World War II True Story: Soldier Reminisces -- "I Walked across Crocodile River."

Crocodile River?
Crocodile River? | Source

Arriving on the island of Guadalcanal

Amphibs coming ashore
Amphibs coming ashore | Source

Memories of a WWII Army veteran


This is a true story related to me by my late stepfather, Vernon Durrell Ritchie.

In the late 1980s, my stepfather called and told me he and Mom planned to attend a reunion of his World War II Army battalion. The invitation encouraged veterans to share anecdotes from their wartime experiences during the event. He asked me to “...work your magic....” on his handwritten account of an occurrence he thought might be interesting enough to contribute to the Army reunion narratives.


My step-dad was a wonderful oral story-teller who could keep his audience spellbound, but realized he was not an effective writer. I had to completely re-write the story, but did my best to keep his "voice" throughout. Therefore, the story you are about to read is his, and it really happened. I was pleased to learn he was asked to read “I Walked Across Crocodile River ” to those assembled at his Army reunion. I’m told there was a lot of applause when he finished. I'm glad they applauded.

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The Army duck rolled from the choppy Pacific waters onto the sandy beach and rumbled to a halt.

“Everybody off!” yelled the driver. “Welcome to Guadalcanal!”

Soldiers scrambled from the amphibian carrier’s belly into a night so dark only faint silhouettes of palm trees were visible. While I was still trying to gain my bearings, another shout rang out.

“Everybody over here on the double! Load up on this truck.”

By now, I was accustomed to being hollered at, after being initiated into the basics of wartime Army duty at Camp Crowder, Missouri. It was there I became part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, 112th Radio Intelligence Company. This was shortly after I answered the urgent summons from my Uncle Sam to go help him whip the enemy and end the infernal war so everybody could go back home.

The moonless south Pacific island where I now found myself seemed a long way from boot camp and a world completely removed from the south Mississippi farm where I grew up.

I climbed aboard the truck with the rest of the guys, and it lurched away into the night. The ride was bumpy, but short. I estimated we’d gone about five miles when the truck stopped, and we heard this terse announcement.

“Here are your quarters for tonight, men. Set up your tents and get some sleep.”

Sleep sounded like a good idea to me. My buddies and I rustled around in the dark spreading our scratchy Army-issue blankets on the ground. I crawled inside the tent that was just large enough to shelter me and rolled up my extra blanket to use as a makeshift pillow. As soon as I stretched out and lay down my head, I realized there was a rock beneath it. I reached beneath the roll, shoved the rock out and heard it roll under the edge of the tent. I settled down and, bone-weary from a very full day, was soon asleep.

Next morning I awoke and stepped out into the sunlight to survey my temporary home. The “rock” lay where it had rolled to a stop the night before. I stared down at a human skull. Were we bivouacked in a bone-yard? I’d heard that bodies of slain enemy soldiers were left behind in the withdrawal of their troops from the island. Here was unsettling proof that, after carrion finished their grisly chore, the bones had bleached in the hot sun.

I had often stumbled across the bones and skull of a cow that had died in the woods on our farm, but looking down at the skull that was once encased by a human’s face and scalp was a very different and quite sobering experience.

A walk around the area confirmed we were camped at the base of the infamous Edson's Ridge, or Bloody Ridge, where so many brave American soldiers perished in the first assault on Guadalcanal.

The truck ride from the beach had been pretty crowded with sweating bodies, but a nice change had been planned for us that morning. Orders were given, and we loaded our gear into backpacks for a nice seven-mile hike on a sunny day.

We reached our intended campsite only to find it completely under water. For the next few hours, my buddies and I hauled sand continuously until the ground was above water.

There were times when I had the feeling those generals running the Army operated under the same theory as had my grandma: Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. I’d learned pretty fast that the Army knew how to keep the devil at bay!

After a great deal of labor, we were finally organized and settled in to stay a while. I was cleaning my stripped-down weapon when I overheard one of the other guys make an interesting remark.

“They say there’s a village about fifteen miles back in the jungle where an American missionary and his daughter live among the natives.”

“Suppose they made it through the occupation alive?” I wondered.

Someone else spoke up, “Maybe we ought to go check on them. We could leave first thing in the morning.”

The three of us who took part in that conversation decided to go.Robinson was a stocky twenty-year-old from Missouri. Raines, a slim fellow like me, hailed from Ohio.

At first light, we loaded our packs with mattress covers, ammunition, “C” rations and the bittersweet chocolate bars none of us could stand to eat, but which were good for bartering.

We climbed aboard a Jeep, and a fourth soldier drove us to the banks of a swift-running river. It looked to be about a hundred feet across. He watched as we stepped out into the river until we were waist deep and started across.

The river grew deeper as we moved toward the middle, and we had to hold our packs and guns above our shoulders to keep them dry. This alone was a strain, but the water ran so fast that it was extremely difficult for us to keep our balance. My feet seemed to slide with every step. It felt as though I were walking on big rocks lining the river bed. The water reached my armpits before it began to get shallow again, and finally, there was the river’s other side.

We splashed out of the water, dropped our packs and guns away from the edge and fell back on the bank. The sun’s heat was already beating down in the early morning, and it felt good after the chill of the river. We rested for a bit, and then, after checking our gear, we continued our journey.


One of many colorful jungle birds
One of many colorful jungle birds | Source

As we strode into the jungle, thousands of startled parakeets, brightly-plumaged parrots and macaws deserted their perches in the trees. They blacked out the sky as they flew up through the tangled branches of closely-spaced trees. The flutter of so many wings was like a heavy sigh. The sound reminded me of frosty mornings back home when my brother and I walked across fields with our bird dog and shotguns in hopes of flushing out a covey of quail.

A trail led through the thick underbrush. The three of us cautiously picked our way along, intently watching for snakes. We’d been warned there were deadly varieties of serpents in this part of the world, and none of us wanted to step on one.

Suddenly, a wild boar ran out of the snarled undergrowth and charged straight down the path toward us.Robinson raised his rifle and shot the animal smack between the eyes. It dropped instantly almost at our feet. I sure was glad that Missouri boy was such a good shot. Now that the sharp tusks curving from the beast's mouth no longer presented a mortal danger, we stood admiring them.

“Now, why do you suppose a wild pig would rush us like that?” I wondered aloud. “I’d have expected it to run the other way.”


Close encounter with a wild boar
Close encounter with a wild boar | Source

Unexpected meeting with former cannibals

At that moment, the hair on the back of my neck got that prickly feeling that made me look up. Along the edge of the path ahead of us stood more than a dozen grass-skirted natives, spears and shields in hand. Most wore bones piercing their noses and ears. Their teeth were filed into points like the edge of my daddy’s handsaw and stained a deep purple. A couple of these men were draped with loincloths instead of grass kilts, but paint adorned the faces of everyone in the group. The shields they carried were decorated with designs in similar colors.

Could these be the south Pacific cannibals of whom we’d heard so much? It was said they had forsaken their barbaric custom of eating human flesh, which gave me some consolation. Still, being face to face with a bunch of cannibals—even reformed ones—could only be described as chilling. Their faces were stern, their eyes dark fathomless pits.

Raines murmured, “I wonder what they want.”

I looked from face to face, and everywhere I looked met a silent stare that bore into my eyes. I turned toward Robinson.

“I think they want to know what you’re gonna’ do with that hog. They must have been after it when you shot it.”

He looked relieved.

“Hell, I don’t want that damned pig. They can have it.”

“Don’t tell me…tell them,” I said.

He gestured broadly with his hands, first pointing at them, then at the boar. Back at them, back at the boar. All the while he chattered nervously in pidgin English in his friendliest-sounding tone of voice, obviously trying to convey they were more than welcome to that pig meat.

A rumble of sound went through the group, and two of their number peeled away from the edge. They ran up to the boar, hoisted it aloft and carried it off into the jungle. The others ran off closely behind them. In seconds, they had disappeared from view, and the only sound left was the twitter of countless tropical birds.

We moved further along the path, still uneasy from the encounter. Though none of us spoke, it was likely the others felt as I did, that we were probably still being watched by those dark eyes. There was no sign of life, but every few feet one or all of us looked around to see if we were being followed.

By afternoon, we spotted the village, a cluster of grass huts encircling a larger building constructed of bamboo with a thatched grass roof. There was no one in sight as we walked into the center of the compound.

“Hello, there! Hello!”

We hollered some more, then began looking around the huts. In a few minutes, about fifteen native men came out of the jungle and gathered around us silently. At least, these had no sharpened teeth, and apparently they decided we weren’t hostile. A few minutes later the women began appearing, with children following in their wake.

We pulled the mattress covers from our packs and spread them out on the ground. The villagers eagerly fingered the fabric. Faces lit up with smiles at the sight of the candy bars and “C” rations. It was easy to see we had the advantage of a seller’s market. In only a few minutes, we traded our wares for grass skirts, battle axes and other souvenirs.

We spent the night sleeping on the floor of the primitive little church. The missionary and his daughter weren’t there, and there was nothing left that might have belonged to them. Our pidgin English, combined with gestures, produced other arm and hand motions from villagers that seemed to portray a story of the missionary and his daughter going away. We could only hope they left of their own accord and reached safety.


A Jeep awaited to take us back to camp.
A Jeep awaited to take us back to camp. | Source

Three young soldiers heading back to camp

The next day, we made it back to the river by mid-afternoon and waded back across, where a Jeep was left waiting for us. We drove back to our Army unit to finish our job of helping win a war. Two years later, I was back in the states, once again a civilian.

Sometime in the early ‘50s, I read an article in the now-defunct magazine, TRUE, about a river on Guadalcanal called Crocodile River. Its name was derived from its being more heavily infested with crocodiles than any other river in the world. The article stated that all the crocs had mysteriously disappeared when the bombing and shelling began on the island, and they didn’t reappear until more than two years later. Scientists believed that all the noise and commotion was too much for them, so they buried themselves in the silt of the river bed to hibernate until the noise-makers were long gone.

I lay aside the magazine and thought about that river Robinson, Raines and I forded on foot. We must have walked across Crocodile River and not even realized it! What else would explain those slippery bumps lining the river bottom? Were they not rocks, as we had supposed, but…sleeping crocodiles? When my feet were slipping and sliding as I struggled not to fall into the water, was I trying to keep my footing on the backs of big reptiles known for their nasty tempers and matching eating habits?

Stranger things have happened in this world, but it seems to me now that God had his hand on three young soldiers, for we lived to return home and tell the story.

How true it is that “fools wade in where angels fear to tread.”



Were there crocodiles on the bottom of that river?

Were those "rocks" in the river bed really the missing crocodile population?
Were those "rocks" in the river bed really the missing crocodile population? | Source

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Comments 34 comments

JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 20 months ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thanks, Resspenser. I'm sorry I didn't reply before now, but sometimes HP doesn't send me notice of a comment. I appreciate your reading my step-dad's story, as well as your feedback.

Regards,

Jaye


resspenser profile image

resspenser 2 years ago from South Carolina

Loved the story and that you wrote it from your step-father's oral version. Great job!


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 2 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thank you so much, Au fait! I felt privileged that my stepdad trusted me to put his oral story into written narrative form. He was a terrific story-teller, and everything he told was true--no embellishments. His delivery, however, was so good that he could hold the attention of all ages. I'm glad to share his story here on HP. Thanks for votes and sharing. Our WWII vets, though most of them are now gone, deserve to be remembered.

Have a great weekend! Jaye


Au fait profile image

Au fait 2 years ago from North Texas

A great story! How lucky you are that your stepfather shared it with you. So many returning soldiers prefer not to talk about their experiences. You had me on the edge of my chair waiting to see what would happen with those ex-canibals and wondering what you stepfather's unit would find regarding the missionary and his daughter. Voted up, AUI, and pinned to Awesome HubPages.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 2 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thanks for your comment, GetitScene. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Regards, Jaye

P.S. That "from the high seas" is intriguing, so I read your profile and, when I get time to do so, plan to read some of your adventure hubs.


GetitScene profile image

GetitScene 2 years ago from The High Seas

Interesting read!


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 3 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thanks, Shyron - I'm glad you enjoyed this story. Wish you could have heard my stepdad telling it in person. He was a natural storyteller. The grandkids used to sit spellbound listening to him (actually, the adults, too--even when we'd heard the story before). He could make a story come alive for his listeners. I just tried to keep his voice, but am afraid I didn't really do him justice.

Have a safe and enjoyable Labor Day weekend!

Jaye


Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

Jaye, this held me spellbound, I Know your stepfather would be proud.

This could be part of a movie and if I saw a movie of this, I would think I saw it before.

My father and stepfather were both in WWII, and the stories I heard I can't remember them in enough detail to write them.

Voted-up, ABI and shared.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 3 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thanks, Writer Fox. I'm glad you enjoyed my stepdad's WWII Croc River story.

Regards,

Jaye


Writer Fox profile image

Writer Fox 3 years ago from the wadi near the little river

A riveting story that held my interest. Every soldier has so many of them. I just put together a collection of war poems and so many were written by men on the battlefield. Enjoyed reading this so much.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 3 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thank you, Graham. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. As explained, it's my late stepfather's personal account--I only "polished" it in writing and decided to share it on HubPages.

Jaye


old albion profile image

old albion 3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi Jaye. An excellent first hand account. I believe the battle for 'bloody ridge' was one of the worst battles of the campaign. I found it of great interest.

voted up and all. / following.

Graham.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 4 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thanks, Frank. He was a great oral story-teller. When my children were little, they loved to sit around listening to him "spin a tale."

His true stories were just as engrossing to hear as the ones he embellished for laughs. He swore this one was wholly true, and it would make the hair on your arms stand up to hear him tell it. When rewriting it, I tried to keep it as much in his "voice" as possible, but know I didn't do it real justice.

Jaye


J. Frank Dunkin profile image

J. Frank Dunkin 4 years ago from Foley, Alabama

Now that's a great war story. Jaye as mesmerizing as I'm sure it was to hear your step-dad tell the story in person, it seemed pretty spell-binding as it spilled from your typist fingers, as well. Great story.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 4 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Pavlo...I'm glad you enjoyed the story. It does have a bit of a "twist", doesn't it?

RTalloni...Thanks for reading this slightly different WWII anecdote and for your insightful comments.


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

very unusual and a very interesting story . I liked it !


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

You did a wonderful job of putting your father's oral story on paper. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. It is a great slice of life example of their experiences--chilling, too. There are so many stories the men couldn't retell because it was too hard. I'm so glad your stepdad was able to share this one, giving us a look at an unexpected experience of war.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 4 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Theresa...Your comment popped back up! Thanks so much for your kind words. I tried to do my best for my stepdad's story and retain the "flavor" of his oral story-telling, as it (and he) deserved.

Molly...World War II veterans--American and Allied soldiers--deserve a special place of honor in our memories. I cannot conceive of a world in which Hitler and the Nazi forces were not stopped. I am so thankful that President Roosevelt was brave enough to withstand political and public naysayers who thought the U.S. should not enter that war. Without American involvement, I don't believe Britain could have long withstood the Nazi machine (brave as the British, both military and civilians, were.)

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." George Santayana

Jaye


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Jaye - I left a comment, a good one and it seems to have disappeared. Perhaps I forgot to hit Post Comment. Speaking of age-related problems!

You did an excellent job turning an oral story into a written one. I am so glad his buddies at the reunion applauded when he read the story, You both richly deserve the applause. :) Take care.


mollymeadows profile image

mollymeadows 4 years ago from The Shire

Brrrr! Jaye it makes my skin crawl to think of stepping on crocodiles. God sure put his hand on your stepdad's head that day!

I had an uncle who helped liberate Nordhausen, one of the nazi concentration camps. They say he refused to tell the family anything about it; the horrifying pictures he brought back, however, may have helped explain why. I've often thought, as you mentioned, that they all suffered from PTSD in silence.

They really were the Greatest Generation, weren't they?

Thanks for a truly engrossing story!


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Jaye - This is a great story and you did a marvelous job converting an Oral story into a written one. Yet throughout you maintained the personality and tone of your father-in-law. I can well imagine that he received heart applause at the reunion. Very good essay. :) Theresa


dadibobs profile image

dadibobs 4 years ago from Manchester, England

I too grew up with stories of WWII. My grandad fought all over Europe, and then ended up in Burma in 1945. I know just how you feel, they would have made great authors.

Fantastic hub :)


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 4 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thanks, dadibobs....I'm glad you enjoyed my rendering of my late stepdad's WWII story. You would probably have enjoyed it even more listening to him tell it. I deeply regret that I didn't have the foresight to get his stories on tape or DVD while he was still with us. There are, however, some of his favorite expressions that I can still hear him use in my imagination...just as I can still visualize his big smile. He was pretty special.

Thanks for stopping by....Regards, Jaye


dadibobs profile image

dadibobs 4 years ago from Manchester, England

Awesome! Truly inspirational.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 5 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thanks, Epi...Since your dad wrote 69 novels, it's easier to understand your own prolific output...especially since he did so as a hobby while working at a demanding job.

Are his books still in print?

I always enjoyed listening to my stepdad tell stories. As an oral storyteller, he could hold his audience in the palm of his hand. I only hope my writing of this wartime anecdote stayed true to his telling of it.

Thanks for reading and for your comments.

Jaye


epigramman profile image

epigramman 5 years ago

...well my dad was a veteran of World War II as a Canadian soldier for six years and also a writer of 69 novels and one memoir (of the war) (and it was just a hobby - he worked at a steel mill to support our family) but he would have loved this story and certainly would have loved your other hubs as well ......

some other hubbers who would appreciate this hub subject in particular are Wayne Brown, Will Starr, Alastar Packer, Saddlerider 1, Hello Hello, DRBJ, A.K.A Professor M and Mckbirdbks ........

lake erie time 4:59pm


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 5 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thanks for reading this story, Jackie. I think a lot of WWII veterans could have told their families a great deal, but found it easier not to talk about their experiences. In the aftermath of WWII, they just wanted to be back with their loved ones and not burden them with their horrible memories of war.

Of course, they couldn't erase those memories, and too many had nightmares for years because of what they endured. Most probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but that terminology and the condition's effects weren't known back then.

I hope the Veterans Administration will do more to help returning vets recover from, not only physical wounds of the Iraq and Afghan wars, but the psychological injuries they suffer. When a war veteran suffers emotionally, it affects his or her entire family.

Jaye


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 5 years ago from The Beautiful South

My Dad fought in WWll and I wished he had talked about it although Mom told me a couple of really bad things that was all I heard. He was wounded although not life-threatening still I am sure very painful and I have a feeling he didn't even tell my all because I think she would have told me. These things really deeply effect many and so many are out there with no help from recent wars with no one caring. Great story, thank you.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 5 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thanks for your comments, Nellieanna...My stepdad could tell his story orally in such a manner that would make goosebumps rise on the listener's arms. I tried to do it justice when writing it, but it is still his story. I can only imagine how that adventure affected three American country boys so far from home.

Of course, they then went back to the "real" war. I have so much respect for all the Allied forces who served in World War II. Sadly, there are so few survivors of that war left to tell their stories, and many who would never talk about their experiences at all.

I'll look forward to reading your story of George's feats at Iwo Jima.

Jaye


Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 5 years ago from TEXAS

What a fascinating and well-written story this is, Jaye! It was gripping to read from start to finish. That was surely scary to realize that the rocks in the riverbed may have been hibernating crocs! Aieeee! And the cannibals - or former cannibals - were scary, too!

My brother was stationed in Manilla with the Army Artillery and was involved in several South Pacific battles, such as Luzon, Leyte, Mindanao. My precious George was in the Navy and co-captained one of the LSTs who delivered the Marines to Iwo Jima and brought survivors away. I featured that on my webpage. He was in several famous battles, but I didn't get much information about the others. What a war. . .


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 5 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Hi, Keith...Yes, he was one of the fortunate ones who returned. Glad you found his "extreme hiking" story interesting. Jaye


attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 5 years ago from Australia

Hi Jaye, i love history and of course wars have a major role to play in its rich tapestry. It sounds like your stepdad was fortunate to return from that war-torn, croc-infested

cannibalistic hell hole. Hiking can be dangerous but that's extreme hiking, or hiking up the ante. At least he had a story to tell from it, an interesting one at that. See you.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 5 years ago from Deep South, USA Author

Thank you, Hyphenbird. Both my stepdad and my dad were WWII veterans, and I've known many others from that war during my lifetime, though there are few of them left now.

Yes, they were courageous, and that was true in all branches of the Allied Armed Forces. The U.S. was fortunate that the war wasn't fought in our country, like it was in the UK, Europe, etc. Those who went abroad were willing to sacrifice all, if need be. Yet, civilians of all ages left at home were also willing to sacrifice in many ways to help bring about victory, including doing without all but the very basics during those years. Attitudes concerning what was considered everyone's duty to the war effort was so different during World War II from anything we're likely to witness these days. Jaye


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

We will never really understand or know what those guys went through to buy our freedom. They were and are warriors. What a riveting tale. You and your stepfather did well.

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