World War II oral history interview
Date: September 14, 2001
Veteran: John J. Geiger
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Walt Borkowski
In the winter of 1943, Washington D.C. was full of men and women in uniform, and it was then that John Geiger, a freshman student and ROTC cadet at Georgetown University, decided to join the military.
WWII vets Stanley Truax (far left) and Jack Geiger (far right)
Although turned down by the Marines because he was color blind, Geiger volunteered for the draft and by the spring of 1943 was in the army and on his way to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for basic and advanced infantry training. At Fort Jackson Geiger was assigned to the newly formed 106th Infantry Division, but at the end of the year, a large number of men were drawn from the 106th to serve as replacements for other units already in the field. In January 1944, he shipped out of Newport News, Virginia, sailed through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific, and eventually landed in New Guinea, where he was assigned to the Thirty-first Infantry Division. Geiger recalls New Guinea as being hot and wet, with mountainous terrain.
A few days after he joined the Thirty-first, Division Headquarters posted a request for volunteers to serve on special reconnaissance duty. Geiger signed on and, shortly afterward, he and about twenty-five other volunteers were interviewed by a Colonel Bradshaw of Sixth Army Headquarters. He remembered that his initial interview, which lasted about twenty minutes, was held near a table, and that he and the colonel discussed his education and outdoor interests. A subsequent interview was held at another location, and Geiger was asked to identify and describe the items that were on the table during his first interview. The whole process was, in essence, a test of his observational abilities. He passed, and with about five other volunteers was selected to go to a camp at Finch Haven, New Guinea for special reconnaissance training.
At Finch Haven the volunteers learned the details of intelligence gathering, map reading, communications, navigation, scouting, patrolling, weapons use and maintenance, rubber boat handling, swimming and physical conditioning. In addition they were trained in special jungle survival skills by Australians and New Guinea native instructors. Geiger described one “…most grueling day…,” when he and half of his class were awakened in the morning and ordered to pick up the trail of the other half of the class, which had been sent out into the jungle earlier. The exercise lasted all day.
It was at Finch Haven where Geiger first heard the name of his new unit, the “Alamo Scouts.” Not everyone completing the training was selected as an Alamo Scout, but those who were chosen, including Geiger, were assigned to six man teams. The teams were then assigned to various sites near Patrol Torpedo (PT) Boat bases. In some instances teams were assigned to ships used as PT Boat Tenders, boats the PT Boats would tie up alongside to be re-supplied at sea.
Geiger said that the Alamo Scouts were unusually democratic for a military organization and were given a wide degree of latitude on a number of issues. For example, they could, he related, to some degree select who they wanted on their teams. They could choose their uniforms, usually fatigues, and their own weapons. Most Scouts preferred .45 caliber automatic pistols and either folding stock .30 caliber M-1 carbines or .45 caliber Thompson or M-3 “grease gun” submachine guns.
Geiger described his team’s first mission as an assignment to escort an officer from Sixth Army Headquarters to Sansapoor, New Guinea to check the conditions for a planned invasion. The Scouts were instructed to note the terrain, roads, beaches and the availability of drinking water, and instructed to take a prisoner if possible. Everything went well. Geiger recalled that “we saw lots of Japs, but they didn‘t see us, we were good except one time we got a little careless. It was about five in the afternoon, when we stopped and laid out our blankets to enjoy a meal. We didn’t know that we were about fifty yards from a main trail and a Jap patrol walked by. We didn’t see them until they were almost on top of us, but they didn’t see us. We moved further into the bush. We didn’t see any more Japs after that. We returned to the beach. We inflated our concealed rubber boat, and in the darkness rowed out to meet the PT boat that was waiting offshore to return us the three hundred miles to our base. It went like clockwork.”
He then described an assignment to break up a Japanese unit at a village located thirty miles into the jungle. It rained every day after the Alamo Scouts set out, and they slogged through deep mud and had to use makeshift bridges to cross rivers. On the way to the village they ambushed and captured two Japanese soldiers and rescued a young boy the Japanese had taken from his home in Java. Prior to the ambush the Scouts had encountered another American patrol, and they backtracked to deliver the prisoners and boy to the patrol. The Scouts then continued on to attack the village, where they “got some of the Japanese and some got away.”
After Geiger had served about eight months with the Alamo Scouts, his team was broken up, and he was given the choice of either serving as a replacement with another Alamo team or going back to line duty in the Thirty-first Division. He chose to return to the division and was assigned to the Thirty-first’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon and served with that unit during the invasion of the Philippines. He recalls landing on Leyte from an LST, and described the invasion force as “…spectacular and the biggest thing I ever saw.” He remembers that he “…swelled with pride at the site of an American Flag on the stern of every landing boat that stretched on the water for miles.” As Geiger’s LST approached the beach, he recalls that a Japanese shell struck the ship, killing everyone on the bridge. The doors had already been opened, however, and the ramp was down -- the ship beached itself through momentum and the troops scrambled ashore.
Geiger remembered witnessing General MacArthur’s much photographed return to the Philippines. He said that while he and the men of his unit were waiting on the beach for an assignment inland, they would hear an occasional ping, and someone would be hit by sniper fire. “We checked out a coconut grove but didn’t find anything,” he recalled. “A little while later we saw the General and his entourage coming ashore. As he was wading through the water, some signalmen put up some loudspeakers on the beach. The general came ashore, gave a three minute speech, got into a jeep, and went on his way. If anyone says that the landing was a phony, it was absolutely not. I was right there. I could throw a stone at him. That sniper missed a golden opportunity.”
Geiger described another encounter with a general while he was on Mindanao, recalling that while his unit was dug in around a village, a messenger arrived and told him to report to the local airfield. When he got there he was told to wait for a plane that was about to land. When the plane landed he was ordered to go aboard, where he met Eighth Army commander Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger, who said that "..I just came from Washington and your Aunt Lola said to look for you to see if you are all right…."
Geiger received the Purple Heart for wounds incurred during an attempt to supply another force operating on an island off the west coast of Leyte. His unit ran into Japanese barges reinforcing their own troops on Leyte when the PT boat he was aboard was hit by enemy fire. Two navy crewmen were killed and several wounded. Geiger was struck by shrapnel; another soldier on his team was also wounded during the engagement.
John Geiger recalls returning to the United States and landing at San Francisco in December 1945. He traveled across the country by railroad day coach and arrived at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey on December 24, just in time to spend Christmas Eve at home, “… an answer to my mother’s prayers…” He returned to Fort Monmouth the next morning and was discharged that afternoon, Christmas Day 1945. He married several years later and had nine children.
The Alamo Scouts unit in which Geiger served was formed in New Guinea in November 1943 for reconnaissance and raiding work by Lt. General Walter Krueger, Commanding General of the Sixth Army. It numbered 138 men divided into twenty-one teams and completed 106 missions behind enemy lines in New Guinea and the Philippines during the remainder of the war. The Scouts freed 197 allied prisoners of war and captured eighty-four Japanese soldiers, without losing a single man killed or captured. The Alamo Scouts also provided reconnaissance and tactical support for the Sixth Ranger Battalion in its liberation of 511 allied prisoners of war at the Cabanatuan P.O.W. Camp on Luzon in the Philippines. That incident inspired Hampton Sides’ book Ghost Soldiers: the Forgotten Epic Story of World War II's Most Dramatic Mission (Random House, 2002) and the film The Great Raid (2005). The Alamo Scouts were the forerunners of today’s Special Operations Forces.