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Taking Pictures in the South Pacific during WWII
When I started this article, I wanted to pass on to my children and grandchildren a bit of family history. As I am the one of the remaining few who knew and talked in depth with my father about his experiences in the Pacific during World War II I wanted to get his stories told. Unfortunately I lacked visual images of the time, until my cousin Harry produced motion pictures from this particular period.
I want to thank Harry Poschman for his wonderful gift, while they are not images specific to my fathers stories, they do provide a visual record of the period in the Philippines just after Japan surrendered at the end of the war.
Throughout the article I offer up the images and movies that were taken by my father and his buddies who chronicled the war in pictures for the Army.
Meet My Father
This is for William, Katherine, Alan, Sarah, Zoee, Aaron, Amy and Johnny. It has taken me a long time to write this article. Not in actual hours, but in time of reflection. The stories are written in first person, because that is how they were told to me by my father. I know that most of them are true, because they have been corroborated by third party sources.
My parents were divorced when I was about five years old, in 1952. For a number of years I didn't see my father, then shortly before my teenage years he was visiting and back in my life. He had remarried and was living in Las Vegas. I would visit him during my summers, and these were the times I got to know him best.
He had been in World War II and served in the Pacific Theater as a corporal in the infantry. He had a talent for photography and became part of a group of men who were shuttled about during the war taking stills and motion pictures of the war with Japan in the Pacific.
The following is a series of first person recollections, these are mostly his words, about four events during the war. My Father didn't talk much about the fighting or the battles, or even his part in battle, because mostly he was an observer with a camera.
“There is a lot of footage I shot, and there are times when I see it on TV, or in an old news reel, and even in some movies”, he would say.
The Marines Hit the Beach
My father received the purple heart twice and a bronze star. He wouldn't talk about either one of them.
“My Time in the Pacific was not always bad”, he'd say. “There were a lot of times it was just strange, sometimes funny, and a lot of the time it was boring, a nervous kind of boring.”
We were watching a movie on TV once, and the Marines were landing on the beach and my Father started laughing when one of the actors said something about how the Marines were always the first ones on the beach.
“During the war, the Japanese would put barricades and mines under the water. Landing sights had to be shelled, but you couldn't always count on the shelling to clear everything out. The Navy sent out frogmen either before the shelling or as the shelling was finishing to do additional clean up. I know, because once I was selected to go along one. They were to take me all the way to shore and see I was protected. My job was to get the footage of the Marines landing on that beach. I guess they couldn't rely on the Japanese to get the footage they wanted.”
Smile and Look at the Pretty Lights
My Father went kind of quiet after sharing that with me, and he had an odd smile. I asked him what was that about?
“There were other times when brass wanted some interesting footage. There was a night battle, it wasn't particularly large, mostly tracer fire in the night. Some Captain wanted to get night shots and moving footage of the tracers flying through the night sky. My number came up and I was volunteered for the assignment.”
“No moon, semi clear sky, in a strange way the tracers were a lot like meteorites, just going horizontal instead of vertical. I crawled on my belly until I could find a spot about in the middle of the field that was deep enough to keep me from getting my ass shot off, and allow me to set up and take pictures. From somewhere, someone had set off a flare and I saw a hole and I scurried for it.”
“It was a little deeper than I needed, and it was occupied. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was just short of messing myself. He was a Japanese soldier, and I figured my number was really up. I was unarmed and waiting for... something. It was darker in the hole than it was at surface level, but as nothing was happening I took a harder look at my host.”
“I thought I had a lot of camera equipment, he was smalled than me and we was loaded down, and he was also unarmed. He was frantically pointing at his equipment and the sky. I suddenly understood that he was there for the same reason I was. He was the enemy...no he was a Japanese dog face soldier just taking pictures like me.”
“He slowly reached into his pocket and showed me a picture of a Japanese woman with a little boy, hell we was me, just from another country. He spoke no English, and I didn't speak Japanese, so I pointed at my cameras and set up to film and take pictures. It was a nervous 15 minutes, but then we both packed up and crawled out of the hole and headed our separate ways.”
“There are times I wonder if I should have done something else, there was no major victory that night, the shooting was mostly about letting the other side know we were there. We had overtaken the island later that week, I figure one photographer either way had no effect on what went on there.”
Best Barbecue on the Island
I once asked my Father what was the strangest thing that ever happened to him during the war.
“We were on an island where we wanted to get across to the other side. The shortest way was through the jungle, but it was occupied with headhunters. The truth be known, they didn't like us any better than they liked the Japanese, and they would kill anyone coming through their territory. Since we wanted to get through quietly, we wanted to send men not machines through the jungle, but the headhunters were very effective.”
I am interrupting here because this next part requires knowledge of my Father that has not yet been provided. He was a great cook. Barbecue is one of the things he had mastered when he was very young. He liked all kinds of barbecue and he was a master at them all.
“At the village where we were encamped, at the edge of the jungle, one of its residents had brought us a pig to roast as a gift. Doc had set his kid's leg, and this was his way of saying thanks. It was a challenge coming up with ingredients for the barbecued pig, but I had a great time putting it all together. We had a party in the village and were sort of forgetting about the war for a bit.”
“Suddenly we were aware of the uneasy quiet from the jungle. A number of the headhunters had showed up and we were not actually ready for a fight. We were unaware that the village often traded with the headhunters, and occasionally they celebrated together. The chief and, who I was later to realize was, their witch doctor approached the gathering. One of the villagers plated up some food and the two sat down to eat. They became very animated and called in some others, who also got some food. Then they were laughing and the witch doctor was talking to the village elder and suddenly I was surrounded by headhunters.”
“The gist of it all was that they were relatives of the boy who Doc fixed, and they were willing to talk terms for our being escorted through their jungle unharmed, if I would agree to show the witch doctor how the barbecue was prepared, process, ingredients and all. In exchange he would share a sacred process with me. I went with the witch doctor to his village with an interpretor, and I showed him how to barbecue the pig, prepare the rub, what I put into the sauce, and all. In exchange I learned how to shrink a head. I suspect the witch doctor used my sacred process a lot more than I ever used his.”
No One was Wearing Clothes, So Who's Who?
This last story took place in the Philippines. Some of our troops were housed at a movie studio lot. My father and some others had found a pool that had been used as a latrine by the Japanese. Father and his buddies cleaned out the pool and fixed up the area. They fenced it off and said all were welcome as long as rank and military affiliation stayed out of the area.
“For the most part we were able to keep everything below the radar. Officers and enlisted alike came and played in our pool. No one brought rank. Occasionally military affiliation would creep in, but that was mostly during the water polo games. Army and Navy seem to always separate out and although we kept it good fun, occasionally there were... fouls. There was this one older Navy guy who was real spunky and he could dish it out pretty good. I liked the guy a lot, but I couldn't help myself, I just had to dunk him at every opportunity.”
“A bunch of navy were shipping out and so we had a special party for them. The old man showed up and we were in the middle of one of out better water polo games when about a dozen Navy and Marine officers showed up. They started tossing towels into the pool and started telling every one to get out. According to them, they were taking possession of the pool and there wasn't much anyone could do about it. There were no Birds with them, but no one at the party was probably above an O3”
“No one had brought uniforms with them, except the old man, he had is in a bag. He had to report to his ship right after the party. I figured he was a chief or something. A couple of the Marines were majors so it looked like the party was over. The last one out of the pool was the old man and a Marine had slapped a towel onto his head and told him to move his butt. We were trying to figure out something when the old man reached for his duffel and took out his shirt. The Navy and Marine officers were laughing and seemed pretty pleased with them selves when the old man put on his shirt and straightened out his collar.”
“I guess they had not gotten the glimpse of gold on the collar, you could knocked me over with a feather, 4 stars do have a bit of a shine. The old man's voice was mellow and calm as he asked the a Marine major, by whose authority they were appropriating the pool. The Major turned his head and I swear all the blood drained out of it. He had started to say “Admiral Fucking Hal...” but that might have been a little short sighted, since he was facing the fleet Admiral himself.”
The last story has been confirmed by my Father's Father and my Mother. It seems the Admiral visited them in San Diego when he arrived, to let them know that my Father was fine and he hoped he would be home soon.
Time To Say Goodbye
William M Poschman, Corporal, United States Army, served in the South Pacific where he contracted reoccurring Malaria. He was wounded twice, saved several other photographers, though he never said how, he didn't like to talk about it, but it earned him the Bronze Star. His friends Bill Gene Wright and a Sailor named Rex saved his life, hence my name. The war had taken its toll on my Father and Mother and their marriage and after five rocky years, he and my mother were divorced. He moved to Las Vegas, Nevada where he worked as an electrician, married a second time and taken out several patents on a time clock. He was a shrine clown. He died shortly after his granddaughter Katherine was born.
I miss you Dad.
Gene R. Poschman