Youtube “hill2380” Mt Malepunyo

7 Mar

The attack was lost in the archives. It was a critical assault in the Pacific war, cut the direct communications link from Tokyo to the South Pacific.

It’s a news film taken by Air-Ground control as bombers, artillery, tanks and infantry joined for the last push. You see several companies as they move across the cluster of hills. I believe the first to the top were John Donaldson, Tom Freidhof, maybe Fred Stafford and me.                                                                                                                                                                             The top was unearthly quiet, scary and empty. The company began digging, expecting a Japanese counter assault at nightfall. The platoon sergeants got to sorting us out and we set up a perimeter. Our team, down the ridge was made up of Mike Galleano, Will Fandal, Larsen, Emilio Ibasco and me. Dogs were barking and pigs grunting. They were the early warning system for the Japanese. Night came and nobody slept. A new man got shot as he stood up.                                                                                                                                                                   At daybreak, Captain Ringler gave us orders. We were ready. “Get to the top as quick as you can; don’t stop for the wounded. You know what to do, so let’s do it.” It was one of Ringler’s longest speeches. We struggled in the shale and volcanic dirt. It was a hard run but the Japanese inside the mountain were caught flat footed. None of us knew that we had uprooted a direct contact with Tokyo.                                                                                                     We were crowding up as more people arrived to secure the top. It was smaller than my back yard. In the commotion, somebody saw activity down the cliff side…it was the entrance to the bowels of the mountain. The Japanese were trying to escape. Our man immediately ran a couple of magazines from his BAR and closed off the rush. I don’t recall how, but someone with a flame thrower risked his life and plastered the cave. That should have been the end of things, but the mountain caught fire and began to shake and explode inside.                                                                                                                                                                         Looking down from up there, we saw miles of ridges and ravines where we had left good friends and their blood. We saw groups of Japanese, caught in the open by parachute bombs and instantly baked. We met a machine gun company; all of them had fresh uniforms. Their eyes were wide open. We talked to enemy soldiers who were isolated and hopeless in smaller caves. They knew the game was finished, but surrender was not an option. Our artillery, 75’s, had been lifted up the cliffs and closed down the caves behind us as we advanced. They gave us warnings to scramble but a fifty yard hit was too close for comfort.                                                                                                                                                                     On our last approach we got under the peak and were reasonably safe. We had by-passed several heavy machine gun bunkers. Empty. P38’s dropped 500 pounders in the ravines and nearly nailed us. One bomb went straight across our company and took out a ravine.         For entertainment, we got an airdrop of pork chops and cooked them in the helmets. We poured of the drippings and in the morning, everything was covered with white fly eggs. We got roaring sick. We were without enough water from the beginning. An L4 dropped some small cargo chutes with water containers and we retrieved most of them. That helped but not for long. We sipped liquids from the vines. Not tasty, but better than nothing.                                                                                                                                                                     Our flamethrower had sealed the cave, but a few enemy ran through the fire and leaped down the cliff side. In minutes there was a string of our guys shooting as the enemy tried to get away. By nightfall things had quieted but the flamethrower had touched off the whole inside of the mountain. It kept exploding foe two whole days and nights. A thrown satchel charge took out the shooting gallery and about a dozen of our guys. No fatalities, but they were a sad bunch.                                                                                                                                 At daylight we dodged the snipers and staggered down the ridge, got a hero’s welcome, a real meal, cold water and sleep.                                                                                                                          As we were digging in on the first day, we got a radio call for help. One of our units in a lower ravine had been ambushed. We got a half squad down there on the run, but the damage was done. We helped them carry their dead and wounded to the top. It was a sad time. There was no celebration on our mountain. Ringler called me to throw a red smoke marker (see the 2:08 video on this search list), as did other units. The ridgeline lit up for miles, with red smoke.                                                                                                                                         The L4 came back and Colonel Lahti on the bull horn told us not to drink the water. It was for washing and shaving. We didn’t understand him so, we drank the water and threw up. By the last night topside, most had skin rot, intestinal worms or paratyphoid. Come morning we watched our replacement force stagger up the trail; not a happy bunch. Some of the medics sold canteens of water at five dollars each.                                                                       As we left, slipping and sliding down the trail, we saw the bodies of a platoon that had been ambushed a week before. They were wrapped in ponchos. The litter bearers moved slowly, in a numbness,, a sad sight. I was nearby the radio when the sergeant called for help. It was ended.                                                                                                                                                  On the return to the bottom Charlie Smith found a gusher. It was steamy with cool breezes. Imagine a dozen naked guys jumping around, yelling and slap ass-assing like little kids. Some of us just stood in a daze and soaked: we did our laundry there. We were transformed. Ragged but proud, exhausted, humble. I tried to get some lookouts in place. Not a chance.                                                                                                                                                            We floated to Regimental HQ; had a nice dinner, plenty of cold water and took our places on the perimeter. I guess the mountain gave us the crazies, because, by midnight two of our men went berserk and started yelling and punching. Somewhere nearby, a guy went wild and began shooting at his imagination. They tied him down. He never recovered and we don’t know what set him off. You get to see things.                                                                    The stars of the story must be the armor that cleared the way as we advanced. The bombers blew out the major bunkers. Our mortars swept the ravines The explosions were so close that Ringler ordered the air assault to stop. We were bleeding from ears, nose and mouth. Given another day or so, the bombers would have leveled the mountain into a pool table.                                                                                                                                                                           Today, Malepunyo is a hikers playground. Japanese tourists make up most of the climbing tours. At the bottom, there are world class golf courses. It’s a pretty mountain.          As you know, a combat story gets colored by where you sit. Some actions are out of sequence. Sorry.




Thoughts on the Perimeter

13 Jan

On the PERIMETER …. Meditations at Nightfall.

When I was a kid the movies showed immortal heroes – the little group of dusty, sunburned, wise-cracking guys on outpost in the desert, far from home and anywhere. Ghosts in white sheets and turbans floated around them in the night air. There were Beau Geste, the Bengal Lancers, King of the Khyber Rifles, sentinels in the rocks of the Khyber Pass or the Plains of Jahr. There were in later years — the lonely pickets of the Blue and Grey in the Wilderness, and the listening posts on the Marne, the desperate soldiers of the Foreign Legion waiting for their inglorious end at Dien Ben Phu — the trip wire people in ‘Nam and me and Joe and Willie counting time on the perimeter in WWII. Great movie stuff. Hard reality is something else, isn’t it? Gunga Din knew. So did Clive of India, Lawrence of Arabia, those poor benighted souls. And Humphrey Bogart, too.

Of all that I recall, nights on the fringe were the most miserable part of the day. Especially the second shift on watch. It took determination or painful exhaustion to curl up, tum off your brains, hug your rifle and sleep before your tum on watch. And you knew the guy before you had played with the watch setting. He wouldn’t. He didn’t but your tum came too soon, often with a knee jerk. A dog barked down in the ravine. A bird called, a bird but maybe not. It seemed strangely different.

How many guys muttered this prayer: “Lord, if you’ll just give me this night and the sun in the morning, I’ll give you the rest of my days.” It takes a lot of anxiety to silently voice a promise like that. “This night only. Not last night or tomorrow night, but this one miserable unending night.” Then with the sunlight, the promise faded, til next time.

Yes, everybody from top to bottom was someplace on the perimeter, or maybe a little bit inside, or maybe in the safe middle of it. You might have wondered in the black silence if there was anybody else there. There was. But there was also a place that was the worst place to be for sound reasons — a place that under no circumstances would you have chosen, given a choice, which you didn’t have. Surely, tonight’s plot would not be one of those “best laid plans of mice and sergeants.” Me. “What am I, special?” Him. “You can see better from out there.” Him. “You won’t get any trouble tonight.” Him. “There won’t be any surprises.” That was the night the Japanese sent hogs up the trail, to get us shooting at shadows; giving away our positions. We were smarter than that. Not always.

There was some satisfaction granted if you spent two or three nights in one hole. You had time to stretch the thing out, and dig a little deeper, maybe line it with palm fronds. A bamboo floor would help keep your feet dry. It didn’t take much effort to tum your wormy mud-hole into something like your little bedroom at home. Sorry. I jest.

Why me and why here? You would have asked that if you dared, or if you weren’t afraid you might be stuck somewhere worse or with somebody you’d rather not be with if the enemy picked your neighborhood to investigate. Russell never asked me what better location I would prefer. He never asked anybody anything.

I can’t believe our platoon sergeant or our officers knew any more about setting up a perimeter than we lower ranks did. Not enough really deep thought about my personal welfare, comfort and emotional security. “Relax, you’ll be fine.” What? “I’ll relax at sun-up.” But that wasn’t smart either. I once got up with the sun, looked down the road and saw a sword about ten yards away. I never learned how it got there but somebody brought it and it was pointing at me. We did not usually sing “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” Sometimes we made coffee in our helmet. Mixed with chocolate, it was a nice waker-upper.

I’ve given a lot of thought to perimeters over the business years. A precise circumference being one thing, nice and neat and predictable. A perimeter on the edge of a rock pile or a swamp is by nature and geography not a perfect thing. It is like the Corporate Confabulations Department. That was my terrain. I defended it with my life; no snipers or crawlers allowed. My furniture was arranged for defense. Visitors had to sit facing the midday sun. Also, their chairs were an inch lower than mine. My receptionist would call me for no reason, if I secretly tapped the “0” key twice. That would drive the time-wasters out.

The business perimeter links were weak and strong; the people, likewise. Feelings were different, good and bad and we all had anxieties, from bowel troubles, to skin rash, to the last letter from the fickle woman we loved. That was in combat, not in my plush carpeted 38th floor office in Manhattan overlooking the East River. What were our anxieties on the perimeter, the ones that intruded on sound sleep? The ones that came at precisely the wrong steamy moment, when she was about to whisper “Why in hell not?” Living through the night was a good one. Keeping yourself control was another. Too many of our people could not handle the night sweats, and went berserk, shooting at the moon and stars and each other with terrible results.

Not messing your last set of underwear was important. You could not crawl out of the hole without getting shot at. Better to stand right up and yell …”’Hey, Larry, it’s me, Moe. Don’t shoot.” Knowing that if you didn’t keep your part of the chain intact, the whole thing might break down. We sometimes had Filipinos fill in the relatively safe parts of the perimeter. Often, they slept, cooked a moose, or simply went home. “I have not been with my wife for many days.” In our Civil War sentries who slept on watch were usually shot. In WWI, the outpost sentries from both sides talked to each other. My father’s opposite on outpost came from my grandfather’s home town in Prussia. They promised to get together after the war. Never did. My father walked into a couple of bullets and lived.

In design school, by the grace of the G.L Bill, I learned about viewpoints and perspectives. For example: On perimeter, the view downward from the top of a hill was very different from looking up the hill. High ground is better than low ground. Simple, except that the other guy has a better viewpoint than you. He’s been sitting in the shade as you approached blindly, gauging the distance, checking his sights, hating the ass-kissing sergeant who put him there.

Every great military leader, from Alexander to Patton to Sgt. Bums knew the law: “See things the way the other guy sees them and remember that if you see him, he might easily see you.” That’s the rule of foxholes and perimeters. That takes something more than on-the-job training when you have a platoon isolated below a ridgeline with hostiles above and below. Middle ground is seldom promising. That’s true in life. I’ve always considered myself a great compromiser, like Ron Reagan, Jimmy Carter or my Irish grandmother. She would say “Half a loaf is better than none.” We never had half a loaf in the thirties.

Sgt. Russell would say, “you set up there, and you two dig in there and you go down that path and dig in. You two cover that road.” He’d say it all in one breath like he had a plan. And that was the last we’d see of him until sunup. He had a lot of faith or his instincts were very sharp. Or he knew we would do it our own way, anyway. Or he just didn’t have any options, which more often than not was the case. When I asked him why me, out here in the middle of nowhere, virtually alone, he would say, “Because you’ve got sharp ears — and besides, you are more scared of the dark than anybody else.” Some people should never have been on the perimeter. They were too fidgety. I never moved an eyeball.

About hearing? Well, that’s what you do on the perimeter. In complete silence, with nobody breathing loud, nobody shifting around, nobody moving their bowels, nobody doing anything, and everyone, them and us, listening, knowing that “they are out there” and listening too. Remember how the night birds laughed?

On nights like that you can hear everything that’s not there. Your breathing is raspy and your heart is beating too loudly; your crotch is sweaty and your feet itch and the ants are feeding on you, but moving would make a sound. We learned early in the game that at night, seeing is worthless. There’s no light to see by, except during thunder-storms, when the lightning conjures up crawling shapes or a whole army moving across your front. Was that real? Are those bushes moving? Are there trees that weren’t there ten minutes ago? “I’d like to put a shot out there. That’d shake things up.” The captain would throw me to the sharks.

There were better nights on the perimeter where you knew you were in a good spot, like overlooking a deep draw, with a machine gun to your right and some old dependable guys on your left. And trip wires in front of you. Sort of homespun and comfortable; horney-like with dry grass in the bottom and two grenades for comfort. You might have a few passing words with the guy in the next pit about your latest recipe for dried oatmeal and powdered milk, or about girls you left behind, or the ones who left you behind, or the best treatment for jungle rot or crotch itch, until sundown shadows moving, foreboding, a strange hot smell in the air and good sense shut you down. Good night.

The night is dry and you’ve had time to dig a little deeper. There’s still a rim of light on the edge of that far-away mountain. Time for thinking while listening. Time for waiting long hours for the sun to creep up. And knowing, too that they are waiting for that same sun and thinking the same things you are. They’ve crept a little closer. A dog barked, there’s a distant cough and a rifle shot. You can smell Japanese cigarettes in the dead air. Maybe you want to yell at them, “Go home, you damned fools. Your war is done.” They don’t know that. Most, moving east to the mountains, would never know that. They are believers. Bushido.

The Emperor, Peace be With Him … is God to Die For!

General Eichelberger came up to our position in his jeep, flags and all. I stood right next to him as he talked to the Captain. He asked if we could hang in one more night, and the Captain said we could if the Guerillas would cover our back side. We had been badly hurt approaching Santa Tomas. We didn’t believe that ‘one more night’ crap. But, next morning a flight of A-20s came roaring in at tree level and blasted everything in front of us. Then an armored column of the First Cavalry pushed straight through. With thanks, we hiked back for food and rest. We slept inside the safe area that night and got up and going at daylight. The guerillas covering our back at St. Tomas had gone home. We could have been steam rolled.

If you ain’t scared

13 Jan

“If you ain’t scared you don’t understand the situation.”
Sergeant Russell, first platoon ’45

He wasn’t a guy you’d talk with about being scared or terrified. His indifference to bullets and shrapnel was the stuff of movies. Russell was, in fact, emotionally cold, impervious or oblivious or he’d like you to think that. Nor did he draw fine lines between gut feelings and meanings. His orders were clear because his vocabulary was basic Army, like himself: the prototype infantry sergeant with everything squared, from his chin to his boots … no empathy, no sympathy, fully focused, dead pan and profane. When one word would do, that’s what you got.

When he asked (as if he cared) if I was scared out there, isolated on that awful night I stepped back. For him, that was conversation. “No,” I said, “I saw the cold facts. I was forgotten or abandoned by people I trusted. I was discouraged and disappointed but not scared.”

I did not say all that. How scared should I be? If I screamed no one could have heard me. I was squatting in a mud hole, watching Armageddon on the move, on a big screen with surround sound, through the sheets of rain between lightning flashes. Stephen Spielberg could have done no better.

I don’t know if I watched a company or an army passing by — only that they were many and spoke Japanese. The flashes painted an unearthly, stroboscopic scene in which I could be sacrificed but not scared. “What will be will be and this too shall pass.” That’s not religious or fatalistic. It’s the facts, fates and fortunes of life. “If you can’t fix it, don’t fix it. Get over the little things … like waking up tomorrow.” Had I loosed our machine gun, they would have scattered into the woods, then destroyed our sleeping company and me. Unlike Horatio or Leonidas, I chose prudence over providence or valor. The wind carried a familiar click, maybe a rifle bolt. Japanese.

There are degrees of scared. Normally, I’m bothered by nothing more extreme than a runaway shopping cart. When we kids (daring and double daring were fashionable) climbed a couple of hundred feet to the top of the Kingston river bridge, I was stiff with terror and climbed with my eyes closed. The wind could tear us away … and the iron door to safety in the high tower could have slammed behind us. A fall would make me newsworthy, loved by all and deceased.

I was scared when Murphy the Maniac demanded I appear after school for a fist fight to settle things. What things? If ever there was a contest … I was on the wrong side but I was there, brave and ready to be mangled. Murphy didn’t show and I never knew why. For kids without TVs or laptops, fishing and confronting mean odds were the best sports in town.

That winter, in a sudden sleet storm I got stuck while working in the high branches of an apple tree. What I felt was submission, a warm faith that no matter what, I would be alright. Soon I was not cold and heavenly lights appeared. A model T truck. The foreman climbed my ladder, untangled my bag, carried me down, gave me hell and a cup of hot coffee.

On my first solo excursion with the family car , night driving on icy Catskill roads, I was petrified and responsible. Tucked into every space of the big, wood wheeled, canvas topped touring car were gushy giggling girls. 1’d offered to drive them to an all-girl, all night party miles out of town. It was my first and only such trip; not God, but terror was my co-pilot. They paid me well but high school girls were never again so virtuous as I’d suspected.

On a minor note, I feared my cousin, Dolores. She was twelve and could run faster than any kid on the block. She could also hit harder and throw farther. Mostly, she could intimidate with her toothy Dracula smile. “Don’t you mess with me boy or I’ll tear your ears off.” She became the kindest of ladies and the defender of the clan.

Sergeant Russell understood me. That’s why I got nasty patrols and the most vulnerable gun pits on the perimeter. “You get these jobs because you are more scared than anybody else; and scared makes you sharp. You see in the dark and hear in the silence. You do not yield to your fears or lose the fine edge of judgment.” Once I figured it out, the difference between anxiety and paralysis, was in fear management: how you saw causes, variables, odds and options and what faculties you could use to cope with that brew. Your focus on reality, faith in yourself, acceptance of what is … and the will to put fear in its place were the keys to right choices. Fear and stress are manageable, I learned. Fright is not. People sell courses in how not to be afraid. That’s crazy.

I did some things that people said were ‘pretty brave.’ And ‘you must have been scared.’ Maybe, as Russell said, I didn’t know the whole situation. Conditions that could incite cold fear were usually crystal clear. Alternatives were few or foggy. How to respond and react were not written on the wall. One night, some unknown numbers of the enemy were poking around our perimeter, maybe knowing that one of us with frail kidneys would fire off the wild shot. A split second of weakness would expose our position and start a free-for-all of gun bursts and grenade throwing, usually over in minutes followed by screams in both languages. We out-sweated them that night. But, later, we lost people when one of our own, emptied his clip into the blackness, sweeping blood and bones into our perimeter, the parts to be reassembled at dawn, into a rubber poncho. .

The experience of such moments taught me to be calm, resolute, hold my breath and my bladder, and not give in to an irrational urge, instead, giving the formless time to take shape. Some will say, rightly, that there was no time for that, but time, like place, space and velocity is relative.* An event compacts into an instant if that’s all you have. But it must be a conscious instant where experience, intuition, instinct and reason can compute and work. The what ifs diminish. When hard facts stand out sharply the chances of right or wrong may be at least equal. We beat the odds, usually. *Check Al Einstein.

In fifty years of business, I was never seriously afraid aside from a few bumpy airplane rides and subway assaults; no reason. But, I got a reputation for patience, tolerance, openness and balanced deliberation. Mostly it was a practiced false front. It allowed me time to find the nut of things, especially the downstream effect. Good officers in the field have that animal* gift, too. Instinct and intuition save lives more often than cold blooded reasoning.

It’s not science. A part of our brain reacts to threat without help; it’s called *fight-or-flight, a human-animal drive to survive and prevail. There’s another part of that compound, not available in animals, called “Hey, now wait a dad-blamed minute.” Awareness puts fear and stress into a frame; you can isolate it, clarify it and measure it. Unbridled fear, biases, anger and rage make intelligent people do hasty dumb things.

I fear the drunks and crazies on our highways and our mean streets. They cannot be less than dominant males, like Alpha apes. Their thoughtless acts are those of the brainless predator: reflexive, one way, one speed with no turns. They feed on gentle souls like me, so I avoid them. Our conscious judgments, with qualms in the equation, are probably more logical, more right, more often … than they are wrong. They play equal parts in our survival. Archetypal fearless leaders are dangerous. Custer, anyone? Pickett? Julius C?

Who said “some people are born to greatness; others have greatness thrust upon them.” Greatness often demands getting beyond fear and finding a proxy for it. Action and a good sweat come to mind. Third hand advice from afar doesn’t help a leader, officer or manager. Andy Warhol had it almost right. We are granted fifteen minutes of fame which might come from managing fear, being admittedly afraid, then with open eyes, facing the fear, telling Sergeant Russell “I think it stinks, but I won’t be afraid of it.”

A cowboy philosopher (Rogers) said he spent much of his life dreading what never happened. Mark Twain felt the same way. ‘What if….’ is seldom worth the worry. If that Japanese patrol had turned left that night, rather than straight ahead —but they didn’t. I ask why Murphy didn’t show up and beat the tar out of me. Maybe he got a touch of righteousness. Maybe I wasn’t worth his trouble. More likely he forgot.

My manly son-in-law wanted to test my fear tolerance. We slammed down “Space Mountain” the rocketing roller coaster at Disneyland. What I felt had nothing to do with fear. It had to do with lunacy. To be baited into riding a thing like that after a succession of bypasses (eight in all) was madness. When it was done, I said to him, “That wasn’t smart, was it?”    “Were you scared?”    “I think so.”    “Me, too.”    “Why did we do that?”   “Testing, testing.”   “Proving something?”   He was forty, I was eighty.

The ‘purposes’ of our old~time Infantry training comes up. This is a different age and we shouldn’t forget that. Front line soldiers with lap top computers, cell phones, the daily news and satellite recon vehicles? None of that requires muscular backs but rather a level of technical competence and judgment we of the 40s could not have imagined. We built our physical and emotional selves, our strength, endurance and attitude. “Strong legs, strong backs, strong guts, weak minds.”

We climbed high mountains and crossed wild rivers. Contraptions, barriers and bull nosed trainers bullied and bruised us. We scaled cliff sides on ropes, heaved ourselves over stone walls, crossed white water hand over hand, lugged our packs twenty five miles at night in drenching rain, then staggered one more anguished mile for a cup of cold coffee. We bungeed from the towers while others gave in and were discarded. One more try could have changed their lives.

Whether our instructors knew it or not, they were teaching us fear control, to handle stress, strain, trauma and dread. From moving on when your feet hurt to confronting an abyss while crossing on a wet pine log. Or the sure sense that something rotten lay around the next comer or behind an ancient stone wall. Training methods have turned since our time. Confidence, acute judgment, reaction and self-preservation through fear control is now on top of the infantry agenda.

Doing the predictable, dangerous and difficult things in training proved that we could overcome fear, especially the irrational triggers of fear. But, would we do that when all bets were on the table and the odds unknown and time was gone? Strength, confidence, dedication and resolve were never enough although we thought so. They who owned us said so. On occasion in combat, we looked away as the mighty fell back and hunkered down in safety while the least able ran to the front yelling in fury and fury settles fear sometimes. There are no rules against the brave being afraid. We did not articulate our fears; it wasn’t courageous. Sixty years after, it’s alright.

Of all the times I faced anxiety, fear or dread, only a dozen are Army related. Many, in retrospect are absurd like the midnight drunks who targeted my little coffee shop at three ayem. The remainder would pertain to not giving my best, fear of bad choices, fear of the unknown, fear of being disapproved and fear of things that never happened. The renowned Dr. Maslow said babies have only two fears that matter: falling and abandonment. Sudden movements, flashes and noises alert animals and tough armed soldiers. My psychologist granddaughter said those are the natural fear triggers of all humankind. I should have been afraid when my parachute didn’t open, but I wasn’t, or when the hill exploded under me, or the mine blew up or our troop carrier rolled over. Or when a careening car came at me last week on the wrong side of Rte #41. So, be not afraid to negotiate with fear. Just be quick about it and don’t lose any hair over it. The first twinge of your gut is likely your best indicator. I fear that was a poor choice of metaphor.

Drop in for tea at Los Banos

13 Jan

Dropping in for a nice cup of tea
during the rescue operations
at Los Banos Internment Camp. 1945

This story was told to me as if it came from a verifiable source. May I elaborate? First: the operation went well, the timing was flawless. 2300 people were saved from certain death and the injuries on our side were minor. Good planning, good leadership and good luck prevailed against the likelihood of calamity. Chaplain Walker gave us the Universal last rites of the Church. It was not encouraging. Second: I will not apologize for my uncivil behavior toward a small group of Britishers who declined my efforts to save their bloomin(?) raggedy asses.

Third: I’d had enough and chose to not take any more of it which led to some inappropriate bellowing. Mine, not the Brits who are known for their agonizing forbearance.

To illustrate … we’d lifted off before sunup after no sleep at all, I’d hit the ground hard after having noted three whistling bullet holes in my parachute. Then came a sprint across the lower field. We hit the barracks on the run minutes before the amphibians arrived. It was like being dropped on the edge of a small city, which it was. The noise of firing came from all directions. Then, to get the people moving toward the circling amphibians, we scoured the buildings. A Japanese officer tried to shoot me. The rest, you’ve heard before. I charged out the back door. He was gone. Many Japanese guards, including the Camp Commander escaped to the hills and through the drainage tunnels despite a ring of guerrillas around the compound.

I was hailed by a serene group of elderly gentlemen, dressed nattily in the remains of what may have been Colonial Civil Services uniforms. They appeared as if on the movie set at River Kwai. They bore themselves like Her Majesty’s Best or Most something or other. They were not to be bothered by a bunch of hip shooting, air-jumping American Colonials and would have preferred the First Fusiliers or a Royal Brit Commando unit … something more traditional and history worthy. Brits are high on tradition, you know. They were squatting by a stone fire pit, boiling water over a twiggy fire for alfalfa tea and chatting up the day’s events. They stead fastly refused to accept what was happening. Brits do things steadfastly. It was all nice as a country lane in the Cotswolds except that gunfire whistled around us. “Bamboo burning,” I was told. Bamboo does not whistle past one’s head, that I know. In the opening scenes, each of us may have chucked a full bandolier at the bandits. One or a dozen of our people had set the far barracks on fire and the Brits did not take notice. They are not noted for noticing anything. The Scotsman might as well have been tuning his pipes.

“Since you’re here anyway, and created quite a disturbance, you may as well join us for a nice cup of tea; we have plenty in the pot.” The tallest, skinniest one offered me a flat rock to sit on. What I was trying to do … was to get them off their bony behinds, regardless of and with great regard for tea and get them headed toward the amphibians which would race them to safety thirty miles away while we waited for the arrival of the Japanese Army. “It was like a Western roundup,” someone observed, “with people chasing people in all directions and the Army blokes trying to corral them and head them home.” We had a short time (less than we realized) before the Japanese discovered the fakery we had done so well But that did not come across to them. The idea that they’d just had their last nice cup of tea, before being shot or hung by their jailors did not occur nor did the further fact that if we failed, by nightfall we would all be buried in those large holes that were dug during recent days. So, I yelled at these stately, tottery old folks, who had just endured years of brutality, humiliation and starvation and needed no nastiness from me. They sipped their tea and with deliberate slowness, assembled their properties as I ran down the main street to roust those pitiable guys in the bachelors’ quarters. Some were crawling about. My tea party would move on when it felt like it. Our company people were herding and hustling the confused, laughing, crying mass to the tractors. Those able to do so walked down to the shore. Surprise was on our side, but time was not. So we joked, prodded and jostled them along, the young and old, weak and strong. When the tide seemed to be moving well toward the clanking machines, I circled back behind the Bachelor’s Barracks. The Brits saw me and nodded, though still miffed, as they lurched on their way. They steadied each other arm in arm, the frail leading the breakable and the last man carried the blackened tin pail, the tea pot, to be ready for another time. I was told later that night, “We British, you must understand, when we have nothing left, we have our traditions.” Yes, long may they wave.

Side notes: when the last of the internees had safely crossed Laguna De Bay, on their way to New Bilibid for processing, a dozen of us were still in Los Banos guarding the piles of luggage. A tractor would come for us. There was no tractor. It was scary quiet and it occurred that we had been abandoned or forgotten. We sprinted to the shore and found one tractor hauling another while a third was firing into the shoreline. I don’t recall how we got on board. An hour later, we, the chosen few, stared at an empty beach. Where had everyone gone? Our support was back at Bilibid celebrating, flirting with the skinny girls and eating like heroes.

At the beach, the company piled into a lone DUKW, a big amphibian. We drove fast and tried to pass a caribou cart. The whole thing dove off the road and flipped, another miracle. Ringler was furious. What else? A couple of trucks hauled us to Bilibid where we entered the courtyard unnoticed. Someone called out that the rescuers had returned. The bony crowd cheered. The soldiers seemed aggravated. We threw our gear onto the ground and tried to sleep. The people we had saved wouldn’t allow that. We talked until nightfall.

About Tea:
The British have an umbilical cord which has never been cut and through which tea flows constantly. It is curious to watch them in time of sudden horror, tragedy or disaster. The pulse stops apparently and nothing can be done and no move made, until a “nice cup of tea” is quickly made. There is no question that it brings solace and does steady the mind. What a pity all countries are not so tea conscious. World peace conferences would run more smoothly if a “nice cup of tea” or indeed, a samovar were available at the proper time. Marlene Dietrich

Related materials

Sgt Charlie Sass

20 Nov

11th Airborne, 511pir, Company B

“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.

“Remembering and forgetting”

12 Nov

Courtesy Dr Bradd Shore, Emory University

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