This is the 1st in a series of guest-posts, written by my dad H.W. Davis, about my grandfather and his experience serving as a marine in the South Pacific during World War II. My grandfather Herbert William Davis Sr. had some incredible war stories, and some of his experiences were nearly unbelievable, like they were straight out of a movie. I knew that these stories must be told, and since my grandfather “Poppy” passed away in 2007, I asked my dad to share some of Poppy’s stories before they are forgotten. If you want to read more of my dad’s talented writing, download his 1st published book. Seeking Diana by H.W. Davis is available for Kindle by clicking here. Hope you enjoy these stories about Poppy! -Stephen
My Father’s World War II Memories From the South Pacific by H.W. Davis
GROWING UP IN THE DEPRESSION
Before World War II, my father, Herb Davis was a child of the great Depression as well as a solid member of the Greatest Generation. He was born in 1924 in Senatobia, Mississippi. Before he even turned two years old, his father, Stanley Davis died at 28 from double pneumonia. This was before the discovery of penicillin. His wife Ellen found herself responsible for five children at the age of 28. The stock market crash of 1929 thrust them from the middle class into dire poverty. Ellen and the oldest child moved to Memphis, Tennessee and found work. Dad’s oldest sister, Bessie, was forced to go to work at only 14. One by one, Ellen brought her other children to Memphis.
It was a hardscrabble life lived in a series of shotgun houses in a lower middle class area of North Memphis. Herb and his younger brother Frank quickly learned to defend themselves in a tough neighborhood. From 12 on, Herb bought his own clothes and supplied his own spending money. He had a paper route in the days when the carriers were kids on bikes who had to collect money from the people on their paper routes. This took him not only to homes guarded by the proverbial junkyard dogs but into bars and businesses. He also sold Cokes at college football games.
Despite working so much, my father managed to play high school football as well as participate in high school boxing and wrestling. He was a city champion in wrestling and boxing. Nobody in his family had ever gone to college. NCAA wrestling powerhouse Oklahoma State offered Dad a scholarship. Sadly, he never took that scholarship because of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
JOINING THE MARINES
Although the United States now operates with a volunteer military, standards were much different during the World War days. Teenagers routinely enlisted, many without even high school diplomas. My father was infused with the patriotism that permeated the United States. At 17 he wanted to enlist. His mother Ellen resisted his entreaties to sign for him before he could do so at 18. Dad finished his fall semester of the 12th grade and told Oklahoma State he had to join the Marines. Ellen couldn’t talk him into five more months of high school in order to graduate.
At 18, an inner city kid from Memphis found himself on his first cross-country train trip to San Diego, California. Dad thought he had grown up tough in North Memphis, and he probably was macho enough that he was determined to get the better of boot camp! He passed paratrooper school, but at the last moment was asked to switch to train as a scout in intelligence. This potentially would prove life saving as I will explain shortly.
These were the dark early days of World War II for the U.S. Douglas MacArthur had been forced to flee the Philippines by FDR. That was followed by the horrific Bataan Death March. Poorly equipped and undersupplied Marines reluctantly tried to hang on until help could arrive. They were pushed from one tropical island to another. The British and Australians faced similar challenges. MacArthur was tasked with training the new regiments of Army and Marine troops flooding in from boot camps. Training programs were established in the South Pacific in Australia and New Zealand.
Dad was a poor kid of 18 from the Deep South who had only read in school about such places. Training in New Zealand and Australia was eye-opening. He even found an Aussie girlfriend with whom he corresponded with through the war. My Dad was a teetotaling Southern Baptist who didn’t drink alcohol. On leaves he became the equivalent of the designated driver. His older and rowdier fellow Marines would entrust him with their money so they would have enough to make it back to the base at the end of leave. Dad also had some inner city smarts. He bought the latest almanac and devoured the trivia in it. This proved a wonderful source of cash flow from betting with fellow Marines. Dad said it was much safer than playing poker!
However, at long last training in paradise gave way to the hell of retaking lost islands. To get there the Marines and soldiers were crammed into hot transport ships. This increased loss of life when Japanese subs torpedoed the American ships. Dad said the heat was stifling, and the rolling seas during stormy weather made most of the Marines sick at their stomachs. The smell of vomit permeated the holes of the transport ships. Dad told me that he would beg permission at night to come to the deck for fresh air.
Retaking the islands typically meant beach landings. The Japanese troops were fearless and arrogant fighters who so far had known nothing but success. Well-entrenched, the water would run red with the blood of mostly young American men. Burdened with 80-100 pound packs of ammo and weapons, many drowned. Dad was only 5’5” and during fighting dropped from 145 to 119 pounds. So, those were heavy loads.
Dad took part in the retaking of Guadalcanal in Operation Watchtower. It was a critical battle for keeping open American shipping lanes in the South Pacific. In 1943, a tough city kid quickly became a man in the Solomon Islands. He went from the asphalt and concrete of the city to slogging through tropical jungles. As a member of the feared First Marine Division, being assigned as a scout turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Japanese patrols and scouts often would allow the Marine scouts to pass through unharmed so as not to reveal their hidden positions. Dad also learned to be a sniper.
NOT IN THE CITY ANYMORE
Making good friends was often short-lived because of the high rate of casualties. Dad said he was lucky to keep one friendship throughout most of the war. His name was Kelly Fish, and he was a tough kid from a poor neighborhood in Chicago. He and Dad would have many adventures together on patrols, especially in Borneo and New Guinea. They constantly faced jungle rot, snakes, mosquitoes, malaria and the Japanese. With the exception of mosquitoes those weren’t problems in Memphis or Chicago. Dad told me that often 25% of his mates were unfit for action because of jungle rot. He always made room in his pack for an extra pair of dry socks. Some of the others teased him about the extra weight, but Dad said he never had the jungle rot in his feet. He and Kelly also both had a deathly fear of snakes, both poisonous and non-poisonous. They began a routine of stringing up hammocks whenever safe to do so to avoid the snakes.
My next entry will begin after Guadalcanal and will contain some of Dad’s more humorous and poignant memories.