Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Letter from Bob, September 1942

Dearest Rosie:

I don't know what the Seattle papers are saying about our fight here in New Guinea. Not much, I suspect. News about the big doings in Stalingrad has reached even our steamy little corner of the Pacific, and of course Guadalcanal's right next door.

But I can tell you that whether the world's watching or not it's a vicious fight here and the mud's soaked with Aussie and Jap blood.
The Japs have been pushing south toward our headquarters in Port Moresby for weeks. If they take it, they've got a base for bombing Queensland and invading northern Australia. They seem to think Port Moresby's going the way of Singapore: They'll stab a port city in the back, where it's supposedly less stoutly defended.

Well, this time they didn't rekon with the Allies. The Aussies have been fighting them night and day on the passes over the Owen Stanley Mountains, on a narrow trail called the Kokoda Track.

Kokoda wouldn't even qualify as a hiking trail in the Cascade Mountains back home. It's narrow, steep and filled with glue-y mud. I've sent you a couple of pictures so you'll get the idea:

Here are the "Golden Stairs," made out of tree trunks stuck into the mud.

Australian War Museum PO2423009

Imagine climbing these in hundred-degree heat and humidity, carrying a full backpack, weapons and ammunition, fighting off malaria mosquitoes. Or maybe you don't care about the mosquitoes because you've already got malaria but you're fighting anyway.

And, Rosie, the fighting's awful. My fellow pilots and I are flying air support over the mountains, but it's the boys on the ground who are taking the brunt of it. I know you may not want to hear such things, but the Japs truly are savages. They kill their own wounded and leave snipers among their dead, waiting to spring up and shoot our fellows when they pass by. Other Jap snipers tie themselves into coconut trees and take potshots at the Australians. When the Aussies kill them, they just leave them dangling from their ropes.

At a place called Isurava the Aussies dug themselves into the mud using their steel helmets and bayonets.The Japs came at them with flamethrowers.

Everyone's grateful for the help and support of the New Guinea natives. Seems they don't like the Japs any better than we do. I have a couple of photos of the locals helping our boys out:

Australian War Museum PO2424.020

Australian War Museum 13600

The Aussies call the natives who've been assisting them "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels!"

Some of the wounded have been evacuated by air:

Australian War Museum PO2424.082

No one gets much rest, but when they do it's under pretty primitive conditions:

Australian War Museum O26727

One of those fellows might be reading one of the anti-American leaflets the Japs have dropped. I saved one for you. They're about the only reason to laugh around here, and I can tell you they make good toilet paper:

"So what's my husband doing in all of this," you're probably asking. Well, my buddies and I attacked the Jap fighters at their base on Buna on the north side of the island. And a good thing, too. The Jap high command apparently decided things weren't going well enough for them on the Kokoda Track, so they decided to attack closer to Port Moresby. In late August they landed a force at a place called Milne Bay, 40 miles from here. They must have figured they'd take the airfield there and get us by the throat. Big mistake. They pushed the Aussies back at first, but the boys from Down Under came roaring back with reinforcements the Japs must not have known they had. They pushed the Japs right back into the sea, with a little help from yours truly and the other fighter pilots. Our commanding officer says that as far as he knows it's the first outright victory against the Japs in a land battle. May it be the first of many!

And Rosie, you didn't know it but you were right there in the fight alongside me. There are B-17s stationed here at Port Moresby, and they gave the Japs a serious pounding. Every time a Flying Fortress went by I thought of how you and the others at Boeing riveted those planes together, and knew that they would be stronger than anything the Japs could ever throw at us.

Not a day goes by when I don't miss the cool gray of Seattle, the sound of your voice and our little house under the cedar tree. But when I look at those big planes you and your friends built for us and sent halfway around the world, I'm comforted that a little bit of home's here with me.

Love and kisses,


Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Every day we're loudly told to be quiet. "The Enemy's Listening," howls one poster. "Loose lips Sink Ships," shouts another.

They say silence is golden and I suppose that's mostly true. I confess that after months of Jane's domestic drama, Betty's catty grousing and Susan's mooning over first Grant and then Frank, I'm craving quiet. The rattle of the rivet guns is almost preferable to my co-workers' babbling.

But these days I find silence to be made of baser metal. Weeks crawl by with no news from Bob. Every day the paper's front page heralds the heroics and savagery in Guadalcanal and Stalingrad. Then the Times exhales, regains its composure and moves on to New Guinea on page two or three.

Of course I know those enormous battles in the Solomons and the Soviet Union are crucial to the generals. But here in one small bungalow under a towering old cedar tree in West Seattle, the most important fight's on a sultry island that exists for most Americans only on the pages of National Geographic. Somewhere over New Guinea my husband's hurling his plane around in dogfights while Japanese troops slash at the American and Australian forces below.

I keep silent, however. This war's given everyone a hard story to tell, and most are harder than mine. Millions can't tell stories at all because they're among the growing heaps of dead.

Tucked into my lunch kit is my copy of Beryl Markham's new book "West With the Night." I'm sitting out on the flightline on a break right now, under the last blue skies of summer, reading in the shade of a B-17's wing. I came across this passage today:

"There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstances, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo."

Whistle blows. Back to work.