Today was the day in 1945 that our flag was raised – TWICE – on Iwo Jima by our courageous Marines… and there there is only ONE movie of the historic event explained in my story below:
Cherish our US Marines and all those who wear our uniforms.
Today was the day in 1945 that our flag was raised – TWICE – on Iwo Jima by our courageous Marines… and there there is only ONE movie of the historic event explained in my story below:
Cherish our US Marines and all those who wear our uniforms.
People who watched Combat! from the get-go pretty much think of Sgt. Saunders in their mind when they see a Tommy gun and Lt. Hanley when they see a M-1 carbine, yes? The power of media herewith.
But the truth of the matter is both Saunders and Hanley started out with the 30.06 firing M-1 Garand rifle as they hit the beach at Omaha Beach on D-Day in the first episode which began shooting on June 2, 1962.
And they both had standard issue steel helmets.
As proof Sgt. Saunders “went over the side” with a M-1 Garand in Episode 1’s D-Day, here he is trying to board his landing craft #PA-142 (The landing craft PA-142 does show up in real D-Day footage.) with it slung over his shoulder. He also has on a standard issue two-piece steel helmet:
He carries this weapon throughout the first episode…but never fires a shot.
In Episode 2, no one fires a shot.
However, his Thompson and his distinctive camo helmet shows up ever so quietly and out of sequence series-wise in Episode 3 below:
However, before he fires a shot, he is captured by the Nazis. He loses his Thompson and camo helmet as he is taken prisoner.
I say it was out of sequence as in Episode 4, Sgt. Saunders reverts back to his standard issue helmet but is also unusually equipped with a M-1 carbine. This also is Lt. Hanley’s first episode with his trademark M-1 carbine. However, Sgt. Saunders never fires a shot nor does Lt. Hanley.
So when does Saunders get to shoot? Read on…
In Episode 5, Saunders’ trademark camo helmet makes its permanent re-appearance for the rest of the show. But how did he become the one and only to wear such a distinctive helmet?
Because to make my mom feel more overcome with his macho? Nope… It was because he… complained! Sorry to blow another iconic image you may have had of your childhood idol. According to statements made by Morrow and others per various websites and interviews, Morrow had begun to complain that the weight of the standard issue steel helmet was compressing his vertebrae on those week long shoots. Therefore, it was replaced with a custom made, lighter fiberglass one, designed by the award winning prop crew. The helmet’s camo covering – which is bona fide US Army paratrooper parachute material that was used in Europe – became necessary to hide the fact the helmet was fiberglass.
The US Army paratrooper camo patterns, colors and construction differed from the Marine versions (sometimes nicknamed “frogskin”) for which it has frequently been mistaken.
In a comment made by one of the directors, he jokingly said the oddball helmet covering made it easier for the cameramen to follow him. One other bit of trivia on his helmet: one drawback was that it was so light, it would fall off when he would “hit the dirt” or bump it against an object.
Like any other American boy, I wanted a Tommy gun so bad so that I could pretend to be like Sgt. Saunders. Many other boys wanted it, too! But alas, dad couldn’t afford one.
But I did get a cap gun, holster and cowboy hat when I was about four, believing they belonged to Roy Rogers:
As for his Thompson, which fired .45 caliber rounds, here is a real one in full auto in case you’re new to this:
But back to the TV Thompson and I won’t go into discussions of what model it was because there were apparently several in use… including a wooden one.
Yes, a wooden one. Sorry to burst your bubble once again, guys.
After Morrow lugged a real one around for a couple of weeks, he realized why Jason turned it down. For argument’s sake, a real one weighed roughly about 10-1/2 pounds empty. Can you imagine what a real soldier or Marine thought when he would lug it around while actually getting shot at and likely suffering from dysentery? The prop men therefore fashioned one out of wood for Morrow.
Saunders would carry the wooden mock up when walking or running during a shoot. Weapons experts can spot it a mile away. He would then switch to the real Thompson for a firefight.
However, the set version of Saunders’ “real” Tommy gun was not without problems as it was modified to shoot blanks. According to various sources, the barrel was choked down¹ for set use. The weapons guys thought by choking it down, the spent cartridges would eject better. However, they were wrong. For you Combat! buffs, do you recollect Saunders firing the Thompson in long bursts? I don’t think you will. Saunders only fires it in 2-3-4 round bursts as it would jam up³. He had a nickname for it: Jammomatic. In some firefight scenes, you can see Saunders trying to unjam it. Cut!
So…to answer the question when Sgt. Saunders finally get to shoot anything?² Indeed, it was his trademark Thompson in Episode 5. He and Hanley locate a sniper while under fire and he lets lose two single shots. Not a spray, mind you. Hanley also fires his M-1 carbine for the first time as well.
Lastly, many collectors years ago were seeking to find this Thompson that Sgt. Saunders made famous. While some stories vary, the most common answer is that the several Thompson’s that were used in the series were rented from Stembridge Rentals, a common source for Hollywood at that time. As a result, this famous prop is likely lost for all time.
As mentioned, the Thompson was originally meant for Lt. Hanley. When they first handed him the Thompson, he said no way. “Get me something lighter,” he said. You see, he knew about guns being a hunter; he even did his own reloads. And that’s how Saunders eventually got the Thompson – it was basically a hand-me down.
His M-1 carbine was also choked down for use with blanks. However, with him being the only one of the regulars being an avid shooter, he looked the most natural shouldering a weapon. He once wrote that the real M-1 carbine’s round wouldn’t kill a “sick mouse”, implying it had no stopping power. However, during the Battle for Okinawa in 1945, websites report that 75% of the Japanese casualties were inflicted by M-1 carbine rounds.
For those of you who have not seen one of these fire, here is a video. As there is a bayonet stud, it may not be true WWII vintage but the message is clear. It can take down a sick mouse with ease. While watching this, imagine you are 18 years old on a hostile battlefield:
So what happened to Lt. Hanley’s actual M-1 carbine?
According to a letter he wrote, Rick Jason stated that against the studio’s direction, he simply took it home. While it was registered to the Culver City Police Department, he told the prop man that after lugging it around on the sets for five years, it was his. Period. So he stole it… I mean, took it home on a permanent basis.
After taking it home, he wrote he poured lead into the barrel to ensure it cannot be loaded and then accidentally fired. He then left it in his cabinet for about four years.
Shortly thereafter, the well known comedian Charlie Callas stopped by Jason’s home and quickly spotted the M-1. Being a gun collector, Callas immediately figured out it was the one Jason had made famous on Combat! After a few libations around the pool, Jason gave it to Callas as it was “taking up space where a nice rifle could occupy”. Before Jason passed away, he indicated that Callas still had it in his collection. However, Callas passed away in 2011; I haven’t come across any mention of “Lt. Hanley’s M-1” since then.
By all accounts, Combat! was blessed with an excellent special effects team, headed up by A. D. Flowers. Flowers would eventually win an Oscar for his work on Tora! Tora! Tora! years later.
While many “explosions” in movies today are computer generated, the explosions and bullet impacts on walls and such filmed on “Combat!” were actual controlled explosions. Vic Morrow always said that the actors felt very secure and safe in spite of all the explosive commotion due to Flowers’ exacting expertise.
While far from an actual barrage (I cannot imagine the horror of being at the receiving end of real ones.), the special effects team and cameramen did a spectacular job simulating them for TV. Here’s an example:
To accomplish this, the special effects team would actually exactingly dig holes, plant the explosives called “pots”, then run wires. When you hit the switch, the explosives would go off. These pots – made out of iron at that time – would be narrow at the bottom and wide at the top. This “shaped” the “explosion” up, protecting the actor. A portion of the pot would extend above the ground then was covered by peat moss which could not be made out in the movie footage. Actors had very specific routes to run but safety was the rule.
I cannot be certain but for the above footage, Flowers said in an interview that 20 special effects guys were used at a cost of $25,000 for two days and 300,000 feet of electrical wire was run. He also said that in a three month time, they blew up 1,500 bags worth of peat moss.
Amazing talent, I say.
“Squibs” were used to mimic bullet impacts (above). For wood, they actually drilled a hole into the wood for every scripted bullet hit then inserted a small charge connected by wire to a control switch. Extra care had to exercised to ensure the safety of the actors and crew as at times, the charge would be stuffed with balsa wood pieces and powder. In the same three month period mentioned directly above, 15,000 bullet hits were used. Incredible. Dust pellets fired by air guns were used to mimic bullet hits on masonry.
What happened to the regulars, final bits of trivia and a conclusion in Part 4.
Combat! ran for five strong seasons, a total of 152 episodes, all of which aired on Tuesday nights from 7:30 pm to 8:30 pm on ABC. Each episode ran for a maximum of 52 minutes and ran against shows like “Gunsmoke” or the “Red Skelton Show”. The first four seasons were in B&W with the fifth and final season in color (1967). Perhaps there is one prominent reason for this show’s continued success at that time. Vic Morrow had been heard to proudly boast that the story lines are not about men AT war, but about men IN war. I tend to agree.
When you think about WWII historically, the Germans surrendered to the Allied Forces just 11 months after D-Day; yet, this series ran for five years. Sure was a long war. According to various trivia sources, Saunders was wounded 40 times, Kirby 37 times and Hanley 36 times. (Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated military man, was officially wounded three times, the last time the day before he was bestowed the Medal of Honor.).
Filming was arduous. They shot six full days – 14 hours a day – for a week’s one hour episode. When they were shooting outside, cloud cover may have come in after they started shooting a scene in sunlight, necessitating a re-shoot from the beginning. There was a “no shave” rule in effect once shooting started. Once in awhile, even though the “combat” action for a TV episode was over in a day, it took a week to film. The beard growth was noticeable, especially on Caje. In the initial season, the actors reminisced that for some time, they didn’t even have chairs to sit on in between takes. Vic Morrow put an end to that by “striking” until chairs were provided.
While filming for a couple of episodes took place in Loire, France, most were shot on location at the famous MGM Hollywood’s historic backlots or out in southern California’s less traveled areas like Cucamonga or Thousand Oaks (now pretty much Westlake Village and covered with condos). In addition, a lot of filming over all five seasons took place in Franklin Canyon, smack dab in in the hills between Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood and Ventura Blvd. in Studio City. Today, it is still accessible by the public but some of it is now a nature preserve. As a bit of trivia, it is rumored you can still find spent cartridges from some of the firefights. Many of the landmarks seen in the episodes also remain, like the reservoirs and waterways, culverts, prominent trees and a short overpass.
One interesting thing in some of the overview shots taken of the SoCal terrain was that you could clearly see the haze due to the heavy smog of that time. In addition, if your hearing is good and you know which scenes to watch, you can hear the sound of jets roaring overhead. The Nazis were far advanced in their jet technology, you know. 🙂
One other location was in snow covered Squaw Valley for a couple of rare winter episodes, one starring Mickey Rooney in “Silver Service”. It was possibly produced to reflect on the costly Battle of the Bulge although the Combat! episodes never made it out of France. There was so much footage taken over five tough days that they were used for a couple of episodes. In the other winter setting episode which utilized the Squaw Valley footage (“Mountain Man”), Caje (Pierre Jalbert) shows off his Olympic skill by skiing down the mountain to escape from Nazis (below). In true life, he broke his leg as a teen just before the Olympics, ending his chance to ski for Canada. It is reported he had a very good chance for a medal.
By the way, the “Nazi” chasing Caje down the hill was Bob Beattie, the coach for the US Olympic ski team at that time.
In a funny moment and during the planning stages to show off his skiing abilities, Pierre quipped, “There are no mountains in Normandy, pal.”
Much of the true combat footage taken during WWII by the Marines were with smaller movie cameras being hand-held under fire by brave Marine camera men; many were killed. It is reported the production crew had wanted to portray the lives of the soldier while in combat and to honor these WWII cameramen by imitating the camera “unsteadiness” being hand-held…with nervous courage.
In this pursuit, the technical achievement by the film crews of Combat! was the innovation and perfection of hand-held cinematography with movie film. Such mastery was incredible for an art form that just started a few short years earlier. They perfected the usage of an Arriflex-35BL movie camera being hand held by a camera man following the action on foot, yielding the “shaky” look. While the camera is mounted on a very large cinematography tripod head here, the camera and film were similar to this:
In essence, this was the beginning of the “Hero” video camera so commonly in use today 50 years later by people like yourselves. In the end, the footage for Combat! honored these brave camera WWII men and added to the realism to the TV screen with their up close and “shaky” look.
One incredibly imaginative bit of hand-held footage was in “Hills Are For Heroes”, a two-part story and masterpiece directed by Vic Morrow himself. In a critical “death scene”, instead of simply filming a key actor crumpling onto the dirt battlefield, they tried something unheard of in the early 1960’s: they secured a 35mm Arriflex hand-held movie camera to the cameraman’s head. These cameras were not the light, compact digital ones we use today; these were bulky, heavy and had 35mm film spools as well. They used something like a huge, thick rubber band and secured the Arriflex to the cameraman’s head. Then, he stood where actor was shot, fell to the ground while looking through the eye piece then rolling down the hill, filming all the time. At the end of the sequence, the now “dead” soldier (cameraman) continued to film and perfectly captured the coming of his now distraught buddy trying to come to his aid. Incidentally, the cameraman got a cut over his eye for his efforts.
The innovative footage can be seen here, a clip from “Hills Are For Heroes”. It was artistically done in slo-mo:
As ABC was really struggling at this time, Combat! was a shot in their arm being in the “Top Ten” shows. Due to its popularity, movie and TV stars of the day clamored to get a part in Combat! According to an interview of Pierre Jalbert (Caje) after the show went off the air, he said, “Who wouldn’t want to play soldier for the week?” Some were least expected; some noted folks had cameos like Warren Spahn, the Cy Young Award winning pitcher (below). He played a non-speaking role as a German soldier in Season 2, Episode 8. By the way, he was a decorated WWII soldier having earned a Purple Heart. He loved the show and was a fan.
Indeed, the list of famous guest stars was long. Some guest starred more than once. They included:
…and the list goes on. Not to be a spoiler, but some of these famous guest stars are “killed” in their episodes.
Some screenshots of the stars:
According to a story by Dick Peabody (Little John), he mentioned that some of these stars were there just for the money and exposure while a few were there to enjoy the work and “become one of the gang”. One of the best, he said, was Fernando Lamas. He would bring along his beautiful and famous wife, Esther Williams, and they would “recuperate” together from the day’s shooting in their trailer which he brought along. He said Esther Williams was the ultimate host, providing fine wine and appetizers for the regulars in attendance. He also mentioned Robert Duvall and Dennis Weaver detached themselves from the regulars and weren’t much fun at all. Unbelievably, Duvall guest starred in three episodes.
Fascinating trivia about the weapons, episodes and what happened to the regulars in real life come in Part 3.
Part 1 can be found here.
Part 3 can be found here.
Part 4 and Conclusion can be found here.
Back in the very early 1960’s, my dad picked up a used B&W TV set from an appliance store’s outdoor parking lot sale at Atlantic Square in Monterey Park, CA. It was loaded into the cavernous trunk of his 1955 Ford Victoria coupe, also bought (really) used. He probably should have spent the money on repairing the car instead of buying that TV. Anyways, the TV was our first one, dust covered vacuum tubes and all. At least it turned on.
Well, mom commandeered it. Don’t ask me why. After all, she didn’t speak much English at all having come here just a few years earlier.
While I was able to watch The Mouseketeers, Sheriff John and Engineer Bill in the morning, the night belonged to mom. She decided what to watch. I don’t recall dad ever saying anything either, but then, he never did. (ps Sheriff John read off my name during his show on my birthday. He even pronounced it correctly.)
I remember some of “her” shows.
“Sea Hunt”. She loved seeing Lloyd Bridges in his swimming trunks. (He did enlist in the Coast Guard when WWII started.)
“The Ed Sullivan Show”.
“Have Gun – Will Travel”.
“The Lucy Show”… although I can’t figure out for the life of me how she could have laughed at the lines. She couldn’t have possibly understood the English. American humor is so different from that of Japan’s, too. I guess she just laughed at her physical comedy and wacky faces. (Another ps: I watched re-runs of the Lucy Show when I stayed in Japan for two years as a young adult. You will be shocked to learn the lines were radically changed and replaced with dubbed Japanese which would be funny in their culture.)
Near the top of her list was the “Dean Martin Show”. Of course, it was because of Dean Martin. While he didn’t get into swimming trunks like Lloyd Bridges, man, she thought he was man’s equivalent of Marilyn Monroe.
But sadly for dad, the show at the top of mom’s list was… Wait for it… Combat!
“Combat!”? How could that be? How could she possibly want to watch a TV series based on a war Japan just brutally lost 15 short years earlier? Her city of Tokyo was burned to the ground in 1945 by us Americans and she was hungry all the time. Even grandma used to call the men of the US military occupying Japan as the “invaders” or “long legs”. Dad, a Japanese-American, was one of the invaders but definitely sans the long legs.
Did she know what “Little John, take the point” or “Kirby, set up your BAR over there to provide cover” meant? Of course not.
Well, if you haven’t guessed yet as to why she loved to watch Combat!… it was because of… Sgt. Saunders.
Sgt. “Chip” Saunders. He was played by Vic Morrow. He outdid Dean Martin and Lloyd Bridges – and my dad – by far in her epitome of manliness department. Hell, she couldn’t even pronounce his TV name correctly: SAN-DAZU is how she pronounced it with her Japanese pronunciation. All she saw was testosterone. Machismo.
Even though I was young, I vaguely remember I felt kind of odd towards dad as every time we got together with her “Nisei” lady friends, mom would rant and rave of Saunders – all in Japanese – with dad next to her. “Daddy kara chigatte San-dazu-san wa otokopokutte kakko ii!” or translated, “Unlike dad, Saunders is so manly, rugged and handsome. He’s a man!” I also recall her scolding at dad every now and then in the house or car to be more “manly”.
Of course, there was co-star Lt. Gil Hanley, played by Rick Jason. She noticed him too, of course, but all she felt about him was that he was “cute” like a teen movie star – not a man’s man.
The other regulars were:
Pvt. William G. Kirby, who started the series with a M-1 Garand but eventually got his wish to man the BAR. He was well played by Jack Hogan and was always getting yelled at for doing something lame-brain:
PFC Paul “Caje” LeMay was Saunders go-to man on patrol or in a firefight; he was played by Pierre Jalbert. In the series, he is of Cajun heritage and comes from New Orleans where he spoke French fluently. In real life, he was a Canadian skiing champ in his teens and was destined to ski in the Olympics.
“Little John” rounded out the long playing cast members. His TV name was a gag; he towered over everyone else being 6′ 6″ tall. I don’t know if it was custom made but his standard issue GI helmet fit like a condom as it looked like a tiny beanie on his head. His real name was Dick Peabody and he wrote a column later in life which I’ll mention later. He often wrote about the “great times” they had while shooting the episodes.
The show was unique, even for today. It did its best to convey the war from the GI Joe’s point of view. Sure, the “kills” on the set were theatrical nor were the on-set explosions or artillery barrages real but it had a human streak throughout its run on TV. It tried to convey what war was really like for the suffering civilians or the everyday soldier – well, as best it could do for TV. Themes focused on fear, bravery, hatred, cowardice, heroism, pain and randomness of death. Filthiness of being on the front lines without baths, crawling in mud, wading through streams with gear, protecting their buddies, killing with their bayonets and endless but deadly patrols. As in real life, replacement soldiers were grocery clerks, dancers, used car salesmen, baseball players or worked on telephone lines.
One possible reason the show was able to convey the feelings of the everyday Joe so well was that all of these six regulars had served in the military, some during WWII itself. “Kirby” and “Little John” served in the US Navy while “Hanley” served in the Army Air Corps (before it broke off from the US Army and became the US Air Force) during WWII. “Caje” also served as a drill sergeant during WWII in Canada in an air training corps. “Saunders” served in the US Navy in 1947. It is unknown if any of them were subjected to combat.
Another bit of uniqueness was not only its early-for-its-time human interest story line but its script. There really weren’t many spoken lines except for when it counted; just a lot of Army-based jargon otherwise but well researched. But one funny bit of trivia at this time: one of the most oft said lines was, “Shut up, Kirby.”
Also adding to its TV land “realism” was that all chatter was in German between Nazi soldiers or in French between the local townspeople; there was no translation or sub-titling. The Nazi uniforms were so well replicated by the costume folks that some Jews working at MGM’s cafeteria were upset when actors came in from the set wearing very authentic-looking Nazi uniforms (No political statement being made; just fact.)
Its first episode aired on October 2, 1962, set in England a day before D-Day. In this initial episode, both Saunders and Hanley were sergeants. By the second episode, Hanley had gotten a battlefield promotion to lieutenant and issued his Garand M-1 Carbine. Saunders will be issued his trademark Thompson .45 caliber machine gun. There is a very interesting history behind who got what weapon. Both of their helmets will change for the subsequent episodes and will become identified with them for the entire series.
Hollywood stars clamoring for guest star roles, filming schedules and behind the scenes trivia to come in Part 2.
I believe there is fortune in war.
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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:
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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.
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
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.
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.
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: