside with a head net on. In most places we didn't need head nets even at night. Fortunately, beofre too long the Malaria Control Unit, which had been doing and continued to do a fine job, visited our area and got rid of the mosquito nuisance for us almost entirely.

For the short period left before departure for New Georgia we enjoyed a remarkable degree of relaxation. It was like the mid-term holiday between semesters, following the big exam. I think passes were issued, although I may be thinking of when we returned to The Canal from New Georgia. But we were allowed to wander around a bit. Some men looked up buddies in other outfits scattered about the island. Some took advantage of the excursion program while it lasted and went to Tulagi, a more "civilized" island than the one we were on. Mostly, however, we hung around base camp and listened to the radio, tuning in Radio Tokyo for a good laugh, or we went to the movies.

We had had that radio working almost since the day we landed. All the news broadcasts from the States were listened to avidly, particularly the commentaries of Sidney Rodger. During air raids some of the men found it diverting to tune in on the talk going on between one American plane and another, and occasionally between an American and an English-speaking Jap. Presently a story got circulated about a conversation between an American and a Jap that was supposedly picked up by our radio. The Jap was taunting the American tand telling him to come up and get him. Finally the American answered him, saying that he was not coming up - he was coming down on him, after which he dived on the Jap and shot him down. It makes a good yarn, anyway.

The biggest laugh we got over the radio was not from Bob Hope or any other comedian; it was from Radio Tokyo. In May the Japanese sent over a huge air armada, exceeding even the Tulagi-Guadalcanal raid of April 6. This May raid, which was the last raid of any size that the Japs were able to send over the Southern Solomons, consisted of about 116 planes. If they thought that the size of it would insure a successful day-light raid, they sadly underestimated our air strength. Only a fraction of that number ogt over Guadalcanal, for most of the 96 planes that were shot down were intercepted long before they reached the island. The remaining twenty fled for their home base. Yet Radio Tokyo gloated, "A devastation air strike by our planes hit the island of Guadalcan with such force that it is doubtful if any human being survived. All twenty planes returned."

The raid of April 6, almost 24 hours after we had landed, was somethign to watch. I forget how many Jap planes there were, but there were enough! There were dogfights (though those in the May raid were more exciting, being almost over our heads), and there was lots of ak ak. The ships and land batteries sent up a terrific barrage. Enemy planes came down like moths in a cloud of Flit. We suffered losses: one tanker was set afire, and a warship was damaged or sunk. Both were near Tulagi, the island which bore the main brunt of the Attack.

It was amazing how punctually a raid followed up the arrival of a new convoy. Old campaigners on The Canal told us that there was good reason to believe that a Jap sending station, located deep in the hills that overlooked Lunga, was radioing information about our shipping to a Japanese base further up, but it always eluded our detection. Apparently our division put credence in such reports, because infantry patrols, one of which was commanded by our Harry Prose, were sent into the hills ot investigate. As far as I knews, nothing of what they were looking for was ever found. This is not surpriseing. The Japanese had an extraordinary facility for doing things right under our noses. Like the one who directed artillery fire on a beach on Empress Augusta Bay which disrupted operations there for a time. He was found, finally, with a walkie-talkie radio, a short but safe distance from the shelled area, and he had had the effrontery to be wearing GI fatigue clothes too!

The most annoying thing about these raids was that they often interrupted a good evening of movie entertainment. Of course, there were nights when the show was so bad (say, a Grade-B, would-be comedy of ten years ago) that a raid was a welcome relief, but generally we preferred the movie. If the raid proved to be of short duration, or if the alarm was just a scare, nearly everyone would wander back to the show area from their fox-holes (if, indeed, any had gone to fox-holes to begin with) and agitate for the resumption of the movie. On moonlit nights we could almost always count on an air raid, even calling the hour when the Japs would be over, and many a baleful eye was rolled up a th the moon. It was during our second stay at The Canal that we most fervently wished for an interruption of a movie. I forget what the main picture was, but before it came on there was a "Special Feature" announced with much flourish. It turned out to be a showing of Leopold Stokowski conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in the Stalingrad Symphony of Shostakovich. The performance was for the "benefit" of servicemen, who made up most of the audience, and was introduced by Mme. Litvinoff, wife of the Soviet diplomat. As the musicians gave out with the cacaphonies, the camera wandered about the audience picking up rapt expressions on the faces of the men. One GI, who looked as though he'd rather be anyplace but where he was, drew a sympathetic "We know just how you feel, bud!" from Germaine Gogreve, and we who had been writhing at ths Shostakovich noise, laughed. A sympathetic chord had been touched.

There was, I think, only one stage show put on by professional entertainers while we were at Guadalcanal, or at least, at our area, but it was quite good. The tenor, Felix Knight, was one of the entertainers, and the only one I can recall now.

Gradually everybody began to get serious again. Sometimes men wouldn't find the time to go to a show. Our next move would take us right into combat, so the evening activities were more or less related to that impending event. Men went through barracks bags to see what clothes needed mending or replacing, listened closely to the latest reports on the war's progress, wrote letters, and weeded out non-essential items which would have to be consigned, often reluctantly, to the fire. All of us, I think, were in good physical shape and all together, except Andy Kaltz, who left half of his thumb on North Island, New Zealand, and Vern Friend, who was leaving half of his thumb on The Canal. Working with his crew on the howitzer one day, Friend had said, "There goes my damn thumb," and, to the astonishment of his gaping gun crew, had walked off to the aid station. His thumb had been sheared, as by a meat cleaver, by being in the way of the heavy spade as that part of the gun was swinging free. Bob Perkins and I, while still in one piece, had narrowly missed tangling with a shark, while we were taking a refreshing respite from our "policing" or salvaging detail. We'd been warned that there were sharks and had been advised to keep someone with a loaded rifle on shore to watch for sharks and warn us. Perkins and I were farther out than the rest when the alarm was sounded, consequently we were the last ones to get out. Being not quite so hefty as Perkins, I sprinted out of the water a couple of paces ahead of him, and I'm sure the shark was nipping at his heels. Aside from these minor misfortunes and near-misfortunes, Able Battery was able and ready, though I'm not sure it was willing, to push on to New Georgia.


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