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Be Bombed and Borrow Time Everlasting
Just prior to leaving we heard of Yasutake making OCS but was unable to see him before he left for the mainland. A few days before leaving Guadalcanal I caught cold and when the time came to go I was feeling pretty bad, but I went anyway since I had already been appointed to go on the forward echelon with Lt. Davis, Ishida, Sanwo and Tokunaga. On Nov 5th, we boarded the President Adams and anchored at Tulagi that night. The convoy consisted of six ships: President Jackson, President Adams, Kimer and others escorted by destroyers and cruisers. On Nov 6th our ship returned to Lunga Beach where we had boarded ship the previous day and it was not until early on the morning of the 7th that we actually departed for action on Bougainville.
The entire voyage took about thirty-two hours and took us through islands we had never seen before. God must have been with us for there were no attacks by the enemy God knows we had enough escorts. The food aboard ship was very good, in fact the same as the enlisted crew for the Navy. On the morning of the 8th, about 8 o'clock the convoy entered Empress of Augusta Bay and the island of Bougainville lay before our eyes. The volcano of Mt. Balbi especially could be seen most plainly and the waters were not too calm for barge operation. Since we were on the third wave, approximately an hour elapsed before we actually went over the side to load into Higgins boats and head for the shore which was several hundred yards off
We had fighter plane cover over us and the artillery was going to town, so to speak. We landed safely after being sprayed by the waves which splashed over the front of the boat. We assembled on the beach where the Marines were busy about their work and we rested there for a few minutes. Finally we started off to the area which was supposedly already chosen by Major Gresham who had come up a few days previously. There were so many troops around the beaches that we lost our group which had proceeded on without any cautions of loosing [sic] the others. In the long run, however we saved ourselves a lot of walking for those in the lead got off on a wild path and ended up a way off their course. We, however made the best of things and inquired all the way, and consequently we could have gotten to the CP area first had it not been for the long rests we took all along the beach because of my cold.
We had rations for dinner and after our area was selected we got busy and started to dig holes. There was an air raid that afternoon, but since we were in the jungle we could hear only the racket of the guns. By evening we had dug a hole large enough so that we could sleep. The ground was exceedingly hard to sleep on for we had not experienced such beds ever since coming overseas and the air raids that came on during the night did not make things any better On the night of the 9th, however we received our largest raid ever experienced. At least five or six bombers came over and dropped anywhere from ten to twelve bombs each. The best thing about it was that it all took place within an hour and we were able to sleep during the rest of the night. Another thing, which did not hurt our feelings was that they did not fall too close.
The Marines were very much pleased to see the Army land, for until then they were very tense. On the evening of the 10th an enemy torpedo plane flew low over us, barely clearing the trees tops, while the rat-tat-tat of innumerous machine guns opened up on it. A few seconds after the plane had passed over us, we heard the cheer of some sort of a commotion, but did not know that actually had taken place until the following morning. That plane had been shot down about two hundred yards above us towards the front and its crew were all killed. It was carrying a torpedo which fortunately did not explode. Since, I had not been feeling too good during all this time, that morning I was going to the hospital for attention when I noticed a photographer heading up the road towards the crash. I had not gone as yet to see the crashed plane that morning since Ishida and Tokunaga had gone earlier in the morning with Sgt. Aikens of G-2 to investigate.
After inquiring as to the location of the 112th Clearing Station, I learned that it was down at the beach. When I heard this, I gave it up and proceeded to the scene of the crash. On my way up however in front of the 148th CP, Lt. Davis, who was there called me, and Capt Nicely and the three of us went to the scene of the crash. The MPs were guarding the plane because on account of the torpedo; it was dangerous. Some of the boys had already taken metal labels off of the plane and since the Div. Sig. Photo wanted me to pose, I consented to the idea. Then they took a pose where I was explaining the meaning of the ideographs to the Lt. with their movie camera. When it came to giving my name and rank, Lt. Davis would not consent to their request on the grounds that if the enemy would ever find out such things, then I would be on their "Black List" so to speak. Nevertheless, after some argument, Lt. Davis consented and gave my name and rank as Tech/Sgt. I did not raise my voice when I overheard the error in my rank for that was not hurting my feelings at all.
This occasion was probably the first time that I was in the chair as a candidate-object of publicity since the beginning of my Army career. I also met Lt. Comstock and "Perk" of Bomb Disposal with whom I had gone out with in the investigation of a crashed bomber back on Guadalcanal. Days passed and then the rear echelon arrived on the 13th, 5 days after we had landed. For two or three days after that nothing much ever happened. One night there wasn't even a single alert but there were days ahead of us.
After having been kicked around from one spot to another and immediately out of the officer's area, orders were to move across the road where the Marines were bivouacked. This took place on the 15th after we had called on 1st MAC to visit the language men there who had come from Noumea, New Caledonia. That night, up until midnight the raids were nothing of the exciting category. We were now out in the open whereas before we were in the jungle. We could now see what going on above us. The Marines had already dug several foxholes and deserted them, but those who were there were sleeping in dugouts. The other boys had grouped around near the edge of the jungle, while I stretched my hammock near the road about fifty feet away from any of them. There were three men from RECON to my right sleeping in holes and three Marines sleeping to my left. I was one of the new arrivals who was sleeping by myself without any prearranged foxhole.
To my right, however, there were two dugouts, one was made for a single man with small poles of 2-3" diameter covering it and the other was evidently made for two or more and was without any covering. The smaller hole was closer... .in fact it was just to my right about two feet away and parallel to my hammock. The fashion with which I had strung my hammock was primarily so that it would be convenient to talk with the Marines at night. The opening of my mosquito-net hammock was facing away from the air raid shelters. To reach the shelters I had to walk around the far-end of the hammock. I did not take too much notice to the things on the opposite side. The Marines told me that if any raids came on, then I would just say "Coming In" and seek shelter in their dugout. Until we moved into their area, the Marines had been jittery about night movements but they had relaxed by the time the Army had moved in. We felt the Marines were "Trigger Happy" and none of the Army men ever trusted them beyond he limits of broad daylight hours.
After midnight on Nov.16, however the enemy raiders started to come in one by one. On each occasion they appeared over our positions, the AA [anti-aircraft weapons] would open up and I would get out of my hammock and watch what was taking place. Only when the situation looked rather dangerous for shrapnel would I take to the foxholes. For the first few scares I only sought shelter in the larger open hole since it didn't exactly appear too dangerous. However, on one occasion I took to the covered shelter when it seemed rather scary to be exposed too much. During the quiet moments of Condition Red, I would lay down in my hammock and rest.
About 04:20 that morning an enemy raider appeared from over the mountains from the other side of the island but it was not detected in time, and consequently it flew right all the way across to the shore line. It did not fly over us but a little to the North and so I did not move from my hammock. No sooner had it reached the shore line when I heard it's motors roaring as it began to turn around. This got on my nerves and I got out of my 'boudoir' and I tried to locate the raider by its sound since the searchlights were off. Had it dropped its bombs on its initial swoop, there would be little fear for me but because all our AA weapons were silent I am guessing the raider probably could not find a target.
Nevertheless, the plane flew at a fairly high altitude and directly over us; it headed back towards the direction from which it had approached. Now I took refuge in the larger hole as no bomb release 'clicks' could be heard and no swishing sounds either. I felt very uneasy when it flew directly overhead. The raider had gone a few miles when the AA began throwing up a terrific barrage which enveloped it. The searchlights came on and the unwelcome reception created a spectacle for us on the ground. Now the raider began to turn and at the same time started a dive. This was the first time I had witnessed an actual dive bombing and the roar of the engine as the plane came plummeting to earth made me tremble. I was now wide awake and this fact was fortunate very very fortunate because I was able to react to the desperation facing me. Of course the natural thing to do would be to seek shelter in the smaller covered dugout because the small logs on top of it would afford more protection. Without hesitation I leaped into this dugout from the larger open -pit hole.
This smaller dugout that saved my life was four feet deep, about thirty inches wide and six feet long. The open entrance was about thirty by twenty inches; there were no steps and the only way to get down inside was to place your hands at the sides of the entrance and then lower your body down into it. In the darkness of the night, I lowered myself without a moment to spare as the plane was still coming down in a dive. Before crouching all the way down, I stood up in the entrance straining my eyes and ears in an attempt to locate the plane which now was not being spotted by the searchlights. Suddenly a swishing noise preceded a clicking noise caught my ears and I began to slowly sink to the bottom of the shelter. Anticipating a possible bomb impact, I tensed as if the end of the world was upon me. A single searchlight was hunting for the raider and for a split second the left wing of the plane became visible. Now I could see exactly where the plane was in the darkness of the night. It was directly in line to our immediate area and flying quite low.
Being almost positive that some of the bombs would fall in our immediate area, I went down to my knees crouching down as low as possible and bracing myself against the sides of the dugout. 'W H A M' a bomb impacted within inches of me. Now I was completely submerged by the debris and for a moment I felt numb. If I lost consciousness, I don't believe there is a way to know. The impact of the bomb was to my direct front and the top of my head was a foot or so below ground level. There was no air space to my front and breathing became a real fight that involuntarily caused my arms to rise to the occasion. In the area behind my head an air pocket had been created and with my arms and hands enough debris was removed to create a tunnel to the surface. I could now breath with strain. Thoughts were rushing through my mind as to what to do now. (There can be no life on borrowed time if this is the end of the line!)
Remember those logs? Debris did not fill up to the underside of these, hence some air space. I knew that the entrance was directly above me and I would try lifting myself through all the debris to the surface. Sadly solutions to such predicaments were never posed as a problem for GIs. Sure you breathe in and then out but if you can't breath in, you sure can't breath out? Your chest is not free to contract and expand because of the sand and earth surrounding it. As minutes past, it became clear to me that I could not save myself from my burial site, so to speak. I would have to call for help somehow. It was with a great sigh of relief that the outside came into view after pulling debris bit by bit away using the limited movement I had with my hands and not so much my arms.
Now, I could call for help. Chatter among the Defense Platoon could be heard, men talking amongst themselves from across the road. My thought was I might call their attention if I called "Defense Platoon", which I did. Even with a trembling voice, no answer came back through the darkness. I paused after each call and then I began to whistle. Because I was below the level of the ground no one could hear me unless they were fairly close in spite of the fact I really strained my vocal cords as you might imagine.
I gave up calling and waited in desperation. Soon voices could be heard near the impact site of the bomb. By listening closely I recognized the voice of Bill Ishida. Now, I began to call "BILL" "BILL". I was frantic Over the din of the commotion and after yelling several times, fate would have it that they heard my frantic calls. Bill answered my prayers when his voice was reaching out for me, calling "WHERE ARE YOU" "WHERE ARE YOU!" He must have thought that I could be in pretty bad shape, especially since several minutes had elapsed. Bill lost very little time in locating the hole from which I had been yelling. I begged him to "GET ME OUT OF HERE" "GO GET A SHOVEL"
Bill quickly realized the seriousness of my predicament and went searching for a shovel. I heard him calling "MAN BURIED" "WHO HAS A SHOVEL" "WHERE IS THERE A SHOVEL" Minutes later Bill began shoveling away the debris; after ten or fifteen shovels full I began to breath freely but my legs were still completely submerged and I was pinned down by the logs on top. Tell me if I'm hitting you with shovel, Bill would say I could now guide the shovel with my hands.
After I was completely dug out, I sprang out of my encasement and saw what a huge crater had been created by the bomb. I couldn't believe what the dim dawning revealed. The astonishment was something to behold and as the day began more and more men came by. My first thought after being rescued was: could I be complete and intact? I began to feel around to see whether there were any superficial wounds, but I found none. Since most of my body felt a certain numbness, I had to deliberately wiggle my hands and toes to determine whether I had complete control of myself Men started to gather around the crater and began to wonder how anyone could have survived a near-direct hit.
It was now getting to be daylight and a crowd began to form. Before the crowd started to get a bit loud, I withdrew to my collapsed hammock but thought better and joined the three Marines who were sleeping in a dugout where I had been invited to seek shelter in case of an air raid. For an hour I tried to sleep but to no avail. When daylight shone, I went out to size up the huge crater but did not disturb anything. This would be a real opportunity for a photo record of the campaign, I thought. By seven o'clock several men from the area where other bombs had landed, came by. From a string of four or five bombs, I was the victim of the last of these while the next to the last struck inside the Div. CP killing M/Sgt. Kennedy and Sgt. Stenger of G4. Struck by shrapnel was Col. Sear, Maj. Peters and Capt. Bookheimer. The Commanding General and his Aide were not hurt, although the bomb struck about forty yards from their tent.
I was showered with words of admiration or whatever you might call it, because fate had been so good to me With all the words of congratulations during that day, Nov.16, the thought occurred to me that maybe I may not be unscathed and some self-reflection might be in order. I felt perfectly normal except for some sand bums along my face and arms as well as a contusion on the back of my neck.
Then word came that services for the dead would be held at the cemetery at nine o'clock in the morning. I went to the services along with others. The cemetery was newly created with a single grave marker at the front of a line of crosses. Several graves had already been dug, however all were shallow. On return I saw both General Beightler and General Craig going in the direction away from the services. After the services were all over, both Generals stopped to investigate my miraculous escape from death. The site was but a few feet from the road transiting the area. The Commanding General asked "Who was in this hole"? My answer "I, Sir." The General said "Congratulations! You're a Lucky Man".. "Thank You!" Then the General went on: "I always wanted the men to build these small individual foxholes." With that remark the generals went on their way but of course their comments were appreciated. This was the second time that I exchanged comments with General Beightler.
During the remaining hours of the morning, more and more sightseers came by only to leave wilth awe-stricken faces, especially after learning the details of the explosion. Soon a photographer from the Div. Signal Corps arrived and began taking pictures. I posed in the collapsed shelter while Bill Ishida stood on the rim of the crater and Tomoyoshi Uyeda stood in the bottom of the crater. I would have been happier if they had interviewed us as a correspondent might have done so that the photo caption would be factual, like from the horse's mouth let's say. Pictures of two men from RECON who had been covered with debris, were also taken. Their shelter was about four feet away.
At noon I went to the mess hall as usual and while standing in line to get fed, Mike Kusnar of G-4 came up to me and told me to report to the General's tent at two thirty that afternoon for some reason. Of course I was more than surprised to learn that the General would have some business with me. After going through the line and during the meal, I learned that I was going to be awarded the "Purple Heart": I didn't believe it at first but they insisted and who am I to challenge something like this. Before chow time I had my sand bums treated.
When I first went to the Medics, the doctor told me I was too dirty with sand and that I wash up and return for treatment. When I had undressed, I discovered some back-and-blue spots between my legs. Some pain was noticed there but I did not think it was so bad that a black-and-blue would have developed. On my burns the doctor applied alcohol which created a severe burning sensation. The doctor said to return if I had pain from the bruise. There is no doubt that the impact of the bomb gave me a severe jolt, yet being fully aware of my wits helped to lessen some of the trauma. Now, if I had been asleep or somehow not hilly conscious, the results might have been quite different.
When Capt. Ayres told me that I would be awarded the "Purple Heart"... who was I to doubt his word. At two-thirty Capt. Gunther called me over to the General's tent where several others were being awarded the medal. I shook hands with the General for the first time and at the same time had my picture taken. It was only a matter of a few minutes and the whole affair was over. Now I began showing the medal around to others who understandably had not seen the medal before. The medal is really a beauty because of its color shape and the likeness of George Washington mounted on it. On the back it has a serial number and the medal comes with a lapel pin. As far as my career in the Army, this award will surely make a cherished niche. This will probably not happen again during the course of the war.
Oh those raids, they never let up and for the following two nights I suffered considerable from shock. On the second night specially I began to feel a sense of uneasiness as to whether I might have actually suffered internal injuries which would not appear until some time later. In order to free my conscious of such thoughts I began to look over my feces daily for traces of blood. Fortunately, nothing ever appeared. Because of a lack of real good nourishment and the cold evenings as well as my nerves, I could not withstand the load on my nervous system, and as a consequence I would shiver and tremble when the enemy raiders would draw near. As long as the roar of the planes could not be heard, my nerves would remain calm; just as soon as the roar became distinct and loud I had no control over myself.
I suffered the most from the after-effects of the bombing which covered a period of possibly six days. The entire CP moved two days after the bombing to an area a little more than a mile away and further into the jungle. The raids still kept coming and now I had to go the Medics in quest of some sort of treatment. To my request the doctor gave me phenobarbital to calm my nerves. This drug did help me in my sleep between the raids and at the same time made me groggy upon awakening. After two or three days of doping myself, I began to feel normal again.
The first few days in the new area was spent in setting-up. Most of the time was spent in building individual foxholes. As for my own, it was built right at the base of a sixty-foot tree and covered with six-inch logs. Others did not exert themselves thinking that by hitting-the-ground when they sensed a bomb coming, that this was as safe as anything. To my way of thinking, this was only false bravery and not commendable. Sleeping in the jungle was something new to us, especially the matter of insects and the terrible racket they made during the night. Then there were the chigger bites; these called for scratching with not too pleasant after-effects.
During the last ten days of November, there was hardly any moon and consequently there were hardly any raids. Happily a ward-tent was set up for movies which were shown during the daylight hours only. All the pictures were old unfortunately, but they did take one's mind off the seriousness of the situation. There was hardly any work to be done and the sections for the most part were all playing cards during the day. We had only two prisoners during our stay and there was only two occasions when I went up to the Front. The first occasion was to investigate some carvings on trees; these could not be identified. Not too surprising, these turned out to be carvings of the Natives. Here again, this was a "Jerk Off". On the second occasion however; it was the real thing, and this time it was to bring back a prisoner who had been captured.
During the early part of December, the moon began showing its face early in the evenings. There were a few daylight raids, but only the sound effects of such battles could be heard. Our view above the jungle was nil; we could see nothing unless the action was directly overhead. The fighter strip was completed in twenty-three days, and it wasn't long before there were night-fighters in the air. Previously, night-fighters had been coming from Munda and that immediate area.
During the early morning hours of Dec.18, Mitsubishi bombers appeared in formation for the first time. This was the first time that I had seen a formation of such bombers. At first there were two and then later a formation of three were spotted by searchlights. This was a change in tactics by the enemy since they were known to harass and keep us awake at night, hence the dubbing of his exploits as "Washing Machine Charley". Evidently, their thinking is now changing and protection against our night-fighters was paramount. Another theory was the enemy was short of bomb-sights and this required them to drop their bombs coordinately in order to maximize damage.
Often one could not separate the sound of bombs from the sound of the AA fire. These bombers flew over the fighter strip and did not come anywhere near us. There was some damage from this raid but we didn't learn about it until the following morning. Every day I kept hoping that our replacements would come and yet the days passed by without any word. Following the horizontal bombing, the enemy reverted back to dive bombing. And it was from these that we got some of our biggest scares of the war. Early on the morning of Dec.19, dive bombers raised havoc with our nerves by dive-bombing within several yards of us. You can't image how this shook us up; the clicking sounds of the bombs being released and then the ssssssswwwwwissshhing noise that followed. This was getting to be more than we could take. From the explosions, we were certain the bombs had landed just a few feet away, but then the closest was fifty yards away. I can't forget those days of fright because we could not see the planes and we reacted only to what we could hear. It would have been a Godsend if only the searchlights could spot the raiders; they had their heyday for the moment. Dugouts never seemed deep enough during these raids and you will always pray even though you may have never done so before.
On the 14th. our replacements arrived from New Caledonia; I really felt sorry for them because of the frightful initiation they had. Maxie Sakamoto took it all in lightly because he had experienced similar raids on Guadalcanal, but as for Yoshiwara and the others, they were frightened to their boots. Yoshiwara had been on Guadalcanal with Sakamoto but the latter was more daring. As for Toyoda, Kawamoto, Hokama and Uriu, they had come prepared for a war of nerves. These men were our Godsend ,and as such fate should have dealt them a better reception.
Finally the day for our team to leave had arrived; Capt. Ayres arranged for transportation to Guadalcanal and we quickly packed up our things and boarded a LST (395). We left the beachhead releasing all the headaches for all who followed us. Indeed, we were all more than glad to get the "Hellllllll" out of there.
Who would have thought the bombing of 1943 with all its ramifications and the passing of time over a half century (56 yrs.) would usher a curtain call; but this is exactly what has happened just over a year ago. At age 84 my keyboard will seek out the reasons so to speak why my silent wounds have come back to haunt me, although the VA Medical have not authenticated my claim that this is undoubtedly what has happened.
In 1999 during routine VA medical exams, I sensed some discomfort when Dr. Spitz palpated my abdomen. Being a real doctor of doctors, he sent me first to X-Ray and the film showed a small opaque spot. Further steps from Ultrasound to CT Scan and to MRI showed a circumscribed mass deep in the retroperitoneum. Now I was sent to Surgery at VA San Francisco where in May, 2000 surgery removed a mass consisting of a relic of blood and blood vessels. These were identified as something of long-standing and were attributable to trauma. The keyword here is trauma... the only such event in my life would have had to be the bombing recounted above in what I have to dub as the First Day borrowed time began only to be restarted after the day of my surgery, May 22, 2000.
The medical clue is to be found in the opaque spot shown in the x-ray. Why was there this spot? As this layman thinks, "It's the calcium stupid". This mass weighing about 8/10 of a pound would have to have done something over the fifty some years, namely calcify.
A claim for service-connection in this regard has been submitted to the VA. Again "Hope Springs Eternal!"
Signal Corps photo taken on August 16, 1943 on Bouganville Island showing CG 37th Division, MG Robert S. Beightler shaking hands with Dye Ogata of the Language Section during awarding of the Purple Heart Medal.