By MEL REITZ
As told to John Howsden
I was born and raised in Sonora, California, a small city in the Sierra foothills known for its gold mining and lumber industry. I grew up on a 480-acre ranch in the Peaceful Valley Road area on the east side of town. We raised cattle and sheep and were high enough into the hills that we got plenty of snow. There were very few fences and lots of room to ride horses, hunt deer, and fish the streams. With the exception of state Highway 108, none of the roads were paved, even the main road running through Sonora. We had a favorite swimming hole on Sullivan Creek. It was near the bridge just east of Tuolumne Road. During the summer, after we did our chores, we headed for Sullivan’s. It was snow-melted water just off the mountains, so it was cool and refreshing. It was a great place to swim and hang out with the other kids. I attended Curtis Creek Elementary School and Sonora High School. I loved sports, and played basketball and baseball throughout high school. I was a catcher on the baseball team. Although I was only 5-foot-10 ½, I was a decent shot in basketball. We played in the Mother Lode League both in baseball and basketball.
After graduating in 1934, I enrolled in Modesto Junior College. Soon after enrolling I got blood poisoning — I don’t remember how — and dropped out. I spent a couple of days in the Sonora hospital on Washington Street. When I recovered, I decided I wanted to go to work instead of college. From December 1936 to September 1937 I worked as night mechanic at Fountain Garage in Sonora, overhauling cars. I started out at $22.50 a week and left making $35 a week. After working as a mechanic, I hired on with the Pickering Lumber Company in Standard, a company town for the lumber industry. Mr. Pickering, the owner, was my supervisor. I was a brakeman for the train that hauled the logs down from the mountains. The logging train made a big loop into the mountains picking up logs in Twain Harte, Schoettgen Pass, Beardsley Flats, and all the way to the famous Calaveras Big Trees. Each day I got on an empty train leaving the mill in Standard heading into the mountains. When we reached Schoettgen Pass, I got off the empty train and got on a train loaded with logs headed back to the mill. Some of those logs were huge. Once we hauled a log so wide that we had to cut it in half twice before the train could carry it down the tracks between the trees. We didn’t have radios, so we communicated by hand signals. Sometimes the train was 30 cars long and it was my job to stop it in the case of an emergency. The tracks had not been maintained well during the Depression, so once in a while we would have a derailment. Although it was vital, it was the most boring job I ever had. Most of the time, I was sitting by myself in the last car waiting to pull the emergency cord. When we got to the mill, we dropped the logs into the mill pond. Logging was good, so we worked six days a week and the mill ran around the clock. But it was just too boring, so I quit as a brakeman and hired on as a planer at the mill. I didn’t like being a planer either, so I walked to the sawmill 300 yards down the road and hired on as a saw filer’s helper. I sharpened the huge band saw blades, at least 30 feet long, that were used to cut the logs when they first came out of the mill pond. We were on the top floor and normally used a filing machine. But sometimes, especially during the autumn, the logs would have rocks inside of them. When the blades were damaged from hitting the rocks, we would hand-file them. I worked there until I was drafted into the Army in February 1941.
After I was inducted, I drove down to Fort Ord, in Monterey, to report for basic training. My neighbor came along and drove my old Model A back home. All I remember about boot camp was it felt like hell. After boot camp, I moved around a bit. First I was sent to San Bernardino, and then San Diego where I helped guard the port. From San Diego I was sent to Oregon, then Washington, and back to Camp Adair in Oregon. Camp Adair wasn’t even finished when I arrived. They had officers washing windows alongside enlisted guys. There I joined the 96th Infantry Division, 321st Medical Battalion Deadeyes. We were called the Deadeyes because our commander was a great shot and he wanted the rest of us to be good shots. We did more hiking and shooting, but most of our time was spent learning to render first aid and help the wounded. Finally we loaded onto a trainand headed for San Francisco. From San Francisco we rode a bus across the bay to Pittsburg and boarded a transport ship. In July 1944 we sailed to Hawaii.
We stayed in the Hawaiian Islands for three weeks, getting jungle warfare training. Sometimes we would sail to the other islands on transport ships, but we never got off the ship. We just turned around and sailed back to Oahu. When we were not on the ships, they would truck us to the other side of the island where it gets more rain and is more of a jungle. That part of the island had steep canyons with thick foliage. We’d hike up and down the sides of the mountains with our packs and rifles. When we got to the bottom of the canyon, we practiced crossing rivers. Some of the training staff hid up in the palm trees. They tied sandbags to ropes and when we walked under the trees, they swung the sand bags down and hit us. Then they would pull up the sandbags and wait for the next unsuspecting solider to walk under them. It taught us to check for snipers in the trees. After our jungle warfare training, we sailed for Leyte in the Philippines to fight the Japanese.
Invasion of Leyte
When I landed on Leyte, I was a medic with Company C 321 Medical Battalion. Although I served in a medical battalion, I was assigned to an infantry unit. My baptism of fire was Oct. 20, 1944 when we hit the beach. I was scared as hell. I made it as far as a large swamp a couple of hundred yards in from the beach. I spent the night with my company commander in waist-high water leaning against a snag. The ants were everywhere, and they almost ate me alive. There was shooting throughout the night. Five of our guys were killed on a hill to my left. Come daylight, I moved out of the swamp and came across a foxhole another soldier had dug. I joined him, and things were going fine until he poked his head up and a sniper shot him dead. I didn’t know it then, but the fighting on Leyte was relatively light compared to what I was about to experience. We fought on Leyte for two months before we secured it. Once we cleared the island, we were issued new equipment and started some intensive training to get ready for the invasion of Okinawa. Okinawa was the only island that stood between us and Japan. We were told the Japanese soldiers would defend this island to their death.
On April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday, the Army and Marines invaded Okinawa. We landed and met little resistance. We spilt the island in half; the Marines headed north and we headed south. Being a medic; I had rudimentary medical supplies such as sulfa pads, tourniquets and bandages. My job was to render first aid to soldiers and get them back to the first-aid station. My primary duty was to save lives, but being on the front lines, I had to fight just like the other soldiers. I was armed with an M-1 rifle, a .30 caliber semiautomatic that can fire eight rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger. I also had a .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol, which is good for up-close shooting. I was a good shot, as I had been shooting since I was seven years old. I don’t know how many Japanese I killed. I shot at 20 to 30 of them, but in combat things happen so fast it’s hard to tell if you hit anyone. There was so much fighting and dying that things are a blur, but I do distinctly remember killing one guy. I don’t remember where he came from, but suddenly he was right in front of me. I jerked my M-1 up and shot him point-blank. He crumpled to the ground and I knew he was dead. It sounds coldhearted, but I didn’t feel bad about killing him. We both had guns and it was him or me. We had one rule, “Kill or be killed.”
Carnage Beyond Words
It was unspeakable carnage on Okinawa. Bodies from both sides covered the ground. For two weeks it rained like I had never seen it rain before. The water washed down the hillside, bringing with it thousands of Japanese bodies. They washed out into a large basin at the base of the hill and laid there for days in the sun. On another part of the island was a dirt road dividing two hills. During that rainstorm, the bodies of Japanese soldiers that had been killed on the hillside washed down to the edge of the road. The dirt road trapped the bodies and they collected in piles by the hundreds. You had to be careful around the dead bodies because they were often booby trapped. One time there was a dead Japanese officer lying nearby with a pair of binoculars still in the case draped around his neck. One of the guys wanted the binoculars for a souvenir, but he didn’t dare walk up and grab them for fear they were booby trapped. To play it safe, he scrounged up a length of rope, tied it to the body and from a safe distance, tugged on the rope several times to make sure the body wasn’t rigged with a hand grenade, then he took the binoculars. We did everything we could to recover the American bodies. They were buried behind the lines in a temporary graveyard and eventually dug up to be shipped back to the states. For the Japanese bodies, we dug a big trench with a tractor and pushed them into it. The trees on the island had some fern-like growth at the trees’ bases. The Japanese hid inside these ferns waiting for us to walk by so they could shoot us in the back. One time I dove into some bushes when I was getting shot at and came face to face with a Japanese soldier. I thought I was a goner, until I realized he was dead. It might sound funny now, but at the time I was happy he was dead.
Boots for a Marine
But as bad as it was, there were some funny things that happened. As I said, the Marines had headed north to secure that end of the island. As it turned out, the Japanese had decided to make their last stand on the south end, so the Marines were moved down to help us finish them off. One day I was in the first aid station when I heard someone swearing a blue streak outside the tent. I looked outside and saw a grizzled old Marine staff sergeant complaining that he needed a new pair of shoes. Apparently his unit was fresh out of new boots. Marines are a prideful bunch, and for him to come over to the Army begging for shoes must have been a devastating blow to his pride. We felt sorry for him. We gave him a pair of boots and sent him back to his unit, still cursing the Marine Corps.
I didn’t believe in good luck charms. Instead I was just as careful as I could be. If it’s your time to go, then you can’t help it. One day I was standing on a bluff with a buddy at the south end of Okinawa. We were watching some Japanese down in the field when a mortar exploded right behind us. I didn’t get a scratch, but my buddy got hit in the back. Bright red blood flowed from his wound, meaning the shrapnel had pierced his lungs. I patched him up as best I could and sent him back to the aid station, but I don’t know if he survived. I seldom found out how the guys did after I fixed them up. You got used to sending them back and never knowing. I didn’t have much time to write. I think I only wrote two letters all the time I was overseas. We were just too busy. I didn’t keep a diary during the war or at any time. It was awful and it was the last thing I wanted to talk about or remember. It’s been over 60 years since the war, and I’ve spoken very little about it. It was such an awful experience that it’s hard to describe. There were bloated bodies, black and rotting, lying around by the thousands. Sometimes the fighting was so bad we couldn’t recover the bodies of our own guys for days. I still hate the Japanese. I can’t forget what they did during the war. I would like to forgive, but I can’t. It was too awful.
On Okinawa we fought for 82 days, and it was scary all the way through. There was a lot of hand-to-hand killing and we lost a lot of good men. When we finally finished off the Japanese, we were pulled off the island and sailed for the Manus Island in the Admiralty Islands to prepare for the invasion of Japan. My CO, who was a doctor, and I were sitting under some trees on Manus Island when word came down that the atomic bomb had been dropped and the war was over. We had a couple more beers and my CO decided to take a nap. He fell asleep in the sun and got severely sunburned.
By the time I arrived at Manus Island I was a staff sergeant. One day we were in the middle of the sticks, building a baseball diamond, when a small plane landed in a dirt field next to us. A general got out of the plane. I, along with another soldier, was called over to the general who introduced himself as Gen. Joseph Stilwell. He said he was here to present us with the Bronze Star. Unbeknownst to me, I had been written up for saving one of our guys. I still have the medal and the certificate reads:
On April 13, 1945: Upon learning that a member of an infantry battalion was seriously wounded and in an exposed area forward of the front lines, Sgt. Reitz crawled forward for 400 yards through ditches and other cover under intense enemy artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire. Within 15 minutes and with complete disregard for his own safety, he successfully removed the wounded man to cover, administered first aid, and evacuated him to a medical collection station.”
After reading the citation, he handed us our medals, shook our hands and left. I really don’t remember this particular action because it was so typical of what was going on every day on Okinawa.
Waiting to Go Home
On May 13, 1945 my company commander, Leo J. Sklar, wrote a letter recommending me for a direct appointment to second lieutenant. It went through the chain of command. On July 5, I went before a board of four captains, a major, and a lieutenant colonel for an interview. The board approved my captain’s recommendation. On July 15, General Joseph Stilwell agreed with the board’s approval, but there were no vacancies, so I didn’t get promoted. While we were bivouacked on Mindanao waiting to go home, there were some racial problems. The group I was staying with had a lot of rebel guys from the south. We were on top of a hill and at the base of the hill was a company of black soldiers. The guys in our unit were always getting into fights with the blacks. I stayed out of it. There were some potshots, but I don’t think anyone was hit. From that same hill, we could see the big transport ships coming in to pick us up. The guys with the high points were sent home first. Eventually my number was called. We sailed into San Francisco and they bused us to Beale Air Force base. After three days we were discharged. On Dec. 20, 1945 I was once again a civilian. The army gave me $6.95 in travel pay. A guy from Louisiana and I walked off the base and stuck our thumbs out. A guy and his girlfriend in a pickup truck gave us a lift into Oakland. My sister lived in Oakland, so I looked her up, and she gave me a ride back to Sonora.
Back in Sonora
After the war, I returned to my job at the Pickering Lumber Company, but after a while, I quit and got a job cutting hay with my cousin. We cut the hay with mowers pulled by a tractor, raked it into windrows and let it dry for the season. In the fall, ranchers drove herds of cattle down from the mountains to feed on the hay during the winter. Sometimes there would be 350 head of cattle ambling down the middle of Highway 108, like a scene out of Rawhide. Traffic had to pull over to the side of the road, but no one seemed to mind. People got a kick out of watching the cattle. After cutting hay for a summer, I was hired by a woman who ran a 160-acre ranch she owned on Phoenix Lake Road. Her name was Virginia – I don’t remember her last name – and she was a writer in Hollywood. She and her husband would come up once in a while to visit the ranch. They lived in the main house, which was made of rock. I lived on the property and did all the chores. I raised pigs for slaughter and watered 30 acres of alfalfa. I worked the ranch for about a year, and then got hired on with the Columbia Grammar School District. I was the head custodian for all the district’s schools, including Columbia, Pinecrest, Shaws Flat and Rawhide. I was responsible for everything from keeping the toilets working to shoveling snow off the roof. I couldn’t keep hand-shoveling all the snow at Pinecrest, so the school district bought a snow machine. It was so heavy we had to use a large hoist to get it up on the roof. Once we got it up there, we left it there year round. I worked for the school system until I retired 20 years later. During those 20 years I met a lot of kids. I’m 96 years old and some of those kids still drop by the house to see how I am doing.
After the war, I met Barbara, my wife-to-be, through a mutual friend at a dance. She was working in the office at the Standard Lumber Company in Standard. The office building is now a popular brew pub. In 1949 we were married in Minden, Nevada by the justice of the peace. Barbara was a good-looking woman with bright red hair and a good sense of humor. One day I called her “Red,” and the nickname stuck. We had two children: Valerie, who married Mike Stocks, and Russell Reitz, who married Lynn Beck. I also have two grandchildren, Connor and Devry Reitz. Barbara and I were married for 30 years. She passed away from cancer on July 6, 1979. I had a younger brother, Vernon, and a younger sister, Della. Vernon fought in the Philippines, and was one of the first to occupy Japan.
Vernon stayed in Sonora, but my sister lived in San Francisco, but eventually she moved back to Sonora.
I like hunting, but I love fly fishing. I’d fish every day if I could. We fished for trout in all the streams around here. I had two favorite places: Sonora Pass and a spot down by Beardsley Dam. Sometimes I took my son, Russell, and we would have a great time. I liked putting two leaders on one line. I would use a Royal Coachman fly and a black Nat fly. I used to arch the line to make the fly hit first and more than once I caught two fish on one line. A couple of times a friend of mine caught three trout with one cast. When I wasn’t fishing I was making fishing flies for myself and my friends. But putting my feelings aside about the war and the Japanese, I believe in being nice to everyone. I’ve been around for a long time. I have always gotten along with people and I enjoy life.
Decorations and Citations
Philippine Liberation ribbon with two bronze stars
Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal (with two brown stars)
World War II Victory Medal
American Campaign Medal
American Defense Service Medal
Good Conduct Medal