Opinion

Honoring The Fallen: Veterans Day In The Solomons, 1943

At 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, World War I ended with the signing of an Armistice. From that time on, November 11 has been a day of celebration and remembrance of the fallen in that war and in all following wars. In the U.S, it is now known as Veterans Day.

On that day in 1943, the troops of the 43rd Infantry Division, a New England National Guard outfit, gathered to honor their fallen comrades. They had recently completed three months of intense combat in the New Georgia group of the western Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean. The first phase was the ­month-long drive on the Japanese-held Munda Airfield, leading to the airfield’s capture on August 5, 1943. During this action, two junior officers of the unit my father commanded, the 169th Field Artillery Battalion, were lost to Japanese fire. They were Forward Observers who, from the front lines, would spot and adjust where artillery shells landed.

The next island to be cleared of Japanese was nearby Baanga Island. While ultimately successful, it did not go well. My father, Lt. Col. Wilber Bradt, wrote, “It was a depressing and unfortunate affair in several ways.” Thirty-four American soldiers were stranded on a Japanese-held beach for nine days and 20 of them did not survive. Here, my father lost yet another of his forward observers, Lieutenant Norbert Heidelberger, whom he had sent into Japanese occupied jungle with an infantry company.

The third phase of the division’s Solomon actions was the taking of Arundel (now Kohinggo) Island, a stone’s throw from Baanga and New Georgia. American troops of the 43rd Division made unopposed landings on the southern end of Arundel and then encountered Japanese resistance at the northern end. The situation became chaotic with American and Japanese units interspersed. My father was about to send another young lieutenant into the jungle with an infantry patrol of 21 men, but then decided he did not want to lose a fourth officer; he went in himself instead. His detailed written account of that patrol and the next two weeks he spent with another unit is a remarkable tale of tense patrolling, firefights against the Japanese, tank attacks, artillery fire on boats and an airplane, and the unexpected appearance of U.S. Admiral William (Bull) Halsey, the Area Commander. On September 20–21, the last Japanese withdrew from Arundel Island.

After these three months of intense combat, the 43rd Division needed a rest. It was assigned defensive duty in the areas recently captured, which became a chance to clean up, rest, clear up jungle infections, and then reinstitute training. Seven weeks into this period, the troops of the 43rd Division prepared for the Armistice ceremony at Munda cemetery, a beautifully prepared site on a hill near the airfield. On November 10, my father wrote my mother:

“Dearest Nana — …The Armistice Day will be a religious service for our dead who are in this island. It will be a sad Armistice for us for Lieutenants Payne and Malone and Heidelberger will be there in the cemetery from the 169th. However each was doing a grand job when his time came. I think I feel the worst about Payne because he had a boy a little younger than [our son] Hale. It doesn’t help much to know that each was where I had sent him but of course that is one of the aspects of the commander’s responsibility.”

A week later, he described the ceremony in a letter to my 11-year old sister Valerie:

“Dear Valerie — … We attended a religious and military memorial service on Armistice Day in honor of our dead comrades. We stood at salute while the firing squad fired a volley for each battalion or regiment that had one or more men killed. For us the speaker said ‘For 1st Lt —, the first to fall in the 169th, and his brave comrades that followed.’ Then the volley was fired. It was a beautiful spot that had been made into a cemetery and the service was lovely but so, so sad. I hope too many more don’t ‘follow’ in the next year.”

Thus went Veterans Day in the Solomon Islands in 1943.

Hale Bradt is the author of Wilber’s War: An American Family’s Journey through World War II and a Korean War veteran.  His discovery of his father’s letters from the Pacific has given him an unusual basis for exploring new aspects of World War II history, as he scoured the National Archives and even visited the Pacific battle sites where his father fought. He is currently a professor of Physics Emeritus at M.I.T.