Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fighting Jungleer: Harry Van De Riet, Jr.

Harry Van De Riet, Jr. served in the Army in World War II, fighting in the Pacific, mostly on New Guinea.  My Grandma LaVonne was his adoring little sister and she loved to tell stories about both Harry and also their brothers Jack and Ray, who served in the Air Force.
Ray, Harry Jr., and Jack Van De Riet

Tough guys are heroes in this family, and Harry was a tough guy.  He even looked tough: dark, tall and muscular, with one brown eye and one blue eye.  (Does that sound like a villain on a James Bond movie?)  Luckily he was also handsome and charming.  For his future wife, Irene, it was love at first sight when she saw him in his uniform.  (Well, second sight.  The two were babies together but their families hadn't kept in contact.)  The feeling was mutual but the couple agreed not to wed until Harry returned safely.

Irene and Harry Jr., March 4, 1945
Harry did indeed return, but not without some major close calls with kingdom come.  He came home bearing serious internal injuries, shrapnel, numerous medals and ribbons, a Japanese pistol and binoculars, and an ancient Samurai Sword won in mortal combat.

On the Pacific front, very bluntly, the main objective was to kill.  They got on those little islands and there wasn't really much of a system for taking prisoners, for either the Allies or the Japanese.  With that in mind, one day Harry was out in the jungle.  Possibly for reconnaissance, possibly hunting down any Japanese soldiers on the island, probably being hunted himself.  He looked up and saw a pistol pointed right to his forehead, held by a lone Japanese officer. (Harry could tell he was an officer, possibly high-ranking because only those with rank were allowed to carry regalia such as swords).  The pistols used by the Japanese army were infamous for misfiring, and sure enough, when the officer pulled the trigger on Harry, he heard a click and another click.  Harry reacted, knocking the pistol away and grappling with the soldier in hand-to-hand combat.  He was able to kill the man, breaking his neck.

Harry took the malfunctioning pistol, a small pair of binoculars that have since been lost, and the sword, because "He wouldn't be needing it anymore."

At some point during Harry's service, he received a stab wound to the left (brown) eye socket between the skull and eye, and also a defensive wound on his hand that left a raised, half-moon scar.  It is possible that he got either of those wounds in this fight (although Harry did keep the officer from drawing his sword).  The eye wound was serious and for a while it was thought that he would lose the eye.  The big question was, would he get another brown eye or a blue one to match?  The eye wound was stitched with a blond hair on the battlefield, the story goes that it was from a nurse, but Harry's daughter doesn't think there would have been female nurses in that situation, so maybe it was a restitch job that got the blond hair.  Medical supplies were notably short on New Guinea, so...

The men weren't really supposed to take souvenirs but many did.  Harry actually did make it legal by acquiring permission from the army to keep the sword, and his family holds the release document. Until the paperwork came through, though, it was a bit of a trick to have such a showy item.  He somehow managed to keep it hidden or maybe just wasn't challenged about it, until it was time to ship out.

The story goes that there was a commanding officer who was a bit green (perhaps a little unsure of himself) who had charge of Harry's unit.  The men had to stand at attention for several hours while they waited to board a ship.  This CO used the time to inspect the men.  Harry, aware that this might happen, had shoved the sword down his pant leg to hide it.  It wasn't a very good job, and the CO barked at him "Whatever you've got in there, take it out and throw it over there on the pile."  Harry stuck out his chest and told him in a threatening voice, "You can get this the same way I got it..."  The CO chose to ignore him, kept walking, and Harry and sword were off scot-free.

The sword was so sharp that Harry passed the time on the boat home purposely dulling it down.  When he got home he put the sword in the safekeeping of his father Harry Sr. and then he was off to Fort Lewis, Washington for another year of active duty.

Some years later, Harry was contacted by a federal official who told him that the family of the Japanese soldier wanted their sword back, and they were willing to pay a million dollars for it.  However..., the official claimed, Harry was not allowed to have any contact with the Japanese--he would have to give this man the sword and then the man would get him his money.  Harry told the Fed that he was willing to return the sword, but that he would only give it to the Japanese family personally.  The matter was dropped.  Good for you, Harry, sounds like a great big scam to me.  If you are wondering how anyone could have known Harry had the sword--the Army did have documentation that Harry had it.  As far as the Japanese family tracking him down, it's a stretch, but it's a slight possibility that Harry might have retrieved the Japanese officer's dog tags and turned them in with the documentation for the sword.  Seems pretty bogus though.  Also, as the current owner mentions, what would be the ramifications of returning such an item? In Japanese culture it may be considered a shameful or dishonorable thing to have war bounty returned.  It would only highlight that their family member was defeated.

The writing on the shank is only visible when the handle is removed.
Is it worth a million dollars?  Intrinsically, no.  As a family or historical artifact, though, it is priceless, especially since the Japanese characters for the successive owners, probably passed father to son, are inscribed on the shank.  The markings date back to possibly the 1600s.  Harry had a Japanese professor who worked at the GSA (General Services Administration) in Auburn, WA, examine the sword, and he couldn't translate the characters all the way back to the first owner because the language had evolved enough over that time to make them indecipherable to a reader of modern Japanese.

Is it a Samurai sword?  Yes.  Here is how describes a "Samurai" sword, or "katana".

"Historically, katana were one of the traditionally made Japanese swords that were used in feudal Japan, also commonly referred to as a "samurai sword".  Modern versions of the katana are sometimes made using non-traditional materials and methods.

The katana is characterized by its distinctive appearance: a curved, slender, single-edged blade with a circular or squared guard and long grip to accommodate two hands. It has historically been associated with the samurai of feudal Japan."  (wikipedia "katana" if you'd like to see the example photo.) 

So, history does our sword compare?  Curved, slender single-edge blade? Check.  Circular guard?  Check.  Long grip for two hands?  Check.  Dates from feudal Japan?  Check.  I think we can safely call it a Samurai sword.  It is also very beautiful.  The light areas on the handle are covered in cream/pinkish seed pearls. 
Can you see the hero worship on their faces?  My brother Jake Haynes and two of his handsome sons.
Did Harry have to use the sword?  No, he didn't use it, but there are blood stains on the blade.

Two other stories from the front.

Harry was involved in a terrible jeep wreck.  Either the jeep was bombed, or drove over a land mine or was hit by a mortar shell.  Harry received some bad internal injuries.  They fixed him up as best as they could there, but when after he had been home for a short while, and married, he got sick and had to have his kidney removed.  His spleen was so bad that although the doctors left it in, they told him that if he jerked quick, like accidentally stepping off a curb or something, it could rupture.  He was discharged.  A few years later, it did rupture, and Harry got peritonitis.  He had to have it out, along with half of his stomach.

Harry's unit took part in the Battle of Buna-Gona, back on New Guinea, November 1942-January 1943.    It was a battle drawn out over a matter of months, and included three major skirmishes.  For an in-depth article about this battle on Wikipedia, click here

This picture of  3 Americans casualties at Buna-Gona was actually the first photograph of Americans dead on the battlefield to be published (LIFE, 20 Sept 1943), authorized by FDR, who thought we were becoming too complacent over cost of human life.  (From Wikipedia.)

Buna-Gona was notably bad.  Conditions were horrible: a difficult, swampy jungle environment, lack of food and medicine (that would rapidly disintegrate in the humidity, anyway) and ammunition, disease, even some evidence of cannibalism for both the Allies and the Japanese (who had basically been

abandoned there but were determined to defend their post).  Foxholes and bunkers filled up with water.
The men at the front in New Guinea were perhaps among the most wretched-looking soldiers ever to wear the American uniform. They were gaunt and thin, with deep black circles under their sunken eyes. They were covered with tropical sores. ... They were clothed in tattered, stained jackets and pants. ... Often the soles had been sucked off their shoes by the tenacious, stinking mud. Many of them fought for days with fevers and didn't know it. ... Malaria, dengue fever, dysentery, and, in a few cases, typhus hit man after man. There was hardly a soldier, among the thousands who went into the jungle, who didn't come down with some kind of fever at least once.[75]

One of the generals involved, General Eichelberger, likened the casualties at Buna-Gona to the statistics of a Civil War battle, instead of one in World War II.  From wikipedia:
In his book, Our Jungle Road to Tokyo written in 1950, Eichelberger wrote, "Buna was...bought at a substantial price in death, wounds, disease, despair, and human suffering. No one who fought there, however hard he tries, will ever forget it." Fatalities, he concluded, "closely approach, percentage-wise, the heaviest losses in our Civil War battles." He also commented, "I am a reasonably unimaginative man, but Buna is still to me, in retrospect, a nightmare. This long after, I can still remember every day and most of the nights."[87]
Lucky for Harry, his regiment, the 163rd of the 41st Infantry, were the reinforcements that were finally called

in January, "fresh from Australia", so hopefully he avoided the worst of the suffering.  (Although, I'm pretty sure I remember my Dad mentioning once that Harry had to eat monkeys.  Wonder if it was during this period?)  The 163rd "took over the two roadblocks and relieved the Australians".  It was on a detail while defending the Huggins Roadblock that Harry earned either his Silver Star for Gallantry in Action or his Campaign Service Medal, for service in an emergency situation.  Here is the description of the incident taken from 41st Infantry Division, Fighting Jungleers II.  Pardon the military shorthand--we'll try to make some sense of it.

  I Co. 163 Inf Storms Perimeter U

On 15 Jan. Nips got mad at us.  Sent up the trail from Huggins 200 yards to salvage a blitz buggy,[a jeep], a 1/pln squad walked into a Jap MG [Machine Gun] sighted on the buggy.  We dived off in all directions.  S/Sgt Van De Riet fell into a hole beside an old Jap Corpse, but did not mind the company.
With 2/Lt John Olson and Sgt Whitehorn, Van De Riet pulled us all back to safety.
     Back at Huggins, most of I Co. fearfully regarded a tall dead jungle tree with only a few green vines up its trunk.  Invisible except from a side view, a Jap sniper still hung by his safety rope.  Meanwhile, we worked on Sanananda Road again. And a large "I" detail also helped dig up the few Yank dead at Musket, to rebury them in a more suitable place.  The memory of this horror of corpses stayed with us in the next days of combat.
When Harry's daughter was describing this story to me, she mentioned Harry's recoil when remembering the maggots and the smell.  (She also described the whole incident as a "squirmish" instead of a "skirmish", which is one of the best Freudian slips I've ever heard.)  One location in the Buna-Gona Battle was in fact nicknamed "Maggot Beach" because of all the rotting bodies.  On New Guinea, Harry received a battlefield commission (Sergeant) and was sent to two weeks of officer's training in Australia. I don't know if it was before or after this incident, but the book here describes him as S/Sgt.

Some members of the family have heard a story that at the moment Harry was awarded one of his medals he reached up and plucked an emerging piece of shrapnel from his temple and tossed it.  Harry's daughter does not think he had shrapnel at his temple, but he did have it in other places on his body.  She also thinks that the Silver Star would have come in the mail to his home.  This version actually makes more sense of the shrapnel story.  I imagine Harry opening the official missive in front of his family (including his little sister who became my grandmother, who passed on the story) and tossing the shrapnel as an exclamation point, much to everyone's amusement.

Harry's wife Irene wrote that after they got engaged, when Harry was safely back on American soil, "[he] went back to Montana, to rest and relax, he saddled up his horse Chief, two packhorses and went up in to the mountains and spent some time by himself."

Chief, I hope you were an easy ride and a soothing companion for this warrior returned.


Personal Visits and Interviews with Harry's children

41st Infantry Division Association.  41st Infantry Division:  Fighting Jungleers II.  Turner Publishing Company.  1997.

“Battle of Buna-Gona” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., date last updated (28 August 2014). Web. Date accessed (28 Aug. 2014).

 “Katana.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., date last updated (28 August 2014). Web. Date accessed (28 Aug. 2014).

 Van De Riet, Irene.  "Life with Harry". Manuscript. Van De Riet Family History Binder.  Compiled by Sheila Jackman, 2002.  Privately held by Jaclyn Day.

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