Operation Cartwheel was a plan hammered out in April 1943 by General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral William Halsey, a strategy to topple Japanese control of the South Pacific. Its' ultimate objective was the Japanese garrison at Rabaul. To smash the large enemy force there, MacArthur's troops would battle their way across the large island of New Guinea while Halsey's forces would continue a northwesterly advance across the Solomon chain.
Halsey's strategy was to begin an island hopping assault, moving northwest out of Guadalcanal across the islands of New Georgia, Kolombargara and on to Bougainville, which would put his forces within 200 miles of Rabaul. On June 30th he began landing the first of his ground forces, soldiers of the New England National Guard (43rd Infantry) on the island of New Georgia. For two weeks they slugged their way across mountainous jungle, enduring the tropical extremes in both climate and geography, all the while battling a fierce, well-entrenched, and often hidden enemy. The prize would be the Munda airstrip on the western coast of the island. If the American forces could take and hold the Munda airstrip, they would have an airfield 200 miles closer to their ultimate objectives than Henderson field at Guadalcanal.
The Japanese commander on New Georgia was Major General Nabor Sasaki, and he took every step available to defend his airfield. Fortifications were dug into the ground, reinforced with logs hewn from the jungle and carefully camouflaged to allow the advancing Americans to advance nearly upon the positions before his soldiers turned their machineguns loose. At night his seasoned Japanese soldiers would creep into American positions, killing quickly and silently, and waging a very effective battle on the psyche of the green young combat troops from the United States. It was an effective tactic that preserved his hold on the Munda airstrip, and demoralized the American soldiers.
Two weeks into the campaign, Admiral Halsey committed two more divisions to the island in efforts to shore up the faltering men of the 43rd Infantry and reinforce the battle for the Munda Airstrip. In addition to the 25th Infantry Division, the men of the 37th Infantry Division were landed at New Georgia. Private Rodger Young's 148th Regiment, young men of the Ohio National Guard, were about to receive their baptism of fire. Also landing with the 37th was the 145th Regiment.
By July 27th, the 37th Infantry had battled its way to the foot of Horseshoe Hill, a well fortified position overlooking the main inland approach to the airstrip. As machinegun fire and enemy mortars rained down on the American soldiers from the enemy positions above, casualties began to mount. Private First Class Frank Petrarca, a National Guardsman from Cleveland, Ohio could hear calls of "medic" all around him. His forward patrol had moved within 100 yards of the enemy position before the devastating enemy fire ripped heavily into them. Quickly the young medic did his best to treat the most seriously wounded. One of them was Private First Class Scott, his body so badly battered that he could not even be moved--despite the fact he was laying within 75 yards of the enemy position.
Heedless of the rain of mortars and machinegun bullets, PFC Petrarca did his best to treat PFC Scott and two other wounded Americans nearby. As mortar fire erupted closer to their tenuous position, Petrarca used his own body to shield the wounded Scott, remaining with him until he finally died of his wounds.
Throughout the following day, American units continued to deploy in small platoons at strategic locations along the approaches to the Munda Airstrip. The heavy combat had left much of the ground desolate, the hidden enemy positions scattered in such a way that advances were usually made in platoon or squad-size elements.
Frustration was high among the embattled young American soldiers, many suffering from battle fatigue. Morale was falling as heavily as the daily rains that soaked their uniforms and flooded their positions, and the Japanese continued to snipe at them from hidden positions during the day, and probe their encampments during the night. On July 29th First Lieutenant Robert Sheldon Scott of Santa Fe, NM was leading his platoon in the lead of a company assault on the enemy positions.
Advancing up a hill overlooking the airstrip, Scott's platoon moved within 75 yards of the hidden Japanese position, when the enemy counter-attacked. Swarming out of their bunkers and foxholes, throwing grenades and firing in volleys, the Japanese soldiers overwhelmed Lieutenant Scott's small platoon, forcing them to quickly pull back...all but the intrepid lieutenant.
Ducking behind the blasted remains of a tree stump, Lieutenant Scott stood his ground against the enemy assault. Firing his carbine and throwing grenades, alone he turned back the wave of enemy soldiers. In the brief lull that followed he replenished his supply of grenades, then continued to hide behind the meager shelter of his blasted out tree stump. From his vantage point, he had a good view of the enemy bunkers. He continued to fire on them until an enemy round struck his carbine. A shrapnel round opened the flesh on his head, but he refused to leave his position behind the stump. A wound to his left hand didn't inhibit him from continuing to throw grenades with his right, his accuracy destroying enemy bunkers and positions one after another. Watching from a distance, the rest of his company was amazed and inspired the the lieutenant's one-man stand and rushed forward, taking the hill. When they did, they found that the intrepid young officer had thrown nearly three dozen grenades, and a total of 28 Japanese bodies were counted in the bunkers he had destroyed.
His battle won, the wounded and weary officer finally rose from the shelter of his small stump to join his victorious company. It was amazing, not only what he had done, but how he had accomplished it from the small protection of a skinny tree stump, shattered in half only a few feet above ground. Lieutenant Robert Scott was no little guy, like Rodger Young, who would be well concealed behind a small tree stump. At 6'5" tall, Lieutenant Robert Scott was one of the tallest men to ever be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Advances and small victories such as the one achieved on Robert Scott's hill overlooking the airstrip continued the following day. Slowly the Americans were gaining ground and were not within 1,000 yards of their objective. On the last day of July, small platoons of American soldiers all around Munda continued to move forward. The desperate Japanese, determined to fight to the last man, furiously resisted every advance.
Only 20 yards from the Japanese lines, two soldiers of the old Ohio National Guard huddled in a muddy foxhole as the mortar fire rained around them. Suddenly one of them struck close enough for the shrapnel to reach their sheltered position. A short distance away, PFC Frank Petrarca heard the cries of the wounded.
Grabbing his aid bag, he prepared to go to their rescue. One of the soldiers in his platoon grabbed his arm and urged him to remain where he was. In order to reach the wounded, he would have to move over a barren hilltop, fully exposed to the enemy. From a distance of 20 yards, he would be an easy target. PFC Petrarca shook off his comrades warning. There were wounded Americans, and he was their medic. He had a job to do.
Amazingly, considering the hail of fire directed his way, the fearless medic managed to move within two yards of the wounded men when a mortar round fell at his feet. The words of his subsequent Medal of Honor citation state, "Even on the threshold of death, he continued to display valor and contempt for the foe; raising himself to his knees, this intrepid soldier shouted defiance at the enemy, made a last attempt to reach his wounded comrade and fell in glorious death." The date was July 31, 1943. It was PFC Frank Joseph Petrarca's 25th birthday.
A short distance away from the place where a young medic named Petrarca was dying, the 148th Infantry Regiment was making a sweep along the north flank of the Japanese fortifications. A 20-man patrol was sent out under a lieutenant and Platoon Sergeant Walter Rigby early in the morning, working its way along a seemingly deserted trail that was heavily overgrown. The patrol was well into the enemy held area, perhaps as much as a mile forward of the rest of the American force. Among the young enlisted men who followed Sergeant Rigby deeper and deeper into the fortress of the enemy was his boyhood friend, Private Rodger Young.
It was nearing 4:00 in the afternoon when the lieutenant began withdrawing his platoon, hoping to return to the Company B bivouac area before darkness set in. As the patrol moved silently down the trail, high above them five Japanese soldiers monitored their movement from a well-concealed machinegun nest. The well placed enemy position gave the Japanese a commanding view of the trail, and they held their fire until the patrol was well into the open and only a short distance in front of the muzzle of their guns. Then they opened fire.
Two soldiers fell dead in the initial volley, as the remaining eighteen men dug frantically for cover. Above them the enemy soldiers held down the trigger of their machinegun, pouring unrelenting death on Sergeant Rigby and his men.
The lieutenant attempted a mass maneuver to remove his men from danger. It was an utter failure, and two more Americans fell to the deadly fire. All the sixteen survivors could do was press their bodies to the earth and pray. They were trapped from above, unable to move, and darkness would set in before long. "We didn't know how we were going to get out - we were surrounded by the Japanese," Private William Ridenour later recalled. "We were all in a semi-circle, and we lit up our ammunition. We had to burn it up. That's one of the lessons you learn, not to leave any ammunition for the enemy to use on you."
Sergeant Rigby did his best to rally his men, but it was heart-rending. "We (had) walked right into a trap," he remembered. In the opening moments, four young men from his home-town area had fallen. Unlike the regular Army, when a National Guard unit goes into war, a company or a platoon is often heavily made up of a group of young men who all come from the same city or region.
As the young NCO struggled to carry out his orders: "We had been ordered to burn our rations when we were told to withdraw," he noticed movement from another of his hometown soldiers. It was his boyhood friend, Private Rodger Young.
"Rodger was bound and determined to get that Japanese machine gun. In his position he had to know he was going to get killed. When I gave the order to retreat, I saw one of the boys beside him poke him with a stick and tell him to draw back but he had his sight on that pillbox and started after it."
Inching forward, his rifle cradled in his arms, the young private with the thick glasses had come to another of those tough choices in his life. As he slithered past the lieutenant, the officer reached out to try and stop him by grabbing his leg. Roger shook himself free and pushed on. The Japanese saw the flicker of movement and loosed a volley of fire in that direction, one round singing the lieutenant's hand and causing him to pull it back. Rodger Young continued crawling forward.
"Come back here!" The Lieutenant shouted. "It's suicide." The young private ignored the lieutenant's concern. If someone didn't knock out that enemy gun, the entire patrol would probably die. "Come back Private Young....THAT'S an ORDER!" The lieutenant shouted again.
For a moment the young private paused, turned to look back at his lieutenant....and smiled. "I'm sorry sir," he said. Then he smiled again. "You know sir, I don't hear very well." And then Rodger Young turned away from his lieutenant to continue crawling forward.
From their vantage point the enemy could see the movement of the grass as the American soldier crawled towards them, and unleashed the full fury of their machinegun. The other 15 men of Young's patrol returned fire, hoping to keep the enemy gunners pinned down as their friend and comrade continued his intrepid advance.
A sudden blow struck Private Young in the shoulder, rendering his left arm useless. The same round shattered the stock of his rifle, and he left it along with the trail of blood that marked his painful progress as he continued to crawl determinedly forward. Miraculously he was getting closer to his goal, when another stream of enemy fire raked the left side of his body from thigh to ankle. "Stay where you are," the lieutenant shouted above the din of battle. "We'll get you out somehow!" Rodger just shook his head.
The pain must have been unbearable, but it couldn't deter him. As always, Rodger Young had more HEART than body, and today his heart would carry him. Five yards from the enemy position, Rodger Young had dropped his shattered body into a depression in the ground deep enough to place him below the muzzle of the machinegun. Slowly, painfully, he used his good right hand to reach down and pull a grenade from his belt and raise it to his face. With his teeth he pulled the safety ring, released the lever and rose to his feet. Fifteen feet directly in front of the machinegun, there was no hope for the young man from Green Springs, Ohio. The full force of the automatic weapon caught him full in the face. But Rodger Young, even in death, had more heart than body. As his thick glasses imploded upon his young face, and moments before his 5'2" body slumped to the ground, he mustered the strength to throw the grenade. It was a throw that would have made any athlete proud, strong and true...destroying the enemy position and saving the lives of his comrades, including his boyhood friend, Sergeant Rigby.
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