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Chapter 7

 

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Today is spent getting ready for the on-coming event.  My Thompson sub machine gun has just received a new barrel, and I have test fired it to be sure the .45 slugs are going where I point the gun.  I collect my ammo and grenades,and load them on to my webbing.I am ready to go wherever the Army and the new day takes me. 

Darkness falls and the LCI's arrive and nose in to the beach, the loading ramp is lowered and we board, As each LCI is loaded, it backs off and takes a position with others that are circling further out at sea.

The mood of the troopers is sombre as we find a comfortable spot to rest and think of loved ones, home, and whatever else is dear to our hearts during the ride.  We have no idea of the situation we are going into and  those who feel the need for prayer are now praying.  I see one trooper moving his Rosary beads through his fingers, and I recall the troopers who came and passed like those beads which pass through his fingers.  One nagging thing we all are fully aware of is that we are commonly referred to as cannon fodder.

It appears that the night move is designed to take advantage of the element of surprise.As paratroopers, that is where we excel – thoughnot usually by water, but from the air.

I find the crowded conditions not very pleasing, so I climb into the forward 20 MM gun position, and from this vantage position I can see a great expanse of ocean with silhouettes of the convoy visible to all sides.  The sea is cooperating,  being as calm as I feel it could ever get.  It is to me like mounds of gently moving swells, and our LCI moved through them into the night without even the gentlest list. There is no chance that I will sleep this night, and I spend my time gazing at the convoy and the night sky that is full of stars.

Time passes and I feel it must be getting well into the wee hours and approaching dawn. Suddenly, far off to our left I see a flash of light, almost immediately followed by the sound of a large naval gun. This is followed by more shots, and each time the gun fires I can see more silhouettes of ships.  I count seven shots, and wonder brings the break to this stealthy night.  What the target is, or might be, we have no way of knowing.  All becomes quiet and I fell back into my melancholy.

 

More time passes and the sky starts to brighten,  a glow appearing on the horizon.But it is not the dawn. It looks like a fire burning, and I wonder whether its possible that that was the target our navy was shooting at earlier, and if it is, then how far can they accurately hurl death upon a ship at that range. We sail gently on and come closer to the glow.  We see a ship burning still and we learn by radio that she is a Japanese merchant ship.

Daylight comes.  I have no watch and my best guess is that it is about 7 am.   I can now see the armada of ships on the horizon to our left. It looks  to my eyes like an entire Pacific fleet. To my right I see a cruiser between us and the land on our right.   As I looked at the cruiser there appeared two single engine planes.  " Zeros," I mutter, though to no one except myself, it seems.They have appeared from behind a mountain, and they bank hard right and headed toward the cruiser, approaching it from astern.The lead plane appears to be about to fly past the cruiser, but banks hard left and dives into the cruiser, hitting it amidships.

I can feel the effect of the blast on my face, and am sure the plane had explosives on board.  The other aircraft continues past the ship and disappears behind the mountain as my attention is towards the cruiser. Why don't they direct us to aid the men there?In a while we are told that the cruiser's fires are out,  though the task force commander has been killed. We sail on, leaving my Nashville memories never quite behind me for the rest of my life.   

I breathe deeply and enjoy a sigh of relief and turn my attention to what is happening ahead of our convoy.We must be near our destination, for I feel we are slowing.  Yes, we are here, wherever here is, for the Navy ships are shelling a beach.

As our LCI continually circles we crowd the sides trying to get a look at the ships firing and the effect they are having on the beach.  Our spirits are up for we all agree that nothing can survive such a bombardment.Time passes fast and slow, and as the last volley is fired we accelerate towards the beach which will be ours, somewhere behind the curtain of smoke ahead of us. Our LCI cuts into the smoke, and I start to smell the acrid smell of fire and brimstone, and wonder whether Hell can be this terrifying.

The ramp is down and we charge down the ramp and on to shore. I move in short rapid advances, crouch, run forward and hit the ground hard. I size up the situation, spring up and repeat the process, until it becomes quite evident that either there are no Japs here or they have no fight left in them. I feel slightly foolish, but at the same time relieved as my tension unwinds and we start to form into little groups, noticing that we are all sharing this common relief.

At this point we are strolling inland in no particular type of military formation, enjoying the clean air of survival when an order is given to form a column of four abreast.In this formation we proceed in as proud a manner as troopers have ever marched, towards and into a town called San Jose.

Our work isn't done, and we cannot stay and enjoy being the liberators of San Jose, but whilst marching through the town a small pig gets tangled up among our marching feet and I reach down and snatch him up by one of his rear legs. I just can't pass up such opportunities, and there is much amusement as the noise of the squealing pig is covered by the sounds of our marching feet and our happiness to be young and invincible on such a day. There is no shortage of guys offering to take care of my prize' demise, and there is enough time to record the amusement on film. Every face, Stormy Gerhardt's in particular, is the record of a man thinking of roast pork and crackling.

I guard our squealing prize until evening comes and we are ordered to dig in for the night.  We dig a pit, skin the pig, put it on a spit for roasting, and look forward for our sundown roast.Impatiently the fire is put out and the area is now completely dark. Stormy cuts a hindquarter from the pig and hands it to me.  I drop into my foxhole, all anxiety and saliva to spare.  The blackened area on the outside tastes best and as I bite deeper into the pork the taste changes. What the hell, it’s getting cold and no meat tastes good cold. Pulling my Poncho over the hole to ensure no light escapes, and using my cigarette lighter I examine the meat, the better to enjoy my treat.  Blood is running from it, and my hunger runs from me.  I stop eating and offer the meat to whatever animal may happen to pass by.

We settle in to a routine, vying for K-ration instead of c-ration, and passing the time of day in any way that we can.Our first indication that the enemy is active after dark comes when a single twin-engine bomber comes across our patch of sky and drops what appear to be a thousand sticks with bumps.We soon learn that the sticks are anti-personnel bombs, with each bump an equivalent to a grenade, throwing shrapnel and jumping all over the place. Lucky for us they miss our bivouac.

Each night thereafter we hear two motors clearly out of synchronisation, umm-umm-umming their way over us,making their unmistakable announcement of his return.  Inevitably, he is named "Washing-machine Charlie", as he approaches we repeat to ourselves prayerfully "…don’t drop it, Charlie, don’t drop it yet…” until he passes sufficiently beyond our positions for someone else to be disturbed.  We feel no guilt, comfortable that every other man along his washing machine line is offering the same pagan prayer.

The next important thing I remember is the arrival of Christmas Day, 1944.  Mass was given and the day passes,it not seeming too abnormal anymore to have a Christmas without snow.  Under normal circumstances I would pass over this yuletide without a second thought, but on the following day we are ordered to the unfinished air strip, where we take our positions along side the strip in anticipation of a special show. "The word" is that a Jap landing is coming.1

Our first indication that there are Japs nearby is a star shell bursting and lighting up the strip.It is followed by high explosive shells, and from that moment on things get bad.   Our planes are making bombing runs over a Jap fleet laying somewhere off shore, and there are Jap planes making bomb runs on our strip.  The action cannot be far away, for I observe our planes going out and coming back,one taking only about four minutes from takeoff to return.We are under orders not to fire atthe planes for fear of hitting our own,but from my position it is quite easy to pick the Jap planes from the American.  Our planes have red and green lights on the wing tips, while the Japs have an orange and green light on their wing tips. 

After a time, it looks to me as if some of our planes are trailing themselves as a high flying bait, with lights on high over the Jap ships, drawing fire.  With the Jap gunners firing high, other planes with bombs are going in low and doing good damage.How long this goes on I just cannot say, but finally a Jap gets lucky and hits the strip just off centre.A B-25 has just touched down as the bomb hits ahead of him,  and the aircraft almost looks as if it is kneeling down towards its nose as the pilot applies all the braking he can to pull up before the crater.   I am amazed that the nose wheel does not collapse, and stops on the edge of the crater.We rushed on to the strip and manage by weight of numbers and adrenalin to push the plane off the runway.

Shortly after this incident the air corps personnel, in what looks to me like their entirety, ungratefully leave the island.We are left to await whatever may still be coming.  We watch, we wait, but nothing happens.  Our pilots prevail, they have done the job well, and the Jap has failed.

We move back to our original position and set up a more permanent camp, this time using Pyramidal tents.Of greatest importance, there is now a kitchen, which means hot food.  If we cannot go home, at least give us hot food.

The Army has a way of always ruining something when it looks too close to being like a holiday, so it came as little surprise when G-Company is called on for a patrol out into the countryside to find and secure a Jap Betty bomber that has run out of fuel and had landed on an abandoned strip.  A pilot ( a captain in the air corps) is to come with us, for it will be his job to fly the Betty back to Washington, for it is, we are told,  the first captured Betty capable of flying.

As we assemble to form the patrol I hear the most dreaded sounds in the English language. “Nycum take the point!”

I lead off and shortly I am facing a shallow river crossing. Moving to the far side I hear someone yell “Hold it!” and looking back I can see activity about mid-stream.  I pull my camera and take a picture of the patrol.  I see them pick up a man and carry him back towards camp.  We move out.I shall learn later during our first break that the man had been bitten, by what no one knew.  (He will die of it.)

 

A Fatal River Crossing

(Author's photo - G Co Collection)

 

We continue along a path through 6-foot kunai grass until we came in sight of the plane.  We have had good directions this day.  I move gingerly up to the plane and determine it has been abandoned.The Filipino guerrillas have been here already, for the guns have been stripped from the plane.  There is no sign of a crew ever being there. Our pilot comes forward to inspect his new prize and I move back out of the way. 

 

The Jap Betty before the Air Corps remodeled her.

(Author's photo - G Co Collection)

 

At this moment we notice a squadron of P-38s coming in for a look see. The lead plane comes in for a closer look, and we wave and shout.  All the pilot could see was Japs,and another flag on his scoreboard, for he makes a steep climb and rolls over into a strafing run.Soon they are all helping reduce Washington's newest curio into bag of Betty bolts.  As they fly off I glance over at the Captain who was to fly the plane home and (I'll swear) I see he is crying.  One man's meat is another man's poison.

Back at camp we settle into the routine of self-made R & R, doing as little as possible and enjoying as much as we can.Our dusty pyramidal tents dot the sunny grassed valley of the Busanga River.   During this lull someone gets the idea of going after a caribou to get fresh meat.  A 1 ½ ton Truck appears, and in the spirit of the U.S. Paratrooper, I do not know who requisitioned it nor do I ask from where it has come.  There are 8 of us along on this caper, and we head out cross-country through the grassy plains that make up a good portion of the island until, late in the day, we come to a river.Deciding to spend the night by the river, we use a few grenades to harvest fish for dinner.Meanwhile in the process of cleaning and cooking the fish, an elderly Filipino gentleman approaches us, indicating he wants the fish heads.Seems he cooks them with rice and it makes a fine feed.  Well, certainly not for us.As we got better at communicating with this fellow, we finally got him to understand we were looking for a caribou to kill. The old man smiles and points to the hill on the other side of the river.  Seems he's had a wild bull take over his herd and he can't get to the herd.

Daylight came and the old man is there waiting to take us to the herd. We all load on to the truck and the Filipino directs us to a shallow river crossing, thence to the herd of buffalo. We pulled up parallel to the herd with the condemned bull closest to the truck. Our host becomes excited and indicates for us to shoot for the neck. Someone, I don’t remember who, suggests that we give the Filipino the first shot.Giving him the M-1,  he takes aim at the bull,fires andhits the bull in the apron that hangs under it’s neck. The bull reacts as one would expect, pawing the ground and snorting, then charging straight at us as we stood with our backs to the truck.In preparation for this hunt I had borrowed an M-1 for the kill, knowing full well my Tommy gun would do little to stop a caribou.The guys open up with all we have, the Banzai Bull keeps right on coming.  I empty my M-1 and grab the Tommy gun, firing point blank into the on-coming head.The bull slides to a stop two foot from where we were standing.  I look at its forehead and see that all the hide is missing where the .45's were hitting and bouncing off.With our bull now ready for butchering, one of our guys says he will remove the guts, so since this is the worst of the butchering we allow him to proceed. Without hesitation he inserts his trench knife to the hilt and begins sawing and cutting the length of the belly. The odour that comes from the severed intestines is as much as my stomach can stand. We quickly wrap kerchiefs over our faces, looking all the world like cowboy-movie baddies, and proceed to dissect the beast's hindquarters, which we load on the truck. The balance of the bull is left for the Filipino.

Arriving back in camp we unload the two quarters at the mess hall for the cooks to make ready for up coming chow time. Well, we wait with mouths watering for fresh beef.  At least that's what it smells like as it cooks.  Finally it's chow time, andwe line up anticipating the fresh meat.Even before I get my first piece I hear moaning, groaning and cussing! Seems the cooks have sliced the meat length-wise, parallel to the bone making a slab of meat as wide as the quarter, then taking each slab and cutting it into individual squares for serving.There has never been a set of teeth on a human that could bite a chunk out of a piece of that meat. All one can do is chew to get the juices,  then throw the pulp away.

Mindoro has been pleasant for us,but as I said already, the Army abhors being known for  "a pleasant stay."  The delay between inspections becomes shorter, and we are clearly preparing for another mission.The Ordnance truck takes the defective weapons and fixes or replaces them. On the afternoon of 14 February, we gather in Regimental formation.  The Colonel reads us a note from MacArthur and addresses us briefly. He is at his best, and we are too.After Retreat and "To the Colors" we march off the field.   This will be the final formation the entire 503rd RCT will ever hold.  It's time to focus again. This next one is to be a parachute invasion. 

      

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NOTES:

DECEMBER 26, 1944 - Philippines (Mindoro) - A Japanese naval surface force composed of two cruisers and six destroyers, despite air attacks, arrives off Mindoro and about 2300 begins bombarding the beachhead. One of the Japanese destroyers is sunk by a PT boat. This is the last sortie by a Japanese naval force in the Philippines area.- Ed <BACK>