PRAIRIE VOICES: Guadalcanal and beyondA new book tells the story of the 164th Infantry Regiment, the North Dakota National Guard unit that became the Army’s first group to offensively engage the enemy in World War II
"I had just finished a book; when I had that dinner in 2006, that book was going through the publication process. My first thought was, “Oh gosh, I don’t want to start another book now. But I thought, “These guys are here, they’re in their 80s, you pass up this opportunity now, and you’ll never get it again.”
American history professor, archivist and author, Minnesota State University Moorhead
Shoptaugh’s new book, released days ago, is “They Were Ready,” about the 164th Infantry Regiment from North Dakota, which fought on Pacific islands during World War II. He includes accounts from 70 veterans, most of them from that North Dakota Army National Guard unit.
The 164th became the first Army unit to offensively engage the enemy when it helped defend Henderson Air Field on Guadalcanal, beginning in October 1942.
Not four months later, 150 soldiers either had been killed in action or from their wounds, and more than 350 more had been wounded. By war’s end, roughly 800 164th soldiers were casualties. Jungle ailments took hundreds of soldiers out of battle.
Shoptaugh talked with Herald online editor Mike Brue.
Q. How long did it take you to put together this book?
A. I started in the fall of 2006 doing the research and finished writing it here in September 2009.
Q. Had you written about soldiers before?
A. I’d never written about actual combat to any great extent.
One fellow back in the ’90s gave me the tapes he had dictated to his children, and he was part of this 164th Infantry. I’d written about him, and I learned a little about the conditions on Guadalcanal from that.
In the fall of 2006, I met the woman who writes the newsletter for the 164th Infantry veterans association, Shirley Olgeirson, a former Guard member. I was at a dinner with the State Historical Society in Bismarck, and she started talking to me and said, “Do you know how many veterans are still here for this unit?” I figured, you know, it’s 2006, so what are there, 20? And she said, “Oh, no. There are more than 100 living in North Dakota.”
I had just finished a book; when I had that dinner in 2006, that book was going through the publication process. My first thought was, “Oh gosh, I don’t want to start another book now.”
But I thought, “These guys are here, they’re in their 80s, you pass up this opportunity now, and you’ll never get it again.”
Q. The 164th consisted primarily of North Dakotans, but there were a few Minnesotans and some South Dakotans, too.
A. Oh, yeah. When they were down in Camp Claiborne in Louisiana, where they got their basic training, they were trying to take people from nearby states and pair them into regiments that would keep that local and semilocal thing. Woody Keeble came from South Dakota, but he was living then in North Dakota. So, when more American Indians from his reservation starting enrolling in the Army, they sent more of them into that regiment.
The rest of them were mostly North Dakota farm boys or small-town boys.
(Keeble, from the Wahpeton-Sisseton Indian Reservation, fought with the 164th in World War II. He also fought in the Korean War, where his actions earned him the Medal of Honor in 2008. The first Sioux to receive the award, Keeble died in 1982.)
Q. How did they end up in Guadalcanal?
A. Two Guard regiments — one from the Chicago area, one from Massachusetts — had been sent over right after Pearl Harbor. The speed in which the Japanese were seizing islands caused the Army to divert those units toward Australia, and they ended up at New Caledonia to keep the Japanese out of that part of the Pacific.
Then, there was this third regiment, the 164th. First, they were sent to California for fear that the Japanese might actually try an invasion. Later, they were guarding air bases and other structures up in Oregon and Washington. Then, of course, the Army realized it needed more troops in the Pacific, and soon they were on their way.
When they landed in Guadalcanal, those three regiments become the three elements of what they call the AMERICAL division because it’s the Americans on New Caledonia. That’s how they get this crazy name.
Q. Soldiers from the 164th were put in foxholes on the perimeter with Marines right after their mid-October arrival for the heavy fighting. Your book quotes the commanding Marine officer saying, after a night of fighting left more than 2,000 Japanese dead near the lines, “Those farm boys can fight.”
A. When the 164th went in, the Marines weren’t too sure if these Army guys were going to be any help to them. That attitude didn’t last long.
One story is one of my favorites: Of course, the Marines received replacements, too, and some of these new Marines who weren’t around during the mid-October battles were talking down the Guard soldiers there. Then, some old Marine walked over and said, “That’s the 164th. You don’t talk about the 164th that way.”
Some of the Marines even referred to them as “the 164th Marines”— quite the compliment coming from Marines.
I had one fellow, Rudolph Edwardson, who lives in Detroit Lakes, Minn., now, tell me that “when we went up there, we all knew that the last thing that you wanted to do was to become a prisoner of the Japanese. And we all felt like when we arrived on that island, there was no such thing as being a prisoner. There would be nowhere to go, and once you landed there, with the ocean behind you, you couldn’t run. So you would have to fight and to fight to the death.”
Q. How willing were they to talk about those war years?
A. When they came home, they didn’t want to talk about the war. They wanted to forget. They wanted to start their lives.
Later, of course, when you get older, one thing I think that really hits all of them is they start thinking about the guys who didn’t get to come home, which died. And then, they’re more willing to talk about it. Most of the men I’ve talked to talk less about themselves and they reserve their most fervent stories, their most heartfelt stories for the guys they knew who were killed.
One of them, John Paulson, said, frankly, “Look, I’ve had the rest of my life. My cousin didn’t. He died. I’m the lucky one. He’s the one who is a hero.”
Q. Were there surprises in your research?
A. Oh, yeah. The anger that they had when the commander of their regiment, who was a North Dakotan, Col. Earle Sarles, was replaced just a week before they left Guadacanal by a West Point colonel. I would have found it by reading the unit’s records because they kept a daily record of the regimental headquarters — the so-called S-1 journal. All of a sudden, there was this thing: “Colonel has been relieved due to over-age.” Well, he was actually just two years older than the commanding general of the AMERICAL division.
The late Chuck Walker, from Pembina, whose book, “Combat Officer,” I used a lot for background, he always referred to West Point officers as the “ring knockers” — they had that West Point ring, and they always recognized one another and look out for one another. It would always make him reluctant to deal with those guys.
I talked with person after person who said, “I’ve never forgiven the Army for relieving Col. Sarles. He was a great guy.” “We never got along (with the West Point colonel).”
Q. Any other unusual revelations?
A. Bill Welander told me about the time he came back from patrol on Guadalcanal. “We’re all getting in line to get some chow because we’re all hungry, and then all of a sudden, the guy serving chow says, ‘What about the guy behind you?’”
And Bill turns around, and here’s a Japanese soldier walking right behind him. Hasn’t got any weapons. He just follows ’em in. Man, he just wanted to surrender. He couldn’t speak any English.
Welander said, “I took a look at him, and I walked him over to the doctor’s tent ’cause I seen he had a torn-up arm, and he was really in bad shape. And I walked him over to the doctor’s tent, and the doctor says, ‘What do you want me to do with him? Take him out and shoot him.’
“At that point, something happened to me, and I took the rifle off my shoulder and held it out to (the doctor) and said, ‘If you want him shot, you do it.’ And the guy said, ‘All right, all right, put him on the table.’ And so he treated his arm and everything.
Later on, Welander said, “I saw him in a prison camp on the island. And, you know, if there was one good thing I did in this war, I did that.”
Q. What was the significance of this war for these men?
A. They were all very young, and they grew up under very trying circumstances. They didn’t grow up worrying about a job, worrying about making the rent, worrying about paying for a mortgage. They grew up in a very dangerous kill-or-be-killed situation. That gives you a different outlook on life, and they all hold that in common.
Some of it is due to the peculiarity of island fighting, although there were those who said those soldiers who were back in supply units, they weren’t really “combat” soldiers. That was probably true in the Philippines and some larger islands. But on Guadalcanal and those smaller islands, everybody was under fire. So, they all shared something in common, and they all understood the serious dangers that they faced — not just from the Japanese but from illness, from snake bites, malaria, from heat prostration. From going actually stir crazy on some of those islands.
They were on the island of Bougainville for more than a year. Six weeks of that saw intensive fighting, although all went on patrols after that that were dangerous. One guy said, “I remember playing mostly bridge the whole time I was on Bougainville. Once the fighting ended in March, we were never under artillery fire again.” He said it actually could be pretty pleasant there. You slept late, you played volleyball, you went swimming, and you drank some hootch that somebody made in a still of some kind, you played a lot of cards.
But, he says, “then there was that one night when the Japanese sent some planes over and dropped some bombs and killed a friend of mine.” All of a sudden the war was real again.
Shoptaugh plans to be in Grand Forks on April 26; details about that visit and where to purchase his book will be announced soon.
Go to GrandForksHerald.com to hear excerpts from the interview with Terry Shoptaugh, find links to information about the 164th Infantry Regiment and read past Herald articles about the unit and its soldiers.