(This is an excerpt of a story from my soon-to-be-released book, They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans)
Gaylord Conrad’s most vivid memories of the Pacific during World War II was not that of a bloody battle field but what came after it.
In late 1943 Conrad from Leo, IN, was attached to the US Infantry at Guadalcanal. The dreadful battle that had occurred there from August 1942 through February 1943 was evidenced by a graveyard for Allied forces.
Approximately 7,000 small crosses on graves dotted the vista as far as Conrad could see.
It was a sobering sight for the farm boy from northern Indiana. “Thinking of the number of lives lost in that battle was overwhelming to me,” he said. “The sight of that quiet field became a permanent picture in my mind.”
After graduating from Leo High School in May 1943, Conrad had immediately been drafted. He completed nine weeks of basic training at Camp Wheeler near Macon, GA, before being assigned to the Infantry. Soon, he was aboard a ship sailing with thousands of troops through the Panama Canal to the Pacific.
The troops were not told where they were headed, though the mostly 18- and 19-year-olds probably would not have recognized the name, had they heard it. New Caledonia was part of an archipelago of islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean, 750 miles east of Australia.
In March 1942, the territory had become an important Allied base. The capital of New Caledonia — Nouméa — was headquarters of the United States Navy and Army in the South Pacific. At one point during the war, the island held as many as 50,000 American troops.
Several attempts by the Japanese Army and Navy to recapture the airfield were staged over the next several months. In addition to the thousands of American lives lost, approximately 19,000 Japanese soldiers died in what was a hard-fought Allied victory. Conrad and other American soldiers went in as replacements.
In an attempt to honor the fallen military chaplains conducted a sunrise service on Guadalcanal’s beach on Easter 1944. Just before the service’s commencement, Conrad was shocked to see someone he knew. “Ralph Rineholt and I had graduated from Leo High School together,” he said. The two young soldiers sat together during the service, then separated for duties. Conrad never saw his friend again. “I always wondered if Ralph returned home,” he said.
I missed posting this tribute on Memorial Day because I was working on the book this and 33 other stories will be published in by late Summer 2017. But I did have 2 stories of WWII soldiers who died in action published in area newspapers. We can all do our part to support our military.
Stay tuned for more details about the book.
Remember to thank a veteran today for his/her service!