Cpl. Walter Mitchell of Englewood, Fla. turned part of Guadalcanal, a major South Pacific battlefield in World War II, into a 5,000-acre truck farm once Japanese troops had been defeated.
More than two years after Marines stormed ashore the island in August 1942, Mitchell, a member of the 127th Chemical Company, started growing watermelon, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots on the island. A handful of American soldiers tilled the island’s good earth and turned it into a land of plenty for American servicemen fighting in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
The 83-year-old Paxtonville, Pa., native joined the Civilian Conservation Corps as a high school student during the depths of the Depression to get a leg up and send a few bucks home each month to his father. He was still in high school when he signed up with the CCC and helped build parks in Pennsylvania.
“As I recall, I got $25 a month,” he said. “I kept $5 and sent the rest home to my family.”
In November 1942 Mitchell was drafted into the Army along with his older brother, Guy, and his younger brother, Lee. After basic training he ended up on a troop transport that sailed from the East Coast, through the Panama Canal into the Pacific and on to New Caledonia. Forty-two days later it arrived at Guadalcanal.
After coming ashore with the 127th Chemical Company, his outfit set up camp at the end of Henderson Field, the primary reason U.S. forces wanted Guadalcanal. Although most of the Japanese had been killed or had surrendered by the time Mitchell and his fellow soldiers arrived, there were still a few enemy stragglers in the bushes who would take an occasional potshot at them.
“My job was washing clothes and stuff like that. We were a chemical outfit, and we were treating the soldiers’ clothes with a special substance to retard a Japanese chemical attack,” he explained. “We had a big washing machine that we put chemicals in to impregnate the clothes. After we got them washed, we hung them on the line to dry. Later we gave them back to the troops.”
The Japanese never used chemical warfare on Guadalcanal.
Because he could operate heavy equipment from his days in the CCC and his father ran a crane back home, he eventually became one of the soldiers who ran the vegetable farm set up on Guadalcanal by the U.S. Army. They used bulldozers and tractors to till the soil, something Mitchell knew all about.
“With the help of the local natives we grew all kinds of vegetables on this 5,000-acre farm. Our farm was called ‘Plantation Home,’” he said. “We loaded boxes of vegetables onto waiting ships. Transport planes would fly out of Guadalcanal loaded with our vegetables.”
Occasionally one of the soldiers would shoot a hungry Japanese soldier he caught stealing watermelons or whatever from their garden. It was a rarity because there weren’t that many enemy soldiers left alive on the island.
During their free time, American troops would bathe in a nearby stream. It was possibly 25 feet wide and 12 feet deep, the old soldier said.
“While we were swimming we would sometimes see crocodiles in the stream with us,” Mitchell said. “One day one of the soldiers shot one with his M-1 (rifle). They pulled it up on shore and measured it. The crocodile was 15 feet long.
“One day while we were on Guadalcanal, we heard this big bang. It was so intense it blew our tent down,” he said. “A Japanese bomber had dropped a bomb on one of our transport ships in the harbor, and it blew up.
“Three or four times while we were at Henderson Field, enemy planes flew over and bombed. It didn’t amount to much, other than the time they blew up the ship.”
When the island-hopping American troops moved on, ever closer to the Japanese main islands, Mitchell and his men closed down their truck farm and moved with them. By then, he had been transferred to the 720th Engineering Battalion and went to Leyte. From there they moved to Cebu Island in the Philippines.
It was there where Mitchell was seriously injured by a Japanese sniper.
“I was 50 feet up on the boom of a crane when a Japanese shot at me. The bullet hit the steel boom and scared the hell out of me. I fell,” he said. “I hit the concrete 50 feet below, broke four vertebra and was paralyzed.”
He was put aboard a ship and taken back to a hospital in Manila, Philippines. Then the injured soldier sailed for San Francisco aboard a hospital ship. Mitchell spent time in a VA hospital on the West Coast, but was eventually transferred to the VA hospital at Butler, Pa,. closer to home. He wound up in a third VA facility on Staten Island, N.Y.
“For the first 9 months in the hospital I was in a body cast that went from my neck to my legs,” Mitchell recalled. “I washed myself with a washrag attached to a yard stick.”
After two years of recuperation he was discharged on crutches from the U.S. Army on June 7, 1946. He went back home to Pennsylvania, married and went on with his life.
Most of his working career he was a shovel operator for a heavy construction outfit that built roads all around the northeastern United States. In 1973 he and his wife, Clara, retired in Englewood.
This first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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