A Letter Home

Note: this story was written by Kermit. It is possibly based on a true event. Kermit was awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving with the 43d Infantry Division during World War II.


Somewhere in New Guinea
April –, 194-

Dear Dad,

When I was a kid, I used to follow you around on our Nebraska sandhill ranch just like that spotted puppy trailed me everywhere I went.  You didn’t know, then, that you were teaching me things which would help to save my life a few days ago in New Guinea.  I doubt whether you even knew where New Guinea was – or cared.

The things I learned were not the important things then, like breaking a colt or branding a calf.  Whether it was work or play, you took pride in doing things well.  It was on the afternoons we took off for play, or during fun slipped in between chores, that you taught me the things important to me now.

One day you watched me as I crawled on the sand through the reeds to get a shot at that greenhead mallard in the old buffalo-wallow.  The duck flew off squawking.  He had seen the reeds shake.  I got off a shot, but he was out of range.  The shot scared up two ducks near me hidden under the bank.  You laughed, and I almost cried, when I couldn’t pump my old Winchester because the receiver was full of sand.  The day’s sport was ruined.  I had to go home, strip my gun, and clean each part with coaloil.

Before I left, you showed me how to crawl over sand with my gun cradled safely in my arms.  You taught me how to snake through reeds without shaking them.  Those were the important things that day.  I had cause to remember them – to use them –a few days ago in the jungle.

I learned from you how to whistle at a jackrabbit to make him sit up with his neck stretched and his flop-ears twitching so I could get a quick shot with my twenty-two.  You had me practice throwing my gun to my shoulder, getting the feel of it, automatically lining up the sights with the target.  You taught me that it was useless to blaze away at a flock of prairie chickens.  I had to choose one and really have a bead on him before I squeezed the trigger.  Watched how you crept upwind through the brush to get within range of the coyote that was killing one of our white-faced calves.  You pounded into me the principle that a real man takes a pride in his rifle, and that it is a disgrace not to take proper care of it.

Down in a foxhole with Japs all around me in the dark, with rain pouring down my neck, with mud and ooze to my knees,–I thought of those things, and kept my rifle clean.  The Jap, hidden in the grass behind a mud bank, had never hunted mallards in the sandhills when he was a kid.  That may be one reason why you are receiving this letter from me rather than a telegram “with regrets” from the War Department.

About the time I was given my first pair of ice skates, that Jap received his first dagger.  He was taught war when I was going to Sunday school.  Killing was his religion.  It is hard for me even to point a gun at a man.  That is, it was hard.  I still don’t like it.

There are some things any American farm boy knows that these Japs will never know – things that make some of the difference why we are going to win this war.  I’m not trying to pull that old line about “the cricket fields of Eton” you were so fond of quoting.  There is a lot more to war than that.  But a rifle means more to me than just a mind when I heard that Jap yanking at his rifle bolt.

**********

Men of the 43rd Infantry Division landing on New Guinea, prior to entering the jungles of that Island.

When we landed here, the Japs had already been pushed back into the jungle.  A division of infantry with a few Aussies was holding a thin perimeter around the airstrip.  They were glad to see us.  We practically walked off the landing boats into the pill boxes to relieve them.  They pulled back into the cocoanut plantation on the beach where they could swim, shave, and get a full night’s sleep for a change.  It was a mighty haggard looking bunch of boys that straggled in small groups from the pill boxes.  Some of the platoons looked rather small.

The perimeter was a five mile half-circle around the air strip with both ends anchored on the beach.  Part of it was facing a wide river.  The rest was a strip about a hundred yards wide slashed through the heart of the jungle.  Bulldozers, with machine guns covering them, were at work making the strip wider still to give us a decent field of fire in case of attack.  Along the inside edge of the strip was our line of pill boxes made of cocoanut logs and sandbags piled deep with coral and dirt.  These were connected by shallow trenches.  We could not dig very deep there.  An ordinary five foot fox hole became a well in an hour or so.  In front of our line were barbed wire entanglements, booby traps, and anti-personnel mines.  That was our perimeter.  For a few days we were jittery, but not a Jap was seen.  We settled down to life in a pill box, cooking our rations over a little gas stove, taking turns sleeping on an old stretcher.  Around us were our household utensils: orderly rows of grenades, boxes of machine gun ammunition, trench knives, machetes, carbines, and a tommy-gun.  The machine gun was always laid and ready to fire down the final protective line at a press on the trigger.  An extra barrel and asbestos gloves were handy.  It was crowded and damp; spiders, ants and mosquitos were our pets – but it was “home sweet home “ – a la New Guinea.

Patrols were constantly at work in front of our lines.  For several days they found nothing save a few evidences of Jap patrol activity.  Then one day a patrol brought in a half dozen prisoners.  Not having yet seen any Japs, and being free, I hurried over to the aid station to see them.  I say “aid station” because they were all in pretty bad shape.  A few days before a Jap patrol had been bombed and strafed by some of our planes, and these men had been left behind by their fellows.  Two of them had been brought in on stretchers, much to the disgust of the litter bearers.  The others were terribly emaciated and staggering with fatigue.  They dropped in the mud outside the aid station and stared at the sky with dull eyes.  Flies buzzed around their faces and covered their bloody bandages.  One had half of his right arm blown off.  There were maggots in the decaying flesh about the black, protruding bone.

Our medics went to work on their bodies and did all they could for them.  At the same time our Jap-American interpreters went to work on their minds.  The Japs answered questions impassively with low, expressionless voices.

From these prisoners it was learned that apparently a large force of Japs was moving west along the foothills a few miles inland and expected to hit our right flank in a few days.  Reinforcements were poured into the pill boxes on the right; patrols were doubled–a week passed, and still there was no sign of an attack.

Finally the Old Man got tired of waiting and decided to go out and find them.  Until that Jap force was located and destroyed, there would be no rest, and the air strip would not be secure.  My battalion was formed into a combat team.  At sunrise one morning we moved from the perimeter into the jungle toward the low range of mountains about ten miles inland.

An Australian corporal, who had been an overseer on the cocoanut plantation, was our guide.  He was accompanied by some native black boys who knew the trail.  We passed through a strip of jungle and found a clearing about half a mile across covered with waist high grass.  It was easy going, then.  We didn’t know what we were in for.

Our black guides went ahead of us into the jungle on the far side of the clearing–and disappeared.  The Aussie gave us a five minute demonstration of profanity in Australian and Pidgin English, with gestures.  It was impressive, even to our first-sergeant.  The Aussie knew the jungle like you know the prairie, but this trail was one he knew about only by hearsay from the natives.  There was nothing to do but use a compass, continue in the general direction, and trust to luck.

As it turned out, the trail was not hard to follow.  In fact, it was hard to stray from it.  For years the natives had kept this path clear.  It was a ten-foot swath cut through the heart of the jungle.  On both sides of the trail the vegetation was so thick that it would have taken hours to cut through a few hundred yards.

You have probably heard about jungle mud.  It is something one has to experience to believe.  On military maps the jungle is called a “rainforest.” Despite the so-called “dry season,” it rained every day out there,– and most nights.

For generations thousands of feet had worn a trough in the soft floor of vegetation.  The rains turned this depression into something like our hog pen in wet weather.  It even smelled like our hog pen.  The muck was from ankle deep to the top of our leggings all the way.  The trail led through the swamps where we waded in knee-deep and hip-deep ooze for hundreds of yards.  Each step was a slippery hazard–each step an effort to pull your foot from the sucking mud and to set it down again.  We fell frequently.  My rifle was the only thing I could keep clean.

There were stagnant streams to cross.  Over some of these the natives had laid logs.  After the first few muddy feet had crossed, the log became as slippery as a buttered snake’s back.  The men would take one look at the log, and then wade through the slime holding their rifles over their heads.  That was better than going in head first from the log.

The jungle was a tangle of vines and undergrowth choking the space between the trees.  The latter were mostly banyans with their wide, flaring roots buttressing their trunks in the soft ground.  Occasionally we would pass a huge mahogany tree, its trunk rising beautifully straight and round for a hundred feet or more before branches appeared.  We passed thickets of bamboo, bushes full of scarlet flowers, orchids, thorny trees, and wild bananas.  Everywhere was a cloud of insects.

It took us eight hours to cover seven miles.

In the late afternoon we suddenly reached higher ground, the trail became hard, the jungle less dense.  There was a clear space ahead where we found a mountain stream babbling over a rocky bed.  The Australian was pleased.  The stream ran along the edge of the mountain range near the trail we believed the Japs were using.

At the moment we didn’t give a hoot for all the Japs in New Guinea.  All we could see was that beautiful, clear, cool water.  We filled our canteens, dropping halazone pills in the water to make sure it was pure.  Half of us stayed on the alert with our weapons.  The other half waded into the water, removed their clothes, washed out the mud, wrung them out, and put them back on again.  Wet clothing means nothing in the jungle.  When it isn’t rain, it’s sweat.  Dry socks from our packs made us feel almost human.  I’ll never forget that beautiful stream.

We were all worn out from the hike.  It was a good campsite; so the officers laid out company areas in a small perimeter defense plan, and we prepared for the night.  It was late afternoon.  Some half-dry wood was found, a few fires were coaxed into being, and we relished hot coffee and bouillon from our K rations while we dried out or clothes a bit.

Machine gunners prepare for a firefight in the jungles of New Guinea, the setting for Kermit’s short story.

We had seen no sign of Japs, but we weren’t taking any chances.  Our sector of the perimeter was along a curve of the stream at the point of an egg-shaped oval.  We set up our light machine guns, dug slit trenches, and put out listening posts.  At sundown the fires were extinguished.

In the half-light of dusk my platoon leader was directing the disposition of the slit trenches.  He was dressed like the rest of us, but he made the mistake of acting like an officer.  From the wall of jungle across the stream came a popping sound.  There was a crack as a bullet passed over my head and a thud like a twenty-two bullet makes when it hits a jackrabbit.  My platoon leader fell.  We stared at him, unbelieving, for a moment, then dived into our slit trenches.  A medic raced across the open space and threw himself on the ground beside the officer.  The medic only stayed a moment.  There was nothing he could do.

Believe me, I was scared.  I strained my eyes in the direction of the shot.  There was nothing but a black mass of jungle on the mountain side that rose on the other side of the stream.  Our company commander and other officers crawled from hole to hole around our perimeter.  Orders were given to dig the slit trenches into fox holes.  No one was to leave his position during the hours of darkness.  You were to shoot only if a Jap had unmistakably located your own fox hole.  It was still better to use a knife.  Back in the area we could hear a radio key clicking out a message to the task force headquarters – a message that would bring supplies by plane at daylight.

Ever since the first shot, other snipers had been firing from the jungle at our entire perimeter.  There was a scattered response from our own lines, but there was not much to shoot at.  Darkness quickly settled down, and a drizzle of rain started that continued until long after midnight.  The long wait for daylight had begun.

The sniping stopped with darkness and infiltration of our lines began.  Japs crawled among our fox holes which they had observed us digging in daylight.  There were long periods of quiet punctuated with sudden volleys of shots, a grenade, a scream as a knife or bayonet found its mark.  The river protected my part of the perimeter somewhat.  Even in the darkness the smooth surface of the river could be seen, faintly, but enough to discourage fording.  Only once during the night did I see a form take shape coming toward my position.  I fired quickly.  The form disappeared.  I never knew whether I hit anything.  Most of the dead Japs were dragged off by their comrades during the night.

It was a hell of a night.  I was so tense with fear that my back ached.  Rain filtered down the necks of our ponchos and soaked our bodies.  Our holes became knee deep with mud.  I would look at my watch, wait what seemed two hours, and look at it again.  Sometimes twenty minutes had passed.  We were dead tired from the march through the mud.  I would doze with my eyes open, to be suddenly startled to nerve-shocked wakefulness by a sound nearby or by shots from other parts of the line.  I kept my rifle as dry as possible, half covered with my poncho, but ready for action.  Dawn finally came.  The sun shone warmly through the trees as steam rose from the soaked earth.

We stayed in our fox holes while officers and non-coms crawled from man to man to check up on casualties.  There were sickening sights in some of the holes.  Other holes were empty.  One boy nearly lost his mind when his buddy was found lying near his fox hole.  He had emptied his automatic there into what he had thought was the body of a Jap.  A medic restored his reason by showing him that his buddy had been knifed, pulled from the hole, and left in place of a Jap body.  Those devils aren’t satisfied with attacking only our bodies.

Shortly after daylight we heard airplanes.  A star shell burst above the perimeter, and in a moment two C-47s roared over dropping supplies by parachute.  Following the freight planes came some RAAF Beauforts strafing and bombing the jungle on the mountain side opposite us.  Our weapons company threw mortar shells into likely spots.  The Japs countered with scattered sniper fire.  Long streams of tracers crisscrossed the sky about the Beauforts.  As men rushed for the falling parachutes, the Japs poured heavy mortar fire into our perimeter.

The planes left, and the firing subsided.  I opened a box of K rations, not because I was hungry, but to get some dry cigarettes.  There are four smokes in each box.  That first drag after a night of jangled nerves is something I won’t soon forget.  My stomach had been upset, but now I was able to eat a few crackers and gnaw on a hard chocolate bar as I watched for Japs.  Bandoleers of ammunition were tossed from hole to hole.

Things were quiet for about an hour.  The Japs seemed to be waiting for our next move.  We still had no idea how many of them were.  The type of an attack that we had received seemed to indicate that it was a force much inferior to ours.  At nine o’clock the colonel formed a combat patrol to search the area immediately to our front.

The area of the jungle to be entered by the patrol was first sprayed with machine guns and pounded with zone fire by the mortars.  We watched as the patrol moved cautiously, their rifles balanced and ready across their chests.  As the first scout reached the wall of vegetation, there was a tremendous burst of Jap machine guns.  Caught in cross fire, the patrol withered into the grass.  Four men managed to crawl back to our lines.  Wounded men called for help.

A medic, flashing the red cross brassard on his arm, dashed forward.  A burst nicked him, and he was forced back into cover.  I found tears of anger in my eyes.  I had recognized two of those boys in the patrol.  We poured all the fire we had into the jungle for a few minutes.  There was no effect to be observed.  We had not seen one Jap.

Our supply of ammunition was limited; so we had to hold our fire until there was something tangible to shoot.  Planes dropped supplies again at ten o’clock.  They had to fly high, and some of the parachutes drifted into the jungle.  Word was passed around that another battalion was on the way to help us.  Now that contact had been made with the Japs, the general was determined to wipe out as many as possible.

Around noon the Japs began to fire steadily at our entire perimeter.  We kept our heads low and fired as anything that could possibly be a Jap.  We were comparatively in the open.  Their jungle gave them excellent cover, and the nearby mountains made possible good observation.  They were getting bolder, and we could occasionally see a form move in the jungle.  The fire had reached a high peak of intensity when three closely packed groups of about 50 Japs each burst from the wall of trees and vegetation.  They were screaming, waving bayonets, shooting from the hip as they raced at our lines.  This was what we had been waiting for.  Every machine gun, BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle], and rifle opened up.  Not one of the Japs reached the outer edge of the perimeter.  There was barely a hundred yards of open space between our lines and the jungle.

The bend of the river still gave my part of the perimeter some protection, even though at that point the jungle came to the opposite bank.  The attack had been made on the main body of the battalion several hundred yards to my left.  Twice more similar groups of Japs made suicide rushes.  A few of them managed to reach our lines.  None got further than the first fox holes.

An hour passed.  No fire came from the enemy.  We became aware of a rising murmur of voices from the jungle.  This rapidly mounted to a frenzied screaming.  The whole jungle seemed to be full of tormented ghosts.  The word “Banzai” could be heard over and over.

Suddenly the wall of jungle became a solid mass of screaming Japs racing headlong at the center of our perimeter.  We could no more stop that hurricane of Japs than you can stop a cyclone in Nebraska.  Machine guns fired whole belts in one long burst; every rifle and carbine was fired as fast as fingers could pull triggers; grenades exploded by the hundreds.  Masses of Japs were cut down, but there was no stopping them.

As the wave of Japs rolled over the fox holes, our men jumped out to meet them with bayonets.  There was no time to reload.  On the small end of the perimeter we were not directly under attack, but we could not fire into our own troops.  We leaped from our holes and raced toward the fight.  We forgot to be afraid.  An officer waved those of us nearest the river to guard the flank.  Only six of us saw him and turned back.

The officer knew his business.  A platoon of Japs was already fording the river where it curved to the right around our front.  They were going to cut us off from the rest of our troops and outflank our position.  There were six of us facing about 30 of them.

At the ready in the jungles of New Guinea, two GIs watch for attempts by enemy troops to infiltrate their lines.

Two men threw themselves on the ground beside their machine gun and fired point blank at the Japs.  The BAR man went down with his weapon still viciously chewing shells from its magazine.  The man beside me dropped.

There were two of us left.  A bullet seared my left shoulder like a branding iron.  My buddy and I had retreated to the bank of the river.  It was a three-foot drop to a little strip of sand on the near side of the water.  We jumped down and fired the few rounds remaining in our rifles.  My buddy let fly with a grenade that landed just in front of them.  They saw it and dropped to the ground just as it burst.  As we ducked behind the bank, I threw my last grenade and jammed another clip into my rifle.  It was then that I noticed my buddy on the sand, blood gurgling from a hole in his throat.

Until then things had happened so fast that I hadn’t had time to be scared.  That sight almost got me.  I was sick.  My stomach retched, and I vomited.

The few Japs still alive had been dazed by the two grenades, and that was all that saved me.  After a moment, I stuck my head over the bank.  Two Japs were reeling to their feet, but they dropped again and lay still.  I saw a rifle pointing straight at my head.  I ducked just in time, raised up and snapped a quick shot into the Jap before he could work his bolt.  There were still three left.  They dropped to the ground just as I fired at one of them.  I did not dare raise high enough to shoot again.  From movements in the grass I could see that two of them were working their way toward me.  I had winged the third one.

I was in a jam.  With the river behind me, I dared not retreat that way.  In a moment they would throw grenades, and it would be all over.  Along the bank to my left was a growth of thick reed-like grass growing in the sand.  I took the only way out and wormed my way through the reeds as fast as I could, snaking along on my belly.  Behind me two grenades burst, and two yelling Japs jumped over the bank.

I didn’t stop to look, but from the sounds I guessed that they were working on the body of my buddy with bayonets.  I kept moving.

It is strange how things come back to one at a time like that.  I remember that I suddenly thought of the day I crawled through the reeds to get a shot at that mallard.  I looked at my rifle–cradled in my arms the way you had taught me.  I found myself parting the reeds and sliding along the way I learned that day when I was a kid.

The two Japs chattered excitedly for a moment and then grew quiet.  There was still a roar from the battle in the perimeter.  It sounded far away.  Off to my right I could hear a rapid scurrying of feet that went ahead of me down the river.  Apparently one of the Japs was running ahead to try to intercept me.  I was well concealed in the deep grass; so I raised up slightly.  Behind me the reeds were shaking.  One of them was following my trail in the soft sand–pulling himself along on his belly.  Ahead of me I saw a slight movement behind a small outcropping of rock.  I was trapped.

My cover of grass ended a few yards before the rocks where the Jap was waiting.  To crawl into the open would be suicide.  The only thing to do was to wait for the Jap behind me and hope that I’d get the first shot.  I crawled close to the bank and carefully wormed around to watch my back trail.  In doing so, I pressed on a vine rooted above me in the bank.  A little shower of earth and pebbles rattled down.  A shot not ten yards from me in the grass smacked into the bank above me, fanning my neck.

I hugged the earth waiting for another shot, trembling all over, and searching the grass with my eyes.  A second shot did not come.  I heard strange metallic sounds in the grass nearby.  For a moment I could not understand,–then I remembered sand in the receiver of an old shotgun.  The Jap could not close his bolt and was jamming it desperately to drive a new cartridge into the chamber.  I looked at my own rifle.  It was clean.

I wormed my way through the reeds in the direction of the sound.  In a moment I saw the Jap fighting at his bolt.  He looked up in time to scream as I fired.  The range was only five yards.

There remained one Jap.  I could have crawled back the way I had come.  By that time I was so mad that my only thought was to get that bastard son of Heaven.  –But how?

I looked at the dead Jap, and an idea formed in my mind.  If I could make that fellow behind the rock think that I was his buddy, I might be able to trick him into exposing himself long enough for a quick shot.  I moved quickly over to the body, removed the helmet, rolled him off his rifle, and detached the long bayonet.  Raising myself high enough so I could just see the top of the rocks and holding my rifle forward, I slowly lifted the helmet to the level of the grass tops with the bayonet.  A bullet spanged on the helmet and wrenched the bayonet from my hand.  I saw a movement on the left side of the rocks, but there was no target.  My scheme had failed.

I lay on my belly panting with exertion.  If only there were some way to make that Jap expose himself.  I found my eyes staring at a brass object that had fallen from the pocket of the dead Jap.  It was a whistle such as platoon sergeants carry to attract attention.

A picture of a jackrabbit with his neck stretching and his flop ears twitching suddenly flashed in my mind.  –It might work.  I placed the whistle in my mouth, checked my rifle, slowly raised myself enough to where I could see the top of the rocks through my sights, and blew a long, shrill blast.  An instant later a startled head popped above the rocks.  It was as easy as plugging a rabbit with a twenty-two at twenty paces.

Suddenly I felt very tired.  For the first time I noticed that my shoulder was soaked with blood.  It didn’t frighten me; I just went to sleep.

It was still daylight when I awakened.  Our company medic was putting a dressing on my shoulder, and my platoon sergeant was pouring water from his canteen over my face.  I was terribly thirsty.  They fed me sulfa pills as I drank.

My battalion was badly cut to pieces but had managed to beat off the Japs.  Another battalion had slogged through the mud since early morning and had arrived in time to help finish the fight.  They took up where we left off and chased the few Japs left down a trail in complete rout.

Three days later I was able to make the trip back to the beach under my own power.  I didn’t have to carry my pack, but I did hang on to my rifle.

You see now, don’t you, why I said that you helped me to save my life.  You made those little things so much a part of my being that when the time came, I did them without thinking.

I’m feeling fine now, Dad; so don’t worry about me.  The campaign is practically over in this sector.  I’ll be safe for a long time to come.  Write and tell me how the ranch is making out.  Is the grass good on the prairie this spring?  Does Shep still wait for me at the mailbox?  I’ll be back there riding herd with you before you know it.  The Sons of Heaven are in an eclipse here in the Pacific.

Love from a grateful son

Jim

Copyright © 2011 by The Stewart Family