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Chapter 2

 

 TO INDEX

 

 

At the first sight of the Australian coast the Troopers on board tried to get vantage points for a better view of Sydney Harbor. As the ship approached the Harbor, men were clinging to the highest rigging and hanging out on the booms, driving the Dutch Captain crazy. It was a joy to listen to him shouting over the public address system, raving in English with a pronounced Dutch accent. Our ship stopped initially at Sydney, but for some reason unknown to me, we were not to disembark. I supposed we were needed somewhere else.

The Ship headed back to sea and we turned north, and as we progressed up the coast of Australia, rumours started that we were being tracked by a Japanese Submarine. Whether this was true or not, the ship did stay inside the Great Coral Reef until we were off the coast of Gladstone, where we dropped anchor and sat for 3 days. Rumour had it that we were waiting for the sub to leave. The sun was hot, the decks were hotter and tempers were rising, fights were breaking out for little or no reason all over the ship. That was until one brave soul decided to go swimming, diving from the rail (about 30ft.) to the water. Within seconds nearly 100 men were in the water and the ships Captain was once again at his wits end. All his efforts to get the men out of the water failed until he announced over the public address system that there were Barracuda and Sharks in the waters. This brought the men scrambling for the rope ladders that had been put over the side earlier in a vain attempt to get them on board.

 

I meanwhile I had gone back to the Troop Commander and again borrowed his fishing gear. With high expectations, I baited with a chunk of pickled bait, and let the bait go to the bottom, the depth I judged was about 300 ft. Then, leaning on the rail I patiently waited throughout the morning and well into the afternoon, all the while becoming more and more disheartened. Gazing down at the water, I noticed the line beginning to drift under the ship. It was my belief the ship was swinging on it's anchor chain, well it was late anyway, so I started reeling in my line, to my surprise I felt gentle tugs on the line, overjoyed I instinctively shouted "fish on" (as I have done many times while game fishing off the coast of Maryland). Instantly the men crowded the rail around me. With the rod tip pointing down in line with the incoming line so as not to expose the bend in the rod (this would have given away the fish's weight) I began reeling slowly and pretending great strain. It took some time to finally get the fish to the surface and what a surprise! I had the damnedest catfish, about 18 inches long a very thin body but with a head and mouth that were enormous.  Needless to say I took a ribbing.

The next day we were on our way again, stopping at Townsville and then on to Cairns and finally disembarking. From the docks at Cairns we moved to an area along the Little Mulgrave River west of Gordonvale. 

In Gordonvale, near Cairns, an American Officer told volunteers from the local women's group 'just to make up some hamburgers' for the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment then expected. 'We didn't know what a hamburger was', Nancy Drexl said, but they obligingly 'made them in some sort of fashion'. * 

The site for our camp was ideal, flat land and right along the river, where I knew there had to be some good fishing. Pyramidal tents were put up and we settled in. Unfortunately no one had asked if it was going to rain, and boy, did it rain. I was awakened by the whooping and yelling around me, leaping from my cot to find out what was happening, I was up to my knees in water and it was getting deeper, barracks bags, boots and socks were floating everywhere, and the river was rising fast. It was a mad scramble to collect your gear and feel your way in the dark to the high ground that lay to the north. 

Plodding barefoot (there was no time to put boots on) we settled in small groups to await daylight. Though it was still raining, we lay down on the wet ground with the rain pelting us, and waited it out. Morning came and with daylight the rain stopped. Everything looked bright until someone noticed a large black leech clinging to his ankle. To our surprise we were covered with them, sucking on our necks, hands, ankles, feet, face and other places where they had found their way inside our clothing. We were a bloody mess. Applying the burning end of a cigarette to the body of the leech would cause it to fall off. After removing the leeches we made a naked dash back to the high water we had moved from the night before, and washed the blood from our bodies.

After a C ration breakfast we moved to a new camp site and spent the day cutting brush to clear the area and set up tents.

The Commander of the Regiment was a Colonel, whom I shall not mention by name, but will refer to as the "Old Man" (typical Army slang for a Commander). He was a man who dreamed of creating a horde of man-killing animals. He showed no compassion for weakness or inability, and unless a man could not move he considered him capable of everyday duties.

Each morning was the same.  Fall out in your shorts, listen to a brief ‘Gung-Ho’ speech and then run 5 miles before breakfast. After returning take a bath, have breakfast, fall out for inspection and move into the field for combat practice, a practice Parachute jump or a cross country march (usually 30 miles). I do not recall the number of Parachute jumps we made while in Australia, but three jumps do come to mind.

The first was north of Gordonvale when we had a jumper drift into an electrical high line killing him instantly. His name was Robert White. We had been told prior to the jump that power to the high line would be off during the jump. Apparently someone didn't get the word.

I was already safely on the ground and saw that he was drifting towards the power line. I watched as he drifted closer, wanting to see how he would deal with slipping through the wires. I was stunned when I saw the flash as he contacted them, and saw him fall heavily without any recovery.  The chute followed him down gracefully, settling gently to the right of his body. I ran towards him, finding his still, pallid body, already grey-blue with the burns he'd suffered, just seconds before. Nearby was a detached sole of a Corcoran boot, separated from the boot itself when its nails had literally melted their way out of the material which had once held them together.

White's blue-grey death, young and in a cane field under blue Australian skies, has never left me. 

(We named this field "White Field".) V
 

The second jump that comes to mind was a demonstration jump for some high ranking English and Australian brass. As I recall this jump, we left the plane over Green Field, south-east of Gordonvale, at an altitude of five hundred feet, with a ground wind blowing at between 20 and 30 knots, (not ideal jump conditions.) Leaving the plane, I turned to face the tail, allowing my chute to deploy out in front of me. This is normal procedure because the blast of air from the propellers is instrumental in opening the chute. All went well, I had a normal chute opening, but as I lost altitude and approached the ground I saw that I was going to land directly on a member of the brass. He was holding a camera up to his face and was unaware of my presence. Having to do something to avoid the collision, I reached up and pulled down hard on my forward risers causing the air to spill from the rear of the chute, this gave me enough forward momentum to pass over him. Having picked up speed with this maneuver, I now had to slow down. This required pulling down on the rear risers, to force air to dump from the forward portion of the canopy. Desperately grabbing the risers I pulled, but it was too late. My feet impacted the ground with a force that broke bone in my right ankle. The pain was unbearable, it sapped the strength out of me and I could not collapse the chute that was being held open by the ground wind and dragging me across the field.q

Luckily some of the jumpers came to my aid. An ambulance was brought in and I was delivered to a Dr. Bradford in Gordonvale, where my ankle was set and put into a cast. Several weeks later the cast was changed to one I could walk with (this cast had a wooden knob attached to it's base) and I returned to normal duties.

The third jump I did not make because of my cast. My assignment for this practice jump was to recover the static lines after the string of jumpers had left the plane (static lines are 30 ft. web straps that have one end hooked to a cable in the plane, and the other end fastened to the cover of the parachute pack. As the jumper leaves the plane the static line plays out, pulling the cover from the chute pack. This in turn is fastened to the shroud lines with a break cord. As the jumper falls the entire parachute is pulled from the pack before the break cord snaps freeing the jumper and allowing the chute to fill with air.)

Standing in the rear of the plane out of the way of the string of jumpers I waited until the last man cleared the door, then I stepped forward to grasp the static lines that were now being held against the outside fuselage of the aircraft by the blast of the props. I approached the door cautiously, since I had no parachute and grabbed a handful of webbing. At the moment I started to pull, the pilot put the plane into a hard left bank throwing me toward the open door. Grabbing desperately, I braced myself with my hands locked on to each side of the door. In this position I was looking almost straight down at the ground one thousand feet below me. With my heart pounding wildly and the wooden knob on the cast slipping on the aluminum floor of the plane giving me stomach pangs, I held on for dear life until the plane leveled off. It took several minutes to regain my composure, and then satisfy myself that the pilot had not considered my position when he made the turn. After landing I was moved by truck into the field to rejoin my Company at the jump site.

Two man tents (Pup Tents) were set up and we settled in for the night "Oh, What A Night." Australia has an ant, red in color, about one half inch long that loves the taste of plaster of Paris, salt and human flesh. The ants moved into my cast and worked their way, all the way, to the arch of my foot, stinging and biting as they went. Breaking out my jump knife I went to work on that damned cast, carving it off my leg and getting rid of the ants, what a relief! My legs itched until I returned to an irritated Dr. Bradford, who put some lotion on my leg and proceeded to install a new cast all the while expressing his feelings about a Commander that would put a man in the field with a broken leg.

To better describe the Old Man’s character, his morning talks usually were debasing to the troops. One I remember started with "Did you sleep well last night? Did you get any mail?  Did you tear it up like men or did you act like the bunch of babies you are and read it?" This type of tongue-lashing meant very little to the troops, but as time went on, his actions and demands on the Regiment became impossible. 30 mile cross country marches (day or night) over mountains and rivers were common and on one occasion crossing a very swift river hand walking a rope that one of our Officers had succeeded in swimming to the opposite shore. One man lost his grip and was lost to the river.

The following day the Old Man posted a notice on the bulletin board stating that the drowned man would be held responsible for his lost equipment and the cost would be paid for from any monies he may have due him.  

Gordonvale was not a benign training area, and training was hard.

Pvc. Henry J. Blalock drowned 23 December 1942.

Priv. John Kobiska drowned while crossing  the Little Mulgrave River, 21 February 1943.

Pvc. Bernard R. Petrie drowned while crossing  the Little Mulgrave River, 24 February 1943.

 S/Sgt Bernard drowned 12 April 1943.

Pfc Robert White was electrocuted when he hit a live power line 6 May 1943. Prior to the jump, the troopers were aware of the line, and had been told it would be disconnected.

Priv. Donald Wilson 25 June 1943 was believed by some to have unhooked his static line with the intention of opening his chute late, in the presence of MacArthur and Blamey.

(Photo: The occasion for MacArthur's visit was to inform The Old Man about the upcoming Markham Valley Mission. That day the troops were called out in formation, and the General moved through the ranks and shook hands with each man, wishing him good luck and good hunting. This being unusual for the General, some of the other troops gave us the name MacArthur's Playboys. The men of the 30th Division at Negros would later call us "The Banzai Boys" because we had no heavy weapons and had to take every inch of ground with small arms.)

With the Officers and the men becoming more and more disgruntled, the situation finally developed to a point that an Inspector General was called in to investigate.

I did not learn the results of the investigation until some months later. The Old Man was to lose the Command, but before that occurred, he died under unusual circumstances.

Maxie, my closest friend in the Regiment, was from  Ada, Oklahoma, and he used Mexican words laced into an English sentence. The most common was "moocho" meaning many or much. He was roughly 5 ft. 8 in. tall, with a stocky build. His main characteristic was his roughness - he loved fist fighting. On one occasion he took on 7 Australians one at a time (the Aussies always fought fair) and beat each one into submission.

Getting used to Australian customs was sometimes called for strenuous physical effort. On an occasion, in a bar in Gordonvale, Maxie finished a glass of beer before I did so he turned his glass upside down and sat it on the bar, indicating (or so he thought) that he did not want any more. We were unaware that this action meant something different to the Aussies who were seated at the bar, to whom it meant “I am ready to challenge anyone in the Bar to a fight.” One of them approached Maxie, tapped him on the shoulder, and said "I'll give it a go, Mate." In total surprise, Maxie said "You'll give what a go?" The Aussie replied "You turned your bloody glass upside down, that means you are too good to drink with us, and we consider that an insult." Well, Maxie leaped from his stool, looked the Aussie in the eye and said "Lets give it a go." It did not matter to Maxie how big an opponent was, he was always ready and willing to prove his ability. The Aussie led the way outside.

In just a few short minutes Maxie was back pulling my arm and saying, “Lets get the hell out of here,” for as we left there was a group of Aussies trying to bring Maxie's opponent back to a state of consciousness.  None of the group challenged him as we passed.

When the paratroops arrived beer was scarce in the Gordonvale area, as it usually was in the wet season. Nevertheless, the Mountain View Hotel, run by the three Winifred sisters, became a second home to many of the men. At night after dinner the tables would be cleared as Miss Betty gathered groups around her piano for singing sessions. Playing by ear, she gave them whatever they wanted; "Paratroopers' Song', 'God Bless America', 'Yankee Doodle Dandy', the latest hits; before their departure a favorite became 'The Three Little Sisters'. George Daly went every night he could - sometimes walking and sometimes catching 'the white car'. a local bus, riding on the roof if necessary. The sisters were seen as 'adopted aunts', indulgent ones, who permitted paratroopers to jump off the high hotel balcony, but who otherwise kept a firm hand on the behavior of both Digger and GI. *

On another occasion, I could not believe my eyes, I never dreamed I would ever see Maxie cry. Just prior to going overseas he married a girl that I feel he truly cared for. He spent most of the evenings in camp writing letters to her, and on this occasion he came to me with tears in his eyes. He had received a "Dear John” letter, his wife wanted a divorce. He came into my tent, tears rolling down his cheeks, totally depressed as he sat down on my cot. Holding the letter out for me to read, he said "Some Goddamn no good Air Force Bastard long dick'd me." This was his way of telling me she had wanted another man.

 

(Photo: Bob Hope and Gerry Colona paid us a visit. Bob Hope, Jerry Colona, Frances Langford and Patty Page made their first appearance before the 503rd in Australia, in fact Jerry Colona rode in the plane I jumped from.  He was having fun teasing one of our men about having a handle bar moustache that was longer than his,  and suggested that he may get it hung up on the door.  As we got the go signal, Jerry started his famous yell, the guys said he still had the yell going when the last man left the plane. )

 

After a few weeks restrictions were lifted and the men were permitted to leave camp. My first excursion was with Maxie. We decided to hike into Gordonvale, find a restaurant and get a good meal. Arriving in town we found a small restaurant went inside and sat down. As the waitress approached, Maxie commented that he was hungry enough to eat the napkins. Hearing this, the waitress stopped and took a step back, turning bright red as she blushed. (Also unknown to us, the Australians used the word serviette to refer to table napkins. Napkins, to them, were kotex to us.)

 

 

(Photo: Maxie and me)

 

It took some time for us to get used to the Aussie accent. In a few seconds the waitress recovered her composure, and came to our table asking what we would like to have. I asked what they had to offer, she replied “naike an aiges”. Not being able to interpret her words, Maxie looked at me and asked “What did she say, snake?” The waitress responded with “No, no, naike, naike, naike an aiges.” We sat there and stared intently at her as she spoke it appeared she was trying to say steak. I blurted out, "Oh, you mean steak, steak and eggs." With a nod and a big smile, exposing the fact she appeared to have no teeth, we proceeded to place our order. Turning to me she asked how I would like it cooked, I told her medium rare. Turning to Maxie, she asks " 'ow bout you?" He replied, "Oh, I don't care - knock his horns off, blow his nose, wipe his ass, clean his hoof's and trot him in here.” Well, needless to say the young lady was again embarrassed. In a huff, with order in hand, she turned and walked briskly to the kitchen. After about a ten minute wait she brought two orders of steak and eggs to the table, my steak was cooked to perfection, Maxie's had never been near the fire, his was totally raw.

Recognizing the error of his ways, he asked politely if she would please have the cook brown the steak a little where upon she returned his steak to the kitchen. A full twenty minutes passed before his steak was returned and it was burned black, hitting it with a knife handle would cause pieces to break off. This was too much for Maxie, he leaped up from his chair, nearly upsetting the table and made a dash for the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. Though his entrance was a dash, his exit was a sprint! The cook, a man of about fifty years, was behind him with a meat cleaver swinging it wildly. Maxie went out the front door and did not return. The cook came over to the table where I was enjoying my steak and explained that he just could not stand having his daughter embarrassed that way. It was during this conversation that he and I both learned of the Australian and American differences between serviette and napkin.

 

(Photo: Most of us who could ride were able to acquire a horse. We looked like 'Sundowners')

 

Back at Camp, I occupied my leisure hours wandering through the bush investigating the area, trying to see as many new animals as I could.  There were many small tree-dwelling creatures that looked a lot like our Opossum in size, but with pink nose and ears. Iguanas averaging three to five foot long, flying squirrels, flying fox and a great variety of birds. It was during one of these excursions that I met a Young Aboriginal boy named Tommy Ambryum.

 Unlike the tribes further north, Tommy spoke fluent English with an Australian accent.  Listening to him talk was novel, totally unlike any Black I had ever heard speak before. As time passed I met Tommy's family. His Mother was a woman about five foot tall, weighing about 180 lbs. and his Father about the same height but would only weigh in at about 110 LB. Tommy had two brothers and two sisters, Tommy being the oldest.( I judge about 14.) Through Tommy's Father, I became quite adept at throwing a spear (a six foot lance made from the iron wood tree).

I recall an incident while spear fishing in the Mulgrave River, when Tommy's Father speared a fleeing Eel from a distance of thirty feet, he was extremely accurate with the spear. I spent many hours listening to him relate tales of the old days catching Brumbies (wild horse), Kangaroos, Wallaby and the Dingo (wild dog). Having developed a close relationship with this family, Tommy's Mother asked if she could do my laundry? So, for two Pounds per week she performed this task for me.  The money I paid her was quickly drunk up by her husband (he loved his Booze).

Meanwhile Tommy trapped Parakeets and brought them to me in an effort to find one that could be taught to talk. During one of my early excursions into the bush, I met an Australian appearing to be about my age.  He was in the bush not for sight-seeing but to hunt wild pig. My first thought was, why is he not in the Service? This question was put to him immediately after introductions. He explained to me that he was Italian by birth, and that his father and brother were incarcerated for the duration of the war, but he and his Mother (he referred to her as Mum) were left to tend the farm.

 

(Photo: Berto Poppi and me.) 

 

With an awful lot in common for the bush country, we soon became close friends. His name was Berto Poppi. Their farm was about three miles from camp, located on the south side or the Little Mulgrave River, and their crop was sugar cane. Each evening after dinner, I would hike to the farm. Sugar cane was a new commodity for me, and I wanted to learn more about it. When there was no cane to cut or tend, and after the horses were bedded down, Berto and I would head into the bush, he with his 22 caliber rifle, while I carried a 45 caliber pistol (Army issue). I must admit that we seldom killed game, a few scrub turkeys, a pig, and a few pigeons are all I remember carrying back to the farm.

Most of our time was spent with Berto teaching me the things to avoid while in the bush. Through Berto I became familiar with the "Stinging Tree" and the "Wait-a-while Vine." The Stinging Tree grew as small as a bush, and to as large as an Elm, it had a large heart shaped green leaf covered with a stubby fine hair like substance and portrayed a purple spot at its center. While pushing my way through the bush, I accidentally had a leaf brush my nose, it's sting felt as though I had been hit by a Hornet. I spent the next hour splashing water on my face and packing mud on my nose to relieve the pain. He also demonstrated how a Small Stinging bush could be wrapped in a cloth, and beat between two rocks to get the sap running, then tying the bundle to a rock and tossing it into the water.  The potency of the sap would stun the fish and cause them to float to the surface belly up. Catching fish was a matter of just picking them off the surface. After a few minutes the remaining fish would recover and swim away.

The wait-a-wile vine is named for it's action when coming in contact with a moving person or a thin skinned animal. Just slightly larger than a Spider's web it hangs from the trees with thorns pointed upward from it’s dangling end.  Contact with it causes an immediate stop to one’s forward progress. Especially if it happens to attach to the bridge of one’s nose.

After a period of about nine months in Northern Australia roaming the bush country with Berto, I became quite adept at moving silently and avoiding stinging trees and wait-a-while vines, and my eyes grew sharp at spotting movement in the bush.  I feel it was this exposure that made several of my enemy kills possible after moving into combat in the jungles of New Guinea, and the Philippines.

Word finally came that we were to prepare to move out. We were given two days to strike camp and completely clear the camp site. The land was to be turned back to the Australians as we had found it, except for the vegetation we had cleared away.

On my last evening I went to see Berto, to my surprise all the people I had met at Berto's farm were gathered to bid me good-bye.  It was an evening I shall never forget.

The following morning we boarded a ship and left Australia.

       

 TO INDEX

 

    F  O  O  T  N  O  T  E  S  

1. We had a man die on the Green Field jump at the time. He hit the ground without his parachute deploying from its pack. An investigation was made into the circumstances of his death. As far as it was possible to determine,  he did not close the snap fastener on his static line, and as he released the line to jump, the upward movement of the cable in the plane unhooked his static line. We even tried to duplicate the action of the cable when released, and discovered that the harder that the jumper pulled down on his static line while moving towards the door, the more violent the cable snaps upward when he releases it going out the door. As I recall,  he was the last man in the string going out the door.  p

 

 

Extracts are from 'Yanks Down Under 1941-45, the American Impact on Australia' by E. Daniel Potts & Annette Potts, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1985). 

 

 

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