In March of ’44 we were sent to Milne Bay, New Guinea. I was assigned to the 81mm mortar squad in the 19th infantry regimen, 24th division. My job was ammo carrier – I carried 6 rockets, 3 in a vest in the front and 3 in the back (along with my backpack and rifle). We fed the rockets to the soldier shooting them. We could never see if we hit our target because the job of the mortar squad was to shoot over the heads of our riflemen on the front line to the enemy. Well, put it this way, if we did see our enemy we were in big trouble because that meant he had crossed into our lines, killing all our soldiers in front. The set up was as follows: we were in a big circle with the foot soldiers in the front all around and 2 mortar squads in the middle, short distance mortar and the 81mm. We were in regular contact with the “site man.” He was also in the front and he was the guy who radioed to us in which direction we should shoot.
The first time I saw action was at the end of ’44. We were ordered onto ships that took us to the Philippine Islands. When we reached the beach of Leyte, the landing crafts were lowered into the water. With all our gear, we climbed down a net made of manila rope to the little boats that would take us close to the beach. We waded in the water to get to dry land. The idea was to make a dash for the treeline as the beach was open target for enemy fire.
I don’t remember being particularly nervous when we landed the first time or any time although I guess I should have been. I do remember that they woke us up at 5:00 a.m. for a good, solid breakfast. Unfortunately, it consisted of pork and beans. So there went my fortifying breakfast.
There was one time we were surrounded on all sides by the Japs. After the war I heard we were nicknamed “The Lost Battalion.” The fact was we were not lost at all. We won that round at the end. But it did get pretty hairy while we were going through it. We ran out of supplies and the army tried to drop new ones into our lines but most of the time they missed and the Japs got them. Some of the soldiers were getting so hungry, they were stripping the trees to eat the bark. However, at the end, our reinforcements were able to break through the enemy lines and get to us.
Now somewhere in the middle of that experience, I was hospitalized for jungle rot, a kind of tropical skin disease. When I was released, they took me and other ex-patients back to our unit. We took a circuitous route through the jungle in order to avoid the enemy. We walked in single file and were loaded up with supplies to bring to the men. I was so exhausted and weighted down, that I kept throwing off supplies as we went along.
When we were in the fighting area, we generally slept nights in the foxhole. One night we crossed a creek and were ordered to dig our foxholes. The problem was it was too near the water and my foxhole kept filling up. So I sat on my metal helmet to keep myself off the wet ground. Every time I fell asleep, though, I would topple off the helmet! One night lying in my foxhole, I saw bolts of fire streak across the sky crisscrossing each other. It was shooting going on between both sides. My unit was not involved so I was able to lie there simply watching this awesome sight.
There were no religious soldiers in my unit. However, I met a few who were not in my unit. One guy named Manny Waldman was a fellow I kept up with for many years afterward. We initially met when the chaplain organized the yearly Pesach seder. It wasn’t much of a seder, just eating matzoh and drinking wine. So there in the deep jungles of the Philipines, we decided to conduct our own completely authentic seder. There was another guy, Lieberman, I think his name was, from Boro Park. We used to get together every once in a while to commiserate on how difficult it was trying to follow halacha in the jungle. Speaking of halacha, I had an interesting experience with my tefillin that wouldn’t happen in New York. They rotted. I guess from the heat and the jungle conditions. I knew we were closest to the Australian continent and Brisbane was a large city there. So I addressed a letter to the rabbi of Brisbane, (I didn’t even know if there was a rabbi in Brisbane!) explaining who I was and requesting a pair of tefillin. I had no idea how much it would cost so I enclosed five dollars. Believe it or not, I received my tefillin!