In a slow return to blogging about WWII, I hope to provide some tidbits dug up from buried history about the man named Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of the once feared Japanese Imperial Navy. I only wish to present unusual facts lost in history; certainly, your children will never read about him in school history textbooks. The textbooks don’t even mention Iwo Jima or World War II for that matter aside from only highlighting minority sacrifices in the US (Iwo Jima is now known as “Iwotou” as even the Japanese military misread the Japanese characters of 硫黄島.).
Well before being ordered to plan the attack on Pearl and for the record, he was totally against having the US as a foe. He documented many times – privately and publicly – that to take on the Americans would mean the end of the Japanese Empire. His publicly voiced sentiments since the 1930’s in Imperial Army controlled pre-war Japan actually had him targeted for assassination. He was against warring with America that strongly. Imagine that.
For instance, before the imminent attack on Pearl, an aide to MacArthur (Gordon Prange, known as MacArthur’s personal historian) reported that he had one of Yamamoto’s personal letters. Prange claimed that Yamamoto had written in this letter to his close friend Ryoichi Sasakawa, “…to invade the United States would prove most difficult because behind every blade of grass is an American with a rifle.”
Second Amendment, folks.
You see, Yamamoto had spent time in America as a diplomatic envoy (a role he detested) observing this nation. He even took English classes at Harvard, mastering it, studying the language late into the nights. He witnessed America’s production might, observing the Ford production lines and even went AWOL in a way, disappearing into Mexico living in attics and meager rations of bananas, bread and water. Not even the Imperial Japanese knew of his whereabouts.
His goal in Mexico? He had the military foresight to also take petroleum classes at Harvard. He wanted to observe Mexico’s oil fields – oil fields which Japan did NOT have, just like the island territory of Hawaii. He appeared so much like a hobo locals reported him to the Mexican authorities.
When questioned by the Mexican authorities, he told them he was a Commander in the Imperial Japanese Navy. They were in disbelief – so they wired the Japanese Imperial Navy. They replied to the effect that, well, there IS a Yamamoto in the United States but that was all they knew. The Mexican authorities were placated and Yamamoto continued on.
By the way, you may wonder how he could have even afforded that privately funded foray into Mexico. At Cambridge, Yamamoto had made a small fortune gambling. He was an excellent gambler. He learned to play bridge quickly and his American opponents lost nearly all the time. (1)
More to follow in Part II on his childhood, entry in the Japanese Imperial Navy, love life, pre-war political power in Japan, military career and the handicaps he was dealt being an admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy.
(1) Yamamoto had actually amassed a tidy sum from gambling and took that with him to Mexico to fund his adventure. However, early into his foray into Mexico, he met a fellow Imperial Japanese naval officer who WAS stationed there. They became friends and as it turns out, this fellow was also a gambler – just a very poor gambler. He had incurred debt and he was to be rotated home shortly. Yamamoto couldn’t allow his new friend to return home in shame so Yamamoto gave him nearly all of his own winnings. The officer was then able to return home to Osaka without fear of shame. That is how Yamamoto ended up living like a homeless man.
I Dream of Jeannie and Combat! are unbelievably similar.
How can that be? you must be thinking. He’s off his rocker…
Well, I’m not off my rocker. Why? They are both fantasies. They aren’t real. Combat! is as far from reality as I Dream of Jeannie is.. although I wish Barbara Eden would blink herself into my home.
Real combat footage from the Battle for Berlin:
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying I know what war is truly like as I do not. I do NOT know what being on a battlefield is like. I do NOT know what being at the receiving end of an enemy barrage feels like. Only folks like Old Man Jack and Mr. Johnson know and they are no longer with us.
And as much as I liked to watch the series, I do know war is not as shown on Combat!
More in the conclusion below.
Here’s some trivia I’ve collected from various sources on the internet.
“Selmur Productions” comes from the husband and wife team, “SELig” and “MURiel” Seligman.
The D-Day landing footage in Episode One was taken at Franca’s Beach in Malibu, CA. Rick Jason, to avoid getting muscle spasms jumping off the LST into the then chilly waters, wore a corset. Oddly, his uniform is dry when he is crawling on the sand although getting wet up to his chest jumping off the LST moments earlier. One of their first bloopers.
In order to prepare for their new roles, Morrow, Jason, Jalbert and another regular at that time went to Ft. Ord for a week for “basic training”. While they were offered a less tough training regimen, they turned it down. They threw live grenades and crawled under barbed wire with real .50 caliber rounds whizzing overhead. Jason was about twice as old as the real trainees being about 40 years old, followed by Jalbert then Morrow. (Most in actual combat were in their teens or early 20’s.)
The tone of the script was actually slowly set by Morrow and Jason. When they got the scripts, they made their own edits (pretty much cutting most of the talking out) and forced management to accept them…or else.
Pierre Jalbert, or “Caje”, had never acted before auditioning for Combat! He was by trade a film editor and a professional ski instructor. Some of his credits were for “Shogun” and “Star Trek: the Motion Picture”.
A US Army colonel, serving as consultant for the show, said he had never seen a soldier that could reload a Garand M-1 as fast as Jalbert.
The regulars said that Jack Hogan (“Kirby”) was the most talented actor in the bunch. He was keenly adept at bringing “Kirby’s” lines to life on set.
For the footage filmed in Loire, France at a chateau, the regulars – including Vic Morrow – stayed in LA. The man you see walking with the Thompson and camo helmet was his double, Earl Parker. Morrow himself remarked Parker even had his walk perfectly mimicked. He also had several roles in episodes.
In spite of smoking thousands of unfiltered Lucky Strikes, none of the regulars died of lung cancer.
In Episode 10 of Season 3, Lt. Hanley pulls a blooper by calling Little John by his real name; he orders, “Peabody, bring up the rear.”
In the next Episode 11 and after playing a number of uncredited roles, Tom Skerritt gets a featured role.
In many scenes, the stunt men actually play both sides. In the morning, they may be in American uniforms then shoot a Nazi. Later in the day, they would switch to that Nazi’s uniform then would get killed. In essence, the stunt man would shoot himself.
Jack Hogan had starred alongside Mickey Rooney in “Silver Service”. Hogan said that when a scene was cut and actors would want to take a break, Mickey Rooney would just keep on talking to them, keeping them from taking a break.
Vic Morrow was initially cast for the role of Lt. Hanley but turned it down as “nobody likes officers”, or something to that effect.
In his first roles on Combat!, Jalbert’s name was “Caddy”. His name changed to Caje when he became a regular. Amazingly, he was in four more episodes than Jason (114 vs. 110). Morrow was first at 121 appearances followed by Hogan with 120.
Vic Morrow’s and Rick Jason’s contracts required the studio to give both equal times their names would appear first in the opening credits. As such, you see their names alternating as to whose came first. Unbelievably, each received top billing 76 times (152 episodes) although Morrow had 11 more appearances.
But the most fascinating bit of trivia I had come across was… Combat! has a huge following in several countries and most incredibly, Japan. Maybe my mom wasn’t so far off base afterall.
It is well known that unlike the cast of the original TV series “Star Trek”, the regulars of the series had established a very close relationship. They had very much become a family; they got along tremendously well and kept in touch for the remainder of their lives.
By all accounts (including blogger Jeanne Rene who waited on him many times at a diner he frequented), Vic Morrow was kind and humble, even as his fame grew.
In 1958, he married actress Barbara Turner and had two children, Carrie Ann and Jennifer Leigh. However, during the course of filming Combat!, Barbara involved herself with the series’ director, Robert Altman. Primarily due to that, Barbara initiated divorce just five years later. The divorce was finalized in 1965. Although he was one of the highest paid actors, he went into a tailspin and depression from which he never fully recovered from.
After the series was canceled, he found it difficult to land decent movie roles; he even tried a stint in Japan which also failed. To add onto his drinking habit, his daughter Jennifer became a very popular actress. Somewhere along the way, he felt betrayed by her success and they had a tremendous falling out. It appears the last straw in their relationship was when Jennifer officially changed her name to Jennifer Jason Leigh to completely distance herself from her father.
However, as many of you know, Vic Morrow was killed along with two child actors while filming for the “Twilight Zone: The Movie” on Friday, July 23, 1982, at Indian Dunes in Valencia, California. John Landis was brought up on murder charges but was acquitted after a long trial.
Like Old Man Jack, Rick Jason was a bit of a mischievous youth although born into a well-to-do family in 1926. He was apparently very friendly and approachable.
He turned down his father’s introduction into the business world and instead, enlisted in the US Army Air Corps during WWII. After discharge he pursued acting.
After the popular five year run of Combat! and unlike Vic Morrow, Jason did succeed in landing roles in TV and movies. His first movie role he landed after Combat! was as a Portuguese gun runner in a… Japanese movie (鉄砲伝来記).
I’ve got to hand it to Rick Jason. After the contract was signed, he knew he would have to live in Japan for about half a year. To that end, he took Japanese lessons from a Japanese woman for three months, six days a week. He would then practice speaking it with his house man, Hiro.
It was a huge press affair in Japan. Upon arrival, there was a large press conference and a translator was provided. Instead, he had a speech prepared which had been translated into Japanese by Hiro. Following perfect Japanese etiquette, he read it perfectly while seated as per custom. He finished it by bowing slightly, still seated as he should be. He had won them over.
He had married numerous times, his last wife in 1983.
In the year 2000 and just days after a Combat! reunion gala, he was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Simi Valley home. No note was reportedly found.
Born in 1925, Jalbert had no idea he would become a fixture in an extremely popular TV show in America. Before his by-chance starring role, he was a teen ski champion and was the Canadian team captain in the 1948 Olympics.
After serving in the Canadian air force during WWII as a drill instructor, he moved to Los Angeles in 1952 to pursue film editing. Some of his pre-Combat! work included films such as Ben Hur, Mutiny on the Bounty, and An American in Paris.
After Combat! and a few acting stints in movies and TV, he returned to his job as film editor. Some of his credits at Paramount include Concorde, Bloodline, Grease, The Godfather, and the TV miniseries Shogun where he was nominated for an Emmy for sound editing.
A very friendly and talkative man, he enjoyed masonry work, remodeling, studying French history and fine wine.
While known as a lady’s man, he remained married for 53 years with his wife Joy Lee until his death just last year from complications after a heart attack. He passed away on January 22, 2014 in Los Angeles.
Richard “Dick” Peabody was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1925. Both parents were teachers but his father also wrote.
With WWII raging, Dick enlisted in the US Navy at just 17 years of age. A true representative of a great generation. He survived the war and was honorably discharged; his rate was Electronic Technician’s Mate First Class.
According to what he had written, he decided to switch to a liberal arts course after starting an electrical engineering program. He said no electrical engineer became famous and he wanted to be famous.
After launching a career in TV commercials, he caught the eye of Robert Altman, the first director of Combat! He was then hired to make educational films. Later, he landed a job as a news anchor then moved to Denver to host a jazz show and freelance writing. In 1962, he felt his eye-catching height and appearance would be an attention getter in Hollywood. When he was broadcasting at an all night gig on KMPC radio, Robert Altman again approached him for a role in Combat! The rest is history.
After Combat!, he was successful in the movie and TV industries and in 1971, he ran a radio talk show on KFI and interviewed hundreds of celebrities.
Peabody and his wife, Tina, a former model, lived happily married and remained in constant contact with the regulars. In 1985, back pain ended his television career, and he moved to El Dorado County, California. There, he started a weekly column, doing what he enjoyed most – writing. This is where Peabody wrote of Vic Morrow’s tragic accident. He wrote that he and his fellow actors – knowing full well of working with explosions after five years of Combat! – strongly believed Landis was responsible for this death. He wrote that in addition to Landis hiring illegally the two children and working them at night (prohibited), he allowed for crews under the influence of booze or drugs to use explosions much more violent than necessary, thereby bringing the chopper down on the actors. Further, Landis had ordered the chopper to fly closer and closer with a bull horn. There was solid testimony Steven Spielberg was also on set but he denied being there.
In 1996, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and continued to remain active until his death on December 27, 1999 in his Camino, California home.
Jack Hogan is the last regular still alive from the days of Combat! Born in 1929 in North Carolina, he was the youngest of the regulars.
Although he started to study architecture in college, he wanted a change and enlisted in the US Army in 1948. During his service, he served in the Far East, with his last duty station in Japan.
After being honorably discharged, he enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse to learn acting. He then moved to New York in 1955 for one year to continue to learn his trade then returned to Hollywood where he fortunately landed good roles in both TV and films. His mentor was Anthony Quinn. Similar to some of the others, Robert Altman sought him out for the character of Private Kirby on Combat!
After Combat! ended, he continued to be successful in TV, having co-starring roles in shows like Adam-12 where he played a police sergeant. He also starred in his own show, Sierra.
He then took a short break from show business, starting and managing his own construction company in Hawaii. He then got back into the entertainment industry, serving as the casting director on Magnum, PI in which he guest starred twice.
Twice divorced with two children, he enjoyed fishing, arguing “friendly like” on politics with friends and reading.
I guess I need to thank my mom for her love of Sgt. Saunders and his machismo as Combat! very likely sparked my keen interest in WWII and its impact on our world. Yes, to a young boy, the action on the TV appeared real. True life. And most of all, it did show honor and duty. (EDIT, 2/10/2016: I failed to note that there were plans in motion to produce a movie version of Combat! in 2010. I understand they had selected their “Sgt. Saunders” but the project was canned.)
But as I grew up and became entrenched in reading about WWII (and dinosaurs), I fortunately realized somewhere along the way real war was nothing like what I saw for years on Combat!
Having said that, I had mentioned a thought to a most intellectual blogger friend, historian and “retired” Marine Mustang that seeing a “Nisei” playing a role as a Marine in TV’s “Gomer Pyle, USMC” was so unrealistic so soon after the war. A political message for sure, I felt. Here he was in a US Marine rifle squad on TV when the number of Japanese-Americans in the US military all together was very low. Even today, I understand only about 45,000 Asians of all ancestries are wearing our uniforms.
He pointed out that when Combat! came onto our TV screens, we had a bona fide war hero in the White House (Kennedy)¹. Wars were fought to be won back then. Then comedic shows like “McHale’s Navy” and “Hogan’s Heroes” began to proliferate on our TV screens, possibly leading the viewing public to think actual combat is something not to take seriously. Also, LBJ became president replacing the war hero Kennedy, making misguided decisions of how to win the Vietnam War along the way. At this time, “M*A*S*H” hit the screens and helped anti-war sentiment grow – as well as the public’s misconception of the ugliness of true war. Yes, there were brief moments of philosophy but by far, comedy ruled at a makeshift field hospital during the brutal Korean War.
When you think about “Combat!” in its entirety, there was an anti-war “sentiment” thread running through it but thankfully, it gave focus on what a GI Joe had to confront out on the battlefield. Morals. Honor. Duty. Horror. Orders. Bravery. Cowardice. Survival. Killing. Compassion.
In that light, I feel it completed its mission.
As often said in the episodes,“Checkmate King Two. Out.”
People who watched Combat! from the get-go pretty much think of Sgt. Saunders in their mind when they see a Tommy gun and Lt. Hanley when they see a M-1 carbine, yes? The power of media herewith.
But the truth of the matter is both Saunders and Hanley started out with the 30.06 firing M-1 Garand rifle as they hit the beach at Omaha Beach on D-Day in the first episode which began shooting on June 2, 1962.
And they both had standard issue steel helmets.
Sgt. Saunders, His Thompson Machine Gun and Camo Helmet
As proof Sgt. Saunders “went over the side” with a M-1 Garand in Episode 1’s D-Day, here he is trying to board his landing craft #PA-142 (The landing craft PA-142 does show up in real D-Day footage.) with it slung over his shoulder. He also has on a standard issue two-piece steel helmet:
He carries this weapon throughout the first episode…but never fires a shot.
In Episode 2, no one fires a shot.
However, his Thompson and his distinctive camo helmet shows up ever so quietly and out of sequence series-wise in Episode 3 below:
However, before he fires a shot, he is captured by the Nazis. He loses his Thompson and camo helmet as he is taken prisoner.
I say it was out of sequence as in Episode 4, Sgt. Saunders reverts back to his standard issue helmet but is also unusually equipped with a M-1 carbine. This also is Lt. Hanley’s first episode with his trademark M-1 carbine. However, Sgt. Saunders never fires a shot nor does Lt. Hanley.
So when does Saunders get to shoot? Read on…
In Episode 5, Saunders’ trademark camo helmet makes its permanent re-appearance for the rest of the show. But how did he become the one and only to wear such a distinctive helmet?
Because to make my mom feel more overcome with his macho? Nope… It was because he… complained! Sorry to blow another iconic image you may have had of your childhood idol. According to statements made by Morrow and others per various websites and interviews, Morrow had begun to complain that the weight of the standard issue steel helmet was compressing his vertebrae on those week long shoots. Therefore, it was replaced with a custom made, lighter fiberglass one, designed by the award winning prop crew. The helmet’s camo covering – which is bona fide US Army paratrooper parachute material that was used in Europe – became necessary to hide the fact the helmet was fiberglass.
The US Army paratrooper camo patterns, colors and construction differed from the Marine versions (sometimes nicknamed “frogskin”) for which it has frequently been mistaken.
In a comment made by one of the directors, he jokingly said the oddball helmet covering made it easier for the cameramen to follow him. One other bit of trivia on his helmet: one drawback was that it was so light, it would fall off when he would “hit the dirt” or bump it against an object.
The Tommy Gun
Like any other American boy, I wanted a Tommy gun so bad so that I could pretend to be like Sgt. Saunders. Many other boys wanted it, too! But alas, dad couldn’t afford one.
But I did get a cap gun, holster and cowboy hat when I was about four, believing they belonged to Roy Rogers:
As for his Thompson, which fired .45 caliber rounds, here is a real one in full auto in case you’re new to this:
But back to the TV Thompson and I won’t go into discussions of what model it was because there were apparently several in use… including a wooden one.
Yes, a wooden one. Sorry to burst your bubble once again, guys.
After Morrow lugged a real one around for a couple of weeks, he realized why Jason turned it down. For argument’s sake, a real one weighed roughly about 10-1/2 pounds empty. Can you imagine what a real soldier or Marine thought when he would lug it around while actually getting shot at and likely suffering from dysentery? The prop men therefore fashioned one out of wood for Morrow.
Saunders would carry the wooden mock up when walking or running during a shoot. Weapons experts can spot it a mile away. He would then switch to the real Thompson for a firefight.
However, the set version of Saunders’ “real” Tommy gun was not without problems as it was modified to shoot blanks. According to various sources, the barrel was choked down¹ for set use. The weapons guys thought by choking it down, the spent cartridges would eject better. However, they were wrong. For you Combat! buffs, do you recollect Saunders firing the Thompson in long bursts? I don’t think you will. Saunders only fires it in 2-3-4 round bursts as it would jam up³. He had a nickname for it: Jammomatic. In some firefight scenes, you can see Saunders trying to unjam it. Cut!
So…to answer the question when Sgt. Saunders finally get to shoot anything?² Indeed, it was his trademark Thompson in Episode 5. He and Hanley locate a sniper while under fire and he lets lose two single shots. Not a spray, mind you. Hanley also fires his M-1 carbine for the first time as well.
Lastly, many collectors years ago were seeking to find this Thompson that Sgt. Saunders made famous. While some stories vary, the most common answer is that the several Thompson’s that were used in the series were rented from Stembridge Rentals, a common source for Hollywood at that time. As a result, this famous prop is likely lost for all time.
Rick Jason and His M-1 Carbine
As mentioned, the Thompson was originally meant for Lt. Hanley. When they first handed him the Thompson, he said no way. “Get me something lighter,” he said. You see, he knew about guns being a hunter; he even did his own reloads. And that’s how Saunders eventually got the Thompson – it was basically a hand-me down.
His M-1 carbine was also choked down for use with blanks. However, with him being the only one of the regulars being an avid shooter, he looked the most natural shouldering a weapon. He once wrote that the real M-1 carbine’s round wouldn’t kill a “sick mouse”, implying it had no stopping power. However, during the Battle for Okinawa in 1945, websites report that 75% of the Japanese casualties were inflicted by M-1 carbine rounds.
For those of you who have not seen one of these fire, here is a video. As there is a bayonet stud, it may not be true WWII vintage but the message is clear. It can take down a sick mouse with ease. While watching this, imagine you are 18 years old on a hostile battlefield:
So what happened to Lt. Hanley’s actual M-1 carbine?
According to a letter he wrote, Rick Jason stated that against the studio’s direction, he simply took it home. While it was registered to the Culver City Police Department, he told the prop man that after lugging it around on the sets for five years, it was his. Period. So he stole it… I mean, took it home on a permanent basis.
After taking it home, he wrote he poured lead into the barrel to ensure it cannot be loaded and then accidentally fired. He then left it in his cabinet for about four years.
Shortly thereafter, the well known comedian Charlie Callas stopped by Jason’s home and quickly spotted the M-1. Being a gun collector, Callas immediately figured out it was the one Jason had made famous on Combat! After a few libations around the pool, Jason gave it to Callas as it was “taking up space where a nice rifle could occupy”. Before Jason passed away, he indicated that Callas still had it in his collection. However, Callas passed away in 2011; I haven’t come across any mention of “Lt. Hanley’s M-1” since then.
Kabooms and Bullet Holes
By all accounts, Combat! was blessed with an excellent special effects team, headed up by A. D. Flowers. Flowers would eventually win an Oscar for his work on Tora! Tora! Tora! years later.
While many “explosions” in movies today are computer generated, the explosions and bullet impacts on walls and such filmed on “Combat!” were actual controlled explosions. Vic Morrow always said that the actors felt very secure and safe in spite of all the explosive commotion due to Flowers’ exacting expertise.
While far from an actual barrage (I cannot imagine the horror of being at the receiving end of real ones.), the special effects team and cameramen did a spectacular job simulating them for TV. Here’s an example:
To accomplish this, the special effects team would actually exactingly dig holes, plant the explosives called “pots”, then run wires. When you hit the switch, the explosives would go off. These pots – made out of iron at that time – would be narrow at the bottom and wide at the top. This “shaped” the “explosion” up, protecting the actor. A portion of the pot would extend above the ground then was covered by peat moss which could not be made out in the movie footage. Actors had very specific routes to run but safety was the rule.
I cannot be certain but for the above footage, Flowers said in an interview that 20 special effects guys were used at a cost of $25,000 for two days and 300,000 feet of electrical wire was run. He also said that in a three month time, they blew up 1,500 bags worth of peat moss.
Amazing talent, I say.
“Squibs” were used to mimic bullet impacts (above). For wood, they actually drilled a hole into the wood for every scripted bullet hit then inserted a small charge connected by wire to a control switch. Extra care had to exercised to ensure the safety of the actors and crew as at times, the charge would be stuffed with balsa wood pieces and powder. In the same three month period mentioned directly above, 15,000 bullet hits were used. Incredible. Dust pellets fired by air guns were used to mimic bullet hits on masonry.
What happened to the regulars, final bits of trivia and a conclusion in Part 4.
A choked barrel is one in which there’s a reduction in the diameter of the bore near the muzzle.
In an episode a short time later, he is re-united with a soldier he fought alongside with him on D-Day. In this episode, the studio inserted other footage they had taken for the first episode but had not used. In this sequence, Saunders does fire his M-1 Garand on the beach.
In actual combat, the Thompson was usually fired in short bursts to help improve accuracy as well due to something called “creep”, encountered when firing long bursts. The recoil would cause the barrel to creep up and to the right if you were right-handed.
Combat! ran for five strong seasons, a total of 152 episodes, all of which aired on Tuesday nights from 7:30 pm to 8:30 pm on ABC. Each episode ran for a maximum of 52 minutes and ran against shows like “Gunsmoke” or the “Red Skelton Show”. The first four seasons were in B&W with the fifth and final season in color (1967). Perhaps there is one prominent reason for this show’s continued success at that time. Vic Morrow had been heard to proudly boast that the story lines are not about men ATwar, but about men IN war. I tend to agree.
When you think about WWII historically, the Germans surrendered to the Allied Forces just 11 months after D-Day; yet, this series ran for five years. Sure was a long war. According to various trivia sources, Saunders was wounded 40 times, Kirby 37 times and Hanley 36 times. (Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated military man, was officially wounded three times, the last time the day before he was bestowed the Medal of Honor.).
Filming and Locations
Filming was arduous. They shot six full days – 14 hours a day – for a week’s one hour episode. When they were shooting outside, cloud cover may have come in after they started shooting a scene in sunlight, necessitating a re-shoot from the beginning. There was a “no shave” rule in effect once shooting started. Once in awhile, even though the “combat” action for a TV episode was over in a day, it took a week to film. The beard growth was noticeable, especially on Caje. In the initial season, the actors reminisced that for some time, they didn’t even have chairs to sit on in between takes. Vic Morrow put an end to that by “striking” until chairs were provided.
While filming for a couple of episodes took place in Loire, France, most were shot on location at the famous MGM Hollywood’s historic backlots or out in southern California’s less traveled areas like Cucamonga or Thousand Oaks (now pretty much Westlake Village and covered with condos). In addition, a lot of filming over all five seasons took place in Franklin Canyon, smack dab in in the hills between Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood and Ventura Blvd. in Studio City. Today, it is still accessible by the public but some of it is now a nature preserve. As a bit of trivia, it is rumored you can still find spent cartridges from some of the firefights. Many of the landmarks seen in the episodes also remain, like the reservoirs and waterways, culverts, prominent trees and a short overpass.
One interesting thing in some of the overview shots taken of the SoCal terrain was that you could clearly see the haze due to the heavy smog of that time. In addition, if your hearing is good and you know which scenes to watch, you can hear the sound of jets roaring overhead. The Nazis were far advanced in their jet technology, you know. 🙂
One other location was in snow covered Squaw Valley for a couple of rare winter episodes, one starring Mickey Rooney in “Silver Service”. It was possibly produced to reflect on the costly Battle of the Bulge although the Combat! episodes never made it out of France. There was so much footage taken over five tough days that they were used for a couple of episodes. In the other winter setting episode which utilized the Squaw Valley footage (“Mountain Man”), Caje (Pierre Jalbert) shows off his Olympic skill by skiing down the mountain to escape from Nazis (below). In true life, he broke his leg as a teen just before the Olympics, ending his chance to ski for Canada. It is reported he had a very good chance for a medal.
By the way, the “Nazi” chasing Caje down the hill was Bob Beattie, the coach for the US Olympic ski team at that time.
In a funny moment and during the planning stages to show off his skiing abilities, Pierre quipped, “There are no mountains in Normandy, pal.”
In this pursuit, the technical achievement by the film crews of Combat! was the innovation and perfection of hand-held cinematography with movie film. Such mastery was incredible for an art form that just started a few short years earlier. They perfected the usage of an Arriflex-35BL movie camera being hand held by a camera man following the action on foot, yielding the “shaky” look. While the camera is mounted on a very large cinematography tripod head here, the camera and film were similar to this:
In essence, this was the beginning of the “Hero” video camera so commonly in use today 50 years later by people like yourselves. In the end, the footage for Combat! honored these brave camera WWII men and added to the realism to the TV screen with their up close and “shaky” look.
One incredibly imaginative bit of hand-held footage was in “Hills Are For Heroes”, a two-part story and masterpiece directed by Vic Morrow himself. In a critical “death scene”, instead of simply filming a key actor crumpling onto the dirt battlefield, they tried something unheard of in the early 1960’s: they secured a 35mm Arriflex hand-held movie camera to the cameraman’s head. These cameras were not the light, compact digital ones we use today; these were bulky, heavy and had 35mm film spools as well. They used something like a huge, thick rubber band and secured the Arriflex to the cameraman’s head. Then, he stood where actor was shot, fell to the ground while looking through the eye piece then rolling down the hill, filming all the time. At the end of the sequence, the now “dead” soldier (cameraman) continued to film and perfectly captured the coming of his now distraught buddy trying to come to his aid. Incidentally, the cameraman got a cut over his eye for his efforts.
The innovative footage can be seen here, a clip from “Hills Are For Heroes”. It was artistically done in slo-mo:
The Guest Stars
As ABC was really struggling at this time, Combat! was a shot in their arm being in the “Top Ten” shows. Due to its popularity, movie and TV stars of the day clamored to get a part in Combat! According to an interview of Pierre Jalbert (Caje) after the show went off the air, he said, “Who wouldn’t want to play soldier for the week?” Some were least expected; some noted folks had cameos like Warren Spahn, the Cy Young Award winning pitcher (below). He played a non-speaking role as a German soldier in Season 2, Episode 8. By the way, he was a decorated WWII soldier having earned a Purple Heart. He loved the show and was a fan.
Indeed, the list of famous guest stars was long. Some guest starred more than once. They included:
Leonard Nimoy (His role was as a translator in both episodes.)
James Whitmore (Played a Nazi officer while killing three GI’s, disguised as a Catholic father.)
Charles Bronson (He played a demolition expert confronted with either not doing his duty or blowing up priceless marble statues and artwork.)
Neville Brand (I understand he was awarded the Silver Star, a Purple Heart and the Combat Infantry Badge in Europe during WWII.)
…and the list goes on. Not to be a spoiler, but some of these famous guest stars are “killed” in their episodes.
Some screenshots of the stars:
According to a story by Dick Peabody (Little John), he mentioned that some of these stars were there just for the money and exposure while a few were there to enjoy the work and “become one of the gang”. One of the best, he said, was Fernando Lamas. He would bring along his beautiful and famous wife, Esther Williams, and they would “recuperate” together from the day’s shooting in their trailer which he brought along. He said Esther Williams was the ultimate host, providing fine wine and appetizers for the regulars in attendance. He also mentioned Robert Duvall and Dennis Weaver detached themselves from the regulars and weren’t much fun at all. Unbelievably, Duvall guest starred in three episodes.
Fascinating trivia about the weapons, episodes and what happened to the regulars in real life come in Part 3.
Back in the very early 1960’s, my dad picked up a used B&W TV set from an appliance store’s outdoor parking lot sale at Atlantic Square in Monterey Park, CA. It was loaded into the cavernous trunk of his 1955 Ford Victoria coupe, also bought (really) used. He probably should have spent the money on repairing the car instead of buying that TV. Anyways, the TV was our first one, dust covered vacuum tubes and all. At least it turned on.
Well, mom commandeered it. Don’t ask me why. After all, she didn’t speak much English at all having come here just a few years earlier.
While I was able to watch The Mouseketeers, Sheriff John and Engineer Bill in the morning, the night belonged to mom. She decided what to watch. I don’t recall dad ever saying anything either, but then, he never did. (ps Sheriff John read off my name during his show on my birthday. He even pronounced it correctly.)
I remember some of “her” shows.
“Sea Hunt”. She loved seeing Lloyd Bridges in his swimming trunks. (He did enlist in the Coast Guard when WWII started.)
“The Ed Sullivan Show”.
“Have Gun – Will Travel”.
“The Lucy Show”… although I can’t figure out for the life of me how she could have laughed at the lines. She couldn’t have possibly understood the English. American humor is so different from that of Japan’s, too. I guess she just laughed at her physical comedy and wacky faces. (Another ps: I watched re-runs of the Lucy Show when I stayed in Japan for two years as a young adult. You will be shocked to learn the lines were radically changed and replaced with dubbed Japanese which would be funny in their culture.)
Near the top of her list was the “Dean Martin Show”. Of course, it was because of Dean Martin. While he didn’t get into swimming trunks like Lloyd Bridges, man, she thought he was man’s equivalent of Marilyn Monroe.
But sadly for dad, the show at the top of mom’s list was… Wait for it… Combat!
“Combat!”? How could that be? How could she possibly want to watch a TV series based on a war Japan just brutally lost 15 short years earlier? Her city of Tokyo was burned to the ground in 1945 by us Americans and she was hungry all the time. Even grandma used to call the men of the US military occupying Japan as the “invaders” or “long legs”. Dad, a Japanese-American, was one of the invaders but definitely sans the long legs.
Did she know what “Little John, take the point” or “Kirby, set up your BAR over there to provide cover” meant? Of course not.
Well, if you haven’t guessed yet as to why she loved to watch Combat!… it was because of… Sgt. Saunders.
Sgt. “Chip” Saunders. He was played by Vic Morrow. He outdid Dean Martin and Lloyd Bridges – and my dad – by far in her epitome of manliness department. Hell, she couldn’t even pronounce his TV name correctly: SAN-DAZU is how she pronounced it with her Japanese pronunciation. All she saw was testosterone. Machismo.
Even though I was young, I vaguely remember I felt kind of odd towards dad as every time we got together with her “Nisei” lady friends, mom would rant and rave of Saunders – all in Japanese – with dad next to her. “Daddy kara chigatte San-dazu-san wa otokopokutte kakko ii!” or translated, “Unlike dad, Saunders is so manly, rugged and handsome. He’s a man!” I also recall her scolding at dad every now and then in the house or car to be more “manly”.
Of course, there was co-star Lt. Gil Hanley, played by Rick Jason. She noticed him too, of course, but all she felt about him was that he was “cute” like a teen movie star – not a man’s man.
The other regulars were:
Pvt. William G. Kirby, who started the series with a M-1 Garand but eventually got his wish to man the BAR. He was well played by Jack Hogan and was always getting yelled at for doing something lame-brain:
PFC Paul “Caje” LeMay was Saunders go-to man on patrol or in a firefight; he was played by Pierre Jalbert. In the series, he is of Cajun heritage and comes from New Orleans where he spoke French fluently. In real life, he was a Canadian skiing champ in his teens and was destined to ski in the Olympics.
“Little John” rounded out the long playing cast members. His TV name was a gag; he towered over everyone else being 6′ 6″ tall. I don’t know if it was custom made but his standard issue GI helmet fit like a condom as it looked like a tiny beanie on his head. His real name was Dick Peabody and he wrote a column later in life which I’ll mention later. He often wrote about the “great times” they had while shooting the episodes.
The show was unique, even for today. It did its best to convey the war from the GI Joe’s point of view. Sure, the “kills” on the set were theatrical nor were the on-set explosions or artillery barrages real but it had a human streak throughout its run on TV. It tried to convey what war was really like for the suffering civilians or the everyday soldier – well, as best it could do for TV. Themes focused on fear, bravery, hatred, cowardice, heroism, pain and randomness of death. Filthiness of being on the front lines without baths, crawling in mud, wading through streams with gear, protecting their buddies, killing with their bayonets and endless but deadly patrols. As in real life, replacement soldiers were grocery clerks, dancers, used car salesmen, baseball players or worked on telephone lines.
One possible reason the show was able to convey the feelings of the everyday Joe so well was that all of these six regulars had served in the military, some during WWII itself. “Kirby” and “Little John” served in the US Navy while “Hanley” served in the Army Air Corps (before it broke off from the US Army and became the US Air Force) during WWII. “Caje” also served as a drill sergeant during WWII in Canada in an air training corps. “Saunders” served in the US Navy in 1947. It is unknown if any of them were subjected to combat.
Another bit of uniqueness was not only its early-for-its-time human interest story line but its script. There really weren’t many spoken lines except for when it counted; just a lot of Army-based jargon otherwise but well researched. But one funny bit of trivia at this time: one of the most oft said lines was, “Shut up, Kirby.”
Also adding to its TV land “realism” was that all chatter was in German between Nazi soldiers or in French between the local townspeople; there was no translation or sub-titling. The Nazi uniforms were so well replicated by the costume folks that some Jews working at MGM’s cafeteria were upset when actors came in from the set wearing very authentic-looking Nazi uniforms (No political statement being made; just fact.)
Its first episode aired on October 2, 1962, set in England a day before D-Day. In this initial episode, both Saunders and Hanley were sergeants. By the second episode, Hanley had gotten a battlefield promotion to lieutenant and issued his Garand M-1 Carbine. Saunders will be issued his trademark Thompson .45 caliber machine gun. There is a very interesting history behind who got what weapon. Both of their helmets will change for the subsequent episodes and will become identified with them for the entire series.
Hollywood stars clamoring for guest star roles, filming schedules and behind the scenes trivia to come in Part 2.
During WWII, receiving a package from home was the ultimate morale booster for our boys in uniform. These packages brought tremendous joy to the men, especially when they were near or at the front, subjected to the brutality and extremes of environments.
Upon experiencing the joy of receiving a parcel, very little could surpass finding the lingering scent of their girl’s perfume on a knitted muffler; candy and gum ranked up there, too. Socks were also in high demand as socks wore out much more quickly than sweaters or mufflers and dry socks were essential necessities to ward off trench foot. Indeed, trench foot¹ and frostbite took their toll on our boys in battle more than being wounded by bullets or shrapnel.
While machines produced millions, there were even “knitting parties” where women knitted socks, scarves, vests and “fingerless” mittens. In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt just months before Pearl Harbor founded a “Knit for Defense” effort in the US.
But within today’s capsule of electronic bliss, many of us civilians in all walks of life see no difficulty with a family trying to communicate with their loved one who is not at home because he/she is in uniform.
Cell phones. GPS. Email. “Facetime”. Skype.
Even packages from home are viewed as no big thing anymore by the general public. They are taken for granted by many civilians because the packages leaving the front porch seem to be riding on a beacon radiating from a soldier’s open palms now – think FedEx. Perhaps this could be one possible reason why so many Americans seem to feel gifts from home are “no big deal”. They see our men in uniform as being as close as a laptop. That is far from reality as are many TV shows. They still long for home.
One thing hasn’t changed from World War II: the morale-boosting smile that erupted on a soldier’s face when he received a package from home.
So what got me thinking about these now long-forgotten packages from home that brought so many smiles to GI Joes on a WWII battlefield?
My oldest daughter Robyn spearheaded an effort with family and friends to bring together hundreds of donations to be sent anonymously to our military through the efforts of a non-profit organization called “Operation Gratitude“. Among many other essentials, there were razors, hand wipes, sunscreen, foot powder, Chapstick and most importantly, letters from students thanking the unknown recipient for their service to our country. In addition, Robyn purchased thousands of yards of “paracord“. It had to first be cut in 7.5 foot lengths; then, the open ends have to be sealed with a small flame. These were then hand braided into survival bracelets – 300 of them.
Through their volunteers and generous donations from the public, Operation Gratitude has delivered over 1.4 million parcels so far!
These smiles make it all worth it, yes?
The Journey of a WWII Package
During WWII, a package sent from home took weeks if not months for a soldier to get it… Or in the worse possible scenario, the young man would never receive their package from home because they were either killed or missing as this photo below graphically shows. It would exponentially worsen for the family as they would have likely received the infamous telegrams only to have the battered package marked “DECEASED” left at their doorstep many weeks later:
The packages from home would make their way via ship. For the European Theater of War and before D-Day, a number of supply ships were likely attacked or sunk by U-Boats. After surviving the voyage and unloading at a European port (permanent or man-made like at Normandy), the packages, along with sacks of mail, would be transferred to trucks.
Europe did have mapped roads making delivery somewhat more certain but the trucks were subject to destruction via enemy air attacks, shelling or road mines. I understand mail pieces were primarily sorted at battalion headquarters then filtered down to a company or OP level which could be moving in the course of battle.
Making it to the individual soldier was not a sure thing. The package would have to make its way to the platoon then to the individual soldier’s last known position. Perhaps there was a makeshift “post office” but if the front was fluid, their location would be a question mark. Communication with a unit on the move was by field radio with an average range of five miles or so until actual phone lines could be reeled off (above).
It was MUCH less certain for Marines serving on those islands scattered about in the Pacific. For example, the package may never get there as a ship would be sunk or damaged, would rot in humid cargo holds exceeding 130F, or the Marine just couldn’t be located because they kept moving, especially if in combat. Communication was a wild card and without it, finding the Marine’s location was difficult.
On these sweltering Pacific islands and unlike Europe, few or no roads were the norm until the engineers came ashore to build them. Mud greeted the Marines. Any dirt road became mud rivers and muddy hills made it worse. When mail did reach their island, the mail drops on many an occasion were truly drops – they were pushed out of cargo planes with parachutes at low altitude:
In some Pacific battles, mail would be delayed as there were no “front lines” on these islands for some time. Iwo Jima was a typical one as the enemy for the most part were hidden underground and would pop up out of holes and caves to kill.
Today, we frequently call packages sent either from home or from efforts like Operation Gratitude “CARE packages”.
During WWII, the American Red Cross spearheaded monumental efforts (below) to produce Prisoner of War packages. They were not called “CARE” packages as of yet.
More than 27 million parcels were prepared by over 13,000 volunteers and shipped by the American Red Cross to the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, for distribution in the POW camps.
These packages may have included:
Prisoners held by the Germans did better than those in the Pacific. While many packages were intercepted by Nazis and used for their own use, the Japanese provided almost no cooperation to the International Red Cross efforts. In some cases, the prisoners in German POW camps would keep only the cigarettes and chocolate then “volunteer” the rest of the food articles to the Nazi camp cooks.
However, the actual term of “CARE Package” did not pertain to these life-saving parcels. Instead, “an organization called CARE was founded in 1945, when 22 American organizations came together to rush lifesaving CARE Packages to survivors of World War II. Thousands of Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, contributed to the effort. On May 11, 1946, the first 20,000 packages reached the battered port of Le Havre, France.”²
All in all, Operation Gratitude fulfills both roles: the precious package from home combined with the CARE package concept. With the economy the way it is and coupled with the unacceptably low budget for our military, I feel these packages do bring smiles to our men and women in uniform. It tells them that in spite of how the media chooses to report on mostly negative incidents involving them, it shows millions of us support them 100%.
A crisp salute to Operation Gratitude, my daughter Robyn and of course, our men and women wearing our country’s uniforms so proudly and valiantly.
During WWII, there were about 60,000 trench foot casualties requiring removal from the battlefield. 85% of these casualties were from rifle companies. Only about 15% made it back to the field.
Before Pearl Harbor, the US was still not recovered from the Great Depression. With the money printed in great quantity – as a necessity – by the US government, the US war machine rolled into action. Many executives and businessmen taking part in this frantic and mass expenditure of government money with their companies gained their financial fortunes from this great war as did a large number of Congressmen.
The boots on the ground also had fortune – but it was MISfortune. Misfortune fell upon the millions of brave young men who were sent to war because world leaders had their own agendas. Millions were killed like my dad’s favorite brother, my Uncle Suetaro.
Misfortune, unfortunately, also followed home for the rest of their lives those young men who survived combat. Men like Smitty, Old Man Jack and Mr. Johnson. Horrible nightmares each and every night. Some succumbed to the immense weight this horrible misfortune had on their minds and ended their own lives after making it home. Sadly, they are all being forgotten in our children’s history books.
Our little group was afforded a day of sightseeing before leaving for Osaka/Kansai Airport in Japan, once again led by Mr. Yusuke Ota. Here’s a small collection of sights taken in, some during the week (Clicking on an image will show you its location.):
While waiting at the Manila Airport for our connecting flight to Osaka, Mr. Ota took us to the Philippine Air Force Museum where among other items was the Type 99 Arisaka rifle Lt. Onoda kept with him for over 29 years in the Philippine jungle. He was the last holdout from WWII:
A Victory Nonetheless
Seventy years after this most brutal war in the Pacific, the same US Marines and the same Japanese military that sought to kill each other with extreme bitterness are now the closest of allies as shown in the USMC photos below. Now, they sail together on the same US Navy ships, eat together, train together and assault the beaches here at Camp Pendleton, CA together in joint training exercises. The same with the US Army. My gut feeling is one of these gallant young men would die to protect the other if the unfortunate circumstances arose.
Uncle Suetaro lost his life and while Smitty carried the war silently for the rest of his life, they were both victorious because of the above.
It was not in vain.
One War. Two Countries. One Family.
My Thoughts of the Experience
I cannot speak for Masako or my other cousins but what you believe in is almighty. Hope. Fear. Happiness. Sadness. I experienced all those during the pilgrimage to Leyte.
While listening to Masako’s tender letter to Uncle Suetaro, a feeling of deep regrets and the dashing of hope experienced by Grandmother Kono buried me. My heart could see Grandmother’s face in silent torment, resting in Masako’s arms in 1954 as she drew her last breath in the Kanemoto family home.
Just like most American mothers, Grandmother must have clung on to a hope – however dim – that her youngest son Suetaro would come home… the one she decided to keep from returning to Seattle in 1940 so that he could carry on the Kanemoto name and inherit the home and land. That was not to be now. It would have been better to have let him go home. Her son would be alive.
But perhaps Uncle Suetaro would have ended up in the same prison camps that my dad, aunts and uncles were in but would still be alive. Or, he would have answered the call out of camp and volunteered for the US Army as thousands of other Nisei’s did to prove their loyalty, only to die in Italy or France as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII.¹
I also thought about my dad often during the trek. At 96 years of age, this journey would have been physically impossible for him. More so, I wondered if the stirring up of fond memories of his youngest brother would do more harm than good at this stage in his life.
I also felt more deeply the quandary confronting Uncle Suetaro when he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. The decision he had to make to knowingly fight the country your siblings were living in as Americans… and the country he most dearly wanted to return to. However, he wrote in his farewell letter that he will fight to free his older siblings from the prisons FDR sent them to.
Also in his heart and in that of his mother, both knew this was a one-way trip. A death sentence. Japanese soldiers rarely returned from war. In the case of his IJA’s 41st Regiment, only 20 young men returned home out of 2,550.
I’m sure just like any other American boy, he wanted a life that was worth living, a life filled with feelings, emotions, love and dreams. That would never happen and it pains me without end.
Before he met his death, was he drowned in futility or solace? Did he see death up close and come to the stark realization that would be his future perhaps tomorrow? What did he dream about as he took his last breaths or was he blindly looking up at the stars hoping? Was he dreaming about his childhood, playing on the corner of King and Maynard in Seattle with my dad? Was he in great pain or was his death swift and without warning? Did he see the eyes of the American soldier inches from his own eyes in a hand-to-hand combat to the death? Was he hungry? How terrified was he?
The painful mystery of what Uncle Suetaro did, felt or saw in his last days will remain forever so… That is one agony that will be with me until my own time comes. Happily, we at least visited him in his unmarked graveyard among the now lusciously green vegetation with the birds endlessly singing Taps for him.
As Izumi passionately said to Uncle Suetaro’s spirit, “Come home with us.”
Indeed, he did.
He is no longer a soul lost in a faraway jungle.
I wish to thank my Hiroshima cousins for making this unforgettable pilgrimage possible and a special thank you to Izumi whose untiring efforts to follow up on Japan-based leads brought comfort to our family. I also wish to express my sincere gratitude to Akehira and Carmela who made dear Masako’s journey so comfortable and worry-free. And a heartfelt thank you to Mr. Yusuke Ota whose in-depth knowledge allowed us to see our Uncle Suetaro’s last footsteps on this earth and gave Masako peace in her soul.
Most of all, Uncle, thank you for your sacrifice. Indeed, you set your older brothers and sister free.
Rest in peace.
Other chapters are here for ease of locating earlier posts in this series:
Uncle, let’s go home… Those were the words that devotedly flowed with compassion from Masako’s daughter, Izumi, during our fourth and last memorial service on Leyte. “Leyte Fuji” stood before her, covered in greenery that had likely been destroyed 70 years earlier. Her voice was draped in unchained anguish and power. Her unbridled emotions from her 心 – her heart – were felt by everyone; tears and restrained sobs were in abundance.
There are readers who had their fathers or other loved ones killed or imprisoned by the Japanese. There are readers whose loved ones learned to forgive after fighting a bitter war. There are readers who will forever despise what the Japanese did. I certainly accept that.
While these services may be foreign in appearance, they are to honor those killed in a field of combat. If you live in America, place yourself on the sacred grounds of Arlington… Then you glimpse a caisson pulled past the crosses with the flag draped over a casket or taps being played with the folded flag presented to the deceased loved one with thanks given by a comrade on bended knee.
That is what these services are in substance, at least in my opinion.
Just no cemetery.
Day 4 – Last Service
After the long climb down the path Japanese soldiers took in December 1944 from the town of Catagbacan, we briefly rested in a small, humble cluster of family dwellings.
In an effort to help in their sustenance, Mr. Ota paid the village folks to climb up palm trees to cut down what appeared to be coconuts. They chopped open the narrow end at an angle with a machete and we sampled it.
Soon, we retreated to the air conditioned vans, taking two villagers (including the guide with the machete) to where a motorcycle would take them back up the long, winding dirt road and home (Catagbacan). While I was near death, these two young men weren’t winded at all. My older cousins had also recovered nicely. Hmm…. Am I old?
We headed to a quick outdoor lunch before continuing on to our last memorial stop: “Leyte Fuji”.
Last Memorial Service – and the Most Emotional
As we neared the end of our journey, I had come to realize we have been reading our kind thoughts to our family members, both Uncle Suetaro and Lt. Nakamura, both of whom were killed in war and left on this island. What made it doleful is that it would have been much, much better to say these kind words to them while they were living.
But there was one anguished tone among all the letters, excepting Masako’s: we all apologized in one way, shape or form to our departed uncles for not knowing of them or even they had died in war… That we were enjoying life. And we all shared remorse for all the young men who died here under these gruesome conditions – Japanese or American. They took their last breaths fighting for what they believed in, smothered by depression and futility, death, disease, in unwashed and bloodied uniforms.
“Leyte Fuji” is the nickname given to Mt. Calbugos (aka Calbukos, 11.2541,124.4539) by the Japanese over the decades. Many deaths occurred around this hilly range with the one prominent peak; while large numbers were of Japanese, American soldiers also perished as did many Filipinos.
Leyte Fuji was in clear view from the spot picked by Mr. Ota; it was at the end of a short road, in from a narrow highway. There were some very basic dwellings and a small village store. There were children about as there was an open air schoolroom adjacent to where we parked; it was an unpaved and decaying homemade basketball court. Palm tree stumps were used to hold the rickety backboards made out of scrap pieces of wood.
An occasional two-cycle engine’d motorcycle would putt by and the loud voices of young school children at play showed their interest was understandably elsewhere.
The sun was not bashful; the sunshine was blazing and the air sweltering. The group did their best to setup the memorial table for the last time but a constant and mischievous hot breeze kept the photos fluttering and softly toppled the other items.
The two best “readings” were from these two fantastic ladies. The best for last, as they say. Every heartbreak, every torment, every regret, every loss and the feeling of shame flowed forcefully – shame that we all knew very little of these men who died. Some did not know them at all until recently – like me and Setsu.
While Izumi read her letter first, I choose to describe now Setsu’s passionate reading to her uncle, Lt. Nakamura. She had chosen to write her letter on a traditional Japanese notebook with brush and charcoal ink, writing daily and filling it with her deep and unrestrained feelings.
She bowed at her uncle’s picture on the memorial table. Leyte Fuji was dominant before her. She began by introducing herself as his niece. She understandably broke down a number of times. There is no shame in that.
In one passage, she said a nurse had stopped by her grandmother’s house after war’s end. The nurse said she had went with Lt. Nakamura to dockside to send him off… and that he told this nurse he should be on the next ship and coming home soon. Even after she received official notification after war’s end that he was declared dead on July 15, 1945, she probably continued to believe he would still come home… just like my Grandmother Kono.
In another passage, she talked about her father (Nakamura’s brother) that when he went off to war, he knew in his heart Lt. Nakamura would never be coming home. She felt tremendous anguish knowing her father suffered such a burden for so many years.
A much shortened video of Setsu’s letter:
Setsu’s letter was very eloquently read in spite of overflowing emotions. It simply brought many to tears; Masako had to sit down, apparently overcome with the sadness and heat.
Of my Hiroshima cousins, I have communicated with Izumi the most. The only daughter of Masako, she looks after Masako in spite of working six days a week as a pre-school teacher and raising her beautiful daughter, Yuu-chan. She is a most caring person and feels for others.
It is with Izumi this trek for Uncle Suetaro’s hidden life and death began in 2010. My then seven year old daughter Brooke was snooping in my dad’s closet at his assisted living apartment when she stumbled across my dad’s small box. She had opened it up and brought out a photo of a Japanese soldier. I thought, “Gee, that’s odd,” as I knew my dad was US Army. So I showed my then 91 year old dad the picture of the Japanese soldier and asked him, “Who’s this?”
He quickly replied, “Sue-boh (pronounced SUE – e – boh).”
“Sue-boh? Who’s that?” I asked.
“My brother. He was killed.”
And so the journey began, culminating in Izumi’s passionate reading of her letter to Uncle Suetaro below.
Preceded by a short, softly spoken message from Namie, trying to summarize Izumi’s well-written letter afire with emotions by using words is not possible; yet, I will try to summarize her words here and how it was delivered:
“Dear Uncle Suetaro,
We have come together at last… I have come to take you home…”
Five years of pent up emotions burst forth. Her emotions overcame her and sadness showed itself through her broken voice and tears. Indeed, after we all heard her say “take you home” to our forgotten uncle, the flood gates opened for everyone.
“You still have family in America… When Koji asked me about you, I was so ashamed as I knew nothing… Since then, you have become deeply entrenched in my heart and soul, day in and day out… You are forever in my mind…”
She paused to try and collect herself. She was only partially successful; it was clear that for her, this was a cleansing, a purging of sorrow, regret and happiness that had amassed over the last five years.
“With the unending patience from Mr. Ota, I learned of your hardships… Of how you arrived here for war… Your battles and final days.
After learning of your sacrifice for your (American) family as well as Japan, I said to Koji, Masako and my aunts, ‘We must go to Leyte’… and now, we are finally here with you… I have now heard your voice, was touched by your heavenly soul and heard of how kind and gentle of a young man you were…”
She paused again to collect herself and continued with her magnificent reading.
“Last year, my mother was hardly able to walk. After memories of you from 70 years ago were stirred up, my mother said you beckoned her here… and she is now here, dismissing her bad legs and all from her mind, to be with you here and to honor you on this land…
And to all of your fellow 41st Regiment soldiers who died, you had to do your duty seven decades ago and you did that with tremendous fortitude and courage… Your bravery has seeped into me…
To the souls of the 41st Regiment and Uncle Suetaro, let’s go home together…
Nobody had Puffs… Even then, several boxes would have been required.
Indeed, Izumi’s thoughts were righteous.
We did take him home – some took him home to Japan.
I took him back to America where he was born and where his two older brothers and sister lived as he died.
Epilogue to follow.
Other chapters are here for ease of locating earlier posts in this series:
I have a number of good friends who went to Viet Nam, another ugly war. Without going into politics, my thoughts while on Leyte also went to these friends who fought on or were stationed in Viet Nam.
Unlike a certain former president, my buds did not evade the draft… or avoid, whichever term you prefer. My friends did their duty. When they got drafted, they reported for duty as any American man should have.
But while I certainly appreciate their sacrifices, nothing in what I’ve read gave a hint about the climate THEY in Viet Nam had to fight and survive in. Having been on Leyte, I can now more fully sense it was indescribably WORSE than what was written, if any.
Just like for Uncle Suetaro and Smitty, their days were grueling and a throwback to the times of cavemen. Nightfall brought very little relief in temperature or humidity. If my friends were at a fire base in the Vietnamese jungles, they went on for days without showers or even toilets. New, laundered dungarees? Dry feet during the monsoons? No.
When I got back to LA and got over my jet lag, I called several of them to thank them even more and explained I more fully appreciate their sacrifices of their youth for the rotten conditions under which they faithfully fulfilled their duties. One also had a father who was gunner on a Liberator in the sweltering SWP as well. (There are a number of bloggers I know that I did not call but you know who you are. Thank you.)
Day 4 – Villaba
After chowing down in the morning, we piled into our well-driven vans once again. We headed north towards Villaba on the same road that Uncle Suetaro marched up in October 1944 to Carigara but back then, it was mostly dirt – or mud. They also had use of undetermined vehicles but the road offered no protection from US airpower from which rained bombs and strafing runs. US planes dominated the skies.
In addition, their march north was hampered by attacks from US-supplied Filipino guerrillas. They would blow up parts of the road that were at most merely passable. In addition to slippery, oozing mud (see above), the Japanese were forced to go off the main road to bypass the destroyed sections. This implies, for example, that since Uncle Suetaro’s platoon was hauling their 37mm cannons, they would be forced to break down the artillery pieces into the two wheels and cannon barrel sections to carry it over blown up section of road… in addition to lugging their shells and ammunition.
On our way north towards Cananga, Mr. Ota spotted a “Jack Fruit” at roadside; we had never seen a fruit this big before. Have you? It must be the Fat Albert of the fruit world.
Passerbys were equally bewildered by our “touristy-ness”, it seems. We definitely caught their attention.
Third Memorial Service
After veering off from a town called Cananga, we headed northwest. We stopped at an older memorial (indicated by #3 above) erected by a Japanese citizen many years ago. It had not been maintained but amazingly rested in between two dwellings. Unfortunately, it was erected just yards away from the street.
At this service, my cousin Kiyoshi read his letter to Uncle Suetaro.
Dripping in perspiration, Kiyoshi was incredibly strong emotionally reading his letter to his uncle that he was never able to meet. In his letter, Kiyoshi introduced himself to his Uncle Suetaro and that they were finally able to meet here. Kiyoshi hoped that Uncle Suetaro was not lonely as no one had come to see him in these past 70 years and to please forgive us. He explained he was the last child of Suetaro’s older sister Michie and that it is said he was born in Suetaro’s place after his death. Because of Michie’s strength and devotion, all of her children are living long lives. He closed by saying we will always remember his life and sacrifices then bowed reverently.
After closing the ceremony, we once again handed out the food to the local children and families who were very grateful and friendly.
Again, like the low decibel thunder we heard after I read my letters, we soon saw a sign that Uncle Suetaro heard Kiyoshi and Namie: a rainbow appeared overhead, spotted by Izumi. It was very fulfilling for us to see.
We then headed towards the Mt. Canguipot area, a smaller hill just east of the town of Villaba (see map above). It is said many Japanese soldiers closed their eyes for the last time while looking at Mt. Canguipot. I understand Ms. Setsu Teraoka’s uncle, Lt. Nakamura, died here in its shadow, possibly during the last “banzai” charges against the US 1st Cavalry on December 31, 1944.
Our drivers, under Mr. Ota’s accurate GPS-assisted directions, wormed their way up a hidden dirt road – a very uneven and narrow hidden dirt road. My belly was wider than the road. Frankly, I don’t know how Mr. Ota even remembered where this road was except it was slightly south of the actual seaside town of Villaba. This is where we saw the adorable little village girl running alongside us.
After bumping and thumping up the road in the vans engineered for city driving, we ended up at a very small clearing found at the crest in a small town called Catagbacan (marked by “school” in the map above). We disembarked with all the village folk staring at us; there were a number of poor, scraggly dogs roaming about, their skin badly infected from incessant scratching of their numerous mosquito bites. My two daughters would have been devastated if they had seen them.
Mr. Ota led our party down a dirt path; after a distance, the peak of Mt. Canguipot veiled in dark clouds assembled by the Japanese gods began to peer down on our little pilgrimage. Perhaps they were beckoning us.
Nearing the end of the trail, Mr. Ota explained to us what happened around Mt. Canguipot, which included Lt. Nakamura. He had collected this detailed information through many years of dedicated research including interviews of a couple of survivors. Their last coordinated attacks were recorded to be on December 31, 1944. (See US battle notes below.)
After offering our Buddhist prayers to the souls, we headed back up the incline. Masako doggedly kept up with us.
We crossed through Catagbacan’s center and into their small elementary school, partially rebuilt after Typhoon Yolanda. It was a large spread, with its natural sprawling beauty. Mr. Ota explained that the last remaining rag tag survivors of the 41st Regiment had assembled in this spot along with others. (One report said there were 268 in total.)
Mr. Ota had explained that every single night, a couple of the most capable men would walk down the hill under the cover of darkness to the shoreline in Balite. They had heard rumors that the Japanese Navy was arranging for their evacuation. The boats never came and therefore, they were never rescued. (For details of their hopes on being evacuated yet tragic and ultimate futility, please see my A Soul Lost in a Faraway Jungle.)
I was then duped into taking a “short” trek down to the shore area from this peak by Masako’s daughter, Izumi. (She and my son did the same thing to me in Japan, tricking me into climbing Mt. Misen in Hiroshima. I will get even!) She said, “Koji-san, let’s go (to your death is what I thought)!”
While Masako, escorted by Carmela, wisely made the decision to return to the nice air conditioned van, Mr. Ota had hired a young man to lead us down the path taken by the Japanese soldiers in December, 1944. Hint of the things to come: he had a machete to cut through the growth, not a Black & Decker portable trimmer with rechargeable lithium batteries. We exited through the backside of the school, never to be seen by humanity again. Just kidding.
The trek down the path was through abundant natural growth and sweltering humidity. Passing through shaded areas provided no relief; in fact, in some spots, the humidity had become entrapped by the vegetation. Nothing better than natural saunas.
Yes, I was the straggler but my excuse was I was lugging my back pack laden with 100 pounds of camera equipment. Just kidding; I’m just a SoCal wuse. Even Namie and Tomiko were ahead of me as we neared the shoreline. Notice the guide had made them walking sticks out of branches he cut down along the way.
I had wilted once again on this trek; Mr. Ota said it was about 2-3 kilometers. (I shall get even, Izumi-san!) But seriously, what I thought about was how emaciated and very thirsty soldiers – without medical provisions either – did this night after night for a couple of weeks in hopes of spotting Japanese Navy rescue boats. I understand a vast number of these “boats” were actually commandeered Filipino hollowed-out canoes with pontoons.
For those soldiers in December of 1944, it was desperation to survive and return home; I have never experienced this. In fact, after being abandoned on this island by their own military, it would have been easy to be overcome by hopelessness and depression. However, in a testament to their fortitude and determination, I was (plenty) fed, had bottled mineral water and dry shoes, socks and feet; yet, I was still pretty beat up. They likely were infected with jungle rot, dysentery, malaria, infected wounds… This went for all military on that island, Japanese or US (who likely had access to medical care however basic).
Remember: not only did they climb down, they had to climb back up before dawn in their emaciated condition. Still, the thick growth effectively covered their movements during the day offering some protection against US airpower. They could also easily duck into the bush if need be to avoid being detected.
By this time in December 1944, death was the rule which governed their existence; surviving until this time was the exception. Yet, in spite of starvation, thirst, illness and depression, these last few soldiers survived, only to perish here due to their inability to surrender.
Two powerful letters and emotion-laden deliveries by Izumi and Setsu will mark the last service.
You will definitely shed a tear or two.
To be continued in Part 8.
Other chapters are here for ease of locating earlier posts in this series:
US BATTLE NOTES (from Leyte: The Return to the Philippines by M. Hamlin Cannon):
The US 1st Cavalry Division
With the clearing of Highway 2 and the junction of the X and XXIV Corps at a point just south of Kananga, the 1st Cavalry Division was in readiness to push toward the west coast in conjunction with assaults by the 77th Division on its left and the 32d Division on its right. The troops were on a 2,500-yard front along Highway 2 between Kananga and Lonoy.
On the morning of 23 December the assault units of the 1st Cavalry Division moved out from the highway and started west. None encountered any resistance. The 1st Squadron, 12th Cavalry, established a night perimeter on a ridge about 1,400 yards slightly northwest of Kananga. The 1st Squadron, 5th Cavalry, set up a night perimeter 1,000 yards north of that of the 1st Squadron, 12th Cavalry, while the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry, dug in for the night on a line with the other two squadrons.
This first day’s march set the pattern for the next several days. The regiments pushed steadily forward, meeting only scattered resistance. The chief obstacles were waist-deep swamps in the zone of the 12th Cavalry. These were waded on 24 December. The tangled vegetation and sharp, precipitous ridges that were henceforward encountered also made the passage slow and difficult.
On 28 December, the foremost elements of the 5th and 12th Cavalry Regiments broke out of the mountains and reached the barrio of Tibur on the west coast, about 2,800 yards north of Abijao. By nightfall on the following day, the 7th Cavalry was also on the west coast but farther north. In its advance it had encountered and destroyed many small, scattered groups of the enemy, most of whom showed little desire to fight. The regiment arrived at Villaba, two and one-half miles north of Tibur, at dusk, and in securing the town killed thirty-five Japanese.
During the early morning hours of 31 December, the Japanese launched four counterattacks against the forces at Villaba. Each started with a bugle call, the first attack beginning at 0230 and the final one at dawn. An estimated 500 of the enemy, armed with mortars, machine guns, and rifles, participated in the assaults, but the American artillery stopped the Japanese and their forces scattered. On 31 December, the 77th Division began to relieve the elements of the 1st Cavalry Division, which moved back to Kananga.
On the morning of the 30th of December, the 7th Cavalry had made physical contact northeast of Villaba with the 127th Infantry, 32d Division, which had been driving to the west coast north of the 1st Cavalry Division.