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Veteran Profiles

Staff Sergeant John Reaves

Kelly Conroy
MSM Class of 2012

Veteran. Husband of 67 years. Father of two and grandfather of three. Woodworker. Electrician. Faithful Christian. The list could go on and on . . . A mere description of Mr. John Reaves, no matter the length, could never fully describe this great man. His story is an inspiration for our nation today.

John grew up in Lake Mary, Florida as one of five children. In 1941, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the National Guard. He lied about his age to join. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, his unit was called up and he was notified he "was in the army now!"

John spent all of 1942 and most of 1943 stateside in training with his unit, the 1st Battalion of the 32nd Division. One sunny afternoon during training in Fort Baine, GA, a friend showed John a photograph of his sister. John asked if he could write to her and his friend agreed. John soon was able to meet the beautiful girl, Betty, who lived near Fairfield, PA.

During the winter of 1943, John went to visit Betty, sans boots (as a true southern boy) and saw snow for the first time. He made a snowball and threw it at Bettyís window. The window did not turn out to be Bettyís window so the entire family found out that John had thrown a snowball at the window. It became a good family joke. Betty opened the front door anyway and helped John warm his feet by the fire.

A shot time later, John, along with the rest of his Division, was sent to what was clearly the "hell hole" of the pacific theater: Papua New Guinea.

The campaign on New Guinea is all but forgotten except by those who served there. Battles with names like Guadalcanal Saipan, and Iwo Jima overshadow it. Yet Allied operations in New Guinea were essential to the U.S. Navy's drive across the Central Pacific and to the U.S. Army's liberation of the Philippine Islands from Japanese occupation.

New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, extends nearly 1,600 miles just south of the equator. On the northern side, scene of most of the fighting, rainfall runs as high as 300 inches per year. As one veteran recalled, "It rains daily for nine months and then the monsoon starts."

Disease thrived on New Guinea. Malaria was debilitating, but dengue fever, dysentery, scrub typhus, and a host of other tropical sicknesses awaited unwary soldiers in the jungle.

The terrain was a commander's nightmare because it fragmented the deployment of large formations. A morass of large mangrove swamps slowed overland movement. Monsoon rains of eight or ten inches a day turned torpid streams into impassable rivers. There were no roads or railways, and supply lines were often native tracks, usually a dirt trail a yard or so wide tramped out over the centuries through the jungle growth. Downpours quickly dissolved such footpaths into calf-deep mud that reduced soldiers to exhausted automatons stumbling over the glue-like ground.

Fed by the frequent downpours, the lush rainforest jungle afforded excellent concealment to stubborn defenders and made coordinated overland envelopments nearly impossible. Infantrymen carrying sixty pounds of weapons, equipment, and pack staggered along in temperatures reaching the mid-90s with humidity levels to match. U.S. and Australian troops, who fought side-by-side, faced a determined Japanese foe on a battleground riddled with disease and whose terrain made a mockery of orthodox military deployments.

For nine months, John lived in mud and water with insects in Papua New Guinea. He said that you had the choice to let it "wear you out or toughen you up." He said that he would dig fox holes at night to sleep in, but they would fill up with water by the morning. He wore the same uniform for weeks at a time and they were often more wet than dry. John claimed that, "Everybody had to watch out for each other."

In such rugged jungle terrain, however, a few determined men could slow down a division. Numerous streams cut the coastline into a swampy, muddy bog that impeded the Allied push. Japanese infantrymen dug in along key terrain dominating the obvious approaches. Ambush and sudden death awaited the careless or unlucky because it was often impossible to see more than a few feet into the undergrowth. This was Johnís life for almost 11 months.

After landing at Port Moresby, John, then a squad leader, moved with his unit to the North of the Island. For the better part of 1944, John participated in an series of bloody amphibious landings designed to isolate Japanese defenders. On July 25, 1944, shortly after landing at Hollandia, Johnís squad surprised a large contingent of Japanese trying to ford a river to attack the landing beach.

"We just opened fire on them for the shore. So many died the river turned read with blood. The bodies floated out to sea, only to return that night with the tide."

During July and August 1944, alone, nearly 10,000 Japanese perished. Almost 3,000 Australians and Americans fell with them killed. Approximately 202,100 Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen died during the New Guinea campaign. Allied loses totaled 14,000.

The battle casualties tell only part of the struggle fought out against nature in the jungle wilds. Men on both sides collapsed, exhausted from the debilitating tropical heat and humidity; soldiers shook violently from malarial chills or from a drenching in tropical downpours. Others simply went mad. For a while John and his squad ate leaves and grass to stay alive while the Japanese resorted to cannibalism, eating the flesh of prisoners and their own troops. This was a campaign so fiercely fought that few prisoners were taken and fewer survived capture.

With New Guinea "secured" John and his unit took part in the invasion of Morotai Island upon which the allies planned to build airstrips to support the invasion of the Philippians. It was on Moratai that John witnessed one of the first Kamikaze attacks of the war. A Japanese bomber loaded with gasoline hit the airfield, taking with it 26 US aircraft.

By late 1944, with the war in the pacific reaching a crescendo, John suffering from dingy fever, and what was left of his Battalion, were ship back to the States aboard a captured German liner. Decimated from the effects of tropical diseases that flourished in the warm, moist jungle they were in desperate need of medical attention and rest. They never saw action again.

The battle for New Guinea was the story of the courage of the Diggers (Australian troops) and GIs who could always be counted on to move forward against a determined foe. It was these ordinary Australian and American soldiers who endured the worst deprivations that the debilitating New Guinea climate and terrain could offer. It was the lowly solder who was the brains, the muscle, the blood, and the heart and soul of the great army that came of age in the Southwest Pacific Area in 1943 and 1944. In one tough fight after another, they never lost a battle to the Japanese. Those accomplishments and sacrifices are forever his and deserve to be remembered by all.

Two months after John returned from the war, he and Betty were married. After the war, John worked in the Gettysburg Panel Company. He worked nine hours a day and then built a house for his family at night. He did almost all of the work himself even though he had never built a house before. John was an experienced electrician and eventually opened an appliance store called Reaves Electric Co. in which his wife helped with bookkeeping.

John served a short term as the Town Mayor in Emmitsburg and is a long-time member of Elias Evangelical Lutheran Church. John and Betty have been married for 67 years and live in an apartment in Emmitsburg. They still finish each otherís sentences.

Details of the Battle of New Guinea courtesy of the US Army Archives

Read John Reaves obituary

Read other Veteran Profiles

Ruth Richard's: Emmitsburg During World War II
LtCdr Hillman's: 50 Yard Line Seats for a Show I Would Rather Have Missed

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