EDITOR’S NOTE: The “We Were Soldiers Once” profiles are researched and written by Perry Giles, one of the founding members of the Ellis County Veterans Day Appreciation Committee. Giles’ columns are written in first person based on information compiled from newspaper articles, letters from home and interviews with family members. The features will be published each week through Veterans Day.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
My name is John William Crow. My first years were spent in Waxahachie, but when I was eight years old, my parents, J.F. and Sarah Crow, decided to move south to a farm near Pluto. My dad kept bees and had a thriving honey business. I was the third child with a sister and three brothers, all two years apart. I was in the middle of the group. We enjoyed playing practical jokes on each other, but we would also go to war for each other. We were all very close.
I can remember once there was a big argument with one of our neighbors. Mr. Cochran came over to our place with his four sons and challenged my dad, and the next thing a big fight broke out between the two sides. When it was all over, all ten of us were lying in the mud and the blood and none of us could even stand up. As far as I was concerned, nobody could come over and mess with our family.
We went to the country school in Pluto, between Milford and Maypearl, and we went to the Plum Grove Baptist Church. After I finished grade school, there was a family meeting, and a hard decision was made. The three youngest sons, myself, Thomas and Marion, would move back to Waxahachie to get a better education.
Our dad made a deal with old Captain Anderson for us to move into a room in the back of the Waxahachie Ice Company. Mr. Anderson was on the school board at the time and he agreed to give us room and board. Our part of the bargain was to make good grades, stay out of trouble, and work every day after school at the Ice Company.
Being away from home was hard at first, but gradually we got comfortable with our new setup. My first year at Waxahachie High, I decided to go out for the football team. The coach was Mr. Scott, and the assistant coach was Tirey Wilemon. I had never touched a football before I suited up for the first day of practice. In fact, I had never played organized sports before.
The first few days of practice were tough for me. I was getting pushed around and beat up fairly good by fellows that were not even my size. Not knowing how to play football, I was just a little unsteady at first. But after about a week, I started getting a feel for this sport. In fact, I found that I enjoyed this very much; and by the end of my first season, I was the one dealing out the punishment. Funny thing was, I played in my first football game before I ever saw one as a spectator.
Marion and I played ball for the Indians all our years in high school, getting a little better with each passing season. Defensive line was my specialty. I loved playing defense and meeting the opponent head on. Whenever it was 4th and goal, you found out who the tough guys were. I grew up a lot in those years... I can say this much, nobody was going to beat us by running through my hole in the line.
Upon graduating Waxahachie High, I was recruited to play football at Allen Academy in Bryan, and it was a good thing too, because we didn’t have the kind of money that it took to get a higher education. You have to remember that my family was farmers and times were hard back then. That scholarship was like gold as far as I was concerned, and I did my best to show what I was made of during my time there at the military academy.
After finishing up at Allen, I was offered a football scholarship to play ball at A&M. My brother Marion got one also. I worked hard to prove myself in the classroom and on the playing field. Before I knew it, I was playing quite a bit on defense, and I felt as though I had hit the big-time.
I had gone from getting kicked around in my first days of practice as a Waxahachie Indian, to starting in the Southwest Conference. I was named to the All-Southwest Conference team in 1934, as defensive guard. I reckon that lifting all those blocks of ice had finally paid off.
Marion and I were both in the Corps of Cadets at A&M. We learned a lot about teamwork and discipline in Company D Infantry. We were lucky enough to be in the same company with our old high school teammate from Waxahachie, Tom Morris. Being two years ahead of me, he sort of kept an eye on the both of us. I was promoted to Cadet Major in my senior year.
Being an all-male school, sometimes we had to be creative in finding any female companionship. One time we heard about a bus load of girls from Hurst coming to town on a 4-H club trip, and I made sure to be there when they were unloading. Most of them were too young for my liking, but when the young chaperone stepped off the bus, she surely caught my attention. I rushed over there and offered to carry her luggage and was pleased to hear her accept.
As things turned out, that baggage handling was the start of something special between Miss Jessie Marie Arthur and myself. In September of ’35 after I graduated college, we were married, and I accepted a job as a history teacher and football coach at Allen Academy. We made our home in Bryan and two years later started a family. I had come a long way for a farm boy from Pluto. Even though times were hard, things were going good as far as I was concerned.
All those years of playing football and being in the Corps of Cadets had taught me plenty about leadership and sacrifice, and I put it to good use as the coach and teacher of young men. I taught my ball players that you lead by example. One thing that I stressed to my students was that you must learn from history, or you will be condemned to repeat it. That statement always made sense to me.
After six years of coaching, I received notice from the Army that I was being called up. I had stayed in the Army Reserve ever since college, and it wasn’t really all that much of a surprise, because there was a war going on in Europe and the Army needed more officers.
But this was sure going to mess things up for my family. We had a daughter, Frances Maureen, age four, and a son, John Gary, age two. It was tough to say goodbye, more so than I expected. But I was under orders to report for active duty. It was the summer of ’41.
I reported to Fort Brown in Brownsville. When I passed through the front gate, I couldn’t help but think of my grandpa who had joined the Confederate Army here at the same fort during the Civil War. I can still remember the family story that after the war was over he had walked all the way home. It took him two years to get back.
After a short time at Fort Brown, I received orders to join the 32nd Division at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. Marie left the children with grandparents and followed me up to New England. She got a factory job and we tried to settle into our new surroundings.
The 32nd was made up primarily of National Guard units from Michigan and Wisconsin. They didn’t have enough qualified officers, so that’s where I came into the picture. We were being trained for desert warfare because it was rumored that we would be shipped out to Northern Ireland in preparation for an eventual landing in North Africa. Who knows for sure, anyway that’s the rumor.
Frankly, I was a little concerned about how our unit would do under fire. We were all just a bunch of factory workers, farmers, schoolteachers, truck drivers, store clerks and the like. I hear those Germans are seasoned tough combat soldiers, and we’ve got a bunch of ordinary citizens together to fight them with… And then we get the news about Pearl Harbor!
Without much warning, we were notified on the 25th of March that we were to be shipped to Australia instead. The Japanese were making big advances in the Southwest Pacific and it looked like Australia would be threatened. I told Marie to go back to Texas, get the kids and meet me in California. I really needed to see them before we got shipped overseas.
The division boarded troop trains and headed for San Francisco. Most of the men were rather quiet during the long trip. Some were loud, out of nervousness I suppose.
Marie made it home to Texas, got the children, borrowed a car and made her way across country to California. The kids came down with the chicken pox during the drive. I barely got to see them before we shipped out. It was the hardest thing that I ever had to do, leaving them behind on the dock as we sailed out toward the Golden Gate Bridge… I don’t remember ever feeling so low. It was a Wednesday, April 22.
Our division had picked up some 3,000 replacements just before we left for the South Pacific. Most of these looked like raw recruits, young kids that had been taking their high school sweetheart to the movie a few months earlier. I don’t expect they had much in the way of combat training. In my estimation, this was shaping up to be a heck of a way to fight a war.
It didn’t take long before I discovered that this ocean voyage was going to be unpleasant for a guy like me that grew up on the hard solid plains of Texas. For most of our outfit, it was an exercise in seasickness for twenty-two long days. We all spent some of the time writing letters.
Finally reached the port of Adelaide on May 14. It was the start of winter, rainy and cold here in South Australia. They sent us to tent camps that were set up on the outskirts of town. We were now officially under the command of General MacArthur, and thankful to be on solid ground.
In July our division relocated to Camp Tamborine, near Brisbane on Australia’s east coast. The 900-mile move proved to be rather difficult. Most of the men and equipment were shipped by railroad, but some went by sea in small boats. We crossed the borders of four Australian Territories before reaching Brisbane, each with its own different size rail gauge. So every time we crossed a border, we had to unload and reload all our equipment onto a new train.
During the move, one of our small boats was attacked by a Japanese submarine, and a corporal from the 32nd was killed. This was our division’s first KIA of World War II. Now the war seemed very real.
For several months, our training was geared toward the defense of Australia from an invasion. The Japanese were in control of half of the Pacific Ocean and a large part of the Asian continent. They were driving south and gaining control of New Guinea, which put them in striking distance of Australia. It sure looked as if they were seriously considering an invasion.
Trouble of it was, we didn’t have much to stop them with. Our division had been quickly thrown together with a serious shortage of leaders, weapons, equipment, and training. There had been a big turnover in senior leaders and a sudden influx of inexperienced, green recruits. Basically, just a bunch of boys, or at least they seemed like boys to me.
Our Army just wasn’t ready for this war yet, but time was not on our side, there were no other options. The 32nd was the only division available, and we were being thrown in as a stopgap measure and we knew it. Don’t get me wrong, the boys in our unit were all anxious to get some payback on the Japs, but I’m not sure they all knew what they were in for.
In keeping with the norm, our orders changed again. It was decided that we would take the fight to the Japanese on New Guinea before they advanced any further south. Now we started training for jungle warfare, but we lacked time and needed supplies. Training sites, weapons and equipment adapted for jungle fighting were in short supply or non-existent. Little or nothing was known about Japanese fighting techniques, no one in our Army has ever fought them before now… Looks like we were going to write the book.
In mid-September 1942, our stay in Australia came to a sudden end. On four hours notice, two of our regimental combat teams were ordered to deploy to Papua, New Guinea. The Japanese had pushed to within thirty-two miles of the strategic port of Port Moresby. And we were the ones that were going to stop them.
At long last, General MacArthur had decided to start a counteroffensive, his first move back toward the Philippines. The 126th Regiment and my regiment, the 128th were going to be the spearhead. We were going to be up front of the first Unites States division committed to offensive combat in World War II.
The 5th Air Force was going to fly our regiment into New Guinea. This had never been done before, so you could say that we were the first U.S. troops to be airborne into combat. It was decided that our light-colored uniforms would be sprayed with green camouflage dye. In the rush of getting ready on such short notice, there wasn’t time for the fatigue uniforms to dry. So, we put them on wet and they dried on our backs as we boarded the C-47 troop carriers. Frankly, many of the men were scared as we flew north toward the unknown. It was Friday September 18th. I thought about my family and wondered how they were doing without me.
When we arrived in Papua, we took up defensive positions along the river defending Port Moresby. The climate and terrain of this place could not have been worse. Most of the area was smothered with incredibly dense vegetation. There were 8,000-foot mountain peaks covered with jungle, moss and wet rot. The weather was sticky, hot, humid, and the rainy season was just getting started. There were swamps all around us, and that evening the local mosquitoes gave us a warm welcome.
After a couple of weeks, some of the units of the 126th and the Australians had started fighting their way up the mountain trails. We could hear gunfire in the distance; the grim business of killing had actually begun. I wish they hadn’t left most of our mortars and artillery back in Australia, but they had. Kids that had one year before been playing high school ball were now learning the terror of setting up a night perimeter.
The Japanese bombed our airfield on a fairly regular basis, but our engineers would repair it quick enough to keep it open. In mid-October we were briefed on our plan of attack. The regiment would be flown over the “Hump”, the Owen Stanley Mountain range to an airfield on the other side of the island. From there we would make our way on foot through the jungle some sixty-five miles and attack the Japanese at the village of Buna.
Buna was more or less the seat of government in that part of New Guinea. It was really nothing more than a series of villages, old missions and coconut plantations. Problem was, it was backed up to the Solomon Sea on one side, and on the landward side, swamps and creeks surrounded it. Coral reefs kept everything but the smallest boats from approaching the beach.
Division G2 told us that the Japanese garrison at Buna was about battalion strength, but much of this information had come from the natives. The Air Force could see no signs of enemy defensive positions. The Navy was now occupied at Guadalcanal and could offer us very little help. Based on what we were told, the 32nd Division would be able to capture Buna without much trouble. I wasn’t sure it would be so easy.
On Oct. 14,, we began airlifting the regiment over the “Hump” to the airfield at Wanigela Mission. The airstrip was very short and consisted of only a cleared strip of low grass. The troop flights were interrupted several times by tropical downpours. The ground was waterlogged and we discovered that the landing strip was held firm only by the thick roots of the grass, and after one day of troop landings, the strip had to be abandoned. We got busy and cleared an improvised landing strip parallel to the first. It was a miracle that some of those loaded planes didn’t crash. Those flyboys were very good.
We set out toward the Northwest and it didn’t take but a few miles to fully appreciate what an ordeal we were in for. The drier open areas were covered with a thick growth of kunai grass. It was shoulder high and the leaves had razor-sharp edges. If you were not careful moving through this grass, it would lay your hand open to the bone.
Our rallying point would be at the village of Pongani, about twenty-five miles from the objective. Some units of our division ferried up the coast in small boats, luggers, with supplies and men. But on the 17th, an American B-25 mistook them for enemy boats and attacked two of them, killing several men. Later they were attacked several times by swarms of Japanese Zeroes, with considerable loss of life and needed supplies.
Our unit struggled on through steaming swamps and thick jungle. Between the closely spaced trees there was a tangle of roots, creepers and underbrush. It was so thick that the vegetation seemed to block out the air. The water was knee deep in many places, and there were snakes everywhere. It was the most filthy, stinking, mosquito-infested area I had ever seen.
A man standing up could hardly see farther than ten or twenty yards. The mud was tenacious and it stunk. This sapped an enormous amount of energy out of the men just to move through this tangled mess, and it didn’t help matters that we had already run out of insect repellent. All the while, you never knew what was behind the next bush or hiding in the next treetop.
There were heavy showers with intervening periods of clear, blazing sunshine. The humidity was stifling, over 90% we guessed. Sweat dripped from us constantly, and our uniforms soaked through and through. We crossed and recrossed the swollen waters of unmapped creeks and rivers, many with shoulder-high water. Our maps were so inaccurate that they were almost useless.
At the end of each day, we were all exhausted. Each night you would dig a little foxhole and the rain would come along and fill it up. The cries of birds and animals in the jungle set everyone on edge. In the dark, it was hard not to imagine things out there in the trees. I would have liked to write home, but nobody had any dry paper. When I did catch some sleep, I dreamed about the home place.
The health of the battalion began to deteriorate. Men were coming down with fever, and we found many of the fellows had jungle rot on their feet. We used what medicine we had, there wasn’t enough. Dysentery was becoming a problem, and the fleas, mosquitoes, and sand flies bit every inch of exposed skin. The leeches had their way with us. It was fairly miserable to say the least.
Finally, after many days of marching we were drawing close to the enemy. Disease had taken its toll of our men, and the rest of us were pretty well worn out. Probably half of us had some sort of fever. Our uniforms were falling apart, and many had lost the soles of their boots in the sticky, sucking mud. There was complaining in the ranks. The situation was just plain FUBAR, and we officers had to work to keep the morale of the men up.
Our numbers were further depleted by dengue fever, malaria, and bush typhus. The sick had to be carried on stretchers back over the miserable trails that had got us this far. From time to time we did manage to get re-supplied by airdrops.
By the middle of November, we were finally in place. Briefings were given for a coordinated attack. Two battalions would move on Buna along parallel trails about a mile apart. There were impenetrable swamps between these two approaches, so we were isolated from one another. My company led the battalion up the coastal trail toward the Duropa Plantation.
Communication was almost impossible. Most of our radio sets were corroded and shorted out by the hot humid conditions. We found the portable radios were just about useless because of the dense growth of trees and underbrush. We also realized that what few mortars we had, were of little use under this canopy of trees.
Nerves were tense, our senses sharpened, even for those that were running a fever. We knew we were close.
We had no tanks, no artillery, and no flame-throwers, only small arms and grenades. We lacked just about everything we needed, except for willpower. I was a 1st Lieutenant with Company C, 1st Battalion of the 128th Infantry Regiment. It was Thursday, Nov. 19.
Moving in the rain and under a canopy of coconut trees, a sniper’s rifle crackled. A man went down. Instantly we all dropped to the ground and looked up, looked left, right and behind us. You couldn’t tell where it came from. Then suddenly a sergeant lifted his tommy gun and sprayed a treetop. The Jap sniper fell dead, hanging by the rope that lashed him to the tree.
There was silence. The birds and the jungle had gone silent. The only sound was the falling rain. We got up and using hand signals we moved forward, slowly and as quietly as possible. Everyone scanned the tree line and the underbrush looking for any sign of enemy positions. We knew the plantation was just right up there, a few miles ahead.
There was an eerie sense that we were upon them. I heard leaves rustle, a twig snap! Then suddenly, the air exploded with gunfire. Some men up front were cut to pieces; there were soldiers down all around us. The cries of the wounded were drowned out by the deafening sound of rifle and automatic gunfire. It seemed to be coming from every direction. Our medic exposed himself to enemy fire again and again to help the wounded, with us covering him as best we could.
We returned fire wildly into the forest. It was hard to tell where the Japanese were; they were so well concealed. I couldn’t see the flash of their guns, and the sound reverberated inside the great tent of towering trees so that the firing seemed to come from all around us. There was more lead flying through the air at that moment than it’s possible to estimate. Everywhere men cursed, shouted and screamed. Some crouched low to the ground literally frightened out of their skins.
I rolled over and looked around the side of a tree, and rolled back to look under a fallen log, to see if I could tell where the fire was coming from. It became apparent that there were camouflaged bunkers all around us, and we were caught in enfilading fire. You could hear the bullets zip, zip overhead, and cracking as they hit the trees and the brush.
Our units were cut off and out of contact with each other. Each time we tried to move forward, our attack was beat back by the tremendous crossfire. There were many casualties. As night came on, the rain started again.
Out of rations and low on ammunition, our unit was badly shaken. Nobody had expected the mauling we took today. We dug in for the night and tried to regroup. You could hear the sound of motor trucks behind the Japanese lines. They were getting reinforcements. Not good!
Obviously, the Japs were much stronger than we had planned on. I had always been told that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I reckon that’s so.
It was a long night and as tired as we were, nobody got any rest. Everyone was edgy, none of us moved about much, because whispering a password in the pitch-black was a good way to get shot in reply.
As the daylight slowly exposed our surroundings the next morning, I could make out several enemy bunkers in the undergrowth. They were so well hidden you could only see the firing slits. We moved up to form a firing line, and before long both sides were trading fire. The firefight grew in intensity, but it was apparent, we were still outgunned and in a crossfire. The Japanese had covered every approach with interlocking fields of fire from their concealed dugouts. The situation did not look good. Something needed to be done!
There was lots of noise, explosions and confusion. Communications were almost non-existent. Some of us made our way over to where the commanding officer was. The captain was cowering in a foxhole, and he wouldn’t come out. That’s when it hit me. This cannot be happening! This mission is about to fail if something is not done. Somebody’s got to lead by example.
I ran and crawled back over to my platoon. I called them all together and told them what we were going to do. An assault team was formed, some of them I picked, some of them volunteered. Everyone else would move back to the line and lay down a covering fire. They all seemed to listen up close. I looked them in the eye; they didn’t seem like boys anymore.
Once everyone got in place, I signaled for covering fire, turned to the assault team and said, “Let’s Go!” We took off to the side and crashed into the swamp, sometimes running through the water, sometimes crawling in the mud. The jungle air was alive with gunfire and bullets zipping past us, cracking and popping into the trees and the ground. Dirt was kicking up. Leaves and twigs cut loose were filling the air.
We flanked one of the bunkers, pulled out our grenades, and attacked it from the side. After throwing our grenades, I waited for the flash, got up and ran into the coconut-log dugout with my Thompson machine-gun blazing. None of them gave up. We had to kill them all. The smell in there was powerful, of gunpowder, and of death.
When the smoke cleared, we took stock of our wounded. This bunker was built awfully strong, and I could see more of them in the distance. We had no choice but to do this again. I called C Company forward. We huddled up and checked our ammo, and I started to pick some replacements, but there were more volunteers.
We attacked these machine-gun nests one at a time, again and again. After a while, exhausted, I sat down. My ears were ringing. There was blood on me, not mine, I think. We had lost some men. These Japanese soldiers would not surrender, even in the face of a gun. It was clear that they were going to kill us or die trying.
I told the company, “Get ready, we go again in a few minutes. Gather up ammo and grenades from the dead and wounded.” Everyone did their part, even the sick and the walking wounded. I was proud of them.
For a short time, I let my mind wonder. I thought about home, thought about Texas, thought about my family. Nobody could mess with my family. This all seemed like one big 4th and goal situation to me… I said a little prayer.
Then I called the men together. Some of the fellows smeared mud on their faces; some made the sign of the cross. For just a few moments, we just looked into each other’s faces. Nothing was said. They looked ready to me.
I took out a grenade, pulled the pin and held it tight in one hand, my Thompson in the other hand. The next bunker was there in front of us... “Covering fire! Come on, men! Let’s go!”
It was a Friday, Nov. 20, and I was 33 years old.
Remember us, for we were soldiers once, and young.
First Lt. John W. Crow was posthumously awarded our country’s second highest medal for heroism, the Distinguished Service Cross. The citation read, “With complete disregard for his own safety, while under heavy sniper and machinegun-fire, he pushed forward, encouraging his men by his own courageous personal example.” His wife Marie lies buried next to his side in a cemetery in Fort Worth, Texas.