Japanese artillery sent shattering volleys of fire into Allied soldiers as they heaved out of landing craft and waded into blue tropical waters on islands all over the South Pacific.
It was always the same story.
“Every time you went a little ways, you'd lose a man or two, but you kept moving,” World War II veteran Jackson Montgomery Smith remembered.
He'd push through the swarm on the beach, clutching his .30-06 Springfield sniper rifle as he scanned the beach for potential cover — a coconut tree, a log or sometimes a native's hut. It was his job to get as far as possible ahead of the main body of troops and kill as many Japanese as he could get in the cross hairs of his rifle scope.
“You find yourself a log to hide behind and start picking them off,” Smith, now 88, said in a recent interview at Eagle Cliff Manor, where he has been living since the first part of October.
It was a long war for the Montana cowboy raised north of Custer — five years.
“Pearl Harbor, that's what got me shook up and got me started,” the octogenarian said from his wheelchair.
He joined the Army after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on American forces in Hawaii, and didn't see home again until 1946 after serving with occupation forces in Japan.
Fighting his way through the South Pacific as a sniper with Company K, 163rd Infantry of the 41st Infantry Division, Smith experienced unimaginable horrors, from hand-to-hand combat in sweltering equatorial jungles to the smoldering ruins of Hiroshima.
The numbers are a little elusive nearly 70 years later, but Smith said that he made five or six landings between 1943 and 1945, when Allied forces began clearing enemy-occupied islands and establishing forward bases for an invasion of Japan. Every one of them was a merciless bloodbath.
“You had your friend's head blown off standing right in front of you,” Smith said. “You just went on and did what you were supposed to do.”
He admits being scared all the time.
“It kind of shakes you up,” he said. “War is what (Union Gen. William Tecumseh) Sherman said it was — hell.”
The 163rd was the Montana unit of the storied 41st Division composed of National Guard units from Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and North Dakota. They were among the first engaged in offensive ground operations against the Japanese.
The 41st trained in Fort Lewis, Wash., and according to a division history, sailed in a convoy to Australia for training in jungle fighting. Smith recalls that the troop ships took the long way, sailing down the coast of South America.
The division saw its first action in December 1942, in a bloody three-week fight to remove Japanese troops from a foothold they had established on Buna Guna off Northern Australia. Casualties were heavy for the 163rd. Along with 85 killed, about 900 more were wounded or sick.
After rebuilding its decimated ranks, the division boarded Navy ships to begin battling its way to Japan. On April 22, 1944, an assault began on Aitape, a town on New Guinea's north coast where the objective was securing a Japanese airfield.
Following success there, the 41st invaded Wake Island off New Guinea's north coast, landing at Toem on May 18, 1944. It was supposed to have been easy. The Navy had bombarded the tiny island to an ugly ruin. But the troops crawled onto the beach into a raging Japanese defense.
On June 12, they hit the beach again, this time at Biak, another island off New Guinea, a fiercely defended stronghold where the Japanese had constructed three airfields. Instead of sandy beaches, Allied forces faced a rocky shore and 10,000 Japanese troops ensconced in coral caves above them. Enemy troops popped up everywhere day and night in the dense jungle that covered the island's interior.
“You earned your pay, that's for sure,” Smith said.
His pay at the start of the war was $1 a day. Toward the end, it had increased to more than $3 a day.
Islands in the South Pacific were covered with all kinds of snakes and scorpions, Smith said.
“When you landed on the beach you'd have leeches on your back. You'd get a buddy to touch it with a lit cigarette to get it off you.”
On the first landings, the troops dug watery trenches to grab a few hours sleep. Airplanes dropped rations and ammunition, Smith remembered. On one happy occasion, the troops received chocolate bars.
“On the wrapper it said 'To be eaten slowly over a period of one hour,' “ he said, smiling for the first time during the interview. “I chopped mine up and put it in my canteen and made cocoa.”
Malaria was rampant in the seething, dripping junglesjungles. Smith was still plagued with the mosquito-borne disease years after returning home.
As they got closer to Japan, living conditions improved. Tents, hammocks and mosquito netting made life more bearable.
“You thought you were in hog heaven when you got that stuff,” Smith said.
On Aug. 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima and the Japanese surrendered a week later. There would be just one more island for the 163rd — Honshu, Japan.
In October, Smith landed with the 41st Division at a port near the destroyed city. After disembarking, the troops got a first-hand look at what was left.
“I saw a boot with a leg inside,” he recalled. “He was all gone except for down at the leg.”
The 163rd was dispatched to Kobe on another part of the island where they took over what had been Japanese barracks. Most of the population of the coastal city consisted of children and older adults. Those in between were either dead or hadn't returned from their wartime duties. Kobe had been bombed repeatedly as the Allies got closer, including two incendiary attacks that burned miles of the city.
“Actually the Japanese people we met after the war were really pretty nice people,” Smith said. “They had wanted nothing to do with the war in the first place.”
Kobe was filled with war orphans. Smith said the Americans hired them to help dispose of garbage, most of which went into the ocean. The children took shelter anywhere they could find it.
“One bunch was living in an old boiler,” he said.
Orphaned children may have evoked a special empathy in Smith. He understood what it was like to lose parents.
Born Jackson Myers, his parents lived near Custer until he was about 8 years old. About that time, his father left for California. It's not clear whether his mother went with his father or whether they had split up before that time.
Either way, they left Jackson behind in the care of schoolteacher Nina Smith. She adopted him and changed his surname to Smith. The boy was accepted into her extended family, and after completing eighth grade, helped his Grandfather Smith on the family ranch several miles north of Custer on Alkali Creek.
After the war ended, Smith went to visit his father in California, but his father didn't remember him, said Joe Casey, a friend of Smith's since the early 1980s. Casey, a Vietnam-era Marine, has assumed the role of caretaker for Smith, who is in frail health. Smith apparently has no close family.
Casey said that after the war, Smith returned to Montana and worked for Barry O'Leary on construction projects, including the Corette power plant. He moved around a lot, and for 30 years made his living cutting firewood, which is how he met Casey.
Until about a month ago, Smith lived on Yellowstone River Road with Phoenix, his 145-pound dog. When he entered Eagle Cliff Manor, a neighbor adopted Phoenix. The dog and Smith had been pretty much inseparable.
“He doesn't watch TV and he's not much of a social butterfly,” Casey said. “But he doesn't like to be alone.”
While Smith still lived on his own, Casey came by to pick him up every day or to sit and talk. Now Casey drops by daily at Eagle Cliff Manor. He safeguards Smith's combat helmet and an ammo box filled with Smith's wartime photos. He also helps keep alive Smith's war memories, stories he has heard over and over in the course of their long friendship.
Smith seems easy enough in his new surroundings, but he still misses Phoenix.
“I don't know if they'll let me see my doggie again or not,” he says at the end of an interview.
A reunion now might be too hard on both man and dog, Casey gently suggests.