CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Neil J. Briody was born in May 1921 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He graduated from high school in 1939 and then, encouraged by his father, joined the Civilian Military Training Corps (CMTC), a government program conducted at various military bases. Briody was assigned to Camp Dix, New Jersey, from where his father, a World War I veteran, had been discharged twenty years before. He spent the rainy month of August 1939 at Camp Dix, slogging through mud, learning close order drill and how to erect and strike tents, as well as how to shoot and maintain the Model 1903 Springfield rifle.
On December 7, 1941, Briody, his brother Peter and their mother were visiting his father at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in New York, where the elder Briody was recovering from an operation to remove one of his kidneys. The hospital halls were abuzz with the news of the Pearl Harbor attack and the fact that the country was at war. Shortly afterward, Briody decided to join the military. His father, a former soldier, advised him to join the navy since he would have a clean bunk, regular meals and no mud to contend with, and a few days after Pearl Harbor he followed his father’s advice. The recruiter told Briody that the navy was in dire need of his civilian skill set, acquired driving and maintaining trucks for a small trucking company, but he was not called to active duty until July, 1942, when he received orders to report to the federal building in Newark, New Jersey. On July 21, Briody, along with 100 other men from Newark and Jersey City, was inducted into the service at a local stadium, between the games of a Newark Bears and Jersey City Giants doubleheader, with Earl Harper, the Bears’ announcer, acting as master of ceremonies. The crowd cheered and a band played as Briody and his companions raised their right hands on the instructions of a navy officer and were formally sworn in. A few days later, they left Newark on a train south, “with nothing but the clothes on our backs.”
The recruits arrived at Norfolk, Virginia for boot camp. After four weeks of training, involving long hikes, close order drill and other basic military skills not unlike those he had previously learned at Camp Dix, Briody was transferred to Camp Perry, Virginia, where he was assigned to the Nineteenth Naval Construction Battalion. Sailors in the construction battalions were commonly known as “Seabees.” In September 1942, the Nineteenth Battalion was transferred to the Marine Corps as the Third Battalion of the three-battalion Seventeenth Marine Regiment, a combat engineer unit assigned to the First Marine Division. Although they were still theoretically sailors, the Seabees turned in their navy gear for Marine clothing and equipment.
Following reassignment, the battalion boarded a troopship, the USS Kenmore. After a stop at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Kenmore joined a sixty ship convoy headed for the Pacific. The fifty-eight day voyage, which included a brief stop in Balboa, Panama, ended at New Caledonia, a French colony composed of several islands, where Briody observed US navy vessels departing to fight the Japanese navy in the waters around the Solomon Islands.
After landing on New Caledonia’s main island, Noumea, Briody and his comrades traveled ten miles inland by truck to establish a camp. They were quartered in six man tents and quickly dug latrines and built headquarters, kitchen and jail facilities. Life on the island was far from ideal. Within days, half the unit came down with dysentery. Briody escaped the disease and was detailed to collect garbage from four camps, driving a “deuce and a half” or two and a half ton capacity truck; other soldiers would load the truck with large and heavy cans of kitchen refuse and dump them after riding to an area seven miles away. New Caledonia held extensive nickel deposits, and Briody recalled that hundreds of former contract mine workers, mostly from Java, who had worked in the mines before the war, were still living on mine property, crammed ten to a room in small buildings, although the mines were no longer functioning. The workers, abandoned to fend for themselves, picked through American garbage for any edible material they could find to help feed their families.
Briody’s unit served four months in New Caledonia, wondering when and if they would come into contact with the enemy, but spending most of their time working on damaged US navy vessels. Some men were sent to Guadalcanal to conduct repairs on the USS Enterprise. In March 1943 the Seventeenth Regiment was transferred to Australia, where it joined its parent unit, the First Marine Division, which was there for rest and retraining following the battle of Guadalcanal. After landing at Melbourne, Briody’s unit traveled by train to Mount Martha, and for the next four months engaged in maneuvers along with the Marines, including twenty mile forced marches and hand to hand combat training. He recalled that he drank a lot of beer in Australia and developed kidney problems that in turn limited his beer drinking.
While the Seventeenth Regiment was in Australia, the Australian Seventh Division returned to the country for reassignment to the South Pacific, after fighting in the North African and Middle Eastern Campaign. Some of the Seventh’s men had held the North African town of Tobruk when besieged by German and Italian forces, and they became known as the “Rats of Tobruk.” The tough Australians returned to Melbourne at the same time as the equally tough US Marines arrived on “Rest and Recreation” leave in the city. Briody recalled that during the week he was in Melbourne there were bar fights and riots in the streets every night.
After Briody’s battalion left Australia it traveled to a number of locations in the South Pacific, including one place called Good Enough Island, off the eastern tip of New Guinea, and then to Cape Gloucester on the island of New Britain, where he saw his first Japanese soldiers, floating dead in the water. Cape Gloucester proved a nightmare of heat, humidity and rain. Briody and his comrades built airfields under extremely trying conditions, including enemy air raids. Once, while they were working on the beach, a Japanese bomb landed several yards from where Briody stood, seriously wounding a man in his unit. Another air attack killed five men in the battalion.
After five weeks on New Britain, the Third Battalion men were transferred to another island in the Solomon chain, Pavuvu, where they were assigned to build a rest area for troops rotating out of combat. For a month they built roads of crushed coral and mud, volleyball and tennis courts, softball fields and swimming holes with diving boards. Pavuvu was infested with rats, and the battalion’s commanding officer gave rewards to the men who killed the most rodents. After leaving Pavuvu the battalion traveled on to Guadalcanal and New Caledonia, where it began training for future operations but was ordered back to the United States in the late summer of 1944, arriving in California in September. After arriving at Camp Parks, some sixty miles west of San Francisco, the Seabees found themselves back in the navy again, and were issued navy uniforms and gear to replace the Marine garb and equipment they had been wearing.
Following a thirty-day home leave, during which he spent a lot of time at a bar known as “Ma Woobie’s” in Rutherford, New Jersey, Briody rejoined his unit at Camp Parks. In January 1945 his Seabee unit, now the Nineteenth Battalion once more, shipped out again to the Pacific, landing on Okinawa on April 1, where the men went right to work clearing debris and building and repairing roads and airstrips, with Briody driving a gravel truck for road repair work. On August 8 he learned of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, signaling the end of the war, but remained on Okinawa through November 1945, rising to the rank of Petty Officer Second Class and ending up in charge of the battalion’s vehicles.
In early December 1945 Briody returned to the United States on a troopship, which docked on the Columbia River between Portland Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. He then boarded a train for New York City, where he was discharged from the navy on December 16, 1945.
At home, the war over, Briody, who had gained valuable work experience while in the military, received a number of employment offers in the construction industry, but agreed to give his father a rest by taking over the older man’s tavern for two weeks. The two weeks turned into forty years. At the close of his interview Briody spoke of his brother, who also learned the electrician’s trade in the navy and made a civilian career out of it. In the ensuing years, Briody married and had two children, but never spoke of his wartime experiences with his family. He joined the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and, forty years after the end of the war, he took a twenty-seven day vacation with his wife and children to the scenes of his youth, visiting Pearl Harbor and Melbourne, Australia. He showed the interviewer souvenirs he had collected while in the service, along with relevant newspaper articles and a copy of his discharge.
Cornelius J. Briody passed away on April 4, 2008.