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VETS RECALL FIERCE FIGHTS IN S. PACIFIC

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Angel Zaragoza vividly remembers standing just feet away from a military buddy who was killed by flying metal and other debris from an ammunition ship blown up Dec. 25, 1944, in the South Pacific.

Jack Davis, then a 19-year-old draftee, served three years and never had a furlough during his 26 months in the battle-torn war zone along the New Guinea coast and other areas.John W. Mueller recalls how ground radar was used to detect Japanese bombers. And Mueller, who was 24, still remembers "landing on Biak Island behind the infantry in mud up to our knees."

The three men - Zaragoza, now 82 and a resident of San Bernardino, Calif.; Davis, 73, of the Sugar House area; and Mueller, 79, of Salt Lake County - were among 49 former members of the 574th and 565th Signal Air Warning Battalions that held their 14th reunion last weekend in Salt Lake City.

The World War II radar station operators, who served in New Guinea and the Philippines, and their spouses met at the Salt Lake Hilton Hotel. They reminisced about their war-time experiences, attended business meetings, enjoyed meals together, took tours and attended the Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast.

It has been good to "renew acquaintances made in those days when we didn't know what would happen next. We didn't know whether we would make it back - and some didn't," said Zaragoza. Zaragoza is president of the group, which has more than 400 members, many of whom live in the East.

Mueller said he and Davis never knew each other when they were serving on Biak and Japen islands, located about 40 miles apart off the coast of New Guinea.

"Our mission was to detect Japanese planes that might come in to bomb our area and to direct our friendly fighters to intercept them. (The latter) were American and Australian planes, all a part of the 5th Air Force," said Mueller.

Zaragoza entered the military when he was 26, serving more than four years on Wadke Island, off New Guinea; the island of Mindoro and other areas.

The LST (landing ship tanks) vessel on which he was a passenger was only about 300 feet from the ammunition ship that was hit by kamikaze aircraft.

"There was so much ammo on that ship that it blew up completely," sending metal flying everywhere, said Zaragoza.

Mueller was an electronics trainee when he volunteered for the Signal Corps. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1942 and went overseas the following year.

Recalling his experiences on Biak Island, Mueller said it was very difficult to bring equipment on shore because of muddy conditions.

"We set up our radar and radio station in two days and got on the air. The first day we were on the air the Japanese bombers came over and bombed our island. The next time the Japanese came to bomb us we had alerted our fighter planes, so they went up and shot down some of the Japanese planes," he said.

This situation was repeated, he said, as he and other personnel advanced to Leyte.

"We were there when the armistice was declared in September 1944, and we went on to occupy southern Japan," Mueller said.

Davis said his outfit, the 724th Signal Air Warning Company, controlled P-61 night fighter ("black widows") aircraft, which had their own radar units. He said his company's job was to get the planes close enough to the Japanese fighters to allow the P-61s' radar to take over and to shoot down enemy aircraft.

Davis and the other men obviously have close camaraderie. Many of the men snapped pictures of each other and joined for group photographs.

"We're getting older and not many of us are left," said Jerald Hackney of Citrus Heights, Calif.