By Carl Memmel of 188th Parachute Infantry
| This is a "tunnel vision" account of the period from late
January to mid-February of 1945 in the Philippines. It covers part of my time with E Co.,
Infantry, and, for the most part, what has been described as the strangest beachhead in
history - 100 yards wide and 60 miles long.
In trying to put it down on paper, the total inadequacy of words to describe the mental and physical aspects of this entire situation became rather quickly apparent. What wasn't so evident, but was certainly there nevertheless, was my limited ability to recall in detail all of those things that happened more than 50 years ago.
Anyhow, to get around at least a part of this, I cheated by going to the local library to get some dates and what very few maps were available. Within that framework, the individual events are, I believe, pretty much in their proper sequence, but the exact day that they may have occurred is in question. One event happened after another, but whether they were both on one day or one on one day and one on the next is beyond me. (It should be noted that after this essay was started, a "History of the 11th Airborne" became available some of my dates and events seem to tie with that and some don't. In point of fact, somewhere along the line, I seem to vary at least a couple of days from their chronology. I don't know why.)
Guess what's really being said is that these are my recollections of what went on if anybody wants to contradict, elaborate or sprinkle them with holy water, please, be my guest.
To get started then, after three months in the ASTP, three months basic training, three months 60MM mortar training (with the 100th Infantry,) and fresh from jump school, I went into the weapons platoon of E Co., 188th. Over the next few months my world shrank from a great big place right on down to squad level - those people were the only ones who I really knew much about or even cared about. The rest of the world was there, but .
Late January, 1945
From the rest area on Leyte, sometime in late January (the 30th??), we were loaded onto LCI's for a trip to "somewhere." Our largest possessions/equipment had been stashed in our duffel bags and left behind. With us we carried a musette bag (with poncho, mess kit, etc.,) steel helmet, web suspenders and belt, two canteens, (one with a cup,) trench knife or bayonet, entrenching tool, and personal weapon ammunition. The folks in the mortar squads also had pack boards with either tubes, base plates or five or six rounds of 60mm "stuff" the light machine gun folks had the 500 round canisters of their ammunition. My own weapon at the time was the old style carbine with five magazines just to be "safe" I also had 50 rounds of extra ammo tied in a GI sock to the pack board.
The first indication that maybe everything doesn't always go as planned came when somebody decided there might be problems with speedboats loaded with explosives trying to ram us during the night. To take care of this, the plan was that men with M-1's should stand guard duty on the top deck at night it was felt that carbines just wouldn't didn't have enough range or power. So nobody would feel left out, if the relief man was armed with a carbine, the rifles were passed on to him and the carbine went with the retiring soldier. (We changed back later.) Under these circumstances, I caught the 4:00 to 6:00 A.M. duty, swapped my carbine for an M-1, and apparently did a wonderful job as there weren't even any loud noises during my two hour stint. It was rather a shock, however, to have the sun come up, pull back the bolt of the rifle and discover that not only was it not loaded, there weren't any live rounds within twenty feet. Such is life.
In mid-morning of the 31st, we were given grenades and K rations and told to prepare to land. Off to our left, we could see a Navy rocket launching ship just pounding the dickens out of something inland. Both the sight and sound was rather awesome, particularly since I didn't even know that such a vessel existed. After a little time, our own gangplanks (or whatever they were called) were dropped and we went down into water just above our waists. Ahead of me was one of the light 30 caliber machine gunners trying to keep his "baby" dry by holding it high. It momentarily struck me that, with the barrel upright, he looked like a submarine plowing along with its periscope up.
The beach was only about 75 feet deep and, as we went ashore, there was small arms fire coming from somewhere off on the left flank near where the rockets seemed to have been going. We immediately dropped our musette bags and a good part (if not all) of the company headed towards the problem. After going about 400 yards, we came to an old sheet metal building (sugar cane mill?) on a hill going down to a small river or creek. The mortar was set up on the reverse side of this rise and prepared for action. The small arms noise continued for a period and then stopped. Shortly after that, word came down that, in addition to other wounded, one of the machine gun squad leaders had been fatally wounded by a sniper.
Things then remained quiet until the middle of the afternoon when orders were received to move to a two story school or court house about five miles away (on the other side of Nasagbu.). Upon arriving there, it was getting quite dark so we dug slit trenches and got ready to spend the night. This was the beginning of the infamous "two hours on, two off" guard duty which made zombies of us all before it was over it also reinforced the warning to make sure that your trench was long enough so that you could completely stretch out your legs. If you didn't, absolutely excruciating leg pains/cramps would come before morning.
About ten o'clock we began moving inland toward Tagaytay Ridge along what was considered to be the main (only?) highway to Manila. This was actually two lanes of paved asphalt which had been partially cut down into the earth there was ten or fifteen feet of level ground on each side of the pavement, and then an upward 45 degree bank ten or so feet high. It was through here that we were strung out in single file on each side of the road with the proverbial "proper interval" spacing.
Aside comment the Japanese had two types of machine guns. Size wise, one was about half-way between our M-1 and BAR. It had a bipod, a twenty or thirty round banana magazine, and a very high rate of fire. When in action, it's sound was "brrrtttt, brrrttt." Because of this, it was known as the Canary. The other rascal was a heavy weapon that looked like a Buck Rogers ray gun mounted on a big tripod, fed with what appeared to be a rigid belt of twenty rounds, sometimes with a telescopic sight, and with a rather slow rate of fire- "pow,pow,pow". Because of that characteristic, it was known as the Woodpecker.
Sometime in the early afternoon, the leading company came under heavy fire from a rise where the road took a left turn to the west. We all dove away from the pavement and began to dig in as quickly as possible. After the initial commotion died down, sentries were put out to watch for any more enemy activity in the immediate area- this involved crawling over the embankments (all alone) and out into the "woods" about fifty feet or so. The underbrush itself consisted of what were either huge weeds or small trees pithy trunks maybe an inch in diameter, eight or ten feet high, big leaves, and all a foot and a half or so apart. Except for the distant quiet sound of your own people, it was eerily quiet, i.e., scary as the dickens; every leaf stirring seemed to be at least an advancing enemy platoon. After about thirty minutes, the word to return was extremely welcome the only consolation to it all was that you hadn't been carrying that pack board for a while.
As we proceeded north, the evidence of the fire fight was apparent a couple of torn-up musette bags, spent brass, used first aid kits and bandages, etc. Beyond that, there were the enemy positions. (Over their occupation years, the Japanese had made cover and concealment into a real art form.) On the high ground at the turn, there were a series of semi-invisible entrenchments looking down the highway in either direction the Canaries were long gone when we went by, but there remained a single abandoned Woodpecker which must have been just too heavy to move in a big hurry.
In another couple of hours, we had reached the ridge, moved off of the road sixty or eighty yards northward right to the top of Tagaytay, and begun the evening tasks of digging in and unloading water, ammunition, and food from the battalion jeep. There was little vegetation in this area so there were excellent fields of fire on three sides and on the north (fifteen or twenty yards out) there was a sheer drop-off of a couple of hundred feet. Although the night passed quietly, I was once again jarred awake with those tremendous leg cramps and, surprisingly, with the feeling that it was freezing cold. The former was once again caused by either misjudgment on how long to dig the hole or on pure tiredness. Since it was really summer there, the latter presumably was because of the temperature change rather than the actual temperature. Having been born and raised in Florida, I enjoyed warm weather, but the daytime heat there was totally miserable. It was a real challenge to just get by with only two canteens of water; to give one of these to a wounded man was a great act of friendship.
The activity for the day was patrolling. The mortar squads remained in their dug-in positions up top to offer support where needed and the rifle platoons went "exploring." Early in the afternoon, one group found a path down (or around) the north side cliff and discovered a series of large trails leading to a number of supply caves in the hills below. Never did find out exactly what happened, but at least one of these exploded and collapsed with a number of our people either in it and/or close by. The rumors centered on grenades being thrown into ammunition supplies. Whether accidentally or on purpose by our guys, or whether by Japanese suicide troops, was never determined. Needless to say, there were losses and serious injuries from both concussion and from flying debris.
Shortly after this, a flight of four P-38 fighters appeared and began to strafe the hillsides where the trouble had begun. It was rather a fascinating thing I'd never heard the sound of multiple aerial machine guns being fired, and these airplanes were doing just exactly that (and in fine fashion.) Additionally, the perspective was totally unique in that we were on the Ridge and actually looking sideways or even down at them as they went by.
The mood, later on, was much more subdued than it had previously been part was due to the events of the afternoon, and part was the tiredness that had begun to set in. Time was again spent hauling water, supplies and ammunition and in cleaning both personal and squad weapons.
This day was not unlike the previous one. The riflemen were "out and about" while the weapons people remained on the high ground. We did have a front row seat watching as the 511th jumped about a mile away on the other side of the road. Couldn't tell whether they were having a hard time of it or not, although the drop itself was very impressive. Looked like there may have been at least one "streamer", but we were not able to see if it was an equipment chute or what.
In the morning, the whole company was crammed into two or three trucks and taken to the village of (I think) Pasay. The assembly point was a large field somewhere close to the center of town where we just sat for an hour or two. At about noon, we saddled up and headed for, what turned out to be, the rice paddies on the edge of Nichols Field.
Aside comment- rice paddies were both a curse and a blessing. Don't know whether they were standard or not, but these were approximately fifty feet square with miniature dikes about eight or ten inches high surrounding the paddy itself. The bad part was that you took twenty paces, stepped up, stepped down, twenty more steps, up, down, etc. In our condition, and with full loads, this was, to say the least, a very tiring process. The beautiful part of the paddies was that it was the dry season and the ground was literally cracked down to a depth of about ten inches. To quickly get a nice little hole, you just snuggled up to the forward part of a dike and easily pried out big chunks of dirt until you had what you considered to be adequate shelter from anything with a flat trajectory. Your entrenching tool just became a crowbar and time spent digging was wonderfully reduced.
After everything had been dug in, six or eight of us were "volunteered" to go on a recon patrol towards Nichols. (At that time, I'm not sure that I even knew where we were, the field name, or what it was. Everything seemed to be, "go here, go there do this, do that." Semi like the Light Brigade; ours not to reason why.) Anyhow, by this time the heavy gear had been set up and, with only our personal weapons, we strung out and headed across the open ground. After moving about four or five hundred yards, we made visual contact with Japanese soldiers still farther out.
Our patrol leader decided that this was the information that we were supposed to secure and back we started.. Suddenly, there was the very loud sound of airplane engines. We looked up and saw a group of U.S. Navy dive bombers "working over" the areas where we had just seen the enemy. As they dropped their loads, they'd also begin strafing runs. The fire was close enough that it wasn't certain if they saw what we had seen and were shooting at it, or if they had seen us and just weren't too good at gunnery. Regardless, as soon as they were gone, we headed back to the rest of the company.
That night, for the first time, the buildings burning in Manila were clearly visible.
It was at this time that a water shortage started to develop. Previously, there had been a couple of jeeps around dropping off five gallon cans, but they suddenly were missing, apparently doing other things. A few hundred yards away there was a carabao (Philippine water buffalo) wallow so we wandered over to see if it was empty. It wasn't, but the one beast there must have been as afraid of us as we were of him; he took off. The water was just like you would expect; muddy, with bugs walking or swimming on the surface. Put a handkerchief on the mouth of the canteen to strain out the bugs, add halazone tablets, and you were all set. (The Army said to use one pill per canteen, regimental medics recommended two, and we used eight. The result was gawd-awful tasting, but when you left the canteen out of its cover overnight, it cooled down and was sure nice and refreshing early in the morning.)
In the afternoon, an airplane appeared over the airfield (an A-20??) looking like it was trying to come in for a nice, normal landing. The anti-aircraft weapons began firing and the plane just continued to go right on down until it crashed and exploded. This was the first time that I had seen a plane crash, and I just couldn't believe that it happened that it wasn't going to just pull up at the last minute and fly away.
The night was relatively quiet.
Aside comment- at night, even when it was described as "quiet", there was always sporadic rifle fire and/or grenade noise.
This was the day that the "fun" really began. In the early afternoon, orders came down to get all of our stuff together and be ready to move out. With the rifle platoons leading, we headed across the rice paddies towards woods about a mile and a half or two miles away. As we came closer, it could be seen that the destination area was really small trees and vegetation in a gently slopping draw. According to the Army manuals, going through this little valley was supposed to be the safest way to escape both detection and small arms fire. Unfortunately, apparently the Japanese had read the same book because as we approached the entrance, hell broke loose. There was all kinds of fire from machine guns, knee mortars, big mortars, and probably at least two guys with slingshots. We were pinned down "big time" right out in the open paddies. (Thank goodness for the dike part!!) After about twenty minutes of this, the word came to get out as fast as we could. In all probability, there were a lot of "personal best" times recorded for everything from the hundred yard dash to the four hundred yard relay. It was with great relief that we made it back to our previous positions and waited, panting, for whatever might happen at least we were in decent individual slit trenches and ready for whatever.
The next morning, we again packed up and headed out (in a different direction) towards Nichols Field. At what was presumed to be the edge of the airfield, a new worry developed the enemy had managed to fix the twin 20mm (and maybe 40mm) antiaircraft guns to fire horizontally, and fire they did. Although I didn't see it, the story went around that the supply sergeant was pointing at something when one of these babies started going, and he was suddenly missing the last inch of his finger.
Another problem was aerial bombs which were armed and buried upright in the paved and unpaved roads; don't know if the weight of a person would set them off, but any kind of a vehicle certainly would. This was evidenced, in the middle of the afternoon, while we were waiting to move again. About a hundred yards from where we were laying, a jeep pulling an anti-tank gun ran over one it was an unreal sight, nearly like the children's cartoons these days. There was a tremendous noise, and the jeep and gun both just seemed to float up in the air for a minute. There was a "thunk" between the mortar gunner and me and, when we looked down there, was a large nut apparently from one the mechanisms laying on the ground between us. It was too hot to touch at the moment, but when it cooled down, it turned out to be one of the jeep's axles imbedded straight down into the ground.
Late in the afternoon, I saw a fellow that I knew from one of the other companies coming back for more ammunition; he looked absolutely beat. When I mentioned this to one of my buddies
he told me that we all looked the same way.
Just as it was getting dark, we succeeded in taking a series of revetments used to protect aircraft from strafing attacks. These were big earthen things built like a square with one side missing. (Like big right angle U's.) Each part was about sixty feet long and had steeply slopping sides about twelve feet high. Thankfully, the open part of ours was toward the back so it made an ideal fortification; it was easy to just climb up and peek over the top and this was the way we spent the night.
Aside comment the following incident is, depending on you point of view, either the high point or low point of my entire service experience. In any case, it livens up the conversation in the local taverns. Please remember that my weapon was the old type carbine where the safety and magazine release were both push-buttons about an inch apart and just forward of the trigger guard.
All night long, there was the troublesome sound of a cap tinkling against an uncovered canteen. This was an especially frustrating thing (very obviously, we didn't want to advertise our whereabouts) and it was just so very plain stupid and careless. One of the first things you ever learned was to stay quiet, and this was just pure dumb.
Anyhow, very shortly after first light the next morning, Mother Nature "gave me a call." The only way that I could answer was by digging a small hole where I was and going at it. When finished, and with my pants still down around my ankles, I stood up and happened to glance toward the front. At that exact moment, an enemy soldier walked out of the other side of the bunker where we had spent the night; all of ten feet from us. I reached down, picked up my carbine and pushed every button that I could feel. The safety came off and the magazine fell out!!! At that time, nearly everybody carried a round in the chamber, so I was able to get off one shot. The Jap ducked back into his dugout on the back side of the slope and, after tossing over a few grenades, some of the riflemen crept around to see if he was still alive. He was and was promptly taken prisoner. (Heard that he was one of two captured by the entire division up to that point.) He was also drunk as a skunk. The noises were his, made while sucking on a couple of canteens originally full of saki. Immediately after being captured, this fellow demanded to be taken to the first sergeant and even called him by name. Maybe we should have been more cautious, too. Final note if you ever see a little, old Japanese man with a 30 caliber chunk taken out of his nose, tell him that I said "hello."
The remaining part of the day was spent in the same bunker, banging away at whatever could be seen (and keeping our heads and other appendages down.)
Aside comment surprisingly, we had plenty of some food at this time. In their infinite wisdom, someone had decided (rightly?) that the ideal way to feed combat troops was to make one supply run per day with single big box of a whole day's rations for ten men (10-in-1's). These contained a K-ration per man for breakfast (with the entrée of a small can of "ham, eggs, and potatoes"- yuk) a lunch K (with a nice little can of cheese and bacon) and the evening meal which consisted of large cans of enough meat, vegetables, and fruit cocktail for ten people. Each squad was given one box and, since we were down to five in our group, there was more than plenty for supper. Emily Post or someone would probably have had a heart attack seeing it, but this was "communal" feeding nobody had anything other than a G.I. spoon (sharpened on one side to do double duty as a knife) and a canteen cup. The bigger cans were just opened and passed around with each of us taking a turn at the contents.
Another aside since we're on the subject of army food, it would not be improper to mention one of the most talked about (and universally detested) products of World War II. This was the most infamous "beef and pork loaf." To my knowledge, this was never voluntarily consumed by any American soldier unless he was, literally, very close to starvation. It was double-barreled, industrial strength "yuk,yuk,yuk", In all probability, wherever it was made is now a dog food manufacturing plant. (This is on the presumption that the dogs didn't also reject it.) Guess what we don't eat at my house ..
About ten in the morning, we started to move further out into the open part of the airfield. Up with the lead group were two self-propelled 75's. After the initial shock of seeing what could pass for tanks, the Japanese must have licked their chops when they realized that these were just big, lightly armored half tracks. In short order, both came under tremendous fire from the anti-aircraft guns and within minutes were stopped and on fire. I still remember seeing a couple of our guys leading one of their crewmen, confused, burned, and bleeding, back towards an aid station.
By the end of the day, we had advanced a couple of hundred yards across fairly open terrain towards what we later found out was Fort McKinley.
That night, behind us, we could still see the glow of the fires from Manila burning. No one ever gave an opinion as to whether the extra light was advantageous or not.
This day was not unlike the previous. The total advance was about three hundred yards to a dirt road along the edge of a brushy area. As we dug in, it was painfully apparent that if there were to be trouble, it would come from that sector.
At this point, two man trenches were the order of the day; with one man trying to stay awake while the other tried to sleep. Emotions were mixed when it was your turn, you did your best to keep away "uninvited guests", and when it was your partner's shift, you hoped he would do the same. Lurking in the back or your mind was the sneaky idea that, if he dozed off (because we were so tired), maybe the fellows in the next hole wouldn't and you could possibly just get a little extra sleep without dire consequences.
Training and experience said that, at night, you always threw grenades; the muzzle flash of a rifle was a wonderful way to expose yourself. In very short order though, there weren't any grenades left and no re-supply was possible. Like it or not, it was bang, bang, bang, particularly at the one place where it looked like line after line of Japanese soldiers were silhouetted against the sky. Their rounded helmets were constantly visible in a nice neat line on the horizon. When it became light, our enemy squads turned out to be the bogey wheels of an upside-down tank and we had done our part for the ammunition makers of America. (By the way, there wasn't much sleep that night.)
After the previous night, it was a relief to be able to just sit in a fox hole and semi-doze off. Everything was awfully quiet and, from where we were, we could see a water tower at what someone said was our known destination of Ft. McKinley. At least, one way or another, we knew that there were only four or five hundred yards more to go. The terrain in that direction was relatively flat and there were very few bushes and no trees for about three hundred yards of that distance. After that, there were very large stately trees and, what the maps showed to be, a graveyard on either the border of the last of Nichols or the first of McKinley.
About twenty troopers with automatic weapons (BAR's and M-3 sub-machine guns) were picked to head up a little dirt road in that direction. The idea was to see just how far they could get without big problems; our mortar squad was also selected to tag along. There was absolutely no action at all on the first part of the trip. As we entered the cemetery, however, it became even more quiet; you had the feeling that it was appropriate to tip-toe and talk in whispers. (I think that we did.) Actually, the silence was as scary as some of the previous noises had been.
Although not well kept, the area wasn't overgrown either - there were regular headstones and quite a number of mausoleums that were easily visible in the shade from the big trees. On the other side of this, there was another one of those "big weeds/little trees" patches and, after getting through without problems, here we plunked down to find out what to do next. For some weird and unknown reason, one of the BAR men decided that he should now have a look into one of the mausoleums. As he went in, he found that there were four or five Japanese soldiers who were there ahead of him he fired a quick burst and turned to make a hasty exit. By doing so, he exposed one of his most vulnerable areas, namely his backside, and he promptly received a bayonet in the fanny. (Aside this guy was a real comedian. I would have loved to hear him telling everybody in his home town how he got the Purple Heart and possibly even trying to show them the scar.)
For about twenty minutes, there was the most wicked fire fight that you could imagine; everything that could make any kind of noise was going full blast. Our people were running around all over the cemetery, and theirs were, literally, coming out of the graves. When it was over, it was my understanding that we had three or four wounded and that forty-three enemy bodies were counted.
Late in the afternoon, a new group moved in and we fell back to the previous night's position.
It was a pretty anti-climatic night after the afternoon's activity. Manila was still burning enough so that we could see a little (and we thought we knew a bogey wheel from a steel helmet this time).
February 12,1945 to February 16,1945
Today, trucks took us to the town of Paranaque on the coast of Manila Bay just south of Pasay. If my mental geography is correct, it was about a mile southwest of Nichols. There were more or less twelve of us at this time, so don't know if it was the whole platoon or just part of it. Anyhow, there was a main paved road (highway back to Nagsubu?) two or three hundred feet inland and, between the road and the bay, there was a very old stone church which had been turned into an Army field hospital. There was a sort of a courtyard there where we bedded down.
The reasons for this move were twofold - we could provide protection for the hospital and still be available to help stop any Japanese movement out of Manila.
Stacked up outside of the church was a large number of weapons and web equipment. In view of recent events, I selected the nicest M-1 that I could find, together with a rifle belt and a few bandoleers of ball ammo, and bid my carbine farewell. (Think it found a good home with a Filipino scout who had been assigned to us.)
In relays, jeeps would take four of us out to maintain roadblocks on the small bridges in the area.
These were over the little creeks and lagoons around Manila and Nichols. There were marshes on both sides of them and the only half-way decent escape routes were down small dirt roads and across these spans. Someone, ahead of us, had dug wonderfully deep and wide fox holes at all four corners of the bridges and, during the day, two of us could just lay around and relax while the other two kept alert.
At night, it was into the ground and shoot at whoever or whatever tried to come by.
Aside- somehow or other, I had gotten an old Colt Model 1917 revolver. It had either had thousands of rounds put through it or someone had spent years snapping blanks. The result was that the cylinder would properly align with the firing pin and the gun would fire on only about every third pull of the trigger. Nevertheless, this relic was my pride and joy. We were sitting at "our" bridge one morning when one of the guys picked it up and began pulling the trigger two of us went into a state of shock, literally trying to speak but unable to do. After the third pull, the gun fired and we got an amazed comment on the fact that it had been loaded. The other three of us very impolitely informed the culprit that this was a combat zone and that most, if not all, weapons were loaded and then followed with pertinent remarks regarding both his mental ability and his ancestry.
As you can infer, after the previous couple of weeks, we now felt that our current circumstances were nearly like a rest camp. There were still the 10-in-1 rations and there was plenty of water for both drinking and washing and it was "four hours on, eight off." The time to just relax, look around and do nothing, was a great.
After a day or so of this, a small group of us began going down to the Bay to try to improve our skills (and show off) by taking our rifles and "plinking" at whatever we could find that would float. It was here, on the morning of the 16th, that we were given a ring-side seat for the jump on Corregidor. This was a much closer and clearer view of a combat jump than the Tagaytay experience had been and we watched and hoped for the guys doing the "dirty work."
About a week later, we were again loaded into trucks and sent eastward towards the Lake Taal region.
|E-history 12/98 forwarded by Carl Memmel to Patrick O'Donnell|