On New Britain the Marines had landed on the 26th December at Cape Gloucester. It was the second amphibious landing for the 1st Marines, veterans of Guadalcanal. Now the aim was to take the nearby Japanese airfield, with the ultimate objective of taking the main Japanese base at Rabaul.
Milton Royko was an artilleryman with the Marines. Shortly after they arrived they saw a solitary U.S. B-17 bomber over their positions, unusual in itself since they usually went in force direct to their targets. From the way it was weaving about it was eventually discovered that it was a captured plane, being used by the Japanese to photograph their positions. The next time it appeared it was shot down. However it was not the end of the episode:
As a result of this on January 2nd, probably close to midnight we had a devastating dive-bomber attack on our positions and it was quite an experience.
Navar and I had been a little way from the gun position when we got the condition: “RED”. Our radar had picked up some incoming dive-bombers. You could always tell the Japanese bombers as they had a different sound to their engines and we ran over to our gun section. Everyone was in the slit trench and Navar and I couldn’t get in for lack of space. The bombs were starting to fall very close. Navar dove into a small shallow foxhole about the size of a coffin and eight or nine inches deep and I went into the one next to it. One of the bombs fell precisely on the fire control center hitting a large tree killing four of our guys and injuring two of the others.
[Paul Stigall was one of the men hit. Part of his skull ripped off he now has a steel plate in his head as a result of that attack. Jim Moore, had a huge chest wound. We met them at a reunion in California. They healed well and were OK so we had a lot to remember and talk about.]
There were a couple of others wounded and during that little episode our Corpsman ran around treating these people and exposing himself to a considerable amount of danger. He was later evacuated because he had been a Corpsman on Guadalcanal and it was discovered that he was a morphine addict because he had been wounded and since he had access to the morphine he was taking it during the entire campaign until they discovered it and sent him home.
The dive-bombing attack continued for about an hour and we were being hit pretty hard in front of us and around us. Number two gun got a bomb hit into a tree directly next to the gun. Fortunately, no one was hit but the tree was pretty well shattered. That was about as close as you could get and then Navar and I had just dived into the fox holes when a Daisy Cutter hit into the kunai patch area to the side of us, probably twenty five or thirty yards away. The sound was just tremendous causing great pain in the ears. I could feel the fragments from the bomb passing over us hitting trees. The air was full of the acrid smell of powder burning and tree branches falling down on top of us. After that one hit there was a deadly silence. For a moment I had thoughts that I had been hit and was dead. Lying there just a few seconds I finally yelled to Navar and he yelled back that he was OK!
The dive-bombing continued but then they were starting to drop bottles, which they had tied together and as they came down they made a shrieking noise like a bomb so we had a night full of excitement. The accuracy of their attack made it plain that that B17 that had been circling overhead had been taking aerial photographs and had our gun positions pin pointed pretty well.
The sound of the attacks were violent in addition to the exploding bombs around us, there was the high pitched sound of the dive bombers coming down and pulling out and then the bombs dropping. They always sounded like they were going to hit you dead center. You wondered if that was where it was going to land. In addition to all of that, there was the sound of our anti aircraft guns just blazing away throughout the attack. I don’t think that they got any of our planes. I guess it’s hard to hit a dive-bomber especially at night.
When we awakened in the morning at first light we were dazed and exhausted and a little bit demoralized because we could see the damage around us. I walked over to Number Two gun with someone else and talked to some of our guys there. A tree was exactly next to the gun and it was a miracle that no one was hurt. The tree was really splintered. The bomb must have hit right into the tree and most of the fragments probably went up or else the guys were just in a positions where they weren’t hit and either was the gun. The biggest demoralization of that night was the fact that they had hit the fire control center and killed some of our people and wounded several others.
For more on experiences of Milton Royko as a United States Marine Corps artilleryman see Fire Mission ’42.