(Continued from last week)
Advances and small victories such as the one achieved on Robert Scott’s hill overlooking the Munda 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 round 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 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; himself to his knees, this intrepid soldiers 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 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 p.m. 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 machine gun 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 their muzzle of their guns — then they opened fire.
Two soldiers fell dead in the initial volley, as the remaining 18 men dug frantically for cover. Above them the enemy soldiers held down the tripper of their machine gun, 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 16 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 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 hometown 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 order: ‘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 steak and tell him to draw back but he had his sight on that pillbox and started after it.’
(Continued to next week)