The Solomons campaign culminated in the campaign to take Bougainville Island, the largest and most northernmost of the Solomons. It started Nov. 1, 1943 and ended Aug. 21, 1945, when Japanese forces on the island surrendered, two weeks before the Empire surrendered in Tokyo Bay.
Robert D. “Bob” Myers of Wheelersburg was an 18-year-old Army infantryman who was involved in months of fighting on Bougainville and later in mopping up on Luzon and around Manilla.
The fighting on Bougainville was protracted jungle warfare, as the Allies attacked and then the Japanese counterattacked.
The Japanese, wanting to protect the flank of the Japanese offensive in New Guinea, had built an air base on the northern tip of Bougainville and a naval base and airport on the southern end.
Myers, who dropped out of Wheelersburg High School to join the Army National Guard as the war widened, packed an M-1 rifle and a belt-full of grenades as he waded ashore with the Marines on the beach of Bougainville in the fall of 1943.
“After eight days we replaced the Marines. We would be there 13 months,” Myers said as he recalled those World War II days this past week in his Wheelersburg home.
Turning the pages of a photo album/scrap book of his days in the islands, he points to first one man and then another, repeating, “He was killed, he was killed.” He turns a couple of pages and begins pointing to others in the photos, saying again, “He was killed, he was killed.”
There were 1,243 Americans who died during combat on Bougainville. Japanese losses were much greater, with the death toll estimated at somewhere between 18,500 and 21,500.
“We never completely drove the Japanese from Bougainville. Our objective was to neutralize some of their positions, gain control of the airfields, and then bypass the soldiers until the war was over,” said Myers, a member of the 37th Infantry Division, which went in as replacements in order to bring the fighting units back to combat strength.
They were reinforced by soldiers with the 93rd Infantry Division, the first African American infantry unit to see combat action in World War II.
Myers was wounded several times but never bad enough to withdraw from the fighting. He never allowed his name to be submitted for the Purple Heart medal.
“My wounds were superficial. Those who got the Purple Heart had bad wounds. Some lost legs or arms, or were killed. Those guys suffered a lot more than I did. I never felt worthy of the Purple Heart,” he said.
Myers’ National Guard unit was called up to join the regular Army in the spring of 1943. He spent 13 weeks in basic training in Arkansas and then shipped to California for several weeks of combat training. It was during this time that he met a fellow soldier who would become a lifelong friend, Earl Nolan, of Olive Hill, Ky.
One night before being shipped overseas, they went out to a movie and dinner. When they returned Nolan was confronted by a soldier much bigger than he who sought to fight him over who had which bunk. Myers stepped in for Nolan, a smaller man, and punched the bully out.
Myers would spend 30 months in the Solomon Islands all together. He was there through three Christmases before being discharged on Dec. 27, 1945.
As part of the 37th Infantry Division, he and Nolan shipped from California to New Caledonia, a staging area. After a couple of days they went to Guadalcanal and were there for several weeks. While there, the two saved the life of a fellow soldier who was intent on taking his own life.
“He ran past us screaming and jumped into the river, over his head, intending to drown himself,” Myers said.
They ran after him and pulled him out of the water. The soldier was so thankful for them saving his life that he decided not to end it all after all.
Myers and Nolan were separated on leaving Guadalcanal, with Myers going on to Bougainville. Nolan was there, too, but with another company, and they saw each other only occasionally.
After 13 months of jungle fighting on Bougainville, they were shipped over to the mountains of northern Luzon. There, Nolan’s company was assigned to take Chinatown, outside Manilla.
“They got hit hard. Most of Nolan’s company was trapped inside the town, which the Japanese had set afire. My company was pinned down for awhile by machine gun fire, but then we gained control of the situation, driving the Japanese out. We entered Chinatown’s burning buildings, rescuing who we could,” Myers said.
In one building, he said, he tripped over somebody in the thick smoke and he moaned. He carried him out and laid him down. He was surprised to find that he had rescued his friend, Nolan.
Myers spent 11 months on Luzon, including nearly four months after the war had ended, making friends with Filipinos who he corresponded with for years after the war.
The fighting on Luzon was tense for many months. During this time Myers continued an uncanny timing to be in a position to help others. During one battle, his company was trapped for a time in an open field. One soldier, shot three times, had been left behind. Somehow, without being shot himself, Myers made it across the open area to bring him back alive.
In another battle, Myers received the Bronze Star for retrieving his platoon commander’s body. He also was awarded two battle stars and a good conduct medal.
His last days of the war were spent taking control of Japanese soldiers who came in from the jungle to surrender, and in helping with the recovery work with the Filipino people. Many of the Japanese soldiers committed suicide rather than surrender.
The Filipino people were thankful to the American soldiers. Myers and Nolan made friends with a Filipino nurse and her husband, a pharmacist, who were caring for several young nieces whose parents had been killed during the war.
Food was scarce in the islands in the post-war days. The nurse would send her brother to kill chickens and several times the girls brought Myers and Nolan and some other soldiers fried chicken. Myers pinned his Good Conduct medal on the oldest girl, about 16. After Myers returned to the states, she sent a photo of her and the three other girls, with her wearing the Good Conduct medal on the collar of her dress. Myers communicated with the girls for years before eventually losing contact.
After the war Myers and Nolan went their separate ways. Myers said he tried for 40 years to locate his friend. At the same time Nolan was trying to find him. Myers had moved to Dayton, and for most of the years he lived there Nolan was living in Richmond, Ind., just a short distance away.
“I was looking for him in Olive Hill and he was looking for me in Wheelersburg,” Myers said.
It was in the mid-1980s before they were finally able to contact each other and had a joyous reunion at Myers’ home in Wheelersburg.
They kept in close contact after that, until Nolan died about two years ago. His wife, Gladys Stidham Nolan, lives in New Boston.
Myers’ and his wife, Ruth, were married for 50 years. She died 12 years ago.
They have four children, including a twin boy and girl, Mary and Larry.
They have all gone separate ways: Mary lives in Troy, Larry in Dallas, Nancy in Cincinnati, and Bob Jr. in Atlanta.
These days Myers busies himself at heading up the military funeral detail at the James Dickey Post 23 American Legion in Portsmouth. There are 33 members involved altogether, with 15 of them conducting the graveside military services. They participated at funerals for 134 veterans in 2007 and 128 last year.
“We’re losing them, one by one, and it seems faster and faster,” Myers said.