Part III: A first taste of combat teaches important lessons

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By Ron Van Stockum

The battalion sprang to life. This would be my first experience in battle, seeking out the Japanese on the island of Bougainville in the fall of 1943.

Small patrols moved out and were soon swallowed by the dense jungle.  The battalion in seven files, each preceded by scouts and a team of machete-wielding Marines followed them.

Immediately behind the cutters of the center column was the battalion executive officer, compass in hand, navigating, as if he were in a ship on the sea of jungle.

There was a pacer to determine the estimated distance, which, together with the course, provided the basis for dead-reckoning navigation.  Then followed a wire team laying combat wire, the lifeline of the battalion, providing a medium of communication and marking the main axis of the advance.

Formation and direction depended upon visual contact, between individuals and between groups, focused ultimately towards the navigator and the wire line dogging his footsteps. That communication line was only 250 yards.

I slipped into my accustomed place near the battalion commander in the center column.  There was little difference between this actual attack and the many that we had rehearsed during training on Guadalcanal.

The shade of the jungle was just as friendly and welcome as ever, but what else might it shelter and conceal?

But there was little indication of the enemy's presence. In a half hour the battalion, having covered little more than 200 yards, halted as scheduled to check its formation and communications.

Perhaps exhibiting unnecessary caution, the commanders addressed each other by nicknames -- "Two Gun" and "Silver Top."  At this stage of the war, the enemy was considered to be not only ubiquitous, but bilingual as well, and true names of commanders never were used.

Confusion sometimes resulted when a voice describing itself as "the Beast" issued a telephone order to someone not equipped with the code.  My "nickname," however, was easily recognized - "Van."

We company commanders had little to report.  The only contact had been with a few dazed, half-naked Japs who had been flushed like wild animals.  The battalion commander ordered the advance continued.

Another half hour, another few hundred yards later, the battalion made another short halt.  What had happened to the enemy?

There was news of an enemy air attack being delivered against ships in the harbor.  "Condition Red!  Shall we dig in?" asked the battalion executive officer.

A smile broke out on the colonel's face as he replied, "Hell no.  Continue the attack."

There were more remunerative air targets available to the enemy than the First Battalion, concealed in the jungle.


An Awesome Sight

As the attack continued into the third leg of its track, the explanation for the lack of opposition became suddenly apparent, and it was an awesome sight. Covering an area the size of a football field was a ghastly tableau of a Japanese assembly area, portrayed by at least 300 of the enemy in all sorts of grotesque poses of death.

Some had died clutching shovels, desperately in the act of digging in.  Some had been surprised while eating what became their last meal.  Others were stilled in the act of undoing their packs.

The stink of putrefaction was not yet in the air, but dominating the dreadful scene was the specter of death.  I wondered that men could be dead and yet so free of blood.

I silently thanked God for the artillery that had destroyed this well-equipped and heavily armed force before it could extract its toll from the ranks of the First Battalion.

Our men, on passing through this area of death, acquired unwittingly an aura of invincibility.  Perhaps the Japs were overrated after all.

But many of these soldiers would later see many of their comrades die in a seemingly ineffective manner, pouring out their life's blood in frustrated attacks against an invisible, courageous and skillful enemy.



The First Battalion moved a few hundred yards beyond this carnage and commenced digging in for all-around defense near where a small stream joined the sea. This was necessary, for our location was isolated geographically from the rest of the invading Marines.

Our location was perfect for a jungle perimeter defense. Each rifle company occupied a third of the circle, attached machine guns providing the framework for the defense.  I toured the lines, tying in the fire plans of all automatic weapons, so that continuous bands of grazing fire could be interlocked about the perimeter.

An artillery forward observer adjusted his fire into the sea, where it could be observed, and then "walked" it in to register a barrage in the thick jungle across the stream. 

Forward observers were artillery officers occupying posts in the front lines where they could observe the front and call down fires from artillery located in the rear.

That's a crucial role in the jungle, because of limited visibility.

Mortars, from positions near the center of the perimeter, were registered by sound-ranging to fire concentrations along a 360-degree "front."  The muffled sounds of ranging mortar shells falling in the rear reminded us all that we were isolated, at least for the night.

As darkness approached, our worry about the enemy increased.  Marines, especially gregarious at night, teamed up, three or four men to a foxhole, placed close enough together to render infiltration unlikely if not impossible.

Final checks of the defense were made; final instructions were issued.  No one was to shoot until a positively identified target had been located; under no circumstances were machine guns to reveal their positions unless enemy groups appeared.

Returning from a final tour of the perimeter, I hastily dug a slit trench and turned in.  After the tiring activities and emotional strain of the day, sleep came quickly.

As light rain disturbed my slumber, I soon experienced the unpleasant sensation of lying in water that was continuing to rise. Finally, I roused myself, groped unsuccessfully in the blacked-out camp for my pistol, grabbed my knife and a grenade, and set out in search of a "better 'ole."

Emitting a continuous soliloquy as a means of identification, I headed for the beach where I stumbled upon a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) team. I found myself almost impaled on an M-1 rifle pointed in my direction.

I hastily stuttered the password and was welcomed as a reinforcement to share the watch at this segment of the perimeter.


Under 'Attack'

It was dry in the sand, so I settled down to complete my sleep, which was interrupted by an occasional rifle shot.

"Some scared rifleman," I mused, "whose buddies will give him hell in the morning."

Suddenly I was brought up sharply by the staccato of a heavy machine gun.  "My God, it must be an attack," I thought, "My machine gunners would never disclose their positions without ample cause."

The fire was immediately taken up all around the perimeter, automatic rifles, rifles, and other machine guns adding to the din.  Above the fire from the perimeter, I was sure I could detect the high-pitched hum of rapid-firing Japanese light machine guns.

I grasped my knife with one hand and a grenade with the other, cursing my carelessness in misplacing my pistol.  When the attacking enemy engulfed the First Battalion, I would sell my life dearly!

I was truly grateful for the riflemen around me. In a fire fight the Marine team inspires confidence.  They seemed to be passing the night with equanimity, all of them sleeping soundly except the one on watch.

How could they relax with the sound of battle all around?

They were young, and they were tired.  I recalled a quotation read long ago:  "They were the age.  Take them at that age and nothing can stop them -- nothing but death."

The fire slackened, but the night continued to be punctuated by single shots and bursts of fire.  Now thoroughly alerted, I discovered that I was not so tired as I had imagined.

Dawn was welcome indeed.  The gray sky revealed the battalion command post nearby where its occupants were coming to life, gathering up their water-soaked weapons and equipment.

Awakening from a heavy slumber and assuming this to be the enemy, one of the fire team immediately leveled his rifle in the direction of the command post.  I grabbed him just in time to avert a tragedy.


Fire Discipline

Anxious to observe the effect of the battalion's fire in successfully repelling an attack, I joined the battalion commander on an early morning tour of the perimeter.

There were no signs of enemy activity whatsoever. In fact, there was no evidence of a Jap having been within 1 mile of the perimeter.

The commander was surprised, shocked, and bitterly disillusioned.  Despite his continued emphasis upon fire discipline, his battalion in its first night of combat had expended nearly a unit of fire, the amount usually consumed in a day of combat, against an imagined enemy, signaling to all within earshot its presence in that particular part of the jungle.

Later that morning, we four abject company commanders assembled to hear the colonel discuss in blistering terms the recent experience and to indicate what such conduct might portend for the future. 

The next night was quiet except for two short bursts of fire.  The following morning it was revealed that a Jap had stumbled into the perimeter and left his remains to mark the convergence of the fires of two automatic rifles.

The men of the First Battalion breathed a collective sigh of relief.  They had learned the hard way the essential quality of discipline and took pride in their performance.  They were now combat veterans.

They had learned their first lesson as a group, but they would have to travel far to reach the state of efficiency and discipline that would be achieved by the survivors of the battalion's fights on Hellzapoppin Ridge, Assan beachhead on Guam, and Airfield No. 2 on Iwo Jima.

Those were the next objectives on their long advance toward the setting sun.

Next: Hellzapoppin Ridge