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A story in a story                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Apr/23/2016 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: People, Perspectives,

The other day I was channel surfing during one of my nights when sleep was eluding me. I eventually let the remote control rest and I settled on watching the movie Starship Troopers. The 1997 movie was directed by Paul Verhoeven with screen play by Edward Neumeier and follows the futuristic military career and personal growth of the main character Johnny Rico while earth is at war with a race of Alien ‘Bugs.’ The movie is based on the 1959 book of the same name by Robert Heinlein. Heinlein wrote the story during a period of anti-military sentiment to show support of the services and their culture and values. Unfortunately, Neumeier and Verhoeven’s interpretation of the story was very satirical of the military with a lot of fascist symbolism making it a hack for true Heinlein fans. Heinlein was always a writer to add extra details and that included naming one of the space ships in the story the Rodger Young. Whether by design or accident, Neumeier and Verhoeven left this detail intact and the true story of Rodger Young as hinted at by Robert Heinlein is worth telling.

Rodger Young was born April 28, 1918 in Tiffin Ohio though he grew up in the town of Clyde Ohio. During his formative years he enjoyed hunting and had a keen sense of athletics. As a small statured boy, playing sports meant extra enthusiasm and heart to earn a place other than the bench.

During his freshman year of high school Young tried out for the football team. While he was not initially selected, his determination eventually earned him a place on the team. That same year, while playing basketball Young received a serious head injury. After being fouled by an opponent, Young fell on the hard floor and was knocked unconscious. The injury gradually led to significant hearing loss and damage to his eyesight. As a result, Young did not complete his schooling, dropping out of high school in his sophomore year when he could not hear the lessons in class or see the blackboard.

As a way to earn a little extra income Rodger joined the Ohio National Guard in 1938 and was posted to Company-B of the 148th Infantry Regiment, attached to the 37th Infantry Division. At only 5 feet 2 inches tall, Young was one of the shortest men in his company, but was considered a good soldier. Young rapidly made the rank of corporal and was a small arms instructor for new recruits when his unit was activated for Federal service in October 1940 as part of US preparations for World War II. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the 148th was deployed to Fiji and then the Solomon Islands in early 1942 after a brief training cycle at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.

At 5’2” tall and weighing 125 pounds, he was one of the smallest soldiers in the Army he wore his uniform with pride and was quick to pose for a photo when given the chance. Despite his small size, his hearing problems and thick glasses, Rodger managed to hide just how serious his infirmities were. He was a good soldier, training hard and with the same big heart that had always enabled him to achieve beyond his stature and handicaps. While at Camp Shelby Young’s determination and enthusiasm were recognized and he was promoted to Sergeant.

While Sergeant Young and the 148th were training, the men of the 1st Marine Division began the offensive against the Japanese on a small and previously unheard of island named Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. This important foothold in the Solomon Islands created a host of legendary heroes including Jon Basilone, Mitchell Paige, Joe Foss, Douglas Munro and Merritt Edson; all worth reading about.

“Operation Cartwheel” was a plan hammered out in April 1943 by General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral William Halsey. The plan was essentially an island hoping campaign jumping off at Guadalcanal with the ultimate objective of toppling the substantial Japanese garrison at Rabaul. MacArthur's troops would battle their way across the largest island of New Guinea while Halsey's forces would continue a northwesterly advance across the Solomon chain. The first step in this campaign was the nearby island of New Georgia.

By February 1943 the 37th Infantry Division was ready to relieve the marines and begin to wrestle control of the Solomon Islands from the Japanese. The 37th along with Staff Sergeant Rodger Young landed on the now American controlled Guadalcanal for final training. During this final phase of training the small-built and be-spectacled Sergeant pushed his troops to a high level of readiness, but began to have doubts about his ability to be worthy of the responsibility to lead them in combat.

Just before the 148th Regiment departed for New Georgia with the objective to take and hold the vital Munda airstrip, Sergeant Young went to the Regimental Commander and said “Sir, I would like to request permission to be reduced to the rank of private.” It was an unusual statement from any NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer), and caught the commander rather unprepared. After a moment he looked at the young man before him and asked rather brusquely, "What is your reason for wanting to be busted, Sergeant?"

Sergeant Young loved his stripes and his role as a leader, but feared that his failing health would be a risk to his men. Choking back his emotions he blurted out, "Well, sir....you see...my ears are going bad. I can't hear very well anymore and I don't want any of my men killed in New Georgia because of me."

It was the most difficult thing he had ever done in his life. Now he was stunned and angered when the commander replied rather curtly and with some distaste, "What's the matter Sergeant? Don't you want to fight?" Now Rodger’s words were being mis-interpreted as COWARDICE just before his unit was to enter combat.

"Sir," Rodger Young replied resolutely, "I don't want to leave the outfit. I want to go on -- but as a PRIVATE, so I'm only responsible for myself. I don't want to get any of my men hurt because of me." He paused for a moment, looking the senior officer full in the eyes and continued, "If I thought I'd be left behind because of THIS, then I'd rather drop the whole thing."

Later that afternoon the company physician examined Rodger and reported to the captain that the little soldier with sergeant stripes was nearly deaf. The doctor reported this to the captain and recommend that Young be sent to a field hospital. Sergeant Young argued emphatically against this and was returned to his unit as a private just before jumping off for the island of New Georgia on 30 June 1943.

The real prize on New Georgia was the Munda air strip. If captured, this would represent an air strip 200 miles closer to the Japanese base at Rabaul than Henderson Field at Guadalcanal, a critical distance for the aircraft of the day. This fact was not lost to Major General Nabor Sasaki, the Japanese commander on New Georgia. His forces were dug into log reinforced bunkers and heavily camouflaged positions that allowed their machineguns to play havoc on the American forces. At night the seasoned Japanese soldiers would creep into American positions, killing quickly and silently, and waging a very effective battle on the psyche of the green young combat troops from the United States. It was an effective tactic that preserved his hold on the Munda airstrip, and demoralized the American soldiers.

Two weeks into the campaign the men of the 37th Infantry Division were landed on New Georgia and received their baptism of fire. Frustration was high among the American soldiers and progress slow. Facing heavy rains, thick jungle, rough terrain and well-fortified Japanese positions, the American progress was slowed to a crawl. Most forward progress was made by units no larger than a platoon often going only a 100 yards before being pinned down by unseen snipers, mortars or machinegun fire.

Advances were small and victories were measured one hill at a time. By 31 July the lead American forces were within 1,000 yards of their objective. The desperate Japanese were a determined force and desperate to defend the Munda air field to the last soldier. In desperate circumstances, organized strategies fall a distant second behind the heroics in great individual effort. Less than 20 yards from the enemy lines a young medic named Frank Petrarca would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor while saving some of his fellow soldiers before succumbing to a mortar round.

A short distance from where the young medic, Frank Petrarca was dying, the 148th Infantry Regiment was making a sweep along the north flank of the Japanese fortifications. A 20-man patrol was sent out under a lieutenant and Platoon Sergeant Walter Rigby early in the morning working its way along a seemingly deserted trail that was heavily overgrown. The patrol was well into the enemy held area, perhaps as much as a mile forward of the rest of the American force. Among the young enlisted men was Private Rodger Young.

It was nearing 4:00 in the afternoon when the lieutenant began withdrawing his platoon, hoping to return to the Company B bivouac area before darkness set in. As the patrol moved silently down the trail, high above them five Japanese soldiers monitored their movement from a well-concealed machinegun nest. The well placed enemy position gave the Japanese a commanding view and they held their fire until the patrol was only a short distance from the muzzles of their guns before they opened fire.

Two soldiers fell dead in the initial volley, as the remaining eighteen men dug frantically for cover. The enemy soldiers poured an unrelenting barrage of machinegun fire on them keeping them pinned. The lieutenant attempted a mass maneuver to retreat his men, but the maneuver failed and two more Americans died. The remaining sixteen soldiers could only press their bodies to the ground and pray. They were trapped from above, unable to move, and darkness would set in before long. "We didn't know how we were going to get out - we were surrounded by the Japanese," Private William Ridenour later recalled. "We were all in a semi-circle, and we lit up our ammunition. We had to burn it up. That's one of the lessons you learn, not to leave any ammunition for the enemy to use on you."

"We (had) walked right into a trap," Sergeant Rigby remembered. In the opening moments of the battle, four young men from his home-town had fallen. Unlike the regular Army, when a National Guard unit goes into war, a company or a platoon is often heavily made up of a group of young men who all come from the same city or region. It was at this time that Rigby noticed movement from his boyhood friend Private Rodger Young. "Rodger was bound and determined to get that Japanese machine gun. In his position he had to know he was going to get killed. When I gave the order to retreat, I saw one of the boys beside him poke him with a stick and tell him to draw back but he had his sight on that pillbox and started after it."

Inching forward with his rifle, Private Young began to slither past the lieutenant, the officer reached out to try and stop him by grabbing his leg. Roger shook himself free and pushed on. The Japanese saw the flicker of movement and loosed a volley of fire in that direction, one round singing the lieutenant's hand and causing him to pull it back while Rodger Young continued crawling forward.

"Come back here!" The Lieutenant shouted. "It's suicide." The young private ignored the lieutenant's concern. "Come back Private Young....THAT'S an ORDER!" The lieutenant shouted again. For a moment the young private paused, turned to look back at his lieutenant....and smiled. "I'm sorry sir," he said. Then he smiled again. "You know sir, I don't hear very well." And then Rodger Young turned away from his lieutenant to continue crawling forward.

The enemy could see the movement of the grass as Private Young crawled towards them, and opened up their machinegun. The other 15 men of Young's patrol returned fire, hoping to keep the enemy gunners pinned down as their friend slowly advanced. A round struck Private Young in the shoulder, rendering his left arm useless. The same round shattered the stock of his rifle, and he left it along with the trail of blood that marked his painful progress as he continued inching forward. Miraculously he was getting closer to his goal, when another stream of enemy fire raked the left side of his body from thigh to ankle. "Stay where you are," the lieutenant shouted above the din of battle. "We'll get you out somehow!" Rodger just shook his head.

As always, Rodger Young had more HEART and determination than body, and today that would have to be enough. Five yards from the enemy position, Rodger Young had dropped his broken body into a depression in the ground deep enough to be safely below the muzzle of the machinegun. Using his good right hand he pulled a grenade from his belt and raise it to his face. With his teeth he pulled the safety pin and rose to his feet fifteen feet directly in front of the machinegun. The full force of the automatic weapon caught him full in the face. But Rodger Young, even in death, managed to collapse forward throwing the grenade straight and true...destroying the enemy position and saving the lives of his comrades, including his boyhood friend, Sergeant Rigby.

It was dark when the fifteen survivors of the patrol reach the Company-B bivouac area. Wrapped in ponchos, they carried the bodies of their 5 fellow Ohio National Guardsmen.

That evening the company commander sat down and wrote letters home to the mothers of the five young Ohio boys who had fallen. That completed, he began writing a special report on one of them based on interviews with the fifteen survivors. It was the recommendation for the Medal of Honor, to be awarded posthumously to Private Rodger Young. In the recommendation he included the sentence, "Disregarding the orders of his platoon leader to come back, Rodger Young moved forward into the face of enemy fire."

The commander of the 148th Regiment upon reviewing the Medal of Honor recommendation, approved it with one minor change. He altered the previous sentence to say, "Not hearing the orders of his platoon leader to come back, Rodger Young moved forward into the face of enemy fire." It was unacceptable to him to ever report that someone in his regiment had “disobeyed” orders.

I first heard this story and researched it in depth as a teen at the insistence of my father when I had asked him who was Rodger Young. This was before the internet so I was driven to the library rather than let the question fade. War is unfortunately filled with tragic circumstances in which the most unlikely of people rise to do great things. While it would not be right to distinguish Rodger Young as a greater hero that any other, his words and actions have now long out lived him. We see the story vehicle "I'm sorry sir, …. you know sir, I don't hear very well” used over and over in variations in many fictional heroic characters and stories. It seems only fitting that we be reminded of the little soldier with a heart bigger than his body who actually said it and did it first and best.

There is no doubt that when trying to tell the story of the honor, valor and special camaraderie that exists between soldiers, Robert Heinlein with purpose subtly named the ship the “Rodger Young.”

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