November 11, 2004 in Voices

Troops in action

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Liz Kishimoto photo

Ralph Moritz still meets with fellow veterans who served in the war with him. He looks forward to it every month.
(Full-size photo)

Ralph Moritz had never heard of a “backdoor draft.” The controversial practice of keeping National Guard troops active long after their tours ended hadn’t been coined in September 1941. Moritz and the volunteers of the 148th Field Artillery Idaho National Guard had spent a year in Fort Lewis and were ready to go home. That’s when everyone was called to the parade grounds and informed the law had changed. Guard troops were now obligated to serve 18 months, if necessary.

“We shipped out to the Philippines and didn’t get there until three years later,” said Moritz, 85, of Spokane Valley. “We couldn’t go home.”

This is the story of the 148th and how 2,500 men went from part-time volunteers to characters in the greatest fight of good against evil, how ordinary men became men honored every Nov. 11, Veterans Day. War was boiling in Europe and simmering in the South Pacific, but the United States was involved in neither. The artillery outfit composed of men from Coeur d’Alene, Boise and Payette, Idaho, was in Fort Lewis for a year of training on 75 mm howitzers.

It was a long training session, the maximum allowed the National Guard under federal law, and not unusual. The 148th was dispatched to the Philippines for half a year. Moritz said there was no advance notice of the deployment. The move meant the training session that began in 1940 would finish up in spring 1942. He wrote his girlfriend, Anita Tester, and parents about the move and set sail from San Francisco bound for the Philippines.

Their ship was an old passenger liner turned troop carrier, the Willard A. Holbrook. The ship didn’t have one big gun on deck. To underscore the United States’ naive sense of security in a world at war, the 2,500 soldiers aboard the Holbrook sailed without armed escort.

They docked in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, one week before Japanese planes slaughtered more than 2,400 Americans and decimated the Navy. The Holbrook was already at sea for several days when the attack occurred, this time with some escort, but it had nowhere to go. The Philippines also had been attacked. The fleet of mostly unarmed troop carriers was extremely vulnerable.

When word of the Pearl Harbor attack came over the radio, panic erupted. Not only was the Holbrook unarmed; it was red, white and blue, colors easily spotted by an overhead bomber. There happened to be several drums of battleship gray paint on the Holbrook. The troops opened the drums and began painting like mad, Moritz said.

“We all painted, with mops and brooms, with whatever we could reach,” Moritz said.

The ships in the convoy began zigzagging across the water to avoid any potential submarine torpedo attack.

“They announced it over the radio that our ship had sunk,” said Joe Lund, 83, of Spokane Valley.

Lund was just 19. A couple of years earlier, he had been a Coeur d’Alene high school student who lied about his age so he could join the 148th. War wasn’t on his mind when he enlisted in the National Guard at 16; he just wanted something to do.

Lund’s good friend, Joe Oaks, joined when he was 17. Now, the two were dangling over the side of a ship painting for dear life.

“The day before, a bunch of us were talking about Pearl Harbor,” said Oaks, 83. “I said, ‘They’ll never get near that place because there were so many planes and warships, as far as you could see.’ It was hard to believe it happened.”

It would be months before the troops of the 148th could write their families and set the record straight about the fate of the Holbrook. By that time, the 148th had endured another Pearl Harbor-like attack in Darwin, Australia, in which the captain of their ship, the Tulagi, beached the craft so at least the soldiers could jump to shore if attacked.

Neither Moritz nor Lund was injured by enemy fire during the war. Moritz, speaking softly, explained that much of his time was spent away from the battle line, strategizing. He did, however, do stints for his group spotting targets, which meant advancing far enough ahead of the 148th to actually see the targets Army howitzers were trying to hit. A spotter then radioed back to the artillery group, telling them whether to shoot longer or shorter.

Lund, a gunner sergeant, escaped battle injury, but was seriously burned by a white phosphorous grenade during a practice drill. Death was all around him, however. He left the war moved by how easily life could be extinguished.

“I saw so much of it and had so many people die next to me, that it doesn’t bother me anymore,” Lund said. “In times like that, you just live day to day.”

Oaks had the closest encounters with the enemy. As battalion agent, part of his job was scouting the land ahead of troop advances.

At one point he found himself pinned down in a grass hut in the Philippines as Japanese soldiers interrogated villagers about reports of an American in the area. A Filipino man with a 3-foot sword chased the Japanese soldiers off, but they returned, and Oaks shot his way out with a machine gun.

“I shot one of them point blank,” Oaks said. “The other one ran away and never came back.

“It’s scarier now when I think about it than it was then.”

The 148th didn’t come home until the war ended. There were no extended leaves and very few contacts with the folks back home. It wasn’t like the soldiers today, who even in the thick of battle can send an e-mail or a satellite phone call.

Lund came home and took it easy for a little while, before landing a job clearing rights of way for rural power lines. The job ended when Lund accidentally leveled a shed with a felled tree.

He quit that job and applied at Kaiser Aluminum Corp. the following day. The Kaiser job kept him employed for 30 years.

Oaks got his degree in police science from Washington State University and later worked at the Naval Supply Depot until retirement.

And Moritz married Anita Tester, the sweetheart he wrote to throughout the war. He, too, wound up working for Kaiser. The bitter taste of war made life in Spokane all the sweeter.

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