A snapshot captures a moment in time and place, one which can appear rather nondescript on the surface, yet may go on to evoke many thoughts and emotions once the circumstances, context, and back stories that made it possible become evident. Such is truly the case of the photo that serves as the profile image for this WordPress page. If there are those who might be wondering about the many things going on in this image, this post is dedicated to the explanation.
The picture was discovered on 2 July, 2012, the hottest day in anyone’s memory around these parts, and probably fitting that that was the day your author got to meet Harry Williams, the only living soul from the original thirty-two South Carolina Red Arrows. An enlarged print was included among the items that Harry’s daughter, Cathy Beard, had gathered and laid out on her dining room table the day her dad sat down with me, her, and her husband, Carl. Also included in the artifacts was a letter dated 8 May 1978, written to Harry by a fellow officer and Buna veteran, James I. Hunt of Lima, Ohio.
In that letter, Hunt gave a good explanation of how the picture came about.
“The picture you have is probably one of the company officers of G Company taken at Natunga by Major Smith. . . . Somehow Major Smith gave part of his negatives to me and I still had them when I got home. He took pictures of each group of company officers at Natunga; but the films I had only included Headquarters Company, F Company, and G Company. I had enlargements made of those and have them on the wall of our den.”
Major (later Colonel) Herbert M. Smith, who took command of 2nd Battalion 126 in the midst of the notorious “Kapa Kapa” March and led the unit in combat until he was wounded on 7 December 1942, later described his camera as an Ensign, a “British made camera with a German lens”. The remarkable clarity of this surviving image would lead the modern observer to assume that it was taken with a 35mm, but most pre-war Ensign models actually used 120 film. And, the Ensign was up to the rigors of the New Guinea jungle. As Herb’s son Jerry noted, in May of 2015, “Yes the Ensign camera did survive the war. I had it with me during my 4 years as a sailor and then over 20 years of driving Semi . . . . Not being able to purchase 120 film put an end to the camera being used. So it sure had many many miles under it’s belt.”
The circumstances of the setting should be fairly well known to those who have read James Campbell’s Ghost Mountain Boys or Samuel Milner’s earlier official history of the campaign, Victory in Papua; and, perhaps 32 Answered as an afterthought. In October of 1942, with the Australian Army contesting the Japanese advance over the Owen Stanley Range along the Kokoda Track, General Douglas MacArthur, the overall Allied Commander-in-Chief Southwest Pacific, sent the 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment of the American 32nd Infantry Division over the mountains on a second track further to the east of Kokoda called the Kapa Kapa. While the official reason spoke of protecting the “right flank” of the Australian effort, many critics may also agree that the order reflected a rush to throw an American presence into the fray and get the Yanks on the scoreboard. The conduct of the march outwardly reflected the shortfalls in planning for adequate training, acclimation to terrain and environment, disease prevention, and logistics, causing much unnecessary suffering. Ironically, the men themselves seem to have maintained a high state of morale and cohesion despite their tattered uniforms and disintegrating shoes; nowhere was this more evident than the anger expressed as they reached their assembly point on the far side of the mountains, when they received orders to hold in place while the Australians came abreast of them on the Kokoda, in effect precluding these Americans, after having endured their grueling trek, from making any decisive inroad into the Japanese flank. Meanwhile, the clearing of flat spaces for airstrips on the Papuan North Coast ultimately made it more feasible to fly the remaining infantry units over the mountains; for this reason, 2nd Battalion 126 and its attached elements remain a small fraternity of men who were “Ghost Mountain” initiated.
As if the Kokoda Track were not tough enough, the Kapa Kapa Track had presented itself as darn near impossible, resulting in a long train of American troops strung out along its often ambiguous route. After the first “Pathfinder” Patrol led by Captain Boice sent word back that a “practicable” trail of sorts did exist, his group was followed by series of patrol detachments, including Captain Medendorp’s “Wairopi Patrol” (which included two South Carolinians, both Clemson ‘41’s—Lieutenant Louis Beaudrot in Anti-Tank Company, and Lieutenant Hoyt Hill in Cannon Company) as well as the communications team led by Lt. James Downer (from Kentucky, but his daughter now lives in Spartanburg SC) and the rifle platoon from E Company led by Lt. Harold Chandler (Harry Williams’ Citadel ’39 classmate), each with specific objectives related to establishing preparatory infrastructure for the main effort. Behind them came the bulk of 2nd Battalion by column of companies, with a company of the 114th Engineers and the 19th Portable Hospital attached. A few days behind the last full infantry company came two smaller parties of travelers; first, the one containing Major Smith, sent to take over command of the effort after Colonel Geerds, the Guard-era commander of 2nd Battalion, developed heart problems, along wth Captain “Doc” Boet, the medical officer sent to replace the one accompanying Geerds back to the trail head; and finally, the very small one including Lt. Robert Odell, sent to join 2nd Battalion very late and ultimately replacing another infirm officer (a South Carolina reservist, Lt. Horace Carter, Wofford ’39) as a platoon leader in Company F.
In all, between mid- September and early November 1942 these groups spent 45 days walking across roughly a hundred miles terrain that took 45 minutes to fly over. After suffering the journey’s well-documented hardships—constant rain and mud, dysentery, bad diet, the beginnings of malaria, tropical ulcers, drastic environmental extremes from sea level to altitudes upwards of 13,000 feet —the 2nd Battalion 126 spent the first week of November 1942 resting at this relatively flat, pleasant area called Natunga. As Herb Smith later wrote in portions of his three-book, small press published memoir (re. Fourscore and Ten, 90-92; Hannibal Had Elephants II, 24), Natunga proved “a very essential part in releasing the tension and hardship of the past month” on the Kapa Kapa march. It was located on “quite a barren hilltop” (indeed, the peaks of the mountain range can be seen off in the background), and the “proximity of the Pacific Ocean” about thirty miles further to the north produced breezes that kept the area comfortable and mosquito-free, “despite being less than 10 degrees south of the Equator.”
Pictured here are, as Hunt described, officers of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment: (standing, left to right) Cladie “Gus” Bailey, reservist from Heltonville, Indiana; Edgar Foster, original Michigan Guard; Harry Williams, Citadel Class of ’39; William John (“Bill” ) Romanowski, original Michigan Guard; (front) Monty Snyder, reservist from Louisville, Kentucky.
Aside from Harry Williams, whose story we know well from 32 Answered, the next most well known in the picture is undoubtedly the CO standing at left, Lieutenant (later, Captain) Cladie A. Bailey. A high school teacher and champion basketball coach from Indiana, Bailey had been called up as a reservist in 1941 to join the Red Arrow Division at Camp Livingston. In the pre-war years, he had also served as a Civilian Conservation Corps counselor. He was G Company’s Executive Officer (XO) at the time the 126th sailed on the Lurline, when Captain Blanchard Smith was the company CO. Captain Smith’s departure during the training period in Australia elevated Lt. Bailey into the CO position and from all indications Lt. Harry Williams then took over as the XO. [NOTE: At least one other officer of note—Lt. George Freeman (NC State ‘39)—transferred out of G Company and became a member of the newly-formed Cannon Company, and as such also made the Kapa Kapa trek.] In combat at Buna, Bailey received the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership of G 126. He was wounded 17 December attacking the “Triangle” but returned to duty in 1943 to command 1st Battalion 126 up through the Philippine campaigns. While waiting for a coveted rotation order, for which he was long overdue, Bailey was killed 20 April 1945 in Northern Luzon when Japanese soldiers rolled grenades down a slope into his foxhole.
Both Lieutenants Foster and Romanowski were original 1940 Michigan Guard soldiers from the Grand Rapids area. They had only received commissions in mid-September, painfully close to the beginning of the Papuan Campaign. We know this because of the order [SO 54, Headquarters United States Army Services of Supply, Southwest Pacific Area, 15 September 1942] which had survived in the papers of the late William A. Sikkel (passed away January 2013) of Holland, Michigan. Based on the understanding from your author’s extensive earlier correspondence with retired Colonel Sikkel, the Division still had a dire shortage of junior officers on the eve of deployment to New Guinea. By order of General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, a select number of non-commissioned officers were thereby authorized to receive commissions by “Direct Appointment,” which bypassed Officer Candidate School and other usual formalities. By the letter of this order, the non-coms each received a discharge as an enlisted man and then an immediate commission as a second lieutenant. Over fifty names, including Foster, Romanowski, Sikkel, Sikkel’s future brother-in-law Osborne E. Vos, and Sikkel’s “cousin Bill” who had exactly the same name, appear on SO 54. Several of these Direct Appointments later distinguished themselves leading platoons in combat at Buna; a few others on the list likewise had their war service and lives cut short.
The 126 had suffered especially because of the purges of long-time Guard officers from the ranks in February 1942; also, the constant transfers of officers to and from the various companies led to a preponderance of the Direct Appointments getting assigned to that Regiment. By rule, any Guard enlisted man commissioned from the ranks had to accept a transfer to a company other than his own local one; by chance, both Foster and Romanowski, each from Grand Rapids, ended up in Muskegon’s Company G. Evidently, each became a casualty of this first jungle campaign. If they still remained with G Company in combat, they were both evacuated with wounds or illness at some point, because it is clear that Harry Williams was the only officer left effective near the battle’s end (circa 4 Jan 1943) and commanding the unit’s last five enlisted men still on their feet.
Less is known about Lt. Monty Snyder, of Louisville Kentucky; of his background, we know only that his family owned and operated a large retail department store in the Louisville area. His name does not appear on the Lurline troopship roster, so he undoubtedly had arrived with one of the replacement groups that arrived in Australia in the months that followed (Lt. Louis Beaudrot, Clemson ’41, of Anti-Tank Company 126 and a Wairopi Patrol member, being a similar example). It is clear from the Hunt-Williams correspondence that Snyder, shortly after posing for the picture, became yet another casualty of the rigors of the Kapa Kapa march and had to be evacuated back to Port Moresby. He did survive the war, though again the Buna experience may have ended his combat career. Above all, however, both his place in this captured image and Hunt’s positive identification by name place him, immutably, as a participant in the event.
The variety of type and condition of uniforms is also notable. Captain Bailey, at far left, seems to be wearing a set of the “jungle dyed” herringbone twill fatigues that had been, according to the numerous accounts of the campaign, hastily spray-dyed a darker shade of green in Australia shortly before the infantry elements deployed to Port Moresby. Either because of the type of dye used, or because the dye did not have enough time to dry completely, the fabric caused skin irritations from a combination of chafing and the caustic nature of the chemical. Bailey’s uniform appears to have partially washed back out to the lighter shade, almost like a “tie-dye” effect. Clearly both his and Romanowski’s uniform jackets look fairly “krinkly” in the image. In contrast, Lt. Harry Williams appears to have escaped the misery of the irritant altogether by not getting his dyed (given the lighter shade of green evident). Also, note Lt. Williams’ leather wristwatch cover —this was an Australian item of kit that was seen on a number of the Allied officers during the Papuan operation, most likely to protect the crystal or else to hide a luminous military watch dial. Lt. Foster appears to be wearing an Australian knit pullover probably picked up at the Laruni supply point, which had a store of these in preparation for the chilly temperatures going over the “Ghost Mountain” peak. Snyder appears to be wearing either an American or Australian raincoat. Also, note the beards in various states of trail growth, indicating that Major Smith gathered the group for the photo not long after arrival at the assembly point.
Natunga was also the place that, within a few days of making this photo, a re-supply attempt by airdrop failed catastrophically as a Douglas C-47 experimenting with dropping cargo parachutes (rather than simply pushing cargo out the side door at low altitude) had their first chute open prematurely and foul the control surfaces on the tail. The plane went into the nearby mountainside at cruising speed as the crew frantically tried to gain altitude. No one on the plane survived. This tragedy unfolded in full view of G Company and only a few hundred yards from their position, and its memory stayed with Harry Williams and undoubtedly everyone there who witnessed it. Among those the recovery detail pulled from the wreckage was the Regimental CO, Col. Lawrence A. Quinn, who was observing the airdrop’s effectiveness; this proved a severe shock to the Battalion since they had no idea he was on the plane when it crashed.
In later years, Edgar Foster is purported to have authored an essay called “All the Way Over” for a periodical called Glory magazine. The bibliography of at least one recent book on the Buna Campaign includes it as a citation. Had it been available for 32 Answered, Foster’s observations would have provided a great inroad into the experiences of the individuals captured in time by this photo and may have greatly reduced the amount of speculation invoked to put the story together. Your author enlisted the help of one of the best reference librarians on the East Coast to try to find a lead to this article or to the existence of the magazine, but she could find neither. As a result, we must for now file it in the category of “Undiscovered and missing pieces, presumed lost”.
Lost also, at least for the moment, is the remainder of Herb Smith’s Natunga series. Jerry Smith shared that many items from his dad’s Buna-related material, including notes and pictures, were loaned to another researcher in the early 2000’s, who at the time was writing a history of the Big Rapids Guard Company, E 126. The story goes that the researcher, Mr. James Wood, passed away before finishing his project, and the materials were never returned. Should they reappear one day, they may reveal a wealth of information that has eluded several persons writing seriously about the Red Arrow Division in years since.
Soon after our meeting on 2 July, 2012, Cathy Beard set out on her own quest to find out more about the picture that included her father. Through a series of phone calls beginning with the former Hunt law office in Lima, (Mr. Hunt having retired, then passed away some time after), she was able to locate Hunt’s daughter Amy. Through the super dialogue that emerged, we were able to receive from Amy copies of the two other prints from the series that Mr. Hunt had had enlarged and framed. One shows members of Battalion Headquarters Company, all three recipients of either the Silver Star or DSC: Lt. Alf Kirchenbauer (Michigan Guard, “Direct Appointment” per SO 54); Lt. Paul Schwartz (reservist from Syracuse, NY, and like Snyder, a late arrival); and Hunt himself. The other shows officers from F Company 126: Lt. Judge J. May (reservist from Florida, part of the 2 Feb 1942 call-up); Lt. Robert Horton (Michigan Guard, “Direct Appointment” per SO 54); and Lt. Erwin Nummer (Michigan Guard, KIA 16 Dec. 1944 at Leyte). If these three prints, and especially, the particular one used for this website, indeed are the only ones to have survived from the loss of the collection, and even more remarkable to have come from film exposed to the heat and humidity of the New Guinea jungle, then to have traveled back home from the Pacific Theater and spent years after as cherished reminders of that peculiar episode in the war, we count ourselves lucky indeed to have been granted access to them and to know they are still on this earth.
More to follow…
8 April 2016