By Sgt. Barrett McGurn

Yank Staff Correspondent

MUNDA, NEW GEORGIA—What becomes of a Pacific island battleground after the Japanese have been eliminated is well illustrated by Munda and the rest of the New Georgia group here in the northern Solomons. It is just 14 months since the battle for possession of these handsome coral and volcanic islands.

The storm clouds still cling to the peak of Rendova, Vesuvius-fashion. The land crabs still prowl. It keeps on raining and raining. The dead gray stalk-like trees still look as if they had the measles: a result of the thousands of holes drilled into them by shrapnel and bullets from the naval bombardment, the artillery, the small arms and the grenades.  But otherwise, neither the Japs no the Americans who fought here would recognize the place easily.

Munda airfield, goal of the bloody American advance through the bush, is now 10 times the size of the original Japanese strip. The primitive battle trails, which sometimes were two feet deep in mud, have been replaced by coral roads that are the next thing to concrete, smooth highways on which your jeep can travel as fast as your conscience or the MPs will let you.

The cleared area below the Lambetti Plantation, where the Japanese maintained open fire lanes in an attempt to thwart the final push on Munda, is now a lavish recreation area with a big PX, a coke fountain that does $150 worth of business a day, a library of several thousand books, a bathing pavilion with a bathhouse, 10-foot diving platform and float, and even a Japanese Zero to cut up into souvenir watchbands and bracelets. Near the waterhole at Olsen’s Landing, which the Americans used by day and the Japanese by night, floodlights now glare down on night basketball.

Some of the battlefields have vanished completely. Post-war tourists will never see the east knoll of Bibolo Hill, the ridge from which Munda’s capture was directed. Engineers found a deposit of coral, scores of feet deep, at the spot; it must have taken hundreds of thousands of years as generation after generation of the little coral sea animals died and piled up on one another to produce Bibolo. But sentiment for neither the battle site nor the industrious coral interfered; the engineers got busy with gasoline shovels, and trucks began to cart the hill away to surface the airport, the roads and the muddy camp areas. So far 150,000 truckloads have been dug out, and the hill is dwindling.

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Japanese fought to hold this spot where Al Bessol ARM3C Now plays tennis.

Monument Hill, the 80-foot mound near the original Japanese airfield at Munda, has been scraped away to make room for the vastly improved American airport. It was at this hill, a storage site for Japanese arms and ammunition, that the enemy made a suicide stand against the high-explosive salvos of the American 37-mm antitank guns. Atop the hill, the Japanese had constructed a 20-foot-square mahogany memorial to one of their outfits that built the original Munda airfield largely by hand. The monument has been shipped to Hartford, Conn., as a souvenir.

The new Munda airport has also obliterated the big Japanese bivouac are in the Lambetti plantation.

Vila airfield on nearby Kolombangara used to send up Japanese strafers to harass troops on New Georgia, but now it pushes up cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, corn, cantaloupes and watermelons under the fine hand of T-5 Herman B. Wiley of Clarksville, Tex. American agricultural experts found that the much-bombed strip was covered with splendid loam. The only hitch is that when the Japanese built the Vila, they cut the coconut trees off flush with the ground, and the hidden stumps are now causing Wiley quite a few busted disc harrows.

One hilltop above Munda—across which the 103d and 172d Infantry Regiments had rugged going in the last days of the battle—is now the New Georgia cemetery. It is a graceful rectangle of neat coral paths, trimmed lawn, and rows of dog-tagged crosses and Stars of David, looking down on yellow-green reefs and the blue of distant Rendova.

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Soldiers visit their fallen comrades at Munda Cemetery Sunday morning.

A superficial glance around New Georgia with its heavy ground and air traffic, its dozens of pyramidal-tent camps, its very professional GI radio station and its well-tenanted stockade might give the impression that it is an old Army base of many years’ standing. You know that isn’t so when you see the shell-shattered trees still rotting in the bullet and shrapnel holes. At least one company, the 3461st Ordnance, near Olsen’s Landing, makes a weekly survey of its area to see which trees need to be cut down. Even at that, an occasional 80-footer tumbles into the company area. For a while it was so bad that the men used to hop out of their sacks during storms and bed down in the trucks in the treeless shop area.

The enormous changes that have occurred are due in no small part to the Japanese themselves. The equipment and material they left behind has gone to scores of worth American uses.

When Catholic Chaplain Charles E. Freegard of Magna, Utah, needed a vehicle for his clerical gear and his traveling library, he acquired a Japanese cargo truck. On the side of the truck are the words “USS Padre, Chaplain Freegard, Sky Pilot,” and “Thank you, Tojo.” The Chaplain’s tires say “Yokohama heavy duty, 36 x 6, Made by Yokohama Rubber Co.”

Several Japanese landing barges with curved prows and Japanese assault boats with padded edges now carry GIs out to enjoy the plentiful fishing. The waters around New Georgia boast more than 1,000 varieties of fish, among them barracuda, the king mackerel, tuna, swordfish and sailfish,  and a whole Sears Roebuck catalogue of different species of shark.

If you like, you can ride around in a Japanese sidecar motorcycle, an odd type that shifts like an automobile and has a speedometer in “kilometers an hour.”  The cycle carries and English “Made in Japan” label. There are also a few dozen Japanese bicycles, some of them put together from parts of three or four broken models.

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PFC. Waymon Thomas pedals a classy bicycle left behind by the Japanese.

On a Japanese lathe the 3461st Ordnance Company is busy grinding out souvenirs, whisky shot glasses ($25 a half dozen, made from Japanese 20-mm shells), women’s powder and hairpin sets (assembled from Japanese 25-caliber and 20-mm and 75-mm shells, as well as the local mahogany), and the shell and mahogany picture frames.

A log-hauling detail is performed obligingly by a Japanese Komatsu tractor. Japanese pushcarts move goods at the warehouse. A Japanese sprinkler that used to keep down the dust for Japanese fighter planes is now leveling the dirt clouds for the jeeps on Munda’s 30 new miles of highway.  A Japanese generator powers an American searchlight and one of the Japanese trucks is serving the Seabees as a wrecker.

A Batavia-made engine, probably stolen by the Japanese from the Dutch, is running a sawmill turning out dayroom furniture and other niceties for the New Georgia GIs. A Japanese fuel truck with a right-hand drive, labeled “made in the U.S.A. by International Harvester Co.”, is once more back in service where it belongs, gassing up American vehicles.

Many a Japanese item has gone to new uses. A Japanese 90-mm gun is in use in a repair yard as a chain hoist to lift engines out of trucks. A string of shell casings from a gun of the same caliber is serving the Seabees as a sewer line. The pointing assembly of another Japanese field gun made a vise for the Seabees, and still another Japanese cannon barrel gave them a well-drilling rig. When GIs set to work constructing an incinerator, they provided it with an oil burner made from a Japanese rifle and a piece of pipe.

When Finance needed a safe, Japanese boiler plate helped provide it. A first-rate welding table came from a five-foot Japanese gun base. Japanese helmets, punctured through the top and painted white inside, answered the call for lamp shades. Parts from a Japanese truck produced a cosmolining unit for small arms.

Japanese communication wire is serving both for tent lighting and for clotheslines. Other Japanese odds and ends went to improve the chow situation, making bakers units, grills and “reefers” for ice cream.

Most of the Japanese material came from Kolombangara and Rendova. Big piles still to be picked up on Roviana and Sasavele Islands, just offshore from Munda. Probably the most spectacular example of the transformation in New Georgia is the detail held down by Cpl. Francis H. Fleming of Seattle, Wash., Pvt. Hubert E. Thompson of Porterville, Calif., and Pvt. Glen R. McCulloch of Tacoma, Wash. Their full-time job is to go fishing in Kula Gulf, where some of the most violent sea and air battles were waged; off Segi, where many a strafing attack took place; off Kolombangara, and in a half-dozen other battle areas.

The three GIs assisted by five natives, sail off by themselves into a little non-GI world of their own. Once a week they put back into Munda with a two-ton catch of fish, much of it scaly varieties that few American fish markets ever have seen—usually parrot or surgeon fish with a sprinkling of losch, carong and Napoleon. The surgeon fish are nasty little 3-pounders, each of them carrying a scalpel tucked in the tail, ready to perform an operation on any fisherman within reach, One of the natives got an ugly slash, a half-inch deep, across the forearm from a surgeon fish. The GIs avoid them as they would a Nambu machine gun.

All the fishing is done by nets, the fishermen standing in three or four feet of transparent water on a coral reef. Some of the fish, like “spotted tail” and “big lips,” were nameless before the GIs invented tags for them. Hungry for fresh food, the GIs ashore eat the whole two tons without a murmur. A 170-pound cow shark was about to be thrown back one day when someone decided to bring it in. Sure enough, one Army outfit was glad to eat it up.

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Sgt. James Griffin’s GI bakery turns out 1,700 dozen doughnuts a day.

The three GIs have no bugles, reveille, taps or regular eating times. Chow is whenever anyone wants it. There is no shining of shoes because their GI brogans are always dipping into the sea of the jagged reefs. There is no point in getting up early because the sun has to be high anyway before the netters can see the well-camouflaged fish. When a day’s catch runs to 2,500 pounds, the three EM may be up as late as 0100 or 0200, cleaning fish.

There may still be a few Japanese around. As late as December, four or five Japanese were picked up each week. In January, on Rendova, two Japanese, so weak they could hardly hold up their heads, were found struggling through the jungle toward Munda, believing it still in Japanese hands. Others were picked up as late as April on Rendova, New Georgia and Vella Lavella. On Vella Natives spotted a Japanese stealing bananas. His hair was down below his shoulders, and his cave home was lined with coconut husks and American food tins. He was shirtless and had no weapon except a knife. Unfortunately for him, he got away.

The land crabs, one of the special tortures of the New Georgia fight, are still around. During the campaign they plagued men in foxholes at night by creeping through the brush like Japanese. November and December, however, are the crabs’ really big months; they march down to the sea to mate. Munda field proved a favorite crab hang-out. Planes and jeeps could not help killing them by the hundreds; filling the air with a penetrating stench. First job every morning in tent offices was to shoo out the crabs; as many as 30 of the 10-inch crawlers were found on floors and walls. A crab race with a $1 entry fee was run off and at post time there were 50 starters. No one likes to think of the coming November.

Rats are still doing quite well, too. Some GIs claim they have seen rat close-order drills, and many report the rats are so tame that when you enter your tent they stroll out single file. Another Munda woe is that the coral floors rot barracks gabs, mildew shoes and deteriorate cloth and leather goods.

Otherwise, things are not so bad for the womanless South Pacific isle. The drinking water is better than on Green Island (thanks in part to several Japanese pumps), security is greater than on Bougainville, the mud and dust is trivial compared with Guadalcanal, and the boredom seems less (by grace of Japanese-provided entertainment, including musical instruments) than on Espiritu Santo. The calm that has come to New Georgia is typified by the case of an Iowan, Col. James Fewdale. A year ago nobody except his own squad would have known about it, but recently, when an unidentified sea creature took three slices out of his hips, all New Georgia heard of it. It’s a New Georgia.

For Further Reading on the Battle of New Georgia Check Out:

New Georgia: The Second Battle for the Solomons

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