Service Company - 27 Feb. 1941 to 27 Dec. 1945
Written in 1998
Moving ever closer to the Philippines and Japan, the Morotai amphibious landing brought us deep into enemy held territory. We loaded out on ships from Aitape while other units of the 31st Division loaded from elsewhere in New Guinea. A rendezvous at sea brought the entire Division together again for the assault on Morotai. Prior to D-Day, the Army Air Force had bombed nearby Halmahera rather heavily. This is a much larger island, which can be seen from Morotai on a clear day. Morotai was purposely not bombed, mapped or scouted, causing the Japs to assume that we had no interest in it. Furthermore, they were deluded into thinking we were after Halmahera and thats where they had concentrated their defensive efforts. These tactics resulted in practically no enemy resistance from air or ground forces on D-Day. This proved to be a very good thing for us as the landing beaches caused many problems. Landing Craft hung up on coral reefs causing soldiers and motor vehicles to be dumped into waist deep water or even deeper. General MacArthur came ashore on D-Day and even he got his feet wet as well as the bottom of his trouser legs. Some Landing Craft had to wait for high tide to get off the coral reefs. Many motor vehicles had to be pulled ashore by bulldozers. In spite of all the obstacles our D-Day objectives were attained. Later on, better landing beaches were found on the other side of the peninsula landing sites. This made it much easier to bring in additional troops, equipment and supplies.
Our mission was to capture only a part of the island, set up a defense line and protect the base against enemy ground attacks. Other units came in to build the air strips from which Army Air Force planes would make bombing raids against the Philippines, Borneo and other targets. Our mission was accomplished against very little enemy ground opposition and minimal loss of lives. For the next several months enemy attacks on our defense line were at best sporadic. They just didnt have the manpower or equipment on the island to do more than harassing attacks. Their attempts to infiltrate troops and supplies from Halmahera were mostly failures as the Navy PT boats and PBY planes sank their barges. But lets not become too complacent, as we were, at that point in time, the most advanced position in once held enemy territory. Being in this vulnerable position, the base was raided almost nightly by enemy bombers. I read in a book published by the Army that between 15 September 1944 and 1 February 1945, there were 82 air raids against Morotai. From this information its obvious that we were subjected to, in the neighborhood of 100 enemy air raids, as there were a few more after that date. Some of these enemy air raids caused very little damage while others destroyed many of our planes on the ground, as well as equipment and supplies.
A particular incident stands out in my memory as one of the times I came close to being hit by enemy fire, which came about as a result of one of these raids. It happened a few days after D-Day while I was on special duty at the docks. This night I had gone aboard a ship which was anchored at the docks. An air raid alert sounded, which meant an enemy plane or planes were in the area. An alert calls for all lights out and to take cover for your personal protection. One of our planes was coming in for a landing and gave the recognition signal; thus the all clear was given. As a result everything was lit up again and we no longer needed to take cover. Unfortunately a Jap bomber, which no one was aware of, was following our plane in. Here was this enemy bomber in our midst with everything lit up for him. As I was standing by the rail on the ship, I noticed in the distance some unusual lights, not unlike flares, falling from the night sky. I learned later that the Jap bomber had dropped some phosphorus bombs. Then without warning bullets were flying around me and the rest of the ship, as well as the dock area below. I took cover for my protection up against the rail of the ship and was one of the lucky ones who didnt get hit. As I recall there were some Army medical people aboard the ship and one of them was hit by a fragment that came through a porthole. My memory is that as a result of this encounter 2 were killed and 15 or 20 wounded, on the ship and dock area down below. Of course it was later that I learned about the Jap bomber being there but during the action I had no idea what was going on.
Our camp situation on Morotai was a good one including tents with cots. I even bought an air mattress from a sailor, which made that folding cot almost comfortable. By the side of each tent we constructed a pillbox by digging a pit large enough to accommodate six men quartered in each tent. This was covered with coconut logs and sand bags for our protection. A slit was left in order that rifles could be fired in the event of a ground attack. Enemy air raids were always at night. At the sound of an air raid alert we came out of the tents and sat on top of our pillboxes while watching the searchlights pick up enemy bombers and the Anti-Aircraft firing at them. Our fighter planes could intercept the enemy bombers before they arrived over the island or go after them when they left. While over the island our defense against them was left to the Anti-Aircraft guns and their bursting shells would hit any plane up there, whether friendly or enemy. On Christmas night 1944, one of our fighter planes remained on the tail of a Jap bomber as he came over the island. Guys manning the Anti-Aircraft guns realized what was happening and discontinued their fire. Our searchlights kept the enemy bomber in view and we could clearly see the tracer bullets flying between the planes. We were all rooting for our pilot to, Get Him, Get Him, Get Him, which he did. The Jap bomber burst into flames and fell in the ocean just off the island. A huge cheer went up from all the Infantrymen sitting on top of the pillboxes.
During enemy air raids we often had to take cover in our pillboxes to protect us from falling flack that came down from above as a result of exploding Anti-Aircraft shells fired at Jap bombers. All that metal had to fall to earth somewhere and if anyone was hit by it a serious wound could be the result. Then too, the pillbox afforded some protection from an enemy bomb that fell nearby. I mentioned Gene Vann previously and in talking with him recently I was reminded of an incident that in retrospect seems funny but let me hasten to assure you that at the time it happened it was anything but funny. As stated earlier we had a good camp situation here on Morotai, which was made even better when some of the men in Service Company brought in an electric generator. Where they acquired it, I never knew but of course its often best if you dont know such things. A tank for fuel for the generator was placed several feet away and up on a small hill. This produced a gravity feed of fuel down the hill to the generator and the flow was controlled by a valve. Late one afternoon the tank was filled with gasoline but unfortunately the valve failed. No one was aware of the valve failure and gasoline leaked all over the place and down the hill to the generator creating quite an opportunity for a fire. During the pitch dark hours of night, one of our cooks (I believe it was William Prater from Tennessee) went over to start the generator in order to have lights for the kitchen tent. When he hit the starter a spark set the gasoline on fire creating huge flames leaping high into the air. Then things got even worse as a Jap bomber came over about that time. Their main target is usually the air strip but they were such rotten bombers that one might expect them to fall any-where. Of course the air strip is nearby and I suppose he saw all the flames and figured, this is it, and dropped his bombs. I dont know how many bombs he dropped but they were close as I could hear them whooshing through the air. I do know that one fell very near on one side of the Company and another one on the other side but farther away. Of course during all of this we dive into our pillboxes for protection from whatever, as at that moment in time we had no idea as to what was going on. I seem to recall some of the guys talking about one of the men diving into his pillbox head first and knocking himself out on a coconut log and they had to drag him on in. Gene Vann on entering his pillbox, rather hastily I might add, hit his hand on a coconut log. The next day he went on sick call and was sent on for x-rays which disclosed broken bones and this naturally called for a cast. Dont know how long he wore the cast but he still had it when we were on Mindanao. I guess if you break all the bones in your hand up above the knuckles, as Gene did, it takes quite a long time to heal.
It is now time for us to move on, as this operation on Morotai has been a huge success. Other American troops came in to take our place on the defense line. We then get ready to move out to sea again - destination Mindanao in the Philippines.
Our camp area on Morotai quickly acquired the name Nightmare Hill. I suppose this came about because enemy bombers seemed to guide off of it in their almost nightly raids that were mostly aimed at the air strip, a short distance from us. In another direction and a few hundred yards down the hill was the beach. Then opposite and a few hundred yards away was the defense line. There were instances of Jap soldiers infiltrating our lines and causing some problems but not very often. There were reports of them stealing food from our kitchen tents and also rumors of them watching our movies. I think the part about them stealing food is correct but Im not so sure about the movies. Besides the air strip, the Japs bombed the docks occasionally but with less damage. Our trucks were used mostly to haul supplies from the docks to supply dumps and to our units on the defense line, as well as in camp areas. Morotai is a very small island and we only took part of it, thus everything was nearby. Things we missed from the States were salads, fresh vegetables, ice cream and Coca-Cola. We did have Coca-Cola once that I remember.
With men from all walks of life in the Army its not surprising that we had a Moonshiner among us. Some way - some how - Pappy Drake, one of our Service Company men, was able to get enough material to build a Still and run off whiskey. He kept his Still pretty well hidden and if we moved he moved his Still right along with us. I think he would get one of our truck drivers involved with him in the moving and keeping it hidden. I dont know how much money he made selling his product (known to us as "Jungle Juice") but business seemed to be pretty good. I feel certain the Brass knew about it but I suppose they considered it a perk, or maybe they needed the supply.
After uneventful days at sea we came ashore, 22 April 1945, at Parang and from there to Cotabato. The Army 24th Division, just ahead of us, went east to Davao, while the 31st Division went up the central part of Mindanao. This was more like normal warfare as we had a road, the Sayre Highway, which was already there. In the other areas we were in the only roads we had were the ones our troops built. Of course, it was quite different from normal warfare in many other ways. This so-called highway was only a dirt road to begin with and after a couple of days of our vehicle traffic, it was almost nothing. With rain it was an almost impassable quagmire, then in a day or two such heavy dust that it choked up air cleaners on our trucks thereby knocking them out until the air cleaner was serviced. I remember one section of the road that was so bad our Army Engineers built something that I would describe as a bridge, except that it was flat on the ground. It was made of wood and served its purpose as it got our trucks pass this area.
With the retreating Japs blowing up about 75 bridges, it made our advancing troops face many problems while crossing streams and ravines. Getting trucks through with supplies was extremely difficult. At points we moved jeeps as well as supplies across these places on cables rigged for such purposes. At other times the Biscuit Bombers were used. In spite of all these difficulties and a determined enemy, the 31st Division went up the Sayre Highway, with the 124th leading the advance all the way to Malaybalay. Fierce combat was experienced in numerous points along this route, often without Artillery support. What with a terrible road and all those blown up bridges, its no wonder the Artillery couldnt keep up with the advancing foot soldiers.
The most severe loss of American lives in such a short period of time for our Regiment came at a place along the highway, which later became known as Colgan Woods. On the first day of this encounter, which began on 6 May 1945, our Regimental Chaplain, Father Thomas A. Colgan, was killed while rendering last rites to one of our soldiers. In his honor this area of Mindanao will be remembered always by the men of the 124th as Colgan Woods. The Japs were effectively dug in and determined to halt our advance at this point. Being well prepared for combat and with such a strong position they were able to inflict heavy losses upon our attacking troops. Our Foot Soldiers attacked these positions time and again, sustaining heavy casualties but to no avail. It would be days before the sorely missed Artillery could get up in order to lend their support. In the meantime, Marine Dive Bombers were called in and made raids for a few days but were not effective against these strong enemy positions. Our Artillery finally arrived and began shelling and in just a few hours on 12 May 1945, our troops were able to move through this area. The remaining Japs had retreated from this heavy Artillery barrage. These few days at Colgan Woods was a great loss to the 124th as 69 were killed and 177 wounded.
It was extremely difficult to operate truck convoys over the Sayre Highway, with treacherous hair-pin turns up and around mountains, through jungle, heavy quagmires and blown up bridges but some way the job was accomplished. This road, even after being made passable, could deteriorate in a matter of hours. I recall once taking a convoy back for supplies in about 4 hours and it required 2 days to get back up to the advancing troops. Needless to say that, with this terrible road, jungle, mountains, blown up bridges and being on constant alert for Jap snipers or an ambush, it was often a perilous journey.
Land mines were something we had to be aware of but I dont recall them being a problem for us, at least in my operations. I did see one area marked off as mined. The Japs had a mine that we referred to as a Yardstick Mine and we were warned to be on the alert for them lying in the road. From the description given us I figured it would look like a stick out there in the road. I never saw one and as far as I know neither did any of the other men in our transportation section.
Our advance continued and on 23 May 1945 we met up with another Army Regiment that had pushed down from the north coast. The entire Sayre Highway was now in American hands but you can be sure that there are straggling Jap troops in the jungle just off the road. A couple of days earlier another Regiment, the 155th Infantry also of the 31st Division, had relieved the 124th from the lead position. Now for the first time since being in combat, we had friendly troops between us and the enemy. But wait, its not time to relax. Remember the Japs that had retreated from Colgan Woods, well they were wandering around back there somewhere and it was a sizable force. So in spite of having friendly troops between us and the enemy our 2nd Battalion was attacked early that morning by that group which was run out of Colgan Woods. This was a bitter fight, for a few hours that resulted in the destruction of the Jap force. My memory is that 73 Japs were killed that morning and we lost 2 Americans,
The beaten Japanese forces fled back into the remote mountain sections and now its mopping up time. Mopping up means you hope you see him before he sees you. Large patrols went back into the mountains seeking out pockets of enemy soldiers and destroying them. Fighting continued until the Japanese surrender.
Our thoughts now turned to the invasion of Japan. I learned much later that the 31st Division was slated to go in north of Tokyo with the 8th Army as we invaded Japan. I suppose the 124th would have been ordered to lead the way as we had in our other campaigns. My personal thoughts were on the point system which had been devised to give those of us who had been in service for a long time the chance to go home. My points were borderline but I was gaining points right along so my hope was that I would not have to be in on the invasion of Japan.
As the Japanese government surrendered and MacArthur accepted it in Tokyo Bay, the 31st Division Commanding General accepted from the Japanese General surrender of all troops on Mindanao. The word went out by various means to the Japanese soldiers in the remote sections of the mountains that the war was over. Through experience we had learned to be very cautious and leery of this enemy; therefore caution was taken to be sure that there were no surprises. The first large group was ordered to come down from the mountains and stack their arms in a designated area on the other side of a river. I was there on our side of the river with a truck convoy to take them to a compound. I noticed that we had plenty of American troops there on our side of the river - just in case. Our Army Engineers hooked up a barge on some cables stretched across the river. By tilting the barge sideways the river current would force the barge back and to across the river. This means was used to bring the Japanese soldiers across to our side. The operation went along without any hitches and they loaded on our trucks where we took them to a compound. There they awaited transportation back to Japan.
During the next couple of months for us, it was just wait for a ship to come to the Philippines to take us home. Finally on 27 November 1945 an Army troopship, the USS General Aultman, came to take us to San Francisco. Then on to Camp Stoneman, California, where we boarded trains taking us our separate ways. Mine was back to Camp Blanding, Florida where I began this part of my life. Then on 27 December 1945, after 4 years 10 months and 1 day, I received an honorable discharge and my military service was finished.
Among our transportation vehicles was a piece of equipment that we referred to as a Kitchen Trailer. Normally these 2- wheel trailers were needed to carry the extra kitchen equipment and supplies, as a truck couldnt hold all of it. These trailers were quite heavy and difficult to hook up to a truck trailer hitch. Because of the aggravation of hooking and towing, especially around this mountain road, the truck drivers hated them. At times these trailers were often used for purposes other than Kitchen Trailers. Gene Vann tells me about one he had hooked to the back of our spare parts truck. The driver and also one of our mechanics was a guy named Passanante, I believe from New York. The assistant driver of this truck was Joe Wall, from Iowa. Passanante was driving and on one of these hair-pin turns through the mountains on the Sayre Highway, he lost the trailer as it rolled over and down the side of a mountain. I neglected to ask Gene if he got the trailer back but I wouldnt be surprised to learn that it was still down there. By the way, Joe Wall the assistant driver didnt even know how to drive a truck. Gene said he didnt know that he couldnt drive until after the war was over or he would have made him learn.
After the Japanese surrender, I was talking with one of the Jap soldiers whom we had trucked to a compound. Ho spoke excellent English and I, of course asked how he had acquired such a good command of our language. To my surprise he related that he had lived in the United States until his early teen years when at that time he moved to Japan with his parents. I asked that since he was possibly familiar with the industrial capacity here in the United States, did he think that Japan could win a war against such overwhelming resources. His reply was that at such a young age he was not
There are those today who advance the thought that we were wrong to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. It would be difficult for me to believe that those who say this were ever in contact with the determination and strong will of the Japanese soldier. It was obvious to us in New Guinea, Morotai and Mindanao that surrender was not to be expected. After our bombing raids on Japan and especially raids on Tokyo, that killed more than the atomic bombs, it was obvious that Japan was beaten and the only thing for them to do was get it over with by surrendering. Of course we know that they did not surrender and as far as I know showed no signs of surrendering. An Atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and still no surrender but holding fast until another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Even then, those in charge did not want to surrender but the Emperor stepped in and it was over. In my observations of the Japanese will and determination I firmly believe that if we had to attack their homeland we would have found ourselves fighting not only the soldiers but a well armed civilian population. This would have led to millions of lives being lost on both sides. Finally
As to the Japanese-Americans who were interred during the war. I have mixed emotions about this but at the time it seemed like a good idea. We had just seen the treachery of the Japanese with their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor while talking peace in Washington. Even today we cant discount the possibility that some of those interned may have held sympathy for their homeland and could have caused us many problems. As to the others I think they, as loyal Americans, should consider it their contribution to the war effort and forget about it. After all I would have been glad to have gone through what they did rather than what I did. I am certain that any foot soldier in the jungles of the Southwest Pacific would have been more
June 6, 2000