The overall goal of East Penn Reenactor's Group is to tell the story of the American GI during WWII through living history. The creation of the Group was heavily inspired by the service of John Krall of Myerstown, PA and John Rittle of Lebanon, PA as well as several other relatives of our group's members and local veterans too. John Krall is the grandfather of Group Leader Ethan Krall and John Rittle is the great-grandfather of Group Assistant-Leader Luke Newmaster. Below are biographies which highlight the service of each during WWII. The following biographies were written by Group CO Ethan Krall.
Technician 5th Grade John H. Krall Baker Company 114th Engineer Combat Battalion 32nd Infantry Division 1941 - 1945 Pacific Theater of Operations, American Theater of Operations
John Henry Krall was born in 1917 in Flintville, Pennsylvania and grew up on a farm in the rural area outside Myerstown during the Great Depression. In November of 1941 Krall was drafted into the United States Army among the first batch of preemptive draftees. Being so that the United States was not yet at war, Krall saw no reason for this draft. Less than a month later, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan, and the United States was thrown into World War II. After completing basic training as well as advanced training as a combat engineer, Krall was assigned to the 114th Engineer Combat Battalion, which was to be attached to the 32nd "Red Arrow" Infantry Division.
The 32nd Infantry Division shipped out of San Francisco in April of 1942 bound for Australia. Once in Australia, the 32nd received further training to prepare them for eventual combat. On September 15th, 1942, the first elements of the 32nd Infantry Division deployed to Papua New Guinea. Setting off from Port Moresby, the majority of the 32nd Infantry Division was flown over the Owen Stanley Mountains, except for one battalion which marched over them on a one hundred mile hike. Krall and Company B of the 114th arrived at Port Moresby on November 26th, 1942. The engineers cleared vast swaths of jungle with bulldozers and graters while under constant threat of air attack from Japanese fighters and bombers while constructing a rode from 7 Mile Drome to their company base at Bootless Bay.
On December 26th, 1942 Krall and Company B of the 114th were sent forward with the 127th Infantry as part of the Urbana Force for the final assault on Buna Mission. They were flown over the Owen Stanley Mountains in a Lockheed Hudson flown by an RAAF pilot with a slouch hat and Bowie knife in his boot. During their flight they were suceptible to Japanese fighters as they had no fighter escort and no armaments on their plane except for “sticking their rifles out the window and trying their best” as their Aussie pilot instructed them to.
From December 1942 to January 1943 Krall and Company B supported the 127th Regiment as part of the Urbana Force during the Battle of Buna. The engineers carried out missions to construct foot bridges in order to help the infantry advance as well as demolish Japanese pill boxes that stood in their way. The engineers more often than not carried out their work well within the range of Japanese machine guns, mortars, and snipers.
Once Buna was taken in January of 1943, Krall and the 114th Engineers remained in the area while the elements of the 32nd accompanied by the 163rd Regimental Combat Team of the 41st Infantry Division pressed on to take Sanananda, just up the coast from Buna. After clearing out Sanananda, elements of the 32nd were pulled off mainland New Guinea and were sent to Goodenough Island for some R&R. While on Goodenough Island, Krall and several other engineers from Company B "borrowed" a water purification unit from the neighboring Marines Corps camp, which resulted in a scuffle between the Marines and the GI's.Horseplay aside, there was still a war going on.
After their brief stay on Goodenough Island, Krall and the 114th ECB were called back to action, this time via amphibious landing at Saidor, New Guinea. The first wave landed on January 2nd, 1944 with the 114th Engineers following shortly afterwards with the other support troops. For the next forty days, the combat engineers would work in deplorable conditions to construct an airfield in support of the future Allied missions that were yet to come further up the New Guinea coastline. In those forty days and forty nights, over twenty-six inches of rain fell in what seemed to be a never ending downpour. On the last day of the battle, just after dusk a lone Japanese Betty bomber flew at low altitude over the newly constructed airfield at Saidor. The bomber dropped its payload right over the Company B assembly area which was adjacent to the airfield. In total, twenty men of Company B were killed during the attack, the most casualties the company would suffer in one single day.
Once the 32nd was up to strength following Saidor it was tasked with another amphibious landing. This time the target was Aitape. Unlike the previous landing at Saidor, the landing at Aitape was larger and was strictly to land troops on the coast so they could push inland to fight the Japanese. No airfield to build this time, but the engineers were still needed for other duties such as constructing "corduroy" roads which were makeshift roads built using coconut logs so that supplies and heavy equipment could be moved inland by truck without bogging down in mud.
It is at this point where it becomes unclear as to how long Krall participated in the Battle of Aitape, as he had accumulated enough service points to be rotated home. The point system used by the Army was based on total days in combat, awards received, health, and conduct record. Krall, having never been neither wounded, sick, nor reprimanded for poor conduct from 1942 to 1944, was eligible for a rotation back to the United States. In October 1944, Krall took a troop transport ship back to California while the 32nd continued slugging it out with the Japanese at Aitape. The 32nd would later invade the Philippines, participating in both the Battle of Leyte and the Battle of Luzon. Krall would not return to the Pacific, and many engineers he served with would ultimately not return from the last two campaigns of the war, as casualties for the 32nd kept mounting. Once he was back in the United States, Krall was assigned to the 1209th SCU NEB Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He spent the rest of the war as a guard on prisoner of war trains that transported German prisoners from the east coast to the midwest. Krall was honorably discharged from the Army in late 1945. He returned to civilian life as a truck driver, and started a family back in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. John Krall passed away on July 23rd, 2012 at the age of 94 and he is survived by his two sons along with multiple grandchildren and great grandchildren. He is remembered and honored through living history by his grandson Ethan Krall. [authored by Ethan Krall]
Technician 4th Grade John Rittle Heavy Automotive Repair Company 442nd Ordnance Battalion 106th Infantry Division 1944 - 1946 European Theater of Operations, Demobilization Period
John Rittle was born in 1922 in Lebanon, Pennsylvania in 1922. During the Great Depression, Rittle worked in various machine shops and eventually ended up at the Martin Aircraft Company. He continued to work for Martin Aircraft through the outbreak of U.S. involvement in WWII. Since the company had switched to producing military aircraft for the war effort, Rittle was exempt for the draft. Men who worked war production jobs were typically exempt from the draft because in the eyes of the government, they were already contributing to the war effort.
While working at Martin Aircraft, Rittle refined his machining skills and mechanical knowledge. Primarily, he worked on the assembly line constructing the Martin B-26 Marauder, a medium bomber that began production in 1941 and first saw action in the Pacific Theater of Operations in 1942. Also produced by the company was the famous B-29 Superfortress, which entered service in 1944. Among the B-29's produced by the Martin Aircraft Company was the Enola Gay, the B-29 which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.
Although Rittle was contributing to the war effort through aircraft manufacturing, he was not entirely satisfied with his roll in World War II. All around him he saw other young men much like himself enlisting in the Army, Navy, & Marine Corps. Most of his friends as well as some of his relatives had also chosen to volunteer. Eventually, Rittle decided to enlist too.
Rittle was officially inducted into the United States Army on March 27th, 1944 at Fort Meade, Maryland. At Fort Meade, Rittle completed basic training as an infantryman, but also underwent a series of aptitude tests. These tests were meant to gauge a soldier's strengths and weaknesses that were not displayed through normal training exercises. Through these tests, Rittle was able to display his mechanical know-how which he acquired in the war production industry. Rittle's talent caught the attention of his officers, and he was singled out for further training at Fort Dix, New Jersey to be placed in a company that was to be part of the Ordnance Corps. After further training at Fort Dix, Rittle shipped out on November 3rd, 1944 bound for France.
On November 13th, 1944 Rittle arrived in France as part of his new unit, the 806th Ordnance Light Maintenance Company within the Headquarters and Special Troops section of the 106th Infantry Division. The 106th, a "high number" division in the Army's structure, was composed of "green" recruits and draftees, entirely new to the war. Upon reaching France, the 106th drove east towards the Belgian-German border. The division encountered the wreckage and aftermath of months of prior fighting that had taken place throughout France. Since the 106th was an inexperienced division, they were placed along the quiet portion of the front in the Ardennes region once it had caught up to advanced allied units in early December or 1944. The 106th relieved elements of the 2nd Infantry Division, a battle - weary unit which had been in combat since June.
As the 106th settled in to their new positions in the Schnee Eifel section of the Ardennes, the Germans were well under way in preparing for a major attack. Hitler had devised a plan that would send a force of combined units, Panzergrenadiers, Volksgrenadiers, Waffen SS, Heer & SS Panzer Kampfgruppes, smashing through the Allied line where they would least expect it: in the quiet "ghost front"; the Ardennes. Their goal was to pierce the Allied lines and drive on across the Meuse River and to reach the port city of Antwerp, effectively splitting the US and British front in two.
Seizing Antwerp, Hitler had hoped, would cause the Allies to sue for peace. Hitler planned to capitalize on deteriorating relations between the Allies to put Germany in a position where they could still negotiate terms for peace and save their nation from total defeat. In an effort to do so, the German military mustered together a fighting force to carry out this great endeavor utilizing every soldier available not already deployed to the Eastern Front or to the North in Denmark and Norway. In total, the Germans poised thirteen infantry divisions plus seven armored divisions for their make-or-break assault.
The Ardennes Offensive began on December 16th, 1944 and over the course of several days the 106th Infantry Division was effectively destroyed. Their inexperience coupled with poor weather conditions and unfavorable terrain became a combination for disaster, as the majority of two of the division's three infantry regiments, the 422nd and 423rd, were either killed or captured. It's third regiment, the 424th, managed to pull out of the Schnee Eifel and hold up in the town of St. Vith with elements of the 7th Armored Division where they made a heroic stand and repulsed attack after attack made by German forces. Rittle noted in his interviews that when the division was in the thick of it in the Battle of the Bulge, his battalion was notified that their division no longer existed, and while cut off at St. Vith they experienced severe cold as well as food shortages. Rittle served for the remainder of the war and into 1946, when he was honorably discharged from the Army. He returned to the States and settled down in his home town of Lebanon, Pennsylvania and started a family after the war. John Rittle passed away on March 25th, 2016 at the age of 94 and is survived by his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He is remembered and honored through living history by his great grandson Luke Newmaster. (authored by Luke Newmaster and Ethan Krall)
Private First Class Leonard J. Gasper 37th Infantry Division 145th Regiment, HQ Company Pacific Theater of Operations 1942-1945
Leonard J. Gasper was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 19, 1916 to Italian immigrant parents who had arrived from Italy in the 1890s. Prior to the war my grandfather operated a small grocery store in Philadelphia to help support his family and records indicate he enlisted in August of 1942 to serve in the US Army. He was assigned to the 37th Infantry Division, the “Buckeyes,” and was most likely sent to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania for training. Unfortunately, since my grandfather passed away on January 28, 1994 (I was barely three years old at the time) most of the stories regarding his war service come second hand from my relatives, including his youngest brother and fellow WWII veteran Vincent Gasper, as well as Leonard’s personal 37th ID Unit History Book.
From what I learned from my Great-Uncle Vincent, my grandfather left on a ship from California and ended up on the island of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific in early 1943. The island of Guadalcanal, freshly taken from the Japanese, was used as a staging point for various other Allied assaults in the Solomon Islands, including the campaigns for New Georgia and Bougainville. Little is known about what my grandfather experienced or saw during these campaigns, but both my grandfather’s personal unit history book and his brother Vincent were able to offer some insight.
Vincent recalls seeing a telegram addressed to their mother that Leonard was wounded in the line of duty during the fighting on an island somewhere in the Solomons. Interestingly, on page 148 of Leonard’s personal unit history book, there is a picture of litter bearers carrying the wounded over a back mountain trail during the heavy fighting for Hill 700 on Bougainville in March of 1944. In what my mother confirms is my grandfather’s handwriting are the names of the several people seen in the picture written next to the picture itself, including my grandfather as one of the rather tall litter bearers. Leonard was roughly 6’5’’ tall and the one litter bearer with his name written next to it towers above all others in the picture.
The 37th ID Unit History Book talks about how from Bougainville the unit travelled to Lae in New Guinea in December of 1944 to practice landing maneuvers for the upcoming Philippines invasion. From New Guinea my grandfather would have travelled to Luzon in the Philippines and ended up in one way or another in Manila. Most of the original photographs I have of my grandfather are from his time in Manila where he operated a PX for the HQ company and most likely relied on his experiences from operating a grocery store years before in Philadelphia.
The exact details of his time in the Philippines aren’t exactly well known and Vincent Gasper can attest to hearing stories about his brother having to play dead in a pile of bodies to avoid capture when the Japanese had overrun a position as part of the Philippines Campaign. As indicated by his unit history book, my grandfather most likely left Manila shortly after the war ended and eventually returned back to civilian life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He would go on to marry my grandmother Marion Gasper in 1950 having two daughters and a grandchild when I was born in 1991. Leonard J. Gasper passed away on January 28, 1994 and I reenact to remember and honor his service. (authored by Bryce Kleeman)
Technician 4th Grade Francis Gerald Bagley Baker Company 114th Engineer Combat Battalion 32nd Infantry Division 1941 - 1945 Pacific Theater of Operations, American Theater of Operations
Dad joined the 101st Engineers of the Massachusetts National Guard in January 1941. It provided him with a part-time job for one year. It enabled him to “join up” with his friends and allowed him to develop his skills as a mechanic. The engineers trained to construct, among other things, airstrips, roads and bridges for the rapid movement of everything needed in the event of war, including troops, aircraft and cargo. He was slated to be discharged in January 1942 but when the Japanese attacked in December 1941, no one was allowed to leave any national guard unit after December 7. His unit was called up for national service with the 32nd Infantry Division in 1942, redesignated the 114th Engineer (Combat) Battalion and eventually shipped with the rest of the Division, known as the “Red Arrow” Division, to Papua New Guinea (sometimes referred to as “PNG”). The engineers were assigned to various construction projects, often in the frontlines, and were expected to drop their tools and machinery when called on to fight as a reserve force. Dad and his unit built airstrips, roads and bridges all over eastern New Guinea. The airstrips they constructed could land planes within two or three weeks of the area having just been a dense jungle.
My father told me the following stories between approximately 1969 and 1975, when I was young enough to ask him whatever popped into my head but before I was old enough to stop asking him about his war service. He often gave me models of aircraft, ships and tanks and these plastic models often stimulated questions about his service overseas – a subject which was not ordinarily discussed during the Vietnam era.
Dad and his battalion were put on a Pullman railroad car in Boston on April 9, 1942, and travelled continuously for five days before arriving in Oakland, California (the flight today is five hours by jet). He travelled much the same route as that constructed by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads in the 1870s when they built the first transcontinental railroad. Dad said that he loved the trip across the country because they were well fed, did not have to do anything, and he got to see parts of the country that he had never seen before. In the National Guard, he had gone on a motor convoy to North and South Carolina – the first time he had ever left the New England region of the United States. The train trip west was the second time he had ever been far from his home in Massachusetts.
Dad was taken by bus to Pier 7, San Francisco, where the Army transported his entire battalion into the middle of San Francisco Bay to Fort McDowell on Angel Island. Until the war, Angel Island had primarily been a receiving station for immigrants to the United States. The Fort became a staging area for US troops shipping out to the Pacific. He was on the island for only eight days, during which he was promoted to Sergeant (skipping over the rank of Corporal). Dad said that you could see Alcatraz Island, a notorious federal prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay, from Angel. The soldiers’ laundry was taken to and washed on Alcatraz Island, presumably by the convicts. The dock at Angel Island was guarded because of the Army’s concern that an escaped convict could make it over to Angel in Army clothing and try to mix in with the soldiers.
On 22 April 1942, Dad boarded the United States Army Transport Hugh L. Scott at Pier 42 and sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge at 6.30 p.m. for “an unknown destination”. (The Hugh L. Scott was eventually sunk by a German U-Boat off North Africa after disembarking troops in November 1942 during Operation Torch.) The convoy of transport ships (Convoy SF 43) was escorted by the USS Indianapolis. The Indianapolis was a cruiser and its torpedoing in 1945 caused the loss of life of 883 sailors. The Convoy crossed the international dateline on 7 May. It passed within approximately 800 miles of Tarawa Atoll, already visited by Japanese forces at this stage of the war. The ship passed to the west of Fiji, west of New Zealand, and through the Tasman Strait.
Dad landed at Port Adelaide, South Australia on 14 May 1942 after traveling 9,000 miles in 23 days. He was nearly on the opposite side of the world from his home in Massachusetts. Like many in the Division, he was garrisoned at Camp Sandy Creek, South Australia from May until July, 1942. His unit was moved to what became known as Camp Cable, Queensland and stayed there until November. I only know of one story set in Australia. On leave one day, Dad and his buddies were walking by a fire station in New South Wales. The firehouse doors were up and the firemen were out fighting a fire. The soldiers went inside and made a souvenir of a brass fire brigade helmet they found, which to the American eye resembles an ancient Roman helmet including the chain-like chinstrap and the decorative peak. This author wore the helmet to a costume party in 1979 as an ancient Roman legionnaire and is still in temporary custody of it until its rightful return to Australia.
In November, Dad travelled by train to Brisbane, by ship to Townsville and finally landed at Port Moresby, PNG on 26 November 1942. He arrived there in US Army Transport X 21, which he described as a small Dutch freighter. New Guinea is the second largest island in the world. Everything in New Guinea was “new” to the newly arrived Americans: the climate, the jungle, the lack of infrastructure (roads, bridges, buildings) the exposure to air raids, the scarcity of supplies, the inhabitants. For one month, his Company B (about 160 men) worked on a four-mile long road from “7 Mile Drome” airfield (also called Jacksons) to the Company base or bivouac at Bootless Bay, not far from Port Moresby.
On 15 December Dad wrote on Red Cross holiday stationary to his aunt:
“...I suppose Mother has told you by this time that I am in New Guinea. There isn’t much I can tell about it except that it is hot, the flies and mosquitoes are terrible and the native girls wear sarongs but they don’t look like Dorothy Lamour [a Hollywood movie actress]. I am just as healthy as ever but quite a little thinner.”
Many times in his letters home, Dad wrote of the weight loss he sustained while in the jungle. After departing Australia in November 1942, the heat, the lack of food and the physical labor stripped forty-two pounds from him in three months. The clothing issued to the soldiers of the Red Arrow Division before leaving Australia was dyed with a substance to camouflage the outfit but which caused the material to trap heat – the last thing the Americans needed when entering the comparative furnace of New Guinea. In the closing months of 1942, the vast majority of food transported to the Allied forces in New Guinea was by air, and as a result there was barely enough to get by. At certain times there was no spare food at all for US troops – in order to make way for ammunition the food was consumed daily as it was flown in with no stocks or reserves kept. In addition to inadequate supplies of food, the engineers arrived in New Guinea with virtually no tools or machinery. Combat engineers who had trained in the United States to work with heavy construction equipment found themselves equipped with only a few shovels and entrenching tools, some rope, a few prized machetes and building materials taken from the jungle – logs, bark and vines. A captured Japanese roller, here or there, on an abandoned airfield might also supplement their meagre resources. The work, as they sweltered in the heat, was exhausting, especially before they became acclimatised. Bulldozers, graders, air compressors and other heavy equipment would arrive later. “The heat is 115ｰ[F] at noontime” my father wrote to his mother, “and the flies are just as bad”.
It was not only construction material which was scarce. As combat engineers, the soldiers were expected to fight as a reserve unit if the need arose. During an early period in the jungle, Dad handled a Thompson submachine gun. The US Army was so strapped for weapons in 1942 that the “Tommy” guns they used were stamped “Property of Detroit P.D.” [Police Department].
Dad wrote to his mother on 18 December: “...only four more days until Christmas but you’d never know it [it was summer in New Guinea and probably over 100 degrees]. I guess I won’t be home for it after all but I’ll be there for the next one [he wasn’t – he wouldn’t be home for Christmas until 1945]”.
The day after Christmas, Dad was flown over the towering Owen Stanley Mountain Range (back home it would have been Christmas Day). It was Dad’s first trip in an airplane. My father once described the pilots of two separate transport flights his unit took. The first pilot was a young American officer with a starched, Air Corps uniform (dressier than the ordinary mud soldier’s outfit), polished shoes and a shiny “Sam Browne” belt and leather sash. A holstered .45 calibre pistol hung by his side. On the next flight, they were assigned to an Australian pilot. He was unshaven and unkempt. The Yanks could not tell how old he was, but accurately assessed that he was a “non-com”. He wore loose fitting shorts and no shirt. His sole weapon was a knife stuck in one of his floppy boots. The contrast inspired confidence in the Australian which had been subconsciously withheld from the American officer. The Australian pilot embodied the qualities that the Americans envisioned in themselves– independence, toughness, and seriousness about the task without taking themselves too seriously. While the aviator held their confidence, his craft did not. He walked them up to a Lockheed Hudson which had the weapons and windows removed. Each side of the aircraft was lined with glassless holes where the windows had formerly been located. Upon seating themselves inside the aircraft, they detected the lack of armament and notified the pilot. “Stick ya rifles out the windows... if you see any Jap planes, shoot.”
After the fall of Buna, American forces were dispatched to support the Australian troops west of the Girua River. An American battalion with a number of tanks was sent to the Aussies’ aid. Company B led the way, cutting down trees and laying coconut logs as “corduroy” for the road, over which the tanks clanked. Monsoon rains had made the trail impassable and the road became worse after Australian light tanks crossed through it on the way towards more fighting on 5 January. Dad described the climate of New Guinea to me one time. He said that it could be dusty one minute and then suddenly begin to rain, heavier rain than he had ever seen in the states. All of a sudden it would stop and the road that had just been dusty would be nothing but mud. The air was so hot that after 15 minutes, the muddy road would be dust again.
At this time, an average of 350 Papuans, or “fuzzy wuzzies” as the Allied troops called them, were assigned to Company B to work alongside the soldiers, for pay. The name “Papuans” is from a Malay word meaning “woolly haired”. Dad and others used the term “fuzzy wuzzies” because it described the New Guineans’ bushy hair. He said that it was common for the native islanders to pierce their ears and then tie a heavy object, like a rock, to the bottom of their ear lobe and leave it there to stretch the hole. When the hole stretched a little bit, it could be used to carry a cigarette. Some New Guineans opened the holes wide up as a decoration. Dad described the actions of one islander who was standing with the American soldiers one day waiting to move out to work. He suddenly bolted from the group, ran up to a tall coconut tree and shimmied up the tree. The soldiers were mystified. The native came down the tree with a rat in his hand. He bit off the rat’s head and put it into a little ditty bag that he wore. After some pigdin english was exchanged (the language the New Guineans used to converse with Australians and Americans and even with other natives who spoke different languages), the soldiers learned that he was going to save the rat in the ditty bag for lunch.
The labour of the islanders was the crucial difference between constructing all of the infrastructure necessary in New Guinea in 1942–44 and failure. Each tribe had its own specialty. The coastal people excelled at bridging streams while the Papuan tribesmen from the interior were skilled at hacking out trails. With the supply line turning into a trickle at times, the natives were instrumental in maintaining pace with building requirements. Familiar with the terrain and their own pre-war projects, the natives pointed out the trees best suited for use in construction, advised on techniques for sinking pilings into stream beds, and taught how to utilize bark as a lashing in the construction of bridges. The commanding officer of the 114th Engineers paid tribute to the islanders’ industry: “The success of the engineer operations in this campaign was due, in no small way, to the loyal, whole hearted, and tireless efforts of the natives.”
On February 20, 1943 the entire company was assigned to the construction of a large 30-ton bridge over the Samboga River at Horanda on the proposed Oro Bay–Horanda road. The road would allow supplies landed at docks and warehouses in Oro Bay, the major port on the Solomon Sea, to be transported overland to the major air base of Dobodura. By this time only 65 enlisted men were healthy enough to work (compared with about 230 men landing in November). Malaria, dysentery and dengue fever were common afflictions by February 1943. “We have been taking quinine and polyvitamin pills”, Dad wrote home. “They help a lot but the salt pills are the ones that help the most. Imagine me taking pills, I was the one that always said they did more harm than good.”
At one point Dad and some other men were running across a sandy area dodging sniper fire. They moved from concealed position to concealed position. While out in the open at a full gallop, Dad banged his big toe against a protruding rock. He desperately wanted to stop but he had to keep running. Unsure at the time, he later became certain that he had broken the toe. No one was taken from the lines for a mere broken toe at the time, so he managed with it as best he could. It healed in a straightened position and for the rest of his life he could not bend it.
“The bridge over the River Samboga” required 44 days to build, was supported by eleven pilings and was 395 feet long when completed. It was one of the longest bridges, if not the longest, in New Guinea at the time. Dad once told me that he was working along a river running a compressor and a pile driver and it may have been on this project. Other men were working around him. He could not hear anyone because of the noise of the compressor. After a while, he looked around and saw that everyone had suddenly disappeared. He shut the compressor down. An air raid alert had been sounded, in all likelihood the rapid shooting of a rifle three times, and he had not heard the signal nor anyone calling out as they ran for cover. As Japanese planes dived in, he sprinted for cover and, obviously, made it.
Shortly after, Dad wrote to his father on 5 March 1943: “... I am still in New Guinea but am fairly used to the place by now and I don’t mind it as much as I did. Boy was it tough for a while.” He received packages of candy, caramels, writing paper and once, a sweater. One misguided aunt mailed him an electric razor, an absolutely useless gift to a man who slept under the stars in a tent. He often sent home money orders for his parents, advising them to spend the money on themselves since there was nothing to spend the money on in the jungle. In March 1943, he mailed home the manufacturer’s plate from the magneto of a Japanese Zero.
The combat engineers sometimes preceded the infantry into areas where no roads existed in order to create trails, bridges and roads. The Japanese recognized the necessity of this type of preparation as well. A large portion of the original Japanese invading force in the summer of 1942 had been kohei butai(combat engineers) and Army and Navy construction troops. The engineers of both nations bridged streams ahead of or with the infantry at times, while at other times following behind the infantry to construct airstrips out of the dense Papuan jungle for air cover near the frontlines or to build roads for access to the airfields.
The companies of the 114th Battalion would be called upon to disassemble their construction equipment, load up supplies, move it overland and set up at a new jungle location. When they were inland and on the move, before bedding down for the night the Company would often dig a deep ditch, the idea being that because of the high water table, the ditch would be filled in with water by morning. On one occasion they arrived at a new site late at night and dug a ditch consistent with their routine. In the morning, the ditch had filled in with water, but a dead rat was floating in it. They did not plan to stay long enough to have the time to dig another ditch and they needed water badly. So they dumped all the medicine they had, iodine, atabrine, everything they had from their first aid supplies, into the ditch, mixed it up and then drank it. Presumably, no one died. On another occasion they found a box of Hershey’s chocolate bars which, unfortunately, were covered with mold. Driven by a total lack of luxury items in the jungle, the engineers scraped off the mold, melted down the chocolate bars and added them to water to make “hot chocolate”,i.e., hot cocoa.
When equipment needed to be repaired, Dad and the other mechanics switched from airfield, bridge and road construction to engine, jeep and truck repair. Having no service stations in Papua, the mechanics would rig a log horizontally between two trees, forming a large “H”. They would secure the rope (or chains when they had them) to the center of the “H” and then use the leverage to pull motors up out of the jeeps and other vehicles in order to repair them. Dad used this same device in our backyard in the 1970s when pulling a motor from my brother’s car.
On 30 March 1943, the battalion boarded the Army Transport Paine Wingate and returned to Australia (Brisbane this time) by 7 April. The battalion moved to a rest area at Southport, Queensland. The War Department issued a Presidential Unit Citation (now termed a Distinguished Unit Badge) to certain outfits involved in the Papuan Campaign, including the 114th Engineers on 6 May. In September, Dad departed from Brisbane and sailed for Goodenough Island, located off the eastern coast of New Guinea. He said that Goodenough Island was better than New Guinea, but still a bad place to be. The Japanese regularly conducted night air raids over Goodenough.
On one occasion while at Goodenough Island, Dad and some other fellows were working late at night at the Company motor pool. The group worked so late that they slept at the motor pool rather than going back to the company area, so that they could be close to the vehicles and equipment in the morning. All of a sudden, they heard planes “zooming down at us” as he once described it. They had no time to run for the conventional air raid shelters, so 20 soldiers crawled under a large, 20-ton cargo trailer that was parked nearby. They stayed there, protected by the steel of the cargo trailer, until the raid was over.
Dad was on Goodenough Island from September 1943 until January 1944. It was here that he first encountered US marines. Goodenough was a staging area where soldiers and marines were trained and marked time awaiting orders. A marine who was there at the time wrote a classic book called Helmet For My Pillow. The marine, Robert Leckie, describes in his book how on Goodenough Island he “foraged” for food by stealing supplies from other units. Dad did the same thing on Goodenough, but he “foraged’ from the marines. The marines had a large, freshwater purification unit and Dad and a few buddies “permanently borrowed” it, probably some time after the “rat water” incident. An advertisement by General Motors in a magazine of the period boasts that its water purification unit “... goes anywhere that wheels can roll”, which is precisely what the unit did. Wisely, they hid the large purification system in the jungle rather than bringing it into their own camp and setting it up immediately. Sure enough, the marines came looking for it the next day. They searched the army camp but did not find it. The Marines kept coming back occasionally to look for it, making it too “hot” to use to obtain freshwater right away. Eventually they got to use it.
Dad was able to learn how to operate power shovels and other specialized construction equipment on Goodenough. “In my spare time I have fooled around with all size bulldozers and even a road grader,” he wrote home in October 1943, “maybe these years have not been wasted after all.”
The 114th left Goodenough Island on 5 January 1944 and moved by Liberty Ship (a small freighter manufactured in the US in 30 days or less) to another staging area, Cape Cretin, New Guinea (also known as Finschhafen), arriving the next day. The battalion then moved by ship with an infantry regiment (approximately 1,700 soldiers) to Saidor, New Guinea arriving on 39 January. This was the first “hop” of MacArthur’s “bypass strategy” of hopping over large Japanese posts and attacking in undefended positions thereby causing the Japanese to pull back further north or risk being cut off altogether. The bypass strategy worked because the Army Air Corps and the Navy were supporting MacArthur’s troops at this time more than the Japanese Navy and Air Forces were supporting their soldiers and rikusentai [marines].
On one occasion, two low-flying, four-engined hikotei (flying boats) came in over the sea and dropped bombs near Dad’s location. Several soldiers were injured. One man had his legs blown off. Dad and some other men found him and propped him up against a tree and told him he was going to be all right. Someone applied a tourniquet and they waited for a stretcher to come but there was a lot going on and a stretcher was not immediately available. The wounded man asked for a cigarette, but was reminded that he didn’t smoke. He said “oh yeah” and then slumped over and died. Dad remembered it because it was a very strange death.
One time, Dad was repairing a piece of equipment in the jungle by himself. A P-47 fighter aircraft flew nearby in obvious distress. The plane smoked and dropped into the jungle. Dad drove to where he believed it went down and was the first to reach it. He said the plane was unique because the people of the City of St. Louis had donated money to pay for the aircraft and the plane was painted in a special scheme because of that. The young pilot was dead and his helmeted head was leaning against the instrument panel. There was nothing Dad could do for him. It is likely this took place near Saidor.
The 114th Battalion landed at Aitape, specifically the village of Nor, on 3 May 1944. The main landing at Aitape by the infantry had occurred on 22 April 1944. Heavy rains the day before the battalion landed had wiped out some of the bridge construction already started, flooded streams and required extensive repair of roads. The battalion proceeded to construct and maintain roads, bridges and trails and assisted in organising beachhead facilities in all sectors of the Aitape–Tadji area.
I once asked my father the question every boy asked their father who had served in a war – did you shoot anyone? His answer was so honest that it confirmed that everything else he ever told me was truthful – that he had shot at snipers or into bunkers or nests where Japanese soldiers were at the same time that other American soldiers fired. Afterwards they found the Japanese soldiers dead but had no way of knowing who had fired the bullet that killed them. This answer also opened up to me a new view that the battlefield was not exactly as the movies depicted.
Dad returned to the US in June 1944 and was stationed near Washington, DC. Within 2 months of his stateside arrival he suffered an attack of malaria and was sent for six months to an Army hospital in the mountains of North Carolina. He was very thin, he had fungal infections and the malaria racked him with sudden fevers and chills. Still, looking back on his time in the hospital, he later described this as, except for the malaria attacks, the best six months of his life. He received the best food to eat – milk, bananas and other fruits which were hard to come by during the war – he had no military responsibilities and his only directive was to play baseball and basketball to regain strength. By the end of the six months, he won a physical fitness test among 180 soldiers in the hospital.
He was discharged from the hospital and sent back to DC by train. Unbeknownst to him, his brother had been medically discharged from the Navy and was taking the same train back east. When they unexpectedly bumped into each other on the train, they had not seen each other for more than 3 years. This reunion, in March 1945, was one of the few highlights of the war for the Bagley family. Dad returned to his post in an engineering school and taught trainees construction for the jungle.
In August 1945, Dad appeared on a radio program in New York City entitled “Weapons for Victory”. He appeared with a woman who had lost her son in the war but continued to work in a factory manufacturing war equipment of a kind Dad had put to use in New Guinea (hence the title of the program). The program encouraged factory workers and others contributing to the war effort to stick to their jobs. Shortly afterwards, on VJ Day, 2 September 1945 he was discharged from the Army. He arrived home in Chelsea, Massachusetts expecting a big welcome, but his family was at the seashore, enjoying a holiday weekend, ignorant of his homecoming. He spent his first days back in civilian life home alone. His parents and two sisters soon returned and gave him a proper welcome. His mother asked what he had missed the most, fully expected ecting the name “Mother” to come from his lips. He replied, “the refrigerator”.
Dad became a civilian construction superintendent, building highways and preparing sites for buildings all over the eastern United States from the 1940s until the 1980s. He suffered malaria attacks into the 1950s. He married and had five sons. He passed away at home in June 1987 at age 68 after a full day’s work.
[authored by Joseph Bagley, esq., originally published as "Remembering the war in New Guinea" for the Australian War Memorial website]