Stan’s Story — Part 1
I hope you will enjoy reading part I of Stan’s story as much as I did as reflected in a conversation he had while on his Honor Flight. A decorated WWII Veteran, he is also known as “The Master Caster” in the fishing world and inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame and Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, an author, a poet, a songwriter/musician, award winner, and devoted husband. I only had moments with this quiet, lovely man one-on-one on our Honor Flight together, but to say he has a multifaceted life would be pretty accurate.
“It was no big deal”
By Stan Fagerstrom
The question came from one of the other World War II vets who had also been selected for the Honor Flight to Washington, DC that I was on. I’d met the old timer now seated across the aisle from me on the Southwest Airlines plane bringing us to the nation’s capitol from Arizona earlier that morning. He had noticed the miniature Combat Infantry Badge on the cap I was wearing. He asked me where I’d seen combat and I told him I fought on some of the islands of the Southwest Pacific for the better part of two years. “I was out there in the Navy myself,” he said, “I wonder if our trails ever crossed. Were you in on any of the invasions of the islands out there in that part of the world?” I nodded an affirmative response. “I first saw combat in New Guinea,” I said, “and then the 31st Infantry Dixie Division I served with invaded the island of Morotai in what was then the Netherlands East Indies—now Indonesia. We wound up fighting on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. I was also in on the invasion of the Mapia Islands Atoll.” “Mapia Islands Atoll?” my new found acquaintance grunted, “Where in the hell is that? It sure couldn’t have amounted to much. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what went on out there in South Pacific. I sure as the devil ain’t never heard of any fighting on a place called the Mapia Islands Atoll. You sure you got the name right.”
The response I’d received to my answer didn’t come as a surprise. I’ve had much the same kind of response many times before. The first few times I heard that kind of comment had left me feeling like I’d just been punched in the gut. I don’t give a damn what islands you were on out there in the Pacific. When you’ve have 15 of your comrades killed around you and probably three times that many wounded in about 15 or 20 minutes some morning it’s going to leave some dents in your memory. And that’s exactly what my experience was so many long years ago when we took the Mapia Islands Atoll from its Japanese defenders.
No, I suppose the invasion of the Mapia Islands Atoll really wasn’t any really big deal on the overall scale of World War II combat. But don’t try to say that should you ever encounter any of the old grunts from Company G of the 167th Infantry Regiment of the 31st Infantry Division who were there with me when it happened.
When Suzanne Nielsen, that warm and wonderful lady who edits this publication, asked me to write something for her about my experiences during the time I spent in the South Pacific, it brought a number of things to mind.
Foremost among my thoughts is that there’s a whole lot of the Southwest Pacific war story that’s never been told. I expect it never will be. It won’t be hard for you to find other old infantrymen who were there who’ll tell you the same thing.
In all the time I was out there, you see, I never laid eyes on a newsreel photographer. Nor did I see anyone using a camera period. Chances are you’ve seen and heard a bunch about the battles for Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima or Okinawa along with some of the others.
But how much have you read in comparison about the jungle fighting in the South Pacific? Have you, for example, read about the combat patrols infantry outfits like ours made back into the jungles of New Guinea, our fights at certain outposts of the island of Morotai or perhaps along the blood soaked jungle pathway my comrades called the “Teardrop Trail” on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines? My guess is you’ve not heard a damn thing. But, my friend, those places and times still bring back memories. They say the old can’t remember. I say there are too many things old soldiers can’t forget. It’s not that we don’t want to. It’s because they were driven into our minds with the force of a branding iron.
Now I’m not saying the fighting on the Central Pacific islands I’ve named got more attention than was deserved. No way! The Marine dominated fighting there deserved every darn word and picture that told their story.
But what do you think? Weren’t some of those other “No Big Deals” out there in the forgotten fighting of the South Pacific also worthy of mention? Ask my comrades in Company G what they think. Again–they, like me, watched and heard 15 of our comrades die around us within minutes. What’s more, they were there when own artillery killed two more of us and wounded a bunch of others the next day on the same island.
Mapia Islands Atoll History
Like the Navy vet on that Southwest Airlines Honor Flight said, chances are you’ve not heard a single word about our capture of the Mapia Islands Atoll. If you like to poop around on your computer sometime and have a few minutes to spare, see what you can come up with on your computer search engines regarding the fight.
You won’t find much. The Mapia Islands Atoll, located just north of the equator between New Guinea and Indonesia, actually consists of three small islands out there in the middle of nowhere.
The three islands are Pegun, Bras and Fanildo. These islands are really small. I doubt there is a place on any one of them that is much more than 30-feet above sea level. I doubt Pegun is more than a mile long and no more than two or three hundred yards wide. Bras is broader and somewhat larger but not that much. Fanildo is even much smaller than either of the others.
Soldiers from the Japanese 36th Infantry Division had occupied these islands with a force that we were told ran from 150 to 200 men. My understanding is that the Japanese were able to monitor our naval activities in the region from these teensy islands. They were also able to maintain radio contact with their other forces in the area.
It figures the 31st Dixie Division didn’t feel a large force was necessary to take these islands. The job of doing so was assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the 167th Infantry regiment. Our G Company was, of course, a part of the 2nd Battalion.
We sailed from Morotai aboard LSM vessels (landing ship mechanized) to attack these islands. Pegun was to be the first one we were to hit. As previously mentioned, I was a member of G Company and it was our company that was selected to serve as the first wave for the Pegun assault.
Landing on Pegun Island
Our Pegun Island landing on November 15, 1944 was not opposed. Once the pre-invasion bombardment was lifted, we landed without a shot being fired. We had landed on one end of the island and then spread out across it and began moving toward the other end. Again there was no opposition.
Eventually we neared the far end of the island. We knew that if there were any Japanese at all on Pegun Island they had to be just a few yards ahead. They were. There was a sudden loud but muffled explosion right in front of us.
“Here they are!” came a shout from ahead. The Japanese were there all right, but they were dead. What 13 of them had done was kneel in a circle. Each one held a hand grenade to his chest and exploded them simultaneously.
Bras Island was just a couple of miles away. The bulk of the Japanese had obviously managed to move there or perhaps the bulk of their forces had been there all the time. At any rate, it was immediately decided that we would strike Bras Island the next morning.
A small artillery unit had accompanied our 2nd Battalion for the Mapia Islands Atoll invasion. They immediately set up their big guns and began shelling Bras Island. The shelling went on all night long.
Bras Island Assault
Company G was again selected to make the assault landing on nearby Bras Island. We lined up prior to boarding the amphibious personnel carriers that were to carry us to the Bras shore. Officers told us we were waiting for an attack from the Army Air Force that was to be carried out prior our landing.
The air strike never came. The order to board the amphibious vehicles, we called them “Buffaloes”, finally did. Within minutes we were within rifle range of the Bras shoreline and the unmistakable sharp crack of enemy fire told us the easy landing of the previous day wasn’t to be repeated.
What seemed like an eternity later our lightly armored carriers crunched up onto the Bras Island shoreline and stopped. The Buffaloes were older style personnel carriers where the infantrymen they were carrying had to clamber up over the sides and drop to the ground to begin their attack.
Right then was when some of us began to die. The Japanese were dug in and waiting right where we came ashore. It’s my understanding that in the much publicized invasions of the other islands I’ve previously mentioned, the landing force in the initial assault often far outnumbered the Japanese defenders.
There may have been a few more of us who landed that morning on Bras Island but within minutes 15 of my comrades were dead and, as I’ve mentioned previously, probably three times that number wounded.
Eventually, one of our companies that had been holding in reserve came to our aid and within the hour we had firmly established our small beachhead.
The Japanese moved out of their positions as our numbers grew and moved toward the far end of Bras Island. G Company was sent to move up along the opposite side of the island. We spent the night there and began advancing again at daylight.
We moved up with artillery support from the unit back on Pegun Island. The artillery unit on Pegun fired over us onto the area we would be moving into. Then the big guns waited until we moved forward and stopped before they did the firing out in front of us again.
That worked until we got close to the end of the island. Then our Third Platoon was sent out in front of the rest of the company to try to pinpoint the exact location of the end of island.
Somehow an order was sent back to the artillery on Pegun requesting another volley. Don’t ask me how it happened. I don’t know. What I do know is that the incoming rounds they fired dropped right on top of our Third Platoon. Two more men died as a result. Again, numerous others were wounded.
The fight for Bras Island ended about mid-day. Some of our other units cornered what remained of the Japanese force at the end of the island across from us.
There was no attempt to surrender on the part of our enemy. We killed every last one of them. That no one surrendered didn’t surprise us. The Japanese just didn’t do that in the South Pacific jungle combat that we experienced.
That’s the story of the invasion of the Mapia Islands Atoll. Every one of the 17 dead as well as all the wounded came from just Company G. I’m not guessing in writing about this. I was there.
And I suppose that old vet on the Honor Flight who said it was no “big deal” was right. We didn’t lose the thousands that were lost in some of the much more publicized battles.
But don’t try to tell me it wasn’t an equally important event to the mothers and fathers, the wives or girlfriends and the sons and daughters of my comrades in Company G who died or shed their blood there.
And it wasn’t easy for those of us who were there to watch or listen as our comrades took their last labored breaths even though the news cameras weren’t rolling to show the world what was happening nor have there been books to record it.
Again, as I’ve mentioned previously, events similar to what you’ve just read undoubtedly happened again and again throughout the jungles of the South Pacific during World War II. If you were there, you undoubtedly have similar memories of your own.
And that’s why I say much of the savage fighting out there in the tangled darkness of the jungles is a story often untold. But even if it was “No Big Deal” when the bullets hit one or another of us, we still bled and many died and many cried.
As the blessed Americans who make the Honor Flights possible and especially those wondrous few who actually run the show like last May’s trip from Arizona I was on, thank you for letting me tell this Mapia Islands Atoll story. I doubt you’ve ever read anything about it before.
It’s just of one of many, many mostly overlooked events that took place in the South Pacific in World War II. There’s a related event I had a hand in once the Japanese surrendered. Suzanne has asked that I also share that with you. You’ll find it in a future issue of this Honor Flight publication.