The Memoirs of Armand Charest Part III

Armand CharestThe Charest-Frenchette Family in America: A Success Story

Editors Note: Shortly before my father had his stroke which ultimately was fatal, I managed to convince him to write some stories and family history. I promised him I would get them at least published on a family website if he did. Well, with a lot of “encouragement” from myself and possibly my brother Howard, Dad did write some of the family stories. This is part III in a three part series.

I have taken the liberty of re-formatting Dad’s writings to be suitable for this website. Otherwise, I have posted them as written. I may on occasion add some editorial comments of my own; these will be clearly marked when I do.
   Ron Charest

Part III: Winding Down the War, and Afterwards Chapter 17

Rest, Relaxation, and Retraining

Map of Biak Island

The division entered a period of rest and rehabilitation. New recruits filled the depleted ranks of the rifle companies; we received new clothing and weapon all line companies entered into extensive training, melding the new inexperienced soldiers with the veterans. So, at the ripe old age of nineteen, I was a veteran.

At the same time, in the summer of 1944, the army decided to rotate men back to the States who had accumulated a certain amount of points based on their time in the service and time overseas. The division had arrived in Australia in February of 1942. The surviving members had been overseas for over two years. Therefore, two men from each company were picked from a lottery and sent home each month. This process continued until the last original soldier departed in January of 1945, exactly three years after his arrival in the South Pacific.

The war picked up momentum at this time. Fresh divisions reached the theater and went into action in different areas. The First Cavalry Division, an amalgam of various cavalry regiments, cleaned up the Admiralty Islands. The New Zealanders and Australians dislodged the Japanese from islands in the Solomon’s group and New Britain. Several divisions took over and moved up the New Guinea coast. The High Command then announced that the New Guinea campaign was over. We chuckled over that report.

The tough Japanese soldiers had only been ousted from their coastal bases and not entirely defeated. They merely retreated to the interior. Even though they were cut off from supplies and support from their country, they continued the fight. E Company was now stationed at the end of the line, so to speak. Ours was the last outpost this side of no-man’s land. A high ridge marked the demarcation line broken only by a Japanese built road that cut through it and meandered to the other side of the island. This is where the serious re-training took place.

Patrols, made up of new men and veterans, went out every day into the interior and inevitably ran into enemy soldiers. We were under strict orders to bring in prisoners and we did. They were useful because they pointed out hiding places of other Japanese. There were sections of the road that turned our brains to jelly. I still remember a canyon that dipped downward into which the sun never penetrated. It was dark, gloomy, and ominous. We first reached it in late afternoon. The Lieutenant in charge called a halt and he and his Sergeant debated the point of moving on or staying put for the night. They decided to move on. Two scouts went ahead, slowly and warily. We had gone barely one hundred yards into the canyon when the scouts came back and reported the news that the gorge extended for a long distance and they were of the opinion that the patrol should turn back and spend the night at the entrance. The officer agreed. It was a lucky and wise decision. That night we were attacked and a vicious fight took place in which we suffered several casualties. From that time on, no patrol ventured through that canyon in late afternoon. The honor of being the first through Hell’s Canyon fell to the next patrol because our Lieutenant decided to return to camp with the dead and wounded men.

The rest and rehabilitation period provided E Company with many light moments. For instance, one day the Southerners decided to do something about their age-old avocation—moonshining! To this day I have no idea where the boys acquired the materials for the still they built on our side of the ridge. All I remember was a strange odor that wafted over the area one bright and sunny day.

Sometimes the boys would get a bit feisty and they would decide to settle their century-old differences with the Northerners. So it was rather amusing to hear the boys from the South stand in the company street and invite the “Yankees to come out and settle this thing once and for all.” A request from the company commander, himself a New Yorker, to get some sleep usually defused the situation. No one ever mentioned the incident as we all took part in the next patrol.

I must mention another comical incident before we move on.

One day the company commander received a call from the Air Corps supply base commander for some help in guarding the supplies. It seems that the previous watchmen had turned into “crooks” who stole widely and indiscriminately. So a call went out to the first squad, first platoon to get into gear and to prepare to move out that same afternoon along with its rations and equipment. Let me say a few things about rations.

The army classified rations by letter: “A” rations stood for the hot food served in regular camps and forts throughout the country; “B” rations indicated the hot food served overseas in regular camps; “C” rations indicated the food that the troops ate in the field if they had cooking facilities: that may include camp stoves or something called canned heat, a small can the size of a tuna fish can. A “C” ration can was the size roughly of a tomato can containing various and mysterious foods such as: spaghetti and meat balls made from unknown animals, meat loaf made in enemy countries, beef stew canned during the first world war; pork and beans, of course, that eventually gave away our positions to the Japanese.

The next ration was called, “K” for no reason that we could figure out. The box was about the size of a crackerjack box. It fit in very well in our wide pants or deep shirt pockets. The box held a small can of condensed food: bacon and eggs for breakfast, ham and cheese for lunch, unknown ingredients for dinner. It also had a pack of three cigarettes, coffee or lemonade, sugar, cookies and a chocolate bar Since I did not smoke, I was a very popular figure as most smokers tried to be nice to me. The next ration was called, “D”, a large chunk of chocolate that contained thousands of calories. Fortunately, it was used only in an emergency. The best field rations were called 10-in-one rations that came in a large box. Here again the designation baffled us. A squad of men contained twelve men, so we had to ration the rations. Why no one ever told the packing companies about the twelve men was another unexplained and unexplainable mystery.

So we reached the air corps supply base in late afternoon and we proceeded to set up quarters in two large tents.

The next morning we moved to our designated guard stations. Then we looked around and made some startling discoveries. The people ate like bloody millionaires. We gaped at the boxes of fruit cocktail, canned pure chicken, first- class beef stew, real eggs. No less startling were the warehouses full of clothing and shoes! We took one look at our rations, another at the air corps rations. We dug holes and the Cs disappeared. We proceeded to gorge ourselves on the fruit cans and boned chicken. All of us acquired new clothes and shoes. It was a great life—for a week. Then we got the bad news: we were going home.

The First Sergeant clued us in upon our return. It seems that the Colonel who had made the original demand called up and demanded that E Company take back the crooks who had replaced the other crooks. To his great credit our company commander reminded the Colonel that these same crooks had made it possible for the Air Corps to be here on this island. He also wanted to know where the same man was at the time of the fighting. The man simply hung up the phone. But as we disembarked from the truck, every man was ten pounds heavier, wore new clothes and also each man had ten shirts, ten pairs of pants and ten pairs of socks that made it difficult to walk. What made the whole episode worthwhile was the smile on the Captain’s face.

I need to make two more comment about life on the islands. One concerns the movies. Each company could borrow movie projectors from Special Services. The problem was that the same movies went from company to company. Therefore, they wore out. It seems that every time we had movie night, two things happened: the film broke sometime during the showing and it rained, not your ordinary summer rain but usually a downpour. So we sat on coconut logs getting soaked and stomping our feet and yelling while waiting for the projectionist to repair the film.

The other event occurred one day as the first platoon headed out for a regular three day patrol in which we checked for enemy activity, sometimes engaged in a fight and sometimes brought back prisoners. In early afternoon of the first day the first scout reported a strange thing. He had come across a waterfall where none had previously existed. Sure enough there it was, a beautiful falls tumbling down into a large reservoir. The Sergeant took one look and declared the war over for two days. We had lemon powder and sugar in our rations so we got sick on lemonade. The water was cool and refreshing.

So we spent two days splashing around in the pool and getting high on lemonade. When we returned to camp, we passed the word along to the other men about the waterfalls. Strangely enough no one, including ourselves, ever found it To this day I wonder if I dreamed the whole thing up or did the river dry up in some ways.

Our rest period ended when we received the news: we were headed for The Philippines. In late 1944 we went north to renew our war.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
   A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

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