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From the July 2008 issue: Words of Reassurance from a Brutal Front

Just two months after the Battle of Guadalcanal, twenty-five-year-old Arthur W. Hodan, a sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Division, handwrote a sixteen-page eyewitness account of his regiment’s fight to take Hill 27. Hodan had the letter smuggled home to his parents in Cicero, Illinois; in it, he describes in vivid detail what he and his men endured in a campaign that claimed some eight thousand American lives but marked a turning point in the war. (Line breaks and minor punctuation have been added to the letter for clarity’s sake.)

April 11, 1943

Dearest Mom & Dad:

Hello, Sweetheart, here is your little soldier boy again and Moms, I am really feeling fine and getting fatter everyday….

Dad, I suppose you are anxious to hear how I was wounded. Well I shall tell you….

When we were at the base of [Hill 27], word came back that the first platoon was on the hill and there was no Japs up there so we continued on up. We were half way up when all hell broke loose….

Moms I didn’t worry about myself all I was worried about was my boys, all the time I was up there I never dug a hole for myself. I was running from one gun to another keeping the boys on their toes. All during this time our boys were dropping. The Japs were on the right giving the first platoon hell they were caught halfway down the hill. Lt. Siesel was on top of the hill with the artillery captain who was directing the artillery by phone. They were sure throwing plenty of shells.

The first one hit was Corp. Olihaff from Milwaukee. He was trying to crawl up to a Jap machine gun and had his ear shot off. Then Corp. Bickwermer was hit in the chest and then all you could hear was Lt. Siesel calling for a litter and aid man every other second, the boys sure were dropping. Platoon Sarg. Greico went out to get one of his boys who was shot in the tummy and while he was carrying him out he was shot in the ass and it came out in front fracturing his pelvis. The boy he was carrying was dead. Marty Jayce was his name. Sarg. Smola was killed and they couldn’t get him; so was Beirboth and Grok and many others. Sarg. Bilest was wounded and while getting him out on the stretcher they hit him again and killed him. Big Boy Richards walked into a machine gun which made a mess of him and his buddy Whity….

Moms I was at the machine on the knoll watching Harry Dolan rolling some rocks down around him for protection when he slumped over on his face, he was hit and hit bad. Sgt. Hodgen and Ben Walker took a stretcher and ran out there for him, they threw him on the stretcher and dirt was flying all around them, they got Dolan back and he was shot through the lung missing his heart by a half inch. He is okay today, thank God, they gave him three blood transfusions out there in the field.

By this time the Japs circled through the jungle and were now on our left. They were dropping mortar shells all around the top of the hill. The third mortar squad which was on top of the hill was firing away, that was my old squad. Well they, the Japs, landed a mortar shell right in their lap hitting all the boys but Henry Donahue, the lucky Irishman. Baumhardt, La Cross, and Barrett were each hit in the arm. Theohalt was hit in the neck and Stanford had his glasses broken and was hit in the face.

You should have seen them coming down from the top of the hill hell bent for election. Then Conrayes and Sams mortar squad started to fire and I told myself to stay the hell away from them as Japs started to drop mortar shells around them. Moms, a shot rang out just about twenty yards from us and Corp Metzner slumped over the machine gun just a few feet from me, he was hit through the head. Red Painter the assistant gunner pulled him off the gun and swung the gun around and spotted the Jap in a tree and he cut the Jap and the tree right in half, even that couldn’t pay for Metzner. He was my no. 1 corp, a grand boy.

While Red was firing I jumped up and ran to the top of the hill right in between the 1st and 2nd mortar squads and called down to the aid station for a stretcher and aid man to get Metzner out when wham zam I got hit but didn’t know where as I couldn’t hear the explosion. All I could remember is that I was standing pretty dam straight and I felt as if I dived off a diving board and landed flat on my back. Boy did it sting.

I stood there about five seconds and then it dawned on me that I had better get the hell out of there and in a hurry. My face felt as though the left side was gone. I took off down the hill towards the aid station about thirty yards away. I got halfway when Ben Wallas grabbed me…. He told me a mortar shell landed about two and a half yards in back of me. I was hit by shrapnel but none of it went through me, it was all in me. Ha ha the scrap iron kid.

I asked Ben where I was hit and he said you got a piece in the right hand, one in the back, one in the left arm, a piece in both thighs, a piece in the left cheek, and a piece in the shoulder. Ha ha they didn’t miss a thing. Ben put on the sulfa nulamide and bandaged me up and gave me the sulfa pills and he took me to the aid station on the back side of the hill where they gave me a shot of morphine to stop the pain.
I sat down next to Sgt. Grens and smoked cigarettes and drank water. I asked him how he felt, he said his legs are paralyzed. We were kidding and laughing with Baunhardt, Theobalt, Barret, La Cross, Stanford, and others, we were glad our fighting was over for awhile.

We were all laying down in the jungle about thirty yards from the top of the hill where the boys were giving the Japs hell. The medical officer told us we could not get out until tomorrow and here it was three o’clock in the afternoon. I just dreaded the thought of spending a night in the jungle being surrounded. One feels so helpless.

Corp. Bickwermer was sitting up right near me when he took one deep breath and slumped over dead, God bless him. Sgt. Motel was brought down, a mortar shell landed along side of his hole, and he was shell-shocked. They had to hold him on the ground because every time a shell went off he screamed and wanted to get up and run, poor kid….

This all happened Jan. 2. That evening just after dark the Japs made two bayonet charges up the hill in front of my machine guns and the boys gave them hell. They bayoneted two of the boys from the second platoon, Gety and Little Eddie Drygowski who was made Corp a short time before. Eddie was one of the boys I brought back to Chicago on my New Years furlough….

Gety lived one hour. He pleaded with the boys to shoot him, God he suffered. Eddie was dead. There is six boys in the first platoon out of about fifty.

I didn’t think I would be alive when morning came. It was hell. I sure was glad to see the sun come up. The captain told us if the boys who think they can walk out the way we came in, we could start at one o’clock in the afternoon or there would be aid men to help us, so I said to myself I’ll be damned if I spend another night here in the jungle….We were shot at all the way out by snipers. Boy was I glad when we arrived in the hospital at the airport….

I was there two days then put aboard a ship for the Herberdies and on board ship they operated and took the piece out of my shoulder. I stayed in Cub one hospital in the Herberdies for about seven days, then boarded the hospital ship the Solas and sailed to Auckland, New Zealand….

I was sent to 39th General hospital here in Auckland, that is our army hospital. Here they operated on my face, they say I can have plastic surgery done in a year or so. Ha ha don’t worry, it isn’t much of a scar and it doesn’t hurt my good looks in any way ha ha….

Moms a New Zealand boy is taking this letter to America with him as he is going to complete his flying training there…. Moms I shall be going to the Fiji Islands soon as our company has been sent there in fact the whole American Division is there now. They have received replacements there for the boys who were killed….

So Moms please don’t worry. I still have shrapnel in the back and both thighs but it has healed up in me so they don’t have to take it out ha ha. To see me you wouldn’t know I was hit ha ha I feel great….

May God Bless you all

Your loving son