I recently finished the excellent book Unbroken, the true story of an American POW in Japan during WWII. As for most people, it has re-ignited my interest in World War II, and war in general. Yesterday, I had the chance to interview a Vietnam veteran, and while he was reluctant to speak of his own wartime experiences, he did tell me about his father, who served in the Pacific. These are his words:
Sometime after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted. He wound up in the Army Air Corps, precursor to the Air Force. And somehow or another he volunteered for various things like jump school, which is parachute training. He was assigned to pre-invasion teams in the Pacific. Their main job was to go in ahead of an invasion force and do reconnaissance, so they’re looking for Japanese–where they are on the island, how many there are, what kind of weapons they have. So it was basically intelligence. They weren’t supposed to engage with the enemy because that would give them away.
I have a sneaky suspicion he volunteered for all this but I don’t know that for a fact. He was very proud of it.
He only told me two stories.
One was about the beginning, his first mission; and then one about his last mission. What happened in between, I have no idea.
On his very first mission, and I don’t know the name of the island or where he flew out from, they were supposed to go to the island at night. It was called a low-altitude parachute jump because you’re looking for accuracy, to get in the right place. The pilot was supposed to get them over this big sandy beach that they could see in the starlight. Jump and land and get into the jungle. Instead, the pilot apparently panicked and didn’t want to fly that close to the island, afraid he’d get shot down. So when the green light went on for them to jump, instead of being over the beach, they were over the water. He dropped them over the water.
My dad was panicked. He and a couple others got rid of their backpacks because they were weighing them down. Threw his helmet off. Kept his pistol belt on. He had heavy boots on. It was pitch black. They could hear wounded guys crying out. Couldn’t see a damn thing. Their instinct was to head right to shore. They knew a coral reef was there, just below the surface; they knew there was blood in the water. And they worried about sharks.
It turns out most fell on top of the reef. If I remember right there were 15 on the team, and only 3 made it to shore. The rest were cut up by the coral.
The three lost most of their equipment, including the radio. They got ashore, and
headed into the jungle. They were supposed to be on the island for 3-4 days, but they wound up being there about a month because they had no way to signal the rescue submarine to come get them.
They had no rations. They wound up trapping and killing what animals they could, mostly monkeys. They didn’t dare light a fire to cook anything so they ate them raw. My dad was a farm boy, and he was a pretty skilled hunter, what I knew of. He grew up butchering animals around the farm, so I don’t think it was any great problem for him to figure out a way. He knew how to use rabbit snares. They didn’t shoot the monkeys, I know that, because they didn’t want to be found out.
They spent the first week or so scared out of their minds, afraid to move. They’d never been in combat, it was their very first mission. The Japanese were all over the island. He used to say you could smell them. He was pretty sure the Japanese could smell them, too.
When they moved, they moved at night. Very quietly. I remember him telling me they sat outside a Japanese camp for two days, just counting and watching.
They were finally able to steal a Japanese radio and figure out how to use it. They eventually signaled a submarine and got the signal back telling them where they were supposed to rendezvous with the sub. So the Navy guys came onto shore at night on their rubber raft, picked them up, took them to the submarine and they eventually got them back to the home base.
There’s a picture somewhere of my dad right afterward–he had a mass of black curly hair, a big black beard, his uniform was pretty rotted. On base, everything of his was gone—his locker empty. They were assumed dead. I don’t know whatever happened to the pilot. My dad said several times what he would have done to him if he ever caught him.
Next week I’ll follow up with the second story, about his last mission in the Pacific during WWII.