Tami Air Field , an "I was there" account
Dutch New Guinea
April 22, 1944
Our advances northward worked in leapfrog fashion. One group moved up close to
the fighting while others were left behind and had a chance to rest for the next
move. The next time those that were left behind moved up and the others stayed in
position and had a chance to rest. Now it was our turn to move up, thank God.
We began hearing about a new offensive in the making. At first it was just small
rumors with few specific facts. Then the rumors had it that the assault was
supposedly to be on Wewak, a Japanese enclave 400 miles up the coast from where we
were at Finschhafen. For several weeks we had been seeing equipment and boxes of
supplies stenciled with the code name RECKLESS in large black. But of course we had
no idea of the meaning of the code name at that time. The rumor mill continued to
grind out new facts and fiction every day, some of it involving us. Before long we
were directed to inspect all of our rolling stock and start packing the shop
equipment for a move north. Finally we moved everything to the dock area and started
loading it on the Landing ShipTank (LST) assigned to our squadron.
The Navy had been shelling Wewak for several weeks while the Air Force bombed and
strafed the place repeatedly. The Japanese were allowed to see parachutist landing
far back in the hills, and finding empty life jackets and inflatable rafts washed up
on the beach. It looked so much like the assault on Wewak was about to take place
that General Adachi, the Japanese commander, moved his troops by forced march from
Hollandia south to Wewak to help in the defense of the impending attack. It turned
that this whole thing was a big deception, concocted to fool the Japanese into
thinking that an attack on Wewak was eminent. It was successful beyond anything
Hollandia always had been the target of the assault and never Wewak. Even the
attacking convoy had traveled by a devious sea route to Hollandia to more confuse
the Japanese about our real intention, the landing of American forces at Hollandia
on April 22, 1944.
It was drizzling again when we got to Humboldt Bay on April 30th. As we approached
our landing site, White Beach, our LST grounded on a sandbar some 20 yards from
shore. Thinking the water gradually shoaled from there to the beach, the ramp was
dropped and everyone got ready to go ashore. What no one was aware of was that even
though the LST's bow had grounded on a sandbar, there was a tidal reach to a depth
of about 8 feet deep under the ship's bow.
Warrant Officer Whitten was the first one to drive off of the ramp, fortunately. So
with a loud "Follow Me" and a wave of the hand the Jeep charged down the ramp, and
kept going right out of sight in 8 feet of water, leaving Mister Whitten and his
passenger swimming for their lives. The Jeep and a very wet and angry Warrant
Officer were fished out in short order, however we had to wait another 5 hours for
high tide to make another run at the beach. That afternoon we managed to get ashore
without a problem.
We had unloaded most of our equipment from the LST before we were told that the
Japanese had destroyed the shelf road running from White Beach over the mountains to
the airdrome. Unfortunately this was the only road that would take us to the Lake
Santani Airdrome. Therefore the destroyed section of the road was going to have to
be rebuilt before we could truck in. As a result of this dilemma we were told to
reload everything on the LST and move about 6 miles across the bay to another
airstrip adjacent to the Tami River and wait there for the road to be reopened.
When we made the prior landing at White Beach we had discovered the largest Japanese
ammunition dump that I have ever seen. It covered the beach for about a mile and
must have been 200 feet deep. We poked around inspecting the boxes and crates of
ammunition and other war making material, looking for anything that would be useful
to us. That night we slept on board the LST and were off for Tami at first light.
The following evening, after we had moved everything from the beach to Tami, the
ammunition dump at White Beach exploded. Most of us had gone to the beach for an
evening dip after trucking everything we owned overland to the airstrip. The sun had
just slipped below the horizon and we were taking time to look at the beauty of this
place when a huge fireball arose from the beach across the bay. After a second or so
there was a thunderous roar and then a continued fireworks display for several
hours. Exploding ammunition, gasoline drums bursting and anything else that would
burn went up in a fiery conflagration.
The next day there were several rumors about what had caused the explosion. The
official version was that one lone Japanese airplane had sneaked in and bombed it.
The second was that the Japanese had mined the beach, and the Marines had built a
fire to heat their evening coffee, and this accidentally set off one of the mines. I
suspect that the second reason is correct since every airbase where a Japanese
airplane could possibly have come from had been shelled or bombed out of existence
by the Navy at that time. I think the official version was purely for the press,
knowing full well that the story would be eventually reported back in the states.
There must have been a number of Army and Marine troops killed in the blast, but I
never became aware of the body count. We all realized that if we had stayed there
for that night as planned, we would have been right in the middle of that fireball.
Strangely our collective luck held throughout the war. This was only the first time
that the hand of lady luck would be extended to us.
Most of the information related to operation RECKLESS remained classified until long
after the war had ended. I had always been interested in the history of the Pacific
War as it related to my experiences. So when our squadron's historical record became
declassified and available, I made it my business to get a copy of it, and
everything else that I could find related to the war in the Pacific. My wife Clare,
also gave me a copy of "The History of the Pacific War", (as compiled by the
Department of History, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York) for a
birthday present. (ISBN-089529-243-2) The information from these sources, along with
an Internet search, my little black notebook and memories from the past helped put
this narrative together. Some of the pictures included are from the Jack Hind's
collection from World War 2 that I found on the Internet. These pictures are used
with the kind permission of Jack Hinds.
April 31, 1944
After our landing on the beach at Tami River the squadron moved inland, following a
dirt road leading to the airstrip. A platoon of the 162nd Infantry Division
(Rangers) accompanied us. I wasn't too much surprised to find that they had been
tasked to secure the airstrip at the end of the road we were now following, seeing
that they were combat troops and armed to the teeth. However, I was somewhat
apprehensive knowing that we were with an advanced party of infantry troops going
into a place where Japanese troops probably had eaten breakfast the day before. The
last people there were the enemy, and they had made a hasty retreat to the jungle
just before our arrival, or so we hoped.
When we finally arrived at the airstrip we were directed to the far side to set up
our temporary camp in the shade of some large trees. However we had no more than
gotten the trucks parked when an irate Army major arrived. He told us that their
objective had been reached when they arrived at the far side of the airstrip, and
suggested that perhaps we would be a whole lot safer back on the other side with his
men. Actually his exact words were more like, "You fly boy's get the hell back over
there before you get your asses killed, cause I suspect there still are a few of
those little yellow bastards around here". We got the hint and left for the other
side in a big hurry.
After dinner everyone dug a very deep foxhole, expecting the worse after dark. That
was a good decision as we found out later that night when a big firefight erupted
across the airstrip, with yellow and red tracer's lacing the air over our heads.
After several hours of random firing the Japanese attack slowed and they just melted
away into the jungle.
Very early the next morning the squadron's carpenter, T/Sgt. Ben Lawrence, had to
relieve himself and took a short hike into an adjacent grove of trees. Unbeknown to
him, earlier that evening, and without notifying anyone, the Rangers had set out a
picket line of hand grenades attached to trip wires. (The pull pins were connected
to the wires, which were then secured some distance away from the grenades.)
The shooting had been over for several hours when there was an explosion of one of
the grenades. Ben had inadvertently tripped one of these, but luckily managed to get
behind a big tree before it went off. He was badly shaken up, but unhurt by the
experience. For the remainder of the night any personal hygiene was taken care of in
or next to your foxhole.
The following day, with nothing much to do, I went looking for a souvenir among the
wreckage of several Japanese airplanes. I finally found a small vacuum driven gyro
horizon in a destroyed Japanese Zero. Which I managed to removed, and it became one
of my prized possessions brought home from the war. In 1954 I had it tested and
calibrated at the Martin Company's Instrument Laboratory and then mounted it in my
airplane. It still worked fine when I sold the airplane fifteen years later.
Later that morning we busied ourselves putting up our tent and helping to arrange a
temporary camp. Sometime that afternoon there was a single gunshot from the vicinity
of the airstrip, several hundred yards away. We all grabbed our weapons and went in
support of what ever was happening. When we arrived we found several infantrymen
gathered around a wounded soldier lying on the ground who was bleeding profusely.
An aircraft cannon ball had shattered both of his knees. I was told later that he
had been trying to get a souvenir from one of the other damaged airplanes that
dotted the area when one of his friends accidentally tripped the cannon on another
airplane. It fired one explosive shell, which struck him in the left knee, passed
through and exploded on the far side. The left knee had been destroyed by the impact
and the shell's explosion shattered the right knee.
This was the first time that I had seen someone wounded so severely. Tourniquets and
temporary bandages were applied immediately and he received several injections of
morphine. In several minutes he was going into shock from the loss of blood and
agonizing pain. Our squadron's medical officer was advised of the situation and
asked if he would consider an emergency evacuation to a field hospital someplace, if
it could be arranged. In the meantime we got the solder onto a stretcher and moved
him to our medical tent where Capt. Pastorello, the squadron's doctor, went to work
in an attempt to save his life.
Since the only medical facility was across Humboldt Bay at Pim, what ever we were
going to do had to be decided quickly. We had very limited medical equipment for
something like this and although a tourniquet had been applied to each leg above the
knee, the bleeding still continued. By this time most of the help that we had at the
airstrip had vanished. In fact only Cpl. Eugene Bowline, our medical technician,
Capt. Pastorello and the three of us were left in the tent. Doc Bowline intended to
stay with the wounded man and observe his condition for several hours before Capt.
Pastorello could make a decision about the evacuation. In the meantime we returned
to our tent and got back to our duties. Several hours later Cpl. Bowline asked us to
assist him in getting the wounded man to the field hospital at Pim. This would have
to be done immediately because his condition was now critical.
The reason he had contacted us was that we had the only portable radio equipment
available at the airstrip and "Doc" Bowline hoped that we would be able to contact
anyone who could provide transportation across the bay to the field hospital there.
Both Stan and Ollie, our radio technicians, tried to contact anyone within range of
our transmitter with a Mayday distress call. Unfortunately, the amount of radio
traffic coupled with our low transmitting power prevented the signal from getting
through. It soon became obvious that we had to move to the beach, since the water
would act as a better ground plain and could extend the range of our radio. Perhaps
this would improve our chances of make contact with someone.
Prior to leaving Finschhafen Stan and I had installed a salvaged aircraft low
frequency radio transmitter and receiver in the radio shop's Jeep just in case of an
emergency such as this. Unfortunately, the radio did have a limited range because of
the battery power available.
The wounded man was loaded into our ambulance under "Doc" Bowline's direction, while
the rest of us piled into the Jeep and headed for the beach. Cpl. Bowline was
driving the ambulance and Ollie, Stan and I were in the Jeep. It took us about 30
minutes to slowly drive the distance to Humbolt Bay. When we finally got there we
again tried to contact someone with our radio, however this attempt was also not
successful. Since Stan was proficient with Morse code, and in desperation he
attempted to contact one of the Navies barges that we could hear crisscrossing the
bay out in the darkness. The odds were against us by using the radio, because we had
no idea of what communications frequencies were in use by the Navy. We had been
transmitting in the clear and hoping that someone would hear us. Even using our
flashlight to attract attention to our plight didn't work. Time was slipping away
and we had to come up with something quickly.
Now it was apparent that something drastic had to be done because the patient's life
was slowly dripping away. After a short discussion it was decided that one of us
would have to swim the several hundred yards to where the barges were traveling, and
attempt to flag one of them down with the flashlight. (We later learned that Stan's
SOS by using a flashlight had been seen, but thinking it was a Japanese trick to
lure them into firing range, no one responded.)
The choice came down to this; Ollie was married with two children and Stan had
gotten married just before going into the service, and he also was a poor swimmer.
On the other hand I was unmarried and was a good swimmer. I began to kick off my
shoes and was down to my shorts. While we were discussing the details one of the men
that had been riding in the ambulance with Doc Bowline suggested that he make the
swim. (I think he was a buddy of the solder that had been hurt.) He explained that
he had several years of experience in ocean swimming and had been a lifeguard on an
ocean beach back in the States. He was a big man and looked like a professional
athlete, so without hesitation I handed him the flashlight.
This flashlight was one of the waterproof Navy battle lanterns that had liberated
from someplace, and weighted perhaps 5 pounds. He slipped his belt through the
lantern's handle and then around his neck. By this time someone had found a float of
sorts and had handed it to him. Quickly he disappeared seaward into the surf. This
was dangerous business, big sharks or getting shot was a choice dismissed.
There wasn't a word spoken for the next 30 minutes. Not a sound except for the rush
of the waves and the growl of the barge engines someplace out in the darkness. The
night was pitch black with no moon, only starlight to illuminate the scene. After
what seemed an eternity we became aware of a large dark shape slowly ghosting
toward us from out of the night. A flashlight blinked several times and Stan blinked
back. The barge was some 100 feet off of the beach now and in very shallow water.
Code messages flashed back and forth for several minutes before Stan said anything.
It appeared that the barge did not have a stern anchor by which to pull itself off
of the beach should they land, and they were afraid that if they were to be turned
sideways by the surf, with out it they could lose the boat. (Think of Ocean City on
a bad day.) They suggested that we drive south for several miles following the beach
to the mouth of the Tami River. They felt sure that they could get into the river's
mouth far enough to drop their ramp close to the bank. They slowly backed away from
the beach and turned south, disappearing in to the night.
Traveling without headlights, our Jeep leading the way, we were guided only by the
luminescence of the surf. Every now and than we turned on the Jeep's headlights for
a short second, just to be sure that our way was clear. Two days before the Japanese
owned this place, and we all suspected there had to be few still around. If we were
to be caught between the enemy and the water it would be over for all of us in a few
seconds. We were well aware of the danger.
We had gone about a 1/2 mile when a flash from the headlight reflected from a small
red object close to the water's edge, about 100 yards ahead of us. We stopped and
discussed what we should do. No one should be on the beach, and if someone was out
there they had to be the bad guys, so shoot first and we will discuss it later. We
were all armed, and I had brought a Springfield 30-06, a weapon of choice, which was
the weapon for this shot. So as the headlights flashed on again I fired at the red
reflection. The muzzle flash blinded us momentarily but even in the glare of the
headlights we could see a large saltwater crocodile leap into the air and then
plunge into the surf. We all began to breathe again. I can't speak for the others
but I was concerned about our safety most of the time on that trip, and I am sure
that I was not alone with this feeling. As the saying goes, we were letting it all
hang out on this trip.
Finally we arrived at the mouth of the river and found the barge already there,
waiting for us in shallow water. As soon as we arrived they dropped the ramp and we
quickly got the injured man aboard. Doc Bowline tied the plasma bottle to the boat's
structure, had a quick conversation with one of the sailors, and as the ramp started
to raise he and our swimmer jumped ashore.
The field hospital had already been advised of the situation by radio from the barge
and would have an ambulance waiting when they arrived. Unfortunately, we never did
hear the outcome of this adventure. I sincerely hope that he survived and made it
home. (He could have been taken to a Navy ship?).
Doc Bowline and the two fellows in the ambulance elected to drive back along the
beach, however, Stan and I thought that an old road through the edge of the jungle
would be faster. This was a disastrous choice as it turned out. The beach road was
much rougher than we expected, and without using the headlights the only guidance we
had was from the faint starlight filtering through the trees.
We must have been about one half mile from the intersection with the road to the
airstrip when we found a fallen palm tree blocking our way. Try as we could we were
not able to move it out of the road. Our choice then became to go back to Tami River
and take the beach, or attempt to cross the log in four-wheel drive. The tree trunk
was just below the level of the Jeep's bumper, so with the help of a few chunks of
wood I was able to get the front wheels in position to grab hold and pull us over.
Unfortunately, when the front wheels came down on the other side, the Jeep was left
suspended on its transmission with the front wheels just off the ground. We were
stuck on the log. In this position the rear wheels could not get enough traction on
the moist ground to pull us off backward or push us on over the log. A few quick
tries and we realized that we were going to have to walk home and leave the Jeep
until morning. Just in case, I removed the rotor from the distributor and we were on
our way on foot.
Banging around at night in the jungle while in a combat zone is an open invitation
to get shot by either your friends or the enemy. We finally made it to the road
junction and then back to camp without mishap, although we were aware that we were
passing unseen riflemen in foxholes or on picket duty. The metallic clank of a rifle
action being cycled or the snap of a safety release is very hard on the nerves, and
causes undue concern on a moonless night. Perhaps we made it because we were singing
Dixie or some other genuine American tune at the top of our lungs all the way.
Taking that off-beach road was madness any way that I look at it. Unfortunately I
was the one that suggested that it would be much quicker, and I suspect that I came
within an ace of getting us both killed by my stupidity.
Knowing that we were to be at the Tami Airstrip for only a short time prompted us to
arrange our tents in a rather haphazard pattern, not military at all. We expected to
be over at the airdrome within the week so we put our tent in a comfortable spot and
in the shade of a grove of trees. And after our tiring adventure the night before we
were in no mood to get up early the next morning. So when we had to put up with the
trail of a 90-mm antiaircraft gun being positioned through one corner of our tent
the next morning no one bothered to get up. We could hear the gun crew talking and
going about their business just outside of the tent, put paid little attention to
what they were doing. Suddenly the gun was fired, and we were all instantly
wide-awake and flat on the ground, just in case.
There were four antiaircraft guns and a RADAR set making up battery. These were
arranged in a pre-determined pattern and synchronized with the guns in such a way
that they fire where the RADAR was looking. The locations for the guns had been
surveyed the previous day. but somehow we had missed the white stake marking the
location for this gun in our haste to erect our tent.
These four guns and their controlling RADAR were zeroed in, or synchronized, using
the moon as a visual target. (Actually the RADAR and guns could be sighted in on any
distant object, but in case they could get a RADAR echo from the moon, that was
used.) Initially, after a gun has been moved to a new positioned to be zeroed in; it
is fired to settle everything to a stable position. We were not aware of that
unfortunately, and it scared hell out of us.
A short time later we became aware that the gun commander was using his binoculars,
watching some movement on the rock-covered side of a mountain about a mile away. He
passed the glasses around and sure enough several Japanese soldiers had gathered out
in the open, perhaps watching us. The gun commander told one of his crew to get a PD
on a shell, (point-detonating fuse) and load it. We guessed what was coming next. A
few words on the field telephone and the order was given to fire one round. The
90-mm gun roared and a second later there was a puff of smoke where the Japs had
been standing. No one went for a body count.
Later that day, several of us were detailed to investigate an abandoned Japanese
shop area that had been found in an adjacent gully, with an eye out for shop
equipment that we could salvage and use. The Japanese had hand tools of the type
that we needed to do our sheet metal work and there just could be something in
useable condition left behind.
Their shop area was located in a large gully that was covered by heavy foliage. Off
to one side of the ravine was a high rocky cliff. The Japanese had managed to dig
two tunnels in the face of the cliff as a bombproof storage area for their supplies.
We stopped and surveyed the area thoroughly before we ventured into this shaded
glade. No one missed the prospect of an armed Japanese soldier or two hiding in one
of the caves. So it was suggested that a hand grenade be tossed into each opening
just to be sure no one was at home waiting for us. Since I was now the explosive
expert by a previous experience, everyone looked at me. I found several grenades in
our Jeep and by sliding along the face of the cliff got next to the first opening. I
pulled the pin on one and reaching around the corner of the opening and with one arm
I tossed it as far as I could back in the cave.
The explosion delay on a hand grenade is three to five seconds after the lever is
released. But it seemed like minutes before there was an explosion from inside,
followed instantly by another spine-shaking, ear shattering blast, and then followed
a large ball of fire erupting from the opening of each cave. This was followed by a
rain of parts, boxes, baskets and other miscellaneous Japanese supplies.
Later we found that there had been an interconnecting tunnel at the back of the
caves where the Japanese had kept their explosives. We did manage to salvage several
of the items that we were looking for, but not from inside of the caves. There were
no dead Japanese found in either of them either.
In the entire RECKLESS operation there were only 124 Americans killed, however the
Japanese lost over 10,000 of the 11,000 troops that had participated in the battle
for Hollandia. Those who survived fled into the jungle and certainly must have died
from exposure or starvation. There is no doubt that the Japanese troops that we
encountered at the Tami airstrip the first night were part of the group that had
escaped death in the initial fighting, only to face a worse fate in the jungle.
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