Hunger, Leyte-1944

by Ralph Ermatinger


An imposed fast began after the troops moved high into the mountains and re-supplying them became difficult because of the terrain and the monsoon-like rains. Men gnawed bark and roots, dug commodes overlooked by the enemy and attempted to hunt deer and wild boar. But game was difficult to procure, for always the wily boar and wary deer slipped out of their resting places with the approach of the hunter. Birds, monkeys and reptiles appeared not to be present, and there were no Filipinos hawking fruits and vegetables. Friend and foe had the battlefield to themselves.

Early in the campaign, socks filled with polished rice often were recovered from the bodies of slain enemy soldiers, but as the campaign lengthened, even that uncertain source of food disappeared when the isolated Japanese army itself faced starvation and was forced to forage. The fast was broken for a few minutes one day when each soldier was issued one bite of red meat from two small deer carcasses and a wild boar captured in pits excavated on a game trail by Filipino guerrillas. Each soldier received about one once of meat which was his alone to cook or eat raw, nibble or wolf down in a gulp, or share with the wounded. Nothing was wasted. Even the bones were broken and boiled into a broth.

Troops daily heard the sound of Mosely's engine overhead as the intrepid pilot searched day after day for a hole in the clouds to plunge into and topple a box of rations to the hungry men below. Mosely knew the approximate location of the troops he sought to feed, but they were in the clouds that surrounded the mountains, and he dared not attempt a drop without a visual sighting lest it fall into the hands of the enemy. The rain persisted. But, one day the clouds parted slightly for a few minutes and in the brief interval of sunshine, Mosely swooped in as the troops dived into foxholes or took cover behind the trees. His plane was followed by others which kept up the bombardment until the clouds closed again. By this time, however, enough food had been dropped to feed the battalion and the fast was broken. Two men were struck and killed by the falling boxes. Mosely became an instant hero to the troops, and his name was known to every man.

Men function effectively after missing several consecutive meals; indeed hunger sharpens the senses - up to a point. But when hunger extend into starvation a pall of gloom settles over the mind and the body becomes listless. As a hungry day follows hungry day, the empty belly begins to bloat, the jowls swell, and a pervasive lassitude sets in. Eating is such a regular habit. Hunger subtly alters moral values instilled from childhood as the mind concentrates upon food for survival. Men were heard to mutter, and not in jest, "I'm going out and get some 'meat'." There is no doubt about the meat that they had in mind, but it is unlikely that any of them followed through on their threats. The Japanese had fewer qualms, however, for they savaged two troopers they slew in a fire fight. The hunger experience illuminates the answer given by a 19th century mountain man in the American West when chided by his companions for eating flesh. "Meat's meat," he said.

To add to the woes of the troops, dysentery struck at the same time - the "squitters," it was called - while others were afflicted with malaria and dengue fever. Dengue was known also as "breakbone fever". It was particularly distressing to host dengue and dysentery simultaneously, for when a man stood up to "go", his bones would fail him and he would crumple to the ground - with the inevitable - and a trip to the creek became necessary.

Yet, in the deepest trough of mental depression on "Hungry Hill" when ill and hungry men would say, "the enemy would do me a favor if he put a bullet through my head," the mere appearance of a Japanese soldier galvanized them into instant action. In the adrenaline of a fire fight, lethargy vanished and hunger and bodily ailments were forgotten as the troops set about accomplishing the mission for which they were so well trained - destroying the enemy.



Courtesy of "WINDS ALOFT" quarterly publication of the 511th Parachute Association