Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Oral History Interview with Herbert M. Smith

Wisconsin Veterans Museum


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[Interview Begins]

DERKS: Okay. So, I saw on that thing in there that you went into the Army in 1919.

SMITH: Well, that was in the Wisconsin State Guard. Later that year--then the Wisconsin National Guard was reorganized. Our enlistments went right on through.

DERKS: So, where were you in '39 and '40? Did you know that war was coming?

SMITH: Well, we had a pretty good idea. Of course, you wouldn't know from--until somebody made up their mind that they were going to have it. But we were--yes, we were looking forward to it.


DERKS: And how were you getting ready for it?

SMITH: Well, they had the year training. We went in the service October 15th, 1940, and went down to Camp Beauregard in Louisiana, where we spent a year--well, it was over a year, and then we went up to Fort Devens.

DERKS: What was your rank, then, when you went down to Camp Beauregard ?

SMITH: I was a Major. I was the Regimental Supply Officer of the 128th Infantry.

DERKS: So, what were your duties?

SMITH: Well, we looked after all of their needs--of their food, their uniforms, 00:02:00and all of their equipment; it all came through my office. Also the engineers' stuff--anything we needed came through that office.

DERKS: So you were training down there. Were you down there when Pearl Harbor happened?


DERKS: Do you remember that?

SMITH: Oh, yes.

DERKS: Tell me about that.

SMITH: [Laughing] Well, there was quite a change in the attitude, and that is about all. It was [now] actually confirmed what we had thought--that there was going to be a war, and we were going to be in it. So, that's all there was to 00:03:00it--it was a change in the situation.

DERKS: I'm going to let the clock finish chiming before we continue. [The clock finishes chiming; Mik is laughing.] There--we got that out of the way; that was a good place for it. Then what happened, how did you get to New Guinea?

SMITH: Well, from Camp Beauregard, we went up to Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Our original orders--we were to go to Ireland. And then, we were asked [to be sent] over in the Southwest Pacific by General MacArthur--asked that we would be sent over there. He was from Wisconsin. We were, too. So we went over to Australia. 00:04:00And from Australia we went up into New Guinea. In Australia, we were there--I don't remember how long--but we trained there. Then we went up into New Guinea, and that was something different again. The Japs had already built up a station 00:05:00over on the north coast--around Buna Village, and also Buna. They had been in there six, or maybe nine months, and they had it very well organized. They had firing points--or they were actually pill boxes, I suppose--made out of oil cans with sand in [them], and also with palm logs. They [were] covered with earth and also vegetation so you couldn't see them; they were just like it was next door, 00:06:00and so that was tough. When we got there, we were all in; we had spent forty-five days coming over the Owen Stanley Mountains--which was practically all jungle all the way--and also was some tough going. The Air Force was supposed to get rations to us under this stuff, but in the jungle, the only place they could drop was in these little villages--which were probably several acres in size, [laughs] and a very small target in a awfully big jungle. And 00:07:00probably--I am sure--unless they were right over us, they couldn't see our panels, which were for identification. But they learned, and also we learned. These villages were up on top of hills--all around, jungle; and, when they dropped rations, they had to drop them on those panels--or else we didn't get it, because anything that wasn't in that clearing was on a hillside that you couldn't get to.

DERKS: It was just really that steep?


SMITH: It was really sharp, and then the jungle; [laughing] you don't do an awful lot around on your hands and knees.

DERKS: Because things are going to get you if you're on your hands and knees?

SMITH: Well when you had to look for stuff, there was undergrowth there--and, well, you had to look for it, so--

DERKS: So, were they dropping--trying to get supplies to you all the time you were crossing?

SMITH: Oh, yeah. That was the idea--that they would keep us in rations, and also equipment, but, it was just one of those things--it wasn't possible. Our clothes 00:09:00and shoes went all to pieces. Well, when I started over the mountains, I weighed pretty close to 200 lbs. When I was wounded and back in the hospital, I weighed 135 lbs. So, you can see that the whole outfit had that same experience--we all lost weight--and also, there was some sickness going over [the mountains], and that didn't help any. The dysentery--they had to have separate camps, and move my head over that. We didn't lose any men going over.


DERKS: How big was your outfit?

SMITH: Well, there was about 1,200, and we had to carry everything on our own. We had these carriers--we had native carriers--and, if we hadn't had native carriers, I don't think we would have ever made it. They were--they carried some surplus, but not the-- [Laughing] It wasn't like going shopping down at IGA or something--if you didn't have it with you, you didn't need it; so, that's how that went.

DERKS: And, what was your mission?


SMITH: Well, eventually, we were supposed to attack Buna, and we did. We shouldn't--I say shouldn't; we weren't in any shape to fight any war, because there was general illness which we had no control over, and there was the malaria. And, anybody that didn't have a temperature of over one hundred and two was not evacuated. It was tough--I'm not kidding you. After we got over into 00:12:00Buna, we received more rations. So, that helped there; but, I didn't last long there. In about a week, I was wounded, and I was evacuated; and, I was in the hospital in Australia about five months. Then I was on limited service, and I was transferred down to Melbourne, to the Base Section down there, where I was the Executive Officer. [Laughing] That was a nice job down there. Had a lot of food and--absolutely--down there, they had enough in storage to carry the army 00:13:00two years, food and clothing. They had a-- That was a real Base Section, but, as the army moved north, this distance became too great. So, when I was leaving Melbourne, they were going to move forward. I was all in, and I got sent home.

DERKS: How did you get wounded?

SMITH: There was a Jap mortar [that] landed up in a tree--up, over; it killed a 00:14:00couple, and then it wounded three of us. And, that was the end of my combat life. It was all very interesting [searches for words]. I can't-- I shouldn't say that I enjoyed it, but on the other hand, I did enjoy it. It was something very different, and it was--it actually was what we had trained for for years--and here was a chance to do it. And that is how it was.


DERKS: The 32nd took a lot of casualties in Buna, didn't they?

SMITH: Yeah, but those casualties were not enemy-caused; most of them, they were [caused by] illness--jungle fever, malaria, and also--

DERKS: Dengue [fever]?

SMITH: Yeah. It was very interesting to see how they put the whole thing together--that's what interested me. I was always interested in supply, and how 00:16:00they put that all together was very remarkable--very, very much so.

DERKS: The military learned a lot there, didn't they?

SMITH: Oh, yeah; it's like anything else. When you keep on doing it, you keep on finding different ways to do it. It is an art; it isn't just-- It isn't something that everybody can do. There have to be specialists, and they had specialists where they needed them--and altogether, I think we did a very good job. We were the first ones--that is, in the Army--that had any contact with the 00:17:00Japs. They were experts, and we were [laughing], we were novices--but we learned; we learned.

DERKS: That is a hard way to learn.

SMITH: [Laughing] Yeah, but you-- True, it sure is! Sure it's hard, but we tried, and we did what we were supposed to do.

DERKS: So, you did some of your fighting at night--is that what I understand?

SMITH: Our first--

DERKS: Wait just a second.

SMITH: Our first attack was a night attack. We overran a Jap headquarters, and 00:18:00we got maps, we got codebooks, and we got the individual diaries. Also, got some cigarettes, and also got some food, and also got some whiskey, [laughing] which they had captured in the Philippines. But our interpreter--when we had all of this stuff from the headquarters--he was interested in the individual diaries; and in there, these [Japanese] officers had commented that this was the first time that the Emperor had ever let them down. Of course, they were up against 00:19:00it. After the Coral Sea Battle--that kind of nicked them a little bit. But, the Battle of Midway--that broke their back; and, it also helped us, too. According to the history books, Buna was captured about the end of December; that was about a month after we had started in there. But, I wasn't there when that happened; I was in a hospital in Australia, so--


DERKS: So, what were your--you weren't in-- Were you still in supply when you were going over the mountains?

SMITH: No, no. I had been-- I started out in the 128th Infantry. In [Camp] Beauregard, I got transferred to the 126th Infantry, which was a Michigan outfit; and, I was a Battalion Executive Officer. After we were in New Guinea, I was on a special service to see the Aussies, and see what we could get in 00:21:00rations, and in other stuff that you have to have--that you need. And, when it was decided--or, when it was intimated that they were going to have to march over the Owen Stanley Mountains. There was a "fleck head" [?] up on the Camp Welsh River which I was put in charge of. So when, when the Second Battalion, 126th Infantry--when they left, I just waived [laughing] "Goodbye, boys." I was caught in the SOS [Service of Supply]; I was mad at everybody, and everything. Well, they were gone just a couple of days, and we got [learned] on the radio 00:22:00that the Battalion Commander had had a heart attack up on the trail. And, the next day, I got a message from Colonel Quid, who was the Regimental Commander, that I was going to be sent up there to take over this outfit, which I had been with over a year. So that's how--that's how I got there.

DERKS: Well then, you were the guy in command?

SMITH: Yeah.

DERKS: How did you like that?

SMITH: Well, it was a very educational experience. I'll tell you--luckily, I was 00:23:00one of the boys; I got along with the enlisted men. And, when you can get along with the enlisted men, you don't have to worry about the Generals. No--and, I think, any General would also tell you that now. I don't know--no, that is how it is; that is how it was.

DERKS: So you were ready to lead, and they were ready to follow?

SMITH: Yeah, after the war, at a reunion, I saw some fellas from Company H--and 00:24:00they said, "We didn't realize that you were as old as you were." They said, "You were always with us, you were doing everything that we were doing, and we just thought that you were one of the gang. And that was a lovely situation. Perfect. And that was something money wouldn't buy. So, I say it was an education.

DERKS: How old were you?

SMITH: I was thirty-nine.

DERKS: By the end of the war, they were calling twenty-four and twenty-five years olds "the old man."


SMITH: I'll tell you--if these kids-- After we got over the mountains and up to Buna, they were eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. They were all old men. They were all old men. And me too; so--.

DERKS: The mountain was hard on you.

SMITH: Well, it was--yes, it was hard. It was a burden, but nobody kicked; they all realized that this is what it was. And, they didn't eat, they didn't eat-- 00:26:00and the fellow next to them didn't eat--so, they were really, really super individuals.

DERKS: How long after you were wounded, and you were evacuated--how long after that did Buna fall?

SMITH: About a month.

DERKS: So, it took a long time.

SMITH: Well, yes; there were only two regiments of infantry in New Guinea. There was the 126th, and the 128th. They had left the one-twenty-seven [127th], and all the artillery and everything, in Australia because they couldn't handle them 00:27:00both. After we were in combat, it looked like we were going to have to have some relief, and then they ordered up the one-two-seven; and, when the one-two-seven was coming in, I was being evacuated. So--

DERKS: So, there was still a lot of fighting and combat after that?

SMITH: Oh, oh yes! But, that's how it was, and that's how it worked out.

DERKS: So, you probably don't have any strong desires to go back into the jungle?

SMITH: Well, I--yes; I had always been an outdoorsman. I hunted, and I fished, 00:28:00and I enjoyed the outdoor life. I didn't mind sleeping in a pup tent, or else just under the stars. No, it wasn't any hardship. I--yes, I enjoyed it.

DERKS: Did you ever go back?


[End of Tape]

DERKS: Tell me what it was like to be in combat around Buna.

SMITH: Well, probably that wasn't like a--well, it certainly wasn't open territory. It was all in the edge of a jungle, and also in a rubber plantation. 00:29:00Now, when there was heavy foliage, you couldn't see much; you couldn't see much from where you were. And, about the only weapon that was anywhere near useful was the tommy gun [The American-made Thompson submachine gun] with a spray rather than an aimed shot. And, it wasn't-- We had been trained for open country warfare, and when you get in the jungle where you can't use your weapons, it isn't too good. And then, it was awfully humid. We had Aussie hand grenades 00:30:00which leaked moisture and were no good. So, that's what it's like.

DERKS: Were the Japanese more comfortable in the jungle because they had been there so long?

SMITH: They weren't in the jungle. They were out on the sea coast. They were out where it was open. We were also in the tidal swamp, and the only place to get anywhere was on these little trails that happened to be out of this swamp, and that's where they had the machine guns laid--from in these.


DERKS: In those bunkers that you told me about?

SMITH: Yeah, from in the bunkers.

DERKS: So they just sat there and waited for you.

SMITH: They were just waiting for us. Anytime we'd move, "Bang". We couldn't see them, but you could hear them.

DERKS: That's not fair.

SMITH: [Laughing] Well, they thought it was [laughs]. So, that's how that went. No, I'll tell you--these higher-echelon officers, they really tried very, very hard. And, General Eichelberger--he understood what we were up against. The old 00:32:00concept was to attack, attack, attack. General Harding and General Marshall, in their training, tried to get around the edge, and not make these frontal attacks. We couldn't see our enemy; we didn't know where they were, other than 00:33:00in front of us. And, we just moved up as we could, and we shot at any targets of opportunity. And, General Eichelberger-- Well, to start with, General MacArthur had been told that there were just a handful of Japs in Buna--and he was so wrong, so wrong. And so, when General Eichelberger found out that we were just 00:34:00moving up as we were able to, he says, "Herb, keep on doing that, and if anybody tells you any different, keep on doing it." He understood. Now, here General Eichelberger--he was a Corps Commander, three stars--and he probably went against General MacArthur, who had told General Eichelberger--he says, "You take Buna, or don't come back!" which was very unfair, very, very-- MacArthur was at the safe house down in Port Moresby; he couldn't hear a thing. So, well, that's 00:35:00the other side of it; I probably shouldn't mention it--but you asked the question [laughs].

DERKS: I think that that's pretty clear from the books--that Eichelberger knew what the conditions were--and then they replaced him, didn't they? Didn't they put somebody else in there?

SMITH: No. That was General Harding who was the--who commanded the 32nd Division. That happened in my CP; I was there when it happened.

DERKS: Must have been a lot of raised voices?

SMITH: Well, I don't know whether I should tell you or not. [Laughs] General 00:36:00Harding sent his Chief of Staff up to command two battalions. Here's another odd thing: There were two second battalions side-by-side, one from the one-two-six [126th], one from the one-two-eight [128th]--both commanded by "Herbert Smith." And, when I got up there, I knew there was going to be confusion, and I said [inaudible] to Division Headquarters, and I told them. Their answer was that I 00:37:00was Red Smith-- and the other Herb Smith, he was White Smith. So--

DERKS: That solved the problem?

SMITH: Yeah; [laughing] they at least knew Red from White. No, these-- There were lots of those situations. Maybe there are quite of few of those odd things that happened, and come on.

DERKS: It's full of odd things when you're in situations like that where things happen like that when you're moving fast, and things are out of control.

SMITH: You just live moment from moment. You can't really look ahead too far 00:38:00because you don't know what's going to happen in the meantime, so--it's war. It's--

DERKS: Stuff happens, and you deal with it.

SMITH: Yup, that's what you do, so-- All in all, I had a very enjoyable Army experience. It was--I enjoyed it. I met some nice fellas, and I had some good jobs.

DERKS: Saw part of the world?

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. No, it was--I enjoyed it all.


DERKS: And did you stay in the military?

SMITH: No, no, I came home. The family owned the local telephone company and my dad was getting old, and he needed help, so I had always worked for the telephone company. I learned it from the ground up, and I knew the business.

DERKS: So, were you back in Neillsville when the war ended?

SMITH: Oh yeah. Yeah. I've lived here all my life. Other than when I--but yes, 00:40:00this was my home.

DERKS: Were people pretty happy when Japan surrendered?

SMITH: Oh sure--they had to be. They had no other choice. No, it was--

DERKS: What did you think when those bombs dropped?

SMITH: Well, they didn't drop any bombs on us, but they dropped some on the Japs over where we were.

DERKS: Oh, you had air support in Buna?

SMITH: Oh yeah, yeah. It wasn't like it was--and the world, either, because--the war over in the Southwest Pacific was not number one. This war in Europe was 00:41:00Number One, and they weren't going to do much over the Southwest until it was all settled over in Europe. And, I'm told that, after Europe folded up, they had everything over there in the Southwest that they ever needed--ever hoped to have. They just moved in, that's all.

DERKS: So, the Pacific would have gone differently if they hadn't have been putting so many of the resources into Europe?


SMITH: Well, it would have--yes, we would have more troops, we would have had more materiel.

DERKS: Which was important to you as a supply person?

SMITH: We did with what we had, and it was adequate, but it would have been a lot easier if you'd had the frosting.

DERKS: But didn't you feel that the military was sort of using you guys to learn how to fight in the Pacific?

SMITH: Well, that was the only jungle situation that I know of. So--and, we 00:43:00hadn't had any training for jungle warfare, but we got it. So [laughs] those things happen; you can't--there's nothing you can do about it.

DERKS: And you did the job; the 32nd did it.

SMITH: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah; they had longest days in combat of any Division in the Army--652, I think, in combat. Well, that's about all I can tell you.

DERKS: Okay, one more thing; does that red arrow on your shoulder--does that mean something to you?

SMITH: Oooh--not only to me, but a hell of a lot of other people.

DERKS: What does it mean?

SMITH: [Very slowly] That they had been there. So-- I thank you.


[Interview Ends]