While combing through clippings from the Middletown Press as part of a greater project of archiving their collection of photographs, negatives, and articles, I came across an article that stopped me in my tracks. Titled “Sgt. Dick Hawley Slays 44 Japs in Potato Hill Fight,” it was published in August, 1943. The article details local Staff Sergeant Richard Hawley’s experience of a skirmish in New Georgia, part of the Solomon Islands, on July 17, 1943. Battles in New Georgia were part of the Pacific campaign of World War II that took place between June 20, and August 25, 1943. According to the author, Staff Sergeant Richard Hawley was responsible for the deaths of 44 Japanese soldiers during the Battle of Potato Hill.
I have come across other articles on local men who were fighting abroad, but what is unusual about this article is its language. The author glorifies Hawley’s actions, describing Hawley as having “achieved an amazing individual record of fighting against the Japs.” The use of the word “Japs” reflects the contemporary racialization and othering of the enemy, and is disturbing to modern readers who recognize the racist connotations of the term.
The article quotes extensively from Hawley himself. He describes the battle, and how “the Japs were within 30 feet when I managed to crawl back to the gun and open fire. The next morning I found 10 within 10 feet of the parapet, all dead, and another 34 lying back a little ways. ‘Old Betsy’ sure was shooting straight that night.” The quote reveals a lot about a soldier’s mentality. Death in battle is treated casually, and a soldier can take pride in his performance, as well as in his weapon. Interestingly, the machine gun is personified, and female.
The article goes on to quote a letter to his sister, in which he requests a new hunting knife. His previous one, which he refers to as his “little baby,” “really came in handy.” Unfortunately, he lost it, “and not in a very pleasant manner.” He then closes the letter with a simple “Thanks. Love, Dick.” The contrast is truly jarring.
“Sgt. Dick Hawley Slays 44 Japs in Potato Hill Fight” is a portrait of a local boy who becomes a local hero; “Dick” stands in for all the young soldiers abroad. As a snapshot of the time, it captures the racialization and degradation of the enemy, as well as robust patriotism and pride in fighting the good fight. The triumphant tone of the article may have helped to boost morale and support for the war, because it is ultimately a story of U.S. victory.