By Cpl. Barrett McGurn

YANK Staff Correspondent

BOUGAINVILLE, THE SOLOMONS—Our Higgins landing boat drones along parallel to shore and 1,000 feet off the breakers. Its mission is to locate a party of 60 scouts, 20 miles up the Bougainville coast outside the American lines. Radio communication with the scouts broke off 30 hours ago when the last “clear” signal was received. Our boat contains extra radio equipment, in case that proves to be their trouble and it carries 30 helmeted volunteers armed with carbines, if it develops that the Japanese have pinned down the scouts.

We are outside sniper range but well within reach of the type of Japanese mortar that shelled other Higgins boats several weeks ago when the Americans seized Vella Lavella, father south in the Solomons. Our boat cannot stay too far off-shore because we might miss the beach signals of the scouts. The crew keeps a weather eye out for Japanese strafers, who attacked a scout supply boat last week, shooting holes in its canvas and its metal ramp, and knocking off one side light.

37th infantry division

Insignia of the 37th Infantry Division. The 37th was originally a National Guard outfit from Ohio.

Bougainville’s sheer green walls sweep down from heights two miles high to within a few feet of the water, like an emerald curtain hung up against the sky, hiding the jungle enemies from one another. Scanning this vast natural portiere with binoculars is S/Sgt. W.A. Orick, a regimental intelligence noncom from Cincinnati, Ohio. A lover of the words since his father, a U.S. marshal, let him have a .38 to fool around with when he was 11. Orick is in his glory. His costume as he squats on the fan tail of the Higgins boat is an inspecting officer’s nightmare: soiled fatigue pants with torn cuffs, Marine Corps suede shoes, a helmet liner and a sleeveless OD sweater that no QM warehouse ever handled. But Orick’s boss, Capt. Ulysses Grant Carlan of Athens, Ga., has only smiles of approval of him as the two sit side by side.

“He’s a wizard,” says Capt. Carlan, who is the regimental intelligence officer. “He’s my right-hand man. He sees more than any man I ever saw, and he doesn’t know what fear is. He isn’t happy unless he’s in a hot spot. Orick, what’s that white thing in there?”

Orick peers. “Trunk of a tree,” he grunts. Twice Orick has spotted signal smoke sent up by Japanese patrols in the five weeks since the first American invaders landed, and once his restless eyes noticed a disturbance of earth that betrayed four buried boxes of Japanese heavy machine-gun ammunition. The find provided valuable intelligence: it showed that a party of 1,000 Japanese who had tried a counteroffensive a few days previously had abandoned the effort, buried their heavy equipment and scrammed.

Orick is typical of the men in this party and of those who make up the other scouting parties that are constantly daring the dangers of Bougainville’s vast no-man’s land to obtain necessary information, capture prisoners and kill any other Japs contacted.

Orick points to the spot where, four days earlier, a stalking Japanese soldier became the stalked one. The Jap had spotted three infantrymen at work on a radio outside the American lines. Heavily armed, he crept toward them, carrying his rifle, three Japanese grenades, an American grenade and a supply of extra ammunition.

But his ignorance of wood lore was astonishing. Although the Japanese rifle is six inches longer than the American model, the Jap was carrying his weapon slung across his back out of reach in such a position that it caught on every bush.

As a result he was spotted by two other Americans, S/Sgt. Thomas M. Miller of Ashland, Ohio, and Sgt. Donald P. Evans of Fostoria, Ohio, who were also moving through the woods. They were carrying their weapons ready, doing no talking and making no noise, so by the time the Jap noticed them they were only 30 yards away. They wanted to capture him, but he threw his rifle off safety. Evans got him.

37th infantry division patrol bougainville

Members of the 37th Infantry Division during the Battle of Bougainville.

In the little knapsack sling at his side they found bouillon cubes and two brands of cigarettes. Old Golds and Fleetwoods.

Suddenly two tiny darting dots of red leap into sight of the shore. Twenty square miles of landscape lie in view, but rapidly moving spots of crimson are so unnatural that they loom up almost as prominently as the largest peaks of the Crown Prince Range overhead.

The dots are semaphore flags being waved by the tiny, partly naked figure of a white man in a clearing.  Our Higgins boat swings hard to starboard. There is a strained moment as the boat comes within sniper range. Those 80-foot trees could conceal a Japanese regiment, but happily they don’t. IT turns out that the scouts are okay. Their silence didn’t mean that they had encountered any Japanese: their radio had just gone dead, maybe because of two days of drenching downpours.

We ask them how their patrol work has been going. Pretty rugged, the scouts admit. As they talk, their fatigues are wet to the armpits, a souvenir of an icy 75-foot river they forded a little earlier. “No matter how many times you jump into those streams,” a scout says, “they still take your breath away.”

Short, wiry S/Sgt. William E. Lucas of Steubenville, Ohio, tells the story of their jungle trek. On two mornings, he says, the scouts woke up to find themselves in pools of rain water two or three inches deep. They stayed drenched for 48 hours, with rain, river water and sweat.

They found that every pause in the march means sending out a security guard and that at night the perimeter must be dug in. Each man stands three one-hour watches a night, and everyone sleeps with rifle and knife beside him or clutched in his hand. All cans and other refuse must be buried and all foxholes must be filled and packed down to conceal the bivouac area or at least to hide the size of the party.

Each man carries drinking water in two canteens slung from his cartridge belt, and when these run dry they must be filled from streams or holes. “For three days we drank water from a hole back of a swamp,” puts in Miller. “We used four tablets of halazone, the amount you use to purify very polluted water. It tasted salty and had foam on it, like beer.”

Mosquitoes are a bother, too. Men of one patrol found they could escape the mosquitoes by covering their heads with shelter halves, but they had to wake up and peek out every once in a while to make sure no Japanese were sneaking up.

Sleeping on patrols is done in a six- or eight-inch foxhole, with the scout wrapped in a shelter half or raincoat and covered overhead with a hut constructed of bamboo and leaves in a manner taught to the patrols by friendly natives.

Besides all these troubles the patrols have the usual tropical jungle complaints. Pores are usually ipen and energy is burned up even by sitting around, a luxury patrols cannot afford. There are no fresh vegetables, meat or milk to satisfy appetites sharpened by mountain climbing. Concentrated rations begin to taste like sawdust after four or five days.

Worst of all is the combat tension, the ever-present possibility of a trap. So far only on patrol has been ambushed. S/Sgt. James L. Buffet, a Cincinnati machinist, tells about it.

“I never want another,” he says. “We walked into a beauty, up there by Kuraio Mission. There were thickets on both sides of the trail. The Japs had us surrounded. Only six of us were on the patrol. They opened fire on us. We got off two shots and then ran. We had to.”

If the Japanese had been good shots, all six Americans would have been killed but as it was only two were wounded.

The relief party jumps back onto the ramp of the Higgins boat and the scouts file back into the jungle. Three days later the party completes its mission. Score: No Japanese encountered, but a truck laod of Japanese ammunition, mortars, flares and grenades discovered.

Although this patrol got no Japs, all the other patrols have killed one or more of the enemy. The two Americans wounded with Buffett have been the only casualties. A typical patrol was the one on which Sgt. Virgil B. Fortmeyer of Columbus, Ind., a former salesman, and Sgt. Ray S. Smith of Niles, Ohio, a former steel-mill clerk, were the leading noncoms. They matched jungle skill with two Japanese parties.

“We spotted the first group 2,000 yards down the beach from us,” said Smith. “They were out in the open, walking right up the beach, coming like hell. I guess that’s the way they walk—just like hell. They’re always in a hurry.

A perimeter defense was organized instantly. The men dug in a foot deep and threw up a parapet, but the Japanese point man was on the scene before any camouflaging could be done. Halfway past the position the point man did a double-take, like a movie comedian—but there was no comedy in this deal. The Japanese made a break for it and the Americans opened up. The point man was killed but the six  behind him got away.

The next day, waiting for the supply boat to put an end to their mission, the scouts got a second chance. “We were sitting around,” said Smith, “and throwing the bull about what good food we’d be able to eat that night. Suddenly the boys on the left flank spotted two Japs.”

One the Japanese was chewing on a stick and carrying his gun strapped up in its leather case. Tat made two violations of jungle-fighting tactics: he wasn’t keeping his mind on business and his weapon wasn’t handy.

The boys let fly at the soldier and killed him. The other took off over a high cliff. “We went looking for him,” Smith said, “but he could have hid anywhere. He dropped equipment, rice and candy all over the place as he went.” The Americans picked up 38 containers of canned meat of a Japanese variety, like the American brand in appearance, and a steel helmetful of cooked rice, still warm.

37th infantry division patrol bougainville

Soldiers of the 37th Division carry supplies to the front.

Most missions last five days, but the prize one to date went 13 days. The scouts traveled 60 miles through snarled jungle and penetrated 25 miles into no-man’s land. They killed eight Japanese. The patrol’s first problem was to scale Crown Prince Range above the beachhead. The party moved precariously by clinging to roots, tree trunks and vines. Several times the earth crumbled underfoot and once the mission’s photographer, 1st Lt. Robert Field of Webster Groves, Mo., came close to plunging 1,000 feet.

The party wound up close to Bougainville’s two volcanoes, 10,171-foot Balbi and 6,560-foot Bagana, active craters from which smoke never ceases to roll. The scouts were headed for the tiny native village of Ibu, described as four hours away from a strong Japanese east-coast garrison. Miles went tediously underfoot but no Ibu.

“The natives kept repeating that it was about four hours’ walk strong, eight hours walk slow,” said Buffett. It actually took four days. The last 15 hours were spent practically without food. Eventually it came out that the native guides had decided to lead the patrol over a back trail because they’d heard from the native grapevine that a large party of Japanese was camped near the main trail. Buffett developed a lot of respect for the grinning, friendly natives. “They’re smart ducks,” he said, “smarter than you think.”

Only one native could speak English, and even he was the chop-chop variety. A product of Kuraio Mission, he gloried in the name of Solomon. Many of the Bougainville natives could not even understand one another. Sometimes when a friendly native came in with information, it had to go through three of four natives and got pretty mangled in translation.

The native boys could tell instantly whether other natives were friends or enemies. Buffett never could figure out how. Another thing that amazed him was how much they knew about nature’s local tricks. One day the boys “motioned to us, all excited, to get the hell out of there.” Buffett recalled. The party was wading hip-deep in a stream in a steep narrow canyon. It was raining. Suddenly, in two minutes, the water rose two feet. The party got.

Each native with the patrol was given a can of 75 cigarettes every four days or so. They went for the cigarettes in a big way. “They smoke more or less like an old woman,” said Buffett, holding two fingers pincer-fashion.

While GI chow held out on the trip, the native boys at that and liked it. They pitched into a breakfast that must have seemed strange—oatmeal, pancakes, apple butter and coffee.

Twice the patrols had to get food by parachute, and usually the cases smashed open in the landing, sending cans bounding down the cliffs, with the native boys in pursuit.

When the party reached Ibu, the natives with the patrol were angry because there had been no skirmish with the Japanese, no “boom, boom” as they call it. The natives did not have long to grumble. A friendly bushman came in, waving both hands and jumping around on one foot as he attempted to raise the other foot to waist level. Another native recognized his problem and stretched out a hand. The first native nodded happily and put his two hands next to the other one. Everyone the idea: 15 Japs.

About 2,000 yards father along, the party discovered tracks and read them the way an Indian scout would. Here were the peculiar markings of Japanese hobnail boots. There were the mitten-like imprints of the split-toed shoes other Japanese wear, a shoe with a separate casing for the big toe. The patrol radioed its findings to the beachhead and then proceeded. After several hundred feet more they spotted the point man of an oncoming Japanese patrol. The Japanese had failed to see them. The American formed an ambush, with everyone on the side of the trail to allow for free shooting.

There were seven Japanese in the party, each armed with a bayonet. They also had two pistols and a rifle among them. As the Japanese came abreast, Sgt. Buffett and the others jumped out. The Japanese refused to surrender. This time there was no buck-fever shooting. Six Japanese fell dead. The seventh, wounded, tried to get away, but he, too, was tracked down and killed. It doesn’t pay to let a him get away and relay a message to other Japanese forces.

Five hundred yards down the trail the patrol got two more Japanese. “They gave us a bad minute or two throwing hand grenades,” said Buffett. One native got a bead on a grenade thrower and emptied a whole clip into him. Someone else got another. Two got away. Again there were no American injuries. The score for the first four American patrols on Bougainville stands: Japanese dead 12, wounded non, American dead none, wounded two.

“The average American will whip six of the average Jap,” Buffet declared. “As far as the bush goes, the average American is just as good or better than the average Jap.” The only thing they’ve got on us is the art of camouflage. Those birds really know how to do it.

“Can Americans live in the jungle with all its hardships and best the Japs at it? I know darn well they can. I know they can take anything the jungle has to offer now. We can even go native if we had to, I think. You could find enough food to live on—not as healthful as regular rations but enough to live on.”

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