"WOODY" _________________
Christopher Stout 

 

My name is Elwood Hearne. I am 22 years old and have been ever since 1945. My father died just before my fourth birthday so I grew up as an only child with my widowed mother Hattie Hearne in Ridgewood, N.J.

  Ridgewood is a nice, rather affluent town of about 15,000 people, located in northern New Jersey about 30 miles from New York City. It has a very strong infrastructure with good schools, lots of churches and great recreational facilities. I took advantage of all of them. I went through the entire Ridgewood public school system and in high school I was known as El. I was a member of the student council and was active in track, soccer, bowling and basketball. We went 6-6 in my senior year, thanks to some heavy snow that canceled two tough games. My church was the West Side Presbyterian Church, just a block from where I lived. I was confirmed there in April 1936 with 30 other 8th & 9th graders. They had a great minister and a good youth program. I was also active in the YMCA and was a Boy Scout. I was a busy kid. When I graduated in 1940, my high school year book quotation was “Laugh and be well” and that’s pretty much how I looked at things.

  After high school I decided to go to Rutgers University in New Brunswick because it was far enough away from home for me to be independent but still it was only an hour from my mother in Ridgewood. My nickname was now and forever after would be Woody. I was an oarsman on the Rutgers crew and joined Delta Kappa Epsilon. Greek life was fun and I had lots of friends – Neuman, Everett, MacFarlan, Bill Van Nuis, Jack Herrick, Frankie Travisano, Chick Hatch. We called ourselves the Golden Saber - and we had lots of parties. I kept my fraternity pin with me until I died. But it wouldn’t be long before the parties were over and we were spread all over the world. In 1942 we all registered for the draft. I signed up at Local Board No. 3 at the Beech Street School in Ridgewood.

My grades were pretty good, too. I did most of my studying in the Deke house and in 1942 my 3.3 GPA earned me a partial scholarship from the State of New Jersey. I spent three years at Rutgers until, like many other young men at that time, my number came up and I got called to war so that in the future we could all “laugh and be well”, could be boy scouts and oarsmen. I left for the Army on February 3, 1943 fully intending to return to Rutgers to get my degree.

After basic training, I was assigned to anti-aircraft artillery training at Camp Stewart, Hinesville, Ga. in August 1943. Military life was good for me because I lost 20 pounds. But I could still party! To the hilt! I got lucky and was asked to escort a prisoner to Fort Jay in New York which gave me the chance to spend a day at home with my mother. Then I was assigned to The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. in September 1943 for the Army’s Special Training Program (ASTP). I got home for the first week of January and went back to Charleston to finish up. We were so good they broke the mold and ASTP was disbanded on March 28, 1944. Actually, the Army was preparing for the invasion of Europe and realized that they needed riflemen instead of egg-heads. Some of the guys were accepted for medical training; I was off to the 100th Division, 397th Infantry, an anti-tank company at Fort Bragg, Fayetteville, N.C. I was awarded a medal for good conduct and made Sergeant but I lost a stripe when I decided to become a paratrooper. Then I picked up a special medal as an expert infantryman. So it was off to Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. in September 1944 as a member of Co. B, 541st Parachute Infantry. That’s where I got my paratrooper’s wings on October 7. It was also there that I met many of the men with whom I would go to war, including Chuck Stribling with whom I spent the rest of my life. All this time, I was very grateful to receive regular Rutgers Undergraduates On Leave newsletters and my church’s Service Supplement newsletters, bringing news from home that I read with enthusiasm.

After a 10 day furlough in early November, I got a troop train ride all the way across America. Christmas 1944 found me doing my final training at Fort Ord in Monterey, California, a Port of Mobilization. We then went to Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg, Cal. and from there by ferryboat down the river to San Francisco. I went overseas in the middle of March 1945 on the troop ship USS General Hayes to New Guinea and then on to Leyte in the Philippines. After being on a ship crossing the Pacific and being herded around the replacement depots, I was one of 27 new guys that arrived on March 24, 1945 at San José Mindoro, Philippines to replace losses suffered during the February 16th parachute assault on Corregidor Island. I ended up on the island of Negros with Company D of the 503rd Parachute Infantry.

I was proud of my unit. The 503rd Parachute Battalion was activated at Fort Benning, Georgia on August 21, 1941 and was the third of four Parachute Battalions formed prior to World War II. The 503rd Parachute Battalion was the foundation on which the 503d Parachute Infantry was formed. During more than three years service in the Southwest Pacific, the 503rd served in five major combat operations.

The first was Markham Valley, New Guinea where, on September 5, 1943, they performed the first successful Airborne Combat Jump andforced the Japanese to evacuate the major base at Lae and take a retreat route that proved to be disastrous for them.

Next, two rifle Battalions of the 503rd Regiment jumped on the Island of Noemfoor off the coast of Dutch New Guinea early in July 1944, followed by an amphibious landing by another rifle Battalion a few days later. The Regiment helped eliminate the Japanese garrison on that Island. Airfields constructed on Noemfoor after its capture played a significant role in supporting the advance of Allied troops from New Guinea to the Philippines.

Then, following a non-combat landing on the Island of Leyte in the Philippines, the 503rd made an amphibious landing on the Island of Mindoro on December 15, 1944.

The Combat Team jumped on Corregidor on February 16, 1945 to liberate that Island from Japanese forces in the most vicious action that the combat team had ever engaged in. Corregidor had withstood a fierce Japanese siege for almost five months in 1941 and 1942, thereby interrupting the Japanese advance toward Australia. The 503rd recaptured the Island. Of the estimated 6,550 Japanese on the Island when the 503rd landed, only 50 survived. The 503rd lost 169 men killed and many wounded or injured. The 503rd was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions.

Finally, almost immediately after returning to Mindoro from Corregidor, the combat team was called upon to bolster the 40th Division that was bogged down on the Island of Negros, in the Central Philippines. This was where I came in. But our targets, a strategic bridge and a large lumber mill, had been destroyed by Japanese forces, thereby eliminating our first objectives. We engaged in fierce battles against frantic Japanese resistance in the mountainous areas of Negros for more than five months. The 40th U.S. Division was moved to Minanao, leaving the 503rd to fight the Japanese alone. It is estimated the 503rd killed over 10,000 Japanese troops during its combat operations in the Southwest Pacific. But we also lost a lot of good men.

My parachute rifle company had 6 officers and 137 men. We did not have exactly the same organization as other parachute infantry regiments. It was slightly altered by MacArthur's headquarters. Each company had four platoons, three rifle platoons and a 60mm mortar platoon. A lieutenant led each platoon and the rifle platoons each had three rifle squads. The rifle squad had a staff sergeant squad leader, a sergeant assistant squad leader, one rifle man designated as first scout armed with a sub machine gun, a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man armed with the BAR and a .45 caliber pistol, an assistant BAR man, and six riflemen. I was a BAR man. Most everybody who knew me called me "Woody".

Chuck Stribling was my assistant BAR man. As sharp shooters we were the first ones the enemy wanted to take out. We were told “Don't look conspicuous: it draws fire.” Generally, all the other men were armed with a .30 caliber M1 rifle and had the rank of PFC or PVT. The BAR team is supposed to lay down a base of fire, while the rifle team maneuvers to eliminate the enemy. All of us were volunteers. All of us were dirty. All of us were hungry. Even creamed celery would have looked good then.

Ironically, after many months of paratrooper training and anticipation, my jump on to Negros was canceled and we arrived by landing craft at the provincial port of Pulupandan on April 8. Three days later, the 2nd Battalion was ordered to attack a heavily fortified defensive position in the rolling open plain leading to the mountains that ran down the center of the island. The enemy had a series of carefully prepared positions on the treeless ridges of Tokaido Road that had once been a narrow gauge rail line serving sugar plantations. It seemed like the battle raged over a large area but it actually was confined to a small group of forested ridges at the very base of massive mountain peaks at the end of Tokaido Road.

Trooper John Reynolds said April 20, 1945 was a day he would never forget. At about 13:30, the 1st Platoon secured one hill and advanced to the next hill on the right front. The Japanese were stubbornly defending each hill. They were dug in in well-prepared defensive positions and had a variety of automatic weapons. They constructed inter-locking fields of fire, making it nearly impossible to flank their positions. Surprisingly, only mild resistance was encountered on the assault, but as soon as the hill was secured the enemy countered with very heavy machine gun and small arms fire from the front with both flanks supplemented by accurate mortar fire. One by one, enemy fire killed two men and slightly wounded another, including the first of our group of replacements assigned to "D" Co. A few minutes later, another man was slightly wounded by mortar fragments. Shortly thereafter, an enemy sniper killed the Lt. in command of the attached MG platoon. About half an hour later the 2nd Platoon joined the lst; one squad aided in securing the ridge and the other two squads acted as litter bearers.

I had become very close friends with Chuck Stribling. He agreed that the night of April 20 to the morning of April 21 was one he would never forget. He calls it the longest night he had ever endured. We had dug in on top of the ridge and the Japanese were shouting in perfect English “Americans, you will all be dead by morning” and “we will kill you all”. We wondered if the Japanese knew something that we didn’t. We threw grenades at the sound of the Japanese creeping into our positions, exchanged fire with them and it was then that Stribling asked God to help him through the night. We had been told that the enemy invariably attacks on one of two occasions: When you're ready for them or when you're not ready for them. It was on this ridge at about 4:00 a.m. that several enemy came charging into our positions with a machine gun spraying fire, killing two of our buddies. The position they hit had originally been one of their own gun positions so they knew its lie exactly.

Reynolds feels his basic training saved him. He was constantly told that the ground was his friend. At the beginning of the mortar attack he was lying on his back but wanted to move to a more covered position. He knew from his training that to get on his feet was to invite certain death. He could hear the "cough" of those knee mortars as they left the tubes just a short distance away and could see them as they arched over towards his position on the hillside. When Reynolds could not watch any more, he rolled over on his stomach, face down against the ground and thought "I’m going to get killed on my mother’s birthday." He was not of course, but his life and approach to life were never the same after this experience. Stribling learned to recognize the sound of the knee mortars too and managed to avoid them but was deafened for a time by their explosion.

The prolonged, bloody attack lasted for two and a half rainy weeks. On April 28th, at 12:45, we advanced through F Company's perimeter to secure a ridge junction 800 yards to the front. There was very little artillery support so the attack on the Japanese was limited to mortar and machine gun fire for support with an occasional air strike by Army A-20 attack bombers or Marine or Navy aircraft. The 2nd platoon moved up the ridge on the right. The 1st platoon was on the ridge to the left. We were slightly to the rear on the right ridge in the intervening valley. As the 2nd platoon advanced, they received intensive small arms fire from both flanks. Small arms fire from my platoon neutralized the enemy fire from the left and 60mm mortars silenced the fire on the right. In the advance, one soldier was killed and another wounded in the wrist and leg, both by enemy snipers. When the 1st platoon was stopped by small arms fire, a heavy concentration of enemy mortar fire wounded the Lt. in the legs, one soldier in the hip, another in the arms and foot and another in the back. The Lt. was wounded again in the neck by rifle fire and another soldier was hit in the legs. Several men lay alongside the trail, wounded and bleeding and being cared for by medics. We moved over to the 1st platoon's position, incorporated the remainder of the 1st platoon as a squad and, with the aid of Company E of the 2nd platoon, overran the Japanese positions. It felt like things were spinning out of control. To the hilt!

We then continued along the valley to the ridge junction to relieve pressure on the left flank of the 2nd platoon that again had come under intensive enemy fire. As we assaulted enemy positions on the forward slope of the junction, enemy hand grenades slightly wounded two more soldiers. Chaos! “The quick and the dead”.

A Sgt. of the attacked machine guns was wounded in the hand by rifle fire. We had gained control of the ridge junction overlooking the Tokaido Road and gave fire support to the 2nd platoon, which had come under heavy fire. Stribling and I advanced to the edge of the road. I was firing my BAR down the road to support the 2nd platoon and was crouched on the edge of the road while Stribling lay at my feet, passing ammunition up to me as I would empty one clip after another at enemy positions. When in doubt empty the magazine. My weapon was hot from continual rapid firing and, as often happened with BARs, it jammed. Damn! Someone once told me to always remember your weapon was made by the lowest contract.

As I crouched to clear the weapon, I felt a sharp, burning thud in my head. I was killed instantly. At least I got a lot of them before they got me. My body was pulled from the road immediately and taken to the rear of the position. Stribling took my BAR and smashed it to pieces so that nobody else would be tempted to use it. There was no longer a BAR man in the squad. My minister taught me to believe in life after death. I just wish I could have laughed and been well a bit longer.

Christopher Stout began researching members of the congregation of the West Side Presbyterian Church in Ridgewood, N.J. who died in service.  In his day job, he is a senior  executive of  a multinational Bank.

SOURCES

Rutgers University Archives;

Rutgers University Class of 1944 Military History Book;

Crandon Clark, Rutgers ’44;

Charles Stribling - Company D 503rd Parachute Infantry – eye witness;

Tony N. Sierra Company D 503rd Parachute Infantry;

The Drop Zone Virtual Museum

-Department of the Army U.S. Total Army Personnel Command. 

 

    Order of Battle – U.S. Army World War II. Shelby L. Stanton, Presidio Press; 

West Side Presbyterian Church, Ridgewood, N.J - Sunday Bulletins, the West Side Sun (Newsletter) and its “Service Supplement” ; 

Phyllis Smith, Jim McGilvray, Harriett Modemann - West Side Presbyterian Church historians; 

Ridgewood High School Arrow

Ridgewood Public Library - the microfilm of the Ridgewood Herald and the Sunday News  

 

 

 

 

         

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