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.
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.
“Older men declare war. But it is youth that must fight and die.”
— Herbert Hoover
As we left the Mainit River bridge and our first memorial service behind, a deep somber prevailed. We had been walking over a solemn graveyard, one without gravestones or markers. There was no honored archway signaling you are entering a resting place for brave soldiers who were once farm boys, clerks or musicians before clashing with the ghastly violence caused by failed leaders. Indeed, this graveyard had no boundary but it was timeless.
All these young men – American or Japanese – were forced to fight one another. Perhaps many fought those in front of them out of bred hatred but I believe all fought for what was behind them: their respective countries and families… some who would never know of their names let alone died.
I was one of them until five years ago.
A bugler played taps in my heart.
We were their funeral procession.
Day 3 – Afternoon
With the first somber memorial service experience behind us, we headed back to the parked vans. As we approached the dwelling, we handed the food and cigarettes to the awaiting families.
The drivers were kind enough to have started the engines back up and had turned the air conditioning going. Being a southern California boy, I had wilted in the heat and humidity. Even the Wicked Witch of the West would have melted from all the perspiration that had soaked my t-shirt. Heck, Dorothy would have been spared.
We headed north up towards Carigara Bay but a short distance later, we stopped in front of an elementary school in Tunga.
It turns out, the 41st Regiment had set up a field CP here. And Uncle Suetaro did double-time it past this location on his southward march to Jaro from Carigara to engage the US Army.
Its principal came out to greet us and say hi. She was a cheerful lady although having survived the typhoon. She indicated the school had been literally blown away. Fortunately, a Taiwan church foundation supplied the funds to rebuild most of it.
Before reaching the vast playground, we came across this.
We got back into our two white Toyota vans; their black limo tint was a necessity but it made for hard picture taking, especially from a moving van.
Soon, we came upon Carigara Bay; its blueness quickly greeted us as we drove in and out of sunlight due to some cloud cover that was developing. It was a signal as you will read later.
We veered off the main road at some point and into a village of rice farmers. Living conditions were very basic, down to the dirt and gravel road.
We stopped in front of a dwelling; in my imperfect Japanese, I understood a village elder lived there and that Mr. Ota knew him. It was then I found out it was the site of our second memorial service…and my time up to the podium.
As we prepared for the ceremony, some dark clouds had reappeared beyond Breakneck Ridge in our background allowing the hot sun to play hide and seek. Yet in comparison to 71 years ago, the scene was entirely absent of death and violence – combat that took many lives over two weeks.
As earlier that morning, our group began to set up the memorial table as before, adorned with photographs, food, incense and osake:
At the right front, next to the photographs of my Uncle Suetaro are pictures of “Smitty”, the father of blogger gpcox of PacificParatrooper on WordPress. An established blogger, gpcox and I have a special kinship that began soon after I began to blog myself as her father – a member of the famed 11th Airborne – arrived on Leyte just a couple weeks after my Uncle Suetaro did. While he first fought his counterpart Japanese paratroopers at Burauen – and while the chances are remote that he and my Uncle faced each other in battle – they were not far from each other on this small island in the sweltering Southwest Pacific had my Uncle survived Jaro.
She was gracious enough to write a letter to Smitty for me to read during the memorial service. Yes, I had the honor to read two letters… both in each soldier’s memory, honor and peace. I feel it unbelievable that gpcox and I are friends considering Smitty and my Uncle were fighting each other in a most bitter war.¹
A very warm but moist wind began to swirl about us as our second service began with Hill 517 in front of us but beyond the green rice seedlings. The photographs of our fallen family seemed to do a joyful ballet in the breeze. I think they were speaking to us.
Mr. Kagimoto once again led our chanting and did a marvelous job.
It became time for me to read my letters. I was hoping to not insult any of my Japanese family and friends but I determined just to do what I believed to be proper.
I bowed to my group and said in my poor Japanese to please indulge me while I read two letters: one from Smitty’s daughter and one from myself to Uncle Suetaro. I explained Smitty was a US paratrooper and that he had fought the same Imperial Japanese Army that Uncle was in on this now peaceful island. However, after hostilities ended, he respected the Japanese and the Nisei and never said a negative word… that in fact, he had praise for my father’s US 8th Army unit comprised of Nisei’s.¹
Everyday, you feel anger, happiness, frustration… but they all paled compared to what was being conjured up inside me at that moment.
Reading each letter was tough; I didn’t take Puffs with me to the Philippines although I had considered it. It took me five minutes to read the two short letters. My voice trembled and cracked in between the constant sniffling – especially when gpcox wrote in her letter that she wished her father and the rest of the 11th Airborne would receive this letter and spend their next lives in eternal peace.
At the same time, I felt so peculiar reading the letters in English to my uncle, who wrote in his farewell letter to my grandmother that he would fight as a Japanese soldier to free my dad from the US prisons. I think only Izumi understood part of what I said.
I did open it with a couple of sentences in Japanese, saying how blessed I was to have been able to receive a wonderfully smelling lunch on the plane, knowing he had so very little to eat… that I was embarrassed to have not known of him until 2010. It was very hard to say to Suetaro that even up to last year my dad would ask me, “… and how is Sue-boh?”, as he fondly nicknamed him. Each time, I would tell Dad you were still here on Leyte…and his face and especially his eyes would become very sad. But Dad would then again ask me five minutes later, “How is Sue-boh?”
That was the toughest part of reading my letter to Uncle Suetaro. Dad’s bond with him was so deep that his mind won’t accept that his favorite brother fought and died on Leyte to free them.
The Heavens Heard
Soon after my reading was completed, the clouds that had collected over Hill 517 began to thunder… Low but discernible rumbles.
But there is a deep meaning to that thunder for the Japanese as I was to find out. As we concluded the ceremony, Izumi asked me in Japanese, “Koji-san, did you hear the thunder?” to which I replied yes.
“That means the heavens had heard you… and that Suetaro did, too.”
I believe her. Both our eyes watered with happiness.
1 Everett “Smitty” Smith survived the combat and was the first unit to go onto the Japanese homeland on August 30, 1945 for the Occupation of Japan. I believe his unit actually jumped the gun a bit but he was there at the Atsugi Airbase when MacArthur and his corn cob pipe first landed as conquerer a few hours later. I hope gpcox won’t mind but to show you Smitty’s character, an excerpt from one of her blogs:
“Upon returning home from Japan, my father and several other troopers from the 11th A/B, including two Nisei, went to a saloon to celebrate their return to San Francisco and the good ole U.S. of A. The drinks were put up on the bar, free of charge for returning veterans, and Smitty began to distribute them. He said he stopped laughing and talking just long enough to realize that he was two drinks shy of what he ordered. He knew right off what it was all about, but he tried to control that infamous temper of his, and said something to the effect of “Hey, I think you forgot a couple over here.” The reply came back in a growl, “We don’t serve their kind in here.” Dad said he was not sorry that lost control, he told me, “I began to rant things like, ‘don’t you know what they’ve been through?’ and ‘what the hell’s wrong with you?’”
By this time, the other troopers had heard Smitty yelling and it did not take them long to figure out the scenario between my father and the bartender. No explanation was necessary. In fact, dad said the entire situation blew apart like spontaneous combustion. The drinks hit the floor and all hell broke loose. When there was not much left in the bar to destroy, they quieted down and left the established (such as it was). The men finished their celebration elsewhere. Smitty said he never knew what, if anything ever came out of the incident. He never heard of charges being filed or men reprimanded. (I’ve wondered if Norman Kihuta, who was discharged on the same date as Smitty, was there on the scene.)
For the record, a barber wouldn’t cut my Dad’s hair either – even while wearing his sergeant’s uniform emblazoned with the patch of the US 8th Army.
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.
As we made our descent into Leyte’s Tacloban Airport, I vacated my port-side preferred aisle seat and moved towards the window then buckled in. Visibly condensed, chilled and misted air flowed out of the specialized air conditioning system above us, very necessary in the Southwest Pacific. Our final approach was north to south.
The tarmac filled my window and thought to myself, My god. We are actually going to land on the island where my uncle was killed. It is finally happening. Our plane touched down at 4:40 pm.
I wonder what my cousin Masako felt at that very same instant. Besides my 96 year old father, she is the last person on this earth that truly remembers Uncle Suetaro.¹ I had been imagining many things of my uncle’s resting place. I solemnly realized that I had been grieving over what we know happened to him as well as how my father silently grieved for decades… but now, I feared about what we may discover about what truly happened to Uncle Suetaro. His suffering. His death.
I slung my orange backpack weighed down with my cameras and lenses over my shoulder then exited from the rear of the air conditioned jet. It would be six days before I would once again sit in such air conditioned luxury. The impact of the tropical heat and humidity was immediate on this southern California body. I began to perspire faster than Hillary could tell a lie. It reminded me of the climate inside the house when I lived with my last ex – ugly.
After being greeted by Akehira and Calimera, husband and wife owners of the limo service, we quickly exited the heat and humidity into two cooled vans.
Along the way to our hotel, we made our first stop: White Beach. Code named White Beach (see below) by the American invasion forces, it lays just south of the airport. There were two Imperial Japanese Army pillboxes left pretty intact for historical purposes.
On A-Day, the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment assaulted White Beach.
Per Cannon’s book, “…Both squadrons landed on schedule, with only slight opposition, and immediately began to execute their assignments. The 2d Squadron, within fifteen minutes after landing, knocked out two pillboxes on the beach, killing eight Japanese in one and five in the other.”
“Perhaps somewhere on Leyte, while surrounded by the US Army, Uncle Suetaro glimpsed up at the night sky through the dense palm fronds. Rain fell upon his unwashed face. Perhaps he was wounded and if so, perhaps shivering from a raging infection. If he lived until morning, he found each dawn worse than the dawn before. He was starving.
He knew inside his heart he was not evil… But if I am not evil, why am I here dying?“
At 33,000 feet, the Philippine Airline’s pressurized cabin was cool and comfortable. An hour into our three and a half hour flight to Tacloban, Leyte, it began to fill with the wonderful, pleasant scent of lunch.
The attractive Filipina flight attendant handed us our meals. As I took the gold foil cover off the chicken lunch, I turned to my cousin Kiyoshi seated next to me in 46H on my left and said, “末太郎さん、腹へっていたでしょう、” or “Uncle Suetaro must have been so hungry.”
My eyes began to tear up once again. It would happen many times during our Hiroshima family’s pilgrimage to Leyte…
In the epilogue of my story, “A Soul Lost in a Faraway Jungle”, my 81 year old cousin Masako climbed a long flight of stone stairs to the top of a military shrine in Hiroshima. She said our deceased Uncle Suetaro called out to her. With that, we knew we would be headed to Leyte. It was just a question of when.
“When” was last week. July 19, 2015.
My four Hiroshima cousins and Masako’s daughter went on a six-day/five-night pilgrimage to Leyte, spearheaded by the author of the book “Eternal 41st”, Mr. Yusuke Ota. With us was another lady whose uncle was verified as being killed on Leyte near the end. Also with us was a news reporter from a Hiroshima newspaper.
We went to honor not just our uncle who was killed as a Japanese soldier but for all souls who never returned from that island during WWII.
I also took with me a letter as well as photographs from blogger gpcox of PacificParatrooperto be read to her father “Smitty”. Smitty was a paratrooper with the US 11th Airborne and fought for his own life on Leyte against the Imperial Japanese Army – of which my uncle was one. My uncle arrived on Leyte October 26, 1945; Smitty on November 18, 1945. Smitty returned home; my Uncle Suetaro did not.
But first, a quick look at Leyte and its people:
A little Filipina girl runs alongside us as we pass through her small village:
The entire island is in various stages of reconstruction after it was devastated by Typhoon Yolanda less than two years ago. Death toll estimates range from 6,000 to 10,000 people.
Mr. Ota is very active in the noble Tacloban City/Fukuyama Sister City relations. If you would like to contribute to their recovery efforts, please contact Mr. Ota directly through his blog:
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.
My father will be 96 years old later this month in February. He is the only one left out of the above family picture taken in Seattle.
Yet, even last year, he fondly recalls his younger brother Suetaro (standing in front of my Grandmother above) while growing up in Hiroshima before the war. That’s all he remembers now – his fun childhood years in Hiroshima. He has memory issues. Quite a bit now. He calls me Suetaro or asks me how he is doing.
One story he told me was they would walk to the train station together in the morning to get to school; they would take turns slowly pedaling the only bike they had, riding alongside the other brother who was walking. They would simply leave it by a merchant next to the train station and hop on the train. However, when school got out, whoever got to the bicycle first would get to ride it home, leaving the other brother in the dust – or rain.
Combat – Mainit River
When we left Part 3, Uncle Suetaro – now a Sergeant (軍曹) in the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) – was to be headed towards Jaro and the Mainit River bridge at dawn. The orders for his 41st Regiment was to defend it against the fast-advancing US Army, specifically the 34th Infantry.
According to Mr. Ota and if my translating is correct, the town of Jaro is situated by a river which runs along the base of a mountain. At that time, elements of the IJA 33rd Regiment had set up some defensive positions around the bridge. Per Leyte 1944: the Soldiers’ Battle, these defensive positions included earthen pillboxes covered with grass and spider holes; they also had an ammo dump.
Regimental commander Iwatani intended on ambushing the US Army soldiers and prepared as best possible on the road approaching the bridge (Highway 2). During the night, he decided the 2nd Echelon (5th Company plus Communications Officer Nakamura) to move from Carigara to the defensive position to bolster its strength. The remnants of the 33rd Regiment from the 16th were also assigned (they took heavy losses fighting the US Army at Palo and had retreated to this area).
Ordered to leave their knapsacks behind to lighten their load (perhaps the commander knew it would be a one way trip), the group left early on the 28th for the six kilometer march to Jaro. They double-timed from about the half-way point on the relatively level road to Jaro. They reached the outskirts of Jaro and began to deploy as ordered.
In his book, he reports that the 41st Regiment was dispersed; one company and one platoon consisting of two machine gun crews were deployed on the east in addition to one platoon manning two 37mm anti-tank guns. The tattered battalion of riflemen from the 16th Division, 33rd Regiment were deployed to the west. They were ready to ambush the approaching Americans in Iwatani’s mind but their intelligence was very flawed. Most of all, these troops did not know the Imperial Japanese Navy had lost the major sea battles surrounding Leyte.
On October 30th, Lt. Col. Thomas E. Clifford, Jr., the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, advanced through the town of Alangalang a mile and a half south of the Mainit River bridge.
Per Leyte: Return to the Philippines:
“As Company C reached the Mainit River, it made contact with the (Japanese), who had dug in on both steeply sloping banks of the river at the steel bridge crossing. The company suffered five casualties. It was opposed by the remaining elements of the 33d Infantry, which had been considerably mauled by the Americans. Company C withdrew 300 yards as Companies B and A pressed forward on the left side of the road under continuous rifle fire. Colonel Pearsall’s 2nd Battalion had followed the 1st Battalion, and both units were to make an assault against the 41st Infantry Regiment, which had arrived in the area. Three batteries of the 63d Field Artillery Battalion shelled the enemy positions for a depth of 300 yards on the eastern side of the river and 100 yards on the western side.”
At this time, per Mr. Ota’s book, it is believed the 41st Regiment was stretched out and pretty much decentralized with respect to command. As such and to their benefit, it is reported that the effect of the artillery barrage was minimized. This is not directly mentioned in the US battle reports.
Leyte: Return to the Philippines continues:
“After the artillery concentration was over, the two battalions were to move out to the attack – the 1st on the left and the 2nd on the right. The regimental commander ordered the 1st Battalion to attack, destroy the enemy resistance, and secure the eastern bank of the river. Five tanks were to follow in the rear of the assault companies and fire at targets of opportunity. Five hundred yards away, to the right of the 1st Battalion, Companies E and F of Pearsall’s battalion were to cross the river, destroy enemy resistance on the western side, and then go south on Highway 2 to contact the enemy at the bridge.”
The Japanese defenses were well thought out; the Japanese excelled at defense. However, the grasses in front of the earthen pillboxes used as camouflage began to smolder as the Japanese fired their weapons, becoming a smoke signal for American artillery fire. They were quickly eliminated and most violently.
The 1st Battalion moved to the water’s edge, where it was pinned down by enemy fire. Companies E and F of the 2nd Battalion, however, were able to push north 500 yards through the heavy brush, and amid a driving rain they managed to ford the river unobserved. Once on the other side they charged the entrenchments of the 41st Infantry Regiment on the river, with Company F in the lead. As Company F neared the bridge it overran three mortar positions without stopping but was finally halted by heavy machine gun fire. After the company’s 60-mm. mortar had knocked out the machine gun, the unit continued to advance and passed the bridgehead before it ran out of ammunition. Company E then relieved Company F, while the latter set up heavy machine guns to silence enemy machine guns in the woods to the west. By 1500 the bridge was in American hands. The Japanese had placed a demolition charge on the bridge, but the American advance had been so swift that the enemy never had an opportunity to set off the charge.”
There was gruesome close quarters combat. In reference to Company F above, led by Captain Austin, the 2nd Battalion, 34th Infantry charged the Japanese defenders with bayonets and eliminated them.
During this battle, 1st Lt. Shioduka, in command of the 37mm anti-tank guns my Uncle Suetaro was apparently manning, was killed in action per Mr. Ota.
The surviving remnants of this Japanese defensive force retreated through Jaro. By 5 pm, the 34th Infantry successfully occupied Jaro.
Per Mr. Ota’s research, it appears that although the demolition charges had been set, the combat engineer who was in charge of the detail was killed. As such, no order to blow the bridge was issued and because of this strategic failure, Sherman M4 tanks and heavy artillery pieces were able to continue on to Carigara.
While I do not believe this film compilation to be an official US Army release, it may provide you with a possible glimpse into that war. However, no movie can ever transmit to you, the reader, the immensity of the fear that was being experienced by both the American and Japanese soldiers.
Also note combat film from that period had no sound; all sound you hear has been edited in. It is set to start at the 2:15 mark: