Captain Bob Schulte and Sgt Robert Smouse: Two Incredible Stories of Heroism
"I wouldn't say I had given up, but maybe I had given out."
Cpt Bob Schulte
Mst Sgt Robert Smouse, (1922-2014) Cpt. Bob Schulte, (1920-2012)
These two men, from different parts of the United States, are linked in their service to the country. Proud, courageous and excellent story tellers, each has a unique experience. One took home FIVE Bronze Stars for heroism and the other would be a POW in BOTH World War II and Korea. Yet each fought for the idea that America was inherently in the right with regards to Liberty and Freedom.
I asked each man to relay their story to me with one caveat. I asked that ALL five senses be utilized when recalling data. As they did, each found themselves recalling things they had long forgotten. Unlocking these stories from soldiers who had terrible experiences isn't easy. But the topics covered bring forth a treasure trove of historical memories that only highlight how incredible this generation of men were.
History was recorded largely through the newspapers and you will notice a lot of them add color and perspective to these eyewitness accounts. Contemporary journalists are in a sense, the historians of tomorrow. While they cannot possibly fill out all of the details, news agencies can provide an outline and framework for the rest of the story. And the primary tool a detective historian has are precious primary sources. Historians have learned to draw on these eyewitness accounts to bring accuracy, detail, feeling, and relevance to moments frozen in time.
Very few World War II soldiers are alive today, but for those who continue to be part of my upcoming book, I salute each one of you.
The Backdrop of World War II and the Mood in the US
For two uneasy years, Europe watched as Adolf Hitler rolled through Poland, Austria and Belgium. Almost under the radar was Japan, who was mirroring Germany step-for-step in both conquest and cruelty. This was a period in world history when the ideas of Communism, Socialism, Racism, Militarism, Fascism, Anarchy, Nationalism, and Democracy were all in world conflict. Not only would 102 different nations from all around the globe participate in World War II, but there would be a Civil War in Spain that would almost destroy the country. But the involvement of the United States occurred when the Japanese attacked the United States.
WWII would be the deadliest war of all time. On December 7, 1941, Japan is about to attack the United States. Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida gathered the pilots together for the traditional Sake toast to the emperor. He was regarded as one of Japan’s true aces, having flown extensively in the Second Sino-Japanese war and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1936. Fuchida would be the lead pilot for this mission and nothing is left to chance. It’s just 4am but the pilots are wired and ready. The leader of the Japanese imperial army, Yamamoto wants to deliver a decisive blow to the United States with the surprise attack. Beneath him however was the leader of the Japanese carrier group, Chiuchu Ngomo. He was often at odds with Yanamoto over military tactics and strategies. Many contemporaries and historians have doubted Fuchida's suitability for this command, given his lack of familiarity with naval aviation.
Intelligence reports handed to him two days prior to the attack indicate that the Japanese do not know where the aircraft carriers were located. But there was no time for waiting as each hour that went by another opportunity to uncover the Japanese plan. Ngomo proceeded to attack anyway, opting for one attack that he hoped would be decisive. Fuchida had prepared for this day for weeks in advance.
He recounted what happened that day with vivid detail.
''....At 7:20 I led the way down the island's eastern side, then banked west and flew along the southern coast past the city of Honolulu.
I then ordered, "Tenkai!" ("Take attack position!"), and then at 7:40, I opened the canopy of my Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 Model 3 "Kate" torpedo bomber and fired a green flare, the signal to attack.
At 07:53, I ordered Mizuki to send the code words ‘’Tora, Tora, Tora’’ back to the carrier Akagi, the ship I had become so familiar with. In this message, I told the Japanese commanders that our mission of surprise had been achieved. '' 1
The Humbling Memorial at Pearl Harbor
Photography by Robert Bluestein, 2001, ©
The planes began to produce a low buzz that gradually got deeper and louder. There was a slight fragrance of salt-water in the air as the planes buzzed louder and louder. Like a swarm of bees coming in the distance, the skies grew dark.
Sgt Schulte reveals what was going through his mind before the attack happened.
They needn’t have attacked us. The night before the attack, I went out dancing with my friends. There was no appetite, trust me, there was no appetite for war in the USA. No one I knew wanted any part of another great war. My dad was a WWI veteran and he filled my head with the horror of war. Had they just went forward and continued conquering islands in the far other side of the earth, Americans wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Look at what already had happened!
We didn’t do anything when they invaded China. We did nothing when they invaded Indochina and Burma. We did nothing when Borneo and the Philippines were taken over. So why on earth did they believe that they had to attack us in Hawaii? The attack looks like a dirty and underhanded sneak attack – which strengthened and united a divided America. Like an ominous thunderstorm, we all knew that life as we knew it was going to change drastically. I just couldn’t have imagined how it forever change me.‘’
Associated Press reports of the brutality in Nanking, 1937
Japan's first steps into war began in earnest in August of 1940. Capitalizing on the shortage of French troops due to the war in Europe, they seized control over French airfields in Indo-China. Nearly a year later the Japanese issued an ultimatum that they be allowed to use all French bases. France balked at the idea, and the Japanese took the issue as a provocation, leading the Japanese to seize control of the entire geography.
Japan felt the consequences almost immediately. The United States and her allies swiftly put a freeze on the Japanese financial assets. The result of this was an oil embargo on the island nation, effectively causing great distress. For a new aggressive Japanese government, such shame would not be taken lightly. Expecting a quick and victorious war, Tojo prepared for an all-out battle to the death. They army and navy believed in their huge superiority, while its propaganda continued to assert Japanese racial superiority, much like Hitler was pontificating in Germany.
The Japanese saw America as a nation of pleasure lovers with no appetite for war. They calculated that they could quickly destroy the spirit of America. They believed people would capitulate quickly after island after island fell. To take this plan of action, Tojo appointed Yamamoto, head of the fifth navy to lead up the charge.
There were very major differences between the two Navies. The Japanese hadn't expected to have such a huge Naval superiority and seemed surprised that the Americans hadn't thrown more at them. Meanwhile, Yamamoto had ten battleships, ten aircraft carriers and the worlds most advanced destroyers. The Americans, on the other had, just eight World War I battleships, and two aircraft carriers.
While the chain of command and the pilots ride high with the feeling of success, a celebratory toast is declined by Yanamoto. Tojo seemed to think the attack was a success, but as we will see, Tojo is willing to sacrifice all for the country. For he knows that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a critical failure on every level – despite being an overwhelming tactical victory. What had happened to make Yamamoto so very fatalistic about the attack on Pearl Harbor? To understand this and to really get into the minds of one of the eyewitnesses to speak with me about these events, we have to go back to the very morning of December 7th, 1941.
At 6:30 AM, Battleship row at Pearl Harbor was just awakening. The USS San Francisco was on the opposite side of the harbor. Mal Middlesworth, a Midshipman serving on that ship, began to prepare for his light duties that day before planning to go to a church service. There were no weapons aboard the San Francisco, so when the attack occurred - they were helpless to do much of anything. He wrote a letter recounting the moment he walked out to take a breath of the Pacific morning air.
''I was looking directly at the West Virginia when its mast was hit with a second torpedo. I knew what was happening, but I couldn't understand it. Why now? Why here?''
At 7:02, radar in Hawaii picks up a hug number of planes. They hadn’t expected to see this and they called Sgt. Hermit Tyler, who reassures them that we are expecting several B-17 Bombers. It was a terrible coincidence. Apparently they were expecting the B-17's a little later in the morning and he thought they were early, but not unexpected.
Meanwhile, as a decoy, two Japanese emissaries met at the State Department to discuss the possible withdrawal of troops from China. Since Japan invaded China in 1937, the Americans had pulled a great amount of foreign aid and imposed a mercantile blockade and embargo on the island juggernaut. The State Department insisted that the Japanese pull back to Manchuria - which they seemed willing to do. But it turned out differently. They were simply buying critically needed time to keep America off guard.
The first wave of Zero's fly south, completely unopposed. The Japanese couldn’t imagine their luck. Seen from above, the placidness of the Americans was unexpected.
There were two plans had they caught the Americans off guard. Once radio silence was broken with Fuchida’s declaration of ‘’Tora, Tora, Tora!’’ and a flair was fired off to signal which plan would be followed. If they achieved a total surprise, they were to send their torpedo bombers in first --- followed by their carrier dive bombers. If the Americans caught he invasion and began to fight back, the plan was to send for the carrier dive bombers to attack first and the aerial torpedoes to go in last of all.
Many pilots miss the signal and a second flare is fired off. The confusing mistake caused all units to attack. At 7:57 AM the West Virginia becomes the first ship hit with a torpedo. By 8:30, the attack slows to a stop. But twenty minutes later, the attacks continues on the same targets as well as he airfields. The planes were inexplicably parked wingtip-to-wingtip due to fears of sabotage. But this lapse in judgment made them much easier to target.
The USS Arizona got nailed with a high altitude bomber. One of them hits next to Turret-2 and a chain reaction sets off a blast, followed by two additional explosions when an ammunition room is hit. The remaining explosives, all three million pounds of it, blows up in a huge fireball. The entire ship was thrust out of the water before breaking in half and settling slowly in the shallow water. To those who were eyewitnesses that fateful morning, it was a sight etched in memory.
The USS Vestal, anchored alongside the Arizona, was the only hope for the survivors of the Arizona. Like many of the others anchored at Pearl Harbor, these ships were built almost a full decade before World War I and were still a formidable presence despite needing major upgrades.
In total, 180 planes were lost, four-US Battleships were sunk, an additional four more were damaged. Thirteen others were severely damaged as well. Only twenty-nine Japanese planes were lost in what seemed like a complete rout.
The casualties of war, 2500 of them, were serving on out-of-date battleships. The intended targets, Aircraft Carriers- were not in the harbor that fateful day. In another stroke of luck, the Japanese neglected to bomb the Dry-Docks, which would allow the country to repair the ships quickly. 650 Million liters of fuel were left off the attack list. It was thought that an attack on the oil fields would create so much smoke that their pilots couldn’t see through the haze. Submarine bases were left out of the bombing too. It was a press-relations and propaganda coup but a tactical military failure.
Ngomo’s decision not to launch a second strike is a crucial mistake made by the Japanese. Unlike his fellow officers, Yanamoto has worked in the USA and he knows the resolve of the Americans. The Japanese high-command believes the USA would fold at once. But the high commander knew otherwise and remembered how quickly the States had mobilized for the First World War. Privately, he feared that a surprise attack would galvanize the States.
Amidst the celebratory excitement, it becomes clear that opportunities were missed. And it stands all the reasoning since none of these pilots had ever taken on a mission such as this. To each of them, even an incomplete mission is an overwhelming victory nonetheless. But Tojo is grim amongst all the accolades android cheer.
For at this moment, he hears about all the missed opportunities. Soon, a steady stream of pilots who came in after the first wave of attacks were reporting that while the damage had been heavy, it was not nearly complete. One eyewitness account after another began to concern the Japanese leader. Without saying a word to Yanamoto, the two of them begin to assess the entire attack, casting doubtful glances to one another while still others in the room celebrated. When it was learned that the nations two aircraft carriers wrest even in dry-dock, Yamamoto grew visibly upset.
Unraveling how this mission became such an epic failure isn’t easy. Most Americans don’t see the numbers of casualties and the total surprise as a sense of failure on the Japanese. But history would prove otherwise and the utter annihilation of Japan would show just how badly they misjudged the entire plan.
But in the short term, Japan WAS successful in its aims regarding the islands in the Pacific. On the same day, Japan attacked western colonies in southwest Asia. They thought they knocked out America, so now they went after the European strongholds. In the weeks after the invasion of Pearl Harbor, the Southern Pacific ocean became a sea of Rising-Sun nations. One by one, they fell. Malaya was gone in one day. In Thailand, a second landing with 30,000 troops were met unopposed.
One target was Singapore. The British thought they built an impregnable fortress but all of the guns pointed out to the sea and weren't prepared for a land invasion. The British were overconfident. Meanwhile, Japan continued to assault other areas. Hong Kong, the Philippines, and landed on the Bataan peninsula. They had a bloody thirst for territory.
They had invaded China in 1937 bringing an orgy of gore and murder for seven years prior to Pearl Harbor. But on the same day they attacked the USA, they attacked every major port of call for Allied ships. The Japanese understood the value of islands in the great ocean perhaps as well as anyone aside from the Americans.
Their attack on that December 7th day also included Malaya, Java, New Guinea, Sumatra, and French Indochina. They invaded Burma too, giving them a foothold on the oil and rubber. They accomplished this remarkable achievement with and an army that was fervently devoted to the emperor. Throughout the war, he is treated as a living God and his actions are covered by ‘’divine’’ authority.
The reputation of the brutality of the Japanese was not the stuff of fanciful propaganda. In fact it was very real and very bloody. The Japanese committed atrocities rivaled only by Nazi Germany. Even casual students of history can speak of the ‘’Nanking Rape’’ or ‘’Nanking Massacre.'' This was in 1937 and close to 300,000 inhabitants were rounded up, pushed into huge trenches, and brutally executed. Still others were slaughtered in the streets and the treatment of women drew the ire an entire world.
It was a harrowing and indescribable cesspool of savagery and murder that is difficult to imagine. The Japanese were pictured 'skewering' children and infants on their bayonets and tossing them aside. Parading in the Forbidden City, the Japanese gave FDR a glimpse of what might be ahead of US Servicemen should there be a war.
Tojo, the Japanese military leader, broadcast the initial declaration of war over loudspeakers in the city squares. If Pearl Harbor had happened any differently, we would be talking about the success of their other mission – which was to sink the most modern British battleship of the war and to conquer the islands along the Coral Sea. Taking off from a newly built base in Indochina, they set out to rule the South Pacific.
These two British ships, ‘’The Repulse’’ and the ‘’Prince of Wales,’’ were the pride of the Royal Navy and were sunk within an hour. Gone were the days of British domination on the high seas, and the Port of Singapore was left vulnerable for attack. This was a clear and key gateway to the South Pacific and everything from oil and rubber, to spices and medical items were now in Japanese hands.
And in another attack that would have huge implications, the Air Force Base at Clark Field in the Philippines was almost completely reduced to rubble. In an unthinkable lack of preparation, the commanders of Clark took nothing from Pearl Harbor and had their planes lined up wingtip-to-wingtip and fully loaded with fuel. The mistake was so egregious, it left members of FDR's cabinet wondering if someone had betrayed the country from within.
In Germany, Hitler was well on his way. Just five days later, the Fuhrer goes to the Reichstag for a special meeting. Much against he advice of his generals, Hitler itched for war against the Americans. Hitler waited for four critical days while FDR declared war. He was certain that Japan’s intervention would turn the tide of the conflict. Churchill had been waiting for two full years for FDR to join him in the war effort. And now, the war had finally begun to turn a little. The USA had unlimited resources and manpower. British newspapers heralded the sneak attack on Hawaii as a ''blessed misfortune'' for the United States but a grand thing overall, as it would speed America's involvement in the epic outcome.
Meanwhile in the Pacific theater, General Yamashita, known as the ‘’Tiger of Malaya’’ sent his tanks through thick jungle and captures Singapore. He forces 27,000 prisoners to line up and be humiliated during a review by the Japanese upper command. He indulged in a gratuitous salute for propaganda purposes. The British prisoners would suffer from disease, starvation, beatings, amputations, and battled forced labor in the jungles of Southeast Asia. In the middle of monsoon season, the Brits were forced to build a bridge over he Kwai river in Burma. The costs in human suffering was astronomical. Hundreds and thousands died from infections, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases. Death was always at the door.
Not much is known about Yamashita outside of many enduring myths. He was one of the few Japanese high-command to meet both Hitler and Mussolini while on a clandestine mission to Europe in June of 1941. He was frequently at odds with both Yamamoto and Tojo over Japanese international diplomacy. He urged for peace in 1938 with China and earned a demotion for one year to Korea.
Throughout his time in the military he had consistently urged the implementation of his proposals, which included "streamlining the air arm, to mechanise the Army, to integrate control of the armed forces in a defence ministry coordinated by a chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, to create a paratroop corps and to employ effective propaganda". For the terrible infliction of pain upon prisoners of war, Yamashita would later be hung for war crimes. He remained unrepentant until the very end.
America's response was to improvise. It was in fact the very thing that America did better than anyone else. Our deep range bombers were Mitchell B-25s but they had never been designed to take off from Aircraft carriers and they were too far from land to make an impact. America had already dropped bombs on Tokyo - but that was from airfields we no longer had control over or possessed. With Papua-New Guinea now in the cross-hairs, America was about to improvise.
Japan had been on the island since June of 1942. They made slaves out of many of the locals, many of whom had never seen civilization and thus, it was their first taste of modern humanity. Rubber was in high demand throughout the war and Papua-New Guinea was the wealthiest in the world. The Americans simply hadn't mastered the island hopping of the South Pacific. Malaria and other diseases ran unimpeded and it took a courageous Australian infantry to push the Japanese back.
For two years the Japanese Air Force ventured with impunity all over the South Pacific. American planes concentrated on Japanese supply centers and did such damage that the Japanese retreated for the first time in the war. The best defense was a strong offense and they pushed ahead to Papua-New Guinea.
Later, In a battle on Midway Island, the Japanese Navy would strip Japan of its Naval Dominance. It was a personal and political disaster. There was no room for maneuvering or explaining away a loss. Tojo would take over every cabinet post in the Japanese government and told the people that everyone, young and old, must be prepared to die. In February 1944, he even took over the army, which speaks lot for his power. He soon revealed his ignorance for war by issuing an all out invasion of India, across thousands of miles. His plan was to knock the British out of the war.
In a series of brutal battles at Imphal in India, Tojo ordered his men to fight to the death. Broken by their Commander-in-Cheif's ineptitude and cruel indifference to his own men, over half of the men died. In the Japanese armed services altogether, 80% soldiers died of disease and starvation on the way to an ultimate defeat at Saipan.
Meanwhile in Singapore, a stunning surrender of 90000 British troops completely galvanized the Empire of the Rising Sun. It is a questionable a move that is still debated by British military scholars today. In addition to the losses, 30,000 Americans and 28,000 Filipinos were taken prisoners after MacArthur was ordered to leave the Philippines and avoid capture. But his soldiers were captured and set off for a Japanese interment camp 60 miles away. This is the Bataan Death march. I interviewed a survivor for this book, Cpt Robert Schulte, had this to say:
‘’….They broke my arm by repeatedly hitting the same place with the butt of a rifle. ‘Whack! Whack! Whack!’’ you hear it still in your head. If any of the men gave out, they were shot, stabbed, beaten, and even beheaded….you know, treated like animals. ‘'
Me and Bob Schulte, survivor of Bataan Death March, later a POW in Korea, and still later, a POW in Vietnam. ''It got to the point where no one wanted anything to do with me. I was ''Bad-Luck Bob!'' Discharged honorably in 1967, Schulte has told his story of faith and survival to churches around the United States. He has no living family members.
I enlisted in 1941. Our family settled in Chicago area and I was a complete neophyte in the world. I didn't know anything other than Cubs baseball and playing hockey from school once every so often to catch a game. Neither my mom or dad was gung-ho about me enlisting but they understood. We were attacked and there wasn't a feeling that you could choose. All of your friends were enlisting and you did want to be the one coward who didn't. I enlisted in the Marines and then re-enlisted for Korea in the Air Force! That's a lot of experience!
Almost instantly I was in the South Pacific. For weeks we were onboard of a ship in beautiful weather and we got the false illusion that this war was going to be a picnic. That changed completely, and drastically. We were walking down a road toward a bluff and there was a Jap setting up his tripod, in order to put a machine gun up. As soon as he was seen, gunfire opened. Then we were in the middle, and you could feel the compression on either side of you. The Filipinos fought valiantly and for every Filipino soldier killed, it seemed like they took three of theirs.
We were hoping for some sense of rest in Singapore. Instead, we were pushed aside with ease. The Japs had no problem with the Brits or the Indian army and were now aiming directly for us. All bets were off with the Japanese, we believed they would resort to anything. All of the British heavy guns faced out to sea, you see....They couldn't have defended the position like that and the Japs just bombed the holy hell out of the city. Who was going to stop them?
The civilian injured were soon taking the place of wounded soldiers - a situation that our command was not prepared for and it was deemed unacceptable. But what are you going to do? Turn them away? We didn't because we couldn't. The differences between us and the Japanese couldn't have been more on display in the fact that we were willing to treat ALL wounded. They were hell-bent on wounding all.
Japanese bombers quickly sunk both of the British warships and in an era of long distance planes and aerial capabilities, it was clear that the battleship was soon to be a thing of the past. As the new year rolled around, a much smaller Japanese force picked away at us. Then the unthinkable happened, General Percival surrendered with almost 100,000 men. We retreated back to Manilla.
The Japs had NO respect for the surrendering of the British. They expected every warrior to fight to the death. They didn't have even one POW camp and hadn't planned for such a possibility anyway! Hell the British surrender was a shock to them when they did! They weren't expecting the British - with three times as many men as they did, to simply wave a damn white flag. We had no air power and the Japanese just kept on coming.
The weather prevented us from getting relief and the men were scratching for a square meal. We ate tree bark at times. Back and back we went, with our numbers getting smaller and smaller each day. Malaria and dysentery were commonplace. When we heard that our allied forces, one-by-one, were losing, the morale amongst us really began to affect us. It didn't seem to matter to the Japanese and we couldn't understand it. They were just as happy to die with an empty barrel than to surrender. It was something that our command could have understood better and prepared a different war plan.
We were pushed back through Manilla and ended up on the Bataan peninsula. Everything happened might fast. There was always something to do in the jungle. You couldn't rest for a second. We took our shirts off because they weighed a lot more soaked with sweat, plus, it helped us to squeeze the shirt out into a palm leaf and drink a little water, you know, replenish. It probabaly didn't help but we didn't know that at the time and if it made us feel better, why not, right?
But we finally had a moment in the evening where we had into a field of fog. It was cooler and windy. We were in a good position and we were pretty lucky. It was such a simple moment, and it didn't last long, but I would never forget it. For me, I wouldn't have another peaceful moment. We weren't really over what happened in Pearl Harbor, and now it is just a few short months later. It was during one of these rare quiet moments that a chaplain told me of something called ''The Tanaka Plan.'
It was written after World War I. To me, it explained a lot but it didn't make me feel any more confident. The plan was to extract huge amounts of resources from the south of Asia. Rubber, Petroleum, Iron -- all in large quantities were to be had to the victors. Step-by-step and in a systematic manner, the Japs achieved their goals.
Now they had us surrounded. Every time a twig snapped we thought we were sure it was the Japanese. They did use snipers and occasionally you'd hear about them from the other men. But it was largely considered cowardice to be a sniper and so the Japanese largely didn't use it.
Many of us wrote letters home, knowing these would likely be the last times we were going to get the chance. We had little help from anyone. When Manilla was captured, we had our backs against the wall. On April 3rd -- I remember because it was the last time I was able to write a letter home.
It took less than sixth months for the Japanese blitzkrieg to take over all of Southern Asia, just like they planned to do after World War I. And now we were sick, both mentally and physically depleted. We were on the ultimate defensive, not seeking to find a way to win, but to find a way not to be captured or to die. But nothing could have prepared us for what was about to happen.
We had heard of American heavy losses. We heard that our ships were taking a beating and our Air Force was depleted. It didn't seem real to us. You could hear the war happening far away but you had no way of knowing what was happening. Desperate to hear anything, one of the guys comes running and says the Lexington (An Aircraft Carrier) was hit and lost. But so was a Japanese carrier, and they only had fewer to use. You couldn't have known it then, but it would be the last news we would hear from the outside for some time.
The sounds were deafening and your skin just crawled with itching and burning insects. We were deadlocked in an awful battle. On April 6th or 7th, I can't remember which day exactly, we waved our own white flag. The Filipino soldiers were treated without mercy. They were bayonetted, set on fire, tortured. Oh it was awful, just awful. Later in the afternoon, they had these poor souls build a trench and ordered them to crawl inside the trenches. Once there, they were executed. Made you sick, just sick.
It's difficult to talk about, even now. My great grandson is ten and wants to be a soldier. I have a hard time telling him what it was all like. It's not glory and victory.
The death toll in every battle was huge. The Japanese would not surrender.
But we did. On April 9 ,1942, I became part of the largest surrender by the United States Army in its history -- 78,000 American and Filipino troops. We died a little day by day. While there, we got to meet some of the veterans of the Philippines, members of the 75th Ordinance of Manilla. These men knew what to expect and it was grim. But moreover, they knew how to survive. The guys I met with the 75th were outstanding. And for a kid like me, so scared, it was a blessing.
Along the way, we saw the dead. We even saw Japanese dead. Hell they didn't care. We had wounded that couldn't be treated. We had no supplies. It was merciful if the guy next to you just died rather than continue this nonsense.
The Horrors of the Bataan Death March (Very Graphic)
They broke my arm by repeatedly hitting the same place with the butt of a rifle. ‘Whack! Whack! Whack!’’ you hear it still in your head. If any of the men gave out, they were shot, stabbed, beaten, and even beheaded….you know, treated like animals.
And cruelty! What do you say when a Japanese soldier on horseback takes his sword and simply beheads one of your brothers because he was too tired or sick to continue. And they did it all the time. Death was merely a game to them. We were crowded into small confined spaces. Fanatical troops and younger soldiers took special delight in outperforming one another in contests of savagery.
Two soldiers, you can barely call them that, took to cutting the flesh off of the arms of one of our boys and making him watch as they took turns tearing the flesh apart with their teeth. I couldn't have imagined this out of any horror movie. It stays with you to see another human screaming as bits and pieces of his arms are cut away and the Japs simply are eating him alive.
Bataan Death March Pamphlet
Towards the back of the march, the guys who were sick or injured who could keep up were simply run down and run over by Japanese supply trucks. In this manner, they were able to prevent the vehicles from sinking too far into the mud. And we'd be walking and we would see the decomposing and rotting flesh beneath us. Most - if not all of us - were forced to walk barefoot, often feeling the flesh and bones beneath our feet.
We all carried canteens but we had no water. There were artisan wells along the way, but the guards stood there with a fixed bayonets and told us they would kill us if we broke to get water, they would stab us and shoot us. I wondered if they would really do it when just then i saw a Filipino and an American attempt to get to the well. What they did to those men was horrible. They bayonetted them and stabbed them with bamboo poles in their knees and elbows. They shot them in their joints, screaming in pain, pleading for death. Meanwhile the Japanese soldier would yell, ''This is for you Yank!''
We were marching four abreast and so it occurred to me that if I was in the middle, I had two boys on my left and a boy on my right. God help you if you fell down. They just randomly took guys out of the line and killed them. They would force some of the men to dig trenches and if they couldn't dig any more - because hey were sick, feeble, etc,,, they would take these bamboo sticks and force them face down into the mud and water, drowning them. Other times, they executed soldiers by simply running them over - back and forth these huge jeeps would roll over them. It was sick.
On my seventh day without food, water, sleep, or energy, we finally got a little rain. I had learned from my friends in the 75th, to take a towel and leave it our so it could get wet. It absorbed just enough water. The road improved which helped a lot because walking in the dirt and mud was taking it out of me. I saw a torn and
tattered American flag on the ground and I thought about reaching down and picking it up, but thought better of it. I often wonder what came of it or of any other soldier picked it up, but it made me mad. I mean, it made me angry. I can't forget the image of that flag with the right corner unravelling and tattered, and it gave me resolve. They cannot do this to the American flag.
A Food Line at Camp O'donnell
Courtesy of James Litton
Meanwhile, my health was deteriorating. I was brittle and I had open and infected wounds. My tongue swelled due to the dehydration. I couldn't talk. I figured I wasn't long for this world.
I had pneumonia and tuberculosis. At Camp O'Donnell, we were worked until we practically dropped dead. We cleared trees, transported lumber, and did whatever they wanted us to do. Most of all, we dug trenches for bodies and we buried them. We would wrap up a corpse in a dirty blanket and then we would carry the corpse on a stick on each of our shoulders. Then we had to dump the bodies into the trench. The smell was awful. Sometimes the sewage and the smell was so bad that it would burn your nostrils.
The Japanese camped at the top of the hill and all their sewage would drain into a pit which was our water. We had no means to sterilize i and guys who were weak didn't survive the infection. I was put into a shallow pit where I thought they were going to execute me and my buddy, but instead they shoveled human waste and urinated on us - laughing the entire time. Every type of humiliation was put upon us. It makes a man fill with rage.
One Jap was particularly mean. He took pleasure in driving his bayonet through the wretched skeletons of men barely able to walk. He seemed to take fun in torturing the men. One of the corpsmen was dying and he knew it - well this Jap walked over to him as he lay there and spit on him before putting a bullet through him.
By now we hadn't had a bath in months and and my arms developed sores from being broken and bent in an opposite manner from where they were intended to bend. When I laid down, my bones would scrape the ground and it was painful. Some of our guys inadvertently made things hard for the rest of us. If one of them talked back, we'd all get beat.
You learn the art of passive aggressiveness. While we were tasked to fix things, we would 'break' them. It was a common occurrence and the Japanese didn't know what to do about it. We would make it so things would break and 'not work' as it was meant to. We would always apologize and things would go on and on. The beatings would be commonplace but we continued to 'break' things.
These things never leave you, they haunt you, and the littlest of things can bring back horrible memories. I am only able to share with you so much, because I am old and have coped with it all these years. But I have terrible dreams and terrible relationships for many years afterward. If not for my unshakable faith in God, I would have committed suicide many years ago. Believe it when I tell you that I thought of it many times.
There's one more story that really didn't involve me but I want to tell it for all those guys who never made it out. It happened in Palawan. Using an air-raid shelter they shoved 150 Americans and a handful of Filipinos inside. They locked them in and doused them with gasoline and lit a match. Very few survived. Two of the dead were friends of mine. And they used to psychologically do this to us with great frequency. The smell of gas and burning humanity wafted through the air for miles and was unmistakable. I looked into the faces of these arrogant people and saw sheer hatred. I felt sheer hatred for them too.
Things changed very rapidly in the summer of 1945. We didn't know that the war was drawing to a close. We just knew death. We tried to have a periscope into the real world but we didn't know about the atomic bombs or anything such as this. I was filled with so much rage and hatred. I wanted to exact a deeply personal revenge. But a strange and funny thing happened to me.
After we were freed, we were barely able to stand on our own, let-alone to eat. It was good to see the guys but we were gaunt, little more than skeletons. We were relaxing in a hospital in Hawaii when a film of the Holocaust was shown. It was every bit as brutal as what we went through, and perhaps more. The Germans attacked the very heart of a people's unrelenting faith. The Japanese hadn't done that. And so I began to wonder....What is the nature of suffering?
I wasn't raised with a variety of religions and I knew precious little about the Jewish people. But one thing began to gnaw at me. Why should I feel sorry for myself? I began to really research my own upbringing. I felt God had abandoned me during the time that I was held and beaten.
So I had this conflict inside of myself when Korea happened. I wanted to re-enlist but this time with the Air Force. It took some arm twisting but I became an Air Force officer for the 51sh Air Force and the 339th Squadron. I envisioned my experience to be much different than what turned out.
For the second time in as many wars, I was captured. We were simply in a place outside Pusan that we weren't supposed to be in. The Koreans weren't much different in their treatment of us than the Japanese were. But because I was an officer, they only tortured and beat me once a week. I guess I grew numb to pain. They wanted us to give up the names of superiors and things like that but we knew never to give up anything more than our vitals. Still, you could hear the screams of other soldiers as they were getting torn apart. It put my spirit in a very paralyzing and dark place.
One particular event happened while I was in Korea. General Dean was taken prisoner and he was a mighty man. I didn't know him but of course I knew of him, and his capture - in a strange way - lifted all of our spirits. I would ask about him and it never failed, someone knew him. I was taken to a prison camp number 76 where we had to listen to speeches about Communism and told that we were going to recant our American democracy. I began suffering from diarrhea and dysentery. Well once again, I had figured I was at death's door. At this point I really did just want to be home. I wouldn't say I had given up, but maybe I had given out. Does that make sense?
Once again, a prisoner exchange gave me my freedom. While I was there, both my mother and father passed away. I didn't know for months while I was incarcerated. I spent far too much time locked up, beaten, tortured. My back was broken, my arms were broken (again), they shot my right kneecap to keep me from running. I lost all but three of my teeth and had four or five diseases that I live with even today.
I returned to the US for good in 1955. Although I remained enlisted through 1967 before receiving a discharge. I tried to date but it was hard. I couldn't find a wife because my mind was too messed up. Who wants a head-case, right? At one point, they discussed putting me in a sanitarium. But God had other plans for me!
I had to go to Church when I was young, but upon getting back, I wanted to go. I found that I could identify with Christ, His suffering was for all mankind, and I felt like our suffering - to a much smaller extent - was to be done so that other soldiers wouldn't have too suffer. But the real change happened to me in 1956.
I was visiting my family in California. I heard that an inspiring speaker was going to be visiting an apostolic church in Berkley. His name was Yoshiake and he was the equal to a Captain in our military. He was one of those who committed heinous acts of barbarity on the Bataan marchers. I wanted to see him.
And there he tells his story. Living with the heaviness of guilt of what he had done. He told the church how a God he never knew visited him when a soldier he had beaten to death died. At the moment of his death, Yoshiake said the mans spirit rose and forgave him. ''Even death, could not kill the man.''
As he lay dying, he clutched his small cross that was given to him by his ten year old daughter. The story was so powerful and so moving, that I knew right then that I had a LOT of things to be thankful for, but moreover that I had a lot more to seek forgiveness for. I couldn't be angry anymore. And the work God has done in healing me is ongoing to this day, and I am 92 years young!
Yoshiake and me became fast friends. He died in 1988 but we were quite a pair for awhile. Our testimonies brought an introduction to God's grace to everyone. I think about him all the time.
Well I never married but i was never without companionship. I might be lonely at some times, but I am never, ever, alone. ###
Spirits of the Dead
Sgt. Robert ''Big Bob'' Smouse
The Story of Master Sgt. Robert Smouse - Hero of World War II
Smouse's World War II Diary and Post Cards he collected while in Europe
<------- Intro Letter from Eisenhower to the commanders of the invasion forces of both Italy and Normandy
Meeting World War II Hero Robert Smouse
I met World War II hero Master Sergeant Robert Smouse in September of 2014. Once again, it was by happenstance that I saw him walking into the HEB Grocery-store with his hat on and I had to pay him respect for his service. After befriending him, he opened up to me about his experience and even gave me two priceless items, his own War Diary and the Diary of Admiral Sabin.
At 17, Mr. Robert "Big Bob" Smouse joined the US Navy after Pearl Harbor. As a Navy signalman he participated in the African campaign battles of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, the Italian campaign battles of Salerno and Anzio, then from England to Normandy as part of the initial D-Day landing on Utah Beach, then finally finishing the war in the Pacific in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. After the war, he re-enlisted in the Air Force. He retired as Master Sergeant after 20 years of service.
''Big Bob'' had the most gregarious of personalities. Easy to laugh and seemed to enjoy people, he had a twinkle in his eye and a captivating story to tell. Moreover, he was in a hurry to get his story out there. He was living on borrowed time and only he knew it. I spent three memorable afternoons and an hour at the grocery store together, but each time he was more frail than the last time we had met. He passed away before the last interview could be completed but I pieced together his diaries and letters in order to complete this interview.
The Historical Backdrop to Smouse's Story
The fall of France and the British evacuation of Dunkirk showed that any war by the United States against Germany would have to be carried out on entirely different lines from those of World War I, when we were able to use the excellent terminal facilities of French harbors.
Evening news of the Battle of Dunkirk
The implications of this, tremendous and far reaching, were not immediately realized. The US Army embarked on a large field gun and tank building program without considering how these and other vehicles necessary in modern was were to be landed on coast held by the enemy. Even President Roosevelt, so quick to apprehend needed change in naval warfare, remarked to his naval aide, early in 1942, that he considered special tank landing craft to be a mistake.
Admiral Joseph Reeves, the former commander in Chief of the United States Fleet was largely responsible for bringing this important problem to the attention of the high command. In a memorandum to the Chief of Naval Operations dated February 24th, he declared:
‘’They are building in this country a great number of tanks without adequate means of transporting them to the theater of war. This task is more complicated than is at first apparent. It involves more than the mere transportation of the tanks overseas. It includes a hostile shore. In such an offensive campaign it is unlikely that there will be available open ports and harbors with docking stations and hoisting facilities. Large number of tanks, especially in the first stages of the campaign, will have to be landed against opposition on hostile beaches. A special type of landing craft is required for this operation…’’
The Royal Navy had ordered the construction of about 200 Landing Ships Tanks in the United States in January of 1942. Landing ships and craft were given number-one priority over destroyer escorts, aircraft carriers and everything else in the May of 1942. Such high priority was given to the building of these types of ships that the keel of an aircraft carrier that had already been laid was removed from the dry dock and three LS’s were built in its place.
Three new types of Landing Craft were devised. The Tank Landing Craft (LCT) and the larger, longer-legged Tank Landing ship (LST) were designed to handle the bigger, heavier, tanks and self-propelled guns coming into service. A similar craft was needed to carry larger forces of infantry across wide bodies of water and land them directly on an invasion beach. To meet this need, the Infantry Landing Craft (Large) or LCI was developed. In the terminology of the time, it was called a ‘’craft’’ rather than ‘’ship’’ since it was not expected to be able to make long voyages on its own.
The War Diaries of Admiral Sabin and Master Sergeant Robert Smouse
Description of Smouse's Amphibious Vessel
This new landing craft was 158 ½ feet in length, 23-foot beam with a mean draft of 3’ 1 ½’’. The landing draft was 2’8’’ forward , 4’10’’ aft. Loaded Diesels divided into two sets drove twin variable-pitch propellers to give her a top speed of 16-knots. When landing on shore the LCI was capable of holding 199 men. This, then is the history of the first Amphibious Flotilla in Annals of the U.S. Navy. LCI Flotilla-2.
“Spirits of The Dead”
Eyewitness to History, Robert Smouse in his Own Words
We were just kids having fun in 1940-41. One night we were out dancing to big-band music without a care in the world, and then everything changes. I was just seventeen. I tell you, the Japanese woke up a sleeping tiger in us Americans. I wanted to go to Japan and kick their tails all over the place. Instead, I get sent to Europe. But to tell you the truth, I was angry with them too. We had a strong sense of what was 'right' and what was 'wrong ' and there was no doubt whatsoever which side we were on.
I was barely eighteen when I enlisted in the service. We were so angry when we were attacked at Pearl harbor that most of the boys were itching for a fight. I suppose I was no different, and my mother threw the worst fit about it too. You see, she was a second generation German, but she was loyal to America. I was one of nine children and she didn’t want any of us going off to war. My brother Willie and I enlisted but they wouldn’t take him because he was cross-eyed. You get to looking at someone for so long that you tend to forget that one of his eyes pointed right at his nose. So they didn’t take him.
This is an American flag that belonged to Flotilla-2 during two major invasions
I really didn't have any training before deployment. Oh, they made you do a few jumping-jacks, yell at you for no reason and then send you off to war. Imagine that! Just a ticket and a swift kick in the ass and off you go. If you were lucky you got to learn how to shoot a real gun along the way. Most of the boys had dummy rifles and those weren’t any fun at all on account of the fact they don’t shoot nothing!’
One of my first responsibilities was to take stock of the shape of the craft. Of the four craft, only one had a working Gyro Compass and were erratic at best. Their magnetic compasses were in general unsatisfactory condition and our plotting sheets and navigational maps were inconsistent. We hardly owned even a small amount of spare parts so we had to improvise in order to fix anything. Keep in mind, I wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed but I learned quickly.
Eventually, I was responsible for assessing our men. The report I sent to the commander was that the officers are woefully lacking in instruction in the following; Celestial Navigation, Communications, Engineering, and Naval Customs. The majority are willing, earnest, sincere and anxious to learn. But very few were qualified to command this type of vessel when they reported to me for duty.
I didn’t know why they ever chose me because I was still wet behind the ears, but once they chose me to do these things, I did them very well. It was probably because I could never say 'no' to any command. Hell I didn't know any better, but I learned very fast, and the men - they learned fast as a result. We didn't have much of a choice.
The time-period of the war went very quickly to me. I was so busy that I didn't have time to catch my breath. You could go several days with very little rest and sometimes I didn't even know what day it was. It was as if time just flew right by me.
Everyday life on a Naval vessel is about what you expect. Cramped and tiny quarters, filled with smoke and diesel, that's (sic) the way it was. You could get too hot in some areas and too cold in others. But you learn to get used to it and the days of peaceful nights on the water were something that contrasted my Army buddies who were having to move on the ground with such speed.
So, the next two and a half years, from late 1942 to 1945 was a flurry of activity. I never knew how some guys seemed to recover better than others. One of the most valuable things for us happened when a doctor came in and lectured us on nutrition. You had to eat what they gave you and it wasn't as bad as you hear. Sometimes we would get a real surprise like oranges and grapefruits. Because we were in the Mediterranean it was easier to get those things that grew there.
Occasionally we got some fresh vegetables with dinner and we didn't pass those up. Because that doctor came in we were thinking more and more about eating what we could and avoiding some of the other foods. We tried to stay away from too much bread but you couldn't avoid it altogether. It may or may not have made a difference but I thought it did and that probably had more of an impact that it really did.
The linens were supposed to be cleaned every other day. But that didn't actually happen most of the time. You'd try and shower if you could but by the end of the day, you'd just hit the pillow. It didn't smell too good in the bunks, that's for sure. But no one ever complained. I mean, what were you going to do anyway? We could have slept on the cement really.
Entering the Mediterranean
In March of 1943, we landed at Gibraltar and took on stores and provisions. It was a lovely place, scenic you know. We didn’t get to stay but three days as we received orders to head to Arzew. This is a key port city on the coast of French Africa, Algeria. There were almost no facilities in Arzew and it was a rotten place really. The people in Algeria are just downright nasty.
They have these 'religious police' who carry whips and if a woman shows too much ankle they pull her aside and whip her! Having very little worldly experience, most of the guys couldn't get over why the women were completely covered when it is a hundred degrees outside. One of my friends took to calling the women 'Trollettes' because to him they looked like trolls. The atmosphere in the city is tense and uneasy. It didn't take a genius to figure out they simply didn't like anyone who wasn't like them.
We began to train....and train.....and train....
It was non-stop preparation for everything, every scenario you can imagine. A lot of people don't realize how much goes into the months before the invasion. We rehearsed and rehearsed the landing over and over again. And we did the same before we invaded Normandy. We even recreated the pebble beach to see how our vehicles would operate in them. It was necessary. Keep in mind there were boys who were from Texas, Kentucky, Kansas.....many had never even left home before. And now we are in a foreign land doing the impossible.
The war was progressing quickly and things escalated. For the first time we were brought into a room and told that we were preparing for an invasion of Europe from the South, but we weren’t told where. It was just as well, the men were hoping for an invasion of the French or Italian Riviera. Imagination is a funny thing I guess….most of us were single – and we figured the locals would be very grateful to us.
In late June of 1943, Admiral Sabin called for a surprise inspection. We saw all of the unit commanders in conference and when Sabin addressed us, he told us all to synchronize our watches. All of a sudden things got very serious. We knew that we were heading for an invasion and it was our role to land first and deliver supplies for the men once they got on the beach. On July 8th – we were finally told where and when we were going to land. We were prepared for any beach really, so the location needn’t be a secret – but it made us apprehensive knowing that the war for many of the boys was going to happen.
''It was our mission to land first and lay communications and supplies ahead of the rest of them.''
In October of 1943 we held a meeting in connection with a change on command. Captain Lorenzo Sabin, a wonderful man, would now give way to Lt. Willard Ayres. Ayres was as fine a man as there ever was! He was very concerned about mines in the water and sadly, he would be proven correct.
Ayres first command was to set up lookouts with floodlights and binoculars in groups of four on every ship. But even then you couldn't be too sure. A three-ship convoy departed late in the afternoon on October 27th and proceeded in line 100-200 yards apart. The bow lookout in charge that night was Sgt Clyde Robertson and he was killed among 33 of Britain's finest.
Lt. Parker reported that at sometime during his watch an explosion was heard and almost instantly, He saw the 237th dead in the water, unable to move, smoldering and taking on water on the starboard side Lt. Parker felt terrible that this happened on his watch. He was disoriented himself after the explosion! But he needn't have questioned himself.
In fact, he did just the right thing. He directed the 192nd Amphibious Vessel to take the 237nd in tow and to proceed to Catania. It was later determined that despite the damage to the vessel, it was something they could salvage. For his efforts, they gave him a bottle of Seagrams!
The weather was a real problem. The night before we landed, the water was throwing us around real good. Thunder, lightening, and high winds almost made our landing impossible. We had to reduce our speed to under 6.5 knots and with the exact coordination of all of the Navy and Marines we were now behind the larger convoys. If we didn’t somehow get there ahead of them, they would land and have no radio communications, no supplies, no wire, nothing. We knew that if this failed, it would jeopardize any future invasion in Europe .
We also had guys on the Flotilla who were mine-sweepers. These men were invaluable to the rest of the invasion force, but as I mentioned, if we didn’t get there first, there wasn’t anyone to perform this job. In some ways, we were so specialized that it hurt us. Mines were everywhere.
Rolling, pitching, tossing. Snapping and buckling. Green seas cover the ships and battered us until it didn’t seem possible that our little ships were going to make it without breaking up. No fresh food – not even a loaf of bread…Nothing but canned stuff to eat and everyone was sick from time-to-time. As if grew darker, the feelings on insecurity got stronger. There was something ''safe'' about daylight that we couldn't feel at night. I don't know why it is, just that we all felt the same way.
The smell in the air was dank. Other than two or three seagulls following the boat you didn't hear much in the ay of noise. But on the night of the 10th, our escorts were attacked. Both were blown up and there was a huge oil slick that seemed to circle us like spirits of the dead. It shook us up, shook us all up. How could you not be?
And late at night! That night before we landed, you could see the big red breakdown lights from anywhere on the high-seas. Our invasion of Sicily didn’t seem like a secret but the coastline was surprisingly sparse from a standpoint of resistance. We awoke to a 5am call and prepared for the battle ahead, but we didn’t see a single ship. The mist and overcast skies obscured everything and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
Silence for the Dead
When daylight hit we were all on deck just having as normal a day as we could. Then, a shoe is in the water and there is a leg attached to it. Suddenly, everyone got real quiet. Silence. Just then, one of the guys who was below deck and unaware of what was happening is loudly asking a question of one of his buddies. He finally arrived at the deck and looked out to see the scene that had transfixed us. When a tear rolled down his cheek, we all wept a little. I thought to myself, ''But for the Grace of God go I...''
Slowly, surely, twenty-five vessels appeared like ghosts along the seas and through the mist. The invasion was about to begin.
The men were transported from the ships into my craft. Hundreds of men were packed into the boat and as they jumped out, many of them went straight down, they drowned. I was the next to the last man off the craft. It was all about to happen, and when you see the guys you just saw in your boat, and their floating in their own blood, it sure makes you scared to jump into the water.
The Germans were picking us off, right-and-left. I can remember a local man telling us to stay down, and he has this bulldog alongside of him! Every time a shell landed, the dog would bark…and it was a good thing because for some reason, it seemed to inspire the men to get to shore. How about that? A barking dog of all things.
''The ''Reichstag Reichsrag'' as our boys called it. Ha! Get a look at that. You don't need to know NO German to see that we are about to kick the hell out of them!''
We hit the beaches and took ground and small arms fire almost at once. It was my first real taste of war, but I wasn’t scared really, I just knew I had a job to do. The invasion seemed to happen a lot slower than we expected. Mines were everywhere. Everyone fanned out on the beaches and we began to lay wire when 16mm shells began pounding the beach. Turns out, these were our own ships! They couldn’t see us in the mist and fog and luckily they stopped firing before anyone got hurt. But it just goes to show you how dangerous war can be and how we all coped with the fear. We all carried a heavy knapsack but our burden was even heavier.
We made very quick movement up the coast of Italy. The Germans and the Italians fought and fought. And once we landed, you had to be ready for everything. And this is the part of the war where a bunch of guys found themselves on land during the fight. It wasn't supposed to be our roles, but we needed men and we went. ''Smouse, take your detachment, report to Williams now!'' Well, that's how I got to run with the infantryman. Our first task was to destroy a monastery that sat atop a small hill. Supposedly the Germans were hiding ammunition and soldiers in it. Seemed like a shame to destroy something so old and classic like that, but its either you or its them, right?
Note: Although we can't be sure, the account seems to be of the Monastery of St. Benedict which on Mt. Cassini in Southern Italy.
Our particular task was to go in advance of our guys and clear mines where we found them, lay radio wire, leave supplies and then get the heck out of dodge. We were supposed to go in, and come out, and get back on our vessels and await the next orders. But I saw more war in Italy than I ever imagined possible!
We couldn't break through the German lines at first. But suddenly I was told to get the men and meet the ships on the coast with two detachments. But the catch for us is that we were being dropped off in one place, and having to meet up with our ships at a different location. Sometimes the top brass makes tactical mistakes and one of the most egregious was under-utilizing and over-utilizing the units.
Now - our training in all areas of war gave us our own insignia, the 'Jack' from a deck of cards. Of course, we chose the 'Jack of Hearts' and across the center we added an American flag. This was on account of the fact that we were known as 'Jack-of-all-Trades.'
We had to travel west over a rough part of Italy not too far from Mt. Vesuvius. It was rugged and tough territory. We were headed to a town we held called Neapolis - and then to Anzio. Both were just a few short clicks from the ancient volcano. The roads here would take us directly to Rome. Many things along the way were already destroyed by the fleeing Germans and Italians. Train tracks were destroyed, bridges were destroyed, every thing was laid to waste. Those poor people were homeless and many had lost loved ones. Among them were the Italian resistance. You never saw men and women so brave. If they got caught by the Germans they were tortured and murdered.
We found ourselves quite a ways inland. The Liri valley lies in the southern part of Italy, about forty miles southeast of Rome and sixty miles from Naples. There were olive groves and corn and grapes growing year around and the fragrance of flowers was a nice diversion. But there were some areas that were burned to the ground and the cattle lay dead. But it was San Pietro that we were after. The little town of San Pietro is a beautiful place, not given to the idea of war. It seemed like a resort.
When you are allied with other nations, some of the better moments were when you met soldiers form other countries. We would compare notes with guys from the Canadian and even Indian armies. You meet some wonderful people that way. We figured we were all in this together.
Within a few days, the 5th-Army began to push forward. Our battle lines were haphazard, and the hills got taller and taller with each passing mile. The Italians made a desperate attempt to take Mount Lungo. We took it and surrounded San Pietro on all but one of the fronts - that was the mountain at Sammurco, which if memory serves me correctly, is just to the north and east of San Pietro. Men from the 36th Infantry Texas division were rotated from location to location so that we might get the best view possible of the Italian movements.
The goal was to keep the Germans as far away from the Russian front as possible. Our mission was to contain them on the Italian peninsula while liberating the rest of Italy. Because we were planning on D-Day, we had to make do with a fraction of supplies. The entire 5th-Army performed so well.
San Pietro was the prize. We knew the cost would be high but we knew the outcome would be critical to the war in Europe. On December 6th and 7th, we set up barbed wire and put radio communications and wiring down in advance of our troops. We were quite good at this job and it would come in very handy later in the war.
But we couldn't get back to base. Oh there was a torrential downpour! At some point we were told to stay put, sitting ducks right? Well that night nothing happened, in part because the rain was so heavy. Mudslides were happening all around us and some of our men simply disappeared in the muck.
Then, at six in the morning, on December 8th, we launched. Members of the First battalion of the 143rd attacked the peak of Mt. Sammucro and pushed forward. A third battalion would offer supplies and support would be a second wave. We had been taking our share of losses. Part of the problem was that it was dark and rainy and muddy. It slowed the advance and made things treacherous. We couldn't see the mines and we couldn't see the pill-box soldiers.
The smell of mortar and burning flesh was toxic. Some of us pulled a handkerchief over our noses so we could get through the woods. The Italians were deadly accurate as we made our way up the mountain. The 3rd Ranger Battalion took a lookout point just south of where we were. A counter-attack ensued but the Italians and Germans didn't realize they were surrounded. I think it was hill 1205, but I don't remember exactly. Anyway, the Italians and Germans were told to take back the hill at all costs. The Germans fell back into formation, the Italians surrendered.
Six days dragged on, and it seemed like it rained more with each day. The trees were stripped bare by bombs and mines. The Italians also cut down trees and removed debris so that it would be that much harder to make our way up the mountain. The air was thick with smoke and haze and even though most the boys smoked, their lungs weren't ready for all of this. You could hear the coughing and general malaise amongst the tired men from everywhere you stood.
Eventually we got ourselves covered and made it back to Neapolis and onto our vessels. Although we hated the life we lived while on these things, we sure were happy to see them now. That was a rough trip inland and it makes you respect the boys even more.
I tended to just bury it. But make no mistake, we were scared. We were supposed to be supported by Naval gunfire that sometimes missed their mark and tactical bombing support. We landed and the progress was very slow, but keep in mind we were also surprised by the poor weather. Nonetheless, we were so successful in setting up the groundwork for this invasion that it was a blueprint for our invasion of Normandy. We didn’t lose a single man in that invasion. Our amphibious assault craft suffered no casualties during the initial invasion of Sicily in 1943, and would later deliver troops to the shores of Utah Beach on D-Day.
I’ll never forget the stretcher-bearers racing onto the beach to get the injured. I saw a man with his inners hanging out, body parts lay all over that beach. I seemed to deal with it by just putting focus into what I had to do We were waiting the Air Force to bomb the beaches in order to give us air cover. They were late, and they didn’t want to bomb us so they got rid of the bombs some three miles away. I dug holes for the next guys coming in. I lay the wire as a shell fragment jammed into my back. I got up and continued to work. It got quiet in my neck of the woods which allowed me to lay radio equipment just in the nick-of-time.
Our flotilla was a necessary component of the invasion of Normandy. During a routine stop over in Belgium, I got to lay my first eyes on General George Patton. What a motivating man he was! Of course, he was used as a pawn in the invasion of Normandy to feign an attack far more north on the continent. I'm not sure how he felt about being used in such a manner because you'd get the feeling Patton would lead the charge guns blazing all by himself.
Hitler fell for it hook, line and sinker.
When we approached Utah beach, I thought I was experienced at this kind of attack. Hell we prepared for it repeatedly. What I wasn’t ready for was the vast amount of gunfire and shells that we were hit with. We had to land before the other American GIs so we could set them up with radio communications and ammunition. I raced through the waters with all of this gear around my head and back and I kept falling in the water, making my gear only heavier. Men all around me were falling in pools of blood, and as the waters lapped up on the shore, the crimson color of death was being left on the sands.
My best friend was shot right beside me. I heard the bullet whiz by my head and smack into the chest of Walt. I looked back in time to see him fall and as I went to pick him up I saw he was already dead. Bullets smacked into the water around me and I started to shake. I asked God if this was the end for me too. It’s funny in a way, you have these long conversations with yourself when in reality, only seconds pass. The smell of gunpowder and sweat and salt-water was enough to make you throw-up. When you are wading into the beach with blood on your legs from the floating bodies of your comrades behind you, it can take you to a miserable place. It made me even angrier with the Germans.
I rescued a number of the guys after I dropped the supplies. Well, there wasn’t really anything else for me to do as I was waiting to get back on the Amphibious Landing Craft. I saw the men struggling and those who were still alive were who I targeted to save. Many of the men on my flotilla never made it back to their ships. In fact, most of the men I served with were killed that day.
The movement toward land was eerie and quiet. I looked out with my binoculars and our vessels looked like little coffins as far as the eye could see. Gray, dank, nothing pretty about the beach at all. At first we were stuck there on the beach. Germans were giving us heavy fire as we waited - and waited - for the Royal Air Force to pick us up.
There were some key differences between landing in Sicily and France. First of all, the beaches were much larger in Sicily and we had more landing space. At Utah Beach there were hills and places to conceal the enemy, making that invasion much more difficult. It seemed so easy when we invaded Sicily that many of us thought it would be the same at Normandy. I think that was wishful thinking.
When we realized what had been accomplished, the soldiers who landed on Utah Beach after we did were able to set up radio communications with all of the armed services. They had extra ammunition and supplies when they landed. Although I was just doing my job, I received Bronze Stars for the men I rescued – in fact, FIVE of them!
I was the youngest guy on the ship, and I had five Bronze Stars before I was 19 years old,….I turned 21 on Sept. 2, 1945, the day the war ended. I did have good memories of the 1940s and without a doubt it the time spent on the island of Crete. The place is so beautiful…..Crete was just a bunch of burros and people and it was such an easy way of life. I often wanted to go back but now it's all hotels, the burro's are all gone!