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Situation Normal

My Assault Landing With Company H At Empress Augustus Bay

By Ervin Kaplan MD

The final campaign of the 2nd and 3rdMarine Raiders prior to their being disbanded was the assault landing at Cape Torokina, Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, B. S. I. It was distinguished by the numerous unique personal adventures of that worthy group. I present aspects of mine not as a demonstration of hubris, but rather as an example of how campaigns may be won, despite those jolting surprises, which keep life from being dull.

A fitting prelude to my assault on Bougainville was an event during the practice landing on Efate, New Hebrides, Islands, in mid October 1943. Following a three days cruise from Guadalcanal aboard the good ship USS George Clymer, the 2nd Raiders jauntily skipped down the debarkation nets to storm the beach of Efate in full combat gear. We advanced a French plantation and established our perimeter. The dust rose, the sun beamed down on the sweating Raiders and the heightening thirst inspired two of our intrepid crew to explore the plantation for recreational beverages. They soon returned with two bottles of refreshing wine, at the bargain price of one dollar per bottle, attributable to the largess of the plantation owner. This inspired much speculation and the conclusion that that the Frenchman must be in the possession of a swimming pool of wine. The exploration continued. Behind the plantation house they found a shed, housing a native guarding an oversized barrel of wine. Our intrepid explorers requested a tour of the plantation, and as the obliging Guard led one of the party off to see the sights, the other rolled the barrel out to the dry mouthed troops.

The bung of the barrel was soon dispatched, with a well placed kick of a boondooker. A sample in a canteen cup verified the quality of the beverage, and the Raiders swarmed around to make their own confirmation. Soon the canteen cups proved inadequate, and the helmet liners came off to make a more adequate receptacle. The effects of the hot sun, the overpowering thirst and the plethora of wine, were not long in demonstrating their effect on a company of Marines.

The drowsiness was interrupted by an incredibly irate plantation owner storming into this blissful scene. In his French accented English he demanded to speak to the Colonel in charge; instead, a battalion staff officer approached to hear his complaint. He did have a genuine one, for his kindness in supplying two bottles of wine at less than cost, he had the privilege of having his entire supply stolen and gluttonized. The encounter rapidly deteriorated to a nose to nose shouting match in which the plantation owner, questioned our ancestry and indicated what the Japanese should do to us. The now uninhibited Raiders gathered around to better view this show. It would not be an exaggeration to consider that the Frenchman might be in imminent danger of friendly fire. Fortunately

Some far seeing individual had called the Island Provost Marshal, an Army Major accompanied by two six foot five MPs who arrived in a jeep. The Staff Officer, to his credit, instructed the new arrivals to arrest the plantation owner, charging him with suspicion of espionage and for selling intoxicating beverages to enlisted men. The oversized MPs lifted the offender by his armpits and carried him kicking and screaming to the jeep, as he turned purple with rage; however, still very much alive. We departed this diplomatic mission bound for Espiritu Santo, Guadalcanal and Bougainville.

At 3:30AM, in the darkness of predawn we were treated to a steak breakfast. I went up on deck and fed it to the fish.

Daylight and ready to disembark, The Navy battle group, to soften the beach, fired over our heads. To our dismay, we watched as the round landed in the surf.

Loaded with my personal gear and a forty pound radio transceiver, I and two others led the way down the landing nets. We arrived at the bottom to find no landing craft, with a platoon descending on us and 600 feet of water below. Following severe profanity, the landing craft arrived and transported toward the beach. As we approached, I looked over the starboard side to see one of our officers trapped in a depressed area at the waters edge. Each time he attempted to escape he drew machine gun fire. Several years ago while talking with “Skip” Daly, learned that it was he in the trap. The cockswain paused his craft, awaiting a swell to give a dry landing. At that instant a shell exploded directly in front of the boat, deluging us with sand and water— no casualties.

On the hundred yard wide beach, Louie Lusk and I ran toward the brush line. At that instant a group of Japanese fighter planes pinned us down, each plane strafed us in turn. They succeeded in scaring hell out of us,but did not hit any one nearby. They did interrupt the landing and drove off the convoy with less than a thousand men ashore.

Beyond the beach was a mile wide swamp, that was rapidly turned into knee-deep muck by our activity. A lovely place to dig a fox hole that you could bail out with your helmet every twenty minutes.

We learned that our Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Joseph P. McCaffrey had been killed within minutes of landing and Maj. Richard T. Washburn of H Company had been given command of of the second Raiders.

We drank the wine, we stormed the beach and Bougainville was taken from the Japanese. All this despite the fact that “The Situation Was Normal—?” I have often wondered, how normal the situation was for my Japanese counterpart, who at most could only have had saki before losing the island.