Open Fire

Chapter Thirteen

About the second day after we had set up the front line, word was passed around that we should get ready to move out early the next morning, which was to be 10 January 1943. Apparently, we had been waiting for the others in our Regiment to form a line between us and the beach area a mile to our right. There were few, if any, troops to our left towards the rugged interior.

We spent a nervous night with considerable throwing of grenades down the hill into the jungle darkness below whenever there was any kind of a sound, which was probably more often than not, caused by large land crabs moving about. At night, they were everywhere and the scraping of their shell against a rock or a stick would sound exactly like a Japanese canteen or other equipment being dragged by a Japanese when they tried to sneak through the bushes towards us. I'm sure that we killed more land crabs with grenades that night than Japanese

We preferred tossing grenades at night instead of firing our rifles because the muzzle blast would give away our position. This was especially true with BAR's and machine guns. The Japanese feared these weapons and they especially tried to locate them in order to attack them first.

Early the next morning, there was considerable activity as our lines were reinforced by men bringing up lots of machine guns, including the water-cooled heavies and the 81-mm heavy mortars, plus that great little 75-mm, short -barreled, pack howitzer that the Marines took everywhere and used to great advantage.

Many of these weapons and men were from H Company, the Heavy Weapons Company in our Battalion. Each rifle Company only had two .30 caliber, light weight, air-cooled, machine guns and two, light weight, 60-mm mortars. There was a feeling of reassurance to see all of this firepower here to support us, but also a feeling that a big battle was about to begin. We all waited silently in our foxholes, checking to see that we had a full belt of ammunition, a pocket full of grenades and our weapons loaded.

The Shooting Starts

Eventually, everybody was in position and things quieted down. Then, the order was yelled up and down the lines:

"Open Fire! Open Fire!"

All hell broke loose. Dozens of machine guns opened up simultaneously all around us with long bursts of fire, sending their tracer bullets through the trees in the jungle below and raking the tops of the next hill beyond to make sure that no reinforcements could come to join those in the ravine in front of us. Some bullets ricocheted into the air above. It looked like a giant fireworks show.

The mortars and pack howitzers also opened up, firing as rapidly as possible. Even our Company machine guns and mortars joined in. Also there was a barrage from our big artillery guns a few miles behind us. Every weapon possible was being used. I was much impressed.

Within seconds, the artillery and mortar shells began landing in the jungle ahead of us - - some within a hundred yards or less. Some exploded in the tree tops and shrapnel was flying through the air like swarms of angry bees. Some shrapnel was coming too close for comfort and we hugged the bottom of our foxholes. We also knew that artillery rounds sometimes fell short. The noise was deafening and ground actually shook.

The machine guns and small mortars raked the jungle area immediately ahead of us again and again. I didn't see how anything could live through it.

Eventually, the barrage was shifted to more distant areas so that we could begin our advance, but the machine guns kept firing over our heads.

Then, the order to "Move out!" came. It was accompanied by much arm waving, because it was difficult to hear anything above the roar of the machine guns. We rose from our foxholes and started down the hill towards the jungle ahead of us.

We did not run. We moved very slowly and cautiously. We tried to keep as much distance between each other as possible, which was about 10 feet. Two or more men together made a better target for a grenade or an enemy machine gunner. All men held their rifles at the ready. I carried my BAR about halfway between my hips and my shoulder with my finger on the trigger and the selector on full automatic. The BAR has a rate of fire of 450-rounds-per-minute. It was an awesome weapon, as I was to find out soon.

I remember a feeling of assurance and safety as I started out because, surely, any Japanese exposing himself to take a shot at us would have been instantly blown to smithereens. Also, about every square foot where a Japanese might have been, either on the ground or in the trees, had been sprayed by machine guns, thoroughly. The only thing I saw moving was a rather large lizard, about three feet long., running for its life over the next hill. If it was lucky enough to survive the barrage, it probably would have been eaten by the Japanese, if they saw it, because they were starving.

I'm sure that the ferocity of our barrage not only surprised, but panicked the Japanese, and those that could, had fled, because we met not resistance in our area. We only found some dead bodies, some still bleeding, while others were decaying. However, closer to the beach, there was some resistance.

We carefully threaded and chopped our way through the jungle-filled ravine. We saw plenty of signs where the Japanese had recently been, such as foot paths, gun positions and equipment.

It was several hundred yards, or more, across the bottom of the jungle ravine to where it ended and another hill started upwards. It was impossible to keep our formations in a straight line abreast. Instead, we had to proceed in small groups, each group cutting its own path and trying to stay even and within sight of those on either side.

Then, we began to hear the words that were to become very familiar, "Hold up!" being passed along the line. This meant that some obstacle or opposition had been encountered somewhere, or maybe some casualties. We would then take up defensive positions and wait for the order to move out again.

It was spooky and nasty in the jungle, and the air became thick. The bottom was slippery with mud and water. Wherever we walked, we disturbed great swarms of mosquitoes, gnats and flies that would then attack us. The huge trees cut off most of the daylight, making it rather dark below. Sometimes, we fell or stumbled on an unseen vine. There was a thick under-growth of bushes and vines with thorns. The thorns tore our clothes and cut our skin. Also, there was vegetation with huge leaves that restricted visibility even more. We could pass within five or six feet of a Japanese and not be able to see him.

That was our first taste of the real jungle in enemy territory. We were relieved when we emerged on the other side and started up the grassy hill beyond. At this point, when we came within their sight, the machine guns became silent. Otherwise, we would have walked into their line of fire.

We climbed the hill, went to the far side and took up a defensive position overlooking another jungle-filled ravine below. It was very much like the ravine we had just advanced through, except that it was much further across, and the jungle looked even thicker. We rested until the machine guns and mortars could be brought up from where they were to join us. Then, they were set up again to cover us for another advance.

When all was ready, the command was given again, "Open fire!"

All the guns opened up again. But the barrage was not as long as the first one. When they stopped, we advanced again down the hill and into the forbidden jungle below.

This time, since the jungle was larger and thicker, progress was slower. Then it started to rain, slowly at first, then violently, and it began to get dark. The command came to 'hold up', and we knew that we were going to spend our first of many nights in the deep jungle.

We heard some sporadic firing nearby, which meant that we were encountering some resistance for the first time. We had been advancing like we had been before, in small groups, chopping our way through in single file. We know there was a likely chance that we had bypassed some Japanese hiding between us, but there was a limit to what we were able to do. They could hide like rabbits.

In fact, we did bypass some of them, not only here, but other places late, because from then on, some Japanese were continually behind our lines and making trouble.

Then the rain increased, the drops got bigger and faster and faster. They beat a noisy staccato on the large leaves like they were drum heads and also on our steel helmets. It sounded more like hail-stones than water. The noise was thunderous. We put our ponchos on to help keep dry. We quickly got a feeling of isolation and complete loneliness.
The jungle was closing in on us!

Arkie is Killed

Without warning, there was a loud explosion very close by. We all hit the deck. I heard somebody say they thought someone got hit. We laid there quietly, on guard, our fingers on the triggers, waiting to return fire, but nothing more happened for a bit.

Then, that dreaded cry of "Corpsman! Corpsman!" could be heard over the noise of the heavy rain.

Someone had indeed been hit!

We all stayed at our positions while getting very wet. I could see a corpsman nearby working on someone on the ground. When the rain let up a bit, I could see how it was.

Oh, no! . . . it WAS Arkie (Herbert McAlpin, from Little Rock, Arkansas.)

It was just the two of us who joined the Marines in Oklahoma City on the Fourth of July 1942, just six months ago, and he was the first one to die.

I went over to see, but I wished I hadn't. Arkie was also a BAR man and had been carrying some grenades in his lower right jacket pocket. Arnold Cook told me later that he had seen Arkie straighten out the ends of the safety pins on his grenades that morning so they could be pulled out easier and quicker in case he had to throw one in a hurry. But somehow, one of the pins worked loose, or possibly pulled out by a branch, and it released the spoon which ignited the grenade inside his pocket.

Fragments from the grenade also severely injured at least one other person nearby. One was Anthony Manguno, Jr. from Louisiana, also a former member of Platoon 532. He was carried out and we never saw him again.

To everybody's amazement, Arkie was conscious for about 30 minutes before passing on.

His last words were, "I don't think I'm going to make it to the top of that hill."

He was one tough Marine.

In the meantime, an hour or more had passed. We were in an impossible position for any outside help and it was quickly getting dark - very, very dark. We couldn't even take Arkie out. He laid there all night on a stretcher where he fell, covered with his poncho.

It was too late to dig in, so we just took up a position for the night wherever each man was and listened to the heavy rain. We could not see our hand in front of our face. We might as well have been blind. Under these circumstances, one feels completely vulnerable, isolated and helpless. We know that we couldn't defend ourselves because we could not see nor hear an enemy coming. Our senses were highly tuned and waiting fro anything. I have never felt more alone, or helpless, than at times like this, which happened frequently. Our heart-beat was quite rapid for awhile. Scared? Yes, we were!

Then, after a few hours, the rain quit and some stars appeared along with some moonlight. Now, the silence was spooky. Every time we heard some noise, like water falling off of a big leaf, we were sure it was a Japanese coming at us, but we held our fire.

Something Big Is Out There

Charles Banish, my assistant BAR man, and I shared a small location between two huge tree trunks while facing the jungle ahead, but also watching behind us. About 12 feet to our left was Challenor and another man. Then, we started hearing something out there in front of us - something coming, very slowly and hesitant. It would stop awhile, then quietly come our way again.

This was no land crab. Something big and heavy was out there!

I was awake and on watch at the time. One man in each foxhole had to be awake at all times, supposedly. I had my BAR ready to fire if I had to, but I knew that would give my position away.

Then Challenor tossed a grenade. I could hear the little 'pop' from the striker as it struck the fuse to light it, and I could see the trail of sparks from the burning fuse as it flew through the air. I ducked my head.

"Bang!"

The grenade exploded with a flash of light. There was a sudden and strange noise of pain. Then something quickly charged right at Challenor and his buddy. I thought I could see a poncho, or something like that, heading his way very fast. That was followed by a thud of bodies hitting each other and a cry of surprise from Challenor, followed by the sound of branches being broken by something big crashing against them as it ran through our lines and disappeared into the jungle behind us. It happened so quickly it surprised Challenor to the point that neither he, nor his buddy, had been able to get a shot at it.

Then, I heard some angry words and cussing from Challenor. So, I called over, "Are you okay?"

"Yes, I guess so," came the reply.

"What was it?" I asked.

"A pig . . . A God Damn big pig," he muttered.

What a comic relief it was and I chuckled to myself for hours. After that incident, nobody slept the rest of the night.

At dawn, I went over to see Challenor. He was busy cleaning his rifle and sharpening his bayonet. I couldn't help but be amused. However, he wasn't, and also not in any mood to be kidded about it either. He just muttered something like, "If I see it again, we'll have bacon for breakfast!"

Then I noticed an extra crumbled-up poncho on the ground next to Challenor, but he was wearing his, and so was his buddy.

"Who's poncho is that?" I inquired.

"Arkie's," he replied, to my surprise.

Then I looked ahead of us about 15 feet away to where Arkie was, but no poncho was over him now.

"But how? . . . "

Challenor interrupted to give me the answer.

"I guess that damn big pig was smelling around on the other side of Arkie's stretcher with his head under the poncho when my grenade went off behind his ass, and he ran straight froward, taking the poncho with him until hi hit me. It scared the hell out of me because I thought it was Arkie coming to join us."

What a bizarre event!

After some cold C rations for breakfast, four of us volunteered to carry Arkie out. I was one of them, and as I did so, I remembered the vow we had made to each other on the train, so I knew that someday, I would have to go to Fort Smith to tell his folks - - provided I survived.

In July 1946, on my way home to Oklahoma City after my discharge at Pensacola, Florida, I made that visit to Fort Smith.

They were a very nice family, including two sisters - one about a year younger than myself. She was a pretty girl with lots of personality. They invited me into their home for several days. We went picnicking and swimming in the river. They seemed to think a lot of me and appreciated very much my consideration for them and my respect for Arkie. But, I just couldn't bring myself to tell them the real story. I made him out as a hero who died in action - and he was!

We kept in touch for a while, then I lost track of them, but there will always be a special place in my heart for them and the sacrifice this family made.

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Copyright© 2003, Roy William Roush. All Rights Reserved.