Tuesday, September 16, 2014

7. To war in the Pacific

The Combat Infantryman's Badge was sacred to my dad, Charles M. Pride, who earned his fighting in the Pacific islands.
At this point in the publication of the family letters from World War II and beyond, it might be useful to share some of what I know about Charles M. Pride’s service overseas. The sources are stories my dad told me about his service and papers he left behind, including an official record of his service dated Dec. 15, 1945. I’ve also used letters Dad wrote from Pacific beaches, jungles and hospitals.


In the last years of his working life, my father managed cemeteries. He thus considered with care the details of his own funeral and grave-site. His remains lie beside my mother’s. On the brass plaque above them, the symbol my father chose for himself, more than 60 years after World War II, was the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

He scoffed at his Purple Heart and never spoke of why he won the Bronze Star. He liked to tell the story of his rescue of three drowning men off the beach in Hollandia, New Guinea, which won him the Soldier’s Medal for heroism. But the Combat Infantryman’s Badge was sacred to him.

I knew little of the medal’s origins until I looked it up. Omar Bradley, “the soldier’s general,” proposed the medal as a reward for any officer or soldier who faced infantry combat. Its recipients wear it above all other medals on their uniforms, including the Medal of Honor. Here is what Bradley wrote about it:

“The rifleman fights without promise of either reward or relief. Behind every river there’s another hill – and behind that hill, another river. After weeks or months in the line only a wound can offer him the comfort of safety, shelter, and a bed. Those who are left to fight, fight on, evading death but knowing that with each day of evasion they have exhausted one more chance for survival. Sooner or later, unless victory comes this chase must end on the litter or in the grave.”

How did a lieutenant trained in tank maintenance and then assigned to guard the beaches of Oregon win the Combat Infantryman’s Badge? The answer is simple: In the late spring of 1944, Dad’s orders swept him into the First Cavalry as an infantry platoon leader.

As described by the military historian Hugh Foster, a World War II rifle platoon had an authorized strength of 41 men. The lieutenant who commanded the platoon “for as long as he survived” had two sergeants and two privates, who served as messengers. The rest of the riflemen formed three squads, and machine guns, bazookas and mortars might augment the platoon’s operation.

Dad spent time on Manus and  Los Negros in the Admiralties,
which are north of New Guinea. 
Lt. Pride joined the First Cav in the southwest Pacific islands in early May of 1944, shortly after the division helped take the Admiralty Islands from the Japanese. His first posting, New Caledonia, was a French territory where he pitched his tent on a white sandy beach and, with the swagger of many a green officer, expressed his eagerness to patrol the jungle, kill “Japs” and carve notches in his rifle.

This was the beginning of a perilous life on the move. As Dad explained in a long letter written at sea near the war’s end, censorship prevented him from writing where he was in the Pacific but not where he had been. He wanted my mom back home in Connecticut to plot his course on a map. Here is the list of places he gave her: New Caledonia, Milne Bay, Oro Bay, Buna, Finchhaven, three islands in the Admiralties (Los Negros, Manus and “Howie”), New Britain, Leyte and Samar.

In the Admiralties and New Guinea he indeed led patrols. Later he laughed at movie scenes in which soldiers wielding machetes hacked new trails through the jungle. You’d never get anywhere that way, he'd say. You had to take the trails that were already there, and the enemy knew it.
Dad also described atrocities on both sides. He and his men were once led into a church to view the body of an American soldier. The man had been stripped, bound and tortured with lighted cigarettes before his throat was slit. His body was covered with burns. Such incidents confirmed the GIs’ belief that the Japanese were brutal, suicidal and sneaky.

Not long afterward Dad and his men saw the pilot bail out of a flaming Japanese Zero. As the pilot neared earth, scores of GIs used him as target practice. By the time his chute reached the ground, only bloody pulp remained on the parachute lines.

Dad participated in the X Corps landing indicated by the topmost blue arriw
on the map. He went 26 stormy days without changing his uniform.
Dad made at least two invasion landings. One was at Leyte in the Philippines on Oct. 20, 1944, the day General Douglas MacArthur famously returned. Dad hated heights. He had a mortal fear of climbing down the rigging of a troop ship. He felt such relief at reaching the landing craft safely that he broke out in a broad grin. His men mistook his demeanor, wondering how their lieutenant could be so brave and cool on the way to an invasion beach.

Dad was in the force that captured the airport near Tacloban, a regional capital in eastern Leyte. That force then crossed a narrow strait to capture the island of Samar. Dad told a newspaper reporter after his return home that this campaign was the worst he had fought in. While enduring constant drenching from torrential rains, he had no chance to change his uniform for 26 days.

He was wounded during this campaign – hit by a mortar shell and blown into the air. As you’ll see from his letters, he minimized his wound to my mother and omitted the details even when he told his in-laws it was more serious than he had let on. When I asked him about it years later, he made light of the wound. It was a shrapnel wound to the upper thigh that nearly castrated him. He was evacuated to a hospital and convalescent camp in Hollandia, a port on New Guinea’s northern coast. There he spent months recuperating from the wound and from battle fatigue.

Dad returned to duty in the spring of 1945 three months after the liberation of Manila.There he served out the war as motor pool officer for MacArthur, overseeing the operation and maintenance of 300 sedans and trucks used by the general and his staff. In letters that summer he welcomed the atom bomb – in part, no doubt, because the First Cavalry Division was staging for the invasion of Japan. Had he not been wounded, most likely he would have remained with the division as it led the Tokyo occupation force after the Japanese surrender.

Back home from the war, Dad poses with Mom and Bonnie. Above the battle ribbons on his left pocket is the
Combat Infantryman's Badge.
As it was, after 16 months in the Pacific, he came home – happily, joyfully – to his wife and 2-year-old daughter. The voyage home by luxury liner took 22 days. On arrival, Dad enjoyed 71 days of accrued leave before his discharge from active duty.

Back home in Connecticut, the Bridgeport Sunday Post reporter who interviewed him noted that he still walked with a limp from his wound. The Post story was accompanied by a picture of Mom and Dad holding the Japanese flag that once flew atop the Manila Hotel. One of Dad’s sergeants, a Texan named John Broder, had climbed up to retrieve it and given it to him.

Years later, after I was born and we moved to Florida, the flag – Dad’s most cherished souvenir of the war – disintegrated in our attic.

Next: A V-Mail from the front.

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