Pollywog or Shellback

November 5, 1944

We are now in a rest camp, about 8 miles behind the lines. It certainly helps the nerves to be able to get away from machine gun and artillery and sniper fire. The rest camp is in a beautiful coconut grove and close by is a river. Yesterday, we went swimming in the river, and I can’t remember when I have ever had a more refreshing bath. I also washed some clothes. Some of the fellows made a deal with the natives giving them a package of cigarettes or candy in exchange for laundry service; but I preferred to wash my own. Returning from the swim, I found our barracks bags had arrived and I was able to get some clean clothes. Surprising how a bath and clean clothes will revive your spirits and make one feel human again. The best news of all is that mail is expected within a day or 2.

It is now 0900 in the morning. The sun is hot, but it is still cool and moist beneath the banana trees where I am sitting on a 5 gallon water can. In front of me is a big picture of Willie tied with a string to the base of a coconut tree. This is really home.

Well, permit me for a moment to digress for a moment to describe the experience of crossing the equator. Contrary to popular belief, the equator proved to be a pretty cool region. In fact, we had some cool and refreshing rain.

One who has never crossed the equator is a landlubber or pollywog. The veterans who have crossed are called shellbacks. Of course, the pollywogs are initiated when crossing the equator. We had very elaborate ceremonies, presided over by King Neptune and Davy Jones. King Neptune, who rules the Equator, appeared in full regal garb, complete with crown, colorful purple robes, and a long white beard made by tying a mop under his chin. Davy Jones is a typical buccaneer—with a handkerchief cap, black patch on one eye, black boots. Hairy chest covered with tattoos, and short black trunks tied around the waist with a red sash.

I am enclosing a copy of the charges made against me. [1. Sneaking across the line in a snide and clandestine matter without proper obeisance to His Majesty; 2. For practicing guard house law without a license and chasing ambulances; 3. For having an extra meal ticket so he can be first in line; 4. For using chemical agents in his pipe with intent to stifle his comrades.”] They included several offenses, in addition to attempting to cross the Equator without making proper obeisance to King Neptune. When my name was called, the Royal Police brought me before the King and the charge was read. Davy Jones pronounced me guilty, and I had to pay the penalty. King Neptune prodded me with his tribune, and then the fun began. First to the Royal Barber, where I was placed in a stock while the barber proceeded to cut all kinds of fancy designs in my hair. Then I was hustled over to another corner, placed in a wooden casket with holes in it. The lid was closed and Davy Jones availing helper poured buckets of sea water through the holes while others created a terrific racket by pounding on the sides with clubs. Emerging from the casket, somewhat dazed, I was rushed to a chair, and immediately received a series of stimulating electric shocks. A siren sounded, and before I knew it, the chair, fixed on hinges went over backwards and I was plunged headfirst into a pool of water 5 feet deep. There, various shellbacks proceeded to duck me under water. Each time I came up they would ask: “Pollywog or Shellback?” Before I could catch my breath and answer, I was down again. Finally, I managed to sputter “Shellback”, and was allowed to clamber out of the pool—a full fledged shellback. Some fun eh?

Succession of Contrasts

November 3, 1944

I am sitting under a banana tree and it is quite cool and moist in this particular spot, although the morning sun is shining very hotly already.

At times it is hard to realize that we are on a battlefield. War is a succession of contrasts. In the evening you are sitting on the edge of your foxhole, watching a full round moon slowly climbing into the sky and throwing a soft golden light across the rice paddies. Tall coconut palms are silhouetted against the stars and billowy white clouds that hang in the heavens. Except for the chirping of the crickets and the husky croaking of the frogs in the swamps, or the occasional shrill cry of the night birds, all is quiet. You are contentedly smoking your pipe and for the first time in the day are able to forget the war and think of home.

Suddenly the enemy artillery opens up. In a second all is changed. It is a war again Down into a foxhole again. The enemy guns are located by their flashes and our own artillery sends its answer. A thunderous barrage makes the ground come to life, as though an angry giant were shaking the whole world. The concussion rattles you around in your foxhole like a bean in a jar. For 20 or 30 minutes it continues, as you lie there cursing the goddamn enemy. Then, as suddenly as it began, the whole nerve-shattering racket closes. The clouds are white again, whereas before they were angry red, reflecting the flashes of the guns. The frogs, the birds and crickets take up their interrupted symphony. The palm trees wave gently in the cool night air and the gentle moment soothes the tried nerves and you are thinking of home again.

The 17th landed on Leyte on October 20, 1944. The regiment captured the town of Dagami on October 29th. By November 23, 1944, the fighting on Shoestring Ridge was ferocious. Japanese artillery rained down on US positions and launched a fierce charge on troops holding the ridge.