On the otherwise idyllic island of Bougainville the US Marines had now secured their beachhead in the centre of the island and were able to consolidate. The last assault had been just before Christmas when they took ‘Hellzapoppin Ridge’ and the immediate Japanese threat in their vicinity had been overcome.
The campaign on Bougainville was destined to become a long drawn out affair which would be taken over by other troops. For the moment it was the US Marines that held the Allied positions and they had to accustom themselves to some uncomfortable living conditions. Amongst their number was Chester Nez, a Navajo code talker who, along with his colleagues talking in their native language, was providing secure radio communications for the Marines:
As long as we had good cover, Francis and I felt fairly secure. Now that we had taken Hellzapoppin Ridge, the fighting on Bougainville: had pretty much stopped – temporarily. Everyone worried about air attacks, but even those had abated.
Star shells occasionally floated down at night on small parachutes. The light attached to them lit the landscape in eerie white and cast shadows that moved with the movement of the parachutes. Our riflemen would try to shoot them, causing them to burst above us and preventing them from hitting the ground near the troops and exploding.
The island – like most ofthe tropical islands we fought on – was covered with beautiful flowers, with red and white blossoms as big as the tops of barrels. These bloomed at sunrise, and they smelled wonderful. We occasionally used petals plucked from them for underarm deodorant! The way we smelled after a prolonged battle was in sharp contrast to those fabulous flowers.
We could smell ourselves and everyone else. I remember dirty sweat rolling down my back, arms, and legs, collecting wherever my uniform made contact with my body. During heavy fighting, when we had no access to showers, I looked forward to rain so I could rinse off a bit.
Still, our smell couldn’t begin to compete with the stench of dead bodies. In the heat, bodies began to decompose within a couple of hours, and despite liberal sprayings of DDT, the flies and maggots had a field day. Of course, the flies and maggots didn’t limit themselves to dead bodies. They’d attack the dead skin around a wound, too.
The tropical birds were noisy and brilliantly colored, with dazzling yellow and red feathers. The palm trees were lovely, like a travel poster, and the whole tree—trunk and fronds swayed in the breezes. Unfortunately, many trees were bomb—blasted, and we had to slash our way into the jungles with machetes, cutting vines and flowers.
I always hated the feeling that we were destroying something really beautiful. Sometimes, when I was resting, I’d see monkeys come down from the trees. We men would feed them. During quiet periods, I often thought about those wonderful animals and flowers and wondered how they were going to survive the war. As a Navajo, I’d been taught to respect the earth, and the devastation made me feel sick.
We found we couldn’t really trust this period of relative quiet. That was one of the toughest things about war; you could never really relax, not even for a few moments. Even after an island was secured, there was always the possibility of the Japanese trying to win it back. And Bougainville wasn’t yet secured.