Easy to remember, hard to forget
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The memories of World War II are too easy to remember and too hard to forget.
Harwood Daughtry wouldn’t give a nickel to go back where he’s been.
There are too many memories of mass graves on the beaches of New Guinea, too many memories of wrapping buddies in shelter halves for burial at sea and too many memories of close combat with the enemy looking down his throat.
After all these years, Daughtry said the memories are as vivid as if they happened yesterday.
“You don’t forget things like that,” he said. “You can’t.”
Daughtry was only 20 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
A couple of weeks later, he signed the papers that would make him a United States “foot soldier.”
“Some of my buddies – Knox Ryals, Jerry Spurlock and Earl Boyd — were older than I was and they had been drafted and I wanted to go with them to serve my country,” Daughtry said. “I talked to my mama about it and she said she thought it was the thing to do. So I put my name on the list and volunteered with the Army.”
Like most of Uncle Sam’s boys, Daughtry didn’t really know what war was all about. He was too soon to find out.
“I did my six-weeks training at Fort McClellan and then went to San Francisco, which was the port of embarkation,” Daughtry said.
“We set sail for Australia and it took 37 days to reach Townsend. We didn’t know what we were in for.”
Daughtry was a part of five beach invasions on New Guinea over a two-year period. Each time, his company of between 200 and 250 went in, they came out with 50 or fewer soldiers.
“I was scared to death every time we hit the beach,” Daughtry said.
“Before every invasion, the major would give us a lecture. He said any blankety man that says he’s not scared is a blankety liar. I hate to use those words but that’s what he said and he told the truth.”
Daughtry said LCVs that could carry an entire company of men transported the soldiers from the “big ship” to the beaches.
“The Japanese would be set up when we hit the beach and the slaughter would begin,” Daughtry said.
“A lot of times, soldiers would be dropping so fast that we’d have to step over or on them to get down the ramp of the boat.
“I remember one time, the ramp came down while we were still out in the water – about 50 feet of water– and we had to swim to the beach carrying our backpacks and an M-1 rifles.”
Those who made it across the sand to the woods had to comb the area for “strays.”
“Running across the beach with bullets flying all around me and dead soldiers at my feet, well, it seemed like the beach was a mile wide,” Daughtry said.
“We all felt a little safer in the woods that was really a jungle. When you got through the jungle, you ran into the mountains and they went straight up. What was on the other side, I couldn’t tell you.”
The first invasion that Daughtry was a part of was the Battle of Buna and casualties were extremely high. The second invasion at Milne Bay required Daughtry’s company to stay for a couple of months.
“There was no place for our planes to land so an air strip had to be built on the marshy land,” Daughtry said. “It was so soft and mushy that you couldn’t even drive a truck over it.”
His company provided protection while the air strip was built.
“After the invasion of Hollandia, we stayed 104 days,” Daughtry said. “New Guinea is right there at the equator and there aren’t but two seasons – rainy and dry. It’s hot all the time. Muggy hot. The temperature was always between 110 and 125.
“We had green fatigues with metal buttons and metal rings for our shoe laces. We’d sweat so much that the metal rusted from the sweat.”
The Japanese and the almost unbearable heat weren’t the only enemies the soldiers had to overcome.
“The mosquitoes and bugs were awful and snakes were everywhere, but the things that were the most dangerous were the centipedes,” Daughtry said.
“They were white grub-like worms with forked tails. They would sting you and they had so much poison venom that you couldn’t make it.”
Daughtry recalled hearing one soldier cry out in the night that he’d been bitten by a centipede.
“The medics came but there was nothing they could do but try to comfort him,” Daughtry said.
“It wasn’t long before he was dead. And, we lost a lot of men to malaria. We took pills to combat it and they turned us a bright yellow. The pills worked for some but not for everybody.”
The soldiers spent their nights in foxholes or pillboxes they made from coconut hulls and mud. They couldn’t make a sound. It was the quietest of quiet.
“Most of the time, the Japanese were so close that it would have been suicide to light a cigarette,” he said. “One time, we were on one side of a river and the Japanese were on the other. There was no way to get rations to us except to kick them out of a C-47. When the rations hit the riverbeds, we either got them or the Japanese did. We fought for the food.”
After the fifth invasion, Daughtry was hopeful of coming home.
But it was not until he took off his boots and the bottom of his feet came off with them, that he got his “ticket” back to the states.
“I’d been in mud and water so long with leather boots wrapped around my feet that my feet had just rotted,” he said. “I was set to fly home but all the seats on the plane were filled and they left me behind. A week or so later, I was put on a converted freighter and sent back to the states. It took us 45 days to get here. But I was blessed to be home.
Daughtry credits the prayers of his mother and daddy for his surviving the war.
“I knew they were at home praying for me and I did some praying myself,” he said.
“We all did. I was one of the few that went to New Guinea that came home. I won’t ever forget those we left behind.”