In the mid 1980’s I had the privilege of meeting some veterans of the 158th Regimental Combat Team, a World War II U.S. Army fighting outfit that had been known as the “Bushmasters.” They were attending an East Coast reunion of their old unit near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
The Bushmasters took their name from a deadly snake in Panama where the men trained before entering the war in the South Pacific. There they were turned into what was to become known as one of the toughest, most feared American combat units in the Pacific Theater.
When I arrived at the reunion hotel, I was slightly surprised to find a room full of old men. What should I have expected? After all, it was four decades since the end of their war. It occurred to me as I looked at the gray-haired veterans to wonder what it was that made them the fierce fighters so revered by General Douglas MacArthur and so dreaded by Japanese soldiers who had the misfortune of facing them in the jungles and on the beaches in the South Pacific.
While talking with the men, I heard story upon story of incidents during the years they spent in battles from New Guinea to the Philippines. Some of the tales, frankly, appeared far-fetched. But, with each anecdote, twenty or so other men standing within earshot would nod, validating events related by the others.
I happened to mention that some of the incidents sounded familiar and asked whether their stories had ever been dramatized in the movies.
The laughter was deafening.
“Yeah,” one of the men said. “A lot of movies. But the films were usually about the U.S. Marines.”
The 158th was not a large force. It began as an Arizona National Guard unit with approximately three-thousand men. It was an unusually small group considering the big job ahead. Still, undermanned and the odds weighed heavily against them on so many occasions, the American soldiers won the day . . . and a great many terrifying nights.
As Japanese troops who went up against them soon learned, being compared with the reputation of the venomous snake from which the Bushmasters got their name was a frightening understatement.
Most striking was the fact that these old men had retained their humanity. These were not cold killers. They were people just like those we see in the supermarket aisles and those with their families next to us in restaurants, in theater lines, and at the gas pumps. Something happened to them out there that turned those “ordinary” men into extraordinary warriors.
It was their job to save the world. And they did.
There were other WWII combat units, of course. I just happened to have met these men personally. I’m certain other outfits also fought hard and well. “Old Heroes” is a work of fiction. The idea came to me after my brief meeting with the real-life veterans and convinced me that under similar circumstances today, even at their advanced ages, these men and others like them would rise to the challenge again, just as they had during those terrible war years so long ago.
Those I encountered that day in a hotel meeting room and all the men who fought and died on those South Pacific islands deserve my best effort in honoring them. This story was done with great affection and respect. I hope all those who participated in the war will accept this work in the admiring spirit intended.
Steve Liddick, Author