The letters follow the story of Harold Moss, newly enlisted Private in the Army in 1941. The United States has not yet joined the war but it looks to be on the horizon. He starts basic training and Japan attacks the United Sates in December 1941. Harold’s training continues in Washington and Hawaii and is deployed to Saipan in the Pacific Ocean. The war eventually takes him to serve at Tinian, Leyte Philippines and Okinawa Japan. The letters are a first hand account of WWII in the Pacific.
Harold Moss graduated from Minatare High School in Minatare, Nebraska, a small town south of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, population 1200 people. In September 1941, he was making plans to start the fall semester at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, majoring in journalism when he received his draft notice. He reported to Leavenworth, Kansas and was sent on a troop train to Camp Roberts, California for basic training.
In California, he entered Army life with the rank of Private complete with reveille and taps, calisthenics, chow, aptitude testing, medical evaluation, marching, firing practice, gas mask drills, long hikes, issuance of gear and clothing, KP (kitchen patrol), and barracks living. He began radio operator training during the day and walking the beach on guard duty at night. He was able to make frequent trips to San Diego to see his grandparents.
War Letters Begin
On December 7, 1941, Japan declared war on the United States with their attack on Pearl Harbor and the government vowed to retaliate immediately. War fervor began. Blackened out troop trains clanked along the rails. Convoys of trucks, miles in length, passed through towns. P-38 interceptors, bombers and fighters flew over incessantly. Searchlights cut swatches of whiteness in the nights. Trucks were parked under trees for the night.
Wartime field conditions put them in tents pitched in open fields with no electricity at night. All leaves and passes were cancelled and long distance calls were no longer permitted. Tin hats and pistols were worn. There were compulsory night radio classes to finish courses, air raid drills, and blackout instructions. Guard duty to patrol the Pacific coastline intensified. The Army recommended sending payroll allotments back to their families.
Californians were welcoming although the Army’s big guns were lined up around their city park. They gave soldiers reduced prices on food and movie admissions and extended invitations into private homes. The weather was wonderfully warm. There was an abundance of oranges, grapefruit and lemons. “Doesn’t seem possible that a war could be going on”.
Last Letters from the States
These letters describe the life of moving convoys from Redding, California to Ft. Lewis, Washington, then to HOT Yakima, Washington for intensive training and firing under adverse conditions, living on the ground in tents “where the dirt shifts into everything”.
There were many hours of rifle range firing and the Army’s incessant need for spotlessness thru KP duty. Here is the first mention of possible chemical warfare, Army food that is not Grade A and tastes bad, and rations are slim. Back home, parents were experiencing sugar rationing which affected their making of cookies sent frequently.
In preparation of being made to move, soldiers had to obliterate certain identifying marks in their billfolds and had to sign they understood AWOL to be desertion. Single men signed up for US bonds naming their parents as co-owners not beneficiaries. Overseas duty brought a 20% increase in pay and death gratuity pay of six month’s wages. New helmets and equipment were issued as they prepared to leave the States to an unknown destination. “Oh, for a bunk without brown blankets and a dinner from marvelous Mother Moss and a banking out from dime-dealing Dad.”
Jungle Combat Training
Letters home tell of ocean swims on the beaches of Maui and Oahu, tanned bodies, beautiful flowers, and an abundance of delicious fruit in the land of paradise. Life seems normal with news of watching the World Series and Hit Parade.
Censorship of letters begins which can’t reveal the real story. There is intense daytime commando jungle and Ranger Course training with live bullets overhead, dynamite obstacles and barbed wire to hurdle as well as exhausting 25 mile hikes. Soldiers often sleep with no mattress, liquor rationing exists, and they use their mess kits. Soldiers long for tablecloths and food served from bowls and tiled bathrooms.
They trained by day and spent their night reading, playing bridge or poker at night, and writing letters. Hometown newspapers, subscriptions to Readers Digest and Time magazines, family pictures, and letters from home were important. Packages of home contain simple pleasures such as flashlights, decks of cards, toiletries, cigarettes, popcorn. To keep the mail flowing between home and soldier, V-mails became popular. Unlike regular mail, these one page V-mails were dependable, arrived in a timely manner, and mailed postage free.
The Army kept moral up by providing USO shows with entertainers such as Bob Hope, abundant food at Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, frequent local entertainment, luaus, nightly movies in open air theaters, volleyball and baseball games, daily passes, and a mobile library. Visits with a brother, college friend, or hometown buddy was a welcome event.
War news as well as Japanese propaganda comes via radio which the men gather around every night to listen to. Batteries were scarce and a frequently asked for item from home. Rumors of troop movement cause anxiety and expectancy. Blackouts existed. Ever changing policy rules on furloughs made them almost non-existent but most hoped for by the soldiers.
The soldiers did not know where they were going until, on the boat ride across the Pacific Ocean, the chaplain began daily talks about the Saipan islands, 3200 miles from Hawaii. The island is only 15 miles long; 85% of the population were Japanese.
Educated on the makeup of the naval forces, the enemy strength, and the battle plan, they watched the Marines hit the beaches as the artillery men left on the boat watched the land battle slaughter. When the rest of the troops finally went ashore, scenes of battle were everywhere–the effect of the naval shells, the Japanese mortar fire on our troops revealing many bodies lying around, in all positions and decomposition. “Sights you hope you will never see again.”
When the Saipan campaign was over, the island was humming with repair work and defensive installations amid the constant battle of mosquitoes, land crabs and red ants. Paychecks are few and far between. There is no electricity and soldiers salivated at the thought of beer or an ice cream cone. Foxholes become their home… ”a hole in the ground but a blessed hole”. They slept in them, ate in them, and was their security from overhead attacks. One meal boxes of K-rations provide their daily nutrition during their 3 month stay in Saipan. Daily they sought Japanese hiding in caves, often finding Japanese bayonets and pistols as souvenirs and lots of worthless Japanese money. A Jeep radio provided nightly world news, both the America (from San Francisco) and enemy version (Tokyo Rose).
The troops were moved to Tinian, another island 3 miles south of Saipan and would be their home for 5 months. The rains are relentless making ankle deep mud everywhere. In this weather, skin diseases and ailments are common and coral cuts take a long time to heal. Troop camps look like hobo camps with beds made from stretchers, salvaged Japanese beds, Japanese mats, homemade beds or whatever they could find for their foxholes.
During the day, bulldozers scrap areas in the cane fields for baseball fields and outdoor movies. They enjoy their first can of beer in a long time (rationed 6 cans of beer per week) and although warm, it tastes good. They haven’t been paid for 5 months. Island cattle provide fresh meat and fresh vegetables growing in gardens are a welcome food.
At night there are many interruptions of nightly air raid sirens. A jeep radio provides music from San Francisco and especially news of the European front battles. As the island is secured, pup tents are put up with electric lights, more conducive to night time writing. The Japanese prefer suicide to surrender as they find masses of Japanese dead in caves used for hiding.
On the boat to Leyte, the biggest fear is the Special Attack Corps or Japanese Suicide Divers who crash dive ships. The Army troops came to the island under lots of enemy fire. On land, they were always diving into their muddy foxhole for protection. The Japanese try desperately to keep the island. The warfare was vicious. There were constant nightly air raid sirens and blackouts. Men always worried about a Japanese sneak attack, so sleep with a pistol and knife under his pillow. It rains all the time..everything always damp. Working in the personnel office, they lug around typewriters, field desks, and records—everything rusts! Skins start to turn yellow from the malaria tablets they must take. Guys are given shots to counteract stomach worms. Dysentery is common among soldiers.
There is no mess hall. The best thing that happens is the continuation of mail from home often bringing packages that supplemented their K-rations….fruit cake, popcorn, canned chicken, pretzels, candy bars. The favorite K-ration is canned bacon which is cooked on a one burner stove issued to each section. The Red Cross comes often bringing Cokes and peanuts.
There is a cigarette shortage so they are issued a pack every two or three days. Most prized possessions are his waterproof cigarette holder, a watch that has survived salt water and dust, a rubberized bag to hold his toiletries, and a cigarette lighter with plenty of flints.
Harold describes an infantryman… ”they look like tramps out of a hobo jungle with beards, dirt coated clothes, and smelling like a used sardine can. They live in conditions so tough that even a narrow cot would be a luxury. They are the guys who should get the credit for winning the war.”
Church services are held in a squad tent and well attended punctuated with nearby gunfire or overhead planes. The most memorable service was a line of dirty infantrymen at confession by a white robed Catholic priest.
Less than 1,000 miles south of Japan, they landed by boat on Okinawa, Easter morning amid perfect weather and no Japanese resistance. All hell broke loose in the days that followed. Nights rang with the crack of artillery fire, naval shells, and flares compared to the quieter day times. It was a source of great confidence in our forces to see battleships, cruisers and destroyers lined up pounding the Japanese. There were Japanese banzai attacks for hours into the night while artillery and naval ships lay down an unending hail of shells. There is a constant distant rumble. The offshore ships use tracers that go high in the air and lob into enemy territory. The ship’s lights and flares light up the beach like daylight. In the surrounding hills are honeycombs of tunnels and fortified caves for the Japanese and had to be cleared out with great loss of life. They cook their own K-rations. One dinner provided only a can of bacon, some peaches, a little grape juice and a little bread. Rained 13” in one week so the mosquitoes were miserable. Men bathed in a bucket. Foxholes are still a source of security.
After much fighting, there is finally good news. General Hodge reported that the organized resistance is over, the island is declared secured, and the battle officially ends in July 1945.
Life for the war soldier is also improving. Okinawa is a land of many 2 acre plots farmed by a single family. The soldiers made good use of all the fresh vegetables they found in gardens. Abundant pigs and cows provide pork meat for the troops. Some acquired much coveted sleeping cots. GI ingenuity takes three gasoline drums with heaters and turns them into hot water showers. They get a PX (Post Exchange) for necessities, a choice of daily nighttime movies, a Red Cross canteen, afternoons devoted to athletics, and lights now in tents again.
There’s a vast amount of construction. Big machinery is brought in. They now have new broad 3-4 lane highways. For the first time censors are allowing men to write about what has been happening to them. The end of a campaign means lots of paperwork of reports and decorations.
There is more good news on the European war front and the Pacific soldiers are encouraged when they learned of Germany’s unconditional surrender.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was celebrated. Searchlights went on, machine guns and anti-aircraft began firing and the sky was colored with red tracers…”looked like a Hollywood premier”. The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945. “To have the war end now is almost unbelievable and like taking a great weight off you”.
The War is Over
The island of Okinawa is secured and the fighting ends. Now comes the long wait to be returned to the States. Family is warned that the Army wheels don’t turn fast so don’t expect him home immediately. The harbor is packed with ships and the airfield has plenty of planes but they must wait their turn to go home. Tokyo Rose now begs her people to be fixing and building for a greater Japan.
Men dream of life after war. Some will go to college thanks to a new GI bill that encourages that. Foremost on their minds is being lazy, sleeping in, and letting their hair grow long. Censorship is completely lifted and men write home some things that make them angry…the heat, bad food, and meals of only lima beans, sauerkraut and coffee. Finally the day arrives for Harold. The boat ride back takes another 18 days. He arrives in San Francisco via Honolulu on October 26, 1945. He was discharged as a Technical Sergeant at Ft. Logan in Denver, Colorado on November 1, 1945 and meets his parents there.
After the war he continued his education at the University of Nebraska/Lincoln in January 1945. There he met Dorothy Budde (also a student), married her, had a child, and received his degree in journalism. He rejoined the Army in 1947 and retired in 1977 after 30 years of service. He achieved the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4 and ended his career as a United Nations advisor on the Hawk missile system. His assignments included tours of duty to France, Germany, Korea, and the island of Crete. Stateside duties were located in Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Riley/Wichita, Kansas, and Ft. Bliss/El Paso, Texas. Harold enjoyed his retirement in Sun City West, Arizona, along with his wife Dorothy until his death in January 2005, suffering from lung cancer and Alzheimer’s. They had been married 59 years. Dorothy died in March 2013. His daughter Lorelei (Lori) Neumann lives in Surprise, Arizona and son, Michael Moss (who was adopted in Germany in 1953) lived in Omaha, Nebraska before his death in 2003.