Infantryman Harry Vadnie's one-year induction was to end in February 1942, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed that. Instead, the Bismarck native was sent to fight at Guadalcanal.
“Island hopping, jungle combat ... sometimes it seems like it never happened. Then again, sometimes it seems to have been only yesterday. I am proud to have been with the 164th Infantry, and I think that our state was thankful to us for serving," said Vadnie of his service in Company A, 1st Battalion, 164th Army Infantry Regiment.
Vadnie, who joined the North Dakota National Guard on Oct. 10, 1939, was activated for federal service on Feb. 10, 1941. By March, the regiment was filled to its required 2,400 men and the men left to train at Camp Claibourne, La.
One day later, as part of the 164th, Vadnie was sent to protect the West Coast from possible further Japanese attacks. His unit spent three months guarding dams, bridges, electrical installations and ammunition depots.
While continuing to train, the infantrymen heard rumors they were headed to the Philippines. In late January 1942, the 164th became part of Task Force 6814, and, by March, they shipped to “destinations unknown.”
“We hopped on trains and traveled to a port where about 2,000 of us piled on to the (converted luxury liner) SS President Coolidge,” Vadnie said. “Thirty days later we ended up in Melbourne, Australia. We got on some freighters and landed in New Caledonia to defend that island. We trained and worked very hard getting into shape. I thought we were a pretty ‘salty’ group already. However, looking back I can see that we might have been ‘salty,’ but not really trained at all for the ugly, ferocious jungle fighting that faced us.”
Task Force 6814 was renamed the Americal Division — American Troops in New Caledonia and the regiment, which was attached to the 1st Marine Division, was ordered to leave for Guadalcanal on Oct. 8, 1942.
"On Oct. 13, we hit the beach on Guadalcanal,” Vadnie said. “The 164th’s motto (in French) is: ‘Je Suit Pret’ which means ‘We Are Ready!’ That was questionable. We were the first, which is not always where you want to be. But, by trial and error and lots of guts, we performed better than anyone expected us to do. I was growing up fast for a 19-year-old who, up until then, had not witnessed anything more violent than a school-ground fist fight.”
From October through December 1942, troop duties included protecting Henderson Field, named in honor of U.S. Marine Corps Major Lofton Henderson, the first Marine aviator killed during the Battle of Midway.
“Anyone who lived through Guadalcanal can attest to the unpleasant realities of war,” said Vadnie, who earned the combat infantryman's badge. “During the battle in Guadalcanal in particular, the 1st Marine Division, with our outfit attached, the Navy and the Navy Air Corps clawed out a victory under odds you can’t imagine.”
Vadnie remembers that on Dec. 7, 1942, the American artillery kept up a steady barrage all day to mark the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
“It was great in many ways,” Vadnie said of serving with others from North Dakota. “We were people with the same background, news from home to exchange, being with lifelong buddies and even having our parish priest (Father Tom Tracy) with us. But, there were disadvantages, too. Whenever one of those high school buddies was killed or maimed, it was tough. If it wasn’t for my quickly acquired faith, things might have been worse. It’s hard to see anyone go down, but, when they are lifelong friends and neighbors, it is very hard to shake.”
Malaria hit the troops hard as they spread out to other nearby islands to look for Japanese activity. During a break, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions held decoration ceremonies. The Bronze Star was awarded to the men in the 164th, including Vadnie.
Vadnie attributed his survival to the "luck of the Irish."
“My luck became especially clear to me after I read the 164th Infantry World War II record. Our regiment, the 164th, accounted for 600 combat days rotating approximately 5,000 members. We suffered 375 men killed in action and 1,193 men wounded in action. To come through that unscathed, I had to have been lucky," said Vadnie, who was sent to officer training at Fort Benning, Ga., a year before the end of World War II.
By early October 1945, Vadnie was back in Bismarck, getting ready to marry his high school sweetheart, Mary Logan. Two of Vadnie’s 164th Infantry buddies hitch-hiked 3,000 miles from California to attend the wedding.
The 164th was inactivated Nov. 24, 1945. On June 10, 1946, they were relieved from assignment to the Americal Division. Eventually, the 164th was reorganized and federally recognized on May 1, 1947.
Vadnie and his wife, Mary, welcomed their first child, Michael, in November 1948. Then, the 164th was ordered to federal service Jan. 16, 1951, for the Korean War.
“When our unit was called back for the Korean War, I was very lucky for a final time,” said Vadnie. “Because I had enough overseas time in World War II, I stayed and fought the Korean War at Fort Custer, Mich.”
Vadnie was teaching at the Infantry School in Michigan, when a second child, Ann, was born in June 1951. By January 1952, Vadnie was released and returned to civilian life. He lived with his young family first in Mankato, Minn., before eventually returning to his hometown of Bismarck.