Wendell Nightengale
Navarro County, Texas


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Wendell Nightengale

Submitted by Carl W Matthews


WENDELL NIGHTENGALE
1923-1944

Richard Freeby and I had completed The Marine Corps Combat Training School at Camp Elliott, California during the summer of 1943 and had been assigned to The Fourth Marine Division, recently formed and headquartered at Camp Pendleton a hundred miles or so to the north.  We had packed our seabags, dressed in the uniform of the day which included rifles, bayonets, packs, etc.;  and had joined other Marines waiting to be transported to the new assignment.

Huge Marine trucks wearing the traditional "Marine Green" canvass covers ground to a halt before the yellow barracks.   As each name was called a Marine moved from the ranks, threw his seabag into the truck, climbed in, and took his place on the wooden fold down seats located on each side of the truck.   When all the trucks were loaded the convoy wound it way through the streets of Camp Elliott, passing the PX and the Brig, and pulled to a stop at the Main Gate.    Cleared, the convoy moved to the highway and headed for Camp Pendleton located an hour and one half to the north.

The trip was boring.   Front and side views from the bed of the truck were hidden by the heavy canvass, but the canvass was open at the rear, providing glimpses of where we had been.   The two lane roads lead to U S Highway One north of the San Diego Marine Base and through the communities of La Jolla, Del Mar, Encinitas, and Carlsbad.  Minutes later we could see that we had entered Oceanside, California and soon felt the truck make a hard right. Camp Pendleton was not far away.

The gears of the huge truck ground away as we moved east through valleys created between small rolling hills that appeared barren of trees or grass or people.  It appeared that we were really going to the "Boondocks!"  After a brief stop at the Main Gate the trucks moved on and after a time began to grind up a small hill.    Green painted barracks were seen now and then...then more desolation.   Presently. we passed a PX and a theater and rolled down a small hill where the trucks stopped.  Our New Home....Area Fourteen.

Those who were to serve in G-Company, 23rd Regiment, Fourth Marine Division, were instructed to leave the trucks, and with seabags, formed ranks on the pavement outside the barracks.   Freeby and I were assigned to the 2nd Platoon and were immediately greeted by Lt. Baker, a former enlisted Marine who had several years of service.   Lt. Baker introduced us to one of the sergeants who led us into the barracks and assigned each of us to one of the many double bunks that crowded the room.   Most bunks were already occupied.    Our bunks contained a mattress pad rolled around a pillow resting on flat springs.   Two sheets and a pillow case rested on top of the mattress pad.   Two wool Marine blankets were in my seabag.   The usual foot lockers were absent and all of our personal items remained in our locked seabag.

Freeby and I had made up our bunks, adjusted our personal belongings in the seabags, and has stretched our on our bunks when the "thundering herd" of G-Company crashed through the doors of the barracks from wherever they had been.   The peace and quiet of the barracks had ceased.   The noise of shuffling feet and loud talk....the smell of sweat.. the race of naked bodies to the showers... reminded me of the locker room at school after a football game.

Freeby and I changed into the uniform of the day...at Camp Pendleton....and when "Music" had finished blowing  "Chow Call,"  made our way with the other Marines to the Chow Hall located half way up the hill.   We walked there with several other Marines from the 2nd Platoon.

It was that night that I met Windol Nightengale.   He  sat at our table for the evening meal. He laughed a lot and poked fun at everyone around him.   When we returned to the barracks I discovered that his bunk was across the aisle from mine.   Nightengale spoke English, but with a dialect that far removed from Texas.   I learned that he was from some place called Skowhegan, Maine and that he had grown up on a "faam" just outside of the town.

During the following weeks Nightengale and I spent much time talking and I learned much about him and his family.   The family attended a Baptist Church and the social activity centered around The Grange Hall. It was at the Grange Hall that Nightengale learned to dance with the farm girls of the community.   Some girls went with him on long walks over the snow on cold, clear and moonlight nights.

Training was hard and liberty came altogether too infrequently, but when we returned to the barracks and had time to stretch out on the bunks we would talk.   His mind was always on home and I learned about his family.....his father, his mother, his sisters and brother and who they married and who their children were.  He spoke of a large sled pulled by a team of horses that he drove each evening to collect food garbage from the restaurants in town.   The slop...as he called it...was fed to the pigs on the "Faam."

He described the huge "baan" which was attached to the "faam" house and of the large Maple tree in the front yard that always produced sap for syrup.   He related how he and his family would "sap" other Maple trees and process the liquid collected into thick and rich Maple syrup.

Nightengale had found a place in the Los Angeles area that reminded him of the Grange Hall.    The Riverside Rancho was located across the street from Griffith Park.   Bands played Western Swing and the place was frequented by families...who had girls Nightengales age.   He wanted me to go with him, but several weeks passed before we both had liberty.

Riverside Rancho was everything Nightengale had promised... and more.   Nightengale would walk up to an unescorted young lady...usually with her father and mother...invite her to dance..and away they would go to the dance floor....just like at the Grange Hall.   I spotted a cute girl with several people in her group and decided that I would imitate Nightengale.   Her name was Grace Davis.  Her family had left the barren farms of Kansas to find work in California.  She and her younger sister, Dolly, lived with an uncle and his wife near Pasadena.    Grace and I danced together throughout that evening....and several more over the following months.

Days moved swiftly and in January we boarded The Sheridan to begin our voyage from San Diego to The Marshal Islands.   The cold of San Diego began to be replaced with the warm humid air of the Pacific and one night Nightengale and I left the stale air of the crowded "Stateroom" located in the bowels of the ship and made our way to an out of the way space on the roof of a  small entry.   The air was refreshing and we were soon fast asleep.   During the night the crew "blew the smokestacks," and Nightengale and I were covered with soot the following morning.

The 2nd Platoon went ashore in the 2nd wave on the island of Roi...just minutes behind the first wave.   Lt. Baker had been replaced by Lt. James Stanley Leary from Ahoskie, NC and over the months the 2nd Platoon had become very close.   I served as Runner for Lt. Leary, Nightengale was a BAR man in the squad led by Corporal William Mihalek of McKeesport, PA.) BAR...Browning Automatic Rifle....14 pounds plus several pounds of ammo.)

Roi Island was a large and strategic Japanese airfield.  An isthmus joined it to Namur Island where Japanese barracks and support services were located.   Roi Island was secured before the end of the day.   G-company lost one man killed and several wounded.

We returned after several days to the Sheridan and were transported to Maui, Hawaii where we were to prepare for the next  engagement.     Nightengale and I bunked in the same tent on Maui with Richard Freeby of Quanah, Texas; William Mihalek of McKeesport, PA; Phillip Hamil, Saganaw, MI; Milford H Jacoby, Hartford, IL; Raymond T Hickman, Phoenix AZ;  and Warren G Morgan, Baileyville, WV.

Training was hard and liberties were few on Maui.   We board an LST in May that was to be our home for several weeks.  Nightengale and I were told to pick out a wood folding cot under an LCT that had been chained to the deck of the LST.   That arrangement did not have appeal and we searched the LST for a better..and safer berth.    Several 55gal drums of gasoline were lashed to the bow deck and we found a spot inside just large enough to accommodate us.   We located more comfortable bunks in the crews quarters and by nightfall the bunks were securely wired to the chains holding the drums.   We secured shelter halves to protect us against the sun and rain....snug as two bugs in a rug.

Nightengale and I jumped ship at Pearl Harbor to go with a group to a baseball game.  We were watching the game when we heard a thunderous explosion.    Several of the LSTs tied in our group had exploded.  More than one hundred fifty lives were lost.   Our hiding place was secure when we returned, but flying debris had landed all over the drums and had punctured several.

We left Pearl Harbor, joined a huge armada of ships in The Marshalls, and headed for Saipan.   Nightengale and I had a large supply of reading material, canteens filled with water, a small supply of eatables, and were safely away from the eyes of sergeants who might need privates for some icky detail.

We hit the beach at Saipan at 8:15 am on June 15, 1944.   Within minutes we all knew that this island would be no Roi.    Forty G-Company Marines would die there in the next twenty five days.   Seventy-four would be wounded.  We left our dead and wounded on the beach for medics and the burial detail and moved inland....perhaps three hundred yards the first day.

During the days and nights that followed we moved to the center of the island then turned north that placed us near the top of "The Devil's Backbone" where the Japanese had retreated and dug in.   Every yard of progress was hard earned.   Death and near death became a daily experience.

One day we were told to  take a position in a ravine that looked over a large barren field that led to a grove of heavy brush and coconut trees.  We enjoyed the time to rest for a time, to clean our rifles, to eat a K-Ration.   It was in the early afternoon when the order came to "move out" across the barren field which was, perhaps, two hundred yards across. The line of Marines moved from the safety of the ravine and began crossing the open field.  Everything was calm.   No shots had been fired for several hours.  The was to be a piece of cake...but it was not to be.

The heavy brush came alive with Japanese rifle and machine gun fire.  Marines were falling right and left and there was no cover available.   We raced back to the safety of the ravine and became aware that Nightengale had been hit and was trying to crawl toward the ravine.   Richard Freeby threw his rifle down and raced across the open area to where Nightengale had fallen and began to pull him toward the ravine.   Every weapon in G-Company was firing into the brush in an attempt to provide support.   Freeby and Nightengale, now moving alone on the open field, received the concentrated fire of the Japanese.

Suddenly, Freeby dropped Nightengale, raced to the ravine and dove to safety...his pack riddled with bullet holes.   Nightengale had been hit again...this time, fatally.   Freeby had performed an act of bravery  few humans ever witness and cried because he could not save his friend.   Lt. Leary told me he was going to recommend Freeby for the Silver Star, but died before he could write the report.

The call went out for a mortar and artillery barrage on the brushy area and the coconut grove.  When the barrage was finished Marines rushed out of the ravine with a vengence.  Not one Japanese survived the following ten minutes as we raged through what we learned later was a key Japanese command post.

Lt. Leary and I returned to where Nightengale's body lay and Lt.  Leary removed one of Nightengale's dogtags, the other was left for the burial detail.  We placed a bayonet attached to a rifle into the ground and hung Nightengale's steel helmet on the butt of the rifle.   We had performed the procedure as we had been instructed and raced to catch up with the 2nd Platoon.

Several days later we were given a day of rest and on our way to the beach passed the area where Nightengale had been killed.   His body was still there....waiting for the burial detail.

I was talking to Lt. Leary when he was killed a few days later.   Two officers were killed attempting to remove his body.   The position was bypassed and the body was never recovered.    Both Nightengale and Lt. Leary were listed as Missing in Action despite the fact that those of us who were with them knew when and where they had died.   A search of Marine records in 1999 revealed that both continued to be listed as Missing in Action.

Twenty years later, I lived in Denver, Colorado and planned an automobile trip to the east coast.    I had considered a visit to Skowhegan, Maine and the Nightengale family, but I had no address or given names.   I did know that Nightengale was a Baptist and, a few days prior to leaving Denver, wrote a letter to "The Minister, Baptist Church, Skowhegan, Maine," stating who I was and my relation to his community.  Did he know of such a family?  I informed him that I would be on the road for several days, but gave an address where I would be in Atlanta City, New Jersey.

When I arrived at Atlantic City the minister had written.   There was a Special Delivery letter from Nightengale's sister.   There was an "Urgent" telephone call from his parents.   I was weary from driving cross country and had pretty well decided not to attempt to go to Maine, but the telephone call changed my mind.

When I reached Boston,  I called to inform Mr. Nightengale  that I had been detained and inquired about the availability of lodging facilities.   I was promptly informed that I did not need any, that they were expecting me to stay with them, and to come on even if I arrived after midnight.   I drove on.

It was after one in the morning when I drove into Skowhegan.    I was promptly stopped by a policeman who inquired if I was Mr. Matthews.     He had been expecting me and led me to the well lighted Nightengale home.   Mr. & Mrs. Nightengale were in the yard waiting and I was met with the warmest of greetings.   I was invited into the kitchen and to sit at the table bearing a huge platter of fresh baked cookies and a pitcher of cold milk.  Mrs. Nightengale sat across the table and smiled as I complimented her cooking skills.  Mr. Nightengale stood in silence, his arms folded.   When pleasantries and cookies were finished, Mr. Nightengale spoke, "Mr.
Matthews, I have waited twenty years for this moment.  Tell me....about what happened to my boy."    I was unaware that Nightengale was still listed as Missing in Action.   I assumed that his body had been recovered and, perhaps, brought home.

I related my relationship with his son from the first day I had met him in California until the day he died on Saipan.   When I had finished, the old man, now in his seventies, wiped his eyes, smiled, and said,  "I'm glad you came.   I can die happy.   I just could not die until I knew what had happend to my boy."   Later, Freeby wrote them and confirmed what I had told them. He did receive the Silver Star for his heroism.

The next morning I stood silently as Mr. Nightengale raised The Stars & Stripes on a flagpole erected in honor of his son.

Later, we visited the farm where Nightengale had lived until he entered the Marine Corps.  A brother now occupied the house, but nothing had changed.  The huge barn Nightengale had described was still there as was the giant Maple tree in the front yard.   I walked across the fields and had a feeling that I had been there before.    Everything was in its place...just as Nightengale had described it.

The next morning we said our good byes and I headed back to Denver....glad that I had taken time for a needed visit.

Carl W Matthews        319143 USMC
PON 454
Roswell Ga   30077       770   587 4350       matthewscarl@hotmail.com

 


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Edward L. Williams & Barbara Knox