We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
When we arrived in Papua, we took up defensive positions along the river defending Port Moresby. The climate and terrain of this place could not have been worse. Most of the area was smothered with incredibly dense vegetation. There were 8000-foot mountain peaks covered with jungle, moss and wet rot. The weather was sticky, hot, humid, and the rainy season was just getting started. There were swamps all around us, and that evening the local mosquitoes gave us a warm welcome.
After a couple of weeks, some of the units of the 126th and the Australians had started fighting their way up the mountain trails. We could hear gunfire in the distance; the grim business of killing had actually begun. I wish they hadn’t left most of our mortars and artillery back in Australia, but they had. Kids that had one year before been playing high school ball were now learning the terror of setting up a night perimeter.
The Japanese bombed our airfield on a fairly regular basis, but our engineers would repair it quick enough to keep it open. In mid-October we were briefed on our plan of attack. The regiment would be flown over the “Hump”, the Owen Stanley Mountain range to an airfield on the other side of the island. From there we would make our way on foot through the jungle some sixty-five miles and attack the Japanese at the village of Buna.
Buna was more or less the seat of government in that part of New Guinea. It was really nothing more than a series of villages, old missions and coconut plantations. Problem was, it was backed up to the Solomon Sea on one side, and on the landward side, swamps and creeks surrounded it. Coral reefs kept everything but the smallest boats from approaching the beach.
Division G2 told us that the Japanese garrison at Buna was about battalion strength, but much of this information had come from the natives. The Air Force could see no signs of enemy defensive positions. The Navy was now occupied at Guadalcanal and could offer us very little help. Based on what we were told, the 32nd Division would be able to capture Buna without much trouble. I wasn’t sure it would be so easy.
On October 14th we began airlifting the regiment over the “Hump” to the airfield at Wanigela Mission. The airstrip was very short and consisted of only a cleared strip of low grass. The troop flights were interrupted several times by tropical downpours. The ground was waterlogged and we discovered that the landing strip was held firm only by the thick roots of the grass, and after one day of troop landings, the strip had to be abandoned. We got busy and cleared an improvised landing strip parallel to the first. It was a miracle that some of those loaded planes didn’t crash. Those flyboys were very good.
We set out toward the Northwest and it didn’t take but a few miles to fully appreciate what an ordeal we were in for. The drier open areas were covered with a thick growth of kunai grass. It was shoulder high and the leaves had razor-sharp edges. If you were not careful moving through this grass, it would lay your hand open to the bone.
Our rallying point would be at the village of Pongani, about twenty-five miles from the objective. Some units of our division ferried up the coast in small boats, luggers, with supplies and men. But on the 17th, an American B-25 mistook them for enemy boats and attacked two of them, killing several men. Later they were attacked several times by swarms of Japanese Zeroes, with considerable loss of life and needed supplies.
Our unit struggled on through steaming swamps and thick jungle. Between the closely spaced trees there was a tangle of roots, creepers and underbrush. It was so thick that the vegetation seemed to block out the air. The water was knee deep in many places, and there were snakes everywhere. It was the most filthy, stinking, mosquito-infested area I had ever seen.
A man standing up could hardly see farther than ten or twenty yards. The mud was tenacious and it stunk. This sapped an enormous amount of energy out of the men just to move through this tangled mess, and it didn’t help matters that we had already run out of insect repellent. All the while, you never knew what was behind the next bush or hiding in the next treetop.
There were heavy showers with intervening periods of clear, blazing sunshine. The humidity was stifling, over 90% we guessed. Sweat dripped from us constantly, and our uniforms soaked through and through. We crossed and recrossed the swollen waters of unmapped creeks and rivers, many with shoulder-high water. Our maps were so inaccurate that they were almost useless.
At the end of each day, we were all exhausted. Each night you would dig a little foxhole and the rain would come along and fill it up. The cries of birds and animals in the jungle set everyone on edge. In the dark, it was hard not to imagine things out there in the trees. I would have liked to write home but nobody had any dry paper. When I did catch some sleep I dreamed about the home place.
The health of the battalion began to deteriorate. Men were coming down with fever, and we found many of the fellows had jungle rot on their feet. We used what medicine we had, there wasn’t enough. Dysentery was becoming a problem, and the fleas, mosquitoes, and sand flies bit every inch of exposed skin. The leeches had their way with us. It was fairly miserable to say the least.
Finally after many days of marching we were drawing close to the enemy. Disease had taken its toll of our men, and the rest of us were pretty well worn out. Probably half of us had some sort of fever. Our uniforms were falling apart and many had lost the soles of their boots in the sticky, sucking mud. There was complaining in the ranks. The situation was just plain FUBAR, and we officers had to work to keep the morale of the men up.
Our numbers were further depleted by dengue fever, malaria, and bush typhus. The sick had to be carried on stretchers back over the miserable trails that had got us this far. From time to time we did manage to get re-supplied by airdrops.
By the middle of November we were finally in place. Briefings were given for a coordinated attack. Two battalions would move on Buna along parallel trails about a mile apart. There were impenetrable swamps between these two approaches, so we were isolated from one another. My company led the battalion up the coastal trail toward the Duropa Plantation.
Communication was almost impossible. Most of our radio sets were corroded and shorted out by the hot humid conditions. We found the portable radios were just about useless because of the dense growth of trees and underbrush. We also realized that what few mortars we had, were of little use under this canopy of trees.
Nerves were tense, our senses sharpened, even for those that were running a fever. We knew we were close.
We had no tanks, no artillery, and no flame-throwers, only small arms and grenades. We lacked just about everything we needed, except for willpower. I was a 1st Lieutenant with Company C, 1st Battalion of the 128th Infantry Regiment. It was Thursday November 19th.
Moving in the rain and under a canopy of coconut trees, a sniper’s rifle crackled. A man went down. Instantly we all dropped to the ground and looked up, looked left, right and behind us. You couldn’t tell where it came from. Then suddenly a sergeant lifted his tommy gun and sprayed a treetop. The Jap sniper fell dead, hanging by the rope that lashed him to the tree.
There was silence. The birds and the jungle had gone silent. The only sound was the falling rain. We got up and using hand signals we moved forward, slowly and as quietly as possible. Everyone scanned the tree line and the underbrush looking for any sign of enemy positions. We knew the plantation was just right up there, a few miles ahead.
There was an eerie sense that we were upon them. I heard leaves rustle, a twig snap! Then suddenly, the air exploded with gunfire. Some men up front were cut to pieces; there were soldiers down all around us. The cries of the wounded were drowned out by the deafening sound of rifle and automatic gunfire. It seemed to be coming from every direction. Our medic exposed himself to enemy fire again and again to help the wounded, with us covering him as best we could.
We returned fire wildly into the forest. It was hard to tell where the Japanese were; they were so well concealed. I couldn’t see the flash of their guns, and the sound reverberated inside the great tent of towering trees so that the firing seemed to come from all around us. There was more lead flying through the air at that moment than it’s possible to estimate. Everywhere men cursed, shouted and screamed. Some crouched low to the ground literally frightened out of their skins.
I rolled over and looked around the side of a tree, and rolled back to look under a fallen log, to see if I could tell where the fire was coming from. It became apparent that there were camouflaged bunkers all around us, and we were caught in enfilading fire. You could hear the bullets zip, zip overhead, and cracking as they hit the trees and the brush.
Our units were cut off and out of contact with each other. Each time we tried to move forward, our attack was beat back by the tremendous crossfire. There were many casualties. As night came on, the rain started again.
Out of rations and low on ammunition, our unit was badly shaken. Nobody had expected the mauling we took today. We dug in for the night and tried to regroup. You could hear the sound of motor trucks behind the Japanese lines. They were getting reinforcements. Not good!
Obviously the Japs were much stronger than we had planned on. I had always been told that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I reckon that’s so.
It was a long night and as tired as we were, nobody got any rest. Everyone was edgy, none of us moved about much, because whispering a password in the pitch-black was a good way to get shot in reply.
As the daylight slowly exposed our surroundings the next morning, I could make out several enemy bunkers in the undergrowth. They were so well hidden you could only see the firing slits. We moved up to form a firing line, and before long both sides were trading fire. The firefight grew in intensity, but it was apparent, we were still outgunned and in a crossfire. The Japanese had covered every approach with interlocking fields of fire from their concealed dugouts. The situation did not look good. Something needed to be done!
There was lots of noise, explosions and confusion. Communications were almost non-existent. Some of us made our way over to where the commanding officer was. The Captain was cowering in a foxhole and he wouldn’t come out. That’s when it hit me. This cannot be happening! This mission is about to fail if something is not done. Somebody’s got to lead by example.
I ran and crawled back over to my platoon. I called them all together and told them what we were going to do. An assault team was formed, some of them I picked, some of them volunteered. Everyone else would move back to the line and lay down a covering fire. They all seemed to listen up close. I looked them in the eye; they didn’t seem like boys anymore.
Once everyone got in place, I signaled for covering fire, turned to the assault team and said “Let’s Go!” We took off to the side and crashed into the swamp, sometimes running through the water, sometimes crawling in the mud. The jungle air was alive with gunfire and bullets zipping past us, cracking and popping into the trees and the ground. Dirt was kicking up. Leaves and twigs cut loose were filling the air.
We flanked one of the bunkers, pulled out our grenades, and attacked it from the side. After throwing our grenades, I waited for the flash, got up and ran into the coconut-log dugout with my Thompson machine-gun blazing. None of them gave up. We had to kill them all. The smell in there was powerful, of gunpowder, and of death.
When the smoke cleared, we took stock of our wounded. This bunker was built awfully strong and I could see more of them in the distance. We had no choice but to do this again. I called C Company forward. We huddled up and checked our ammo, and I started to pick some replacements, but there were more volunteers.
We attacked these machine-gun nests one at a time, again and again. After a while, exhausted, I sat down. My ears were ringing. There was blood on me, not mine I think. We had lost some men. These Japanese soldiers would not surrender, even in the face of a gun. It was clear that they were going to kill us or die trying.
I told the company “Get ready, we go again in a few minutes. Gather up ammo and grenades from the dead and wounded.” Everyone did their part, even the sick and the walking wounded. I was proud of them.
For a short time I let my mind wonder. I thought about home, thought about Texas, thought about my family. Nobody could mess with my family. This all seemed like one big 4th and goal situation to me… I said a little prayer.
Then I called the men together. Some of the fellows smeared mud on their faces; some made the sign of the Cross. For just a few moments, we just looked into each other’s faces. Nothing was said. They looked ready to me.
I took out a grenade, pulled the pin and held it tight in one hand, my Thompson in the other hand. The next bunker was there in front of us... “Covering Fire! Come On Men! Let’s Go!”
It was a Friday, November 20th, and I was 33 years old.
Remember us, for we were soldiers once, and young.
— First Lieutenant John W. Crow was posthumously awarded our country’s second highest medal for heroism, the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation read, “With complete disregard for his own safety, while under heavy sniper and machinegun-fire, he pushed forward, encouraging his men by his own courageous personal example.” His wife Marie lies buried next to his side in a cemetery in Fort Worth, Texas.