They Thought We’d Be A Pushover

The rest of the sentence to that title introducing Herman Billnitzer’s story is, “They found out otherwise!” This was his proud description of the First Marine Division’s struggle through the Pacific islands as they answered the call of the Japanese propaganda to surrender. But I am jumping ahead of myself. Let me tell you about Herman Billnitzer, Navy Corpsman (Combat Medic).

Herman is of Hungarian descent and was born in Carthage, Illinois. His father was a Lutheran pastor and the family would be required to move to a new church every eight to ten years. They would finally land in the Hill Country of Texas, where Herman taught school at Tivy High School in Kerrville. His mother was originally from Fredericksburg, Texas, where the Admiral Nimitz museum is located.

Herman taught General Science and Biology and filmed all the football games. He was a football coach for 15 of his 36 year career. (Please see the inset plaque from Tivy, recognizing his illustrious career and military service.)

When World War II broke out, Herman was a 21 year old high school teacher. “I knew my goose was cooked,” he remembers. He knew that he would have to report for induction, so he joined the United States Navy. After boot camp he was sent to a hospital in San Diego for “a little bit of medical training,” as he puts it.

After the medical training, Herman was attached to the 1st Marine Division as a Combat Medic. The 1st Division saw a lot of action and Herman “was stuck with them,” he says. Their first deployment was at Guadalcanal. It was a hot war zone when they arrived. “The Japs were still shelling us. They hadn’t given up,” he said.

“We spent three months on that lousy island.” It was difficult getting supplies to these troops. When the supply ship would dock and attempt to unload, the Japanese Zeros would begin their strafing and bombing runs on them. For three or four days the largest naval battle of the Pacific took place there.

Herman remembers that “There were many casualties and many ships went down…You’d look out into the bay and see heads and lifejackets bobbing and drifting to shore.” It was a horrible sight and all that could be done was to line them up on the beach and see if any of these men, who were covered in oil from the damaged ships, were alive or not.

The Corpsmen began giving first aid and doing what they could for all these pitiful boys who were either wounded or dead. When one was found alive, he was rushed to the battalion aid station. Herman remembers that there was very little medical aid even at the aid station.

There were also sharks in these waters and many were maimed or killed by them. It was a very confusing time and Herman says, “You couldn’t go out and get them. You just had to take care of the ones that you could…Casualties were everywhere…a terrible sight along the coast.”

In the fierce campaign of Guadalcanal, the United States lost over 7,000 men and Japan’s death toll was more than 19,000. The G.I.’s were outnumbered in troop strength and resources. Herman lost 30 pounds during those days, from 185 to 155. “It wasn’t easy going,” he remembers.

The goal was to hold the island until more reinforcements arrived. Herman was assigned to Company K-35 and they held a small area along the beach. Guadalcanal was to be a staging area for the Japanese forces in order to take over Australia. Herman says, “We held onto everything we could. We stopped them right there at Guadalcanal. They thought we would be a pushover there. They found out otherwise!”

The Americans were barely holding on to the island, “by the skin of our teeth,” Herman passionately says, waiting for supplies and reinforcements and enduring the Japanese harassment by airplanes and propaganda by leaflets and the Tokyo Rose broadcasts.

“Supplies were slow in coming. And the Japs would drop these lousy propaganda leaflets on us, telling us to surrender. If we didn’t surrender, it would be too late for you and we’ll kill all of you…and all of this kind of humbug!” You can tell in Herman’s voice that is still fresh on his mind and how proud he is that they were determined to finish the job they were there to do.

“They would tell us how sorry our country was for not backing us; how our Congressmen were playing around in Washington and having a good time.” He remembers Tokyo Rose saying, “Get up you poor orphans, they don’t care about you. The longshoremen on the west coast that are supposed to be loading your supply ships are on strike.” Herman had a big laugh as he remembered this craziness. “They could lie better than anybody!”

At night the Japanese planes would harass the war weary troops. As they settled in for much needed sleep, the planes, affectionately called “Washing Machine Charlies,” would buzz the area. “This was to keep you from sleeping; to wake you up,” Herman disgustingly replies. As the alarm went out that they were back, “Get to your foxholes!” was the order. Flood lights would come on and the anti-aircraft guns would blaze, occasionally bringing one down. But not all of them and they would return.

“The Japanese knew every move we made on that island – where we were and what we were doing.” He supposes they had spies that had been indoctrinated among the locals. “Our orders were to not give up, to fight to the finish and that’s what we did…They were determined to take Guadalcanal back, but they never got it!”

The Japanese had a very stronghold for the Pacific at New Britain, where they had airstrips, submarine base and a strong supply chain. “They had taken us by surprise in populating those islands and establishing strongholds. But thank the Lord we had some guys in our military who knew what the Japanese were doing with their supplies and buildup…As soon as supplies and troops arrived things began going in our favor.”

When Thanksgiving came, they were assured they would have a great turkey day. “We were gonna have a real meal! We thought, we’ll have to wait and see.” But the ship was unable to get to the docks because of the Japanese attacks and all the turkeys spoiled in the harbor. Well, it was a good thought anyway. “So, it was back to Japanese rations of rice and coconuts. After a while the coconuts don’t taste good and gave you diarrhea.”

Malaria was prevalent and Herman had it several times. The troops were given Quinine for malaria. It was found that this treatment caused hearing loss. Herman lost much of his hearing to this. “Quinine would suppress it for a while and it would come again.” The pills they would give for another treatment of malaria turned the skin and the whites of the eyes yellow.

Most of the ships that unloaded supplies had more ammunition, gasoline and equipment to keep the war machine running than food for the men. Herman says, “That’s why they called that place ‘Starvation Island,’ and that was a good name for it.”

“Finally we did get off that place. They shipped us to Australia, and boy, those Aussies loved us!” We were invited into homes and had fresh eggs, milk and thick steaks. All of the troop’s first priority after getting off the ships was good food!

The Americans would regroup and retool at Australia and they were treated very well by the Aussies. These Marines had just prevented the Japanese from taking their country. “When you went to town, they would always see that you got what you wanted.”

The guys that were injured were sent back to the States. Herman says, “But the point of sending us down there was to fatten us up for the next round!” 

The next round would come and our next story from Herman’s career will explore the life of a Marine Corpsman. Thank you, Herman Billnitzer, for your brave service for freedom.