This Memorial Day I find myself in Townsville, Australia, thinking about my grandfather, Robert Henry Williams. Like many others who served in the U.S. military during World War II, my grandfather was in Australia before heading off to battle.
The Japanese military attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, thrust the United States into WWII. It wasn’t long after that Australia and New Zealand found themselves also under threat of Japanese attacks. While the majority of Australia’s soldiers fought alongside the British Royal Army against the Germans in the Middle East and Africa, the Japanese made their way through South Asia and South Pacific with little resistance. It was then that Australia and the United States joined forces to stop their military expansion.
At that time, my grandfather was working in Wahoo, Neb., on the construction of an Air Force base when he was sent his order to report for induction on Oct. 5,, 1942. Robert was enlisted as a private in the 32nd “Red Arrow: Infantry Division, where he served with the 128th regiment, company G. Following his entry into service he was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Robert and the rest of his company worked with the prisoners held there before being given orders to go to Alaska. But the men who boarded the plane to Alaska, who were supplied with winter clothing, found themselves being welcomed by the heat of an Australian summer.
They spent the next few days sweating in their winter clothing until they were issued new attire. While in Australia, my grandfather attended a six-week Radio Operators School in Brisbane before attending a six-week Demolition School in New Guinea. After three months in the Army, he was promoted to Staff Sergeant, and spent a total of 38 months in Australia, New Guinea, Goodenough Islands, Leyte and Luzon.
Robert eventually found himself in charge of a rifle platoon, and was given a battlefield commission of lieutenant after several others had been killed. But the Japanese military were not the only thing our soldiers were up against. Besides months of bitter jungle fighting, they had to contend with an unfamiliar land, severe weather and disease. Some days were spent battling heat, humidity and insects, and ended with them sleeping on the rocks of dry riverbeds. Other days they faced heavy rain, and were forced to eat, sleep and survive in knee-high mud. Most of those who weren’t killed or wounded in combat suffered from disease. Robert himself suffered from jungle rot, malaria and dengue fever.
Each time our men would emerge from the jungle – after weeks or months of warfare and harsh terrain – my grandfather said you could see a bit of fear in the new soldiers arriving for duty. Clean-shaven men in uniforms, fresh from basic training were met by men like my grandfather who had grown a full red beard, and wore torn and dirty uniforms. After what my grandfather’s men experienced in the jungle, they felt lucky just to have escaped death once more.
Robert was indeed lucky, even though he was wounded more than once. He was shot once in the chin by a sniper who was perched up in a tree, shot a second time in the ankle and was hit in the knee with shrapnel. Before being sent to Australia to recover, he spent some time in the field hospitals to heal. While there, he refused to give up his gun because Japanese soldiers often entered field hospitals at night, killing wounded soldiers as they slept.
Following a few nights in a field hospital, like most injured soldiers, my grandfather was flown to Australia to recover. Australian families took in wounded soldiers like my grandfather who no longer needed 24-hour hospital care, but still needed time to recover. These families helped make room in the hospitals for others who were just brought in. And it was only recently that my grandmother revealed that Robert stayed with such a local family for six months. They looked after him until he was medically ready to return to battle.
Now, as I vacation in Townsville, I can’t help but wonder if my grandfather ever visited here himself. There is actually a good possibility of it; Townsville had several American hospitals and was a major staging point for battles. About 50,000 American and Australian troops passed through Townsville during WWII. Today, old buildings, airfields and memorials serve as a reminder of the battles in the South Pacific – and to those who were lost.
I think the thing that initially surprised me the most was seeing how many memorials dedicated to American soldiers there are here. I am thousands of miles from home, in another country, and the sacrifices of our men and women are still being memorialized
This is actually my second visit to Australia, and I am reminded why my grandfather loved it so much. He spoke highly of the bravery shown by Australia’s soldiers, the kindness of her people, and the beauty of her lands. He had always wanted to bring my grandmother to Australia for a vacation, but unfortunately, never had the chance. Robert Henry Williams was 85 years-old when he died on March 18, 2006, after an eight-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Although my grandfather was haunted by the things he saw during war, and the things he had to do to stay alive during his service, I never really knew that young soldier who had to survive in a foreign land for 38 months. The man I knew was a funny man who was patient and crazy about his wife. The man I knew was a kind man, who worked hard to provide for a family he adored. The man I knew was like a second father who taught me so much, and the best friend a kid could ask for.
That is something we should all try to keep in mind this Memorial Day and every day. Our service members are normal men and women tasked with an extraordinary job of protecting our freedoms and fighting for our nation. They are parents, siblings, spouses, friends – and heroes. Let us be grateful for their countless sacrifices, and for the time we spend with them.