[Editor’s Note: Due to Stan’s schedule his “Let’s Look Back” column is only going to be posted once a month from now until whenever he can get caught up. Until then, expect to see Stan’s work here around the 1st of each month.]
My friends know I spent a couple of years with an infantry rifle company in the jungles of the South Pacific during World War II. They also know how much I love to fish.
“Stan,” I’m often asked, “did you ever get to do any fishing when you were out there in the islands of the South Pacific during World War II?”
My answer is always the same. “I did some,” I reply, “but not nearly as much as I wish I could have. And I’m not too proud of the way we went about it when we really did get a bunch of fish.”
One of the reasons I didn’t have a chance to put a dent in the fish populations of the South Pacific was a lack of fishing tackle. They didn’t issue fishing gear to a dog face infantryman and that’s what I was. They gave us grunts a rifle, a knife and ammo, along with a few hand grenades, and not a heck of a lot more.
As I’ve indicated, I suppose present-day sports fishing enthusiasts would be repulsed by some of the things we did to provide fish for our mess kits in those difficult days out there in the South Pacific jungles. Some of our tactics bore no resemblance to modern day sports fishing.
But keep in mind what we were up against. Food was occasionally in short supply. What there was of it wasn’t calculated to do much for your taste buds. And if we were being supplied by air, as we were for weeks some of the time, every now and then we had to battle the Japanese just to get our hands on the rations that were dropped.
All of which meant that fresh fish, on those few occasions it was available, was a very special treat.
So how did we go about getting fish? Somebody did manage to come up with some hooks. But we had no lines or rods to go with them. We solved the rod part of the problem by using our machetes to whack off some good-sized poles from a nearby jungle bamboo thicket.
That still left us looking for lines. We got around that one by peeling off the cover of some phone communication line. I don’t recall the exact type of communication wire we wound up with, but it worked after a fashion. But trying to cast that wire far enough to do any good was an awful job. We did manage to come up with a fish or two with that miserable gear, but not very darn many.
At the time our infantry division was on the island of Morotai in what was then the Netherlands East Indies, an area that’s now a part of Indonesia. My company was sent from the main area of the invasion perimeter to outpost duty on another part of the island.
There was no shortage of fish in the beautiful area to which we were sent. The palm-lined beach where we set up our perimeter would have done credit to a Hollywood version of the South Pacific. As I mentioned we managed to catch a few fish there with our primitive gear, but just enough to leave a whole bunch of hungry taste buds begging for more.
Then somebody figured if the fish were as numerous as they appeared to be, maybe we could use some other means of collecting them. The mortarmen in our weapons platoon had the answer.
They set their 60 and 80 mm mortars up on the beach. Some of the natives rowed out to pinpoint schools of fish that could be easily seen in the gin clear water. As soon as the natives marked the spot where they could see schools of fish, they rowed clear of the area – fast.
Our weapons platoon loaded their mortars with delayed action ammo. The shells plunked into the area the natives had marked, then burst underwater with a muffled “whump!” Fish, lots of them, floated to the surface in a matter of seconds. Back came the natives and in short order they had their boats loaded with fish.
The natives dumped the fish on the beach in two piles. One pile was made up of fish of a variety of sizes and shapes and darn near every color imaginable. These fish were, the natives warned, not edible. The less colorful fish in the other pile, similar to those we see in this part of the world, were immediately cleaned and turned over to the mess sergeant.
The infantry division of which I was a member was in the jungle most of the time for the two years we served in the South Pacific. As I’ve mentioned, food was sometimes hard to come by.
Many of the grunts who served with me out there in New Guinea, Indonesia, the Mapia Islands and the Philippines are no longer around. They’re already fishing that “Great Lake in the Sky.” There are fewer of us WWII vets left with each passing day.
It’s my understanding there are now less than one million of us left from the 16 million who were serving during the height of the WWII conflict.
But I have a suggestion. If you ever bump into an old timer who served in Company G, the 167th Infantry Regiment, 31st Infantry Division, ask him if there’s one meal he had out there in the jungles he most remembers.
I’d bet my last bass plug his sentiments will be the same as mine. Nothing ever came out of the Company G kitchen that even came close to matching those fish fresh from the sea that our weapons platoon “caught” for us.