I was living with my mother and father and brother,
four years my junior, in an apartment on Porter St. in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1943.
I was 19 years old when I received my draft notice to report for induction into the army on
May 29, 1943 at Fort Myer, VA. Next stop was Camp Lee, VA, where we were given our summer uniforms
and remained a few days before boarding a Pullman train for Atlanta, GA.
My first experience sleeping on a train, and it wasn't easy for a six-footer.
I don't believe we even got off the train in Atlanta, but continued to Macon, GA and were bused to Camp Wheeler, our final destination. The training cadre promised us an easier basic training because of the summer heat in Georgia. It was the hottest spot I'd ever encountered. On our first five-mile hike, several men fell out and were picked up by the stragglers' truck. One straggler, about 35 and a little overweight, fell out again next week, and I think was discharged. We were issued 1903 bolt-action rifles to fire on the range the first week, as the new MI models were needed in combat. In addition to the firing the MI rifle on the range, we were checked out on BAR, 30 cal. and 50 cal. machine guns, carbine, pistol and mortar. More time was spent with the rifle on the 100-yard, 200-, 300-, and 500-yard ranges. I qualified as a sharpshooter with the rifle, and obtained a classification as a rifleman. Sometimes I think someone else was shooting my targets, especially on the 500-yard range, when I scored six out of eight bullseyes on the second clip.
In a letter home, I mentioned going to a baseball game played in the camp, because Cecil Travis, the all-star shortstop of the Washington Senators, was playing. I suppose other professional ballplayers in the army were stationed at Wheeler. I don't remember anything about the game. Worst experiences during basic were KP, twice, and the heat. In the field, we had to take a salt tablet at each break, and the sergeant saw to it that we did. One of my fondest times at Wheeler was drinking cokes at the PX and feeding nickels into the juke box and listening to Tommy Dorsey's Boogie Woogie over and over again.
Basic training was supposed to last 23 weeks, but I believe it was cut short by 3 weeks, for late in October we were issued winter uniforms. My orders were for Fort Ord, CA, with a 10-day delay allowed, and rail tickets were issued via Washington, DC, and Chicago to San Francisco, then by bus to Fort Ord. This meant we could spend a few days at home en route to the west coast, just so we reported to Fort Ord by a certain time. On the train from Atlanta through Georgia, MPs roamed the cars, as most were carrying soldiers. Remember the armed services were segregated, and Jim Crow was still quite evident in the south. A dark-complected soldier sitting a few rows ahead of me was challenged by the MPs and asked to move to another car. He objected, saying he was Spanish. The MPs didn't buy that, and escorted him to another car. (About halfway through our tour on Oahu, a Hispanic boy, Jesus Olivarez from Santa Rosa, TX, joined our platoon as a replacement. He was no darker than we were after seven months in the sun.)
I spent four days with my family in Washington, then boarded a train from Union Station to Chicago, traveling overnight in coach, no pullmans this trip. Arriving in Chicago during the morning, I found the YMCA where servicemen were invited to bathe and rest on a bed for a few hours. The train from Chicago to San Francisco consisted of 19th century cars with electrified gas lamps. Seats were benches, not reclining. Two nights on this train was bone-crushing. The train would stop at a few stations (I remember two, Salt Lake and Denver), and the Red Cross ladies would be there to give us coffee or cokes and sometimes sandwiches. Crossing the Great Salt Lake at dusk was eerie. It was dark when we passed through the Rocky Mountains so they made no impression. Arriving at the San Francisco rail station, I walked to the bus station and took the next bus to Fort Ord. Spent only a few days there, doing some training in the field. A group of us were bused to Camp Stoneman, near the eastern extension of San Francisco Bay.
Here we joined Company F, 111th Regional Combat Team, our family for the next two years. In just a few days, the regiment was loaded on the U.S. West Point, formerly the U.S.S. America, our largest ocean liner. With ten thousand troops aboard, we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge for Hawaii. This was my first trip on such a large ship, and I was seasick most of the three-day trip. I was never seasick again in the Pacific area, traveling in small craft, ducks, and amphibious tracs, as well as larger landing craft.
We arrived in Honolulu Harbor, near the Aloha Tower, tallest building in the city at that time. My Company F disembarked and went to Hickam Field for a week to provide guards for the field. The entire regiment may have been taken to Schofield Barracks first for a week, but I'm sure my company spent a week at Hickam just before Thanksgiving Day. I was on guard duty near the terminal building where chunks of concrete were missing from the buildings from the Japanese planes strafing on December 7, two years earlier, when a C-47 landed, some staff deplaned and a photographer took pictures, so I knew they were important. The next day I saw the picture in the Honolulu newspaper and they were identified as Col. James Roosevelt and staff returning from Tarawa, which was secured by the 23rd of November.
Around the first of January, 1944, our 2nd Battalion moved to Mokapu Point on the east coast of Oahu near the Kaneohe Marine Corps air station. Mokapu was a small mountain that jutted out into the ocean, and our tents were set in two rows 50 yards apart up the steep incline. When it rained, I never saw such red mud a foot deep. Luckily our tents had wooden floors, but you were always shoveling and sweeping mud out of the tents. We did our jungle training at a special center somewhere near the base of the Koolau Range of mountains some miles from Kaneohe. We were trucked to all our destinations. For recreation we were taken to a beach for swimming on Kailua Bay just a few miles south of the Point. This was the first black sand beach I had ever seen. Strange.
Military nurses were stationed nearby, so we were near the opposite sex for the first time in the service. Speaking of women, we were given passes into Honolulu and trucked over to Pali, a frightening experience coming back down the mountain standing up in the bed of a two-ton truck. The first stop in Honolulu would always be one of the three infamous houses of prostitution, and a few of the fellows would hop off the truck and dash over to the end of the line, which sometimes would stretch around the block. I understood that the houses were supervised by the U.S. Navy and the ladies were given medical exams periodically. (See James Jones's novel, From Here to Eternity for further details.) My tent mates and I would continue on the truck to the YMCA, the Public Library, the Royal Palace, or Waikiki Beach. The beach was beautiful but so small, somewhat disappointing. I knew we had beaches in my home state of North Carolina ten times this size that stretched for miles and miles on its coast and offshore islands. The only two hotels on the beach were the Moana and the Royal Hawaiian. The latter was closed to all but the Navy as an R&R for submariners, I believe. We were able to sit in lawn chairs in the large park area facing the main drag, Kalakaua Avenue, and take pictures. At a pre-arranged time and place we would be picked up by our truck for return to camp, usually about 7 p.m.
About the third week in January, the CO asked for volunteers to fill vacancies in the 7th Infantry Division, which with a Marine division were to take back the Marshall Islands from the Japanese early in February. Kwajalein Atoll was the main objective. This atoll is the world's largest coral atoll, consisting of 97 islands and a land mass of only six and a half square miles. These islands surround a 900-square mile lagoon. I did not volunteer, as I had learned never to volunteer for anything in the army. However, some of our company did, including the two Vechoric brothers, Walter and John, from my squad. These two were second-generation Czechoslovakian- Americans from Perth Amboy, NJ. Why they were in the same combat infantry regiment and the same squad and company, I don't know (see "Saving Private Ryan"). I believe they wanted to stay together, and their parents approved. Anyway, they took only Walter (our BAR man) and the one other, Frank Salerno, from our platoon. Frank was one of many second-generation Italian- Americans in Company F from South Philadelphia. The 111th was a Pa. National Guard unit, and Company F's headquarters was on "Two Street", home of the famous Mummers.
Our two brave privates returned three weeks later. Walter went on to a small island on the Kwajalein Atoll in the third wave, with a unit of the 7th Infantry Division. He met few Japanese soldiers face to face, as the foliage was dense and vision less than 25 yards. He didn't know whether he killed any defenders or not while spraying his front with BAR fire. He escaped the experience unscathed. Frank on the other hand suffered a small caliber bullet hole through the fleshy part of his shoulder a few inches from his heart. He was patched up and returned to us good as new, although the wound on his upper back where the bullet exited was Ugly.
That spring our platoon of Company F was moved to Ewa Beach on the southwest coast, where our gated camp consisted of several wooden huts housing a squad each and a larger social hut where we could watch movies and eat our meals if raining. Two of my squad cooked our meals on a stove outside our hut next to a wall.
There was a concrete pillbox on the beach within our area, but I don't remember keeping a sentry or weapon there, though we did post a sentry at the gate to the area all night. I was on duty in the earlier a.m. when a staff car pulled up close to the closed gate, and an officer got out and approached. I challenged him with the full treatment, clicking off the safety on my MI, which can be heard for many yards in the quiet of night. He backed off and returned to the car and sped off, realizing we were alert and on the ball. In June, six of us with Sgt Kosta in charge were sent to Waipahu, a little village on a prominent hill overlooking the West Loch of Pearl Harbor and the new Farrington highway that skirted around the harbor west toward Ewa. We were to staff Observation Post (O.P.) 35, which sat on a platform atop the sugar mill. To reach it we climbed 100 or more steps inside the mill to the platform hung between two smokestacks. We lived in a mill house 100 yards away, no larger than the huts on Ewa Beach, but it was divided into two rooms with a small bathroom and an open porch with a gas hot plate against the inside wall for heating water for coffee or tea. Two of us slept on cots on the porch unless it rained. One night, after I had taken the early shift, I had gone to sleep inside the house on a cot against the porch wall (a single thickness of fencing board). The sentry on the next shift left the gas plate on so that his relief coming off duty would have hot water. But the wind blew the flame against the wooden wall and set it on fire. The guard coming off duty put out the fire. I slept through the emergency, not being aware of the fire inches away from my cot until I woke the next morning. For meals we were guests of an artillery company a mile away. We walked or caught a ride on one of their vehicles three times a day.
We stayed in Waipahu six weeks and met a lot of the children who attended an elementary school just a few hundred yards east of out house. They seemed to want to talk about soldiering, etc. One 12-year-old told us he was walking his younger brother downhill to the Catholic Church on New Farrington Highway to an early Mass on Dec 7, 1941 when the Japanese planes strafed the area. He shoved his brother down in a ditch beside the road and followed him. They ran home as soon as it seemed safe. From our O.P. we could see the superstructure of the U.S. Arizona rising out of the water near Ford Island. We were all on alert the day President Roosevelt met with General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz at Pearl (July 31). I was in the O.P. that day and watched his car with escort travel west on the highway 400 yards below me. Our duty in the O.P. was to report cane fires and any other suspicious fires to some headquarters, I knew not where, by telephone. By now the war had progressed to the Mariana Islands, 3700 miles southwest of Hawaii. We learned a lot about sugar production while in Waipahu. On my second postwar return to Oahu in 1995, all the sugar mills were closed. Only one on the North Shore was open to tourists as a museum.
In late summer, we rejoined our company at a camp just east of Schofield near Wahiawa in central Oahu. Our tents were on a narrow flat ridge surrounded by deep ravines. Lots of fun running up and down those 100-200 foot gulches in full equipment. After a few weeks of this, we joined our battalion for the second stay in Schofield Barracks. This was like the Hilton compared to our other digs. There was a large post theater and a baseball diamond where I watched an army team play a navy team made up of major league players. It was near here, while training in a field, that we witnessed two P-38 fighter planes collide while practicing dogfights. I believe one pilot bailed out and his plane crashed about 300 yards from us. I don't remember what happened to the other plane.
We didn't stay at Schofield long, for we were packed up and shipped south to the island of Maui. Company F was assigned to a camp on the southwest coast near Wailea in a heavy forest of trees. For the three weeks we were there, we built a beautiful mess hall with windows all around to make the most of natural air-conditioning. I have a photo of the building decorated for our first meal in it on Thanksgiving Day, with a coke bottle at each setting. This was the only meal we ate in the hall, as we were ordered back to Oahu the next day. I often wondered, many years later, why we were not in the Navy CB's rather than the Army infantry. You'll see later in this treatise that we laid a cement floor in a mess hall on Peleliu and assembled a large quonset hut to house our platoon in luxury.
I believe the battalion returned to Schofield to pack up and set sail for the Palau islands after the first of the year 1945, but four of us had applied for Officer's Candidate School, so we were held back in Oahu to await our date to be interviewed by a Board of Review. Wile waiting, we were housed in a camp just east of Waikiki below Diamond Head. The return address on a letter home (dated Jan. 4) was "HQ Co. 19th Armored Group." I believe the interview took place at Fort Shafter, but I can't be sure. Nothing more was heard of my application, so we waited a week or so for transportation back to our outfit, which by then had arrived in the Palau islands. I learned that I was to get my first flight in an airplane. We were trucked to Hickam Field and gathered in a hangar to receive our instructions. Only 30-40 passengers were to be on this flight in a four- motored C-54. Ten minutes were spent explaining inflation of the rubber rafts and evacuation procedures. This didn't help my confidence. Much later I recalled that only seven and a half years earlier, Amelia Earhart and her navigator flew across the Pacific and were lost near the Howland Islands.
The first leg of our flight was uneventful, stopping at Johnston Island to refuel. After an hour we were airborne again, and off to Kwajalein, the next refueling stop. About halfway there, we ran into a terrific lightning storm. Never was I so scared. The plane would drop a few hundred feet, then rise again and rock back and forth like a bucking bronco. To make it worse, it was very dark. Next worry was how the pilot was to find this little island and its airstrip at night. I could tell we were descending and making an approach to something. My face was plastered against the window looking for the ground. Then suddenly a double string of guide lights came on along the airstrip 1000 feet below, and we were down in a smooth landing. We stretched our legs and rested in the terminal building, probably a quonset hut, while the plane was serviced and then took off on the next leg of the journey to Guam. It was daylight when we landed in Guam, and we spent the night in a barracks near the airport.
Next morning we boarded a two-engine C-47 for the flight to Palau, 800 miles southwest of Guam. We sat on hard bench seats for the three-hour trip to Peleliu. Setting foot on that white limestone airstrip in the bright sunlight was a shock to the eyes, even though we had sunglasses. Took five minutes before we could see well. Peleliu is about 7 degrees latitude above the equator. A truck took me to Company F's camp on the north shore, a four-mile ride over dusty hard-packed limestone road. With a land area of only 5 square miles, Peleliu is 30 miles south of Koror, the capital of Palau, which is 7 square miles in size. It lies near the center of the Palau chain, consisting of 200 islands stretching 400 miles from 3 degrees above the equator to about 10 degrees. Koror was still occupied by the Japanese.
It was good to be back with my friends in the platoon. They had arrived only about a week earlier by ship. After 15 months in Hawaii, we all had a pretty good tan, so I went without a shirt the first few days, and to my surprise got blistered by the strong sun. Noxzema was the cure then. I kept a T-shirt or shirt on after that. I thought the weather was nicer than Georgia, because there was always a breeze off the ocean. I learned our regiment replaced the 321st Regimental Combat Team of the 81st Division, which with the Marines, in a tough two-month battle, cleared the Japanese from Angaur, Peleliu, and a few other smaller islands north of these. Our camp was 300-400 yards from the northern end of Bloody Nose Ridge, which ran along the spine of the island north of the airstrip.
One day two Japanese soldiers were spotted going into a cave, only a dozen feet from the base of the ridge. With Lt. Kearney leading, six of our platoon entered the cave to search out the Japanese.
The anteroom was the size of an average living room, but there was an opening to a tunnel about 3 feet in diameter to the far side of the cavern. Lt. Kearney had a Japanese phrase book and asked them to come out, give themselves up, and they would be treated well. We could hear some scuffling inside the tunnel. The Lt. repeated his appeal many times. After no response he tossed a hand grenade into the tunnel. We could hear moaning now, but thought it dangerous to enter the tunnel and pull them out. It was known that the Japanese would surrender and have an explosive hidden on their person that would blow up everyone nearby. So we returned to camp. I would guess a second patrol went out with a medic to review the situation. However, next morning on my way to the mess hall I saw a dead Japanese soldier lying in the bed of a truck nearby. This would be the only dead or alive Japanese I would see during my ten months on these islands. & We had a movie area in our camp. It was rumored that the Japanese would come out of their caves and hide behind foliage and watch the movie. I never saw any, so I can't confirm this. Shortly my platoon was dispatched by amtracs to the island of Ngemelis ten miles north to the west side of the reef. We would spend a month on this outpost. Our camp was on a flat area with water on both sides, deep enough for swimming on the west, but shallow on the lagoon side. When the tide was out, the lagoon drained for hundreds of yards to a channel about the center of the lagoon. We could then walk 400 yards to a small rock island about 80 feet tall, an O.P. where six of us would alternate for a week's assignment. There was a tent at the top of the rock with steps to cut into the limestone, so we could climb up more easily each night. When the tide was in there was no beach on the north (barracudas could be seen swimming below) and only a 15-foot beach on the east side. If we happened to return to the platoon island for something, we had to make sure we were back on the rock by the time the tide was due. I usually carried the radio (a walkie-talkie) in a backpack, weighing over 30 pounds. We had some pretty good meals on this rock, as some of our squad were good cooks.
From a letter home, dated April 29, 1945,
"I made some French toast yesterday morning, and Del Baum (Magnolia, Ohio) makes wonderful pancakes. The powdered eggs when mixed with water and canned milk taste as good as real eggs on the toast, and jam serves as syrup. We boiled some raisins, which tasted very good. Hugh Morrow (Russell Springs, Kentucky) made a chocolate custard with dumplings from the D ration bars. Of course, there are always beans to soak and boil the next day. There's cocoa, coffee, lemonade or orangeade to drink. It's just after dark and Buck (Quandrel Newsome, Coalmont, Tennessee, our squad leader) and Hugh, of Sgt. Price's band, are playing a few good old tunes, such as 'Wabash Cannonball' and 'Careless Love'. A searchlight spans the water every once in a while, but soon the moon will come up and it will be as light as day... just a little better feeling of security. Wish we could pick up a dance band on the 'walkie- talkie', but no soap of course. Buck and Hugh's fiddling will have to substitute. We have a radio station on Peleliu that broadcasts recordings, transcriptions from the U.S., and amplifies programs from Frisco and Hawaii. Strange to hear 'This is Radio Palau of the Western Pacific Broadcasting System'."Louis Viehmeyer of Phila., Pa. made up the sixth member of our half squad on this forward post. Louis was the only other platoon member as tall as I (6'1" or 6'2"). We gave out of fresh water a day before our re-supply of a 55-gallon drum was due via amtrac. I had to drink warm beer, a first and last, as I never liked it. The cans of beer were kept in a net tied to a stake in the water at the island's base. Cooled to about 75 degrees overnight. We caught fish in the lagoon when the tide was out and the fish were trapped in sump holes of water. A hand grenade thrown into the pool would stun the fish. Just had to dive into the water and bring them out by hand. Louis cooked them over an open fire, and there was dinner. For our Easter dinner, the company sent out some fresh foods, including cabbages, apples, and two chickens which we fried. One of the boys made some very good salad, and with fruit cocktail and cocoa we had quite a feast. While we ate on the beach, our fighter planes bombed and strafed the Japanese-held islands a mile away across the German Channel. This is not an uncommon occurrence. "I thought how lucky we were to be sitting there eating that swell dinner in peace." (Letter home dated May 8, 1945.) I wonder why they had to do that on Easter Sunday.