Personal letters from Col. John William Britten describing his experiences as a Battalion Commander in the 503rd RCT.
Excerpted from Letters from a Pacific Paratrooper.
28 September 1943
I have become a commuter to the mainland, recently. Just returned a few days ago, and depart again tomorrow. However, there is little to differentiate between these two locations.
On my last trip I did get to see pictures of recent operation. The newsreels were excellent and gave a very vivid picture of our show. I hope you will be able to see them. Another unusual instance was the fact a Pontiac Sedan was presented for my use during my stay there. It was unusual in three ways. First it was the first time I have driven a car for almost a year. Secondly it was the first car I have driven with the steering wheel on the right side. Thirdly - the first time I have driven on the left side of the road.
For once in my life I was a popular man after my last trip, for I was able to secure four cases of beer, and if you dont think that is a treat here, you should hear the pleas for a drink of this valuable beverage.
In recent letters you have been wondering about "Little Joe". It is a long story but here is the present set-up: Colonel Kinsler, C.O. of Regt., "Little Joe", Regtl Executive Officer, Lt. Col. Tolson, C.O. 3rd Bn., Lt., Col. Jones C.O. 2nd Bn, and myself C.O. 1st Bn.. This all came about when the C.O. of 2nd Bn. returned to the States with a severe malaria case. Lt. Col. Jones became C.O. 2nd Bn, Little Joe moved up. and I succeeded him in the 1st Bn.
We are now in the process of setting up a new campsite 1 for our last one was a trifle unhealthy. The present site is a distinct improvement. I bartered with one of the Australian Angow to let us have the use of a few of his Boonys, or native boys, to build us some native huts for a mess hall. The Boonys arrived yesterday, and I prided myself on the fact I could make them understand my poor pidgin English. First thing they wanted was a "Chop-chop" which was obviously an ax. After an hours work they went on a "sit down strike" and demanded a "stick" which is quite common for a cigarette. The "sticks" were supplied and they returned to work. But then I was stumped when they ceased work a second time and demanded a "you pusha me pulla all time chop-chop." After much gesturing, demonstration, etc. I found out they only wanted a saw. You would enjoy conversing with them, for it is just like a quiz, and it is nothing more than a game of charades.
If you dont stop telling me what a wonderful son we have, you will force me to desert and start swimming the blue Pacific. He must be a real husky.
I was annoyed when you told me you had been cauterized once again. How come? What is the reason for the second time? Isnt it a very severe ordeal? I certainly hope that will be the end of the patching up of the damage.
17 December 1943
Outside of being separated from the ones you love, the hardest part of fighting a war is the suspense and tension of waiting for the next mission. The slogan of "Hurry up and wait" is quite true of our outfit. We have been scheduled to jump on every objective in the South West Pacific, but something always turns up at the last minute to interrupt our plans. We are becoming past-masters at packing and unpacking. We used to live in the luxury of possessing a footlocker and trunk, then we lived out of a barracks bag, finally we were reduced to a musette bag, and at present we are practically carrying all our possessions in our pockets.
Last night I witnessed the first silent movie in the last fifteen years. "Two Tickets to London" a supposedly talkie, but no sound track. At least it gave us something for conversation, for each has a different version of the story involved. The acting certainly did not reveal what it was all about, and as a result some very large wagers have been made as to the correct solution.
We had a great deal of excitement today. About noon water started flowing out of one of our showers. With shrieks of glee we all rushed down to see the spectacle, but we were so awed by this unusual sight that we stood spell-bound. Before we could recover and react sufficiently to take advantage of the water, it had ceased to flow. It is at least encouraging to know that it is possible for water to run through these pipes, and at least it gave us an unusual sight.
We are all the possessors of a very yellow skin. And it is undecided if it is due to the large doses of Antabrine, or washing in mud holes. We experimented with two expendable soldiers, and one was deprived of Atabrine and the other of the luxury of the mud bath. The experiment failed to solve our dilemma, for the former died of malaria and the latter smelled so bad after three days, that nine tent mates shot him.
There is a very good chance of me getting the Legion of Merit Award. I will be a bit reluctant to accept, for I prefer to win my honors on the field of battle. My recommendation for the above reward was due to my ability to drive a jeep from our camp to the nearest port, about seventeen miles, and return in a single day, and without turning over the jeep and getting bogged down in a mud hole. The above feat has been performed twice before, on horseback, but never by motor vehicle.
The above trip was made to secure some much needed clothing, for we received word by "tom-tom" that uniforms were available at said Port. I procured an ample supply of Khaki and coveralls, but when I arrived home and fit them on, I found a tricky little flap that buttoned across the opening at the neck. I could put a fair size pillow in the seat of the trousers, and could wear an inflated life preserver on my chest to insure a tight fit. I suddenly realized I had purchased nurses uniforms.
Happy New Year to you and Skipper.
14 January 1944
After two solid days of Court martials, investigations, and board meetings I feel that General Patton has the proper idea in administering justice. A well directed slap, or a kick in the proverbial pants, would eliminate a lot of red tape and get better results than the elaborate system of military justice that is directed by the Army.
We have a strange problem on our hands. Many of our men have been caught fighting the Japs in Aussie units with Australian equipment. Also many have been going on bombing missions on weekends, and act as a member of the crews, as tail-gunners, etc. It is difficult to punish a soldier for fighting our enemies, but we cant afford to risk our men on unauthorized scraps.
There are only four things that will keep soldiers happy (1) fighting, (2) drinking (3) gambling, and (4) women. Only the first one is available in this area, and therefore it is hard to restrain them from their sole pleasure.
Last week a number of new officers joined our Bn. and one of them looked vaguely familiar, but I dismissed it from my mind. Last evening I was eating at the same table as this Lieutenant and his eyes popped when he saw my P.M.C. ring, for he too was wearing one. Only then did we realize we knew one another years ago, at P.M.C. He has gained twenty pounds and lost all his hair, so I had an excuse for not recognizing him. I wonder how I changed in that he did not recognize me?
A little kiss for you and Bill.
11 April 1944
I believe we are on a sightseeing tour reviewing our old encampments. We arrived in New Guinea this afternoon and docked at our former camp 3. However, we did not debark for the officials told us to move on. Everyone was quite elated for we feel any spot in Guinea will be an improvement.
I always knew I suffered from claustrophobia, but didnt realize to what extent, until this afternoon. Caskey and I are living in a former hospital stateroom, and designed for mental or violent cases, with iron bars et. al. This afternoon I went into the adjoining toilet and closed the door, but when I went to leave I discovered the door was so designed that it could not be opened from the inside. Caskey was up on deck and I could not make anyone hear me. As a result, I spent almost two very uncomfortable hours, until Caskey returned and released me. It was not a pleasant feeling to be trapped in a cage while sailing in enemy waters.
The one consolation about a transport is the excellent food. Each meal is a real banquet, and how I envy the other fellows appetites. Six of us sit at a table and every meal the other five eat two complete plates. Whereas if I can clean up three fourths of my first plate I feel that I have gorged myself. Undoubtedly the human stomach shrinks after living a period of time on dehydrated and concentrated foods, for I dreamed of the big meals I was going to eat when I went to Australia, only to find my capacity very limited. I bet my tummy will stretch when my "Sweetie" starts feeding me scrambled eggs, spaghetti, grits, chicken, and her very tasty pastry.
By the looks of Billy, you will have to spend half your time working over the stove trying to keep your two men filled up. Bet you will have him trained to eat chicken. His appearance gives me the impression he would eat anything set before him, meet all comers, and remain very nonchalant under all circumstances. I cant see a temperamental point about him.
Well, Dear, I am going up on deck and thumb my nose at the New Guinea shores.
31 May 1944
I do not know when this letter will be forwarded to you, for all our outgoing mail has been stopped, due to a pending engagement 1. The Bn. leaves for a forward base on Saturday, by air, but I am leaving tonight in order to get some advanced information. At present we do not even know the location of our advance base, and definitely not the location of our proposed mission.
Everyone is quite indifferent, due to the numerous times we have been alerted, but this time it looks like the real McCoy.
It seems strange that we had a superbly trained Bn., and we sat and twiddling our thumbs for eighteen months. Now we have a big blow coming up, and all of our old men have returned to the States, and we go into combat with an entirely green Bn.. The vast majority have only had their five qualifying jumps, and never jumped with full equipment. Due to our four moves in three months we have been unable to do much training.
Monday Lt. Col. Jones called and asked if I could be ready to go on leave following day. I said "My bag is practically packed." Tuesday morning four officers and twenty eight men departed for Sydney, via a leave boat, for fifteen days, plus travel time. We were sitting on the dock awaiting the lighters to take us out to the boat, when a truck driver arrived with a note from Lt. Col. Jones, telling us that all leaves and furloughs had been canceled, and to return to camp at once. You can imagine what a blow this was. However, I guessed the reason, and was not surprised when I was informed that we were moving forward immediately.
You would think we were headed for a picnic from the jubilant mood of the Regiment. I do not believe we are unduly brave or bloodthirsty, but we welcome plenty of action in the hopes that it will hasten our return to the States. The blow of losing my leave was mild compared to the group that was all set to return to the States. The last boatload of the old 501 Bn. was supposed to leave next week, and that, also has been canceled.
Human nature is a strange thing. We must leave one officer and six men at this camp, and it is causing a most unpleasant situation. Everyone wants in on this show, and when the officer and men were designated they threw about six types of fits. The officer actually became violent, and am afraid he will be of little use to us in the future. You would imagine among 700 men there would be seven men willing to remain out of combat.
Well, Dear, I hope we will come out of this one as well as we did and that we will earn a trip home. For I just must be with you soon, or something will pop within me.
28 July 1944
I have been quite perturbed over the fact that it was impossible to get a letter or cable to you for the past four weeks, but we have been so busy eliminating Sons of Heaven, plus the fact we are completely out of contact with everyone, that letters were impossible.
About the first of the month I wrote to you of the pending operation and how distasteful it appeared to me. It turned out to be even more distasteful than I predicted.
Yesterday Hqs. announced "Mission Successfully Completed." I prefer to eliminate the "successful" and merely say "Mission Completed," for I do not feel that this Godforsaken mound of coral 1 rearing its ugly head above the Pacific is worth a single life.
I must admit we hit a hornets nest "unexpectedly". Heretofore, the Nips we have encountered were on-the run and fought only when forced to do so. However, this time they had no place to run, and they decided to fortify themselves in the coral caves, and it made a tough job to go in and dig them out. I cannot give the figures of casualties hurt in this Bn., the ratio was 13 nips for each paratrooper killed.
We expect to be withdrawn in the next few days and we men are looking forward to a return to a permanent camp, for in the past 22 days they have not had a cooked meal, they have been sleeping in water filled fox holes, and have not had a change of clothing. I am hoping we will be able to secure some supplies upon our return, for we now possess 1 pr. coveralls, 1 poncho, 1 pr. shoes, 2 pr. socks, plus combat equipment. It would be nice to have a dry pair of coveralls to put on occasionally.
The big thrill is going to come when I receive that large bundle of mail I know is waiting for me somewhere, and I can read all about my two loved ones.
Letter postmarked 31 Aug 1944
I am violating censor regulations and sending this via messenger to the States, thence to you, uncensored.
There are four officers leaving our Bn. tomorrow for the States (Lucky Devils) and I am giving this to Lieut. Dick to mail to you, as soon as he arrives in the U.S.A. I have also instructed him, or asked him, to phone you, (collect), and let you ask questions to your hearts content. Knowing Lt. Dick as I do, he may do all the talking but I know I can depend upon him.
I will write only those things I could not write through normal channels. First of all I will give you a resume of our travels. We left Camp Stomeham, San Francisco, Oct. 20, 1942 on the "Poelau Laut", a Dutch boat. We then sailed to Panama and picked up the 501st Para. Bn. to complete our three Bn. Regiment. We were not permitted ashore and only remained in the Canal Zone for one day and headed for another unknown destination, Nov. lst.
We anchored at Brisbane, Australia Nov. 26th, but ordered us to move on to Townsville and once again we were denied the privilege. We finally debarked at Cairns on the 2nd December, 42 days on the old tub.
They loaded us on trucks and carried us out to a little town of Gordonvale, and unloaded us in the woods and said, "Here is your home." Not a single installation. However, the natives took good care of us, for we were the first Yank troops in that area and they couldnt do enough for us. At that time the Jap threat was serious to Northern Australia, and most of the population of Cairns had been evacuated. We were supposed to be the defenders of any attempted landing.
The little town of Gordonvale proved to be a nice home. They had one little movie that was taken over by the Paratroopers. The Red Cross renovated an old Hotel and established a very up to date canteen and restaurant, and the entire village square was taken over by the Regiment, where they installed very elaborate air conditioned packing sheds.
A very few miles from our camp there was a spot that has the second highest rainfall in the world. Therefore, from Dec. to March it pours every day and is very humid and sultry. However, in June, July & August it was an ideal climate and quite dry.
On Aug. 15, 1943 we left by boat, the "Duntroon", an Australian boat, and landed at Port Moresby. We immediately began to prepare for our mission at Lae. We jumped at Nadzab in the Markam Valley on Sept. 5 and secured an abandoned air strip, in order that they could bring the Australian 7th Division in by air. The Japs made no effort to oppose our landing, for the few in that area took to the hills. Our casualties were very light, for only the 3rd Bn. ran into stiff opposition. All of our casualties in the Bn. occurred while out on patrols. The officers were very lucky for we only lost one man, Lt. Millikin.
After Lae was captured (on Sept. 17), we were withdrawn by air to Port Moresby to prepare immediately for another jump at Kaipit but this never materialized. For the next six months we sat in Moresby "sweating out" every invasion in the Pacific.
Finally on Feb. 10, 1944 they pulled us out of New Guinea and we settled into a very complete camp near Brisbane. After six weeks of civilization, we were hurriedly recalled to Guinea for a mission at Hollandia, and this time we landed at Dabodura on Oro Bay on the north side of the Island. As the 24 Division landed unopposed at Hollandia, we were never called upon to seize the air strip as planned. We will probably sit here in Dabodura and sweat out the invasion of the Philippines.
Last July I had leave while in Gordonvale, and went to Sydney. What a train ride? Sydney is a typical American City, except the rationing was so strict that the stores were empty. It was difficult to get a meal except at the Red Cross, jewelry and trinkets were unheard of, and clothing required a basketful of coupons. Even though this gave the city a vacant aspect, it was nevertheless quite impressive.
You probably wonder about the suicide of Col. Kinsler. Boy what a foul individual he was. His escapades with the women and his drunken orgies was known by every soldier in the Regiment. Furthermore, his inefficient handling of the Regiment was pathetic. However, his downfall occurred due to his intense likes and dislikes among the officers. He kicked out of the Regiment Capt. Walsh, Capt. Bates, Capt. Bache, Major Hall, Lt. Franklin, Lt. Mitcher, Capt. Haedicke, Lt. Fife, and at least a dozen 2nd Lts. He relieved Major Knox from his job as S3, Capt. Alley from the Adjutant job, and Capt. Kelly was relieved as Company Commander. Those three just sat around without a job. On the other hand, his affections for Capt. Woods almost reached the scandal stage. When he suddenly made Woods a Major the officers rose up in protest and demanded an investigation. We are under General Krugers Sixth Army and he sent an Inspector General to investigate Col. Kinsler. The investigation revealed so many startling things that Kinsler could not face it, so he chose to die as he lived, by shooting himself with a pistol, after enjoying himself with an army nurse, and a bottle of gin at a lonely road.
Things have gone much better since Lt. Col. Jones became C.O. and Lt. Col. Tolson Executive Officer.
Well, Dear, this has been the highlights of our stay overseas.
I have omitted, during this travelogue, the many many times I have been "hurtin" for you. But that is a continuous and uninterrupted process, and not something that occurs on special occasions. I must confess sometimes it is your companionship that I crave, other times your attentions, still another time your caresses, and then there is that downright sexy feeling. Loads of love.
28 Feb 1945
We are just about ready to write "Finis" to this operation. That is one redeeming feature of our outfit we never have long drawn out campaigns. I prefer to jump into the hornets nest, and have it hot and furious for a few days rather than plod through a long slow operation.
The final analysis indicates we suffered heavy casualties, especially among the officers. The one that struck the closest to me was Pug Woods. I dont believe you were acquainted with the many others, Rucker, Turinsky, Campbell, Binegar, Judy, Crooks, Stone, Skinner, Conn, Spicer, Lukesavith, McQuain, English and others.
It is almost sacrilegious to mention it but a shortage of officers will almost nullify any rotation or leave for officers for a long time. I was in hopes that I would at least wheedle a 30 day leave after this operation. The question arises should I accept leave within the next few months or stick it out until rotation eventually materializes.
Three days after we landed, it was announced officially that Corregidor has been taken and only "mopping up" was being carried on. Immediately the press and the "Brass Hats" swarmed over us making preparations for General MacArthurs triumphant return. We couldnt convince them that only half of the island was in our hands and our troops were at that time in a desperate fight with 2,000 nips remaining. Neither could we persuade the Japs to declare a moratorium until after this ceremony. As a result, this island has presented a strange sight for the past two days. On this little two by four island you can observe troops on one end of the island feverishly cleaning debris, burying dead and raising a flag pole, building a parade ground, and "prettying up for the conquering chief". Whereas you can observe a life and death battle raging on the other end.
My sole job at present is playing host to "Visiting Firemen" while Col. Jones is busy directing operations. For the past three days I have had to play "Bird Dog" to McArthurs aide, a two-star general, C.G. of XI Corps also a2-star general, two 1-star generals as observers, three full Colonels representing Army Intelligence, the Infantry Board, and Sixth Army Intelligence, plus swarms of correspondents and technical experts.
Talk about a charmed life - Capt. Capps is really living one. The first day here, he was crossing a clearing and carrying a water can when a machine gun opened up. Capps dropped the can and dived into a shell hole. The can he dropped was riddled with seven bullet holes. The following night a group of them were entrenched in a shell crawler when a mortar shell landed in their midst killing two officers and two radio operators, but Capps was unscathed. He moved to a supposedly more sheltered spot and soon thereafter the Nips exploded an underground ammunition dump that blew our men into the air like falling leaves, but again Capps was one of the few that was unharmed. To climax it all, he was leading a group of men around a cliff and had just passed a cave when five Nips made a Banzai charge out of the cave and wounded five of his eight men. How is that for being lucky?
Well, enough of these weird stories. I hope in a few days we will be back in a spot when I can concentrate my thoughts on you and Bill and write accordingly.
All my love to you.
Letters from a Pacific Paratrooper can be obtained from Preston Publications, PO Box 925, Marion, MA 02738.