A group of Marines and Seabees stood around a freshly dug grave on the wild jungle island of Bougainville, Papau, New Guinea in the South Pacific. It was just two days before Christmas in 1943 and three days before they would be relieved from the front lines. Battle weary from heavy fighting with Japanese artillery forces, and grieving, Pvts. Ronald Habbeshaw, (a friend from home), and Durrant, dedicated the temporary grave of twenty-three-year-old Private William Heath. His family wouldn’t be able to put their son’s remains permanently to rest and have a proper funeral until 25 January 1949 – over five years later.
William Heath was born 7 July 1921 in Salt Lake City, Utah to Walter Elmer Heath (1891-1954), a city park foreman, and Hazel Bird (1889-1988). His mother lived until the age of ninety-eight and was a member of ‘Gold Star Mothers’, honoring the life of her son and his sacrifice. He also had two older brothers, Ralph and Donald, and one younger sister, Louise.
William graduated from South High School. He first worked at the West High Vocational Center at West High School and then started work at Ogden Air Service Command at Hill Air Force Base before he entered the Marines on 16 September 1942. He was first sent to San Diego, California and assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. In August 1943, the division was stationed on Guadalcanal to intensely prepare for the Bougainville Operation.
The same month a wonderful reunion took place with his brother, Donald, whom he hadn’t seen in a year. Donald was also stationed in the South Pacific, with the Navy, serving as a navy aviation machinist’s mate. As reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, the boys hadn’t seen each other since Don’s birthday, August 17, when ‘Bill’ enlisted. The Tribune reported that they,” beat each other on the backs, shouted for joy and could not wipe the grins off their faces for a day or two when they met...”. The boys made sure to write home and tell their parents.
It wouldn’t be long before all hell broke loose. John N. Rentz in his book, “Marines in the Central Solomons” described what Pvt. Heath experienced as follows: “Under extremely difficult conditions, the Naval Construction Battalions (CBs or Seabees) and a group of New Zealand engineers carried out work on the three airstrips. The fighter strip at the beach was the first to begin full-time operations with the first flights taking place on 10 December. The Japanese Army command at Rabaul was certain that the Allies would be moving on from Torokina; Imamura ordered a build-up of the defenses at Buin, on the southern tip of Bougainville.
In November and December, the Japanese emplaced field artillery on the high ground around the beachhead, concentrated in a group of hills along the Torokina River overlooking the eastern perimeter. They shelled the beachhead, targeting the airstrips and the supply dumps. The 3rd Marine Division extended its lines to include the hills in a series of operations that lasted from 9–27 December. One hill, dubbed "Hellzapoppin Ridge", was a natural fortress. Overlooking the beachhead, it was 300 feet (91 m) long, with steep slopes and a narrow crest. The Japanese constructed extensive positions on the reverse slopes using natural and artificial camouflage. The 21st Marines attacked Hellzapoppin Ridge but were driven off on 12 December. Several air strikes missed the narrow ridge completely. Finally, co-ordinated air, artillery, and infantry attacks resulted in the capture of the ridge on 18 December. In the days that followed, the 21st Marines were also involved in fighting around Hill 600A, which was captured by 24 December 1943.”
Private William Heath succumbed to wounds sustained in the Battle of Bougainville on 23 December 1943.
Pvt. Heath received the following commendations: Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Marine Corps Presidential Unit Citation, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal.
We will be forever grateful for Pvt. William Heath’s courage, bravery, and ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country’s freedom.
This story is part of the Stories Behind the Stars project (see www.storiesbehindthestars.org). This is a national effort of volunteers to write the stories of all 400,000+ of the US WWII fallen here on Fold3. Can you help write these stories? Related to this, there will be a smart phone app that will allow people to visit any war memorial or cemetery, scan the fallen's name and read his/her story.
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Photo of Marines in Bougainville Island 1943; By Joseph R. Goddard, US Marine Corps - Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 68247, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9843681
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1930 United States Federal Census for William Heath, population schedule, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, Utah, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4547816_00867 accessed 23 July 2020) E.D. 15-17, Supervisor district 2, Line 54, Dwelling 387, Family 392, image 46.
Utah, Death and Military Death Certificates, 1904-1961 for Walter Elmer Heath, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/9174/images/42675_b159931-00069 accessed 23 July 2020) image 519.
‘Hazel B Heath’, Davis County Clipper, Utah Digital Newspapers, (https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=22502702&q=William+AND+Heath&sort=rel accessed 23 July 2020) 25 May 1988.
Honorstates.org, ‘William Heath’,( https://www.honorstates.org/index.php?id=587554 accessed 23 July 2020).
1940 United States Federal Census for Walter E Heath, population schedule, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, Utah, Walter E Heaps Family, population schedule, E.D. no. 30-28, S.D. 2, line 33, family 77, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/m-t0627-04223-00766 accessed 23 July 2020) image 5.
‘Obituaries, Pvt. William Heath’, Salt Lake Telegram, 24 January 1949, Utah Digital Newspapers, (https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=17427051&q=William+AND+Heath&sort=date_tdt+desc%2Cparent_i+asc%2Cpage_i+asc&year_start=1949&year_end=1949&facet_type=%22death%22 accessed 23 July 2020).
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