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Sixty-five years after he clambered out of a Navy landing craft knee-deep into waters off New Guinea, Troy Martin finds that his first impressions haven't softened.

So many memories vie for consideration as the worst part of his World War II service on the central Pacific island just south of the equator that they're hard to rank.

There was malaria, which nearly killed him. There was the heat and humidity, which both soared into the 90s nearly every day. Jungle rot he got then plagues him still.

There was the jungle itself, so thick that he couldn't see Japanese soldiers bent on killing him till they were a few feet away. And there were thousands of them, entrenched and fanatically dedicated to his annihilation and that of the entire 41st Infantry Division.

They almost succeeded.

"Of the 200 guys in our company when we went over, I was one of six left when the war was over," the 90-year-old Billings man said in an interview before Veterans Day.

It was all close and personal, and hatred of the enemy on both sides was visceral. There was no respect and no sympathy in terrible combat that was some of the fiercest of World War II. For many who fought there, the enmity exists even today.

Thousands died on both sides before the island was more or less secured so Gen. Douglas MacArthur could advance and recapture the Philippines. Martin was with him all the way. The 41st Division boasts in its official history that in 45 months overseas, the longest deployment of any division in World War II, it racked up 380 days of combat.

"In all that time, I never had a furlough. I never saw my parents or my girlfriend," he said.

When he wrote to them, all the censors would let him say was that he was fine. Most of the time, he was not. Bullets flew everywhere, and friends fell at his side. At times there was little food and only brackish water to drink. And almost every day it rained. On the north side of the island, where most of the fighting took place, annual rainfall can be as much as 300 inches. In monsoon season, 8 to 10 inches a day is not unusual.

"You slept in the rain," Martin remembered. "You dug a foxhole at night to sleep in, and when you woke up the next morning, it was half full of water."

Every mission was on foot. The jungle was too thick for vehicles. Artillery was mostly useless, and combat was hand-to-hand.

"We were issued a gun, a hand grenade and a machete to cut through the jungle," he said.

He also had to carry his Browning Automatic Rifle, a shovel to dig a foxhole, all his ammunition and a canteen that held less than a quart of water.

"You ran into pockets of Japs scattered throughout the island," Martin said. "We didn't take prisoners. We were told you shot everyone. We didn't have the rations to feed them or the men to guard them."

The Japanese were desperate, too. Some starved to death in the inhospitable environment, where rations could not get through and tropical diseases were as deadly as combat. There were reports, too, of Japanese eating the bodies of American soldiers, which helped to harden the attitude of the 41st.

Tokyo Rose, the radio broadcaster whose anti-American propaganda filled airwaves in the Pacific, called the 41st the "Butcher Division" for its reputation for taking no prisoners. It was more affectionately nicknamed "The Jungleers" by the Americans.

"I was a first scout," Martin said. "A lot of the time I was the first one to engage the enemy."

Some men broke under the strain of the prolonged misery of the campaign, he said. A few shot themselves in the shoulder or foot so they could be sent somewhere - anywhere - else.

"If a Jap wounded you, it was called a million-dollar wound," he said. "You got to go home."

A sense of fatalism settled on others.

"I knew this kid from Absarokee," he remembered. "He got up one morning and said it was going to be his last day. I tried to talk him out of it, but sure enough, a Jap got him right through the head. … He was a little short guy."

The enemy liked to attack at night, Martin said. One night while guarding a road, he heard Japanese troops approaching.

"They yelled like dogs," he said. "I used a tracer bullet and shot one in the chest. The bullet lit everything up, and I could see everything."

The Japanese soldier was able to crawl to the side of the road, where Martin could hear him moaning. When daylight came, Martin said, he finished him off.

It was a hard world in 1943, and sometimes it took hard men.

"After practically all your friends have been killed, sometimes right beside you; when you're in combat so long, you get harder. You just take it for granted that it's going to happen."

The scariest part of his service, Martin said, was retrieving the wounded.

"You had to take them out at night," he said. "You never knew where the Japs were. It took four guys on a stretcher to get them out, and it was slow going."

Natives on the island were friendly, he said. Sometimes they would infiltrate a Japanese camp and find out where the soldiers slept.

"Then we'd go in at night and kill them," he said.

Mosquitoes proved almost as deadly as the Japanese, and one of them infected with malaria felled Martin. When he landed in the field hospital, his temperature had spiked to 108 degrees. He lay on a dirt floor shivering in blankets piled around him for three days. He doesn't recall that the medical team did much to help him.

"I guess they thought I was going to die," he said. "When I didn't die, they finally flew me out to a hospital at Fort Moresby."

Fort Moresby was an Australian post on the southern part of New Guinea.

"They gave me food for the first time - a slice of bread," he said. "That was the best piece of cake I ever had in my life."

He was in the hospital for 30 days. Malaria hit him two more times during the war, but not as hard.

Martin fought in New Guinea and then Dutch New Guinea on the other side of the island, and on Biak Island a little to the north. The Dutch government paid him a small sum that supplemented the $21 a month he was getting from Uncle Sam.

Biak proved as nasty as New Guinea. The mission there was to take a Japanese airstrip.

"They let us come right up to their lines, and when we got to the airstrip they opened fire on us," he said. "We were cut off for a week."

They were able to obtain water only when the tide washed onto the nearby rocks. When water rushed back out, enough fresh water came with it to make it drinkable.

In December 1944, the 41st Division was on its way to the Philippines. Its members fought on the southern islands at Palawan, Zamboanga and Sulu Archipelago. Martin had earned his ticket home by then and was waiting to catch a ship for the West Coast when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945. The Japanese surrendered eight days later.

He doesn't remember any celebrations or much of any reaction at all when the news of war's end reached his unit. But he knew he was ready to come home. His return was delayed a month because ships were now headed for Japan instead of California.

He credits his mother's prayers with seeing him safely through the war.

"I believe God pulled me through," he said. "I went through too much; too many scrapes where I wouldn't have given a nickel for my life."

•••

Martin grew up in Western Montana at Camas Hot Springs and graduated from high school in Lone Pine in the Flathead country. He joined the National Guard and was in training in California when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The 41st Division, composed of National Guard units from Idaho, Montana, Oregon, North Dakota and Washington, was one of the most prepared and one of the first activated. Martin was assigned to I Company of the 186th Infantry. He was 23 years old and would spend the next four years trying to stay alive.

For the first six months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese claimed island after island in the Pacific, aiming eventually to take Australia and New Zealand. They captured the American-occupied Philippine Islands, forcing MacArthur to retreat to the Bataan peninsula. The general, who became the supreme commander in the Southwest Pacific, was evacuated but famously promised, "I shall return."

Martin and the 41st were assigned to help him in a triumphant and bloody comeback. The division was dispatched from San Francisco in April 1942, crowding the staterooms of an ocean liner that hadn't yet been converted to a troop ship.

"It took us 30 days to get from San Francisco to Melbourne, Australia," he said. "We had to zigzag all the way with two battleships supporting us."

From there, they boarded trains to northern Australia, where they learned the finer points of jungle fighting. Then they hit the shores of New Guinea, one of the first American units in an offensive campaign against the Japanese Imperial Army. For 76 days straight, they battled the Japanese. Then the devastated unit was returned to Australia so that its ranks could be refilled.

On leave in Melbourne, Martin found the southern city almost deserted of young men. The Australians were fighting in the Middle East.

"The girls ran four to six to a bunch and would just come over to you and pick you up and take you home," he said.

Once the division was back up to strength, it returned to action in New Guinea. It became an integral part of MacArthur's island-hopping strategy, and Martin got used to amphibious assaults on enemy positions.

"One time they landed us right in front of a machine gun," he said, and his unit was cut to pieces.

When he was finally able to catch a ship for home, it was an ancient, overcrowded freighter, not an ocean liner.

"You slept in a cot down in the hold with men stacked three or four high on top of each other," he said. "It was so hot you would try to find a spot up on deck to sleep."

When he got his discharge at Fort Lewis, Wash., Martin boarded a bus to Missoula. Lura Jean, the girl he hadn't seen in four years, was waiting when it pulled in at midnight.

Less than a week later, Oct. 13, 1945, he became a married man.

"She had everything planned," he said.

Martin stayed in Missoula working for a grocery wholesaler; Lura Jean continued to teach high school in Chinook.

Her father had 2,500 acres and a mercantile in Winifred. He had not been able to find anyone to help with his business, so he asked Martin and Lura Jean to move to the small Missouri River community. He built them a big house, and they raised two daughters there. When his father-in-law died in an auto accident, the Martins took over the store and the land.

After 25 years of marriage, Lura Jean died of breast cancer at age 50. He married his second wife, Dorothy, in 1971. He sold the store the same year and continued to work the farm until retiring in 1983. The Martins moved to Billings 12 years ago. Martin is a former director of the state and national Grain Growers associations.

He has never quite left the war behind.

"I still wake up at 3 a.m. thinking about the things I went through," he said. "For the first three years after it was over, I fought one of our battles every night before I went to sleep."

Contact Lorna Thackeray at lthackeray@billingsgazette.com or 657-1314.

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