The Battle of the River

The biggest battle of Cape Gloucester was the crossing of the river not too far from us. The battle occurred at night at great cost to our infantry. A lot of bravery involved on their part. The whole battle of that night is written up in a chapter in a book called “The Marines in the Pacific” it’s quite detailed, however the way I was connected with it was that we were close enough that we could hear the terrific sounds of gun fire, rifle fire, machine guns, and grenades and the sound of men screaming.

It was pretty hectic and you could tell that there was a lot going on. Someone came over and they needed two people for stretcher-bearers which didn’t sound too good because it sounded like they were out of stretcher bearers and needed people as replacements. Our gun section decided who would pull straws to see who would go. Well, the short straws were pulled and it turned out to be Navar and McClure. McClure was a little guy who proceeded to whine a lot. I could see Navar stiffening up a bit. One of the most stupid things I did in my life was to volunteer to replace McClure. Almost immediately I regretted it; but I had already said I would do it so I was going to do whatever it took. Navar was a little happier about my being along.

It was terrifying, we were going to truck up there and get involved and get the wounded out of there. When I look back on the incident, it gives me an almost spiritual feeling, realizing what could have been and how close I was to disaster.

A stretcher- bearer is probably one of the worst things you could do in a battle. The whole time this was going on the sound of the battle was in our ears. It was very dark, the jungle was all around us and here we were going ahead into that battle. We were very tense waiting for word to move up and fortunately for us about ten minutes later we got word that we were not needed; but it was one of the most personally tense moments that I experienced. The objective of the campaign was to secure hill 660. It was secured by the Infantry within a couple of weeks after the big Battle of the River. The Japanese withdrew and were trying to get back to Rabau that was on the other end of the island and a terrible march thru the jungle. Knowing this, part of the First Division went down the coast and intercepted the retreat. As we heard later it was a complete success, they decimated the remainder of the Japanese forces. I sometimes wonder if any of those people survived getting through the jungle to get to Rarbau. If they did it was a miracle.

The secondary campaign there was Campaign Talasea the name of the spot where they intercepted the Japanese. Now that the campaign was over we devoted most of our time to improving our living conditions. This happened fairly quickly. The CEEBEES were in and they built a couple of wood roads and their living areas close to the beach. We were getting in supplies pretty regularly so that our kitchen was set up and we could eat hot food. We ate a lot of corned beef prepared in various ways because we had a master chef cook who had a great imagination with the corned beef. We even got an outdoor movie built.

The next thing was an officer’s mess so that the officers could eat separately. They had a waiter who was one of our guys, Gabby Hayes, from Georgia. Gabby was upbraided one day by one of the officers because the towel he used to wipe things with was around his sweaty neck and he was stripped down to the waist. He was told that from then on he would wear a dungaree jacket and never again to put that towel around his neck. As things improved we got better tents and finally got some cots with some mosquito nets and started to be reasonably civilized. The only other thing that happened was rather strange or bizarre. In the interim toward the end of the campaign they had brought in Gregory, the AWOL member of our battery. They had caught him someplace in Melbourne and brought him all the way back to his unit and he was Court Martialed by Col. Hughes.

The Colonel sentenced him to thirty days bread and water and since there was no brig his abode was a two wheeled steel cart with a canvas top, about four feet by eight feet and he was inside that thing for thirty days. It was 100 degrees and very humid so he lost a lot of weight during his internment. There was always a guard walking around, I felt sorry for him. Every very third day he would get a full meal. He lived through it but it seemed like a terrible punishment. I suppose that he fully paid for his crime.

We were still getting air raids but they were becoming less and less frequent and they were not very close to us. I think they were trying to hit the airport so it was enough to wake us up during the middle of the night and several times sometimes. It broke up the sleep pattern but that was about it.

Since we were not doing much but just sitting around in the jungle some of our officers in our Officer-corps decided that they would like to use our guns for anti aircraft guns. This had never been done before and I’m sure it would go down in history in the military annals as a first. We all thought it was a little far fetched but we proceeded to do what we were told to do. The procedure was to go into the jungle and cut some trees and cut them into sections so that two rows of logs could be driven into the ground creating a crescent for the wheels to turn in and create tracks so that the wheels could turn within that track. Then there was a crescent in the back end for the spades on the trail of the howitzer and this was lower so that the tube could be raised to a higher elevation than it normally was probably pointing up at maybe at an eighty degree angle. The rest of the procedure was that when we got to firing we would set the time fuse on the projectile and set it so that it would explode at possibly ten thousand feet. This wasn’t really high enough to hit any airplanes but it probably kept them up high enough so that there was probably some effect on aircraft but primarily it kept us busy. They did not want us to sit around doing nothing. We were all a little curious about how this would work. The first “CONDITION RED” after we were pretty well set up came and we all ran out to the gun and loaded up and set the fuses and proceeded to fire away. It was sort of fun. We probably fired at airplanes three or four times and then gave it up. The air raids got less and less often and bothered us very little.

A  few years later someone showed me an article in one of the military magazines written by one of our officers who described how we preformed as anti-aircraft batteries. Sometime in the past several months, I can’t remember when, I was promoted to the rank of PFC. Obviously it didn’t make a whole lot of difference to me, other than a few dollars a month salary increase and that was all. The reason we stayed on the island so long after it was secured was that they couldn’t get enough ships together because they were assembling ships for other invasions with other marine divisions. We spent probably three months on this God forsaken island. A couple of other bad things happened while we were on the island. The two that I remember vividly were the outbreak of some kind of typhus, a serious problem among the troops resulting in high fever. The doctors apparently did not know what caused it, perhaps some kind of jungle malady. We were all as concerned as they were. They thought it could be some kind of bug in the kunai grass, which it could have been because we were using stalks of kunai grass (which as I mentioned looked like bamboo) to support the mosquito nets over our cots. An order came down to get rid of those stalks just in case they were the cause of the problem.

There were a lot of other “do’s and don’ts” of things we were not to do which lead us to believe that they were shooting in the dark. The closest comrade to me in our battery was Johnny Lyddle who developed the disease with a high fever, he was carried out on a stretcher and was sent home. That was alarming and close. Everyone liked Johnny so we were sorry to see him go. As far as I know no one ever saw him or knew what happened to him. I want to mention a couple of flash backs which I failed to mention. I can’t put them in the right context time wise. During the early part of the campaign, Navar and I were assigned to a listening out post a little way from our gun section. It was at night and very quite and nothing happening except insects chirping and various strange noises going on. We were out for a couple of hours. Navar who enjoyed arguing about nothing, started an argument with me and pretty soon we were yelling almost at the top of our voices until we got orders from our fire control center to knock it off. We did, but you would have to hear it because every one was yelling at us to quiet down because obviously, the objective of the listening post was to be quiet. If he Japanese out there beyond us were listening in they would have thought that it was a ploy to get them to fire and reveal their positions. No sane person would conduct their operation the way we did.

From the other extreme there was another listening post down the way and there were two other guys there. One of them was quite young as opposed to the rest of us I suppose. He was a red headed kid, kind of lean and lanky he was on this listening post for about one or two nights, as we were, it came to light that he was acting very strangely so some of the people complained to our officers. He simply didn’t talk to anyone, never said a word and stoically sat there. In the next day or two they shipped him out. I never knew when he came into the battery. When they sent him back he probably underwent some psychiatric treatment, he was obviously very frightened or disturbed something.