“Into the rising sun”

14 Nov

“Into the rising sun”

Interview in “Into the rising sun”, chapter 9: Courtesy of author Patrick O’Donnell

511TH Parachute Infantry Regiment,
11th Airborne Division

While the 503rd RCT wore out the Japanese on Corregidor, other operations were being planned, Charles Sass recalls the spectacular raid on Los Baños, about twenty-five miles south of Manila, which led to the liberation of over two thousand missionaries and civilians.

As we approached the drop zone, I could see daylight beautifully from the edge of the big mountain which was just to the east. And it was pitch black below. That’s kind of an odd thing, but maybe you’ve seen it? It’s just at dusk when everything at the bottom is dark and everything above is bright. It took on a certain unreality. I knew one thing; I wasn’t too sure I wanted to go down there. I almost wanted to keep heading for the daylight.

I remember the stand-up, hook-up very much according to drill. And we did the jump very well. The pilots of course got us there beauti­fully. The drop zone was terribly small, and only one guy got hurt as far as I know. He hit a railroad track and knocked himself out. We were told to be careful of a ring of rifle pits that were dug specifically for antiairborne or anti-something—I don’t know. And there it was, son of a gun, and I’m going to land right in the middle. Nobody was in it, but I re­member reaching in my pocket for a grenade to destroy this thing. I re­member hitting the ground with my hands in my pockets. That’s unheard of! [laughing]

I landed, and six or eight guys said, “Follow me.” It was that sort of thing. One platoon had the north end of Los Baños and one went through the middle, and we went, a dozen of us, through a ravine. It seems like it took a while, but I was told it was only a few minutes to hit the south end. I was up front, and what I knew was that a Jap tank was coming. I called for a bazooka, and so did the officer in charge [John Ringler]. [The bazooka men] came running up and said, “Those are our people!” We took off right into the south end of the camp. Each of us took one of the barracks.

My most vivid memory is bursting through a barracks door and seeing these people. I swear it choked me up, and I see them to this day. They were a miserable bunch, stunned by what I don’t know but I as­sume by my coming through the door. [As I entered], this Japanese sol­dier went out the other door; he took a shot at me. Thankfully he missed,

but it was frightening to me to have these people almost crawling off their bunks into the corridor, which is one reason I couldn’t shoot back at this guy. Forgive the term, worms, but that’s what struck me. They’re looking, and there was a dullness in their faces. It was momentary. I saw some of them pick up that we were their liberators. That was a very vivid picture—one of very few in fact.

One guy, as I recall, looked like Elie Wiesel, like that very famous picture of him —when he was a kid from Dachau looking up from his bed unbelieving. That’s what it is like. A very blank stare, searching, very penetrating, eyes wide open. I think it was deeper than that… a very deep hurt. Something perhaps they can’t explain. They’re expecting something… death by the Japanese was almost certain. And here’s a fracture in their expectations. It was like a slow-motion movie; everything happened very slow.

They started to move out. I was only in there about a half a minute. I was chasing this guy, and I hit the door head-on with my shoulder, and it went off the hinges. In that brief period, he was gone. I found out later the place was honey-combed with sewage pipes, and there were a lot of the Japanese hiding there. And good for him. I’m glad he escaped from me. His death is not on my conscience.

Prison is such an unreality. I worked in one for about a month. It’s a totally different world. When we got them [missionaries and civilians] back to New Bilibid, they started opening up. The only person who was not subdued was a four or five year old. One little kid kept me up until dawn telling me about Christmas, which consisted of a can of Campbell soup, which they split among the members of the family. There was rap­ture. I assured her she was going to have all of the Campbell soup she would ever want.

There was also a Filipino girl who must have been nineteen or twenty, I guess, and for some time a lot of the villagers sat with her in the middle of a circle absolutely silent. At one point after some long time, everybody got up and moved in and embraced her and I guess took her home. I was told it was a welcoming back after her having been, maybe by necessity’, a sinner in the camp. The explanation to me was that she was intimate withy one of the guards. There was a great joy when he [her father] said, “This is enough of this. Let’s take our daughter home.”

Interview in “Into the rising sun”, chapter 9: Courtesy of author Patrick O’Donnell

511TH parachute infantry regiment,
11th airborne division

Charles Sass recalls his most vivid memories of the fighting in southern Luzon and the fall of the Japanese mountain fortress at Malepunyo that marked the collapse of large-scale Japanese resistance there.

My most vivid image of the war is something you wouldn’t expect. It is having gone a half a mile down a railroad track into Japanese territory presuming there were people with me and there weren’t. Turning back and seeing that landscape and that railroad is a subject for [Salvador Dali]. I was absolutely above —in outer space, you might say. I just stood there and scratched my head. I can’t imagine anything else I would have done.

Most of those little events were just that. Very few people actually fired a rifle or threw a grenade, and it was purely circumstance that I did those things.

Your relationship with the men you’re around is closer than anything you can imagine. It’s been described as love, but that’s too strong of a word for me. But these men are all part of you—even the guys you don’t like, and there are plenty of those. You depend on each other. There was no need for commands since we knew what to do and how to cover each other.

When we went up one of the mountains, we were, I swear, holding hands. We caught the Japanese inside the mountain with their pants down, and we cut them down; it was as simple as that. The mountain had been blasted, and I know they didn’t expect us to follow the bombs as close, but we did. We cut them down in their entryways. Eventually, a flamethrower came up and detonated ammunition in the mountain, and this set off explosions inside the mountain. They kept going for days. Every time a big one would go off, the mountain would shake, and that was kind of scary.

One guy came to the cave entrance and set off a satchel charge and took out at least a dozen of our people. They were all wounded.

Then we got a radio call from one of the companies that said essentially, “We are in big trouble and been ambushed.” So we took about half a dozen guys, which was all we could spare at the time, and went down the mountain. We connected with them and carried their people to the top. Some of them didn’t make it.

I was carrying one of the men. He questioned me before we went on. He said, “Did we beat them?” I spent about one hundred yards telling him, “Ya, you beat them.” He was gone when we got to the top. He was hit in the legs and elsewhere.

John Donaldson, my best friend, when we came back from this other mission, dug out a foxhole for me and lined it with his own poncho and he said, “Hey, buddy, it’s going to be all right.” He knew my feelings at the moment, which were pretty rotten.

One of our squads had been ambushed on the hill below us maybe a week before. There’s an image. They went up the wrong hill and went into a Japanese strong point. They were trapped and had no way of get­ting out. We could see them vividly from the top of the hill.

I happened to be alongside the radio, and this sergeant called in and told us what he was going to do. I remember his words, “So and so is wounded; so and so is dead.” He gave the whole report very cold and very calm. He said, “I’m going to kill the wounded and then myself.” He was pretty cold about it. I don’t know how many days it took to get up the spine of the mountain, but the burial party found remains of the squad and the sergeant’s body.

I never opened up completely—perhaps more since I’ve talked to you. Big things you can swallow. It’s the little things you have a hard time with, you start choking up. A good friend of mine borrowed my canteen and after part of a burst cut through the canteen, his closing words before he died was, “Make sure Sass gets his canteen back.” I can’t ever forget that.

Interview in “Into the rising sun”, ch 12: Courtesy of author Patrick O’Donnell

511TH   parachute   infantry  regiment,
11th airborne  division

America was victorious, but many homecomings were bitter, as Charles Sass recalls.

My homecoming was a disaster. My family split when I was six, but I still lived now and then with my father in a small town in upstate New York. I came home, and there was a sign on the door that said: “The rent is paid for a month. Good luck.” That was homecoming.

I took the next train south, [sigh] But before I left my best friend, who was my uncle, stayed alive to see me. He had terrible cancer, and he stayed alive long enough to visit with me for a few days, and then he died. He was my good buddy, and that was so great that I had a chance to see him before he passed away.

I went on the bum in New York City, which is a great city to be a bum. I was up there all of about a month. I would sleep in doorways and bus stations. I didn’t have to do that, I had money, but I figured it was a good escape. There were a lot of us, and I wasn’t alone. We found places to flop. There were six or eight veterans I hung around with in the middle of New York City. But we managed to find a little apartment that somebody vacated, and living there on the floors no one talked about the war. We were guys on the streets.

Eventually, I went on the GI Bill and entered college, majoring in a couple of things that had to do with communications. Illustration and design, even a little bit of architecture, and I put that all together and I came up with one devil of a career and have a great family.


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