Staring Down the German High-Command The Incredible Story of Lt. Hector Mendietta
‘’….They all came out like robots, staring straight ahead. Only Goehring was in uniform and he was in his dress-whites. No one made eye-contact with us, they all knew, they all had to know….the grim faces they made out of innocent people was on their conscience.’’
How often do you get to run into a veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam?
I met World War II hero Lt. Hector Mendieta on the 8th of August, 2015. I had been involved in a fender-bender and was at the collision center when he walked in. Almost at once, the friendly face with a big smile began to make small talk with me. ‘’Sir, did you serve our country?’’ I asked.
‘’Why yes, In fact, not a day goes by that I don’t think about the days we fought in that war.’’
I knew right then that I had to find out more about his experiences and he commented that he was really happy someone was still interested. He went on to tell me that he was with the 1326 Regiment, Officer Candidate School. At age 19 years and 200 days, Mendietta became the one-of-three of the youngest soldiers to be appointed a platoon leader and Second lieutenant in World War II.
'' ...My family had proudly served in World War I and World War II. It was always a great source of pride to be able to say that I was fighting for America.''
Lieutenant Hector Mendieta was in the Aggie Corps of Engineers and from humble beginnings in Bruni Texas in Webb County. History often puts the most unexpected of people and places and events together in the least obvious of moments. This would become one of these occasions. This is the story of Hector Mendietta and how he would be eyewitness to one of the most riveting moments in World War II.
The more he recalled, the more he would suddenly remember. And I began thinking to myself how sad it was that we don't know or even show interest in speaking to these heroes of American history. They are the last of a dying breed, one that has all the characteristics of courage, faith, and bravery. Lt Col Mendietta was a troop leader who led from the front and was known for his fighting spirit and endurance.
He can only speak for about twenty-to-thirty minutes at a time before he begins to lose his lucidity. But his ability to recollect things he thought he had long forgotten was a lot of fun to watch. I would use Google to search for images of the places he was talking about and as I would show these to him. His eyes would light up and his memory picked up considerably. He would consistently refer to his experience in the past and apply the situation to today's America. I opted to keep him on track with regards to the story because his emotions would drain his energy.
I asked him to use all five of his senses and spoke with him about how things smelled to him. He talked about the smell of the barracks being unforgettable and it brought back a flood of memories he had not thought about. The sense of smell is the strongest and most trustworthy of them all. I met with him two times in addition to several phone conversations and he never thought that what he did for the USA was any more or less than any other soldier. It's a kind of selflessness that we don't see much today.
He came back from the war dealing with some obvious moments of pain and loss. At several moments, he began to weep but insisted on pushing through with the interviews. There were moments where he expressed his feelings toward how the Veterans Administration have treated some of his counterparts. ''....When you are well into your eighties, you don't have the desire to fight another war especially against your own doctors! ''
These years of the 1940s were perhaps the most critical of our modern era. The far reaching implications that the war had are felt to this day. We fought two major tyrannies and we prevailed, freeing thousands of people who were being sent to their torture and deaths on a daily basis.
He was a rare soldier who fought in both the European and the Pacific theatre and was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write a chapter of the war himself by building the prison that would house the surrendering German High-Command. He stood inches away from them, taking their surrender and showing them to the prison he was in charge of building. It took him just three-days to complete a mission that would leave a lifetime of memories.....
In August 1944, Allied Troops arrived in Paris. Even as Hitler desperately questioned his Generals, ‘’Is Paris Burning?’’ -- the Germans surrendered. It was the beginning of the last act of the German rule in France. Paris threw itself into an orgy of celebration and was liberated and the following day. Following that, Charles DeGaulle arrived in the city to
Left: Paris Uprising, 1944
claim its victory in a proud moment for the French.
Meanwhile, as DeGaulle claimed the credit, the allies continued to press the fight. They crossed the River Seine and chased the Germans. But the Allies were running into problems delivering supplies.
The fleeing Germans had trashed the French ports and that meant that Allied supplies had to be brought through the beaches of Normandy and across treacherous ground. Supplies, including fuel, were impossible to assist. As supply problems plagued the Allies, the Germans began a process of ruining morale by attacking the citizens.
The Germans were going to send a ‘’flying bomb’’ with a one-ton warhead on its mission to destroy Britain. The British had no answer. These V2 rockets rained on defenseless citizens for six months. But it was because of the British resolve that the morale remained as high as it did. The ongoing destruction with these bombs leveled much of London. Morale in Britain remained unbroken.
On September 3rd, 1944, the Allies reached Belgium and discovered that Antwerp was still intact. Here, at last, seemed to be an answer to the logistical problems that had plagued the Allies all along.
The Failure of ‘’Operation Barbarossa’’
Germany would not have won the war even if they hadn’t attacked Russia. Their supplies were critically short and the Allies were making gains on them by the day. But Germany did hasten the ending of the war by deciding to poke the Russian bear in an act of betrayal so severe that it made the Russians look honorable.
Adolf Hitler had never disguised his intentions with regards to the Russians. He considered the vast open spaces and resources of Russia to be the prize that would help Germany to rise to the top. He refused to listen to his generals advice and invaded Russia anyway. He named it Operation ‘’Barbarossa’’, and it was one of history’s biggest mistakes.
Stalin refused to consider a Hitler betrayal. There is a contentious peace between the two but when Churchill had MI-5 Intelligence that detailed a turn on Russia, Stalin wouldn't believe it . His mistrust towards everyone would be his own undoing. When it comes to murder, Stalin was a depraved madman with the same blood-lust of his German counterpart. Had they remained united, the two of them together would have unleashed a wave of terror on an unimaginable scale.
In theory, Russia was still Hitler’s ally and Stalin wanted to keep it that way. But Hitler had another task to perform and he needed to secure his southern flank. When Yugoslavia and Greece overthrew their Nazi sympathetic governments, it threatened to disunite Germany. He marched quickly into Yugoslavia and Greece and in December of 1941 he had subdued both countries. Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary were allied with Germany in their hatred for the Soviets. With thirty-three German divisions, Yugoslavia fell in just six days.
But Hitler went forward with the invasion.
The German armies captured 5,000,000 Soviet prisoners of war who were not granted protections stipulated in the Geneva Conventions. A majority of them never returned alive. The Nazis deliberately starved 3.1 million of the prisoners to death as part of a "Hunger Plan" that aimed to reduce the population of Eastern Europe and then re-populate it with ethnic Germans.
The hatred for the Russians actually made the German’s welcome in places like the Ukraine and Bulgaria. Almost at once, Minsk fell and 30000 prisoners were taken.
Stalin didn’t appear in public for almost a week after Hitler’s betrayal. Britain seized the moment and sent emissaries to Russia to form a pact. It was signed by Deputy Secretary Molotav while Stalin stood dispassionately behind him. There was actually little Britain could do to help the Russians aside from winning the propaganda war, but it did work.
Once having completed this, the Nazi’s then went about securing their northern borders. Hitler’s generals fell silent when he showed them his ambitions toward Russia. But no one would dare voice their objection. It was a terrible miscalculation on Hitler’s part and it set the stage for his greatest defeat.
In early July 1941, over 300,000 Russians were surrounded. The Germans looked as if they calculated right. On July 22nd, they stood outside Leningrad. But the Russians fought them off. And they continued to fight them off through much of the fall. Stalin was worried the Japanese might surprise him and attack Siberian front.
With Japan, preparing for war in the pacific, gave Stalin their word that they wouldn’t attack Siberia. That released 30,000 new and well trained Russian troops to support the key cities of Moscow. Germany was only nineteen miles from Red Square. While winter had held Hitler in check, he believed the spring would be more benevolent.
Getting Started (In His Own Words...)
I was able to fool people into thinking I was older than I was because my mother didn’t want to babysit me while my older brother went to school. So, she passed me off as a twin to my brother Herbert. It got so I could get through school a lot faster. All the way through school my brother and I were inseparable. He, like myself, got a letter from the President saying that if he agreed to serve, he’d get additional years of schooling for free. We were already Junior’s in Texas A&M when he got drafted anyway, so he didn’t finish school. They sent him to Hawaii. What a guy, right? I was called in and because I was ROTC at the time, I knew I would make it in as an officer.
On March 23, 1943, I was called into service, We were sent to Camp Roberts for basic training. We were sent to Officers Candidate School. You go through a lot of Basic Trainings, often two and three of the same trainings in a day, and then you are given mental exams too. In our ninth week it was discovered we had been sent to the WRONG camp! We should have been sent to Camp Abbott and so we essentially lost nine weeks. They sent us to Abbot where we had to start all over again. And that quite possibly separated us from many of the other regiments. We were a tight-group and we knew how to be tough…and believe me, we would need every bit of it.
By November, I was sent to OCS training, and then BACK to A&M. In 1943, we felt like we were losing the war in America. Every day you’d pick up the newspaper and it detailed another loss, another loss of life. The maps showed how we were being pushed around Europe, The Pacific, everywhere.
I was in the 1326 Regiment, reporting to Lt. Col Frank Lilack. He was a professor at John Hopkins, a real impressive man. We were builders and rebuilders. Everywhere we went, we were repairing busted roads or building others that would support the weight of our tanks. We built guardrails to keep the jeeps from sliding off the roads because in the cold they would get slushy and you had to get the most out of your tires.
One afternoon in February of 1942, we were building a hospital and a road that would allow ambulances easy access. We had built the road out several miles to a T-Section with other roads that were being built by other National Guardsman. You get the idea that there were many facets to the war other than the strategy of battle. Without roads, we couldn’t advance supplies, men, or even military supplies themselves. Without hospitals and make-shift prisons, we couldn’t get our men taken care of and we wouldn’t have logistic overview to ensure that we could move freely with captured prisoners.
It was a balmy type of day, warm and humid but cooling rapidly under an overcast sky. It seemed to get darker and colder as the evening fell. It was approaching darkness when a Three-Star Jeep drove past and the silence caught us all off guard. It was a driver and George Patton, who reached over and leaned on the horn. ‘’Get out my way!..... Now!’’ The asphalt was still smoldering and setting into place and I wasn’t about to let anyone pass right now. I rushed to the front to intercept him, knowing that this was not going to end well for one of us. But Patton’s jeep would get stuck in the asphalt and his ass would be stuck and then I would be watching the rest of the war from inside the brig!
I had to be the one to tell the General to wait. I held my hand up and looked his driver right in the eye. I was far too afraid to look at Patton the same way! ‘’Let me through, now!’’ He ordered. ‘’I can’t do that Sir. The asphalt would swallow your jeep and it isn’t ready!’’ Patton was always in a hurry. I don’t think anyone saw him sit still, but it is why we respected him so much.
I remember being surprised that he didn’t travel with more detail around him. There were two jeeps – his and a jeep behind his that had a driver and two machine-gunners. Patton never realized the risk or the danger he was in, and if he did, he never showed it to anyone. He wanted to be seen as ‘one of the guys’ but he also wanted to be seen as ‘’the leader of one of the guys.’’ It seemed that Patton lived by no law other than his own.
‘’Hand me the canteen,’’ Patton demanded of his driver. The driver reached for one and Patton barked, ‘’No, not that one, THAT one.’’ The driver reached around his seat and pulled a canteen out and Patton took a swig. ‘’Ahhh, a good shot of whiskey keeps a man’s temper down.’’ While I would have loved to drink with the General, I didn’t offer. I nodded and waited and wondered how good whiskey could be if it in a canteen.
I had a Captain pull up beside me. It was Captain William Thomas of the 59th Army Air Corps. Although he seemed to come from nowhere, he was very aware of the road building and he told me very quietly that the asphalt was cooling a bit. Patton overheard this. You can see that this was good news for the General. ‘’When will it be ready? I need to go!’’
Captain Thomas was unconcerned with rank. ‘Sir, it will take some time. Believe me we know what we are doing. It seems as if I have paved almost the entire state of Georgia, it will be ready when I say it is ready. We're paving landing strips too. ’’
‘’Oh wow!’’ I thought Captain Thomas was cooked right there.
Fortunately Patton waited. We distracted him with the suggestion that he could turn around and grab a bite to eat. He drove back the way he came and we didn’t see him for several hours, and by that time, the road was ready.
Meanwhile, The British had gone into Norway in 1941 and they landed without the Germans firing a shot. There was a German trawler floating on the water that was seized by the British. Now their objective was to blow up the ‘fish-oil’ factories which had been transformed into glycerin factories. That’s an explosive chemical! The Brits really surprised the Germans, and several of the British soldiers couldn’t resist using the post office to write Hitler themselves, asking him, ‘’where were all these Germans you said were here?’’
The ‘’Enigma Machine’’ captured in Norway. This was among the first ones adopted by the ‘’Reichsmarine’’ (German Naval Forces)
The commanders rounded up several dozen Norwegian collaborators and two hundred Germans. They also captured a German ‘’Enigma’’ machine. This gave the Brits mastery over the seas that the Germans would never recapture. These were just raids into Norway, but they convinced Hitler to keep a quarter of a million troops in Norway that could have been used elsewhere. It was blunder after blunder for Hitler. Every so often, the British and Americans would send an elite crack group to undermine the Germans. Early on they made it hard on the Germans but as effective as they were, commando raids were not enough to stop the Nazis.
It took a clandestine operation that we found out about in drips and drops throughout the war. They were called the SOE (Special Operations Executive) and they were mighty tough. We could seldom decide what direction to move but for whatever the reason, I was always invited in to the ‘’think-tank.’’ As for the SOE, they were very secretive and they worked alongside the Resistance Movement. Their agents and equipment were flown in with top-secret clearance as the increasingly larger resistance movement began to expand. The work of SOE soldiers was perilous and life was short.
We found out that messages were cleverly passed on through broadcasts. These not only fanned out the resistance movement, but it helped to uncover Nazi agents. Whether it was in Norway, Denmark, or France, there were undercover agents. And these men had a prisoner-of-war camp to maintain and in the population was growing. They then picked up 2000 Norwegian volunteers to fight with the Brits. This tactic worked all over Europe. Then they would get the people free of Hitler and they would end up fighting for them! The Norwegians and Germans fought at Maloy in Norway and there were more turncoats found. The British took more prisoners; some of them were relatively high-ranking officials.
Giving you the background here helps you understand why it is important to have a plan for what you do AFTER a county begins losing a war. The prisons grow and grow, and more and more resources are needed to take care of them. Do you think the Koreans wanted to take POW’s? Well for the most part the only place I knew that enjoyed taking prisoners was Germany. They enjoyed torturing soldiers, civilians, and anyone with a handicap.
I never questioned what our role was. When we found ourselves in Europe, we were put to work with the Army National Guard with the specific purpose of building roads, train-tracks, supply depots, and prisons. As the war was coming to an end, more and more POWs were under our control.
In December of 1944, Germany made her last desperate gasp. No one expected it. They had been surrendering unit-by-unit by in Belgium we got our first real look at what these bastards did to unarmed civilians. You didn't have a good idea what would happen one day to the next. Things happened so fast. We moved out of France and turned toward southern Germany. As we passed through some of the towns of France, we saw such a pitiful sight. People scrounging for bread.
It was the final months of the war and it seemed obvious that the everyday German soldier lost his will to fight. More and more they surrendered. Some of these Germans were disguised as civilians, sometimes wearing the clothes of the civilians they killed. We dealt with them extra special. Let's just say, they weren't there to see the end.
In February of 1945 we destroyed Dresden. We probably had no need to, but we did it anyway. En route to Berlin, all of the bridges from Holland southward were taken out. All---but one. Much to our surprise, the Nazi's forgot one bridge and we were on our way to Berlin. We heard later that Hitler executed the German unit that left the Remargen Bridge open for business.
Building a Prison in Three Days for the German High-Command
In 1945, Germany finally surrenders. We sure didn’t feel the war was over. You ask me what it smelled like. Well that’s the thing you never forget. War has a very distinct smell. Let’s start with the fuel, diesel. It was everywhere. There weren’t gas station everywhere. The jeeps carried drums of fuel and they often leaked. The smell of rotting food and sweat and cigar smoke permeated the air. You were lucky if you got to shower once a week in those conditions. But the worst of all was the smell of burned buildings, charred earth. It never leaves your memory. As for Berlin - What a mess. It was still smoldering. We bombed the holy-hell out of the city in the days before the invasion. They would be finding bodies for months after the war was over.
This all set the stage for my single biggest moment in my military career.
I was called into the office of my Commanding Officer. I was told that I was to be in charge of taking a school and hotel and to turn into a make-shift prison and interrogation center for the newly surrendered Nazi high-command. ‘’…you will have just 72-hours, he said, and it has to be done to perfection.’’ It was to be built in Bad Nenndorf Luxembourg and I was to report directly to the battalion commander.
Wow, what a huge responsibility. I had all of three days to get this in order. Well nothing is impossible – nothing, when you have a good team of guys alongside you. I was lucky because I was well connected, and the supply depot at Arlon was great about getting us things like barbed-wire and electrical supplies. Another depot was great at pulling in lumber and building pontoons so that we could quickly transport the things we needed to transport.
We got everything together in about three days and before I knew it I had a bunch of fighter planes circling overhead, escorting a convoy of the German High Command into our camp. We cut those hotel room doors in half so we could keep the lower half of the door locked at all times and keep the prisoners in their cells. The next step was to install steel rods in the windows to keep the Germans from escaping through the windows.
Within three days we had that compound all finished up. All of the high command was there except for the top dog who’d killed himself. I believe his name was Himmler. Sometimes I remember better than others (laughs). My platoon was the only American unit that knew what was going on there. It was an extremely classified mission. We were there about three more days and we moved from there to Marseilles, France to be with the rest of the company. We were in Marseilles for about a month before we shipped out for Japan.
Among the things we had to do was to build barbed-wire and cyclone-fencing, booby-traps, posts and various other electrical supplies. We were up around the clock, transforming the landscape, building huge post-holes, fortifying walls, building a make-shift interrogation center and prison processing center. We had to build machine-gun nests and towers in each corner of the hotel. Wow, what a whirlwind of activities! We utilized a makeshift playground as a place for the prisoners to get a little exercise, but not one of them knew that it would be the same courtyard where they would be hung.
The cells were barely 6x9 and were reinforced with lead doors. The only light they were allowed to see was a small bulb that was shined through the door. We didn't have the time to rewire the place and it wouldn't have been safe to do so anyway. Too many things can go wrong there. The rooms were dank places. We wanted this to be a prison after-all.
I remember this now that I am thinking about it. We had an Army psychologist, oh, I can’t remember his name now. (Gustave Gilbert) Once they were shipped to Nuremburg to face trial, he was tasked with giving IQ exams to the prisoners. He did many tests and there were penalties for not taking part in them.
Well, Arthur Seyss-Inquart came away with the highest score. His eyes were all over the place, constantly scanning, looking. It totally stood in contrast to the rest of them who stared straight ahead. When he was sentenced to die he actually seemed happy about it. He did not want to die in prison after many years. I wondered how many of them felt that way once they were sentenced.
It was said that in the days before his hanging he had a Christian conversion. You never know what really to believe and I thought the conversion was really something given how he came across at first. He was the last one that was hung but I never got the full story about him. I just know he brought with him a lot of fury.
As promised, on the morning of the fourth day, a number of airplanes began to circle overhead and there was a load of tension and activity. P-47’s and P-51’s were new to the Air Force and yet they were used overhead for this occasion.
Then - Sentries and Military Police began to line up on the sides of the streets and sharpshooters took their places in the buildings nearby. More and more military officials and high-ranking officers began to show up.
Soon, jeeps with machine guns began arriving too. They lined the streets and things grew very tense. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Given the amount of military preparedness I was witnessing, I thought for sure there was an ambush on the way. None of the men with me felt at ease – not at all.
It dawned on me that I wasn’t cleaned up for this. I had been driving hard, three straight days with little-to-no-rest. I was really smelly you know. I didn’t smoke back then but I reeked so bad that I smoked a cigar to try to make myself smell better! That’s how bad I thought I stunk.
So now it begins --- One-by-one, this convoy of military vehicles arrives with the German high-command and various sympathizers from Norway, Sweden, France, and Italy were brought in. At first, we were rushed to line up to receive them. It was eerie, really eerie.
The vehicles came to a stop in front of the prison. It was very quiet now - very quiet, with the exception of the sound of planes flying on a large circle over the area. One-by-one the German high-command steps out of their vehicles. Some of them were cuffed, others were not. It seemed to me that the sympathizers were the ones who were chained, whereas the German officers were not. But there were so many, you couldn’t actually be sure.
Everyone lined up. They all came out like robots, staring straight ahead. Only Goering was in uniform and he was in his dress-whites. It was told to me that Goering was hand-picked by Hitler to negotiate on behalf of Germany after the surrender. Hitler announced his plans to commit suicide and his loyalty to Goering was very evident. No one made eye-contact with us, they all knew, they all had to know….the grim faces they made out of innocent people was on their conscience…''
Roll-call was really something. They lined up. They were men of precision and direction. Part of me felt a little sorry for them too – it seemed like none of them intended to be there. But you know how it is, loyalty to Hitler was not an option. But the fact that not one of them stood up for what was right made them all cowards to me. I guess you can say I still have mixed emotions about it all.
They lined up and stood before our own military command. I didn’t discern any emotions or any real feelings. These were cold and calculating men. There was a particular scent of acrid tobacco amongst the German High-Command that at the time I didn’t understand. I later was told that they didn’t have access to good tobacco and so they made their own out of improvised herbs. One can imagine what it was.
These are the Prisoners of War and Members of the Third Reich who Lt. Mendietta helped to incarcerate. At center, in his dress whites, Herman Goering
I received quite a bit of recognition for pulling this off, but my platoon of thirty-nine men really made it happen. There was a bit of a lull in the days immediately after the surrender but just as I got to feeling the job was done, I was off to Japan. The war may have ended for the Germans, but it sure didn’t end for me.
As a side-note for this, the prison was a bad place in the years to come. The British were also a part of the continuation of the prison after we built it. They practiced a different kind of interrogation – torture - than we did, and it ultimately made them look bad. There were war-crimes committed by the British and ultimately the prison was closed down.
It is a surprise to many that woman were often in uniform in World War II. I became friends with one of the women of the Air Force. There were woman pilots who trained the air force pilots. In fact, here’s something you don’t know. Cornelia Fort had been giving a Civilian Lesson over Hawaii on December7TH, 1941. She became the first pilot to engage the Japanese Navy.
This is the Berlin Prison today. We studied the layout and planning of this prison, and we a school and turned them into a temporary prison. In these walls were the world’s cruelest killers alongside traitors who sided with the Germans during the war. Notice the floor, that was the original floor of the prison. The prison would later be used by the Germans as a notorious holding facility for Communists, Political Prisoners, and Russian KGB agents. They improved upon the watch-tower and added electrical fences too.
This is outside Berlin, in Karlshorst, and it is where the German High Command surrendered, ending the war. Directly after this moment, they showed up in a perfect line, and followed me and my men directly to their temporary prison. My heart raced, and I made sure to put my two Jewish soldiers in the direct receiving line. It wasn’t much, but I felt a little of the vindication that I am sure they did. When it was over and the doors finally closed, I glanced over to them and they were weeping on one another’s shoulders.
Going to the Pacific Theater
Almost at once, we were sent to the Pacific. Even after serving in Germany and in the rest of Europe, these men were ready to go and ready to help us win the war. No one thought of themselves, at least as far as I could see.
I took two regiments, 5000 troops and we ended up in the Caroline Islands. We set sail for the open sea and for the entire journey, it was just us. There wasn’t another ship within site! The guys were taking some well deserved R&R while on the trip. But during that time, the commanding officers all met and there we discussed our invasion plans for Japan. We were going to select certain beaches, because unlike Normandy, the coastline of Japan is a suicide trap of inland jetty’s’ and tough terrain. We were estimating very high casualties and that was a heavy load to bear when I would peak out and see he men laughing and playing cards on deck. Seemed to me like many of them weren’t coming home, and there was a good chance I wasn’t going to come home either. Once we got to the islands, we had to take turns there but it was so nice. There wasn’t much there but you can imagine – we didn’t care. There were a few baseball diamonds, volleyball courts, pretty beaches and lots of beer! Oh boy, did that ever taste good to us.
We were there for three weeks and the tranquility was so nice. Then, one morning, I woke up at sunrise. And there, as far as the eye could see, ships. All kinds of ships. Through my binoculars I could see they were American, Australian, British, Indian, even Irish. It was the most amazing thing I did see, ships in all four directions. Well, the party is over now!
We had drawn up plans to invade Japan and how this was all going to go down, and when. The range of dates for our invasion were September 15, 1945 – September 30, 1945. It was going to require precision timing by Naval and Marine forces of multiple nations, and then Air Force support from American and Australian forces. As soon as we would map out and solve one problem, we would create two more. Furthermore, there was a lot of competition and ego amongst the military commanders. This was going to be one of the largest invasions- maybe even THE largest invasion – ever.
There was a lot of different opinions. ‘’Operation Downfall’’ was going to invade the Japanese home islands in June. As the meeting with Truman broke up, the atomic bomb had yet to even be tested. We were going to invade and blockade the country. We knew that the Japs were very brutal – especially in China, where they carried out massacres he Chinese would never forget.
We drew up ultimatums for their surrender, but we didn’t expect them to throw the white flag. Their Navy was decimated by then but you could never count them out.
But there were several mistakes the Japanese made in 1941. They errantly believed that we would respond as they would, feeling humiliated and ashamed, you know, too ashamed to even fight back. Secondly, the fleet that they destroyed did not include key components, including aircraft carriers. While the Japanese seemed to celebrate the sneak-attack, Admiral Yamamoto was worried. He alone seemed to understand that the Americans would take it on the chin and then keep it going.
By 1942, the Japanese had almost the entire Southern Pacific. Any island they could capture, they captured. There was no getting around it. We had to have an unconditional surrender from Japan, and we would have to do it, island-by-island. The Japanese government- beginning with Hiro-Hito, needed to surrender to end the fight. And when we talked amongst ourselves about it, we just didn’t see that happening.
While we were still in Europe, 3 or 4 Aircraft Carriers, 54 Warships and 19,000 soldiers sought to take back Guadalcanal. The attack was a brilliant success and caught the Japanese by surprise. Despite our success, you could see how Japanese these soldiers would die before surrendering. They simply did not quit. When they ran out of bullets, they threw stones!
The cost of American lives at Guadalcanal would be a foretelling of what a mainland invasion would look like. As we discussed what we were going to be doing, we were made all too aware of that fight on that little island. We had rocky beaches and volcanic soil in the Solomon Islands. But we won – and it was the first defeat of Japanese soldiers in the Pacific. Oh, and the ego’s of our leadership…..Nimitiz and MacArthur were bitter enemies and each wanted to take credit for the invasion of Japan.
In November of 1943, a disastrous and pyrrhic victory was won. Why was this a bad thing? The answer is that the losses we absorbed and the brutality that the guys met there made this such a personal war. We were successful at Tenaru. The Imperial 17TH Armed Forces of Japan put up a hell of a fight. Only seventeen out of five thousand Japanese soldiers survived. We lost over a thousand marines, and it was God-Awful. And such losses would be a familiar pattern for us, and we would have a hard time believing what we were hearing.
The 17th Imperial Army of Japan. This is General Count Terauc Hisaichi, commanding officer of the Southern Expeditionary Army Group.
There is an interesting thing about this battle which one of the soldiers shared with me. The Japanese held all the key positions. It would be that way in almost every island in the Pacific that we fought over. With positional advantage, they decided to attack our men at night! This was not a smart move, and the only thing that was surprising is that they did it at all. There was no need to risk everything. After all, it was up to us to take the fight to them!
What’s more is that the Japanese didn’t even try to outflank us. They came straight at us, a frontal assault, at night-time, from advantageous positions. It couldn’t have happened any better for the Americans, for with Japan’s now weakened defenses, we were able to sneak in behind them and assume superior position! Crazy! But one thing did emerge – what unpredictable actions would the Japs take if we were to invade the actual country?
New Guinea fell and in January 1945, MacArthur took back the Philippines while Nimitz set his sights on Iwo Jima. For seventy straight days, Naval vessels bombed Iwo Jima relentlessly. Iwo Jima was strategically important for the Japanese for it gave them advance warning of incoming enemy fighters. It was a first line of defense.
The Japanese hunkered down in a bevy of underground tunnels. Carnage and death were all over the slopes. Although we were supported by constant naval and aerial bombing, we couldn’t gain a real foothold for some time. I heard some incredible stories regarding that invasion, all-the-while, we were setting forth a plan to invade Japan. Hell, if they could hold us off on these little islands, we began to wonder, ‘what will it be like when we hit the mainland?’’
I lost several close friends in Iwo Jima and never had the chance to say a proper goodbye. It was horrible to see the caskets just keep on coming. On February 1945, Iwo Jima fell to the proud and heroic Marines lifted that flag on Mt. Cerabuchi in a picture worth a thousand words.
Lives seemed so expendable. They really did.
But it was crucial to us too. It’s less than seven hundred miles from Japan. The men were told it would be an easy invasion. The first lesson became clear – the landings were unopposed, but the counter-attack was ferocious. They let us land and without opposing bullets, some of the men slowed down, taking it easy. Our landing began to lose form and it got congested. They planned on letting us land and then swallowed us from behind, leaving a real bad mess. On that first day, we lost so many men.
By the end of the first day, 2,500 US Marines were dead. But by the end of the fourth day, the iconic image of the war and the flag was raised over the highest peak. The brutality of war was pure annihilation. Our men saw first-hand the labyrinth of caves that required us to burn them out. 21,000 Americans died on an eight mile island. Iwo Jima stood out to our leadership just what we might face in Tokyo.
As we planned for an all-out invasion of Japan, more and more trepidation over-took our discussions. We decided to conventionally bomb Japan. One of my Air Force friends described what it looked like as a rain of fire falling from the skies. For nearly three hours we dropped some 1500 tons in a target area of ten square miles.
Our leadership became more extreme in the way they viewed the war. Curtis LeMay wanted to bomb and bomb and bomb Tokyo and blockade them to agitate the population into rebellion. The Japanese High-Command seemed unmoved by the suffering of the people, while in America there was no hurry to invade Japan. It was thought that they would capitulate, but no one knew when.
America and the Use of Poison Gas
We were in the war-room and universally we decided we cannot afford to wait much longer. Here I was, trying to figure out a logistical nightmare. I had to rebuild the roads so that we could get supplies to our men, and I couldn’t get supplies to the men until the roads were built first! Typical Army. But they liked me because no matter what they told me to do, I did it. I just didn’t always do things the way they
Just Five More Minutes – The Last Stories of Our World War II Veterans wanted them done. As I said, I got results. One of my CO’s told me, ‘’Lt. Mendietta, I like you because no matter what I tell you to do – you do it. But you sure don’t listen to me when I tell you how to do it. Either way, you never complain and you get it done!’’
While I was at Texas A&M, I was introduced to a type of warfare I had only read about. It was a nightmare really, and none of us wanted any part of it. This was top-secret at the time and would remain so for some time after the war’s conclusion. Whatever we were discussing at the time, suddenly everything came to a standstill. ‘’Poison Gas’’ said one of the Lt. Generals at the table. Everything fell silent as the discussion very seriously made its way around the room.
It was discussed as to whether we could use poison gas on the Japanese. As I mentioned, I had specialized training in Chemical Warfare and you need not be a genius to figure out that we were now looking at whatever alternatives we had. Training began on Chemical Weapons Warfare. We discussed the use of poisonous gas and we listed Japanese targets. The Japanese were vicious and no one was feeling much compassion for them. Every major city was to be hit. Mustard Gas was to be used in Tokyo because it adheres to wood. We were now knee-deep in it.
We estimated eight or nine million people would die in Japan. We envisioned the panic that it would cause and we were moving that direction. The Japanese had considered – as we would find out much later – that in 1944 they were hoping FDR would lose the election so they could arrange a better deal. Roosevelt wanted to end the war and was willing to use any weapons at our disposal, including gas.
There were different kind of gasses that were being discussed. Chlorine was the least expensive. Victims could not be touched or bandaged, let-alone comforted. It had awful long-term effects that we were only now able to discover. World War I Veterans were suffering from serious cancers due to its alkylating properties. I wasn’t a fan of using it on civilians.
I could imagine kids and old people alike, each with no stake in the matter of war, suffering as a result. I suppose it was wrong of me at the time, but whenever I would catch myself feeling that way, I would remember the brutality shown to our boys by the Japanese and it seemed to justify why I felt the way I felt. ‘’Damn them all.’’ -- it was all I could think.
The Huntsville Mustard Gas Arsenal produced more gas in five months. 79,000 drums of mustard-gas were produced and the plans were submitted to General Porter for approval. I was seeing a lot of problems with this attack because of the affect it might have on our own men.
The plan to use mustard-gas was not well known to many people. We had an agreement not to use these weapons unless they were used on us, but it seemed like we were now looking to change this. In February 1945, General Marshall outlined his plan for invasion. It would be a full-out invasion, and we were to make a two-pronged attack. Consider how much planning Normandy took and multiple it by ten, and then you have what we were facing in the invasion of Japan. (Operation X-Day)
The date for this invasion would by November 1st, 1945 . The densely wooded and volcanic terrain and those deep ravines, of Kyushu, couldn’t have been more different than what we saw in Europe. The islands in Japan were almost impossible to navigate. The scale of this invasion would take us to Tokyo by March of 1946.
MacArthur wanted 250,000 combat troops and 700,000 men. You can bet my regiment was to be a part of that. You have to understand – MacArthur was a student of military history, but almost because of that, he was way too conventional. He read every Civil War and World War I book there was. He saw it like a chessboard.
The Japanese were brutal in the mutilation they did on American GIs. The stories made me madder than hell. The Japanese dug into the hillside and jungle and a changing tactics. There were tunnels criss-crossing the whole damn island. It was horrible trying to deal with their ferocity. Now we are beginning to question just how we can pull off an invasion. Okinawa was a game-changer and caused us to rethink the way we were going to prosecute the war.
In Okinawa, you can see Kama-Kazi pilots. They were clearly losing the war and thought there was no reason to try to survive. You couldn’t take prisoners in Okinawa. We had no prisons for POWs so every prisoner that the guys caught, they executed them. It wasn’t open for debate. 107,000 Japanese troops and civilians were dead and only 109 survived.
On the American side, the scale of the casualties on land and sea tipped us off as to what would happen in an invasion of Japan. 50,000 casualties were our own hell. You cannot imagine, even the stench when we were there, was overwhelming.
The willingness for the Japanese to suffer through anything, to die and take others out in the process seemed to force our hand with regards to Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Okinawa stunk. There were bodies still being discovered there when we arrived. Although we killed 500,000 Japanese, it accounted for under 10% of their total army. Four million in Japan alone, and they DON’T give up!
This is what we were up against in the Pacific. The odds were stacked against us and the longer we fought there the more obvious it would become that we could not sustain a military invasion of Japan.
When it came to the final battle at Okinawa, a ferocious civilian attack on the Americans was forthcoming. The Japanese seemed to believe that American-Will would be destroyed if more and more lives would be lost. The battle for Okinawa was still raging even when we arrived.
One of the first to understand that an invasion would not work was Admiral Nimitz. We were told that any discussion of invasion of Japan was not going to happen, but we were preparing for it anyway. There needed to be an alternative to the invasion. Nimitz didn’t even disclose this to Truman. We wondered if he was going to attack or leave us high-and-dry.
By the time we were sent to Okinawa, the war in the Pacific was in full-swing. We were to await further orders and to continue making preparations for the land invasion. My job was to make sure we logistically had provisions and weapons for the men. We mapped out areas that were going to need pontoon bridges and roads finished. The amount of espionage we had to do in order understand the layout of the terrain and to know where we would build roads. We had begin building out deadlines and some exact details when something unexpected happened.
At some point, President Truman met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He wanted to know what kind of numbers we were looking at with a land invasion. The last thing Truman wanted was to take troops fresh off their European victory would suddenly have to move them back out to the Pacific. But those spring and summer months were brutal.
The Navy and Air Force put out realistic numbers, but the Army Chief of Staff, General Marshall, told Truman it would be about 30000 lives altogether. The Army was absolutely devoted to a land invasion, and his enthusiasm for the invasion was obvious. I was preparing for it, but not entirely sure which way we were going to go.
What do Japanese Text-Books have to say about World-War II? Answer: This largely depends as some of them present a pretty open and self-incriminating in their evaluation of their own role in WWII and their brutality.
"In the 1930's, Japan was expanding its colonial sphere of influence just as England, France, the US, and other colonial powers had been doing. Since this was unpopular in Europe, Japan had to ally itself with Germany so that it could enjoy the same imperial rights the Europeans had been enjoying for centuries.
To provide a pretext for attacking Japan, Roosevelt allowed the Japanese Navy to attack Pearl Harbor. A couple of uninteresting things happened in the intervening years. Then, in 1945, when Japan was utterly helpless, the US dropped 2 bombs on them for no reason whatsoever. Many women and children died, and people still suffer the effects to this day.’’ 4
The Atom Bomb – My Conversation with the Navigator of Nagasaki Flight
The entire course of the war in the Pacific was about to change. It was somewhat strange to me to listen to all these great men come up with ideas and options….and yet we had no doubt of the outcome.
What we were now hoping for was a knockout blow. A single-crushing blow with a single weapon – and it would force Japan into surrender. Without any advance warning, a rumor starts flying around like wildfire that we dropped a huge bomb on Japan. I had heard that we were trying to design a ‘’Super-Bomb’’ in New Mexico, but having been so occupied with my own arena, I hadn’t kept up with it. This super bomb must have been one amazing device since it was said to destroy the city of Hiroshima.
President Truman was an unknown to us. Of course we loved FDR. And we wondered, ‘Will Truman make the hard decisions like FDR did?’’ I understand it cost $2B to make the atomic bomb. One weapon and so much money, but if it could do what we were told it could do – that was money well spent. General MacArthur was kept in the dark due to his volatile temper. There was a lot of indecision regarding the bomb and at Potsdam, Truman tried to convince Stalin to invade China and push Japan out.
But in this time, we detonated our first atomic bomb in New Mexico. The yield was much greater than anyone could imagine. We weren’t sure it was going to work,
Just Five More Minutes – The Last Stories of Our World War II Veterans
but suddenly everyone was on deck, watching the skies. The final Potsdam declaration demanded unconditional surrender. The Japanese final provision was the preservation of the Japanese order as well as their accountability to war crimes.
We thought these demands were a little silly. After all, we are at war, and telling the Japanese that they better surrender or else seemed hollow. But something was afoot. We felt the tension and we looked to one another with a little fear and a little hope. Plans for X-Day would go on if the ‘Super-Bomb’’ had failed.
We were told that at the Enola Gay dropped a bomb so powerful that it destroyed most of the city. It came without warning and it was 5,500 Degrees Fahrenheit at the center.
Three days later, Nagasaki was hit. But it wasn’t like we weren’t fighting in-between. Hell we damn-near razed the country with saturation bombs. Because the B-29 is a noisy and very slow plane, we had to fly these missions late at night. My friend on that flight was Jim Van Pelt. He didn’t know he was going to be chosen for it, and he was told he was going to Kokura. Suddenly, as the story was told to me, Captain Sweeny tells Van Pelt to ‘chart another course – this one to Nagasaki.’’
Nagasaki was where a number of Japanese plants were. They were well protected by geography and the Kyushu Military Base nearby. Mitsubishi was it’s main supplier.
Now we very nearly didn’t drop the bomb that day. Van Pelt told me that Captain Sweeney was under strict orders to only drop the bomb if he caught a visual of the target. And by then there were fuel concerns. The plane- a B-29 Super Fortress, was running out of fuel and has been flying so long that it is now sun-rise and everyone is bustling and hustling on the streets below. The weather was changing rapidly, first it was cloudy and wet, then clear and sunny, and then cloudy and foggy again. You just couldn’t predict the weather there. We had long lost the element of true surprise, that was to drop the bomb while it was still dark. But it was light outside now and it was already 10:30 and the jig is up, as they say.
Kokura was the initial target. After Hiroshima, we could not figure out why the Japs wouldn’t surrender! They refused to face the impending truth. It began to look like Kokura couldn’t be hit due to weather concerns. We were waiting in Okinawa to hear of the surrender while another plane is on the way to bomb Nagasaki. By now, the sound of any American plane overhead drove the Japs into a frenzy. They would race like hell for shelters. We ran so many false missions because we wanted to soften them up.
Just Five More Minutes – The Last Stories of Our World War II Veterans
Nagasaki became the second target. I would say that it was a little over 150km from Kokura. Not many people know this but this is where Roman Catholic Church had a bunch of missionaries. There was a mystique about Nagasaki which made us reluctant to drop it. According to Van Pelt, he said they were going to use radar bombing when very suddenly they got a visual. The bombers were spotted but the 250,000 people were not alerted because they had just experienced three successive air-raid sirens and the people were tired of the running. It had achieved what we wanted. Once they saw a key bridge. The bomb was dropped at once. I was told that it was just two minutes after eleven in the morning.
Van Pelt told me there was a smoke trail from the base of the explosion – a mushroom cloud at the top. The shock wave shook the plane pretty good. The light from the bomb seemed to surge past the plane and the mushroom kept on billowing out. To listen to him tell the story still tingles the spine.
Within the hour, we were made aware of the news. We were told to wait. As the night wore on, word of the utter disaster began to reach us. It hardly seemed real. They were estimating 15,000 dead instantly. In fact, it would be a great many more. Then, the second bomb is dropped. ‘’How much more can they take?’’ I wondered if Japan was going to surrender or whether they were going to be bombed and bombed and bombed. Obviously, we didn’t know how many bombs we had, but there was no way President Truman wanted to risk an invasion.
I understood the war from a broader sense that many of my brothers didn’t have the luxury of. Most of them simply didn’t care. They were there to do a job and get out. But I understood that we were nervous about Stalin taking up ownership of countries in Europe and we were nervous about what Russia would do with Japan and elsewhere.
Without Germany to stretch out the Allies, Japan had little choice but to surrender. Yet they willed themselves to get back up. Nagasaki was up next. We heard that 100,000 were dead. For our troops, the news of the Atomic Bomb was cause for celebration. We did not have to go ahead with the invasion. All we were thinking about was the war was going to be over soon. And yet, the day after Hiroshima, the plans for X-Day was still on. Operation Olympic was the name for the invasion he had planned and while we didn’t see that we were going to have to head out to war.
General Marshall wanted to drop nine atomic bombs on defensive positions. It was clear that Marshall wasn’t about to send American troops to invade Japan. He argued that we didn’t know about the radiation and worried about sending men into that mess. Now, I was told that IF we invade, my regiments have to clear the debris. It was an unreal request. Had we gone in to do this, the radiation would have killed us all. American troops would have an unthinkable challenge ahead.
The Japanese were indeed shocked when Stalin invaded. Still, we had no word of surrender when we heard of a second massive bomb. Nagasaki’s bomb was detonated accidentally – quite a bit above ground. Nonetheless, 70,000 died in an instant. Although no one knew it at the time, we didn’t have another Atom Bomb at that moment and Truman was discouraged that the Japanese would surrender.
But finally, on August 19, 1945, Japan surrendered. On the radio, Harry Truman says that the Japs had surrendered in ‘’accordance to the Potsdam agreement.’
The Japanese have given the USA and Russia much to think about. Truman expected Stalin to join the war sooner than he did, and then when he announced his intentions, after we dropped the bomb on the first place, it made Truman nervous. But the war was over.
'' What a relief. NOW we could finally have that party we were rehearsing for! The formal surrender happened on September 2nd, 1945 on the Battleship Missouri.
I get asked about the atomic bomb a lot. As God-Awful as the bombs would be, they had to happen! They had to happen. This destruction was awful, but I was tired of fighting…..we all were tired of fighting. The Japanese were simply barbaric in the way they treated captured prisoners and some of those guys I had the pleasure of working with told me stories that were scarcely believable to me. ''
Surviving and Escaping the Bataan Death March
But let me tell you a story about Bataan. I had a friend who was in the Air Force and he escaped from the Bataan death march. They were captured in the Battle at Manila and became a prisoner of the Japanese. He and buddy decided to make a run for it through the bushes. Why they figured that marching for endless days without water or food and watching the endless torture was not for them. So they took off, right in front of the guards, who somehow missed them. Well the Philippine Armed Forces rescued him.
In fact – it was their elite 4TH Division and he served alongside and with the Philippine Army. Eventually, they gave him a Command Rank and gave him a unit to serve under him. When he got back to the US Army they gave him a Major rank! He admitted he did nothing to earn the Army rank, (especially since he was initially in the Air Force) but it was honored anyway. He spent the rest of his military years, not with the Air Force, but with the Army!
The 1945 Typhoon
We then were wrestling with the logistics of sending the men home to the states. Everyone was relaxed and happy. For the first time in the war we could hear planes overhead and not be all jumpy. In early October of 1945, we were all enjoying some time on the beach. The breeze picked up quite a bit and we could see breakers on the waves pretty far out in the sea. But it felt so nice, not too hot you know.
I spent time writing a ‘’How to’’ guide on the proper way to ‘’disassemble’’ an Army so that we can send them home. But that night, on October 3rd, the skies grew very dark and radar picked up a typhoon. It started toward China but then took an unexpected turn toward us, at Okinawa.
Contemporary Newspapers of Typhoon in Okinawa in 1945
The storm grew in intensity that night. We were tying things down and the excitement we felt just showed how invincible we thought we were. My 5000 men survived a war in BOTH arenas and countless highs-and-lows, and no storm was going to get the best of us. Even as the winds became violent, we laughed at how much fun it all seemed.
Prior to the storm turning northward, we put the naval vessels and cargo ships on the far side of the island, in Buckner Bay. But the storm’s strongest side whipped the ships back-and-forth. There were 30 foot waves crashing into the island. A total of 12 ships and craft were sunk, 222 grounded, and 32 severely damaged. When we saw buildings being ripped apart, the seriousness of this storm no longer had us laughing.
By 1600 the typhoon reached its peak, with steady winds of 100 knots and frequent gusts of 120 knots. At this time the barometer dipped to 968.5 millibars. This was the lowest reading that the barometers recorded, and was probably the point of passage of the center of the typhoon, but the maximum winds continued unabated for another two hours, the gusts becoming more fierce, if anything. During this period, the wind shifted to the north, and then to the northwest, and began to blow ships back off the west and north reefs of the Bay and across to the south, sometimes dragging anchor the entire way. These wild voyages by damaged ships caused a nightmare series of collisions and near escapes with other drifting ships and shattered hulks. ------------ Tokyo Newspaper --------------
The next day, the worst of the storm was over, but it was still raining and windy. I wasn’t prepared to see what I saw. Nothing – and I mean nothing – was left standing in Okinawa. All of our medical and food supplies were lost. Our entire ability to defend the island was destroyed – 60 airplanes and 110 amphibious landing ships were completely decimated. If this storm had happened only a year earlier, Japan could have walked right on in and taken it. But the worst of it was the number of dead. We lost 83-men that day, 200 seriously hurt. I lost several very close friends and the grief was so deep.
The Typhoon that destroyed much of the US Naval Vessels at Okinawa
These are the WEEHAWKEN and the Wateree
After we surveyed the island, there was nothing but a steeple from a church standing. The tidal surge destroyed the entire island. But here is the memory I can never get rid of. It is the smell of the rivers flowing with thick red blood. It stunk, like nothing else you can imagine. Human waste, bodies, animals, you name it, those lucky enough to survive got to clean up those unlucky enough to die. It was a terrible way to bring a close to the war.
The storm made it so that we had to head over to the Philippines for the remainder of the war but the pain of losing friends in such a way never leaves you.
Clint Eastwood and ‘’Heartbreak Ridge’’
I was appointed the Chief Commanding Officer of Training at Fort Ord in California. While there, a young recruit arrived and began to train on the gun range. He was shooting at a stationary target from about 500 yards and he couldn’t hit the thing. Hell, he didn’t even come close! So I came down from observation and here is this raw kid, tall, lean, good-looking, on his belly with dirt all over his face.