When I was a little kid, I remember going to see a parade on First Avenue in downtown Jamestown. One of the highlights for the five-year-old me was walking down by the Armory building (where, a decade or so hence, my first bands would play their first gigs) and watching the National Guard guys in their olive-drab uniforms getting their gear – trucks, jeeps and so on – read for one parade or another.I clutched my first book – a book of World War II airplanes that had been my dad’s when he was about my age – and looked on in awe as the guys, middle-aged pillars of the community, milled around waiting to roll out for the assembly area.
I walked up to one of them and showed him my book. He laughed. “I was in that war!”, he said, chuckling at the awe that must have stricken me.
On the arch above the armory entrance “Co. H 164th Infantry” was carved in stone first placed during the First World War. It’d seen Jamestown boys off to war in WWI, WWII and Korea.
One of the guys who’d left that armory in 1917 for France was Frank Newberry. He lived next door to us at the corner of 3rd Avenue and 8th Street SE in Jamestown; already 80ish when I was in elementary school. Photos of him in his uniform, with his cloth puttees and “tin hat”, hung around the house; his ’03 Springfield was in a case in his basement. He’d fought in H Company at Cantigny, Soission, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne (I found much later, reading the unit’s history), the places where the US entered the modern world with all its horrors. He came home, married, raised a family, shot squirrels in his back yard with a .22 rifle, and, one day in probably the mid-’60’s, built a model of the WWII destroyer USS The Sullivans. He gave me the model when I was maybe six years old. I was thrilled – and I still am. The old model, still together, slightly the worse for wear after enduring three boys (my stepson, son and I), sits on my library shelf, across the room from me, as I write this.
Of course, the WII veterans were everywhere. They didn’t talk much, that I recalled; I did my researching later. The North Dakota National Guard website narrates concisely:
1941 – The North Dakota National Guard’s 164th infantry Regiment and the 188th Field Artillery Regiment were mobilized for service in World War II. 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion formed from batteries F and H of the 188th Field Artillery Regiment. The 776th went on to spend more then 550 days in actual combat in Tunisia, Italy and Central Europe.
My high school civics teacher had been a member of the 776th, if memory serves. A few of the less-bright lights in my high school used to amuse themselves by popping blown-up paper bags or throwing fireworks nearby as he walked. In his fifties, he would still throw himself flat on the ground, if he was having a bad day, if the “bang” was loud enough. Later, of course, some of us learned why; the 776th’s 550 days in action included some of the bloodiest, ugliest fighting in US Army history; El Guettar, Salerno, the Rapido, the Volturno, Monte Cassino. Rumor had it that his tank destroyer had been the only survivor of his platoon in one ugly engagement. Nobody knew, and he never talked to any of us.
He passed away maybe ten years ago. On behalf of a couple of the ninth grade morons who didn’t know any better (and I’m happy to say I wasn’t one of them), I’m sorry.
1942 – The 164th Infantry Regiment landed on Guadacanal to reinforce the First Marine Division at Henderson Airfield. The regiment became the first US Army unit to take offensive action against the Japanese during World War II.
Company H of the 164th, from Jamestown, was one of the regiment’s 12 infantry companies. In the dark days after Pearl Harbor, they were sent to the South Pacific, and in late 1942 they were shipped to the Solomon Islands to reinforce the first American offensive ground action of the war, the Marine invasion of Guadalcanal.
The Regiment was the first Army unit sent ashore to reinforce the beleaguered First Marine Division. The NDNG’s terse prose belies the desperation of the Regiment’s action on Guadalcanal; this online forum captures some of the story, first-hand, including pages of scanned diaries from the era.
On one of their first nights in the line, in late October, the 164th and the Marines were the target of a massive Banzai charge – at a place known to history as Bloody Nose Ridge and the banks of the Matanikau River. Green farm boys just two years off the prairie, they held off the attack, earning (by various accounts I’ve read over the years) the admiration of the grizzled Marines that’d been there for an eternity – two months months – already. The Fargo Forum’s story on the unit relates:
The infantry was also given the nickname “The 164th Marines” for their bitter fight against the Japanese in the Battle for Henderson Field and the Battle of the Matanikau on the island, and became the first U.S. Army unit to take offensive action during World War II.
A bunch of the old guys around town were vets of Guadalcanal. They never talked about it – not at all; other people who knew the story passed the story on to us. It was in the books; names of guys we knew from around town and the county popped up occasionally, attached to actions that we couldn’t picture from the grizzly fiftysomethings we knew.
The Regiment fought on under MacArthur for the rest of the war:
1943 – The 164th Infantry spearheaded the Americal Division’s island hopping against the Japanese in the South Pacific. The 188th Field Artillery Regiment was split up into the 188th Field Artillery Group, the 188th Field Artillery Battalion, and the 957th Field Artillery Battalion.
Like Guadalcanal, the old vets of the 164th didn’t talk much about their time on Bougainville or in the Philippines, or on a brief stint of occupation duty in Japan after the war.
By the time the war was over, the 164th suffered 325 dead, and nearly 1,200 wounded out of about 3,000 men.
The North Dakota Guard fought in Europe as well:
1944 – Members of the 188th and 957th Field Artillery Battalions landed on Utah Beach and participated in the Cherbourg Offensive and the Battle of the Bulge while driving onward to Germany.
Pete Schwab was a crusty old guy who ran “Pete’s Radiator Shop”, across from Radish Widmer’s house on Eight Street at First Avenue. He was a cranky but friendly old fellow who I remember bothering to try to find go-kart parts.
When I was in Junior High, on one of my patrols through the library, I found the unit history of the 957th Field Artillery – batteries of which had hailed from Valley City, Fargo and other parts of eastern North Dakota. I found a picture of “Pete Schwab” in the unit history; Pete the Radiator man, 30 years and a world of care younger, an ammo handler who’d won a commendation – Bronze Star, I think? – for action in France, where the battalion had beaten back a German tank breakthrough (155mm shells can be persuasive). The 957th fought through France, and fired in support of the 2nd Armored Division in the battle that put the cap on the Bulge, at Dinant and Celles, Belgium. They went on to help liberate the Nordhausen concentration camp, and ended the war in Bavaria.
1945 – World War II ends with the surrender of Germany and Japan. North Dakota National Guard units are released from active duty and return home.
Where they built the city I grew up with freedoms I scarcely knew how to appreciate, thanks to the service they scarcely mentioned.
The 164th served in Korea – more Jamestown boys shipped out, and most came home. The high school put up a large wooden Honor Roll that hung over the entrance to the Junior High for decades, listing all of the Jamestown High School boys that fought in World War II and Korea – with a number of stars highlighting the ones that died. As I got older and learned more about what the Roll meant, the number of stars on the Roll was daunting.
The 164th Infantry Regiment was disbanded during the ’50s. North Dakota’s National Guard was converted to Combat Engineers, for the most part. And Jamestown’s Armory – in the old building and then, in the late seventies, in the basement of the new Civic Center – was turned over to the new Jamestown company, Co. B of the 141st Engineer Battalion.
Many more guys from Jamestown served, of course. One of them was Fred Jansonius, one of my father’s star’s on the Speech Team. He enlisted in the Army, and was killed in the Tet Offensive, serving in the Ninth Infantry Division. JHS’ Speech award is named after him.
Years passed. B/141st served in Iraq – and two more Jamestown boys died overseas, including Phil Brown, nephew of one of my high school friends and of my favorite Junior High teacher.
Many more served and came home, of course, including my high school classmate Joey Banister, who started as a private in B Company during high school, and was a Major on the Battalion’s staff by the time the battalion went to Iraq; not bad for ol’ knucklehead Joey. He was among many other Jamestown guys, many of them friends and classmates, who’ve served in one capacity or another in the war on terror.
And to them, today, the Jamestown guys and everyone else; though it seems not nearly enough, I send my thanks.
Along, of course, with thanks to my uncle Roger, whose submarine patrolled off the coast of Vietnam and forestalled a repeat of Pearl Harbor. And my other high school pals; Nuke, who kept the Russians on the other side of the Fulda Gap from ’78 to ’81; Jim, who left his family and sheperded his platoon of guys through a tour in Washington State in a war he didn’t much care for; and of course, occasional commenter Fingers, who has been patrolling the skies over Bosnia, the Gulf, and today a fair chunk of the eastern US for nearly twenty years.
And, natch, Flash’s son Tom, the Marine.