Draftee sent straight into ground assault against Japanese in New Guinea

  • Published
  • By Howdy Stout
  • Staff Writer
Bob Freese entered the U.S. Army as a draftee in January 1942, little more than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor precipitated the U.S. entry into World War II. A well-known amateur ball player, the Oklahoma native reported for duty at Fort Sill near Lawton before being shipped to Camp Roberts, in California.

Half-trained, he and other recent inductees were assigned to the 32nd Infantry Division, a National Guard unit being hastily shipped to Australia to defend against a possible Japanese invasion from neighboring New Guinea. General Douglas MacArthur quickly sent the division to New Guinea to launch what would be the first large-scale ground assault against Japanese troops.

For the first time in the war, U.S. troops were airlifted into action. But, with their supplies sunk by a Japanese air attack, they battled with nothing more than the uniforms on their backs and the rifles in their hands.

"We were without everything most of the time," Mr. Freese remembers.

Uniforms and boots rotted from their bodies in the tropical humidity while weapons often rusted and became useless. A shortage of parachutes meant aircraft dropping food supplies often simply pushed them out the door, splitting open when they hit the ground and rapidly spoiling in the heat. Food ran short and the Americans resorted to eating coconuts.

"Because that's all we had to eat," Mr. Freese said. "We went as many as four or five days without anything to eat."

The equally hungry Japanese turned to cannibalism.

The terrain was mostly swamp. At one point, Mr. Freese says, he and his company were three days knee-deep in water. At night, they used ropes to tie themselves to trees in an effort to get some sleep.

"You'd tie yourself to a tree with a tent rope and fight the snakes all night," he says.

A shortage of equipment to tackle Japanese defenses meant that enemy bunkers and pillboxes had to be assaulted by individuals armed only with a bayonet.

Disease and combat took their toll, with the divisions suffering heavy casualties. When the 32nd returned to Australia after the campaign, few original members were left.

"There were just 10 of us left in our company," he said.

Following further combat and a stint as a jungle warfare instructor, Mr. Freese was finally invalidated home for limited duty guarding German prisoners of war. He quickly married his wartime sweetheart, Leona, before finally being discharged in September 1945.

And although a decorated combat veteran who served nearly the full length of World War II and with two Bronze Stars to his credit, the Army still sent him a bill for the shattered rifle shot from his hands by the Japanese.

"They wanted me to pay for it," he laughs. "They couldn't charge the Japs for it."

Mr. Freese and his wife settled back into Oklahoma life, where he worked for a glass company until his retirement several years ago. Much of his work was done at Tinker, where his son now works. David Freese works in the 547th Propulsion Maintenance Squadron.

"I worked out there quite a bit," he says. "But when I left (for the war), there wasn't anything but plowed ground and a couple of buildings."

He also returned to playing ball, eventually hanging up his mitt several years ago.

"Finally," he says, "at 87, I quit playing."

Although he seldom spoke of his Army service, both his son and grandson joined the Army. His son, who now works at Tinker, spent long months on the De-Militarized Zone in Korea. His grandson has deployed to Iraq.

"He's served in Iraq twice," says Mrs. Freese.

"He's going to make staff sergeant," says a proud Mr. Freese, who was promoted to sergeant and demoted to private four times during his tumultuous service. "He's going to pass me."