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Combat Officer: A Memoir of War in the South Pacificby Charles Walker
October 7, 1942,
New Caledonia, Southwest Pacific Area.
It was nearly 6 p.m. when five Company H officers traveled the rough highway of New Caledonia to a French family farm that catered occasional meals for American soldiers. Much of the only highway running from the capital, Noumea, to the far end of the island had been hewn from solid rock; it was a real spring-breaker on Army vehicles.
The farm lay a quarter mile from the highway, with each side of the lane lined with beautiful royal palms. John Gossett, my company CO (commanding officer), and I had made the dinner reservations the previous afternoon and we had arrived at the farm just as the husband and wife were in the process of butchering a hog. The wife had been busy collecting the blood dripping from the throat-cut animal, which hung from a hoist. She'd stirred the fluid constantly as she added an additional bit of flour to make blood sausage.
Seated the next evening in an airy room next to the porch, we were each served a full bottle of wine as an aperitif. Then there came rock oysters, which we were told had been peeled off rocks in the ocean when the tide was out. They were something like barnacles, I thought, but delicious, and they were packed in chipped ice. A question arose: Where did they get the ice? Then we had a salad of vegetables, followed by fried chicken. Next was a pork chop, then a steak, and then dessert. All in all, the seven-course meal required almost two hours to consume. When a bottle of wine was emptied, it was instantly replaced with another. Surfeited by the excellent meal and wine, we were all in wonderful spirits until we heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. It had to be trouble, because only one man knew our location.
The newcomer was Dick Hamer, a lieutenant recently assigned to our heavy weapons company--the officer we had left in charge of the company while we were absent. He was excited. "I've got real news! We're to pack up for Guadalcanal, to load on ships the day after tomorrow. You've got to get back to the company; they've dumped a pile of ordnance and ammunition upon us. I didn't know what to do, so I figured I'd better locate you all."
After we paid our hosts we headed back to our bivouac area to find the company in turmoil. We had twelve extra machine guns to degrease; two extra 81mm mortars to clean; scads of ammunition that had to be loaded into belts; and several tommy guns, Winchester 97 shotguns, and other specialty items to oil and pack.
John Gossett turned to me: "I'll run up the hill to battalion headquarters and find out the details. I'll be right back." Minutes later he returned with a long face. It seemed that both our battalion commander and his executive officer had reported to the hospital, supposedly sick. (We were to find out later from our battalion surgeon that eleven officers of our regiment had suddenly developed pains, possible appendicitis, or other ailments.) As our regiment was a North Dakota National Guard unit, many senior officers had political connections, even down to an occasional captain. In fact, after our arrival in New Caledonia, our regimental commanding officer, a banker in civilian life, was replaced by a West Pointer. Our banker had no experience at running a regiment in combat, but what of the man from the school along the Hudson? He had no combat experience, either.
My first thought upon John's return was one of relief. Our battalion commander was a loudmouthed, uncouth drinker, a coward who covered his weakness by bluster and cursing. An additional shock came the next morning when we found he had withheld our 60mm- and 81mm-mortar training ammunition from us these past months. He had it all stashed inside a fenced enclosure behind his tent. Word had leaked down that our gasoline ration was in reality four gallons a day for each vehicle. Our battalion commander had withheld half of this in his enclosure. We would lose scores of barrels of gasoline that he had piled up; in the French civilians on New Caledonia would soon find and use them.
Also lost to us was our machine-gun and rifle-practice ammunition. The only conclusion we could reach was that our commander had withheld the supplies for demonstrations to please the big brass when they came around, demonstrations that would never take place. I never forgave him, for we went to Guadalcanal with little or no experience in firing those important weapons.
A replacement for the man was not immediately appointed, so my company commander was more or less forced to take over the reins on a temporary basis. He was a leader.
We packed and boxed up all night; tents were struck and cots folded. The twelve extra machine guns were readied for use and also mortars and tommy guns were checked and oiled. Crews finally finished loading many cases of loose ammunition into machine-gun belts by 4 a.m. By daylight, everyone was exhausted and asleep.
Shortly after noon a messenger arrived from regimental headquarters with orders for me to report to the 9 Station Hospital in Pieta, to be evacuated to the States. The month before I had had a bout of heart trouble after five days and nights without sleep, while we made repeated forced marches. I had been hospitalized for two weeks. I'd been released back to my unit temporarily as wounded Marines from Guadalcanal began to overcrowd the hospital. I was determined to fight with the unit so I consulted John. "I'm going to the Canal with you!" "Charley, you've got to go to the hospital. If I allow you to come with us, I'll qualify for a court-martial." He mused for several moments then began to smile. "We're to load on the McCawley, but there's another ship going to the Canal, the Zeilin. I'll lend you a jeep tonight, and if you can get on that ship, good luck! Heck! I can say I don't know where you went!" Hamer, our new officer, decided to accompany me, so after dark we drove to the city of Noumea. As it neared 10 p.m. we approached the docks to find a landing craft that was being loaded under dim pier lights. "Hey, Coxswain! Which ship are you headed to?" Over the sudden roar of the craft's motor, as he began to back away, he yelled, "Out to the Zeilin!"
"Can we catch a ride with you?"
"Sure, climb aboard. But be quick about it." Minutes later we were at the bow of the Zeilin. It was inky dark, but a landing net hung within reach of the small craft. I started the climb up the net with Hamer following, but I ran into difficulty. We were not alongside a vertical wall, but at the tapered bow. Our feet swung in sharply, so that the climb had to be done almost totally by hand. Despite my full pack and rifle I managed to get to the very edge of the ship's rail before I hesitated. I called down to Hamer, "I'm about played out. How about you?" At that instant a voice came out of the darkness.
"Need some help, Mac?" A hand reached over the rail and literally lifted me over the edge, onto the deck. Lordy, I was thankful! Our hidden benefactor then assisted Hamer, and we both thanked him profusely.
He pointed. "Just go through that far hatchway; there are wardrooms along the passage."
The first wardroom door was open, and I glimpsed a man wearing dark glasses. He was lying on the bunk nearest the door. I recognized him as Warrant Officer Hall from our Service Company.
"What are you doing here, Hall?" He tipped up his dark glasses and smiled. "They were going to send me home." "Same here." I looked around the room and saw seven Marine officers, all about my age; they were pilots and intelligence officers on their way to Guadalcanal.
"Do you mind if Hamer and I bunk in here with you?"
A young lieutenant named Gibbs introduced himself, then presented his fellow Marine officers. "We've two spare bunks. You're welcome to them." The McCawley and the Zeilin left October 9 for the Canal accompanied by three or four destroyers. It was to be a four-day trip.
On our second day upon the ocean, I happened to be standing by a signalman who was operating a blinker light in contact with the McCawley. He was scribbling on a tablet as he turned to me. "Some guy is going to be happy over this message."
A few minutes later the loudspeaker requested my presence on the bridge. I suspected I was going to be admonished for slipping aboard, but instead a smiling officer handed me a message that read: You are the father of a healthy baby girl. Love, Lorraine. I knew my wife was expecting soon, but to be notified in this exciting way!
The wire was addressed to Sydney, Australia. Someone there had a heart. John had managed to have it forwarded by light signal. That was my company commander, a real prince.
On the third day aboard the Zeilin, as I sat in the shade, leaning against a hatch cover, I reminisced about the past months spent on New Caledonia. Some good, some not so good.
While on a deer-hunting trip accompanied by our Protestant chaplain, we'd ventured some miles into the hills from our base camp. It was approaching 7 a.m. when we first heard tremendous rumbling explosions coming from far out on the ocean. I immediately abandoned our hunting plans; my platoon's antitank guns would be needed to protect Uto and Dumbea passes along our ocean frontage from a possible Japanese invasion.
As we approached my bivouac area near the Tontouta Airfield, I became aware of several Navy fighters circling to land on the macadam strip. The fighters were from a carrier that was in serious trouble, and the aircraft were almost out of fuel. The first plane crashed on the strip, necessitating the dispatch of an ambulance. The second, following closely behind, bowled into the lead plane and the ambulance. Another ambulance was dispatched, and a third airplane piled into the lot. The remaining aircraft took to the grass, anywhere they could land.
I was not an eyewitness to the accidents, and a veil of secrecy was swept over the matter so we could obtain no additional information. However, on one of my regular beach patrols with my driver, Blacky Sievers, I noted two gray life preservers that had blown ashore. On the back of each was LEX in big letters, followed by the words "Div. 10" underneath. I knew then that the carrier Lexington had gone down. When I returned to the rear area I described what I had found, but everyone smiled; no one believed such a thing could happen. Some months later Life magazine came out with photographs of the sinking.
Near my platoon bivouac by Tontouta Airfield was an old greenhouse. Its owner went into Noumea each Thursday for his quota of wine, which he sold to the troops. He finally became so greedy that men waiting outside his door heard him pouring the wine into a bathtub, thereby doubling the quantity. They quickly cured him of that by burning down his house.
My former company commander was a heavy drinker, as was his almost-constant companion, the first sergeant. I was called to report one evening and found both well soused. My captain started to curse me about the camouflage on my four 37mm gun shields, saying, "I should beat the hell out of you, you damned young whippersnapper!" I had taken all the foul crap he had handed out to date, but I finally rebelled at this.
I challenged him, "Why don't you try?" He did, only to end up on the ground. Then I challenged the first sergeant: "Mac, come out here and get the same!"
He was a coward, so I got in my jeep and went back to my platoon near Tontouta. The next morning at seven, a lieutenant appeared and handed me an order. It was a transfer from the antitank company to Company H of our regiment as of that day.
I was tickled pink! A month later this captain was reduced in grade to a first lieutenant and transferred elsewhere. I was assigned to take over the First Platoon of Company H upon my arrival. The platoon sergeant, Sergeant Hoffman, was a gem. He took me through the .30-caliber Browning water-cooled machine gun from one end to the other. I couldn't understand why he was never selected to go to the officer training school in Noumea, for we were short of officers, and the man was excellent officer material. Perhaps it was because the present commander of Company H was afraid of losing good men.
Back on July 3 our battalion commander ordered all five companies to the beach area to participate in a baseball tournament on the afternoon of the Fourth. During my first few days with Company H, I sensed a current of animosity toward the company commander. In addition, I found the men also had no respect for the battalion commander.
From the Paperback edition.Copyright © 2004 by Charles Walker
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