Elmore Jenks’ diary ends here. After the Buna campaign he returned to Australia, apparently for the duration of the war. I don’t know why he and his comrades were sent back to Australia. Perhaps it was to contribute to Australia’s defense against a potential Japanese invasion, or to train for the anticipated final invasion of the Japanese mainland. But Dad doesn’t say and he may not have known the reason.
It goes without saying, of course, that General Eichelburger’s promise to send the Buna veterans to Hawaii for rest and recuperation was never fulfilled. That would have been a nice development, though, because Elmore could have been reunited with his brother, Army Captain Stanton F. Jenks, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor. Happily, both brothers returned safely home after the war, and both became high school teachers.
Elmore’s diary is obviously a gold mine of facts and memories. He writes plainly and has a nice eye for detail.
But it also leaves out a lot of information that would have been nice to have. Among the photographs in Dad’s scrap book is a picture of him on crutches. The diary records Dad’s experience with malaria and its causes (“The mosquitos came over us like a blanket”), but he never mentions the crutches.
When Elmore and Mary’s children were growing up, he often mentioned his “bad knee,” which still bothered him at times. Thinking the knee might be a battle injury, I often asked him how it happened. At various times he’d offer different explanations. It was an obstacle course injury during training. It happened when he caught his foot in the webbing of a ship while jumping into a landing craft.
Both could be true. But later in Dad’s life, when I was reading his war diary aloud so he could comment about it, I asked him again: How did you hurt your knee?
He didn’t even pause to think it over. “I was on a train in Australia, getting ready to ship out to a new post,” he said. “There was this woman who came to see me off [perhaps Mary Fletcher an Army nurse frequently mentioned in his diary]. They wouldn’t let her on the train so she came up to the window where I was. I knelt down so I could get my head out the window, and the train suddenly lurched forward. I hurt my knee and it hasn’t been the same since.”
They don’t give out purple hearts for that kind of injury, but the story rings true.
In fact, most of the diary rings true. He is quite candid about the criticisms he received from superior officers as well as the contempt he felt for many of them. His inability to rise above the rank of second lieutenant bothered him, but he faced it squarely in his diary.
The diary does leave out small details my siblings and I have always wondered about. One of his war souvenirs is a pair of chop stocks in a wooden holder. It seems likely the utensils were removed from one of the numerous bodies of Japanese soldiers that lay in the jungle or floated in the surf near Buna Mission. Did Dad remove the chop sticks from a man he had shot, or was the acquisition less personal? The chop sticks now lie unceremoniously in my sock drawer, but I wonder about their story every time I see them.
Dad also collected souvenirs from the Papuans, including Papuan bark cloth that was created by pounding the bark of a tree into a pliable blanket. He probably purchased it from one of the Papuans in whose village he lived, or it may have been given to him as a gift. But the story of how he came to own the cloth is unclear. (I haven’t seen the cloth in decades; I think my brother Paul has custody of it in Florida.)
Pasted in Dad’s scrap books are yellow, postage-stamp-sized pictures of Papuans in their villages in Eastern New Guinea. The pictures were so small and yellow that I barely noticed them growing up. When I scanned and enlarged them recently, I discovered they were amazingly detailed images of a now fading culture. I assume Dad took these pictures, but I don’t know how or with what kind of camera. Perhaps the officers took pictures of each other and traded prints when they were ready. Papuans posed willingly with the officers, and the Americans struck poses like benevolent liberators, their hands on their hips where they could easily grab their sidearms, holstered ostentatiously as a warning to evil doers (such as the officers of the Japanese Imperial Army).
The diary is wonderfully anecdotal but it leaves out a lot of the details of Dad’s army career. I know he and his brother Stan were commissioned as officers when the war began in 1941 because they had spent summers in an officer candidate camp near Oneonta. This in itself is notable given the strong isolationist attitude of most Americans in 1939 and 1940, and President Roosevelt’s promise that “your boys will not be sent into foreign wars.” (“If we are attacked,” FDR whispered to aides, “it’s not a foreign war.”) Even so, Elmore and Stan probably didn’t think war was inevitable. I suspect they were encouraged to prepare for commissions by their father, Addison Jenks, who was superintendent of the Oneonta Armory.
The details of why Elmore was assigned to certain units, and when he was finally promoted to first lieutenant, and when he was finally released from military service, are all uncertain. (I always assumed I was born precisely nine months after Dad returned to Oneonta, but my math is speculative.) All that information is in his 201 file, which was destroyed along with millions of other paper military records in a government warehouse fire years ago. I am sure I have seen a fuzzy thermofax of his military record somewhere, but I have no idea where. Unless the record miraculously reappears among my own papers, or in my sock drawer, the details may be lost.
All of which makes Dad’s diary even more valuable. The details he provides, especially his description of horrifying nights in the Buna campaign of December 1942 and January 1943, shed a clarifying light on his personality and, especially, his life-long attitudes about war and peace. Reading his diary after 70 years, I clearly understand why he hated it so much when my brothers and I played war: a topic I have returned to several times in blogs and sermons.
Buna Diary was first posted on a family Facebook page so Elmore’s sons and daughter can read it, and so it will be available to nieces, nephews, and grandchildren who were young when Elmore died, or didn’t know him at all. I hope it will be a helpful family resource for all of them.
Elmore Jenks died April 16, 1999. After the war he finished his bachelor’s degree at Hartwick College in Oneonta and worked as a business teacher at Morrisville-Eaton Central School, Morrisville, N.Y., from 1946 to 1976. Mary Emerson Jenks died in May 1983.
When Elmore and his good friend and fellow teacher Reginald Dodge, also a World War II veteran, retired, the principal of the school said, “From now on, the students of Morrisville-Eaton will have to learn about the Second World War from books.”
Philip E. Jenks