"Later I had no recollection of unbuttoning the flap of my holster, drawing the 45, or charging..."
On the 24th of November 1942 I was advised that, effective as of 1 November, I had been promoted to Aviation Machinist Mate First Class. Not long afterward Barnes announced that I was the leading petty officer of the engine shop. It was a bit mind-boggling to me because I had still been in the Navy for only two years and four months but it was gratifying to feel that I was successfully doing my small part in the war.
New Caledonia is not a part of the tropical south Pacific. It is too far south and there was nary a palm tree to be seen. The main island is heavily forested and, according to the New Zealanders from whom we took over the base in Ile Nou, at the time was populated in the hills by natives who were cannibals. The Kiwis told us some hair-raising tales about savages that would come down from the hills and paddle out to Ile Nou in canoes. They (the Anzacs) solemnly assured us that more than one of their sentries had been clubbed to death or knifed in the middle of the night. We were sure that such tales were pure malarkey but they did contribute to a memorable night when I was base petty officer of the watch and fired the one deadly shot of my wartime career.
Our little base on Ile Nou was not fenced but there was a perimeter road around it that ran along the brow of the low hills on either side. There was a total of nine or ten sentry posts along the perimeter road that were manned during the hours of darkness. It was the duty of the leading petty officer of the watch to make hourly checks of the sentries that walked the posts carrying rifles.
One warm night in December (it was summer “down under”) I was posted as leading petty officer of the midnight to 0400 watch. At 0200 I set out, armed with a Colt 45 automatic in a holster on my hip, to check my sentry posts. I went up the hill to the north toward the leper colony moving very quietly as a result of all those hours I had spent in the Ozark woods stalking squirrels and practicing moving noiselessly through the darkness.
There were two sentry posts along the perimeter road along the brow of the hill. There was no moon but the starlight was sufficient that I could see that the road was empty. Neither of the sentries (not members of my engine crew) were anywhere to be seen and did not answer when I softly called out.
I moved along the road and, to my dismay, found both watch standers sitting on a low embankment sound asleep. Apparently they had sat down to chat a minute or share a smoke and both had fallen asleep. It came to me with a shiver along my spine that sleeping on watch in wartime is a court-martial offense punishable in the extreme by execution.
It was agonizing. I knew that my responsibility by Navy Regulations was to arrest the two and report them to the OOD. They would certainly be court-martialed and it did occur to me that the death penalty was unlikely since we were not actually in a combat zone.
I stood over the sleeping men for two or three minutes then came to a decision. Their weapons were held loosely between their knees. I reached down and took both rifles in the course of which both men woke with a start. They leaped to their feet and came to attention, both obviously terrified. I was pointing the rifles directly at their belt buckles.
Neither man was a personal acquaintance of mine but I knew that both were fairly recent recruits and were still seamen first class. One of them reminded me of my y9unger brother Rex. I also recalled the nights that I had stood the mid-watch by our airplanes on the ramp at Kaneohe and, on one occasion, had come so close to falling asleep leaning against an airplane that I nearly dropped my rifle.
It was simply beyond me to put the two frightened young men on report. Instead, in a low voice as cold as I could make it, I ripped them up one side and down the other. I do not recall my words but they were harsh as I reminded them of the possible consequences of sleeping on watch. They stood ramrod straight and shivered as they took it.
Finally I grounded the butts of the rifles then handed them back to the chastened two and said, “Look, it wouldn’t be any satisfaction to me to turn you in and I’m going to make you a deal. My butt would really be in a sling for not putting you on report if word of this got out and so would yours so you are not to breathe a word to anyone!
“From now on every time I have a watch I am going to make sure you are on it. Whenever I check your posts—and you never know I’m coming—I want to find you on your feet, your weapon on your shoulder, walking your post. Furthermore, I want to hear you challenge me and make me advance to be recognized just like it says in the book! Now, shoulder arms and get with it!”
The men moved off marching their posts and I turned and took a shortcut down the hillside toward the watch shack to make my report to the OOD that all was well at 0200 hours. Just down from the road I stepped up on a small boulder. In the starlight I could see something that looked like a log lying beneath the boulder so I stepped down on it, forgetting that there are no long sized trees on Ile Nou.
When my weight hit the “log” three was a sudden “OOF!” as if the breath were going out of someone. The thing rolled and I went sprawling. As I fell, a thought of the Kiwis’ tales about the savages flashed through my mind. I rolled in midair and hit the ground on my back. There against the skyline I could see what appeared to be a man getting to his hands and knees. My flashlight had gone flying out of my hand.
Later I had no recollection of unbuttoning the flap of my holster, drawing the 45, or charging it but I must have done that in midair as it was in my hand. As the shape moved without challenge or hesitation I fired. In the quiet of the early morning hours, the boom of that 45 sounded like a 16-inch naval rifle! There was a sort of squeal and the dark form went down.
Lights came on all over the base. Still holding the gun on the inert form, I found my flashlight. I heard the duty officer’s jeep come to life so I signaled it with the light then shined it on the “man” I had shot. When the duty officer skidded to a halt beside me he found me staring down at a very large and very dead pig. My shot had hit it just below one eye and had blown a sizeable chunk out of the other side of the head—and I never could have hit the broadside of a barn with a handgun on the target range!
Men, including my two sentries from up the hill, came running from all directions—many of them in their skivvies. I explained what had happened to the OOD. He laughed ruefully and said, “Oh hell, go call out the duty cook to butcher this thing. We’ll have some fresh pork for breakfast—which will be a nice change from those beans and Spam!”
That, of course, was not the end of it. I took an unmerciful ribbing from my shipmates although tempered by admiration that I was apparently a dead shot with a forty-five. (I chose not to mention my scores on the target range with a pistol!)
The next afternoon a very mad French farmer from the leper colony was in the commanding officer’s office raising Cain about our shooting his “best and finest sow” as well as the interpreter could understand his voluble sputtering. I never did find out what the Navy paid him but he finally went away somewhat mollified.