World War II Memories From the South Pacific: Part II – Borneo and New Guinea

This is the 2nd in a series of guest-posts, written by my dad H.W. Davis, about my grandfather and his experience serving with the First Marines 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: Part II – Borneo and New Guinea

by H.W. Davis


Click here to read the 1st post from this series about my dad’s World War II memories.

After securing Guadalcanal, the First Marines moved on to Borneo and New Guinea. Dad and his friend Kelly found themselves slogging through tropical jungles and up to the top of towering rain forest mountains, carrying heavy loads of weapons and ammunition. They also met the indigenous tribes of natives. Many of them were barely removed from the Stone Age, and they had suffered terribly at the hands of the Japanese invaders.

Prior to the Japanese, Australian and British administrators had attempted to tame and
ameliorate the worst of the warfare, village raids and head hunting activities. This was the strange environment that Marine scouts such as Dad and Kelly encountered. One of their more interesting patrols occurred in head hunting territory. An Australian official had warned them about reports of recent raids between two rival tribes. Needless to say, they were extra vigilant. Besides Japanese patrols they were worried about native headhunters who might not make a distinction between them and the hated Japanese.


Thus on high alert, Dad and Kelly approached a village which seemed unusually quiet. Kelly noticed two fresh human heads stuck on poles at the entrance to the village. Dad told Kelly to lower his rifle so as not to appear threatening. Suddenly, several natives in grass skirts hopped out of the bush and began to leap around. Dad and Kelly tried to remain as calm as possible. Using hand signs they tried to establish rapport and ask about food. Shortly thereafter, several more natives appeared holding a litter, on which sat the chief. Dad later said he was sizing them up. The chief eventually made it clear he wanted cigarettes! Although Dad wasn’t a smoker, he always carried a carton with him because they were useful for trading. This was one such instance. He and Kelly traded cigarettes for a few pieces of fruit. More importantly, they showed that they intended no harm.

The next question was how best to leave the village. Dad and Kelly decided to walk out with their weapons still lowered. They realized that showing fear would be a terrible mistake. Dad told me that the stress level was incredible because they didn’t know if the inhabitants would attack them from the rear. They exited safely and reported the heads on the poles to the Australians.


Another incident occurred soon after. Dad and Kelly were ordered to lead a patrol into the same general area. As the dozen or so Marines approached a village, they were greeted by the chief who invited them to share a feast. Dad wasn’t sure if he meant share the feast or be the feast! Nevertheless, the patrol cautiously agreed, as they were greatly out-numbered. The natives served them a foul smelling stew, which they cautiously sampled. Being relatively ignorant about how cannibals operated, they were nervous about the meal. The Marines finally managed to inquire the source of the meat in the stew. It turned out to be wild dog. Dad said the dogs they saw were mangy, flea-ridden and usually had worms. Several of the marines got sick and threw up after they left the village. Yet, it was a cultural experience. The natives had shared from their relative poverty while the Marines returned to base camp and healthy food.


Another story Dad told about his time there concerned prisoners of war. As a scout, he was part of the intelligence section. He was one of the Marines who processed and interrogated Japanese prisoners. One side benefit to him and Kelly were lots of souvenirs of war. This included flags, banners, knives, pistols, coins and postcards. Many of these they would sell to sailors or others who rarely got on the front lines. However, one thing that impressed Dad was the common humanity. Just like the Americans, the Japanese solders had pictures of wives, children, parents or other loved ones. Although they were fearsome fighters, the Japanese also had families. Dad usually allowed them to keep their family photographs.


Another poignant although not pleasant memory concerned the nights. The nights were muggy and filled with insects and snakes. These factors alone made sleep problematic. The Japanese often would fill the night with noise to make it more difficult for the exhausted Americans to gain needed rest. This included periodic propaganda broadcasts of the infamous Tokyo Rose. Another psychological ploy was to shout out insults of various American icons. Dad said that for some reason Babe Ruth seemed to be one of their favorites. The purpose was to entice some inexperienced, hotheaded Marine to respond. This could give away positions or perhaps result in that Marine being shot. Not falling asleep while on guard duty really was critically important because enemy infiltrators would attempt to penetrate the Marine lines at night.


One of Dad’s enduring memories from this time was the seemingly randomness of death. Many times, men on either side of Dad would be hit by enemy fire while in battle. Sadly as in any war, many new arrivals died shortly after arriving. At only 20 or 21 years old, Dad and his friend Kelly already were battle-hardened veterans who had developed a sixth sense of survival. New arrivals constantly came to fill the depleted ranks. One sad memory was of a brand new second lieutenant who had played football for the University of Michigan. Dad said he was about 6’4” tall and determined to show that he could be a fearless Marine. During his first week, he stood up during a firefight and asked my father where the enemy was. Dad started to tell the lieutenant that he should get down when a shell took off the top of the young officer’s head, splattering Dad.

Click here to read the final post in this series. Part III will tell about the horrific battle for Okinawa in 1945.