The Five-Day Attack on Hastings Ridge
by Sgt. Mack Morris
by Sgt. Mack Morris
WITH U. S. OCCUPATIONAL FORCES ON NEW GEORGIA —Hastings Ridge is just a little place, a sort of quiver in the convulsions of New Georgia's terrain.
If the rough coral slopes were leveled and the steel-scarred trees were cleared away, there might be room for a football field, certainly nothing larger.
Yet the Ridge was literally crawling with Japs--one machine-gun company and one rifle company at least. For five days the Infantry attacked it and when they gained a foothold, they fought all day and all night and then the next day to hold it.
In the jungle, war is always a personal sort of thing, one man against another. On Hastings Ridge it reached a point where individual action and individual courage were knitted together in two- and three-man units of assault, pitted against similar little units of Japs crouched in pillboxes. And the best fighters won because they cooperated with each other best.
On the first day S/Sgt. Clarence Terry of Arco, Idaho, worked his platoon up the Ridge. Two of his sergeants were ahead of him, almost on top of a Jap pillbox, working together as a team. They were using grenades and rifles, and when Sgt. Robert Chambers of Bend, Oreg., ran out of grenades, he called for his buddy to throw him more. The other sergeant tossed them forward and as he did a Jap rifleman in the pillbox shot him through the chest. The sergeant was on his feet, and when the bullet bit into him he wheeled to face the Jap and yelled like a man fouled in a fist fight: "Why, you dirty little bastard!" He raised his rifle, started forward and fell dead.
Chambers, a few feet away, went blind mad. He hurled two grenades into the Jap position as though he were stoning a snake, then leaped into the pillbox with his trench knife. When he came out, he crouched over his teammate but there was no heartbeat; he had done all he could.
Terry, in the meantime, was kept busy by a machine-gun pillbox that had pinned him down behind a tree. As he fired with a tommy gun he saw Chambers start down toward him and yelled a warning. Chambers hit the ground—a shallow fold in the coral—as the Jap gun swung toward him. Terry breathed easier. Then, seconds later, Pfc. Bob Russell, also of Bend, followed Chambers. Terry yelled again and Bob hit the fold. With two men almost in the open before them, the Japs abandoned Terry. The cover was too slight to offer real protection and Terry saw Jap .31-cal-iber bullets rip into the ground and come lower and lower across the two backs until they actually were brushing the clothes of the men as they tried desperately to dig deeper.
Terry saw that the men were directly in front of a low brush pile and that just behind it was an empty foxhole. He yelled to them to edge backward and try to get to the hole. Chambers tried it but the brush stopped him, Jap bullets sprayed around his feet and he could only lie and hope with Russell.
As soon as Terry saw it was impossible for the men to slide backward, he found another solution. He called instructions to them, telling exactly how far they could move their legs and explaining his plan.
Then Terry leaped from behind the tree and let go a burst of .45 slugs at the pillbox. The Taps swung their gun toward him, and in the instant that the fire shifted, Chambers sprang backward across the brush pile and into the foxhole behind it. The Japs swung back on Russell, but half the plan had succeeded.
In a few minutes Terry leaped out again and fired, and Russell performed the back flip to safety. The platoon's teamwork was still clicking.
However, the initial American assault on Hastings Ridge had been stopped. The Infantry pulled back to gather itself for another try.
On the second day the Yanks sought to feel out the hill and spot each individual hole from which the Japs poured fire. In the dense undergrowth it was impossible to locate the Japs unless you got up within a few feet of them. A lieutenant and a sergeant pushing forward were nailed by a pillbox and probably never knew what hit them, or from where.
A scout named Herbert Hanson of Lincoln, Ark., stepped out from behind a tree and as he did a grenade exploded in his face. He dropped his rifle and without a word started back to the rear. The fragments had marked his face but had done nothing more.
Flame throwers were brought up in an effort to heat the Japs out of the ground, but without success; the flames couldn't get close enough.
So the Infantry butted and rammed and then retired.
For the next two days the Japs sat on Hastings Ridge and the Infantry sat on a hill opposite, not more than 100 yards away, and the two shot across at each other. Mortars and machine guns blasted into the Ridge until the trees broke out in thousands of brown spots and the limbs crashed down or teetered dangerously and became a menace themselves.
Then on the fifth day the stymied Infantry sent out patrols. The static war on the two hillsides, and in the draw between them, exploded with a suddenness that caught the Japs with their guard down. The attack on Hastings Ridge began to move.
The patrols were combat-reconnaissance. On such patrols, as the Infantry says, "you either do it or you don't," which means you strike if you think you can win, and if you don't think so, you report back with information and let it go at that.
Patrols went to right and left of the Ridge, and one patrol went straight up the hill. This patrol of 10 men, including a lieutenant known as the Mad Russian, was the one that cracked the thing wide open. Ten men alone didn't take the Ridge, but they gained the crest of it and held until the rest could get up there, take over and go on with them.
The Mad Russian was the patrol leader. Called Tym by his men, his full name is Walter Tymniak, and he is a graduate of the College of the City of New York, where he captained the water polo team. In the summer he was a lifeguard and after college he became an accountant in Manhattan, working nights.
Tym's right hand was a staff sergeant named LeRoy Norton, an ex-lumberjack from Bend, Oreg., who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism on Guadalcanal. His left hand was Pfc. John Cashman of Brooklyn, who used to be a press foreman on the New York Herald Tribune.
The patrol moved up the face of the slope in the early morning. Tym and Nort and Cash were together, and the rest went up as skirmishers, three on the right and four on the left. Their strongest weapon was the element of surprise and they guarded it well while they could.
They hit and destroyed three pillboxes before the Japs knew what it was all about. Altogether they knocked out nine pillboxes in six minutes, and Hastings Ridge was theirs.
Norton hit a machine-gun emplacement in which there were three Japs goggle-eyed and half asleep. He shot one of the three inside the foxhole and a fourth who came stumbling up the hillside from the rear, then swung back and killed the remaining two at the gun before they could collect themselves to fire a round. Pfc. Joe Shupe of Ogden, Utah, coming over from the left, joined him and together they moved on to the right to a .31-caliber machine-gun emplacement. Nort yelled to Tym that Japs were manning the gun, then with two bullets he put it out of action. Someone tossed him grenades and he threw them into the face of three Japs who were on the gun. Then he and Shupe moved on.
In the meantime Tym had grenaded out one position; to his right Pfc. Jose Cervantez of Solomonsville, Ariz., had shot out another with a BAR; to his right and in front of him the team of Pvt. Anton Dolecheck of Dickinson, N. Dak., and Ervin A. Bonow of Altura, Minn., had cleaned up two more. Tym, crouched near the mouth of a blasted-out pillbox, heard a rustling in the hole and looked in to see a Jap scampering for the opposite exit. The Mad Russian flipped in a grenade, almost indifferently, and then moved on to direct the fight.
Cashman had borrowed a clip of ammunition for his BAR from Shupe and as he saw a Jap raise his head, he fired a burst. The Jap was killed, but a ruptured cartridge jammed the gun. Cash burned his fingers pulling it out, then went on into the fight. As he and Tym worked together, they sent in a volley of grenades. Seconds later the Japs countered with a grenade barrage of their own. When the explosions ceased, Cash stuck his head around a tree and grinned at Tym: "We musta peeved 'em off."
All this happened in six minutes, and the patrol of 10 had not been hurt. The crest of the hill itself was neutralized, but now came the problem of holding it. Cash went back to bring up the battalion commander, Lt. Col. David H. Buchanan of Blue-field, W. Va. Other fights raged on either side of Hastings Ridge, and "Col. Buch" got the lay of the land and went back to coordinate the action.
More men had to be brought up quickly, but the others in the company were on patrol to the right and left flanks, in the draws that led round Hastings Ridge, and they were having troubles of their own. So Cash went back to the company bivouac to find anybody who could handle a gun.
He came back with cooks and the permanent KPs, a machine-gun section from the weapons company, 1st Sgt. Armond Pearson of Spokane, Wash., and S/Sgt. Arthur Toothman of Kirkland, Wash., the mess sergeant. These men were committed to die line.
By this time pillboxes over the crest of the ridge were causing trouble. Nort formed a patrol to wipe them out, with Cash and Shupe in it. The patrol worked to a point within a few yards of the Jap guns. Then Shupe and another man were hit almost simultaneously. Cash got Shupe out and back to the aid station. The patrol withdrew, taking its other wounded with it, and the situation on Hastings Ridge settled down to a period of consolidating, digging in and blasting with the mortars.
During this action Terry was with the patrol on the right, stabbing at the flank of the Ridge. In the denseness of the jungle it was almost impossible for them to accomplish even a reconnaissance mission without moving blindly into the path of enemy fire. The Japs had the Ridge defended in concentric circles, roughly three deep stretching around the entire perimeter, and they could and did fire from anywhere.
Terry decided that burning the brush would help. Since flame throwers had been unsuccessful three days before, he sought another method.
He left the patrol, went back to the medics and gathered all the empty plasma bottles he could find. From Transportation he got gasoline to fill them. Then he took caps and fuses from hand grenades and fitted them into the tops of the bottles. Now he had Molotoff cocktails, made from the materials at hand.
There was one particular Jap in a pillbox who had caused too much trouble. The men called him "Button" because of his unusual accuracy with a rifle. Terry decided to work on Button. With S/Sgt. Eugene Pray of Moab, Utah, he moved up to a position behind a two-foot-thick banyan tree about 25 yards from the pillbox.
Feeling safe behind the tree, he and Pray, who was spotting for mortar fire, stood up and huddled close to each other. Button almost surprised them to death, literally, by firing a .25-caliber bullet through the tree, putting it between them and filling their necks with harmless splinters of wood and lead. Terry and Pray crouched down. Button's next shot, also through the tree, skinned across Pray's leg.
If Button hadn't been expert enough to hit the soft-wood banyan dead center, Terry figures he might have added two more men to his score for the day.
Thoroughly aroused, Terry brought his cocktails into action. Stepping from behind the tree he hurled first one and then a second gasoline-filled plasma bottle at the foxhole, then swore powerfully when both of them hit trees in front of their target.
He went back, got two more bottles and approached from another angle. Same thing—trees in the way. Button remained untouched but around him on two sides his precious camouflage blazed and melted away. Eventually that was his undoing.
Cashman, after rescuing Shupe from underneath the Jap machine guns, spent the rest of the day carting up ammunition to the men on the line. He helped bring up chow to the line, then sometime around dusk—he doesn't know exactly when—he collapsed from exhaustion. He woke up at the aid station and the medics evacuated him to a hospital.
Arriving there, Cash talked for a few minutes with some of the wounded men from the outfit, who wanted to know how things were going. Then he pulled the casualty tag off his jacket, hitched a ride on a passing jeep and went back to the fight.
During the night the Japs, perhaps 15 of them, tried infiltration.
The American outfit, wise in jungle combat, makes a habit of remaining silent and stationary at night; then, if anything moves or makes a noise, it must be the enemy. This is a measure taken in self-defense, but apparently one man forgot it.
Lying in his foxhole, he looked up to see a dark figure approaching, walking straight upright. The infantryman, curious, demanded: "Who the hell are you?" The figure moved boldly up to him, dropped a grenade and moved on.
But in other foxholes on Hastings Ridge the men remembered the policy and adhered to it: absolute silence and immobility.
Sgt. George Ray of Walla Walla, Wash., occupied a hole with Bonow and Dolecheck. Three Japs moved toward them. When the first Jap reached the hole, Ray quietly spitted him on a bayonet. The second went down under a hand grenade. The third came on. Ray picked up his helmet and hurled it into the Jap's face. For a while no more Japs appeared. Then a grenade landed in the hole. Bonow was lying with his helmet between his legs and the grenade hit in the helmet, tearing his calf muscles almost completely away. Bonow kept silent. Dolecheck, next to him, knew he was hit but it was not until two hours later that Ray was aware of it. Bonow made no sound until he was evacuated next morning. Even a whispered word might have meant the death of all three.
In another foxhole a mortar shell tore off a man's arm below the elbow. His buddies were all around him, silent in the dark. Next morning they found he had bled to death, in silence.
The Japs were firing their knee mortars on a flat trajectory by placing the curved bases against the trunks of trees. One mortar shell hit a tree, took a freak hop and landed in the company CP. Art Toothman, the mess sergeant, was mortally wounded. Pearson, his closest friend, was badly wounded beside him. The company commander, 1st Lt. Charles J. Hastings of Walla Walla, for whom the Ridge was named, was hit.
Two men with them were unhurt. One was Pfc. Earl Addington of Maupin, Oreg. They say of Addington that he has a one-track mind—communications—and it must be true because his first act when the shell hit was to check the phone. The wire was dead. He crawled from the foxhole, traced the wire to the break, repaired it, returned and reported the line in.
All night long the outfit remained silent and stable, picking off the Japs as they crept forward. The Japs were trying to confuse the Americans and to break up their defense by provoking them into revealing their positions. Next morning one man found that he and a Jap had spent the night in adjoining foxholes, so close together that either could have raised his head and spit in the other's face.
And next morning the positions on Hastings Ridge were still intact. From there the American attack moved forward until eventually all of New Georgia was cleared of Japs.