In memories of Leyte and Okinawa, a veteran's wounds never fully heal
By LOU MICHEL | The Buffalo News, N.Y. | Published: October 28, 2013
BUFFALO, N.Y. — When Harry R. Wisniewski received a draft notice, he showed it to his boss at Metal Alloys Specialties in Black Rock and was told he could receive a one-year deferment.
“The boss told me that because I was at a war plant making metal for submarines, I could delay my service, but everyone I knew was going into the service, and I said I might as well go now,” the 88-year-old Wisniewski recalls.
His assignment was the Pacific, with the 7th Infantry Division.
“My brother Eddy was serving in Europe, and he was always telling me they were freezing over there. You were outside in it 24 hours a day. Your pee froze before it hit the ground. He told me I was lucky because I was in a warm climate,” Wisniewski says.
Actually, he wasn’t that lucky.
At the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, he was wounded and received his first Purple Heart.
“When we landed, I got wet feet, but it wasn’t that bad,” he says. “I took off my shoes and put on dry socks. A patrol went in a ways and took a look around, and then we all started in. Little by little, we picked up more resistance. The Japanese had machine guns; they had mortars.
“The enemy couldn’t hit me with their bullets, but they got me with a mortar shell. I was walking in the woods, and a mortar exploded behind me and sent me forward flying into the stump of a tree.
“It was about 4 feet high, and I was flung on top of it and couldn’t get off it by myself. I had full field pack on. Another guy was going to pull me down, but there was still enemy fire, and I told him to wait for the mortars to stop. It felt like I was there forever, but it was probably no more than 5 or 10 minutes.”
Because the stump had caught him in the groin, his urethra was torn during the rescue.
“I ended up in a hospital for a couple of weeks but was then sent back to the front lines. I wanted to be back with my outfit because I had trained with them,” Wisniewski says.
He succeeded in catching up with his battle buddies, but just barely.
“I got out of the hospital just in time. There was one more ship waiting out in the ocean, and I went up the rope ladder back with my outfit. I didn’t know where we were going. But after a few days, we were allowed up on the deck, and when I looked to my left and to my right, as far as I could see, there were ships.”
On the right was the USS Missouri, and it was “pumping out 16-inch shells” bound for the shores of Okinawa, the site of another major Pacific battle.
“At the same time,” he recalls, “the Japanese kamikazes were flying overhead crashing into our ships. We were on the rear deck of the ship, and a bomb hit the railing on the fantail and bounced into the water and never exploded. We were lucky.”
During the battle, Wisniewski says, he noticed that a Navy gunner was unintentionally shooting at an American observation plane. “I grabbed the arm of a Navy officer and said, ‘Sir, we’re shooting at one of our own planes.’ He said to me, ‘You’re not Navy. Don’t get involved.’ I said, ‘But that’s one of our planes.’ He took a look and said, ‘By God, you’re right,’ and he ordered the gunner to stop shooting.”
When the troops landed on Okinawa, Wisniewski said the goal was to get into the tree line as soon as possible to take cover and avoid the Japanese planes, which were strafing the beach.
“I was one of the last off the ship, and when I jumped off the transport boat, I saw a Japanese plane coming and noticed a big bomb crater on the beach,” he says.
“I could see the plane’s bullets hitting the water, and I jumped into the crater, and the first thing I heard was someone hollering, ‘You SOB.’ I landed right on top of another guy and said, ‘Buddy, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were here.’ I didn’t have time to look. I had to dive.”
For Wisniewski, the fight on Okinawa lasted nine days before he was again wounded and received a second Purple Heart.
“We were stuck up on the high ground. We were waiting and waiting to move, but the Japanese had had years to prepare and were throwing so much stuff at us,” he remembers.
“I was in a foxhole with my buddy, and, of course, there was water in the hole, but we were stuck and had to sit there. The next thing I remember, I woke up and a medic was holding my hand trying pull me out of the foxhole.
“I had gotten hit by shrapnel across my right leg, and my upper right thigh was ripped open. The shrapnel also hit my right ear and cut open the top of my head. I don’t know how it got through my damn helmet. The helmet must have slowed it up a bit.”
The medic struggled to lift Wisniewski from the hole.
“He told me to push with my left leg. That didn’t work. He said, ‘Push with your left hand, too.’ I did, and I hit what felt like cloth and looked down and was looking into the inside of my partner’s head. He was only 19 years old. I couldn’t help him. He was dead right away. He didn’t feel anything.”
The medic, he says, yelled for assistance, and Wisniewski was dragged from the foxhole.
He was then placed on a Jeep with another wounded soldier and taken to a field hospital.
After that, it was on to a hospital on Guam, then to Hawaii, where he recovered for four months.
By January 1946, he was back in Buffalo and glad to be home.
“I tried a job here and a job there and finally got in at a machine shop at Curtiss-Wright, but then they started slowing down, and I got a job with the Erie County Highway Department and retired from there,” Wisniewski says.
Heartbreaking memories have dogged him throughout his life.
“A lot of my friends died in the war,” he says, “and you can remember seeing them lying and bleeding to death.”
So whenever a war movie comes on television, he refuses to watch.
Still, the memories recur:
“One time, I was up on a ridge in Okinawa, and the soldier next to me said, ‘Uh-oh,’ and I said, ‘What’s wrong,’ and he said he got hit in the left shoulder. He handed me a package wrapped in plastic. He said it was his wallet with his girl’s address, and she should get it.
“I told him he was only hit in the shoulder, but by the time the medics arrived, he was already dead. The guy had sounded so sad.”