Captain Cavanaugh, Stephen Edward
Commanding Officer, Company D, XO 1st Battalion, 511th PIR
Aug 8, 1921 – Mar 24, 2018 (Age 96) - obituary - gravesite
Citations: Silver Star (OLC), Bronze Star, Purple Heart (OLC) , Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, World War II Victory Medal, Philippine Presidential Unit Citation Badge, Philippine Liberation Medal with service star, the American Defense Medal, and the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three Battle Stars and one Arrowhead
Ranks: 2nd Lieutenant (California Reserves) May 22, 1942; 1st Lieutenant April 5, 1943; Captain December 4, 1944; Colonel June 5, 1970 (Source: U.S. Army Registrar)
A Call to Arms
by Colonel Stephen E. Cavanaugh, retired
I Heed the Bugle Call
On December 7th 1941 the events at Pearl Harbor changed a lot of things. Everyone viewed the attack on Pearl Harbor as a stab in the back and like most every young man, I was eager to make the Japanese pay for their acts of treachery. I also viewed the war as an opportunity to enter the profession I had always hoped to enter. The rigors of service and the sacrifices of so many were challenges to me. I was enthusiastic about serving and blind to the horrors of what was really happening throughout the world. I couldn’t get into the fray fast enough. Due to my CMTC and ROTC training I had entered the ROTC program in UCLA as a sophomore and consequently was commissioned in May 1942 before finishing my senior year. I was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the Coast Artillery but since I had been an engineering student I was ordered to active duty on 15 July 1942 in the Ordnance Corps. This was a branch about which I new nothing whatsoever and I quickly concluded it did not appear to offer the kind of excitement I had hoped to find in a wartime army.
My first duty station was Benecia Arsenal California, a large Ordnance Depot. The Depot employed hundreds of civilian workers, most of them lonely females. I expect it was a most sought after assignment by the small infantry platoon responsible for providing security for the installation. Most infantrymen so assigned appeared hallowed eyed and sadly in need of rest after a brief tour of duty at Benecia. This was not due to the hazards of the duty but from exhaustion from other activities with the young ladies working at the arsenal. After a few weeks at Benecia, I received orders to the 201st Ordnance Ammunition Company stationed a Camp Young in the desert near Indio California.
A few weeks of duty with the “Fighting 201st” resulted in my firm decision that I was not destined to become much of a warrior and was not going to be able to proudly announce after the war how I had single-handedly defeated the enemy. One evening we watched a captured German film showing the training of their parachute troops and the German airborne invasion of the Low Countries. The spark was lit and I resolved to become a parachutists. I had no idea of how to volunteer, but a check of War Dept. publications revealed all and unbeknownst to my then company commander I sent in a letter of application, agreeing as, per regulations…”to jump from and airplane in flight”.
The Silver Badge of Courage
Within a few weeks after volunteering I received a telegram from the War Dept. ordering me to report to Ft. Benning, Georgia for jump training at the Parachute School in Fort Benning, Georgia the Home of the Infantry.
I entered jump training in September and graduated as a qualified parachutist in October 1942 having been physically and mentally stressed during four weeks of very tough training. The Parachute School barracks were situated right above Lawson Field and active Army airfield and where our C-47 transport planes were based. As students we were able to see the jump classes before us as they completed their training jumps and this did much to reinforce our spirits as we were driven beyond our physical capacities by our hard-hearted instructors. One of my class-mates was Lt. Bill Hojanacki who was later to become my assistant platoon leader. Another class-mate was a red haired Jewish boy who became a good friend. Despite his need to wear glasses, he had managed to pass the physical exam and did well through out our first week of physical training without wearing glasses and disclosing his near-sightedness. However, in the second week where we were required to climb up to a fifty foot tower and jump out then slide down a long cable he mistakenly put on his glasses and upon reaching the top of the tower took one look down and refused to jump. He was out of the school before the day was finished.
During our last week of training we were required to pack and jump our own parachutes and needless to say we were very attentive to packing instructions. Rain caused a delay in our first day of jumping so that evening we packed a second chute. The evening was a stormy one and occasioned frequent power outages as we packed our chutes. We became concerned as the evening worn on that we might inadvertently pack something which was not intended to be packed. My first jump was not a thing of beauty. Despite all of our training my body position when I left the aircraft left much to be desired and the opening shock from the chute left me with a head full of stars and large “strawberries” on my shoulders from the harness. I landed on a backward oscillation and only my plastic football style helmet saved my skull. However, other jumps went well and after four more jumps we were qualified as parachutists but were assured we were not yet “paratroopers”. This proud designation would only be acquired after learning the skills involved in both jumping and fighting as parachute infantry. We were constantly told that we should view the parachute only as a means of transportation. The real skills would come when we were able to function behind enemy lines without support or relief until our mission was accomplished.
By this time I was becoming aware that I had bitten off a big chunk to chew and that my role was to become, what was considered by many, a member of an elite band of men not expected to survive many battles. We were told that in parachute units, two lieutenants were assigned each parachute platoon because the survival rate of officers was considered to be very poor. After five qualifying jumps I proudly received my wings...”the silver badge of courage” and was assigned to the 501st Parachute Inf. Regt pending the activation of the 511th Parachute Inf. Regt.
“Vigueur de Dessus”, Strength From Above
My first encounter with the soon to be activated regiment was when I arrived in the Frying Pan area of Fort Benning in December1942 along with a few others awaiting its activation. The regimental commander was Lt. Col. Orin D. Haugen, a chain smoking, no nonsense commander who was soon to earn his well-deserved nickname “The Rock”. Upon reporting in to headquarters I quickly met Col. Haugin who, upon seeing the Ordnance insignia, which was jokingly referred to as a “Flaming Piss Pot”, on the lapels of my blouse, greeted me with the encouraging words... “What the hell are you doing here”? This was an infantry unit and Ordnance officers were viewed with some distain and repugnance. I assured him I was interested in becoming an infantry officer and would apply for same forthwith. He promptly assigned me the glamorous job of regimental Police and Prison Officer. I of course promptly put in an application for transfer to the Infantry so I could be sanitized and become in “The Rocks’ eyes fit to be a member of his command.
I found that parachute officers were a far different type of officer than I was familiar with. Many had been cavalry officers and when they lost their horses and faced the assignment of becoming “tank” riders decided that the parachute troops were more attractive and better fitted to their dashing images of cavalrymen. Parachute officers were an eccentric, resilient, tough and a non-conformist bunch to say the least, in other words they were crazy. One captain I’ll never forget, name not to be mentioned, was really a “role” model. This individual possessed a John Wayne type personality but with somewhat less intelligence. He carried what would best be described as a large Bowie knife in his belt. Often when exiting the door of a barracks he would pause dramatically, suddenly whirl around facing the door, simultaneously snatching the knife from his belt and hurling it at the door-jamb, supposedly killing his would be assassin. Needless to say it was not wise to follow him out of any building. I can’t vouch for the story that he often did the same when carrying a hatchet in his belt. Needless to say he did not last long in the outfit and was not one of our distinguished leaders.
The Christmas of 1942 was the first one away from home and like a lot of other young men at the time it was a lonely one. Being a bachelor I volunteered to be the Duty Officer of our fledgling Regiment on that day and after checking with the duty NCO and ensuring that we were not going to be attacked by the Nazis or Japanese I returned to my small barracks room to open the presents that I had stashed away under my cot and proceeded to open them one by one, feeling sorry for myself and alone in the world. At the end of December our small cadre of officer was moved to Camp Toccoa, Georgia awaiting the arrival of our cadre of NCOs and enlisted men.
Upon our arrival in the rain and mist at Camp Toccoa, and dressed in our Class A “Pinks and Green Uniforms” “The Rock” informed us we would then and there proceed up Mount Curahee, a formidable mountain which we soon were to know quite intimately and in every detail. Leading the way our regimental commander hiked us up and back a distance of some six miles and informed us that we were expected to run the mountain each day. This was a period engrained in the memories of all of us. Tar-paper barracks, the smell of coal smoke and the red mud all contributed to lasting memories of the place. When we arrived at the camp much of it was still under construction and we all pitched in one way or another to get things ready for our recruits. Officers and NCOs alike drew less than inspiring jobs some doing kitchen duties others like myself driving 21/2 ton trucks hauling coal to fill up the newly constructed coal bins. Not the exact picture I had of a glamorous parachute unit.
Ours was to be a novel regiment. The ranks of most parachute units were filled with fully qualified parachute trained personnel. Ours was to be the first to be filled with new recruits to the army without basic training but who had volunteered for parachute training. Our role then was to first provide them basic training and then send them off to jump school. The story of the arrival of these raw volunteers and their careful screening by their new commanders before they could become part of the regiment is another story but needless to say many arrived at Toccoa but many did not stay.
Most of us at the lower end of the food chain were unaware of our future as a unit. We were uncertain as to whether we were to be a separate regiment or assigned to a division. Our role as a unit to be assigned to the “11th Airborne Division” was probably understood by the higher ranks but not those of us. Our assignment to the soon to be activated 11th Airborne Division and to Camp Mackall North Carolina, introduced us into a whole new environment and the beginning of a tough and grueling training routine. Often neglected in our later tales of battle are the stories of how we honed our skills in the sand hills of North Carolina and the swamps of Louisiana. My personal recollections of those days as a very green second lieutenant are of long marches, disastrous encounters with Col. Haugen and trying desperately to keep from screwing up my short-lived military career by displeasing the powers that be. The accounts of some of my experiences are really true (well almost).
For a short time after our arrival at Camp Mackall I continued my assignment as Police and Prison Officer and found myself in frequent contact with Col. Haugen who had definite ideas about the appearance of his regimental area. One of the few times I was able to stay ahead of him was on the occasion of his requirement that I build a bridge over a thirty foot wide ditch, about fifteen feet deep. Its purpose was to permit the movement of troops from a road to a training area. My engineering background helped me in designing a serviceable structure and with a small detail of soldiers I proceeded to cut down a few trees and after “borrowing” 2”x8” planks from S-4 managed in a day or so to build my bridge.
A week later Col. Haugen, his ever present cigarette hanging from his mouth, asked “when the hell I was going to get the bridge built?” I announced the job had been done a week ago. He ordered me into his jeep and off we went to verify my claim and with some reluctance he announced satisfaction for the accomplishment. Faint praise from “The Rock” was the equivalent of receiving the Medal of Honor. Shortly thereafter I received my first assignment as platoon leader of the third platoon of A Co. and I felt I was at last a part of the regiment.
Regiment vs. the Division
Our training involved long days and nights in the field and the almost daily exposure to “Range Road”. Few of us would ever forget “Range Road”. This was the long and torturous route we followed each day just to get to our training area and was what the Bataan Death March must have been like, repeated day after day. To this day I’m convinced the non-jumpers in G-3 at Division Headquarters, who I’m sure disliked our cocky attitude, assigned us the most remote training areas they could find, our regiment was not beloved by the Division Staff. We were felt to be mavericks and troublemakers and prone to feel superior to the rest of the Division (which of course we were). Their attitude was reinforced by complaints of local farmers who reported the mysterious disappearance of watermelons along our routes of march to and from our distant training areas.
Our jump boots were of further concern to Division. The pride we felt as we swaggered around the area with highly polished boots must have really antagonized their non-jumping staff members. To get revenge an order was issued that forbade the wearing of jump boots during training. The excuse given by Division for this draconian order was that it was feared the boots would be worn out and become unserviceable: their wear was prescribed for jumping only. We retaliated by cutting off the issued knee high leggings to a height of about 8” and calling them “glider boots.” This infuriated Division and they charged us with destroying government property.
The officers of the 511th further endeared us to the Division Commander and Staff as a result of the Division Officers Runs. With Gen Swing our Division Commander in the lead he would lead his “pudgy” staff officers in frequent runs throughout the area. These would occur at the end of a training day and officers from each regiment were expected to join in the exercise. The 511th was given the end of the line position because that was considered the toughest. Needless to say these runs were child’s play to our officers who were accustomed to running miles while carrying all sorts of battle gear. At the termination of these “Swing” runs the Division Staff were dragging their posteriors. At that point the 511th officers further endeared themselves to the Division by taking off at a full gallop past the panting and sagging staff to begin a real run. Loved we were not.
In 1940 0r 1941 the U.S. Marines began a parachute-training program that was eventually terminated. Sometime during that period an unfortunate Marine parachutist became entangled with the tail surfaces of the aircraft from which he was jumping. He was pulled around in the air for some time while people in the aircraft and on the ground were frantically trying to come up with a way of saving his life. Eventually a pilot and companion managed to fly under his dangling body and cut the suspension lines connecting him to the jump aircraft and pull him into the rescuing plane. Without question this was a heroic and miraculous rescue.
I mention this story because the U.S. Army decided that what was needed, to avoid a similar accident from occurring to an Army parachutist, was to issue each parachutist a switch-blade knife. This was carried in a special pocket near the collar of the jump suit and was expected to be used by an entangled parachutist to cut himself free from an entanglement and descend using his emergency chute. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, our young troopers began to find other uses for this knife and it no longer became an item of issue. Angels we were not.
My pride and joy was the third platoon of A Co. Among others my soldiers included one who ate glass, one who was a circus stunt motorcycle rider and others with talents unknown to normal humans.
I was fortunate in having as an assistant platoon leader, my friend from Jump School, 2nd Lt. Bill Hojanacki. Bill was a soldier with seven years of enlisted service under his belt and he used to often mention that it took him seven years in the “Old Army” to make corporal. No one in the platoon fooled Bill and I learned much real soldering from him. I was his senior only by virtue of date of rank not by service or knowledge.
My platoon was a diverse group of individuals and I always found myself challenged to keep up with them but I was really proud of them and they always exceeded my expectations. However I often underestimated their skill at getting to me. On one another occasion after what I considered a really bad showing during a training exercise, I proceeded to dress down the platoon with some pretty salty language. Shortly thereafter, a one Pvt. Steven Torres asked to see me and with great respect he informed me that I really didn’t have to use such language while addressing my platoon. After some thought, I agreed with him but I’m afraid that his honest and perfectly correct admonition did little to quell my frequent Irish outbursts.
Another one of my gallant band of soldiers, a Pvt. Mac Arthur, was the cause of my next personal encounter with Col. Haugen. The Pvt. had a small disagreement with the law in a near by town and was hauled off to jail. I was notified by the local authorities that if I wanted to ever see this man again I would have to personally appear at his trial and assume responsibility for his future actions in their town. Having a high regard for the soldier I did what was necessary and returned with him to camp. The next day I was informed that the regimental commander desired my presence without delay. Complying with the order I presented myself before Col. Haugen who gave me the distinct impression that he was displeased that I had bailed out this soldier which had disgraced the regiment by his deeds and who should have been left to the mercies of the local gendarmes. That being said I was dismissed and left with the impression that my future actions would be closely observed and that my career with the regiment was in endanger if not my life.
After surviving this encounter with “the old man” I resolved to keep a low profile. This I accomplished quite well for a while even to the extent of being selected by him to be interviewed by the Division as a possible aide to the Division Commander, General Swing. At the appointed hour I appeared before the Division Chief of Staff along with other candidates who had been nominated from our glider regiments, I was promptly asked if I would like to be the Generals aide. Sticking my foot deeply in my mouth I said “No” that I wanted to remain with my regiment, end of interview. In retrospect I probably had again “endeared” myself with Col. Haugen who I’m sure was asked by the higher ups why he’d nominated some one who didn’t want the job. Maybe this was Col. Hagen’s subtle way of getting me out of the regiment, hmmm?
I look back now and remember how we junior officers use to criticize (to put it mildly) some of the actions of our company, battalion and regimental level commanders and I recognize now how really young and inexperienced they all were and how naïve we were to complain about them. The battalion commander of the 1st battalion, Lt. Col. Ernest La Flamme, a West Point Officer, would have been a junior captain, if that, in the pre-war army; with many years ahead of him before he became a major. Col. Haugen would probably have been a senior major instead of commanding a regiment. They were assuming ranks and positions far beyond their level of experience but that was the acceleration in rank necessary for a rapidly expanding war time army, they were bound to make mistakes yet they led us well.
All of our “senior” officers were indoctrinated with the spirit that went with leading a parachute unit and they saw too it that we “juniors” followed suit. Officers were expected to lead by example and to put the welfare of their men first. While this had always been an old Army custom this spirit was exemplified in parachute units. The officer jumped first out of the door of the aircraft, he ate last in the chow line, he often shouldered the load of a machine gun or mortar tube on long marches and never turned in for the night before checking the feet of his men for blisters. In order to insure that a platoon leader could identify all of his men in the dark after assembly following a night parachute jump, each platoon leader was required to know by heart the name of every man in his platoon, what position they held and where they stood in the squad. Col. Haugen, “The Rock”, saw too it that any officer that failed to measure up was handed a quick trip out of the outfit and many were.
A Daring Leap
In September 1942 I undertook the biggest and most heroic act of my life. Having proposed to my “one and only” back home via letter, I returned to Los Angeles to face the frightening experience of getting married. My lovely bride, a student at UCLA where we had met, remarked that on my wedding day I had the look of a startled deer when looking into the headlights of an approaching car, I was petrified. Having survived the wedding I removed my new bride from the lovely campus of UCLA and a loving family to the un-friendly confines of a one-room apartment, sharing the bath with a stranger, in the small town of Aberdeen, North Carolina, not too far removed from Camp Mackall. If ever a person deserved an award for service above and beyond the call of duty it was my new bride, the place was the pits. I’m sure Aberdeen was and is now a lovely old town but was not prepared for the influx of soldiers and the problems created by them during the war years.
I shortly moved my beautiful and uncomplaining bride to a roadside hostelry called the Chalfonte. This from the outside appeared to be an old southern, stately mansion and run by a lady called “Happy”. I had been told this establishment had previously been a den of iniquity and sin to say the least. The Madam, recognizing the prospects of making legitimate money by running a hotel for officers and their wives, proceeded to do just that, and Blanche and I became residents. However, the place retained a flavor of its past and it became a great place for an off base bachelor officer hang out. It was not uncommon to see motorcycles driven through the lobby or inebriated officers jumping off of balconies shouting Geronimo or other unintelligible things. One 1st Lt. in particular (his name not to be mentioned and who was later killed in the Philippines) was notorious for his drinking and carousing. After shacking up with his battalion commander’s wife he would return to the Chalfonte to finish off his evenings escapades. Officers and Gentlemen we were not.
Fortunately we became close friend with two other couples, Phil and Aileen Ulrich and Bob Barendse and his wife, both in similar living straits and together we rented a large Model home on one of the beautiful greens of the upscale Pinehurst golf course. Here we lived in a most gracious fashion although we young lieutenants were seldom home.
There was a tradition in parachute regiments that all officers before being accepted in the unit were required to under go the ordeals of an initiation ceremony fondly known as the “Prop Blast”. This required each officer to drink an “adult” beverage consisted of a mixture of various highly toxic spirits and to do so without pause and in a limited time. This was followed by requirements such as jumping off any elevated structure at hand, tables, stairs, balconies etc. while loudly counting “one thousand—two thousand etc”. Great bodily harm would normally have resulted from such antics except the previously consumed “Prop Blast” left most initiates so numb and loose that most were indestructible. However, broken arms and legs were not uncommon. The mug used to hold the “Prop Blast” beverage was usually named after the regimental commander and therefore each regiment cherished these vessels I often wonder what ever happened to the “Haugen Mug”.
Privacy in “The Old Army” was a foreign word. Now of days the soldiers are billeted in air-conditioned barracks, often with one or two men per room with such amenities as tables and chairs, throw rugs and often individual beverage coolers. Also a thing of the past is the indignity of the surprise “short-arm inspection”, (to the uninformed let the details of this remain unknown), usually performed in the early morning hours by the unit surgeon. It was designed to identify those with certain diseases, this term has probably lost its’ meaning to our modern soldiers. However, should this custom be reinstated today especially with the integration of female soldiers into the ranks, I’m sure, would find no shortage of volunteers to be the inspectors.
Throughout 1943 units of the regiment received basic, squad and platoon training and eventually were rotated by battalion to Ft.Benning for parachute training. During this period we of the original cadre were sent to specialized schools to further their skills. I went to demolition school and others went to communications or rigger schools. This was a relaxing time for us because jump school personnel were responsible for our troops and we were freed of such responsibilities. By early 1944 the regiment was ready and eager for oversees deployment but had no clue as to our eventual destination.
Our next move was to Camp Polk, Louisiana. Phil Ulrich and I established our wives Aileen and Blanche in a luxurious two-car garage converted into two closet sized bedrooms a bathroom and kitchen. Here we all had a most merry time. After a long days training Phil and I would mix us a concoction of lemon extract powder pilfered from our field rations with some medicinal alcohol, contributed by a friendly battalion surgeon. After adding a bit of water we had an adult beverage that helped us forget the rigors of the day. After a brief stay at Polk we found ourselves enroute to the west coast for deployment to the Pacific Theatre. My bride of 9 months returned to Los Angeles with Millie Varner, another new bride. They drove across the country alone in an old Ford I had purchased a few months previously. Millie’s husband, Lt. Mike Varner was one of the first officers killed in action on Leyte Island, in the Philippines.
“We’re Going Over, We’re Going Over”
Our port of embarkation was Ft.Stoneman located on San Francisco Bay. Upon arriving at the Port we were required to remove all parachute patches and insignia and were forbidden to wear our beloved jump boots. The deployment of an Airborne Division to the Pacific Theater was to be a secret one. We understood this and complied in the spirit of the occasion, however things became complicated. A contingent of Army Combat Engineers were also being shipped out and were billeted close by. Things became tense when we observed that this non-jumping “Leg” outfit was wearing shiny jump boots. Altercations were inevitable and finally culminated by a major brawl at the Stoneman Officers Club where the engineers were encouraged by our officers to remove their jump boots or suffer the consequences. The engineers objected and an altercation of major consequence occurred with the club being all but demolished. The engineers were big in stature and proved able antagonists. The result was that we were forbidden further use of club facilities (what was left of them) and the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment further endeared ourselves to the Division.
I believe it was the 22nd of May 1944 that we boarded our troop transport, the Sea Pike, and began what was to become an infamous three-week cruise to our destination, New Guinea. The trip was to be remembered as one entailing little, and horrible food, hot days, close sleeping accommodations and a thieving civilian crew who were certainly not the pride of the Merchant Marine. Never has any ship been so deserving of being torpedoed after disembarking their troops. A later investigation into the activities of the crew and the ship’s captain showed that our grievances were well founded.
We came ashore in New Guinea near a village called Dobadura and here we unloaded our equipment and rations and ammunition from other ships that were transporting our division. We spent little time on the beach and soon were moved inland about 8 miles to the place which was to be our home for six long, hot, miserable months. Located in a field of Kunai grass we erected our pyramidal tents on frames of bamboo that we cut from the neighboring jungle.
Shortly after arriving I was called again into the presence of the Regimental Commander and informed I was to become the new Company Commander of D Co. in the 2nd Battalion. As a 1st Battalion officer I was unaware that this unit was notorious throughout the 2nd Battalion for deeds unmentionable, so much so in fact that company commanders were assigned to D Co. and relieved at a rapid pace. I think I was the forth or fifth company commander to be so assigned. Though I was flattered and over-joyed at being given a command of a company I later wondered if this was Col. Hagen’s way of trying to get rid of me. In this effort I’m proud to say that, if this was his motivation, he failed.
In all honesty I should inject at this point that my relations with the Regimental Commander had become one of mutual respect. I admired him for his soldierly qualities and for his great love of his regiment. I believe he in turn had come to recognize that I was equally dedicated to his beloved regiment and had put forth a major effort to live up to his expectations. He was my role model of an officer and I had earned his trust and support.
“Fighting” Company D
There is nothing more difficult in any officers’ career than the time arrives when he assumes command of a unit that has been together for a number of years and he arrives as a new comer. This was equally true in my case. I was faced with an additional concern in that I heard through the benefit of “latrine gossip” that my new battalion commander would have preferred that his S-2 take over D Company but had been told by Col. Haugen that I was to have the command.
As I have mentioned, D Company had had the unfortunate experience of having a number of company commanders come and go before I arrived and as a unit they all viewed my arrival with some skepticism and questioned how long I would be last. Recognizing this I felt it best to deal with it honestly and head on by acknowledging their concern and voicing it openly as my own. On the morning of first appearance before the company I introduced myself and remarked “Well, let’s see how long I will last”
My introduction to the Company was anything but encouraging. On the morning following my assumption of command I was awakened by my first sergeant and informed that a certain Private had proceeded to blow his brains out with his M-1 rifle and perhaps I should come down to the company and see the mess. This I did and found what was to be expected when someone places an M-1 rifle against his head and pulls the trigger. Happily there were no further events of like kind and I slowly became adjusted to trying to take over a company of very capable individualists.
My most notorious soldier, Pvt. Bittorie, was an Irish lad who loved to fight and had a reputation in the outfit for being a good guy but frequently at odds with authority. Pvt. Bittorie became involved in an alleged theft of fresh eggs from the battalion mess hall. He was implicated when the eggs were found hidden under the floor of his tent. Without further investigation and no other supporting evidence I had him walking the Company Street under full pack and carrying a machine gun for some period of time. A few months later I recommended this “bad soldier” for a Silver Star for combat action against the enemy in Leyte.
An interesting sequel to this story of this “bad soldier” came 24 years later when my Command Sgt. Major in Vietnam came in to my Command Post and announced that a soldier, who would not give his name, wanted to see me and claiming to have been in one of my previous commands. I agreed to see the stranger. In walked Command Sgt. Major Bittorie, my “bad soldier” who was on his way back to the states and had become one of the Army’s’ most respected and decorated non-commissioned officers. He later went on to become the Command Sgt. Major of Ft. Benning, the home of the Infantry School and the most prestige’s position that could be assigned to an enlisted infantryman.
I found D Company to be a well-trained, capable group of pugnacious soldiers. The platoon leaders Lt’s Carrico, Watkins and Kannely appeared skilled and able so I could do little but try to repair our “bad company” image. We executed a company jump on 11 September 1944 and I received a personal letter from the Regimental Commander commending the company for an outstanding performance, this I immediately posted on our bulletin board for all to see and take pride in. Our six months in New Guinea were designed to acclimatize us to the area and to the jungle warfare facing us. No doubt such was accomplished but it also to a certain extent caused some disciplinary problems that challenged me as a company commander. The shortage of alcoholic beverages led a few enterprising soldiers to improvise a still or two in the neighboring jungle.
These entrepreneurs used some issued food items such as dried raisins, peaches, etc to serve as bases for their concoctions and the resultant brew appeared to be quite satisfactory and no one suffered blindness or death from the beverage produced. Other units produced similar stills and all commanders were concerned that some concoctions might prove deadly. Efforts were made to stop these activities but usually were not too successful.
Recognizing that Rank Has Its Privileges, RHIP, we officers had been allowed to purchase six bottles of alcohol from our officers mess before leaving the states and a month or two after our arrival in New Guinea these orders were delivered. Shortly after I received my shipment I invited my close friend, Foster D. Arnett, to my tent and on a Sunday afternoon we sat down to consume a full bottle of bourbon. Monday morning found me very hung over and I informed my First Sgt. that I had an undisclosed illness and would not be down to the company on that day. Due to the intense heat we kept the sides of our tents rolled partially up to permit air circulation. As I lay suffering on my cot there appeared a detail of D Company personnel, armed with machetes, cutting down the Khuni grass around my tent. Hiding under the G.I. issued wool blanket I sought to avoid detection since I well knew that soldiers had a way of detecting the truth about all manner of things and I did not want to be accused of being too inebriated to report for duty. I believe this was one time that they were deceived, I think. Tropical diseases, poor food and field living conditions undoubtedly reduced our physical condition and we lost a number of trained men from the regiment due to training accidents and disease. Needless to say we became like wild horses, over trained and eager to get into the fight. We were soon to be accommodated.
The Muddy, Bloody Leyte Campaign
From the Beaches to Mahonag
In late 1944 Army forces had landed at Leyte, in the Philippines and Gen. McArthur fulfilled his pledge “To Return” to the Philippines. In November we were ordered to reinforce these operations in Leyte and moved form New Guinea and landed administratively onto the beaches close to the town of Tacloban. Here we again set up a temporary camp and experienced our first “attack” by an enemy force. A lone Japanese aircraft would appear over our beach encampment each evening and release a bomb or two into the jungle before beating a hasty retreat. It became somewhat of a joke to see the futility of these lone pilots’ efforts to “destroy” us. About this time we were also greeted over our unit radios by Tokyo Rose, who welcomed us with familiar music by Glen Miller et al and threatened our ultimate destruction by superior Japanese forces. On the 21st of November we were moved inland a few miles to take over defensive positions and relieve elements of the 1st Battalion 17th Infantry.
The First Day, 21st November
When I assumed command of D Company I found that I had no Executive Officer and therefore went to the regimental commander requesting I be assigned an officer from the regimental staff whom I knew quite well and respected, a highly educated man, a bit older than most of us and with a wife and children. During our stay in New Guinea he proved an able administrator and a great help to me. After our arrival in our new positions, referenced previously, we established a defensive position and awaited attack orders.
My Executive Officer, name omitted for reasons soon to become obvious, and I fastened our ponchos together to form a tent and bunked down for the night. Upon awakening the following morning I found Lt. “ No Name”, fully awake, sitting up smoking a cigarette outside our makeshift tent. After an exchange of “good mornings” Lt. “No Name” announced he was through and that he had battle fatigue. I went along with what I thought was great humor and said something to the effect that the “fighting” had exhausted me also. Of course at that time we had not even been shot at. He replied: “No I really mean it, I’m through”. Now fully awake, I said: “You can’t be serious; the 'Old Man' will have you shot “. The man was adamant and I immediately sought out one of his closest friend in the regiment, Major John Cook. Their families were quite close and I felt Maj. Cook might be able to talk some sense into the cowards head. Cook was unsuccessful in changing his mind and we promptly took him to regimental headquarters where he was promptly placed under arrest. I’m sure “The Rock” would have liked to have tried and shot him on the spot and my feelings were exactly the same.
I later found that this coward had managed to convince the medics in the rear area that he had “battle fatigue”. He was handed all of his records, placed on a ship and subsequently returned to the States. His records mysteriously disappeared before he arrived. I believe this most promising officer had been deeply affected by the serious head wound received by Capt. Tom Brady the Company Commander of A Company. Brady was one of his good friends and I expect it caused him to worry about his own family if he himself were killed or wounded. But there was no officer or man in the regiment that did not have similar feelings to one degree or another and no other became such a quitter. My utter distain for this officer cannot be put into words. It is said that to be good Christian you must “Forgive and forget”. “Forgive” I must, “Forget” I cannot. I’ll leave it to the Good Lord to punish the man since I cannot. All the dead of D Company should cry out for his punishment.
Elements of our 1st Battalion had been committed to a “reconnaissance in force” the day before we arrived in our new position. Either through the treachery of their Filipino guide or just bad luck the advance company of the battalion, C Company, ran into a Japanese ambush and was surrounded and suffered heavy casualties. The problem was compounded by the fact that our Regimental Commander “The Rock” was with this unit and out of communication with the remainder of the regiment. Division, fearing that the regimental commander had been a casualty directed that new Commanding Officer be parachuted into our position to assume command. Simultaneously efforts to locate the ambushed company were being vigorously pushed. “The Rock” proceeded to take matters into his own hands and after selecting a squad of troopers broke out of the ambush and returned to his command. He promptly directed a relieving force to rescue the besieged company. The Battalion Commander of the company that had been ambushed was relieved from his command for not having been more aggressive in rescuing the ambushed unit and ended up in a similar job in one of our Glider Regiments.
Two days later our 2nd Battalion began a westerly movement inland up into the mountainous jungle, into the rain and mist with no clear orders ever reaching down to the company level. Our maps were of little assistance since the area had never been fully mapped and therefore we simply followed jungle trails leading up into the mountains and to no where. The word getting down to us was that we were to seek out, destroy and cut the supply lines to the Japanese 26th Division, which had been badly mauled by our initial landings and were striving to regroup and counterattack our forces on the beach. The trails were slippery from the monsoon rains and the heavy jungle slowed our movement to a crawl.
Regretfully D Company’s first engagement was not a pleasant one. On the second day as we struggled through the jungle we became engaged by an unknown force and though we suffered no casualties the firing on both sides was heavy and sustained. The thickness on the jungle and the limited visibility meant that identification and location of the presumed enemy force was impossible. I however became conscious of the fact that the firing coming our way was from what sounded to be like that from U.S. M-1 rifles. I became convinced we had been ambushed or had ambushed a friendly unit. I yelled a cease fire order and grabbed a green smoke grenade that was issued to us to distinguish friendly forces and tossed it toward the supposed enemy position. After the green smoke began swirling into the humid air the firing from the other side suddenly stopped. We had been engaged with F Company of our Battalion and tragically they had suffered two casualties. Unfortunately casualties due to friendly fire were and to this day are far from uncommon.
Death from the Skies
Our next position was on a cleared piece of hilltop where we anxiously awaited a resupply of food and ammunition. It came in the form of low flying C-47 dropping boxes of rations and ammunition, a free fall drop without parachutes. This led to the frightening experience of watching fifty pound boxes tumbling through the air and those of us on the ground having no place for cover.
The result of this resupply operation led to our first D Company casualty when on 6th December PFC Mills was struck by a falling box and killed instantly. Members of his platoon dug his shallow grave and we buried him on that hill top, wrapped in his poncho, marking his grave with a crude fifteen foot cross made from a nearby tree. I could do nothing but offer a simple prayer at his grave site. The cross was designed so as to be discernable to a recovery party hopefully at a later date. I later wrote a letter to his family praising his courage but not describing his manner of death, such letters were never a pleasure to write.
On the next day, the 7th, we continued our movement up wet, slippery jungle trails and near nightfall our leading elements became engaged with a strong enemy force and we established a perimeter on an open piece of ground, it apparently had once been farmed for camotes. Surrounded by jungle we were harassed by enemy snipers throughout the night and D Company suffered its first combat casualty. Pvt. Pickens violating a standing rule in jungle fighting, got up from his fox hole during the night for reasons unknown and received a chest wound that was to prove fatal. To this day no one knows whether it was hit by enemy or friendly fire.
His sergeant and another man, afraid to stand erect dragged him in the blackness of the night to my foxhole and all three of us pulled him to the center of the battalion perimeter where our surgeon took over. Needless to say it was a harrowing experience since it was pitch black and all of us were afraid we would be taken for the enemy and shot. Our makeshift aid station was a tent made from a poncho and Maj. Platt our battalion surgeon attempted to evaluate the seriousness of the wound using the light of a small flash light. My trip to return to my foxhole was also a harrowing experience and I was as frightened that night as I have ever been. Pvt. Pickens died that night.
Rather than getting bogged down and delaying our primary mission, our battalion commander elected to continue our movement up into the mountains and early the next morning on the 8th of December we moved out from our position leaving Lt. Norris with his platoon from E Company to cover our withdrawal. As we withdrew Norris’s platoon was savagely attack and he was killed in the action. After withdrawing from the Japanese ambush we continued our march seeking a piece of defensible high ground where we could treat our wounded and receive aerial re-supply. The battalion continued to encounter enemy sniper fire, which slowed our progress and while we suffered few casualties from their fire they left us with a feeling every tree had to be closely observed for an enemy and swept with machine gun or rifle fire before we could proceed.
That afternoon we finally established a large perimeter in another old camote patch identified on the map only as a village called Mahong. Here we set up an aid station designed to permit our surgeon to work more effectively and we took time to clean up and attempt to find out what we were supposed to be doing.
Sheltered by a number of resupply parachutes our wounded were gathered under the care of Maj. Platt who I’m sure felt overwhelmed by the large number of casualties and his shortage of medical supplies. Due to the extreme monsoon conditions we could not be resupplied and Maj Platt remarked that in some cases he had to perform what he called Bulgarian Surgery on some of our wounded. This was surgery without adequate pain killing drugs of anesthesia. Again weather precluded any evacuation of our wounded to the rear and they had been carried along with us as we moved. A number died because of this lack of proper medical care. We had been in almost constant contact with the enemy for almost two weeks and seemingly had accomplished little but kill a few snipers while sustaining numerous casualties. We were tired, wet, cold, very hungry and frustrated with our lack of knowing what we were doing. In actuality we found later that we had inflicted more damage on the enemy than we realized and had seriously disrupted enemy plans to attack with a division sized force on U.S. forces against our beachhead. This attack was to be made simultaneously with a Japanese parachute attack on our rear areas. The parachute attack had occurred on 6th December but was to fail due to the lack of support from the forces we had encountered. We of course knew nothing of this and found out only after coming out of the mountains three weeks later.
We had one period of clearing weather and a C-47 attempted a resupply drop into our position. The pilot was faced with the problem of navigating through the mountains, finding us through the low clouds and then trying to find a suitable drop zone near our position. We heard him overhead and then heard a loud crash and explosion and knew he had gone down. Knowing that the Japanese would be aggressively searching for the wreckage, I was ordered to take the company and try to find the downed plane, secure the site and try to recover any remains and the supplies that the plane had carried. Guided by the smell of burning fuel and engine oil we found the wreckage about a mile from our perimeter. Miraculously the crew chief, who had apparently been standing in the door of the plane trying to spot our location survived. He had been thrown clear of the plane when it smashed into the ground and was founded wandering in a dazed fashion around the wreckage. We found the bodies of one of the pilots lying under one of the engines but no others. We began collecting the few K- Rations and ammunition that had survived the crash and carrying what we were able to salvage back to the perimeter. It was not much.
The food shortage became a major problem and we were required to forage off the land for what food we could find. A wild dog killed by one of my scouts was divided amongst our three platoons. Each platoon received less than a half-pound of meat. The battalion commander was observed in one case helping men probe in the ground with bayonets for camotes left behind by farmers in the mountain farms they had once tended. Our main cooking utensils were our steel helmets and squad cookers, a small one-burner kerosene stove. Each squad was equipped with one stove. Water was boiled in our helmets and what food we had was cooked in them and many concoctions unheard of by man were created. The result was that the helmets became blackened by soot and I have been told lost their tensile strength as a result of the heat they were subjected too. After their use for cooking purposes they became excellent basins for use in washing our sweaty and mud encrusted feet.
The wet conditions resulted in uniforms deteriorating rapidly and our jungle boots simply rotted off our feet. We used the dead as our source for replenishment for footwear. I had to replace my boots with those of a deceased soldier that were two sizes to small and I was forced to cut the toes out in order to wear them. The shortage of food was a major problem. We were solely dependent on air-drops from C-47 or small L-4 light aircraft. K rations were what were normally dropped to us, dependent upon the weather which generally bad. The K ration was a simple field ration usually containing a small tin of cheese or something like Spam, two crackers, and a tin of dried coffee, a small packet of lemon extract which was to be mixed with water, two cigarettes and a small packet of toilet paper. The K ration box was cardboard and within was another box, which was covered in wax as a waterproofing agent. The greatest thing about the K ration was the packaging. The waxed box was great fire starter even in the rain and the outer cardboard box burned well.
These rations, while meager were adequate to keep us alive but were only available when weather permitted. We felt fortunate if we could get one issue a day, this was not often. Supplementing the K ration was the D bar. A bar of strong chocolate which had been prepared with an ingredient to make them resistant to heat and therefore they would not melt. Despite the hunger we all faced there were some whose stomach could not handle the D bar, I was not among these. Wherever possible I would swap, beg or sell my soul for a D bar, these kept me going. The best and most sought after piece of clothing was the issued jungle sweater. While days were warm, wet and sticky the night was damp and cool and the Jungle sweater was an indispensable item. One of my greatest tests was when I was offered to swap three D bars for my jungle sweater. I refused the offer and never regretted the decision. Despite all these adversities morale remained exceptional and the men accepted these conditions with few complaints. I expect that all of us, trained to expect operations behind enemy lines, felt that these conditions were what we had been trained to endure. A full explanation of our means of existence can never be adequate to fully describe the conditions.
Shortly after our arrival in this new position in Mahonag I was ordered to take D Company down into a small valley where an enemy supply trail had been observed and I was directed to establish an ambush. Again in the rain, we slogged our way down a slippery slope, found the trail and dug in. I set up positions to cover the trail with rifle and machine gun fire and shortly after our arrival w observed seven of the enemy each carrying a large sack on his shoulders. We opened fire and within a matter of seconds the carrying party was destroyed. We found that the enemy was carrying rice and were probably conscripted Formosans who were part of the Japanese labor force employed to build trails and carry supplies. We spent that night in our fox- holes sitting in foot deep water, miserable, wet, cold and hungry. The next morning we were ordered to return to battalion. I later understand that “The Rock” took our battalion commander to task for removing the ambush since it was on a trail that denied the enemy a means of supply.
The next day, the 11th of December I was ordered to come to the relief of E Company that had been sent out on an ambush mission and who had been attacked and suffered some casualties. We moved into the jungle toward the sound of some firing and found E Company in serious trouble, dug into positions where they had been under constant attack since early that morning. There were seriously wounded men crouched in their fox holes awaiting the next attack and shivering from the cold wet conditions which prevailed in the early morning hours of the monsoon conditions which we were all facing. I contacted Capt. Wade the company commander and informed him I would cover his withdrawal and that speed was of the essence. E Company moved quickly back towards the battalion perimeter and we prepared to meet and enemy counter attack. This soon came but it was not too vigorously launched and we fought a successful withdrawal action back out of the abandon ambush site. D Company suffered only one casualty and it was a serious one, Sgt. Barrario, one of our best platoon sgts., was killed.
It now became apparent that our mission had changed from a limited reconnaissance in force to a major drive through the mountains and across the entire Island of Leyte to its’ other side. Destroying any enemy encountered, mainly from the Japanese 26th and 16th Divisions, in route and cutting his supply lines. To this end the 2nd battalion was directed to continue its movement westward and to link up with other regimental elements which had secured, after very heavy fighting, a major position on top of a mountain a few miles away. The battalion began its movement in the early morning of the 18th or 19th of December, (give or take a day or two). With D company in the lead and moving over a Japanese supply trail, we slowly struggled up and down the slippery route all of us weakened by a lack of food and striving to keep our wounded safely on their litters as we toiled up hills and down slippery slopes.
A few hours after we began our movement the battalion was hit by three rounds of artillery fire, which landed behind D company and impacted near the battalion command party. We heard the screaming of the wounded and dying. The battalion commander Lt. Col. Shipley was severely wounded and eventually suffered the loss of a leg, others were killed. I was ordered to continue forward to find the remainder of the regiment while the rest of the battalion was to return to the old perimeter to care for its many casualties. The unknown artillery was reportedly to have come from a U.S. Marine 155mm artillery unit located back on the beaches near our original point of departure. I don’t believe anyone ever really found out why we were taken under fire.
I was given no map as to my destination and no guidance other than that regiment was expected to fire three rifle shots as a guide to direct us toward their position. We simply followed the old resupply trail and hoped to hear some signal firing to give us a direction for movement. Fearing an ambush we moved slowly and scouted the trail as we moved. We eventually heard three shots some distance away and after a few hours thankfully located and reached the regimental position, a hill that became fondly known as “Rock Hill” because “He” was there. In fact Col. Haugen had been personally involved in numerous fights and was gaining a reputation as a true fighter.
Conditions on Rock Hill were extremely bad. The fighting for the position had been intense and enemy dead lay throughout the position. When the hill was finally taken a number of the bodies of our troops that had been killed during the battle to secure the hill were found to have been cannibalized by the Japanese. It was apparent that they also had no food and had resorted to cannibalizing the dead. Our troops were not all that humane either and I stopped a number of our men from using the butts of their rifles to smash out the gold teeth of enemy dead. War is not pleasant
One of the jobs we all undertook was to throw the remains of the enemy down the surrounding slopes since the smell of death and decay were overpowering. Again, supplies were scarce and we were critically short of food. The result was that by this time the physical condition of most of our troops was deteriorating rapidly. The lack of food, weather conditions, leeches and jungle rot were causing great weight loss, intestinal disease and severe skin ulcerations. In my own case I had lost almost 15 pounds and the back of my hands were so ulcerated with open sores that I was forced to wear an old pair of leather gloves with the fingers cut out to protect them from further infection.
The problem now arose as to who would take over as battalion commander. The remainder of the 2nd Battalion had rejoined D Company on “Rock Hill”, command of the battalion having been assumed by the battalion executive officer an officer the company commanders did not particularly support.
Seldom if ever are commanders selected by their juniors. The Army is not noted for allowing its leaders to be democratically selected. However, In the case of we company commanders in the 2nd Battalion we let our feelings as regards to the selection of our next battalion commander be know. We sought out Col. Haugen and voiced our objections to the assumption of command by the not too highly regarded executive officer. “The Rock” listened and taking our objections into account selected his Regimental S-2 officer, Maj. Holcomb to assume command.
“The Rats Ass” Charge, the Break out
On the 22nd of December, 2nd Battalion was ordered to continue the attack to the west with the mission of linking up with the 7th Division at Ormac on the west coast of Leyte. Despite numerous attempts by F Company to advance against strong enemy resistance, it was decided by Col. Haugen to launch an early morning attack 0n the 22nd on December and D Company was given the mission. At 0400 hours on the 23rd, in total darkness, rain and mist D Company begin to feel its way through the lines of F Company and along the spine of the ridge where the enemy was entrenched. The narrowness of the ridge precluded any sort of attack on a broad front so I placed the company in a column with the first platoon commanded by Lt. Carrico as the attacking element. In actuality the company was attacking with a two or three man front.
I was moving with the platoon leader, Lt.Carrico, behind the first squad when all of a sudden, out of the darkness, there was the sound of gun fire and a bursting grenade and a wild shout of “Rats Ass’’ and the squad surged forward. The scouts had encountered an unsuspecting Japanese guard post whose occupants were relaxing with no apparent thought of any attack coming their way in the darkness and rain. The scouts promptly attacked the position with Pvt. (Bad Soldier) Bittorie firing his machine gun and shouting at the top of his lungs. I don’t think the clear story of what really happened that night will ever be known since it occurred so suddenly in total darkness and rain. The true roles played by PFC Bittorie and Sgt Taylor a squad leader remain untold due to the deaths of the actual participants and the passage of time. What is certain however is that the suddenness of the attack panicked the Japanese. With D Company at its’ heels the enemy sought to reestablish a defensive position against the attack but were hit before they could establish any resistance. This forward surge by the company continued for two to three hours with the enemy running in desperation but losing the race. D Company probably killed at least 100 of the enemy while sustaining the loss of one man Pvt. Sepovada.
With more bravado than sense I sent a runner to the rear to inform the battalion commander that we had overcome the enemy with a bayonet charge and that he was on the run and that we were in hot pursuit. Shortly the runner returned, out of breath, with the orders to cease the attack, to stop, that another unit was to pass through us and continue the advance. Needless to say I disregarded the order feeling that if we paused the enemy would have a chance to regroup and establish defensive positions. Another messenger caught up with us and with some emphasis said that battalion said to stop. Reluctantly we halted and exhausted hit the prone position along the trail.
Shortly thereafter who should arrive but the Division Commander, fresh and clean and leading an element of the 187th Glider Regiment, apparently ready to receive the accolades of the 7th Division as he moved into Ormac. His only comment to me as he passed by was “Nice Job Cavanaugh”; it was not an extremely hearty greeting. My thoughts regarding that gentleman were at that anything but complimentary. D Company never received the acknowledgement deserved for affecting the break out of the Division from the mountains of Leyte except for our Regimental Commander who recognized what we had done. Within a day or two we were out of the mountains on Christmas Day and on the beaches of Ormac.
Summary, Leyte Operations
The rigors of this campaign can be hard to imagine and are difficult to describe. Out of a TO&E strength of 117 officers and men D Company suffered twenty one casualties, of these six had been killed and the remainder wounded. During the 30 some odd days of operations we suffered from cold at night, rain during the day, mud without end, food shortages, a lack of medical supplies, no resupply of boots and uniforms, jungle rot, leeches beyond number, dysentery and fear along with a stubborn enemy who paid a heavy price for his stubbornness. After the first week, with no way to evacuate our wounded we carried them, uncomplaining, up and down muddy trails, through rain and jungle with few ways to ease their pain. The Regiment came out of the mountains with the majority of the troopers suffering from some form of jungle rot and dysentery. However the morale remained high and complaints were few and far between. This was a professional, well- trained regiment with a commanding officer who set an example for all of us to follow.
Rest and Recuperation
From the beaches of Ormac we were moved by truck around the southern tip of Leyte back to our bases at Tacloban. Here we began to receive replacements and spent a good part of each day in the ocean using the salt water to help in clearing up our many open sores and jungle rot and we slowly began to recover our strength and overall health. Our equipment also needed replacement or repair. We spent some time reviewing what we had learned from our grueling jungle operations and in figuring out ways to improve our operations. We had believed that the delay time on our hand grenades, 4 seconds, before detonating was too long and permitted the enemy to throw them back to us or when used as booby traps the delay permitted the enemy to seek cove before the grenade exploded. Through experimentation we learned how to cut the delay fuse on the grenade to about 3 seconds and modified many of our grenades to give us this shorter delay.
A major concern we had which we were unable to correct was that the powder used in our small arms ammunition was not smokeless and as a result when any of our machine guns or rifles were fired their smoke readily identified our positions. We found that the Japanese’s were apparently using a smokeless powder and therefore we were often unable to locate the position from which their fire was coming. We managed to scrounge a number of Browning Automatic weapons (BAR’S) from the glider regiments and felt these to be more effective then our light machine guns in the type of jungle fighting we were engaged in.
I had the unpleasant task of writing letters to the loved ones of our deceased and found this no easy task. We also were directed to provide two men from the company to join a recovery party to return over the path of our advance through the mountains and recover the remains of the fallen from our regiment. This was a most onerous task but one which had to be done. I believe that most of our fallen were recovered but I know of some that were not found until after the war was over. Such was the case of one of my good friends Lt. Varner whose body was not recovered for a number of years. So, for almost a month we rested, received some replacements, reequipped and prepared for our next mission, which was soon to come.
In late January, Army forces landed north of Manila at Lingayan Gulf and the invasion of Luzon had begun. About this time we were alerted for our next mission, a parachute attack south of Manila, which would place the Japanese between two attacking forces one from the north and one from the south. Both forces saw this as a race to seize the city. Our regiment was moved my LCI to the Island of Mindoro with its airfield able to accommodate our jump aircraft. Here for three days we studied maps and reviewed our upcoming operation on an improvised sand table. Our landing zone (LZ) at Tagatay was located on a high ridge overlooking a Lake Taal, a lake in the cone of an extinct volcano. The main road to manila ran along this ridge and provided us a good avenue of approach to the city some twenty miles away to the north.
The 511th Jumps into Battle, Luzon
The orders came down to us to prepare for a jump into Luzon on 3 February 1945. The night of the 2nd we spent packing our supply bundles, issuing ammunition and two K-rations per man. On the 31st of January other elements of the Division had landed amphibiously on the beaches at Nasugbu and were fighting their way northward toward Manila and were to link up with us after our jump on Tagatay ridge some 16 miles north of Nasagbu. I attended a late evening mass on the night of the 2nd along with a large number of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Needless to say tensions were high and we were all anxious to get things started. I was beginning to feel the effects of jaundice and tropical sprue which almost a year later were to cause me to spent a few weeks in the hospital after my return to the states. The result was a most unpleasant evening spent throwing up in a shell hole along with a good friend Lt. John Norwalk who was equally as ill from yellow jaundice.
Around 0300 hours on the 3rd of February our battalion moved to our nearby departure field. We found “our” parachutes already stacked under the wings of our assigned aircraft and we began the tedious job of chuting up. I emphasize “our” parachutes because actually they were not ours but those of the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team, a unit that were also being assembled for a jump on the Island of Corregidor a few days later and we were using their parachutes. Ours had been soaked while they were in packing sheds during our Leyte operations. The 503rd were to subsequently use our chutes in their daring jump on Corregidor.
Putting on a parachute while your body is loaded with ammunition, a rifle and personal equipment is difficult under the best of conditions. In the darkness the job is even more difficult. With aid from the aircrafts crew chiefs and fellow jumpers we struggled into our parachutes, strapped on our reserve chute over our Griswald container that carried our disassembled rifle, hung our small musette bag with our personal equipment under our reserve chute and then sat immobile, like big frogs under the wings of the aircraft awaiting orders to load. Sitting in the darkness surrounded by the familiar smell of aircraft engine oil and hydraulic fuel that only the parachutist can describe, we waited.
Around 0430 hour we began to load into our aircraft. We were so heavily loaded and ungainly that we had to be assisted up the small ladder into the aircraft. We struggled into our canvas bucket seats, already somewhat exhausted and began the unpleasant job of sweating out the jump. The officers are always so busy with their responsibilities of assembling their troops, checking on each mans readiness and stacking supply bundles near the door of the aircraft that they undoubtedly feel less anxiety than the men who simply sit and wait.
We took off in darkness with the aircraft carrying our battalion forming up in three aircraft “V’s” and then in turn forming into nine aircraft “V’s”. As we flew north the darkness began to lessen and peering around our stacked supply bundles in the door of the aircraft I tried to get oriented as to where we were. I soon recognized the shores of Luzon and began sweating out the appearance of our LZ, which was to be marked by smoke placed by our pathfinder team. The team, led by Lt. Hoover, hopefully had infiltrated over the past three days from the landings at Nasagbu, through enemy lines to our LZ. Almost immediately I saw that we had a major problem. We were flying over a deep cloud cover, which blocked all visibility and unless it cleared the pilots would never find our drop zone.
Our standard jump procedure (SOP) for mass jumps called for the lead aircraft to begin jumping at the appropriate time upon reaching the Drop area. This then was the responsibility of the lead aircraft commander, to turn on a red light to the right of the jump door about five minutes before reaching the drop zone. This enabled the jump master to get the jumpers to their feet, no easy task loaded as we were, check each mans equipment, hook up all jumpers to the anchor cable which ran the length of the aircraft and to close up the jumpers as closely as possible to allow for a rapid exit. Upon reaching the drop zone and observing the proper markings and direction of the wind, the lead aircraft commander would then turn on the green light and the jumpers would exit the aircraft. These preparations were occurring in each aircraft and the jump masters, usually the officer who led the jumpers, would be peering out of the doors of their respective planes looking not only for the drop zone but also toward the lead aircraft. The SOP was to begin jumping when you saw the chutes from the lead aircraft begin to open.
One Company Jumps Early
As I anxiously watched the cloud cover below, it suddenly ended and we broke out into clear, bright weather and I was looking down onto broad patches of open ground, seeing Lake Taal to the west and trying to compare the topography of the area to the sand table we had been studying back in Mindoro. We were flying at about 500 to 600 feet above the ground and I glanced back to see the aircraft flying in their V’s behind and above us, it was a dramatic sight. Suddenly I noticed chutes in the air from the flight just behind us and I realized that something had gone amiss. There were no chutes coming from the aircraft in front of us and there was no indication from our pilot that he had yet spotted the drop zone. It was apparent that some pilot in one of the aircraft behind us panicked and had initiated the jump action. The planes in that group V’s had in turn, according to our SOP, had followed the leader and turned on their green lights and the jumpers had exited the aircraft. This meant that a large group of troopers were going to be separated from the rest of the regiment and what made it worse was the fact we had been flying south, away from Manila and their jumping prematurely could very well place them in close proximity to the enemy.
We Earn Our Pay
Just about this time the drop zone came into sight, the red light came on next to the jump door and I could see in the distance the colored smoke from out pathfinder team rising from the ground. I stood up the jumpers, got them properly hooked up and a few seconds later observed jumpers leaving the planes ahead of us before our green light came on. We had stacked three supply bundles in the door of our aircraft, bundles containing machine guns, mortars and ammunition and these had to be pushed out of the door first. After the crew chief and I wrestled them out of the door I turned to the anxious faces behind me, said “Lets Go” and out we went. I’ll never forget the look on the face of the aircraft crew chief as we left the plane. His expression clearly said “Are these guys crazy”.
As in all jumps, there is a moment of sheer confusion as your body gets smashed by the prop blast of the aircraft then is twisted and contorted by the opening shock of the parachute and then you find yourself hanging quietly beneath a canopy of silk anticipating and preparing for the landing. Along with everything else you are concerned about meeting enemy resistance on the LZ, freeing yourself from your parachute and preparing for a fight. Fortunately we met no resistance. After hitting the ground I got out of my parachute harness and as I was getting my rifle reassemble up ran a wide-eyed Philippine boy wondering who and what these strange people were who had descended from the sky. After recovering our supply bundles we quickly reassembled in a previously planned assembly point and then moved toward Highway 17 a main road leading to Manila. As the regiment began its reassembly, down the road from the north came Capt. Wade and F Company, the unit that had jumped early. There were no questions asked at the time and we all felt relieved that they had not encountered enemy resistance.
Battle for Imus
After our assembly the regiment moved north on Highway 17, encountering no resistance, and moved into a perimeter surrounding a beautiful, but abandon, hotel overlooking Lake Taal. I recall quite vividly how tired we were after a busy though uneventful day insofar as combat was concerned. After checking the company perimeter I lay down in my foxhole, covered myself with my poncho and promptly went to sleep. About 0200 hours a runner awakened me and said I was to report to regimental headquarters for operational orders. I crawled out of my hole and found my poncho dripping with moisture from the condensation of my body heat and the cool night air. I was miserable and not fully awake. At the command post (CP) I found the company commanders assembled and we received the attack orders for the following day. Units from the Division that had landed at Nasugbu had linked up with us during the night and were to provide some 21/2 trucks for our movement that morning. Our regimental reconnaissance platoon was to move ahead of us and D Company was to be the lead company in the regiment. In addition to the trucks there was a tracked M-17 tank destroyer armed with a 75mm howitzer that was made available to us. Since there were insufficient trucks to move the company I decided to shuttle a platoon at a time down the road, drop them off and then have the trucks pick up another platoon and leapfrog through the lead platoon that was then on foot.
After moving out about 0600 hours on 4 February we continued this movement for a few hours when we were met by Lt. Jeffers, of the reconnaissance platoon. They had been a mile ahead of us and informed me that they had observed a large number of Japanese troops in and around a large concrete building in the town of Imus, a town some 15 miles south of Manila. We left the trucks and I directed that all packs be left at the side of the road under guard and carrying only our basic combat gear we moved in a column of platoon toward Imus. We reached a hedge or fence surrounding the objective and as I looked over the hedge I could see a number of Japanese running around the building and apparently setting up defensive positions, They were about two hundred yards away and I elected to leave a machine gun squad as a base of fire at that location as the rest of the company attempted to move around to the left and get closer to the building from its’ rear. I directed the machine gun squad to hold their fire until we reached the flanking position and that when we fired a colored rifle grenade into the position they were to open fire and cover our assault. Big problem, our rifle grenades and launchers were left behind with the packs and we had no other way of signaling the gunners when to open fire other than when we began the assault. In the long run this did not present a major problem but I kicked myself for not being more attentive to what was being left behind when we dropped our packs.
The company reached a position about one hundred yards behind the building and we lay behind a stone wall that surrounded the building at that location. I remember quite vividly thinking of the old World War I practice of going “over the top” as the troops left the trenches and I found myself ordering just such a move as we lay behind the wall. There was no longer any other recourse and so with one surge we vaulted the wall and went toward the building. The part of the building facing us had a number of windows facing us at ground level, apparently basement windows, and the enemy promptly opened fire from these locations as we ran toward forward. I don’t believe we suffered any casualties from that fire and we managed to get around to the front before we were hit hard. The enemy had dug a number of spider holes around the front courtyard and it was from those positions we sustained our first casualties. Pfc Kathert was killed immediately and Sgt Ingram was wounded, Pvt Walter was also hit and later died from his wounds. We finally managed to dig the enemy out of these holes but were then receiving fire from within the building and our casualties began to mount. S/Sgt’s Perlman and Taylor were wounded as was Sgt. Hyatt and Pfc. Zadoorian. We began to pour both rifle and machine gun fire into the building and it became strangely quiet.
At this point I figured we had to get inside the building and clean out any enemy that might still have survived our fire. With some trepidation I ordered Lt. Kannely and his third platoon to move through the main door of the building and mop up any enemy remaining. Kannely sent in a small scouting force and then the entire platoon moved into the building. Not a shot was fired and about five minutes later the platoon emerged from a side door and it appeared that the enemy had all been killed. Suddenly as though Kannelys’ platoon had never been there the enemy opened fire from a number of windows. I never really figured out what the third platoon had not done in allegedly “cleaning out” the building and with the firefight under way I had little time to investigate.
About this time an irate Regimental S-2, Capt Faulkner, arrived yelling about our failure to “capture the bridge” which unbeknownst to me was just beyond our position and on the road to Manila. No one had ever given us a mission to do anything except attack any enemy encountered and we had done just that. I moved back to the road leading to the city and observed a small stone bridge spanning a small tributary of the Pasig River. I promptly directed one platoon toward the bridge and they just as promptly strolled across this “major objective” without resistance. So much for our failure to secure the bridge.
We received orders to continue our attack toward Manila and I directed the second platoon under Lt. Watkins to remain in Imus and finish cleaning out any enemy remaining in the building. What happened the next day at Imus was never clear to me. I do know that S/Sgt. Steele, the platoon Sgt. of the platoon was reported to have climbed on top of the building and heroically, despite enemy fire managed to pour gasoline into the building from the roof, following this with a grenade which set the building on fire, from all reports the remaining enemy were destroyed as they fled the building. There was a downside to the story in that I was informed that the platoon leader had lost control of the platoon and apparently failed in doing his job. Without going into further detail I felt obligated to relieve him of his command and the job fell to S/Sgt Steele who had performed so heroically. Later Steele was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions and I recommended him for a battlefield promotion. Sadly his award was to be given posthumously and he never lived to be commissioned. His death a few days later was felt by all in the company.
Following our Imus fight we continued our march toward Manila with little opposition, and spending the night of 4 February sleeping by the roadside at Las Pinas, a suburb of Manila. On 5February the regiment continued its’ movement toward the city, initially meeting little opposition. At mid-morning the regiment was halted and to the amazement of all we were ordered to shave. With no small amount of grumbling we broke out our razors and proceeded to clean up our rather grubby looking faces. Apparently “The Rock” wanted to have the regiment portrayed in the press as “fresh, clean shaven parachutists seizing the city of Manila”, a most optimistic prediction seeing as to what was we were to encounter in the next week. That afternoon we met heavy resistance and our true battle for Manila began.
The Battle for Manila
When the Japanese seized manila they also had captured many of the large artillery pieces that the U.S. had emplaced years before to protect the city from an attack from the sea and the Japanese now turned those weapons on us. I’m not sure of the caliber of the pieces but I believe they were 6” naval guns. On the night of the 4th the enemy began firing these guns directly at us as we lay along the road and while their fire was did not directly affect the front line troops the fire was effective in our rear areas and in one instance hit the regimental command center killing Lt. Andy Gallagher and a number of others. The sound of these shells was deafening and frightening and seemed to be coming right down the road along which we were spread. Why the Japanese did not use them more effectively I can only attribute it to the fact that they had little or no fire control instruments or just were poor artillerymen.
On the morning of the 5th of February the 2nd Battalion continued to move toward the city with either F or E Company in the lead without meeting too much resistance until reaching a major bridge over a tributary of the Pasig River and there the enemy established a defensive position at nightfall and stopped our leading company south of the bridge. That night was apparently one of great confusion at “The Bridge” and it led to the death of the Division Chief of Staff and a very angry Division commander both of who had stupidly run a road block and tried to cross the bridge in the dark in a jeep but that’s another story. The next day we continued our attack through the town of Paranaque and at that point met heavy resistance at the enemies main line of defense the Genko Line.
Early in the day F Company hit the enemies main defenses, the Genko Line, astride Highway 17 and under heavy mortar and rifle fire the company could not break through. We had attached to support us an M-17 tank destroyer, which was lightly armored and mounted a 75mm cannon. This was called forward in an attempt to break the enemy’s defensive line. Unfortunately, as it moved into position it ran over a land mine, which destroyed the vehicle and killed many of its crew. All I recall of the incident was seeing the tank destroyer maneuvering into position and then seeing the massive explosion and trying to duck the hail of debris from the street pavement and parts of the vehicle that came raining down on us after the explosion. The shock of the explosion, seeing the armored vehicle laying smoking on its’ side and the sudden death of it’s’ crew was a mental shock to all of us who experienced it.
Now it was D Company’s turn. Lt. Col “Hacksaw’ Holcomb, our battalion commander, ordered me to pass through F Company and attempt to force the enemies position. I remember that the highway at that point was blocked by some sort of metal gate or fence which lay just forward of where the armored vehicle was destroyed and which had been so well covered by enemy fire that F Company had been unable to breech it. I determined that I wasn’t going to try an attack at that point of the enemy line and decided to try to flank the position. I moved the company to the right, down to the bank of the Pasig River which was our right flank and which ran parallel to our direction of attack. I had the faint hope that I might move the company along the riverbank and perhaps get around their main defenses. However we almost immediately encountered an apron of barbed wire about 5’ tall and six feet wide and which ran across our front and down to the rivers edge. I assumed that this barrier would be covered by machine gun and rifle fire and anticipated we would be hit hard in trying to breech the wire. However, there was no other choice but to try. There are many things that I have forgotten over the years but I have never forgotten the next hour or two that followed.
D Company Attacks and Breaks the Genko Line
Getting over a barbed wire entanglement involves either cutting through the wire or going over it. Without adequate wire cutters we had no other recourse than to try to bridge it. Fortunately there was stack of lumber next to a Nipa shack, which if thrown over the wire would provide us some way across. I was certain however that once we began to throw pieces of wood across the wire that it would certainly be booby trapped and explode in our face or else bring a hail of machine gun fire upon us, or both. We had no alternative however and I grabbed a piece of lumber about eight feet long and with others began tossing these across the wire. Nothing happened and I immediately ordered a squad across the wire and when they met no enemy fire the entire company scrambled across this makeshift bridge without drawing fire. We had breeched a major obstacle and were inside a portion of their position.
There were scattered Nipa shacks in the area and after moving about a hundred yards from the wire obstacle a lead scout reported that there were enemy pill boxes directly ahead and slightly to our left. Pillboxes I’m sure that were to have covered their defensive wire which we had just breeched. We had caught the enemy napping and in fact I was able to observe a number of them outside their pillbox either washing up or relaxing in the sun, a most lucrative target. I called a bazooka man forward and after positioning a machine gun and riflemen in position directed the bazooka to open fire. Nothing happened, whether the ammunition was bad, which I doubted, or the batteries designed to fire the weapon were bad, which I believe was the case, it nevertheless failed to fire. The bazooka man, after all that training and after carrying the stupid thing for days on end now found it was useless except for using it as a club. I’m not sure who was the most disgusted, to put it mildly, me or the man who had toted the thing.
At this point I ordered our emplaced machine gun and riflemen to open fire. This was the first time the enemy realized we had flanked their position and we proceeded to over-run and destroy that emplacement and seven other pill boxes with no enemy opposition. We had not lost a single man and had successfully breeched that portion of the Genko Line. With no small amount of pride, and as was the case in Leyte following our “Banzaii-Rats Ass Charge” I sent a messenger back to “Hacksaw” that D Company had affected a break through and was continuing the attack. Needless to say I was proud of the company and elated over our success. At this point I made a tactical blunder. As we advanced we over-ran a Japanese Officers Club along with no small amount of wine and whiskey. Although my First Sgt. recommended an immediate seizure and distribution of the loot, I was fearful that an inebriated company would not be too effective in combat. I therefore placed a guard on our findings, figuring we’d return to claim our conquest at a later time and we proceeded to move forward through an area of small buildings and shacks. The result was that as battalion and regiment followed us they pulled rank on my guard and seized the loot as their own. D company saw nothing of its conquest and I expect my actions were not favorably looked on by the troops who had I’m sure anticipated a party sometime down the road.
We spent the night of 5 February dug in west of the main road amidst the ruins of Nipa shacks and parts of the corrugated tin roofs that had covered those shacks. The tin roofs caused a problem. The Japanese were not far away and during the night they would yell out in broken English “Yankee bastards soon you die”. We kept our mouths shut so as not to give away our positions but nevertheless some of our stalwarts got jumpy. Sounds were magnified in the darkness by the tin roofs that surrounded us and whether it was rats running around or the enemy trying to infiltrate our positions I’ll never know but grenades began to fly every time a noise was heard and this continued throughout the night. The next morning as was our usual routine I sent out a “Rat Patrol” to see if any Japanese had moved closer to our lines. Their report was negative, no Japs alive or dead and it appeared that the frantic grenade barrage was occasioned by imaginative minds. I was mad on two points, it showed a lack of fire disciple and our grenade supply was almost exhausted. I was really fuming inside and made the culprits that had been the grenade throwers go back to the rear and bring back as many boxes of grenades they could scrounge from our ammunition supply point.
The 6th and 7th of February were days spent slowly fighting our way house to house toward the city. A number of men had been wounded but no one had been killed. On the 8th we were in Pasey a suburb of Manila and facing a strongly entrenched enemy behind high stucco walls surrounding a number of large residences. We were getting a good amount of mortar fire that was more harassing than effective but nevertheless it slowed our movement. Late that morning Lt. Col. Holcomb came forward to and ordered that I send a patrol forward of our position to try to locate enemy positions. Against my better judgment I sent a patrol forward from the third platoon led by the acting platoon leader T/Sgt. Steele the man who had performed so heroically in destroying the enemy in Imus on 4 February and who I had recommended for a battle field promotion. We waited for about an hour for Steele’s return and suddenly there was burst of firing to our front and the patrol came running back, breathless and badly shaken and without their patrol leader. They reported that they had moved through the buildings to our front a few hundred yards without encountering seeing any enemy but hearing them all around their positions. As they were returning, Sgt. Steele apparently heard a group of enemy behind a wall and while attempting to look over the wall to locate their exact position was immediately shot through the head.
The loss of Sgt. Steele was a blow to all of us because not only was he a fine leader, but well liked and respected. D Company had now lost two fine platoon Sgts, Barrario on Leyte and now Steele. Within another week we were to loose another Sgt. Corley. Platoon Sgts are the backbone of a platoon and are usually experienced soldiers that are hard to replace. The enemy mortar barrage continued through out the morning and resulted in numerous casualties though none fatal. However First Sgt Filippelli was badly wounded and D Company lost another senior non commissioned officer. The afternoon of the 8th was spent exchanging mortar and machine gun fire with the well-entrenched enemy and mapping plans for an early morning attack on the 9th. We broke through the enemy defenses the next morning and continued our house to-house fighting for the next two days with ever increasing casualties. Between the 5th and the 10th of February D Company sustained thirty-eight men killed or wounded this was almost a third of the company strength and the losses were seriously depleting our combat power. Among the wounded was PFC Bittorie one of the “heroes” of the Rats-Ass charge on Leyte.
My recollections of each day’s activities during this period are hazy to say the least and only certain events remain somewhat clear. I do recall one very personal experience which must have been around the 9th or 10th as we fought from building to building. I had great difficulty in communicating with the platoons except by the use of platoon runners. Our hand held “walkie-talkikes” were ineffective. My communication to battalion headquarters was either through the use of runners or a back packed radio set carried by Pvt Lipanovich my radio operator. I was forced therefore to move physically from platoon to platoon dodging my way through Nipa shacks and trying to keep myself from getting shot at. In our movement forward we had bypassed many enemy who were hiding in the various houses that we were passing around. It was not uncommon for them to emerge from their hiding places and attack our forces from the rear. In reality our front line positions were often pretty well ill defined.
During this period we received a few replacements and I selected one as a bodyguard to protect me and my radio operator, Pvt. Liponovich, from any bypassed Japanese who happened to appear as we moved from platoon to platoon. This new replacement proceeded to save our lives shortly after he arrived. As we moved through the abandon shacks a Japanese soldier with explosives strapped to his body jumped from a window directly behind us I became aware of this danger only after I heard a shot and turned to see our bodyguard standing over a very dead booby- trapped enemy soldier. This nameless replacement remains such today and I’m not sure that I actually ever thanked him for his quick actions.
On the 11th of February the 511th suffered a very grievous loss. Our Regimental Commander, Col. Haugen, “Our Rock” was seriously wounded and had to be evacuated. Some days later we heard that he had died from his wounds while being flown to an evacuation hospital. This was a man we had all come to respect for the standards he had set for all of us. I personally felt the loss because I had such a personal respect for him and I felt he felt the same for me. His courage and determination to make us the best unit in the U.S. Army often appeared to all of us as too punishing but did result in producing a unit with great fighting skills and an ability to endure conditions which I’m convinced other units would never have survived.
At this point we had been in contact with the enemy for eight days and nights and our casualties and lack of adequate rest and food were reducing our combat effectiveness and draining us physically. We had only a month’s rest following the Leyte operation and it had not given us adequate time to integrate new replacements and recover physically. While regular infantry units (as opposed to parachute units) were equipped with field kitchens and could provide hot meals to forward units plus transportation to haul ammunition and rations, parachute units were not so equipped. A regular infantry rifle company was equipped with two or three ¼ ton trucks (jeeps) to haul ammunition and rations forward we had none. In fact the TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment) provided for one ¼ ton truck and trailer per battalion. The result was we had to send carrying parties to the rear to draw supplies, no easy task when boxes of grenades, mortar and machine gun rounds were heavy and awkward to carry. As in Leyte our principle ration was the K ration which did not provide the nutrition and energy needed for sustained operations in the field. Occasionally during this period we were able to draw C rations which were far better that the K but still had to be eaten cold or warmed over a squad cooker when time permitted. Our ability to continue to operate so well was a tribute to the great spirit of the men and the rigorous training that “The Rock” had demanded of all of us.
Out of the Lines
Sometime around the 12th of February we were relieved from the front lines by a glider regiment and I selected an assembly area a few hundred yards behind the lines. I took the company commander of the unit replacing us to each of our platoon positions and wishing him well moved back with one of my platoons to the designated assembly area where a number of our men had already arrived. After waiting impatiently for others to arrive I remember complaining to Sgt. Farnsworth, who I had designated as First Sgt. after the wounding of First Sgt Fillippelli, about the slowness in the men to move back to the assembly point. Sgt. Farnsworth looked at me and said “Sir that’s all there is”. D Company had lost 1/3 of its strength in those ten days of fighting and we had many more days of combat ahead of us.
The result of our losses required that I eliminate the 60mm mortar squad from each platoon and assigned the remaining men from those squads to the rifle squads keeping a small contingent back to man one 60mm mortar. We were receiving no replacements for our losses and I promoted a number of men to fill NCO positions that were open because of casualties. The first and third platoons let by Lts.Carrico and Kannely respectively, were in solid hands and while I feel I relied more on Lt. Carricos first platoon for operations, the third platoon was equally as effective. The second platoon in particular had lost its original platoon leader when I relieved him after the Imus operation and then lost its’ acting leader Sgt. Steele when he was killed. Despite these problems the company remained an effective combat unit and within a day became involved in the fight for Nichols Field.
The rigors of the Leyte operation had severely impacted the physical condition of the troops and most everyone seemed to be suffering from some kind of intestinal or skin problems. In my own case I began to feel the effects of tropical sprue that though not diagnosed until my hospitalization after returning to the states after the war, resulted in a great loss of energy and physical weakness. Many of the men were suffering similar problems from yellow jaundice and other tropical infections but refused to quit or complain. These were exceptional soldiers who I never fully appreciated until many years later while serving with other units in other theaters of operations.
I was extremely proud of the men of the company and while I’m sure there was a lot of the normal “bitching” that all soldiers become involved in, little reached my ears. I was especially proud of those men who had not been too severely wounded in Leyte but had been evacuated to hospitals for treatment (often in Guam) and who, after recovery, had gone AWOL from the hospital to hitch-hike rides on aircraft to get back to the company. There were some who were wounded on Leyte and later in Luzon that kept coming back despite a lack of release form their hospitals; Cpl Murray Hale was an example of such a soldier.
Our role in the attack on Nichols Field was minimal but I do recall meeting elements of the 1st Cavalry Division as they drove south through the city to link up with us near Nichols Field. I also recall that the troops of that unit were getting hot meals from their field kitchens while we were still eating K-Rations and more often than not cold C-Rations. Parachute troops lacked many of the “comforts” provided the troops of a regular line unit. We were pulled from the Nichols Field area around the 17th of February, and proceeded to become involved in a number of reconnaissance and search and destroy missions. We were actually cleaning out Japanese’s troops that we had bypassed and which were still roaming around the areas in our rear areas. On the 22nd of February we hit an enemy unit that we pursued through a built up area. During the engagement T/Sgt. Corley was killed, he was the last surviving of our three platoon sergeants. We also sustained six other wounded on that date which further depleted our combat effectiveness.
Shortly after this engagement we were moved to a rest area in Batangas a small town a short distance south of Manila. Here we received a few replacements and got some much needed rest and replaced some of our equipment. We were still about 25% under strength and in fact never did get enough replacements to bring us to full strength. Sometime around this period we received a gift of a 50-gallon water trailer filled with beer from the recently liberated San Miguel Brewery. Its contents were greeted with much enthusiasm but resulted in some disastrous consequences. The beer was “green”, newly brewed without any aging and did not set well on empty stomachs. I’ve often wondered how many were turned off of beer for the rest of their lives.
The Battle for Mt. Bijiang
Around the 10th of March D Company was put into regimental reserve at the small town of Real near an old and abandon sugar mill. This was a welcome relief from our all most daily military operations and we did not anticipate any great need for our commitment by regiment. We were soon to proven wrong. An enemy force of undetermined size was located in a low mountain range area a few miles from our position and on the 11th of March a company from our third battalion was dispatched to locate and destroy this force. They met a strong, well-entrenched enemy and were forced to withdraw after suffering a number of casualties. The new regimental commander, Col. Lahti, decided to commit his reserve company, “old” D Company, to attempt to drive the enemy from its’ position and to seize the high ground. On 12 March, accompanied by the commander of the company that had been tried the day before to do the job, I reconnoitered the avenues of approach to the objective and decided upon a different route into the enemy position than had been attempted before.
I asked for and received assurances of support from an attached 105mm howitzer battery and was provided a young second Lt. Forward Observer from that battery. On 13th March I moved the company out of our reserves position and we began a road march of about two miles to a position I selected as our line of departure for our movement to contact. The terrain ahead of us was bare of vegetation except for brush and a few scattered trees and the hills in front of us were not too steep although our objective was somewhat higher than the neighboring terrain. A few miles from the objective I deployed the company in an approach march formation with two platoons abreast, each moving in a column of squads with scouts forward and the third platoon somewhat too their rear. Almost immediately we were taken under fire by what I assumed was an enemy picket line and we had one man killed. We continued advancing against sporadic enemy rifle fire and sustained another casualty.
Concerned that we would become overly engaged against a small enemy delaying force, I shifted the company advance to the right a few hundred yards and met no further resistance. It was at this time that I observed that the hill mass that we had assumed was our objective area was not the highest point in the terrain and that it had masked another hill which was higher and obviously the objective that had to be secured and was the one which the enemy must have occupied. The problem that I faced was that our artillery had been registered on the lower objective area and we had no pre-planned fires on what was in reality the true objective. My artillery officer began to plot covering fires on the new objective and fired a few registering rounds. In an hours time we had reached our objective and found it unoccupied although there were many signs that the enemy had been there. The hill that we occupied had obviously been planted at one time in rice as there were many low lying dikes around the crest of the hill and approaches to the area. They were to save our lives.
I deployed the company in a perimeter formation along the crest of the hill with two platoons covering the front of the perimeter with the third covering our rear. As we began to establish our positions we were hit by heavy enemy machine gun, mortar and rifle fire from an enemy on the reverse slope of the hill. In this initial barrage of fire we had a number of men hit and we immediately sought cover behind a rice patty dike running along the crest of the hill and took the unseen enemy under fire with rifles and machine gun fire. Our artillery observer took immediate action to bring the enemy positions under fire but the trajectory of the howitzer rounds was too flat to reach the enemy, which were within a few hundred yards of us and protected by the reverse crest of the hill. A higher trajectory weapon such as a mortar would have been much more effective. As it was the artillery could not bring their fires onto the enemy position and landed much to the rear of their position. Their rounds screamed over our heads almost close enough to touch but also were over the heads of the enemy.
We were receiving heavy machine gun and rifle fire and bullets were cracking all around us, the scene was a chaotic one. We were also under a continuing barrage of Japanese knee mortar rounds which were lethal only to within about 15 feet but whose fragmentation caused a large number of men to be hit, some seriously. I lay along the front of our position firing at the back of one Japanese soldier no more that 100 feet from me who was obviously firing a mortar in that he constantly rose up to place a mortar round down the tube of the weapon, exposing his back momentarily as a fleeting target. I must have emptied two clips at that elusive target but I’m sure inflicted no damage to his efforts or person. I recall looking up to the sky on one occasion, perhaps prayerfully, and I could see enemy mortar rounds in the air on their way down and there were a lot of them. I fault myself for being in an exposed position where I could not effectively command the company.
We were experiencing ammunition shortages and I radioed back to regiment for back up support and a resupply of ammunition. Regiment indicated that I Company was on its way but it would be a few hours before they could reach our position and I was uncertain as to whether we could hold out that long. Lt. Kannelys’ 3rd platoon had depleted its’ machine gun ammunition and was trying to reload machine gun belts by hand from the rifle ammunition of the dead and wounded. This was almost an impossible task while under fire. The runner from the 1st platoon reported that his platoon leader, Lt. Osmun, a recent replacement, had received a severe head wound and was out of action. Actually he had been hit above the eye and the eye actually was driven out of his head and was hanging from the socket.
Casualties and our low ammunition supply were now becoming major concerns. Unless we were reinforced soon we would have to withdraw under fire and could have trouble carrying our wounded while fighting our way out. Lt. Andy Carrico suddenly arrived at my side trying to find out what was going on. He had previously commanded the 1st platoon through months of combat and I had promoted him to executive officer. About this time there were reports of an increasing number of casualties and officer to give him some respite from leading a platoon. During the initial part of this engagement he had remained with company headquarters near the 3rd platoon that was protecting the rear of the perimeter. I briefed him as quickly as possible and was about to send him to take over the 1st Platoon when my radio operator, Pvt. Liponovich, who was next to me and on my right, yelled something at me. I turned in time to see him open his mouth to repeat his message and just in time to see him take a bullet through his mouth and jaw. Shouting for a medic I turned to see Lt. Carrico take a bullet in the shoulder and arm.
Things were about to get worse. No sooner than after losing my radio operator and my executive officer I was hit. I only remember receiving a sudden blow to my head and ended up face down in the ground. My helmet had been knocked off and as I reached to recover it I saw two holes in it, an entrance and an exit hole. How I escaped a serious if not fatal head wound I’ll never know and except for a knot on my head as big as a pigeons egg my head was intact. About this time my company runner said “Rusty (my company nick-name) you’re bleeding like a stuck pig”. I had been also hit in the shoulder and never felt it. It was a grazing wound and though it bled profusely it was not serious. I later surmised that the same machine gun that had taken out Pvt. Liponovich and Lt. Carrico had also been the culprit that had wounded me. Who ever he was that Japanese machine gunner had, on this day, earned his pay.
At this time it appeared a reappraisal of the situation was necessary. We were about out of ammunition and the Company had sustained four men killed and fifteen wounded. This was roughly twenty percent of our already undermanned the company. Resupply did not seem immanent and it appeared that the enemy was well entrenched and in numbers far superior than our own. My biggest concern was the fear that if we delayed breaking contact and sustained any more dead or wounded we would not have enough men to effectively fight a withdrawal action and at the same time carry out our casualties. I elected to withdraw and ordered our third platoon to be prepared to cover us as the first and second platoons withdrew. There was little hesitancy in obeying my orders and we began to move back through the covering force under heavy enemy rifle and mortar fire. After placing a few well-placed M-1rounds into the company radio in order to keep it from falling intact into enemy hands, I took off running, zigzagging to avoid enemy fire. The covering fire from the third platoon kept the enemy off of our backs and we successfully disengaged.
I had a feeling of real relief that we had avoided being over run and sustained a more serious loss of life but also a feeling of having failed to accomplish our mission. Seeing my bloody shoulder and back, someone offered to carry my rifle but at that point I declined as my adrenaline was going full blast and was feeling no pain. As we moved back down the hill we encountered I Company coming to our relief, they were too little and too late. Upon returning to Regiment I went directly to see Col. Ed Lahti our Regimental commander to give him a quick recap of the action and my assessment of the enemy strength. I’m sure I presented a picture of a very beat up Company Commander with two holes in his helmet and a bloody shoulder but at least he was aware we had been in one big fight.
The Regimental Aid Station was a busy place when I arrived and there were many with far more serious wounds than my own so I sat on a stool awaiting a doctors’ attention and recall talking to the Lt. Andy Carrico whose wounds were quite serious. However, I recall that he was anything but depressed and was relieved to be going home. When the doctor finally treated me he found that I had two wounds in my shoulder. A grazing wound from a bullet and a puncture wound from which he dug out a small fragment of metal. To this day I’m not sure whether it was a mortar fragment or a small piece from my helmet that had been torn off when my helmet was hit. The knot on my head was not deemed serious and I left the aid station with my arm in a sling and ready for some rest.
I have never regretted the action taken to withdraw and felt a great feeling of respect for our Regimental Commander, Col. Lahti who never questioned my decision. The Company had fought well and there were many heroic acts by many D Company men that day, acts that have never been and will never be fully recognized.
The Banana Grove
Following the Bijiang battle D Company was relived from Regimental reserve and rejoined the 2nd Battalion. Subsequently we established a Company outpost in a banana grove on top of a small hill. This provided us an opportunity to get some rest and assimilate a group of about fifteen badly needed replacements. The area was relatively quiet and although we remained in a combat ready posture we had no real contact with the enemy. As always however there were a number of instances when grenades were thrown at night in the direction of suspicious noises. In one case a new replacement lost a portion of his hand when he delayed too long in throwing a grenade and it exploded shortly after it was thrown. He was following the advice of one of our “veteran old timers” who was advising the new arrivals to count to two after pulling the pin on a grenade and allowing the arming handle to pop free. This was to preclude an enemy from having time to throw the grenade back into our position. The advice was good but apparently the replacement counted too slowly and he paid the price. The man was hauled into the center of our perimeter and we threw a poncho over him and I crawled under with a flashlight to examine his wound. He was in some pain so I remember giving him a shot from one of the small morphine syrettes, which we carried in our aid packs. I’ve often wondered since if our troops today would be allowed to carry such a drug as part of their issued equipment. The only notable thing I recall from that period was that I didn’t have to sleep in a fox hole at night and had the luxury of being able to sleep on the cardboard from one of the cardboard cases that our C- rations were boxed in when our rations were delivered. Little things meant a lot.
The next weeks that followed were notable only for our frequent moves and chasing elusive groups of Japanese soldiers who had been separated from their units and were roaming the countryside. I do remember a non-combat event, which could have been serious but turned out well. D Company was encamped in a grove of trees along with the regimental aid station and Lt. Col. “Hacksaw” Holcomb my battalion commander came by to check to see how we were doing and to spend the night. We bunked down in a small tent about 4’ high that had been made for me from palm leaves. Before we crawled in for the night I recall spraying the tent with an aerosol spray to kill the ever-present bugs and mosquitoes, which plagued us no matter where we went. As we lay down something dropped onto to Hacksaws arm and he said, “Something just bit me”.
A flashlight revealed a small snake that had apparently been partially knocked out by the spray and had dropped onto Hacksaw and bitten him. Snakes were often highly poisonous in that area so with some concern we went over to the aid station to have the wound checked out. The surgeon was otherwise occupied. One of the men had suffered a severe stomach pain and Doc. Nestor was in the midst of an emergency operation. When we arrived he had cut the man open and had recruited a couple of D Company volunteers as assistance. They were charged with sucking fluids from the stomach cavity while the Doctor tried to find the cause of the problem. All this was going on in a Nipa shack without the benefits of an antiseptic environment or trained medical assistance. Doc. Nestor was a true combat surgeon and did wonders. Of course when Hacksaw and I arrived he already had his hands full and we just sat on the floor waiting until the Doctor finished his ongoing job. Hacksaw’s snakebite did not prove serious and both he and the seriously ill soldier survived.
Sometime around the middle of April the Regiment moved into an area near the town of Lipa and was ordered to send elements of the unit into a large hill mass know as the Matasna Bundoc (sp) Mountains which no one was very enthused about. After out experience in the mountains of Leyte, mountains always looked grim and forbidding to us, and it fell to the 2nd Battalion to initiate the movement up into this area.
E Company was sent forward as the initial element and ran into a real hornet’s nest of Japanese. Trapped in the bottom of a valley one platoon led by Lt. Norm Davis was all but destroyed and the Company was forced to withdraw leaving the bodies of some fifteen or sixteen men behind including that of the platoon leader Lt. Davis. The following day D Company was ordered to attempt to secure the area and recover the bodies. I elected to avoid the valley approach used by E Company and instead decided to climb a mountain which overlooked the valley and then proceed from there into the killing field below hoping that I could suppress any enemy fire from a covering unit I left overlooking the valley floor. The climb up the mountain was a torturous affair and took the better part of a day without encountering any enemy resistance. From its top we could look down into the valley a distance of some 500 yards and were quick to observe that the enemy had a commanding view of that valley from the side opposite our own and from which they must have delivered fire upon the ill fated platoon of Lt. Davis.
I have often been really afraid but I don’t think I ever was as afraid as I was the next day when we began to scramble down from our position to where the E Company dead lay decomposing in the hot tropical sun. The Japanese positions on the hillside opposite us looked down directly upon our spread out formation and positioned as I was behind the forward platoon I feared that we would all be taken under fire before we reached our objective. I found myself yelling at our lead elements to slow down and keep well spread but control was difficult because of the steepness of the hill we were traversing. For some unknown reason we received no enemy fire and we began the unpleasant job of placing the remains of the E Company soldiers into ponchos and preparing them to be carried out through the valley that they had traversed only a day or so before. I undertook the unpleasant task ok removing Lt. Davis’ West Point Ring in order to return it to his family. To this day I cannot recall how or who actually removed the bodies I only recall that D Company returned to the top of the hill and we remained there for almost a week.
During our weeks’ stay we were joined by a single 75mm pack howitzer from the Division parachute artillery battalion which was hauled up on the backs of the artillery men and from our position we were able to fire 75mm rounds across the valley into the enemy positions opposite us. These positions were not discernable to us initially until we began to observe individuals emerging from well-disguised cave positions. It was obvious that the enemy soldiers were in bad condition and were emerging from their caves to sun themselves and get a breath of fresh air. Why they elected to fire on and destroy the platoon from E Company and had not fired upon us as we climbed down into the same valley floor I’ll never know. In any event our 75mm fire was tremendously effective in killing many of them and driving the rest back into their caves.
About this time I requested that a forward air controller with radio be sent up to us so that we could direct air strikes into the enemy positions. I was told we would have to send a carrying party back down the mountain to haul the radio back up to our position since no forward air controller volunteered or was able to make the climb. Needless to say this did not endear that group to me or the Company as I had to send a carrying party down to get the radio. When it did arrive it proved to be a real asset and I had the opportunity to call in daily air strikes on the surrounding hills with devastating effect on the enemy cave positions. Those strikes coupled with the fire from the 75mm howitzer succeeded in closing many of the cave openings and I’m sure buried many of the enemy alive.
We were finally relieved form our hill top position and shortly thereafter the entire regiment went into a rest camp near the town of Lipa and next to an abandon Japanese airstrip which was rapidly being converted to an active field by our own Army Air Corps. Interestingly, that very airfield had been the one that the Japanese had used not two months earlier in launching a parachute operation against our Division rear area when we were in Leyte.
Other than for a few ceremonial parades we did little but normal garrison type duties. I do recall an amusing incident when a number of us were engaged in a friendly game of poker, our battalion commander; Lt. Col “Hacksaw” Holcomb was one of the players. We were sitting around a blanket-covered table in a tent, sweating in the heat and dressed in little else but shorts and olive drab colored tee shirts. I’m sure none of us presented a very military appearance. Our game was interrupted by a tall figure, a second lieutenant freshly turned out in starched fatigues. This obvious new comer demanded in somewhat of an officious manner where he could find the battalion commander. “Hacksaw” looked up at him and in his slow southern drawl said something to the effect of “you’re looking at him”. This “freshly minted” West Pointer, second lieutenant Art Hyman, was to say the least somewhat taken aback by the informality of the occasion. He promptly saluted and indicated he was reporting for duty, an inauspicious start for a new arrival but an officer who was in later years to be a Brigadier General.
In late May I was promoted to the position of Battalion Executive Officer of the 1st Battalion and left D Company to its uncertain fortunes with a new Company Commander. At the time I felt little sadness about leaving the unit that I had led through so many days of combat and have often regretted that I didn’t make more of an effort to express my gratitude to all of the men of that organization for their support and great fighting spirit.
D Company was one of the best units I was ever privileged to have led. Their fine combat record was brought about more by its platoon leaders and NCOs rather than my leadership. In the post war years the survivors of this fine unit gathered in various cities across the country to tell lies and complain of the vagaries of old age. These reunions usually meant that war stories were told and retold with varying degrees of accuracy. Accounts of each battle episode changed each year, facts become slightly distorted and truth became of secondary importance. Wives heard time and again the stories which they have heard before and probably wondered what really went on as we slogged our way through New Guinea, Leyte and Luzon and single handedly defeated the Imperial Japanese forces with limited support from the rest of the U.S. Army.
A Jump into Appari - Task Force Gypsy
My move to Executive Officer of the 1st Battalion reunited me with many of my previous fellow officers. The Battalion Commander was Lt. Col. Fred Wright who I knew quite well and it was a congenial and positive relationship. Fred was an easy going affable West Pointer who got along well with everyone and perhaps was not demanding enough of his subordinates. I had no sooner arrived to take over my new responsibilities when we received alert orders to prepare for a combat jump into the northern tip of Luzon near the town of Appari.
The Battalion was to be the nucleus of a Task Force designated as Task Force Gypsy. Our mission was to link up with a Philippine guerrilla force that was operating in the area then drive south to link up with an Infantry Division coming up from the south. I can’t recall the exact composition of our Task Force but in addition to our parachute elements we were to have four or five gliders that would be towed and dropped off into our DZ after we had made the parachute drop. These would eventually to pose a greater hazard to us than the enemy. The enemy force in the area was unknown but intelligence indicated that we could receive artillery fire on our DZ as we dropped. Apart from that we were not expecting any major resistance.
On or about the 20th of June I flew with Lt. Col Wright and the designated Task Force Commander Lt. Col. Burgess on a reconnaissance of the drop zone (DZ) that we had selected for the jump. We made the reconnaissance in a B-25 bomber and I recall stationing myself in the tail-gunner's bubble as we flew a few hundred feet over our objective area. The DZ appeared to be a broad expanse of abandoned rice paddies that was overgrown with a field of tall grass and appeared free of any serious obstacles. The area was surrounded by some low lying hills that were some distance from the DZ but were expected to be occupied by Japanese forces. Japanese artillery was supposedly a registered in on our landing area and gave us some concern.
About 1:00 AM on the morning of the 22nd of June we were fed the usual “Condemned Men’s” breakfast of steak and eggs, the first such food we had encountered for many long months. We moved to our aircraft in darkness and found our parachutes waiting under the wings of our aircraft. Fully chuted up, we struggled into our aircraft, heavily laden with personal equipment, ammunition and weapons. In the pitch-blackness we settled into the canvas seats and sweated out our take off. Our Division Commander Major General Swing walked around to a few of the aircraft, sticking his head into the aircraft and asking if we were ready, intending I’m sure to boost our morale. I remember quite well that in my aircraft his greeting was met by someone replying out of the darkness with a remark that was not publishable and I’m sure took him somewhat by surprise. Some of the men of the 511th were not impressed by Lt. Gen. Swing’s concern.
The flight north to our DZ was of only an hour’s duration and we made our jump shortly after sunrise. The ground upon which we landed had been baked by the sun and was as hard as concrete. The result was that the battalion suffered numerous casualties and the situation was made worse by the arrival of our gliders carrying a few jeeps and heavy communication equipment. The gliders landed directly upon our DZ and though I don’t believe they caused any injuries they presented the jumpers still on the DZ many moments of real fear. We assembled quickly without any enemy contact and immediately began moving south on the main road to Manila.
We had not been on the move for more than an hour when without warning a spanking clean, second lieutenant in a starched fatigue uniform, stepped out from the wood line and introduced himself as a U.S. Army member of a Philippine guerrilla unit headed by a Col. Blackburn. Apparently they had the area well secured and wanted to establish contact with us. Lt. Col. Wright, my battalion commander and I accompanied the young man through the jungle area and were surprised to see a well established base camp occupied by a U.S. Army Reconnaissance unit and Philippine guerillas. Col. Blackburn was a courageous U. S. Army Officer who had escaped capture by the Japanese when they captured the Philippines in early 1942. He had organized a Philippine guerilla unit and for three years had successfully harassed the Japanese invaders. He had been resupplied from time to time from U.S. Navy submarines and eventually was reinforced by U.S. forces when we recaptured the Philippines. Col. Blackburn questioned the purpose of our operation since he felt he had the area well controlled and that the Japanese had withdrawn their remaining forces into the mountains to the east. In all honesty both Lt. Col Wright and I agreed with his assessment and felt the operation to be more of a newspaper stunt by Gen. Macarthur’s Headquarters more than anything else.
We returned to the Task Force that had been halted along the road and the unit proceeded south for another three or four miles before going into a perimeter for the night. Again we were surprised by the appearance of a Philippine Army officer who allegedly was a liaison officer to a Philippine “Division” nearby. Wright and I were invited to accompany him to his “Division” headquarters to review the enemy situation. With some reluctance and concern we agreed and in the black of night accompanied the officer down to a wide river, climbed aboard canoe like boats and were paddled in the darkness to the farther shore. After a march of about a half hour through the jungle we arrived at a well-lighted base camp that actually was the Headquarters of the Philippine 11th Infantry Division. A unit we had not heard of and to this day I’m not sure how long they had been inexistence or whether they had ever engaged in any combat. Apparently they had been organized and supplied by the U. S. shortly after our return to the Philippines in October.
If nothing else the Philippine 11th Infantry Division was living a life of style and seemed oblivious to any enemy threat. After a briefing by the Division Staff and a review of the enemy situation in the area, we were treated to a good meal of fried chicken and were invited to spend the night before returning to the Task Force. This we did and I spent the night in a real bed for the first time in more than a year. To this day I don’t know why my battalion commander or I allowed ourselves to be away from our unit for that long a period but I expect it was our concern over returning in the darkness through the jungle and over the river at such a late hour. In any event in the early morning hours we returned to the unit, briefed the company commanders on what little we had learned about the Japanese forces in the area and had the Task Force back on the road heading south. After a long days march we again established a perimeter and spent the night fighting off attacks of swarms of mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were the only opposition we had encountered in our whole operation.
In the early morning we were on the road again and shortly received word over our tactical radio net that, as planned, the U.S. Army Division which we expected to link up with was a short distance from us and was moving north to meet our advancing elements. One of our 1st Lieutenants, Lt. Bieghtler, was the son of the Commanding General of the Division that we were about to link up with and naturally we placed Bieghtler at the head of our column in order that he would be the first to greet his father. This occurred without much fanfare but I’m sure there was some emotion between the two.
Another day’s march brought us to a dirt airstrip at Tuguegarao, some 45 miles from our DZ, from which we were airlifted back to Lipa. Task Force Gypsy was dissolved having accomplished little other than to help establish our control over the northern Philippines. Unbeknownst to us this was to be the Regiments last real combat operation and we settled into our base camp to rest, reequip and integrate new replacements into our depleted units. The stateside replacements came from the 541st Parachute Regiment that was deactivated and its officers were spread throughout the Division. Lt. Col. Wright my battalion commander was replaced by Major Oscar Davis, recently arrived from the states, who was to become a close friend but who understandably felt somewhat uncomfortable taking over a battalion which had seen so much combat.
The month of July was spent in training and integrating new arrivals into our unit and acquainting them with the lessons we had learned from our combat operations in Leyte and Luzon. We had a number of ceremonial parades to receive decorations from our recent combat operation and I was awarded my second silver star and a purple heart. By this time I had lost almost 40 pounds and was in poor shape physically from jaundice and what was later diagnosed as tropical sprue a disease not uncommon to the tropics. Needless to say my combat effectiveness was much to be desired.
The month of August was to be a turning in the war. On 8 August we heard that a large bomb had been dropped on a Japanese city with devastating effect and a few days later another was dropped and that the Japanese had surrendered. My impressions of that day and the great relief we all felt hearing that the war was over are hard to describe. One indelible memory I have of that day was seeing and hearing Captain Johnny Ringler running down Officers Row yelling: “It’s over, it’s over”.
To Okinawa and Japan
We had little time to savor the magnitude of the announcement. On 12 August 1945 we were ordered to emplane from our airstrip at Lipa for a flight to Okinawa. The Division was to be the first U.S. unit to occupy Japan and to seize control of its’ critical facilities in the Tokyo area. The hastily organized airlift resulted in our using Army Air Corps B-24 bombers as troop carriers. I don’t believe there was any other Division in the Pacific Theater that could have initiated and carried out such a major airlift with such rapidity. The peculiarities of our organization, light equipment, familiarity with planning and executing airborne type operations, leant themselves admirably to such a rapid deployment. Okinawa was to be our staging area for our movement to Japan the moment the plans for the surrender and the occupation were completed.
While the deployment went smoothly, there was one great tragedy. Upon arriving in Okinawa we were informed that the thirteenth B-24 departing from Lipa crashed on take off and that a number of men were killed. What was especially difficult for me was that this was one of the planes carrying men of D Company the unit I had led during the Leyte and Luzon campaigns and that 2nd Lieutenant Kannely the leader of my second platoon was among the dead along his platoon sergeant, Sgt. Mosher and four or five others. There were many questions about the action of the aircraft pilot and co-pilot during and after the crash in that they escaped the wreckage but did little to help rescue the survivors and dead from the plane, which was in great danger of burning. On the other hand, the Company Commander Capt. Hoadly Ryan was instrumental in assisting with the rescue.
Many blamed the crash on pilot error in that the aircraft left the ground on take off then for no apparent reason swerved off the field and crashed. To the great credit of the pilot he asked many years later to attend one of the Division reunions to explain what had happened.
On the 29th of August after a two-week delay on Okinawa on the Division began its deployment to Japan using Air Transport Command C-54’s. We landed at Atsugi Air Base the primary field serving the Japanese Armed Forces not too far from Tokyo. We found the field in operable condition, although it had been hit hard by our own bombers. The Japanese Commander of the field met our arriving forces and assured us that the field had been secured by his forces against any attacks by a few fanatical Japanese Army units that refused to obey the Emperors orders to surrender. Not taking his word, we proceeded to establish our own security and covered the arrival of Division elements as they landed. Gen. McArthur had arrived with our first wave of aircraft and was met with some ceremony by our own Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Swing, and was led under an honor guard escort to his Headquarters to be in Tokyo.
On the whole we were met by more curiosity than hostility by the Japanese. Having no means of transportation during the first few days of our arrival, the Japanese provided us with what little transportation they had still running. These were generally beaten up trucks and sedans that, due to their shortage of gasoline, had been converted into coal burners. While better than nothing they left much to be desired. After a few days at Atsugi the Regiment was moved north and the 1st Battalion was billeted in the town of Morioka and set about collecting arms from the local police units and generally settling in as occupation troops.
It was during this period that the “point” system was announced. Points being given each man dependent on the awards he had received, the purple hearts received and his time overseas. A compilation of these points determined who would get his “ticket” home. My points came to 89 as I recall and were sufficient to make me eligible to be homeward bound and while I was most anxious to get home I felt a real sadness in leaving a regiment with which I had spent so many years and a profession I really loved. I often remember Col. Lahti our regimental commander walking among those of us that were leaving with tears in his eyes as he saw his core of veterans heading home. He had offered me the command of a battalion the day before I left but my physical problems were worsening and my desire to get home forced me to reluctantly turn down the offer. I returned home weighing 100 pounds and promptly was put n Letterman Hospital for two weeks while they pumped me full of folic acid and food until I no longer looked like a POW. So ended three years with one of the finest parachute regiments I was ever to serve with during my 30 years of service, most with airborne units.
After the war, Cavanaugh returned to Fort Benning; then he was Instructor at the Parachute school, then to Berlin as Staff Secretary for three years to Gen Maxwell Taylor. He then had a tour in Taiwan, and then to the Command & General Staff College (CGSC) & the Army War College; followed by another tour in Taiwan and a MAAG tour in Vietnam in 1961 where he served as the country’s senior training officer. In 1962, Cavanaugh came back as Commander (CO) of the Combat Developments Command’s Special Warfare Agency at Ft. Bragg, and then was CO of 10th SF Gp in Europe.
Riverside Public Library, February 23, 2007
To learn more about Rusty's 11th Airborne Division in World War II, please consider purchasing a copy of our books on the Angels:
1. WHEN ANGELS FALL: FROM TOCCOA TO TOKYO, THE 511TH PARACHUTE INFANTRY REGIMENT IN WORLD WAR II, available in the regimental online store, on Amazon or wherever military history books are sold.
2. DOWN FROM HEAVEN: THE HISTORY OF THE 11TH AIRBORNE DIVISION IN WORLD WAR II - VOL 1. CAMP TOCCOA THROUGH LEYTE CAMPAIGN, available in the regimental online store, on Amazon or wherever military history books are sold.