FRANKEL-Y SPEAKING ABOUT WORLD WAR II IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC by Stanley A. Frankel
CHAPTER 4 - THE LAST BALLAD
My first Regimental Commander, the late Colonel Stuart A. Baxter, liked to begin every speech he made about war with the line The fog of war was pea soup thick.
If pea soup thick and fog alluded to the fact that we could not see the enemy, then the description of jungle fighting in New Georgia was appropriate. In truth, the Japanese were better jungle fighters than we were. They were better trained, had more experience, and somehow existed, even thrived, on fewer rations and ammunition, meaning they could travel faster and lighter and longer.
We would learn quickly, but the first week or two were crash course instructions at the expense of wounds and lives. On the very first day of our landing on the New Georgia beaches, Lieutenant Sid Goodkin took out a 20 man patrol to feel out the Japanese. He thought he saw movement in the bushes and banana leaves to his left, knew instinctively these were American troops moving up on his flank, and called out to them that he was leading friendly troops so Dont fire. The friendly troops on the flank fired anyway, one bullet catching Goodkin in the side. As he was carried to the aid station, he vehemently cursed the friendly troops for not heeding his warning. To be hit on the first day, by your own comrades, was disheartening. When the bullet was extracted from his side, he kept on cursing until the regimental surgeon showed him the bloody bullet. It was a .25 calibre slug, used only by the Japanese. The lesson was learned, the very hard way.
The 37ths Plan of Attack on New Georgia
The patrols were sure the enemy was close only when they were fired on. The Japanese were not good marksmen so our casualties for this jungle blindness were not heavy . . . but we did take some. On my very first patrol of 15 men, the company commander assigned to me a tall, husky Fijian soldier, a wise use of scarce resources since we didnt have many of these expert jungle fighters. As we moved forward, the perspiration kept soaking my glasses, and all I could see were fuzzy bushes and trees and all I could hear were birds and our GI boots crunching the ground. Suddenly, my Fijian sidekick froze . . . then clapped me on the shoulder and pointed in the direction of a large oak tree. I couldnt see a damn thing, but he kept clapping and pointing until, out of sheer embarrassment, I aimed my rifle at one of the branches and fired three times. I didnt hit anything, but the sniper in the tree who was about three yards from where my shots went, figured he had been discovered, and he began changing positions. That movement I did see, and I aimed my M1 at the now visible target. I was shaking, a combination of excitement and panic. I fired three more times, missed completely, and the Fijian, sneering at me fired his Bren Gun (comparable to our tommy gun) and brought the sniper down, dead.
We encountered no more snipers and when we returned to our camp that night I thought to myself that one of these days, my life might depend upon hitting a target with my first round. So, I went to the supply sergeant, asked if I could be issued one of the few shotguns in his arsenal, and went away with a .16 gauger and a dozen shells, which I had to wipe off each morning since they, too, perspired at night.
Not too many days later, I took out another patrol, plus the same Fijian. This time I was armed with my shotgun. It wont kill anyone but sprays pellets over a small area, usually disabling the target. That same first patrol scenario was repeated halfway through this one . . . the Fijian spotting a sniper . . . alerting me: I cant quite see the sniper so I aim in the general direction the Fijian points to, fire away, bring down two large leaf- covered branches . . . and . . . a shotgun- shelled Japanese sniper. As he instinctively reaches for his gun to fire at us, my Fijian Brenguns him to death. I angrily tell the Fijian we would have been better off taking him prisoner, but I dont think he heard . . . or wanted to.
A few days later, another platoon leader took out his patrol, which included Private First Class Rodger Young, and the account of that patrol is included here, an account related to me by the patrol leader and some of his men. Here, I was substantially an observer, but because of my writing assignments to next of kin . . . and for awards . . . I did participate in the paperwork . . . as well as the emotions . . . surrounding one of our greatest WWII heroes . . . certainly one of the bravest in the jungles of the South Pacific.
He was the Pacific theatre counterpart to Audie Murphy in Europe . . . except for one small detail . . . Murphy lived and Young died.
For more than 45 years, the approach of July 31 has caused me nightmares of jungle combat, a queasy stomach, and a drifting away of my concentration . . . to a dank little island in the South Pacific.
For it was on that day in 1943 my little friend and comrade in-arms, Rodger Young, was killed in action . . . a trite phrase . . . but, oh, what action!
There are literally thousands of smoky coral islands scattered like emeralds across the blue velvet of the Pacific. Theyve been quiet for many years.
But hidden by the unceasing jungle growth, buffeted into nothingness by the storms and the bull dozers, are the abandoned tanks, jeeps, and M1 rifles, and buckled, concrete air strips. Theyve all succumbed to time and the creeping jungle. The men who ripped up those islands, hacked out the airfields, and filled the vastness of the Pacific with war, are long gone. Those who fought and died there are gone. They have been returned home-- along with the living-- and the South Pacific is silent once more.
But their deeds can never be silenced. They are written in records and history books, and in the hearts of our people. The deed of one man who died there is perhaps more widely known than it might have been in the ordinary annals of heroism.
He may be remembered because of a song. Many Americans have heard the ballad, Rodger Young, have come to know the stirring words. Military bands used to march to its swinging rhythm. School children may still sing it at assembly.
Rodger Young died on a little island called New Georgia. He died in such a way that he was awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor and was chosen from among many heroes to be immortalized in a song of the infantry.
It should be enough to record that Rodger Young died a hero. But the facts show that he proved himself a hero several weeks before the fateful day that won him the nations highest honor. Yet perhaps only a half dozen of us know the real and complete story of his quiet gallantry.
It began on a humid day on Guadalcanal in June 1943. The 148th Infantry Regiment, Youngs outfit, was girding for its next objective-- New Georgia Island with its insignificant but strategically vital Munda airstrip.
The company commander was busy that morning. He looked up sharply when Rodger Young, a thin, pale, and bespectacled staff sergeant, walked into his tent, saluted and said: Sir, I would like to request permission to be reduced to the rank of private. It was an odd request. What is your reason for wanting to be busted, Sergeant? the captain asked brusquely. Well, sir-- The little sergeant reddened, and continued haltingly, well, you see, my ears are going bad. I cant hear very well any more. He swallowed, and then finished in a rush. And I dont want any of my men killed in New Georgia because of me.
The C. O. s eyes narrowed suspiciously. Was this a new twist in the technique of getting invalided home? Whats the matter, Sergeant? he barked. Dont you want to fight?
Young stiffened. Sir, he said distinctly, I dont want to leave the outfit. I want to go on-- but as a private, so Im only responsible for myself. I dont want to get anyone hurt because of me. His voice was thin and firm. If I thought Id be left behind because of this, then Id rather drop the whole thing.
He half sold the captain, and an hour later the company doctor confirmed Youngs story. The sergeants ears were in bad shape. Shall we send him to the field hospital? the doctor asked. No! Rodger Young answered emphatically.
The doctor shrugged and the captain made a gruff apology. He promised to get Sergeant Young reduced to the rank of private without prejudice, which he did the next day.
Three weeks later, the 148th Regiment (along with the rest of the 37th Division,) invaded New Georgia. The jungle was an almost impenetrable wall of vines and tangled undergrowth. The insects were unbearable, the food miserable, the water supply inadequate. At night, the 148th dug foxholes in mud and limestone. And, of course, there was always the enemy.
They crept in like animals by night, attacked, and vanished at dawn. With the invasion still only a beachhead, a good many men of the 148th were dead.
One evening the tropic sun took its sudden plummet into blackness just as 15 soldiers staggered into the company lines. Among them they carried five bodies, wrapped in blood- stained shelter halves. The lieutenant in charge of the ragged platoon made his report to the captain.
That morning, he had taken 20 men on a reconnaissance patrol a mile in front of the lines. He had led his men along an old, seemingly deserted Japanese trail, overgrown with vines and bushes. After a futile search for signs of enemy activity, he turned back at 4 oclock, intending to be in his own company area before dusk.
As they trudged along the gloomy trail, the Japanese machine gun opened up suddenly and killed two men before the platoon could flatten into cover. The gun was fiendishly placed on high ground, commanding the entire area. There was no way around it; to rush it meant sudden death.
The lieutenant attempted a mass maneuver with his remaining 18 men, and two more died.
The situation was critical. If they could not break out of the trap before nightfall, the Japanese would move in. With the machine gun cutting off the only possible avenue of escape, the enemy was in no hurry.
The men were pressed into the ground. There was only one hope. D company might hear the spasmodic fire and attack the machine- gun nest from the rear. There was nothing to do but wait-- and pray.
As it happens, prayers wouldnt have helped just then. Company D was too busy defending its own position to worry about a 20- man platoon. And a little later it wouldnt have mattered.
Each of those 16 doomed men had his own thoughts. No one knows what Private Rodger Young, flattened in the scrub, was thinking. He might have been thinking of his family, or of Clyde, the little Ohio town where he grew up. He might not have contemplated that he was only 25 years old, which is pretty young to die. Or he might merely have been thinking that the omnipresent Japanese machine gun was a nuisance-- and dangerous to boot.
What went on behind Youngs spectacles and between his rather deaf ears no one knows. What is known is that he began to inch forward, cradling his rifle in his arms, past the lieutenant and toward the machine- gun nest.
The lieutenant saw him slither by, and tried to grab his leg. But Young was in a hurry and evaded his superiors grasp. Furthermore, the Japanese saw the rustle of grass and loosed a burst that singed the lieutenants hand and tore his collar.
Come back here! the lieutenant screamed at Young. Its suicide. Come back-- thats an order!
Young hesitated a moment, then twisted his head around and grinned at the lieutenant. Im sorry, sir, he said, but you know I dont hear very well.
He turned then, and continued to snake his way toward the Japanese emplacement. They saw him coming, of course. A stuttering burst cracked into Youngs left arm and splintered the stock of his rifle.
Young let the useless weapon drop. Still, he pressed forward. His buddies fired blindly at the emplacement, trying to divert the spitting stream of death. It didnt work.
Another burst of fire sewed a scarlet seam down Youngs left leg, from thigh to ankle. But he kept going, and finally reached a shallow hole about five yards from the machine gun. It was deep enough to afford him rather tenuous safety as the Japanese apparently couldnt depress the muzzle of their gun far enough to get a clean shot at him.
For Gods sake, Young, the lieutenant shouted, stay where you are! Well get you out somehow.
Maybe that time Private Young really didnt hear. He might have been dying at that moment. In any case, he wasnt in the mood for playing possum.
Painfully, he reached into his belt with his good right hand for a grenade. He pulled the pin with his teeth. Then, rearing up and back-- up out of his position of relative safety-- he lobbed the grenade toward the machine gun.
The gun answered with a blast that caught him full in the face. Rodger Young died as the grenade left his hand. Still, well thrown, it lit in the center of the machine- gun crew-- and killed every one of the five Japanese manning the weapon.
Within seconds, the 15 survivors were on their interrupted way back to Company D. Silently they carried their five dead. Rodger Young didnt need to worry any more about being responsible for the lives of his buddies.
Two weeks later, the sweltering little island was in American hands. The troops stopped hunting and killing and began collecting themselves-- and some well- earned medals. Company Ds captain composed a lengthy recommendation that Private Rodger Young be awarded the Medal of Honor. One sentence read:
Disregarding the orders of his platoon leader to come back, Rodger Young moved forward into the face of enemy fire. The regimental commander changed that to Not hearing the orders . . . No one; in his regiment disobeyed orders, he remarked acidly.
The company commander also wrote letters to the next of kin of those in his unit who had been killed, including, of course, to the parents of Rodger Young. A month later, Rodgers mother replied, thanking the captain for his note, commenting that Rodgers bravery made the loss of an only son a bit easier to bear, and asked for a small favor: Rodger was proud of being a staff sergeant. Since his body wont be returned to us until after the War, we would like to put up a little monument in our Clyde, Ohio, cemetery, and would it be permissible to write Staff Sgt. Rodger Young on the tombstone?
The captain quickly put in a request to Division Headquarters, asking that Private Rodger Young be promoted posthumously back to staff sergeant. He recounted the original reason for the demotion, the posthumous Medal of Honor, and attached the request from Rodgers mother. The Army remained inflexible. The request was denied; a number of army regulations were cited justifying the turndown, and when the captain protested in a personal visit to Division Headquarters, he was told firmly that there was no appeal.
Furious . . . whipped . . . he had to write to Mrs. Young that for the time being, your wonderful son would have to remain a private.
But this bitter rejection turned into an amazing benefit. Most of the branches of the military service had songs, but the infantry did not. The War Department assigned songwriter, Frank Loesser, of Guys and Dolls fame, to write a piece for the infantry . . . suggesting he read the Medals of Honor citations for inspiration, and instructing him that he must only focus on infantry privates . . . not sergeants . . . not officers . . . but privates!
Frank Loesser sought out the single most dramatic act committed by a doughboy- private. The Rodger Young story was shown him and he had to read it only once.
A military citation is a strange place in which to find inspiration for a ballad. But from just such a dispassionate source sprang the moving ballad of Rodger Young. On the face of it, it is a song commemorating the gallantry of one soldier. But when you hear it sung, you know that there is more than one Rodger Young, just as there are many islands in the South Pacific that knew a Rodger Young.
It is plain that the name, and the story, of Rodger Young will live. And as the years go by, the fact that he was small and rather spindly, the fact that he needed powerful glasses, the fact that he asked to be demoted because he was going deaf and did not want this disability to jeopardize the lies of his comrades-- these will fade from memory. His name and his story will long outlive such details, and will become inseparably merged.
For today, long after the last trace of war has vanished from those quiet Pacific islands, Rodger Young has taken his place among the legendary heroes of American history. And there he is quite at home.
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Second Edition Dec. 1, 1994