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:
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.
My LA cousins held a third anniversary Buddhist memorial service for our Aunt Shiz today (August 15, 2015), ironically the day 70 years ago that Emperor Hirohito broadcast to his citizens that Japan was surrendering.
I was reporting in person to my LA cousins of our pilgrimage to Leyte as well. Bessie, my cousin and Aunt Shiz’s only daughter, shared with me something about her mom that echoed of the reason for the pilgrimage.
She told me Aunt Shiz used to watch “Victory at Sea” on the TV for years. “Mom, why do you always watch it?” she asked.
Aunt Shiz replied, “Because I may get a glimpse of Sue-boh…”
Think of the irony. Aunt Shiz was watching a US Navy-backed documentary series of our WWII victory over Japan… in hopes of seeing her youngest brother captured on some US movie footage.
Indeed… One war. Two countries. One family.
Day 3 – Evening / Break Neck Ridge
After the memorial service during which I read my letters, we went up a winding road. The road had a few stetches where it had given way and slid down the side of the hill. Sure kept my attention but our drivers were excellent.
We then made a stop near the crest of a hill: we were at the actual Break Neck Ridge battle site.¹
There was a flight of uneven concrete and dirt stairs to the top; a hand rail was on one side only yet our firmly driven Masako-san unhesitatingly took on the challenge and strongly made the climb.
Once on top of the hill, you could not help but notice you were surrounded by the sounds of insects hidden in the tall grass and birds singing as the sun once again played hide and seek. Standing at the crest gave you a sweeping view of the terrain. Indeed, the Japanese defenders had the advantage, costing many American casualties.
My July 2015 photo from about a similar location:
According to Mr. Ota and US battle reports, the US would continually shell the hillsides to soften up Japanese defensive positions. However, when the shelling or bombing would begin, the Japanese soldiers would temporarily abandon their weapons and via established and well camouflaged foot trails or tunnels, run to the backside of the hill. There, they were shielded against the shelling. Once the barrage or bombing would lift, they would scamper back to their defensive positions and await the US soldiers advancing up the hill.
There was also another short climb off to the right. The vegetation was thicker, chest high in some places and the grass’ sharp edges irritated your exposed legs as you walked through. To give you a small sense of the surroundings, Mr. Ota is speaking of the defensive advantage and Mr. Kagimoto is coming back down the smaller hill, flanked by the vegetation. The height of the grasses can be easily judged; they’re having a slight drought, by the way:
While American memorials were absent, there were a number of Japanese ones:
We said some prayers for those who are still on this island and made our way back down.
Ormoc City and Port
We then headed south nearly the entire length of Leyte, down the two lane Pan-Philippine Highway towards Ormoc City and its dock. Uncle Suetaro disembarked from his Japanese troop transport on this very dock on October 26, 1944.
The dock reaches into Ormoc Bay, the sight of tremendous life and death struggles between US airpower and Japanese shipping. Although the Allies commanded the air, MacArthur was slow to catch on that the Japanese were unloading thousands of reinforcements (including Uncle Suetaro) and supplies. Once MacArthur caught on, it was a certain violent end to a number of troops still at sea. Tons of critical supplies were also sent to the bottom, thereby ensuring the defeat of Japanese troops on Leyte.²
Two palm tree stumps across the street from the hotel are left from the war; dozens of bullet holes pepper the two trunks. The yellow steel fencing can also be seen in the lower right of my photo above to help give a sense of where these tree trunks are.
After all took very quick and much needed showers, we enjoyed an informal dinner outdoors, ordering local grilled items from a mother-daughter food stand. It was still quite warm and therefore steamy but a jovial mood took over after a long day. I didn’t quite know what everything was but my cousins – who had very little food for years – happily dined on whatever was brought out.
After talking about the events of the day and on our way back to the hotel, Carmela encouraged all five ladies to experience a group ride on a “tricycle”, which is a 125cc motorcycle with an ungainly but colorfully decorated side car. The only time I’ve seen girls more giddy was when I took my Little Cake Boss and friends mall shopping – twice.
Remember how lots of college kids would pile into on phone booth? Well, those college kids would have been proud. All five ladies piled in!
While we all had a wonderful, relaxing evening alongside Ormoc Bay, I am sure each realized that both Uncle Suetaro and Lt. Nakamura had begun their march to their deaths from these very grounds on October 26, 1944.
The final memorial services for our graveless souls in Part 7.
Other chapters are here for ease of locating earlier posts in this series:
For those interested, this link will take you to an actual WWII “Military Intelligence Bulletin”. Dated April 1945, there is a section of the battle including descriptions of the tactics and dangers of fighting on that series of ridges. Interestingly, the publication was issued by G-2, Military Intelligence. My dad was part of G-2 albeit postwar. Please click here.
The critical Gulf of Leyte sea battle took place between October 23 and October 26, 1944, when Uncle Suetaro was en route to Ormoc Bay. Through critical US ship identification errors by the then superior Imperial Japanese Navy force (including the battleship Yamato), they engaged Taffy 3, a small defensive US naval force. Although the battle had been won tactically by the Japanese, they inexplicably turned back. A CGI recap is here on youtube.
Experiencing this heat and humidity was one of my personal goals for this pilgrimage. No history book on the Battle for Leyte could ever truly convey the endurance each soldier – American or Japanese – put up in order to stay alive given the climate, kill the enemy and go back home.
It was all out war… A war that fumbling politicians caused or created with their own personal agendas . Even though failing, Roosevelt, Tojo, Hitler and Churchill didn’t have to go to Leyte to potentially lose their own lives. They sent young, vibrant boys and men in their stead to fight and die in this climate unsuited for violent life and death struggles.
Millions of other people died, too.
(Note: by clicking on most of the images, you can see the location on a map.)
Although early in the morning, the sun was already unforgiving. In reacting to the humidity, your body begins to perspire just standing there in the open-air lobby. Once you step out of the shade, rays come down on you so searingly that you wouldn’t need a microwave to zap popcorn. Just leave the Orville Redenbacher bag out on the sidewalk for a few minutes. I’m not kidding – and I live in LA.
I thought I was a whiz kid by bringing along one of those microfiber drying cloths you use when wiping off your car after washing it. You know it can soak up Lake Michigan and not drip one drop. Well, it was useless in this heat. It also wasn’t anti-odor. 🙂
As we awaited our vans, I also noticed the ladies were all wearing long sleeve over-shirts. In this heat? Odd. So I asked my cousin Masako why she put on additional shirts given it was so hot.
She said that it was because they didn’t want to get dark.
(They put on gloves, too.)
MacArthur Landing Memorial Park
Our first official stop was MacArthur Landing Memorial Park; it is in Palo and was codenamed “Red Beach” for the invasion of Leyte on October 20, 1944. This is where MacArthur waded ashore then broadcast his speech to the Filipinos of, “I have returned.”
Well, actually, he had returned at least three times by the time he made his broadcast. You see, he waded ashore at least three times (not sure of actual count but at least three) to ensure he got the best possible photo and news coverage.
To his credit, though, there still was small arms fire around the area.
Proof of at least one other wading attempt by MacArthur:
Notice Philippines President Osmena (in the jungle hat) is to the left of MacArthur in the above image; yet, in the memorial, he is on MacArthur’s right.
Our next stop was “Hill 522 (see notes)”.¹ Essentially, this high ground was critical to saving US lives as it commanded a sweeping view of the landing beaches and ground inland. It was called Hill 522 as it was 522′ high.
Leyte’s temperatures do not vary extensively during the year; on this day, my cell phone said it was 89F. If it were this hot on October 20, 1944, the US soldiers and Filipino guerrillas faced a daunting task slogging up that hill with full packs, weapons and ammunition… Never mind they were being shot at. The same for the Japanese soldiers scrambling up to reinforce their positions.
We walked past a little village girl; the journey up the hill begins:
Just half a year earlier, Masako had tremendous difficulty just walking… but after visiting the shrine, she felt that Uncle Suetaro was calling her to visit him on Leyte and began to strengthen her legs with exercise. This would be her first true test.
It leveled off for about 30 yards before climbing once again. We passed some homes:
Distinctive odors signaled the absence of an established sewage system. I now had a first hand idea of what Old Man Jack always said about the islands he fought on during WWII.
After some more climbing, we came to a clearing. With my t-shirt soaking up the world’s supply of Sparkletts water, I thought, “Dang, that wasn’t a tough climb at all!” Wrong.
It was a rest stop. Duh. My guess is that it was about 200′ up the hill. The crest of Hill 522 was straight ahead in the picture above but you still can’t see it. And Masako was still hanging in there. What a driven lady she was.
Well, she and her sister Tomiko made it to about the 300′ mark before they had to retire. What an effort, especially with her bad legs, the heat and humidity.
This is where I ran into four village children who were trailing us part of the way up the hill:
As for me and the hop, skip and a jump to the top? Well, this southern Californian began to fall behind, slowly but surely. I blame it on the 100 pounds of camera equipment and the eight gallons of water I was lugging in my backpack…not.
I petered out at around the 400′ mark (Just trying to make me look good.) as the heat and humidity got to me. So I’m a wuss. To tell you the truth, I got a bit dizzy. In that heat, I did think of the soldiers fighting for their lives on his hill 71 years ago. Do we even know their names?
Well, my older cousins Namie and Kiyoshi – along with the rest of the group – made it to the top where a large cross has been erected. Incredible, yes? And Namie survived the atomic bombing. They said it afforded a commanding view of the surroundings, a testament to the combat need to take this hill.
After a much needed lunch and rest stop, our next destination was Hill 120². Hill 120 is still a sacred place to the Filipinos; it was here that the US flag was first hoisted above Leyte by US Army Lt. Clifford Mills.
As with many other places on Leyte, this hill was severely pummeled by the 200 mph+ winds of Typhoon Yolanda, felling several trees and ripped apart the memorial. Given that, I was amazed at the growth that had sprung up since then. (I also understand that before the typhoon, this memorial was in excellent shape with the landscape being pruned and structures maintained. Leyte is still in process of bringing this site to its previous state.)
While “only” 120′ high, Masako again took on the challenge. Because of the damage from the typhoon, some of the footing was precarious but she ambled up. A lot of the footing was not clearly visible due to the growth. It swallowed up your feet and legs.
Given this vegetation is what has grown back since the typhoon, it still amazed me with its height and thickness. Grasses were chest high in some spots; walking through the vegetation left tiny thistle-like things stuck in your shoes and socks. You definitely felt the coarseness rub on your legs as you made your way through. It was impossible to walk through it silently. If you were a soldier, the rustling must have sounded like a fog horn.
There is one stump (below) that I could see remaining from the actual battle on October 20, 1944, pot-marked with bullet holes; my cousin Kiyoshi is walking past it:
After descending back down, we walked around to the side of the hill; it was dotted with a number of privately erected memorials. One was for the US soldiers; it was flanked by unexploded bomb casings.
Several others were for Japanese soldiers, all privately erected. This is when Masako truly began to feel the relevance of why she just had to come.
My five cousins. Masako, Tomiko and Namie on the left survived the atomic bombing. Izumi is Masako’s filial daughter with Kiyoshi next to her. Kiyoshi was born immediately after war’s end; the moment came in the Kanemoto home quite suddenly.
At Hill 120 and while looking at the number of memorials, Masako said to me, “All these memorials… It is terrible knowing they lost their lives and have since been forgotten.”
We all felt the same, I’m sure. I did.
…and this is a feeling you will never find in a textbook.
You had to be there.
Day 3 to follow… Masako and I read our letters to Uncle Suetaro and pacificparatrooper’s father Smitty at the actual battle sites on Leyte. Short videos will be included for those interested.
Per Cannon’s book: While the 2d Battalion, 19th Infantry, was proceeding cautiously forward the 1st Battalion was working toward Hill 522. This hill, which rose directly from the river’s edge north of Palo, overlooked the landing beaches and its upward trails were steep and winding. Hill 522 presented the most significant terrain feature which would have to be overcome before the American forces could push into the interior from Palo and it constituted one of the chief objectives for A Day. Three months earlier General Makino had started to fortify it, impressing nearly all of the male population of Palo for the work. By A Day they had constructed five well-camouflaged pillboxes of rocks, planking, and logs, covered with earth. Numerous tunnels honeycombed the hill; the communications trenches were seven feet deep.During the preliminary bombardments the Navy had delivered some of its heaviest blows on the hill, and the bombardment was continued by Battery B of the 13th Field Artillery Battalion and Battery A of the 63d Field Artillery Battalion. The 1st Battalion of the 19th Infantry sent reconnaissance parties to locate a northern route to the hill. The plan had been to move inland from the extreme south of the beachhead, but that area was still in Japanese hands. At 1430, when scouts reported finding a covered route on the northern side of the hill, the 1st Battalion immediately moved out in a column of companies. The column had barely started when Company A, in the lead, was held up by enemy fire from the five pillboxes. The remainder of the battalion moved north around Company A, and, skirting the woods, attacked Hill 522 from the northeast, with Company C on the right and Company B on the left.The men, although tired from the day’s activity and strain, made steady progress up the slope. As the troops moved upward, American mortars started to shell the crest of the hill. It was thought that this was artillery fire and a request was made that it be lifted. It came, however, from the chemical mortars. After a short delay the firing ceased. At dusk Company B reached the first crest of the hill and was halted by fire from two enemy bunkers. The company thereupon dug in.At the same time scouts from Company C reached the central and highest crest of the hill and espied about two platoons of Japanese coming up the other side. They shouted for the remainder of the company to hurry. Company C got to the top of the hill barely ahead of the Japanese, and a sharp engagement took place in which about fifty Japanese were killed. Company C held the highest crest of the hill. During this attack, 1st Lt. Dallas Dick was struck in the leg and his carbine was shot from his hands, but he continued to command his unit until his evacuation forty-eight hours later.During the night the Japanese made frequent but unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate the company area and in the darkness they carried away their dead and wounded. During the action to secure Hill 522, fourteen men of the 1st Battalion were killed and ninety-five wounded; thirty of the latter eventually rejoined their units. General Irving, who had assumed command of the 24th Division ashore at 1420, later said that if Hill 522 had not been secured when it was, the Americans might have suffered a thousand casualties in the assault.By the end of A Day, the division had crossed Highway 1 and established physical contact with the 1st Cavalry Division on its right flank. In spite of strong opposition on its left flank, the 24th Division had secured Hill 522, which dominated the route into the interior and overlooked the town of Palo, the entrance point into Leyte Valley. Furthermore, the X Corps had now secured a firm beachhead area averaging a mile in depth and extending over five miles from the tip of the Cataisan Peninsula to the vicinity of Palo, and had captured the important Tacloban airstrip on the Cataisan Peninsula.
Per Cannon’s book, the amphibian tractors carrying the 3d Battalion, 382d Infantry, were held up by the tank barriers of coconut logs and debris on the beach, and the troops were forced to debark at the water’s edge. Several hundred yards off the beach this battalion began to receive heavy fire from Hill 120, which was about 600 yards from the beach. The hill dominated the regimental beach area and was the A Day objective for the battalion. The fire pinned down the battalion, which thereupon called for mortar support and naval gunfire. The resulting barrage forced the Japanese out of their positions, and at 1040 the battalion advanced and captured Hill 120.
“….The son-of-a-bitch had no legs…” said Old Man Jack from his wife’s blue wheelchair. His arms were making like windmills. Well, windmills as fast as his 88 year old arms could go. He had a comical yet strained look on his face, his bushy white eyebrows still prominent.
But you could see the pain behind those eyes…and in his deadened voice.
Several months have passed since I visited with Old Man Jack at his grave. With Memorial Day around the corner, May 17th was a beautiful day to visit him. A recent rainstorm had just passed and the blue skies were painted with thin, wispy clouds.
I could see no one had stopped by since my last visit; at least no one that left flowers for his wife Carol and him. The hole for flowers was covered up and grass had crept up onto his gravestone.
I had brought along something for Jack this time; something I thought he would enjoy. So after cleaning up his resting place, it was placed atop his gravestone – his beloved F4U Corsair:
I’m hoping he was beaming. He couldn’t possibly be happier, being with the two most beautiful ladies in his life.
But back to his story.
A few months before he was taken away from his home, we had been sitting in his cluttered garage, talking about this and that; I just can’t recall what. But something in our talk triggered an ugly war flashback from his tormented and mightily buried subconscious. By that day in 2011, I could tell when he was enduring one, having sat in his garage with him for ten years.
He began as he did before. He would suddenly stop then gaze down at his hands for a couple of seconds. His left ring finger would begin to rhythmically pick under his right thumbnail. His white, bushy eyebrows now made thin with time would partly obscure his eyes from me when he lowered his head.
While I am unable to recall his exact words, he slowly allowed an ugly event to surface:
Old Man Jack began, “We were ordered to go on a patrol. We were issued rifles and hoped to God we wouldn’t come across any Japs,” he said in a remorseful way.¹ “Then, we came to these rice paddies… We could see hills around us… but that also meant the Japs could see us.”²
“We just followed the guy in front of us like cattle,” he said. “We were making it through the rice paddies when a couple of shells came in. Man, I hit the ground real quick.
Then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose. Rounds were coming in like crazy all around me. They had this area zeroed in real good.”
He continued. “I ain’t ashamed to say it. I was scared real bad. Then we all started to scram. I got up and started to run. I dumped my rifle and ran like crazy.” While in that blue wheelchair that belonged to his beloved wife Carol, Old Man Jack made like he was running, much like Popeye in this clip:
He then took his gaze away from his hands. “Then I saw this guy flying through the air with his arms making like he was still running… but the son-of-a-bitch had no legs!” He pointed his finger and made an arc like a rainbow, then swung his arms like a windmill. Apparently, an enemy round had hit his comrade, severing his upper torso from his legs then throwing him into the air. Although the comrade met a violent end, Old Man Jack was describing how he saw his arms flailing.
He stopped. His eyes returned to his hands. I still cannot imagine the torment he was enduring, even after 70 years.
I never will. I just hope he didn’t take it to his grave with him.
Let us remember this Memorial Day our fellow Americans who perished so young for the sake of their families and friends, no matter which conflict… and also firmly support those in uniform as I write. They, too, are being forgotten by many, even as they fight – and die – for us in godforsaken faraway places.
1. I would like to remind my readers that Old Man Jack had no hatred to me or my family when he uttered the word “Jap”. He is digressing to a most vile period in his life in which he could be killed the very next moment. If you are offended, it is suggested you participate in an all-out war; perhaps you will understand why.
2. At his funeral, the minister read off the islands he fought on. Based solely on his description of the large rice paddy and hills combined with what the minister said, I firmly believe this was Okinawa 1945. Oddly, while Old Man Jack mentioned Guadalcanal, Rabaul, Bougainville and Green Island, he never mentioned Okinawa.
When we left Part 4, at least one of Uncle Suetaro’s officers – 1st Lt. Shioduka – was killed during this battle per Mr. Ota’s book. If so – and if Uncle Suetaro himself survived – he would possibly left in charge of his 37mm anti-tank gun platoon being a Master Sergeant.
After retreating, Mr. Ota understands that around 2:20 pm, the surviving troops of the 41st Regiment tried to dig in along the banks of the Ginagon River and wait for the US troops to advance into their sights. However, after doing so, a deluge flooded the river and they were forced to move. Nevertheless, defensive positions were established just north of Jaro.
Per Cannon’s Leyte: Return to the Philippines:
At 8 am on 30 October, Colonel Newman ordered the 3d Battalion of the 34th Infantry to start for Carigara down the highway. As the battalion left the outskirts of Jaro, with Company L in the lead, it came under fire from Japanese who were dug in under shacks along the road. Upon a call from the commanding officer of Company L, the tanks came up in a column, fired under the shacks, and then retired. The leading platoon was drawn back so that artillery fire might be placed on the Japanese, but the enemy could not be located precisely enough to use the artillery. Colonel Newman then ordered a cautious movement forward without artillery support, a squad placed on each side of the road and two tanks in the center. The squads had advanced only fifty yards when Japanese fire again pinned them down.
When Colonel Newman came forward and discovered why the advance was held up he declared, “I’ll get the men going okay.” Upon hearing that the regimental commander was to lead them, the men started to move forward. The Japanese at once opened fire with artillery and mortars, and Colonel Newman was hit in the stomach. Although badly wounded he tried to devise some means of clearing the situation. After sending a runner back with orders to have Colonel Postlethwait fire on the Japanese position, he said, “Leave me here and get mortar fire on that enemy position.” As soon as possible Colonel Newman was put on a poncho and dragged back to safety.¹
At this point in battle, Mr. Ota reports, a M4 Sherman was proceeding up the left side of the highway when it came under fire. As the gunner was in the process of reloading (i.e., the breech was open), a 37mm anti-tank round directly entered the M4 Sherman’s 75mm barrel, passed through and carried through the radio before detonating. While all three tank crew members were wounded, the results would have been more disastrous if a round was chambered. Uncle Suetaro manned 37mm anti-tank guns.
Around Jaro and Tunga, fierce and intense see-saw battles took place. Continuing on with Leyte: Return to the Philippines, it reports:
Company E pushed down the left side of the road but was halted by fire from an enemy pillbox on a knoll. A self-propelled 105-mm. howitzer was brought up, and fire from this weapon completely disorganized the Japanese and forced them to desert their position. When the howitzer had exhausted its ammunition, another was brought up to replace it. By this time, however, the enemy’s artillery was registering on the spot and the second was disabled before it could fire a shot.
Elements of the 41st Infantry Regiment, protected by artillery, gathered in front of Company E and emplaced machine guns in a position from which they could enfilade the company. Thereupon Company E committed its reserve platoon to its left flank but shortly afterward received orders to protectthe disabled howitzer and dig in for the night. A tank was sent up to cover the establishment of the night perimeter. Company G received orders to fall back and dig in for the night, and upon its withdrawal the Japanese concentrated their fire on Company E. Although badly shaken, Company E held on and protected (a damaged) howitzer…. Company E then disengaged and fell back through Company F, as Company G had done.
Under the protective cover of night, the 41st Infantry Regiment retreated.
Uncle Suetaro’s 41st Regiment, along with troops that had landed at Ormoc during the naval Battle of Leyte Gulf, had succeeded for the moment to stall the advance of the US 34th Infantry. But fighting would continue.
On November 1, General Suzuki determined defending Carigara was untenable. As such, and during the night following, General Suzuki withdrew his troops from Carigara. He ordered his remaining troops – now low on food, ammunition, overwhelmed with dying wounded and no hope for adequate re-supply – to establish strong defensive positions in the mountains southwest of the town in the vicinity of Limon. By “clever deception as to his strength and intentions,” the enemy completely deluded the Americans into believing that his major force was still in Carigara per the Sixth Army’s Operations Report, Leyte.
Of significant note, a massive typhoon hit the Philippines on November 8, 1944. Trees were felled and the slow pace of resupply nearly ceased. Trails were washed away with flooding at the lower elevations. This affected both the IJA and US forces, likely the Japanese the hardest.
I wonder what Uncle Suetaro was feeling as the intense rain from the typhoon pummeled him in the jungle while being surrounded by the US Army. He could not light a fire even if it were safe to do so. I wonder how cold he was or if he was shivering while laying in the thick mud. I wonder what he was eating just to stay alive let alone fight for his life.
Breakneck Ridge: Second Phase
Per Leyte: Return to the Philippines, the 41st Regiment is documented again:
On 9 November the Japanese 26th Division arrived at Ormoc in three large transports with a destroyer escort. The troops landed without their equipment and ammunition, since aircraft from the Fifth Air Force bombed the convoy and forced it to depart before the unloading was completed. During the convoy’s return, some of the Japanese vessels were destroyed by the American aircraft.
The arrival of these (Japanese) troops was in accord with a plan embodied in the order which had been taken from the dead Japanese officer on the previous day.² This plan envisaged a grand offensive which was to start in the middle of November. The 41st Infantry Regiment of the 30th Division and the 169th and 171st Independent Infantry Battalions of the 102d Division were to secure a line that ran from a hill 3,500 yards northwest of Jaro to a point just south of Pinamopoan and protect the movement of the 1st Division to this line. With the arrival of the 1st Division on this defensive line, a coordinated attack was to be launched–the 1st Division seizing the Carigara area and the 41st Infantry Regiment and the 26th Division attacking the Mt. Mamban area about ten miles southeast of Limon. The way would then be open for a drive into Leyte Valley.
Battle Against the US 12th Cavalry Regiment
Per a US 1st Cavalry Division website (http://www.first-team.us/tableaux/chapt_02/) and with the research performed by Mr. Ota, the 41st Regiment was positively identified as being present on “Hill 2348” and fighting against the US 12th Cavalry Regiment (a subset of the 1st Cavalry Division) :
On 20 November, the rest of the 12th Cavalry became heavily engaged around Mt. Cabungaan, about three miles south of Hill 2348. The enemy had dug in on the reverse side of sharp slopes. Individual troopers were again faced with the task of searching out and destroying positions in the fog. Throughout the night of 21 – 22 November the 271st Field Artillery kept the Japanese on the northwest side of Mt. Catabaran awake by heavy concentrations of fire. Before the day was over, patrols from the 12th Cavalry had established observation posts within 150 yards of Cananga on Highway 2 in the Ormoc Valley.
Mr. Ota uncovered a 12th Cavalry report on microfiche in a Japanese governmental archive, dated November 26, 1944. It states in part, “Dog tags from Hill 2348 confirmed elements of the 41st Regiment there.”² In it, it states fog and the muddy terrain made for extreme conditions but they used 81mm mortars to eliminate Japanese positions.
The website continues:
On 26 November, both the 12th and 112th Cavalry Regiments launched attacks against their immediate opposition. The enemy positions that had given heavy resistance to the 112th Cavalry on the two previous days were seized in the afternoon after a pulverizing barrage from the 82nd and 99th Field Artillery Battalions. On 28 November the 2nd Squadron, 12th Cavalry launched another successful attack on Hill 2348 which took the form of a double envelopment. The 1st Squadron renewed their attack on positions on Mt. Cabungaan but sharp ridges held up their advance, The 112th Cavalry continued to move toward its objective…
On 01 December the 112th Cavalry engaged the enemy at the ridge south of Limon. On the night of 02 December, the battle for Hill 2348 reached its climax. The 2nd Squadron, 12th Cavalry suffered heavy casualties from the heavy machine gun fire, mortars, and waves of Japanese troops in suicidal attacks. On 04 December, the 2nd Squadron, 12th Cavalry attacked and overcame a position to its front with the enemy fleeing in the confusion. “A” Troop, of the 112th, in a drive to the northwest, made contact with the left flank elements of the 32nd Division. Thus the drive became an unremitting continuous line against the Japanese and enemy elements that were caught behind the line were trapped.
Throughout 07 and 08 December, patrols of the 5th and 12 Cavalry continued mop up operations. The 1st Squadron, 112th Cavalry moved out to locate and cut supply lines of the enemy who were still holding up the advance of the 2nd Squadron. On 09 December, heavy rains brought tactical operations to a near standstill and limited activity to patrol missions…
…The Division continued the attack west toward the coast over swamps against scattered resistance. By 29 December the 7th Cavalry had reached the Visayan Sea and initiated action to take the coastal barrio of Villaba. On 31 December after four “Banzai” attacks, each preceded by bugle calls, the small barrio fell.
Attempts to Leave Leyte
By January 1945, Japanese command was in shambles. However, some planned effort was made by the IJA to retreat (evacuate) to other islands. Certain departure points were selected south of Villaba, east of the island of Cebu.
The Japanese only had 40 seaworthy landing craft available to evacuate survivors. (A record exists which estimated 268 soldiers of the 41st Regiment were left out of the 2,550 that landed at Ormoc on October 26, 1944.) The US ruled the seas and the skies making any large scale evacuation impossible.
The Reports of General MacArthur states only about 200 soldiers were able to board the landing crafts; however, only 35 made it to Cebu. Once MacArthur figured out this was an evacuation attempt, the Villaba coastline came under intense attack. Evacuation hopes ended for Uncle Suetaro.
Lt. General Makino attempted as best possible to assemble any IJA survivors in the Mt. Canguipot area, just a couple of miles east of Villaba.
By April, 1945, only a small number of tattered, hungry and ill soldiers were believed to still be alive. In a Japanese book called Rising Sun, it was reported up to 100 Japanese soldiers were dying each day during this time from starvation and/or illness.³
If Uncle Suetaro was still alive, I passionately wonder what intense emotions were raging through him. Perhaps he thought of his mother or of his remaining siblings in America. I am here fighting to free my brothers and sister from the American concentration camps.
He must have known his young life would be ending on that island – on that hill to become another soul lost in a faraway jungle.
I can but hope his fear was overcome by tranquility.
The war ended four months later, on August 15, 1945.
No one walked down off Mt. Canguipot that day… in particular, my Uncle Suetaro.
An epilogue will follow and will close this series.
1. Although Aubrey “Red” Newman would survive his grievous stomach wound, he would not return to battle before war’s end. However, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his command actions and retired a Major General. He passed away in 1994 at 90 years of age.
2. It is just my opinion but only one of the 120 US 8th Army Nisei’s in the Military Intelligence Service on Leyte could have translated this key document in less than a day.
3. I am not convinced of this information’s authenticity.
Short Stories about World War II. One war. Two Countries. One Family