The Magazine of Western History, 52 (Summer
2002), 38-47; this article is presented
Pacific Memories- Montana National Guardsmen Recall the Fighting on New Guinea in World War II
Buoyed by their Hawaiian success, the Japanese had slashed their way through the Philippines'taking Bataan and Corregidor in 1942'and then captured other Pacific lands all the way to New Guinea. New Guinea, the second largest island in the world with a land mass twice that of the state of Montana (some 320,000 square miles), lay 1,500 miles southeast of the Philippines.2 Its interior was covered by dense jungle, and the convoluted Owen Stanley Mountains, like a dragon's spine, divided the island into two plains that sloped down to the sea. Port Moresby on the island's southern coast was only 340 sea miles from Australia. If captured, the port would likely provide a staging ground for a Japanese invasion of Australia and New Zealand.
To meet this threat, the United States, in cooperation with Australian troops, set about retaking New Guinea, as well as the Solomons and other islands, as the first steps in a return to the Philippines and ultimately an intended invasion of Japan. Significant in this strategy were the men of the 163rd Regiment led by Colonel Jens Doe. After nine more months of special training, they arrived in Port Moresby at Christmastime 1942 as part of the 163rd Combat Team. Their assignment from General Douglas A. MacArthur, commander-in-chief of the Southwest Pacific area, was to bolster the weary Aussies, the 32nd Division (a National Guard unit from Wisconsin and Michigan), and other American support troops who had been slowly pushed southwest across the dense coastal plain into the Owen Stanley Mountains, only thirty miles from Port Moresby.
|Conditions in New Guinea tested soldiers' endurance. They suffered battle stress, strange insects (left), illness, heat, humidity, and inadequate food, medicine, and weapons, but their regard for one another, and the aid of their medics, sustained them. Medical Corps Captain M. D. Holcomb (detailed below, right) poses in April 1944 with his medical supplies carried in a .50 machine gun ammunition box. Holcomb was awarded the Montana Legion of Merit after the Sanananda-Buna Campaign in 1943.|
Few, if any, Montana boys had known that such a place as New Guinea existed, but after being there, even for a short while, they could never forget it. Airlifted over the Owen Stanley Mountains to the Dobodura landing strip, an airstrip in the kunai grass on the torrid Sanananda-Buna plain, the guardsmen found themselves instantly thrust into wretched jungle fighting. The daytime temperature was often 95 degrees, the average humidity 85 percent. The line of vision through the dense, dripping jungle ranged from five to fifty yards. Insects filled the oppressive air. Necessary supplies of food, medicine, ammunition, and various weapons of war'tanks, flame throwers, bazookas'were inadequate or nonexistent. (To the ire of General MacArthur, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had determined that the European theater received first priority for supplies.)
What the human body could endure was tested to the limit. Sergeant Leslie D. Slyter recalled the misery of daily life: 'People can't live in conditions that were there. Everything that lit on you you picked at and it made you sick. Everything you touched cut you. Everything you drank gave you dysentery. Men groaned at night because they could not control their bowels, and the very worst of all was malnutrition. . . . Fear was present all of the time, but you couldn't show it, particularly if you were in charge of others.'3
Of the initial days in battle, Sergeant Ed Hula of Columbia Falls, who had joined Company F in a spirit of patriotism and adventure, remembered: 'At first it seemed good to be going to war with longtime friends. But I soon wished that I were in an outfit of strangers. It was terribly hard . . . to see close friends struck down in action. . . . Ken Felix [of Kalispell] was killed in ambush not far from my position. I . . . remember my shock at the loss of so young a man. . . . And after an engagement you go and pick up your dead. You see, the Japanese were starving and there could be cannibalism.'
Recalling conditions, Slyter explained: 'Basic training doesn't train you [to witness death]. You learn to march well, to salute sharply, but first seeing a guy dead or wounded'you can't train for that. That was when the flag came down for me.' Under such conditions, the military ideals of patriotism and duty no longer served as motivating factors in the field. As Stephen Ambrose has observed, GIs fought because they had to; what held them together was not patriotism but cohesion'regard for one another.4
Out of the Sanananda-Buna campaign, completed January 22, 1943, three Montanans were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, one received the Legion of Merit award, and thirty-four were awarded Silver Stars. The 163rd Regiment captured unprecedented amounts of Japanese equipment in what was acclaimed as the first major Japanese defeat of the war. Eighty-five hundred Australian and American men were killed or wounded and an untold number stricken with disease.
For the average soldier, though, these strategic gains seemed almost inconsequential when compared to the daily torments of physical stress and disease. Private Andy Mills of Company F remembered: 'You might not get your boots off for a week and when you did the skin come with 'em. And the malaria took the guys'the company was down to twenty or thirty at one time from a hundred and fifty.' Andy had a serious bout of malaria and was hospitalized off and on for several months. But he was lucky on the score of dysentery, which plagued the troops. His dysentery lasted just a few days, a mild case compared to men who would find themselves unable to function after months of suffering. At the time he and three others were in an outpost foxhole on a coastal point where a river ran into the ocean. 'When I was hit with the need to let loose I shed my clothes, went for a swim in the ocean. I returned through the fresh water of the river and got back into my sack feeling better.... Yeah, and lucky not to have been sighted by a sniper!'5
With Sanananda-Buna plain secured, the effort to capture the Japanese-held coastal points of Finschhafen, Aitape, Hollandia, Toem and the islands of Wakde and Biak intensified. They were stepping stones to the Philippines and rendered air bases to help control the oceanic passage between New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. This phase of the campaign permitted brief, intermittent intervals in rest camps, but respite from the fighting was rare. General Walter Krueger wrote at war's end that 'the absence of leave areas where officers and men could relax from the dangers and hardships they had endured . . . for many months . . . presented . . . a serious problem. . . . The only diversion the troops had consisted of movies and occasional entertainments put on by uso entertainers.'6 One of those entertainers was the beloved comedian Joe E. Brown who would go anywhere to perform for allied service personnel. His wide grin and funny antics belied a deep
|Sites captured from the Japanese provided staging areas for an invasion of the Philippines and air bases to help control oceanic passages between New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The soldiers at right, in a rare respite from the fighting, gathered to enjoy an Artie Shaw performance.|
sadness at the loss of one of his sons in the war.
A major success, and an important turning point, was achieved with the occupation of the island of Biak on August 24, 1944. Of that island General Robert L. Eichelberger said he could not believe that the terrain of any other Pacific island could be tougher. There, the Japanese had virtually abandoned 10,000 troops, who holed up in caves and jungle with orders to fight to the last man. Of the Biak fighting, by-now General Doe wrote that the 41st Division had come through with a shining record: 'The infantry soldier was the one who met in hand-to-hand combat the crack troops of the Japanese, threw him from his positions, destroyed him, and gave us our victory.' 7 Though praising the infantry, General Doe did not by any means overlook the contributions of the support services'the supply, ordnance, medical, quartermaster, signals corp, and engineering personnel. All in all, it took about twelve people in these various specialties to serve each infantryman. Stellar among these were the members of the medical corps. Said Doe of the medics: 'Their devotion to duty in caring for our wounded is worth every bit of praise we can bestow. The medical personnel of the Division have received more decorations in proportion to their numbers than any other branch.'8
Being a medic did not appeal to everyone. Many young men, in a misplaced sense of bravado (a sentiment that combat would quickly change), thought that being a medic was not sufficiently 'macho.' Really brave men served in the infantry, they argued, while those afraid of combat, sometimes 'conscientious objectors,' signed on as medical corpsmen to avoid danger. In theory, personnel treating the wounded received protection under the terms of the diplomatic convention held at Geneva, Switzerland, in 1864. Medical personnel in the field were required to wear an arm band with a red cross on it designating that they were to be spared from enemy fire because of their humanitarian status and restriction from carrying weapons. Medics quickly learned in the Southwest Pacific, however, that these conventions were meaningless. Japanese snipers used the arm band as a target, forcing American medics to carry rifles to protect themselves and their patients. Wherever infantrymen went, the medics accompanied them, ready to perform first aid services on the front lines under all conditions. Of the medics, Leslie Slyter remembered: 'We didn't have enough medics . . . but the ones we had were all very, very good. They were all called 'doc'.'9
Kenneth Clothier of Kalispell had wanted to enlist in Company F when he heard rumors in early September 1940 that a call-up for training was imminent. Finding it full, he signed on with the Whitefish Medical Detachment of the 163rd Infantry Regiment, intending to transfer to the infantry when the opportunity arose. In time, however, he found that he liked the training and the purpose of the medics. Clothier recalled the initial landing at Dobodura, where the 163rd Combat Team unloaded, got their stuff, and started hiking into the jungle. From there, 'she was fightin' all the time. You dug a foxhole and about six inches down she filled with water. You dug deeper and got more water. Anything that moved after dark was fair game. Had to go to the bathroom you did her right
|Especially revered by the 163rd Regiment were members of the medical corps, including the Third Battalion medics pictured at left on Biak in October 1944. The locals also earned Americans' respect for their skill in gently bearing the wounded through the region's rough, muddy terrain. Courtesy Montana Chapter, 163rd Infantry, 41st Division, Helena Office|
there. If you got out to go some place, you was a dead duck.'10
Normally a medic was assigned to each platoon and accompanied its men on whatever action they pursued. The first casualty Clothier saw was a young man from Chicago: 'It was just like somebody had took an axe and cut a big piece of pie right out of his shoulder. The arm was just hanging by a piece of skin. In the aid station we patched him up as good as we could then evacuated him to regimental hospital which was not too far away. There the arm was removed.' Sometime later Clothier learned that in civilian life the man had been a pianist. What, he wondered, would the fellow do now?11
New Guinea was populated by many tribes of indigenous people. They were often fierce looking, wearing bones in their noses and other adornments novel to Americans. The women were usually bare breasted and most everyone had frizzy hair, earning them the sobriquet 'fuzzy-wuzzies.' Most of them were inclined to be friendly with the Allied troops, in part because they had been abused by the Japanese. Often they spoke English, having been taught by missionaries, but they really earned the Americans' respect when they proved exceptionally helpful in bearing litters. Clothier said: 'They were really great. Moved gently on bare feet'as gently as riding on an air bus'over rough, muddy terrain
|The indigenous people of New Guinea were inclined to be friendly with Allied troops. Above, two islanders pose with Captain Satran in 1943. In addition to transporting wounded soldiers, native islanders unloaded ships, carried supplies, and built roads.|
with consideration for their American and Australian patients. They were not always as careful with the few Japanese captives.' He made friends with some of them and in later years often wished that he could go back to visit.12
Despite the grave risks the medics took for the wounded, they were not always particularly inclined to be sentimental about their patients, especially if they were putting other soldiers at risk. Ken Clothier, for instance, recalled a night when 'there was a sort of loonie in our outfit who started yelling and carrying on. I backhanded him a good one and he shut up. His noise could have attracted a Jap infiltrator.'
On another night when action was heavy, Clothier heard calls for a medic. Responding, he found a fatally injured American who had accidentally been shot by a soldier from his own platoon. Everyone was upset; the man's comrades could not accept the accident and insisted that medic Clothier treat him'in effect, bring him back to life. There was nothing Clothier could do but drag the man's body from the immediate area and leave it until daylight.13
Such 'friendly fire' killings were always deeply disturbing. Mortars in particular seemed indiscriminate in inflicting casualties. Sergeant T3 Ralph 'Sully' Taylor of the Whitefish Medical Detachment recalled an incident on the island of Biak: 'A mortar blast killed our own guys. The shell didn't go where it was supposed to, not to where it was pointed. It hit an M Company tent and killed four and wounded seven. Dr. Kotner and I worked most of the night patching together broken limbs, stopping bleeding and getting guys back to the area hospital. Mortars could be bad news.'14
The duties of Technical Sergeant Roy Duff in the Whitefish Medical Detachment, where he was 'top kick,' the top noncommissioned officer, were primarily administrative, involving lots of record keeping and paper shuffling in the headquarters compound, which was somewhat removed from the line of battle. But he remembers that upon landing at Dobodura the detachment walked to its first battle assignment near the active Fiske perimeter. 'Christ, do I remember it. There was bullets whizzing all around and loud noises of gunfire; some of the worst noises came from bullets hitting the big leaves of jungle growth. Sounded like an explosion. . . . We set up an aid station dug out of the
|Hundreds of thousands of Americans served in the armed forces in World War II, but it was in the wilds of New Guinea that Montanans who had joined the Montana National Guard faced the grim realities of battle. Major Art Lowe (right) surveys the strafed buildings and trees of Aitape, New Guinea, in 1944. Below, a jeep bogs down on the main road between Dobodura and Oro Bay in May 1945.|
The Japanese hospital mentioned by Duff was the scene of unexpected action led by Major Walter R. Rankin of Bozeman, Montana. While leading a force through jungle terrain in an effort to join Aussie troops, he and his men entered an area littered with dead Japanese and came upon a disheveled Japanese field hospital. Intending to spare the facility out of humanitarian regard, Rankin found himself and his men under attack from able-bodied Japanese who had concealed themselves as patients, even lying next to rotting corpses. Rankin gave orders to spare no one. Tokyo Rose, the infamous Japanese broadcaster, called the Yank force the 'Butchers of Sanananda' and warned that they would never leave New Guinea. Journalists and fellow fighting men of the 163rd dubbed them 'Rankin's Racers.' After more than fifty years, recollections of the horrific sights, smells, and action remain wrenching for those who were there.
A general problem for all was that for long periods the food was sparse and not much good. When the oatmeal was wormy, for example, what you did was put some of it in a canteen cup, cover it with water, and let the worms float to the top. Those you skimmed off. Repeat the process two or three times then cook it, don't look too closely, and eat it down.17
Experienced combatants expressed sorrow for the fledgling recruits, generally draftees, brought in to fill vacancies. 'They just got off the boat and came in. . . . They'd line 'em up and give 'em a talking to and tell 'em, 'Just forget everything you learned in the States about fighting. Each one of you guys'll be with a guy that knows what the hell is going on. Pay attention to him and you might live till morning. If you don't you won't.''18
With the capture of Biak in late July 1944, New Guinea was finally rid of Japanese encroachment, and Biak provided a landing strip for the next thrust into the Philippines. Relatively early in the Philippine campaign, on October 21, 1944, General MacArthur was able to fulfill his oft-quoted 'I
|The Philippine city of Zamboanga, torn by American bombs in 1945 (below), was one of many important posts captured by the 41st Division in their northward advance following the taking of Biak, New Guinea, in late July 1944.|
shall return' pledge when he waded ashore at Leyte Gulf. Thereafter the 41st Division, including the 163rd Regiment, participated in a number of amphibious landings and the capture of many important posts'Zamboanga, Jolo, Palawan, Mindoro, Davao, and others'actions that continued well into summer 1945.
While the fighting could be heavy at times, in general the conditions were not as fearsome as those of New Guinea. As the Japanese were pushed from their strongholds, there was more time for recreation, including baseball games, basketball, and parties. In the Philippines, the work of medics necessarily expanded to addressing not only battle casualties but the ills of the civilian populations and military and civilian prisoners liberated from the Japanese, who needed extended care for disease, mistreatment, and malnutrition.
Medics also found that venereal disease increased alarmingly as the troops moved closer to Philippine urban centers. Roy Duff, by now promoted to lieutenant, and Dr. Goldfein, a local woman doctor for whom he had great respect, were responsible for surveying civilian needs and inspecting the many brothels and devising appropriate responses. They also saw to the inoculation of hundreds of civilians against cholera, even venturing into the hills under armed guard to vaccinate guerilla defensive forces. The condition of newly released prisoners was deeply disturbing. Duff's diary entry for February 16, 1945, reflects in part the bitterness many veterans felt toward the Japanese: '5 nurses were brought in from Luzon [Philippines] today after being prisoners since '42. 2 pregnant'1 had a Jap kid and other two with venereal disease. These little dinks should have to pay someday.'19
|Soldiers lived in close, uncomfortable quarters in New Guinea, and even when they returned home, leaving the stifling tent camps behind, many suffered difficult adjustments to civilian life. Some veterans of the 163rd Regiment continue, more than sixty years later, to struggle with the horrors of the war.|
Meanwhile, planning was underway for the most daunting challenge of all: the invasion of Japan itself. The 41st Division, including men of the 163rd Regiment, did finally arrive in Japan in October 1945, landing near Hiroshima as a security force some weeks after the atomic bombing of that city. The regiment was no longer 'Montanan,' perhaps no more so than 20 percent, for it had been altered by numerous replacements and transfers. As part of the 41st Division, the regiment was officially disbanded on December 31, 1945.
Meanwhile, thousands of Montanans, men and women, had been serving'doing their duty'in various other service branches at sea and around the world. Many of them, too, were lost and many more were wounded in mind and body. The number of Montanans killed is believed to be about 2,500; the exact number remains unknown. The Montana Historical Society has listed the names of 1,553 known to have died.20
If the advent of war and the undreamed-of shipment into a world of violent action had come as a shock for Montana Guardsmen, the end of hostilities and the mustering out of service paradoxically brought its own set of traumas, perhaps more subtle, but nevertheless profound. Individuals handled it in various ways. Some soldiers, to escape the memories of the fighting, vigorously sought out merriment and other diversions. When heading home to Whitefish by train from Fort Douglas, Utah, Ken Clothier and his buddy Bob Pearson from Kalispell had to change trains in Butte, where they had a three-hour layover. What better than to visit a few bars? There they were treated as heroes, lavished with free drinks, and the three-hour layover extended into three days. Clothier spent much of the following year 'partying.'21
When Leslie Slyter first returned to his mother's living room, there was much laughter at his expense as he caught sight of a prominently displayed photo of himself flanked by three bare-breasted, wild-haired Native women. He had mailed it long before with an inscription that said, 'They are looking better all the time!'22
But homecoming was not all laughs. Joyous to be 'out,' the question became, What now? The welcome return to civilian status was a time of confusion for many. Certainly, the state and federal governments recognized the need to help returning soldiers. In 1944 Congress had enacted the unprecedented Servicemen's Readjustment Act, popularly know as the GI Bill, that enabled millions of returning soldiers to buy homes at low interest rates and to prepare for civilian careers through fully paid education. The Montana legislature passed an act in 1949 to provide a cash bonus to the Montana men and women who had served.
Sadly, the transition from the horrors of New Guinea to life back in Kalispell or another Montana community proved to be a difficult adjustment for many returning soldiers. Some had been away for as long as five years. There were small sons and daughters yet unmet. Relationships, maintained as well as possible by correspondence through the outstanding military mail service and 'V-mail' (no postage stamp needed, just write 'FREE' in the upper right-hand corner of the envelope), had to be renewed, reconciled, readjusted. Patience, sometimes in short supply, was required.
Thinking of his homecoming, Ed Hula nervously chuckled: 'I nearly killed my wife a couple of times in my sleep. I was still fighting the war in my dreams.' More disconcerting was the relationship between the father and the three-year-old son whom he had never seen. As a sergeant, Hula was accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed. Direct orders to a three-year-old did not go over very well, and the mother had to patiently endure the conflicts.23
A few vets turned to alcohol and drank up their bonuses in a few short months. Some, like Hula, struggled with recurrent dreams of terror; there were lingering effects from disease, especially malaria; and there had been permanent injuries'loss of limbs, paraplegia, and 'battle fatigue,' later known as 'post-traumatic stress syndrome.' For some it took ten years or more to feel 'normal,' 'settled in,' and purposeful. One soldier from Whitefish, Corporal Bill De Vall, now in his early eighties, still struggles with the sensitivities of conscience. On Biak he and six other men of Cannon Company were ordered to lay concealed and stop any Japanese attempt to reach a desperately needed cache of rice. Just at dusk, thirty-seven of them appeared, making their way slowly down a steep trail. 'We killed five and the rest fled out of sight.' There was intermittent fire back and forth throughout the night. In the morning the GIs searched the casualties for maps or other information that might be useful. De Vall found a silk Japanese flag that he kept. 'This flag . . . is something I . . . [could not forget.] . . . I have carried this burden for too long. In recent years I have felt an urgency to find some family of this soldier so I can put this memory to rest'to return this flag and say I am sorry. . . . I would like the families of these men to know that . . . [we gave] these men a decent burial. . . . We did the best we could.'24
Not all of DeVall's compatriots shared his depth of feeling, but his struggle of conscience over his foe's fate illustrates the ordinary human decency of a young man forced into extraordinary and brutal circumstances. His confession is a soul-stabbing indictment of the extent of war's evils'as if the shadows of loneliness, fear, pain, illness, hunger, and death were not enough.
CARLE F. O'NEIL is a second- generation resident of Kalispell, Montana, and a one-time schoolmate of many of the members of National Guard Company F. He served in the Pacific as a member of the United States Navy during World War II. He has published several studies of Flathead Valley history and a book of short stories based on his career as a correctional institution administrator.
1. Leslie D. Slyter, interview by author, Kalispell, Montana, September 8, 1999, tape recording in the collection of the author.
2. In 1828 the Dutch formally claimed the western half of New Guinea, and in 1885 Germany annexed the northern coast and Britain the southern coast of the island's eastern half.
The British lands became known as the Territory of Papua after Britain transferred its claim to newly independent Australia in 1906. The German lands, which came to be known as the territory of North-East New Guinea, were governed by Australia after World War I. Following the end of World War II, Australia granted home rule, and in 1975 Papua New Guinea became an independent nation. The western half of the island, now known as Irian Jaya, was slated to become independent after the era of the Dutch East Indies colonies ended in 1949, but was instead annexed by Indonesia.
3. Slyter interview.
4. Ed Hula, interview by author, Columbia Falls, Montana, September 20, 1999, tape recording in the collection of the author; Slyter interview; Stephen Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944'May 7, 1945 (New York, 1997), 478.
5. Andy Mills, interview by author, Kalispell, Montana, September 13, 1999, tape recording in the collection of the author.
6. Walter Krueger, From Down Under to Nippon: The Story of the Sixth Army in World War II (Washington, D.C., 1953), 234.
7. Jens A. Doe, General Orders No. 65, quoted in William F. McCartnay, The Jungleers: A History of the 41st Infantry Division (Nashville, Tenn., 1988), 184.
8. Ibid. Italics added.
9. Slyter interview.
10. Kenneth Clothier, interview by author, Kalispell, Montana, October 28, 1999, tape recording in the collection of the author.
14. Memoir of Ralph 'Sully' Taylor, former Whitefish resident living in Puyallup, Washington, provided in a December 2001 letter to the author.
15. Roy Duff, interview by author, Whitefish, Montana, February 16, 2000, tape recording in the collection of the author.
16. Roy Duff, handwritten, unpublished March 19, 1942'November 6, 1945 diary, entry for January 8, 1943, generously loaned to the author by Roy Duff. Diary keeping and photography were generally forbidden by the military lest they provide intelligence information if they fell into enemy hands, but on the 'Q.T.' not everyone complied.
17. Clothier interview.
19. Duff diary, February 16, 1945.
20. Gary Glynn, Montana's Home Front during World War II (Missoula, Mont., 1994), 206.
21. Clothier interview.
22. Slyter interview.
23. Hula interview.
24. Bill De Vall, interview by author, Whitefish, Montana, May 26, 2000, tape recording in the collection of the author.