World War II oral history interview
Date: February 22, 2002
Veteran: James J. Walker
US ARMY PTO 158TH RCT BUSHMASTERS
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Walt Borkowski
In the late summer of 1945, James Walker’s 158th Infantry Regimental Combat Team (RCT) made a number of practice beach landings in preparation for an assault on an island located twenty-eight miles off the coast of Japan. Walker had studied a model of the island, displayed beneath a large tent near regimental headquarters, and he knew that the 158th’s mission was to land there three days before the coming invasion of Japan, destroy a radar station, and hold the island until the main American attack took place. The men of the 158th had been told that the Japanese were ready for them, and that chances of surviving the operation were slim. One night, as Walker and his comrades prepared to practice their fateful landing yet one more time, the silence was broken by guns firing in the air and sailors and soldiers yelling “…they dropped a bomb -- the war is over.” A relieved Walker and his friends “…all began to figure out our points [a system based on service used to calculate who would be discharged first].” Walker had enough points to go home. It had been a long war.
James Walker was born in July 1922, in Hoboken, New Jersey, and was a construction worker for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western railroad before he was drafted in April 1943. Walker believed in the war and the draft and was eager to go do his part. His father had been in United States Navy’s submarine service during World War I and was disappointed when James chose the army over the navy. After completing basic and combat engineer training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, Walker was sent to Australia, where he was assigned to the 158th, also known as the “Bushmasters,” and ended up an infantryman.
Prior to the war, the 158th had been an Arizona National Guard unit and part of the Forty-fifth Infantry Division, which had been called to active duty in September, 1940 and assigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Soon after Pearl Harbor was bombed, however, the 158th was detached from the Forty-fifth and sent to the Panama Canal Zone to guard the canal, train in jungle warfare, and test the latest jungle fighting equipment. Due to the regiment’s Southwestern National Guard origins, Walker noted, its roster included men from over twenty different American Indian Tribes.
Many of the old National Guard soldiers were still in the unit when Walker joined it in Australia. He was trained in using dynamite to blow up pill boxes [concrete fortifications] and in scouting and jungle survival by Native Americans, who he recalled as “… the greatest.” He was looking forward to combat, and opined that, “It was a different America then, not like now. It was a much different America. There were lines of fellows waiting to get in to the service. They wanted to join.”
Walker saw his first combat at New Britain Island, near New Guinea. He remembered that the island terrain was rough and that the Japanese were tough fighters. He noted that the 158th “…lost maybe 100 men in a short time.” Walker recalled that: “At night we would go out on Torpedo Patrol Boats [PT Boats] to an area off the coast of New Britain that was named ‘The Slot;’ to look for any Japanese shipping and to draw fire from the New Britain Mainland. One of our PT boat captains was John F. Kennedy.”
Walker recalled an engagement with the 6th Japanese Marine Tiger Division in the Wakde Sarmi area of Dutch New Guinea in May and June, 1944, noting that he had recently read a book, “The Rape of Nanking,” and discovered that the Japanese Sixth Marine Division the 158th fought in that operation had taken part in the assault, rape, and murder of hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians in Nanking in 1937-1938.
It was a hard fight, Walker said. “We were up from the beach. B Company was to our left. They were commanded by Captain Hal Braun, who was from New Jersey. They were attacked first and they were hit hard. The Japanese charged with bayonets and some had TNT strapped to their bodies. They came right through B Company lines. They reached the beach and turned our antiaircraft guns around and fired on our supply ships out in the bay. That went on all night. The only way to stop the attack was to bring in our artillery on our own people. That’s what Captain Braun did; he was a great soldier.” He also recalled fighting alongside the Australians at Sarmi, noting that they were very good and brave fighters, and wore no steel helmets -- only felt hats.
After the Sarmi fight the 158th was assigned to land on Noemfoor Island, root out the Japanese, and protect Americans building an airstrip. Walker recalled that his unit was ordered to capture a Japanese airstrip: “We had 3,400 men in our regiment and the Japanese had a division of 12,000 men. We never did take it. They were too tough; we killed a lot of them, but there were too many. They would hit us three times a night. We were relieved by an army division and they couldn’t take it. It was never taken to the war’s end. We just bypassed it. It seemed that our regiment was replaced by a division every place we went. We were a Spearhead.”
While on Noemfoor, Walker encountered Taiwanese laborers conscripted by the Japanese: “They were walking toward us. I was about to shoot when our Captain said ‘hold it!’ They had a white flag and were yelling ‘Me Taiwan, me Taiwan.’ They were walking like ducks. What the Japs did was to drive a pick ax through their heels, so they could put a cable through the holes to tie them together at night so they couldn’t run away and escape.”
Walker emphasized that night fighting in the jungle was always defensive for the Americans: “The one thing the US Army didn’t do was to let their men get out of a foxhole during the night. Your own men would shoot you. The jungle was very thick, and during the night the Japanese would plant snipers in the trees and they would nail the first man that moved out of his foxhole in the morning.” He remembered the constant rain in New Guinea as well, and how: “At night time we would sleep with our heads on our steel helmets to keep above water.”
Following operations in New Guinea, the 158th took part in the American invasion of the Philippine Islands, landing on Luzon on January 11, 1945. Shortly after the landing Walker was engaged in a fight which would win him the Silver Star for bravery in action. He remembered that: “Our platoon was on patrol about five hundred yards off the beach, and we ran into a Jap big gun. Big guns are usually protected by several machine guns, and what we usually do before we head up to the guns is to pull back and let the mortar men throw some shells in there. Our radios were out and we couldn’t contact the other platoons, so I volunteered to run over to inform them to stay clear. On my way back they let loose their machine guns. They hit my back pack. I had shaving cream over my neck. We then took out the gun.”
This incident was probably the one in which the 158th destroyed a fourteen-inch Japanese gun which was bringing heavy fire on the American landing fleet. The 158th’s Company G, headquartered before the war in Stafford, Arizona, won the Presidential Unit Citation for the action. Walker received his Silver Star on the steps of the Hoboken, New Jersey Post Office in 1946, a year after the war ended. He remembered that: “My wife was there with my young daughter who was born while I was in training at Fort Leonard Wood, and who I didn’t see until she was three years old.” He only saw pictures of her, pictures still in his possession at the time of his interview.
Walker was wounded in the arm by a shell the troops called a “screaming mimi” during clearing operations on Luzon. He remembered that: “It was at night and you couldn’t get a medic to you until the morning. My arm was fractured, so I went off the line to the first aid station and they wanted me to go to the general hospital. But once you went to the general hospital, you will not go back to your old outfit, and I didn’t want that. I was with the guys too long and I didn’t want to leave them. They wrapped it up, put a light cast on it, and I stayed on line.” According to Walker, medical care was “the best that they could do for you. Most of the time we would have to carry out our wounded from the jungle. There were no helicopters.”
In the Philippines, Walker acted as a scout for the regiment much of the time. He recalled that his unit used the numerous Native Americans in the ranks as radio men long before the Marines followed the same practice: “They spoke Navajo or Apache. The Japanese couldn’t understand that. They had no translator. It was great.”
The Pacific War was brutal, with some Americans taking revenge for mistreatment the Japanese had inflicted. Walker remembered one incident that occurred with a captured Japanese soldier: “We had taken a prisoner on patrol and, on our way in, an artillery observer that had been with us went up to the prisoner and sliced his ear off. He shouldn’t have done that. Once back in camp the prisoner reported it to G2 - Intelligence. They called me in, and I said I didn’t see it. I wasn’t going to turn my own men in. He was a young kid from a radar unit. I had seen what the Japanese did to their prisoners.”
“What I did in combat I have nothing to feel sorry for,” Walker continued. He recalled an incident where two Japanese female nurses were killed. “They were on the line,” he said. “What I saw in combat would make you hard. I saw a young Philippine girl tied to a post with her breast cut off. She had been bringing messages to the Americans. Her boyfriend had his tongue cut out. The Japs bayoneted both of them. They were great for bayoneting their victims. I heard children screaming at night, and the next day we would find a three year old boy or girl bayoneted to death. It meant nothing to them. I think the Japanese are different people today. They aren’t run by War Lords.”
He recalled that morale was high in the 158th. The unit had been overseas so long “…that they didn’t care anymore….” The men of the regiment were kept busy, he said: “They would never let us lay around between missions, because they said that we would go crazy sitting around. We unloaded ships at night and trained during the day. We would dry fire our rifles and get back to basics constantly. We had no recreation at all. In my regiment there was no R&R -- rest and recuperation. We didn’t get any beer. In the rear they got beer, and the only time I had fresh meat was when someone shot a wild pig in New Britain. We had no fresh milk, beef or eggs. We ate only rations” He recalled sitting down beneath a coconut palm hut to watch a movie, when an air raid alarm went off. “We never did see that movie.”
There was some entertainment, however. Walker recalled seeing a USO show with Bob Hope, Gary Cooper, Jerry Colonna, and Francis Langford. Gary Cooper was halfway through the famous speech from the movie “The Lou Gehrig Story” [The Pride of the Yankees] about how lucky he was, when two native girls walked by wearing only grass skirts, but topless. Cooper remarked “How they must be starting to look white to us by now.” “If he said that today his whole career would be gone. That was the only show I saw.”
Walker always believed he would survive the war and come home. He said that “The only fear I had over there was not the Japs but the artillery barrages. Give them three shots, and they could put it in your pocket. The heavy barrages would drive you nuts. I think maybe I am alive today because during a battle I would concentrate on my job.”
Walker showed the interviewer a photo of a 200-year-old Catholic Church that he was assigned to guard in a town in the Philippines. The church and its silver decorated altar had been built by the Spanish. The priest gave Walker the first fresh eggs he had seen in years. Walker also showed a photo of the Japanese formal surrender on Luzon.
In November 1945, James Walker sailed out of Leyte Gulf on a Liberty Ship that took thirty-one days to cross the Pacific, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on Christmas Eve. He remembered that: “I called my wife from San Francisco.” Walker stayed in San Francisco for over two weeks, living in a large warehouse with thousands of cots set up for soldiers to sleep on. He recalled that: “There were so many troops that they couldn’t move them. The troop trains were crowded. Fort Dix was crowded with men living in tents. Our Christmas tree was still up when I got home two weeks after Christmas. It was great to be home. My father was a Hoboken policeman, and he was proud that all of his sons served their country.”
In summing up, Walker reiterated his respect for Native Americans. He said that “…American Indians couldn’t vote, couldn’t go to public schools, and couldn’t be drafted, but they went into the service. They didn’t get the right to vote in Arizona until 1948. I find that amazing.” He noted that the different “… tribe members would sort of hang out together….” There were Apache, Navajo, and Comanche among the twenty different tribes in our regiment. The 158th Regimental Combat Team was originally an Arizona National Guard Unit, and all of the reunions are held in Arizona. I have been to a few reunions, but there is no one left to see anymore.” He noted that he had been on Indian Reservations many times. “They are good people, they are tough people, they could live off the land. We give so much money away, and we have our own here not taking care of.”
He displayed a newspaper article and photos of a neighbor who he helped obtain medals that her father had earned fighting in WWII. Her father had been killed when she was four months old, and all she had had was a picture of him and his Purple Heart Medal. She received the rest of the medals he had earned, fifty years after the war, due to Walker’s efforts.
In conclusion James Walker said that: “People in other countries still take care of the graves of the American soldiers that had lost their lives there. Some people [in America] don’t want their children saluting the flag.” Walker believed that Americans should be thankful to and never forget the soldiers who gave up their lives for the country. “People forget here and they shouldn’t. They owe the vets a lot.”
James Walker passed away on January 31, 2006.