Results 1 to 1 of 1
Thread: Close Calls
08-03-04, 08:10 AM #1
Marine laughs at close calls
By ANDREW MOYLE
Ambrose Winter took a seat before his own personal time machine -- a tattered, lidless Eisenhohr's Cinco cigar box.
Beneath his huge hands, its contents spilled forth on the dining room table in his Pomona home: a piece of stamped steel bearing kanji instructions for a Japanese code machine, a postcard depicting a Japanese Imperial Navy seaman striking a steadfast pose on a mast's rigging, and a fraying headband pulled from a suicide attacker, its black dye faded along habitual folds.
Then, his hands found what he needed most in the box that once held 10-cent cigars. They pulled out a few sheets of yellowed, spiral-bound notebook paper bearing dates, the names of islands thousands of miles away and the notes of war.
"It's hard to remember," said the retired Pomona Unified School District electrician.
Winter's 81-year-old brow furrowed, his substantial white eyebrows bristling as he traveled back, and then the stories began to flow.
Sixty years earlier to the day -- June 21, 1944 -- a young Pfc. Ambrose Winter, artillery radio operator, rode an amphibious tractor toward the beach on Guam. His outfit, the 440th Platoon, 1st Battalion, 12th Regiment of the 3rd Marine Division, was not the first onshore, but the jungle island was far from secure.
As it had on Guadalcanal and Bouganville, the Japanese Imperial Army refused to give up before the seemingly unending waves of American soldiers, naval units and Marines. But the island-hopping campaign to push the Japanese back toward their homeland was working.
Winter dismounted in the shallows, his heavy radio pack replaced since Bouganville with one much lighter, and he stepped onto Guam.
Not far ahead, he saw a young man from Pasadena, an atheist with whom he'd struck up a conversation the night before on the deck of their transport ship.
"The night before the landing on Guam, we were laying on the deck. He didn't believe in God, so we got to talking about God," Winter said. "I said, "Look up at them stars. How the heck you think they keep in the same orbit, same everything, all the time? Why don't they just go in confusion?'
""Well,' he said, "That's just the way it was.'"
The Pasadena boy didn't see Winter coming ashore, even as Winter watched him climbing the beach. He didn't see it coming, either.
"Sniper, up in the hills," Winter said. "One shot. Took him right in the head. He dropped like a log, dead. I always thought, I wonder if he found out that there is a God. I'll bet he did. It's something that strikes deep."
Winter paused in his storytelling, letting the memory wash over him. Mercifully, the cigar box permitted few memories like those. Mostly it let him speak of the good times, the funny stories, which, to hear him tell them, were plentiful.
Both times he almost died still make him laugh.
Both came on Bouganville, an island in the Marianas where Winter arrived in November 1943, where he saw more action than he had on Guadalcanal or would on Guam.
As a radio operator attached to a battery of 75 mm and 105 mm howitzers, it was his duty to call in artillery strikes from the front lines in case of telephone line failure, or receive and relay those calls to the fire-direction center.
For two weeks at a time, he would do one job, then switch ends with his counterpart. His first brush with death came when he thought he was safe, asleep deep in his own lines.
"This bomb came down, and I was in a foxhole. The thing went off, and it caved my nice foxhole in on me," he said. "I sat up, spitting dirt. I was about covered, but not quite, because it wasn't that deep."
Dazed, Winter sat up and took a peek. For a brief and terrible moment, he thought the fire-direction center had taken a direct hit.
"I thought that bomb landed right in the middle of it. Then, when I straightened my brains out, I found out it (the command center) was on the other side. The bomb had landed in a bank of the road the Seabees had built," he said. "It was about 10 yards away from where I was. If it had gone off just a fraction of a second later, it would've landed right on me."
Winter stood and surveyed the scene, realizing the initial blast wasn't the extent of the bomb's damage.
"It was an incendiary," he said. "All these little things flew across the street to where the mess hall -- mess kitchen tent, whatever -- was. And all these little things, like magnesium batteries burning, they burned holes all over the tent. Our cook, Condy, he was so mad. He said, "It burned holes right through my aluminum pot. I have to use garbage cans to cook tomorrow.'"
Winter laughed at the image of Condy and his perforated pot, and again as he told the story of his second near-miss with the great unknown, his fingers dancing over the contents of the cigar box.
On the opposite end of the tenuous line of backup communication, a young Winter labored through the dense Bouganville foliage with a 25-man patrol, unaware he was moments from ambush.
As a radio operator, he was a prime target for an enemy plagued by the precision of American guns. Without warning, an attacker leapt from hiding.
Stunned, Winter didn't know what to make of the man wearing a Marine uniform and wielding a machete over his head. Winter's rifle rested on his shoulder, temporarily forgotten even as he glanced back at his comrades. In that moment of utter peril, his body took over.
"I passed out," Winter said with a chuckle. "I don't think I was out long. When I came to, I thought I was hit, I was shot, I was killed, I was something. I had blood all over my clothes."
It wasn't his blood. Fortunately for Winter, the man behind him in the column, a man named Marsh, had alertly pulled his .45-caliber sidearm and opened fire on the resourceful Japanese soldier who had found a dead Marine's uniform somewhere, donned it, and waited for his opportunity.
"Anyway, I was saved again," Winter said.
His fellow soldiers weren't the only ones keeping Winter whole. Jungle rot was a constant threat, weeping skin ulcers born of moist socks in a climate where a man's feet could never truly dry.
Twice the dreaded rot forced Winter into the mobile hospital, costing him a promotion each time.
"Both times when I got out, they already had a corporal," he said.
Once, the rot was so bad the doctors contemplated drastic measures.
"I had jungle rot on both feet. They were talking about amputating, but I said, "Gee doc, I'd really like to save them.' He said, "All right, we'll try something else,' so they used crude oil tar and formaldehyde. I says, "Oh, you're going to preserve them,'" Winter said, chuckling again. "You know, it worked."
Sometimes the cigar box did its job too well, seeming to blur the lines between history and tall tale told just for laughs.
"We were driving to Pearl Harbor one day. We were in a truck, and it was covered, and we were looking out the back. We were going by the women's barracks, and there was a girl out there in the double doors, standing there completely naked and waving a towel. Guys were leaning out of the truck, and one of the guys fell out," he said, pausing, a smile spreading over his face. "And I didn't even get hurt."
But on the day of the telling, one thing did. That day, Winter was supposed to accompany Rosemary, his wife of 58 years, to a ceremony on Guam to celebrate the island territory's liberation.
Winter couldn't make it, the ravages of kidney failure having forced him to use a walker since April. A plane flight to the island was unthinkable.
"I don't have much strength yet," he said. "I feel pretty good, otherwise."
Instead, Ambrose Winter returned his collection of souvenirs to their home, where they peeked over the cigar box's gold-capped rim, ready for the next time he wants to travel back.
Andrew Moyle can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (909) 483-9329.
TOP: Ambrose Winter in 1942
Photo Courtesy of Ambrose Winter
BOTTOM: Ambrose Winter of Pomona was a Marine in the Pacific at the battle for Bouganville during World War II.
Marc Campos / Staff Photographer
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
Users Browsing this Thread
There are currently 1 users browsing this thread. (0 members and 1 guests)