A Training Mission That Left More GIs Dead Than Utah Beach
Exercise Tiger is one of Britain’s most harrowing wartime secrets. It involved the slaughter of young American soldiers on the shores of a Devon beach.
At the time the incident was hastily covered up, and the bodies of the GIs who were killed were buried in complete secrecy.
If Allied high command wanted to use Exercise Tiger to give their soldiers a taste of what they would experience during the D-Day landings, they cut far too close to the core. The sea ran red with their blood as corpses bobbed in the surf.
Officially, the deaths were attributed to a surprise attack launched by German E-boats the day after the exercises. The authorities have never acknowledged what happened on Slapton Sands on April 27, 1944, although as time has passed information about the tragedy has become more widespread.
The whole point of the exercise was to make the dress rehearsal as realistic as possible. Dummy enemy positions were built alongside concrete pillboxes. There were 30 men in each assault team armed with flamethrowers, bazookas, machine guns, and mortars.
Slapton was the perfect place to carry out the exercise. The beach consists of coarse gravel and is similarly shaped to the one in Normandy where the real assault would take place.
To make the exercise as realistic as possible, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered that live ammunition was to be used. He wanted it to smell, look and feel like a real battle. He wanted the men to experience seasickness, wet clothes, and the pressure that comes with performing under fire. Instead of giving the soldiers a taste of what would be waiting for them in Normandy, the mock German defenders cut down their comrades in droves.
The Guardian newspaper at the time reported how Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Wolf heard shots zinging past his ear and saw infantrymen hit the beach and remain there motionless. Royal Engineer Jim Cory recalled that men were ‘mown down like ninepins’ before counting 150 fatalities.
An error in communication was also responsible for further friendly fire deaths. During the landing, a naval bombardment was supposed to fire rounds over the top of the assaulting troops. However, American Admiral Don P. Moon delayed the exercise by an hour. When the second wave of GIs hit the beach, they came under fire from artillery, suffering an unknown number of casualties.
The official death toll of Exercise Tiger was 749 men, which is more than perished at the hands of the real enemy during the Utah beach landings. It was the worst loss of life since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
Officially, many of the deaths were assigned to the Battle of Lyme Bay. It occurred the morning after the training when a Convoy T-4, which consisted of eight landing craft carrying men from the 1st Engineer Special Brigade, was attacked by German E-boats in Lyme Bay.
Two ships had been assigned to protect the convoy, but only one was present. Because of a typographical error, the British and Americans were on different radio frequencies and could not properly coordinate. As a result, they were in the dark about the danger lurking below the depths.
The Germans ruthlessly attacked the landing craft, sending men overboard and sinking others. 496 servicemen were on board; 424 died. After the Nazis had launched torpedoes, Allied commanders ordered boats to scatter to avoid more casualties.
It was a death sentence to those still bobbing in the sea. Men died from exposure to the elements but more died because they put their life jackets on around their waists instead of under their armpits. Doing so turned them onto their fronts and forced their faces under water.
As a result of the Battle of Lyme Bay, the Normandy invasion was nearly called off. Ten officers with BIGOT-level clearance were missing. That level of clearance meant they knew about the invasion plans and subsequently their capture would have compromised the Allies.
In the aftermath of the disaster, there were multiple reports of mass graves being dug in the Devon countryside to hide the shameful carnage that had been carried out that day. The Guardian reported anecdotal evidence that supported the claim, although it was fiercely disputed.
There were some lessons gained from the grim episode – albeit ones that would seem like common sense now. Radio frequencies were standardized. Better life jacket training was also put in place for soldiers, and guidance was provided for small craft to pick up survivors who were floating in the water on D-Day.
All that cannot hide the fact that the death toll was completely unacceptable and the cover-up was shameful. Those men should never have met their death in a training exercise on friendly soil and the lessons learned from the exercise can never mitigate that.
More than likely, many of us have seen the 1963 American World War II epic film “The Great Escape” based on a real escape by British Commonwealth prisoners of war from a German POW Camp during World War II, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Sir Richard Attenborough.
The film is based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book of the same name, a non-fiction first-hand account of the real mass escape from Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Zagan, Poland), in the province of Lower Silesia, Nazi Germany. The characters are based on real men, and in some cases are composites of several men. As in any films depicting real events, many details of the actual escape attempt were changed for the film, and the role of American personnel in both the planning and the escape was largely fabricated.
The actual escape attempt took place one night in late March 1944 when 76 Allied Airmen escape through a tunnel from their Prisoner of War Camp deep in occupied Poland. Their aim was not only to get back to Britain and rejoin the war but also to cause as much inconvenience for the German war machine as possible.
Within a few days, all but three of the escapees were recaptured, having been hampered by incorrect papers, bad weather, and bad luck. The escape so infuriated Hitler that he ordered 50 of them to be shot. They were executed singly or in pairs.
The breakout from Stalag Luft III has become an iconic event of the Second World War, enshrining both Allied bravery and Nazi evil.
But how much of what we know is true?
Myth 1: Airmen had a duty to escape from their POW Camps
One of the most enduring myths about the Great Escape is that the POWs had a duty to escape. Indeed, the myth is so persistent that even some former prisoners maintain they had an obligation to break out of their camps. The short answer is that there was none.
When they were shot down, Allied Airmen were indeed expected to avoid being captured, but once they were in the hands of the enemy, there was no formal expectation that they should try to escape. Instead, as one former POW has said: “There was a kind of corporate policy of intent that it was part of our duty to play a part in escape arrangements.”
In other words, the duty to escape was an expectation of how Airmen should behave – rather like the expectation that they should be brave – and there was nothing in the King’s Regulations that stipulated that the men had to escape.
Indeed, surprisingly, two-thirds of POWs had little or no interest in breaking out, and regarded escape activities with wariness – an attitude that is certainly at odds with the common celluloid depiction of Allied POWs all being desperate to escape. Many were glad not to have to fight anymore and felt that they had ‘done their bit’, and had no wish to risk their lives once more. Others felt that they lacked the necessary escape skills – such as languages or simple physical ability and that their time could be better spent studying or improving themselves.
In fact, there was often hostility between the ‘stayers’ and the ‘goers’. In one camp, it grew so bad that one POW threw over the wire a tin containing a note which informed the Germans that there was a tunnel being built.
Myth 2: The Great Escape took place in beautiful weather
In the movie The Great Escape, the action is played out in glorious spring sunshine that really shows off the use of colored film stock. However, in reality, the escape took place in unseasonably bad conditions, with the temperature hovering around zero, and a thick layer of snow on the ground. According to one POW, it was the coldest winter that that part of Poland had suffered for 30 years, and it was these conditions that did more to hamper the efforts of the escapees than anything else.
Many were equipped with totally unsuitable clothes, such as lightweight trousers that would normally only be issued in the desert, and boots quickly became waterlogged as the escapees tramped through woods and streams. Many came close to suffering from frostbite and were forced to sleep in obvious shelters such as barns, which only increased the likelihood of them being captured.
Myth 3: The escape opened up a new front inside Germany
One of the supposed objects of the Great Escape was that it would help the war effort by wasting German time and manpower – resources that would otherwise be used on the frontline.
Unfortunately, such thinking was misguided. When the Germans searched for the escapees, they only used whatever existing capacity they had within the Reich. They certainly did not requisition fighting men for the hunt.
The escape actually helped the German war effort, as, during the large-scale hunts, thousands of other escaping POWs, regular prisoners, and absent foreign workers were rounded up in the dragnet. In fact, as a result of the Great Escape, the Nazis tightened the Reich’s internal security and thus made it harder for other Allied Prisoners of War also trying to escape. Therefore, the idea that the Great Escape somehow ‘opened a front’ inside Germany is simply wishful thinking.
Myth 4: The Great Escape was unique
It wasn’t. Throughout the war, there were plenty of mass escapes organized by Allied POWs. There were some 11 ‘great escapes’ carried out by British prisoners alone before March 1944.
One example is the March 1943 escape from the POW camp at Szubin, Poland, in which 43 Allied Airmen tunneled out. All the men were recaptured, apart from one, who sadly drowned.
The Germans ridiculed mass breakouts, dismissing them as futile acts of bravado – and the resulting increase in security made mass escapes less likely to succeed. In fact, in Stalag Luft III, one German advised POWs to escape in twos and threes to improve their chances of getting home!
Myth 5: There was a motorbike chase
Of all the scenes in The Great Escape, that of Virgil Hilts, played by Steve McQueen, trying to jump over the border wire on his motorbike while being chased by hundreds of Schmeisser-toting Germans is the most memorable. It’s certainly a thrilling sequence, but it has no basis in truth.
None of those who escaped from Stalag Luft III even used so much as a bicycle to get away. The motorbike scene is so gross a misrepresentation of the true escape that former POWs booed it when they were shown the movie!
Hilts’s nationality also flags up another myth about the escape – that Americans were part of the breakout. Although US Airmen watched out for patrolling Germans during the tunnel’s construction, the commandant moved them to a different compound a few months before the escape.
As The Great Escape is an American film, it is unsurprising that the hero is an all-American boy complete with baseball glove and ball. But, in reality, there was no Virgil Hilts.
When it comes to submarine action during World War II, there are a number of standouts, and among them is the submarine USS Barb (SS 220). But what makes Barb unique? No other submarine can boast a train on its battle flag.
There can’t be a story about USS Barb without mentioning one of the submarine’s main characters: commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Eugene B. Fluckey. The Washington, D.C.-native was to Barb as chocolate is to peanut butter.
While there are many fascinating tales about Barb during World War II, this one, in particular, is during the sub’s 12th and final war patrol that began in June 1945. The sub, crew and her skipper were still basking in the glow of Barb’s 11th war patrol that earned Fluckey the Medal of Honor and the Presidential Unit Citation for the crew of the submarine. He had previously earned four Navy Crosses.
But Fluckey wasn’t about to rest on his or the sub’s laurels after bargaining a fifth war patrol from Adm. Charles A. Lockwood, Commanding Officer of Submarine Force Pacific Fleet. The Gato-class, diesel-powered submarine was soon sinking Japanese supply transports off the northern coast of Japan in the Sea of Okhotsk. The submarine also fired the first sub-launched ballistic missiles onto Japanese soil, thanks to a request by Fluckey to add that weapon system during the submarine’s overhaul.
Fluckey had observed trains bringing supplies and materials to enemy ships on the northern Japanese island of Karafuto. They were already successful in stopping supplies getting to the fleet by transport ships. Why not keep the supplies from even getting to the transport ships, he thought.
The crew began to ponder how to take out the train. Placing charges under the tracks and detonating them as the train went by was too dangerous, Fluckey determined, because it put the shore crew at risk.
But Barb’s crew had taken to heart Fluckey’s mantra: If there is a problem, find the solution.
According to Fluckey’s book “Thunder Below!” Engineman 3rd Class Billy Hatfield offered that solution. The Ohio native recalled as a young boy placing nuts between the railroad ties. When the rails sagged as the trains rolled over them, the shells cracked. They could devise a micro-switch, tie it between two ties and the train would detonate its own bomb, just like cracking shells on a nut. Hatfield asked to lead the shore party.
There was no shortage of volunteers, including a Japanese POW onboard the Barb, Fluckey recalled in his book. First, they had to meet Fluckey’s criteria: The remaining seven volunteers had to be unmarried, a fair mix of regular Navy and reserve, represent all departments, and at least half were former Boy Scouts. Why Boy Scouts? As a former Scout, Fluckey knew they had been trained for medical emergencies and what to do if they got lost.
Four days later, the weather provided enough cloud cover to darken the moon and Barb inched to within 950 yards of the shore.
At just after midnight on July 23, 1945, Fluckey’s commandoes slipped into their small boats. Fluckey advised the crew what to do if things went wrong, according to a passage in his book: “Boys, if you get stuck, head for Siberia, 130 miles north, following the mountain ranges. Good luck.”
Less than a half-hour later, Navy Sailors were the first American combatants to set foot on one of Japan’s homeland islands:
Chief Gunners Mate Paul G. Saunders, USN
Engineman 3rd Class Billy Hatfield, USNR
Signalman 2nd Class Francis Neal Sever, USNR
Ship’s Cook 1st Class Lawrence W. Newland, USN
Torpedoman’s Mate 3rd Class Edward W. Klingesmith, USNR
Motor Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class James E. Richard, USN
Motor Machinist’s Mate 1st Class John Markuson, USN
Lt. William M. Walker, USNR
As with most missions, this one had its fair share of unplanned moments. The men were off on their bearings and landed near the backyard of a Japanese home. Although dog prints on the beach had the crew on high alert, luckily both human and canine occupants remained asleep.
The eight men plowed through rustling waist-high bulrushes crossed a highway and with their path obscured by darkness, took a tumble or two down unexpected drainage ditches. Upon reaching the tracks, three men set up guard stations. Markuson climbed a water tower to assess the landscape only to discover it was a lookout post. He silently crept back down, never waking the sleeping guard.
Alerted to the snoozing sentry above, the train crew worked quietly to dig the holes for the 55-pound explosive charge and detonator switch. Before they finished, however, an express train bore down the tracks, forcing the crew to scatter into the brush until it rumbled by.
Finally, all that was left was the most dangerous part of the mission – setting up the detonator switch. Fluckey ordered only Hatfield to be on the tracks during that procedure, but all seven crewmembers disobeyed as they nervously peered over the engineman-s shoulder as he connected the pressure switch.
Ninety minutes from when they left, the shore crew signaled they were headed back. Fluckey had eased Barb to within 600 yards of shore. Fifteen minutes later, with the crew halfway to safety, another train thundered down the track toward its final destiny. The need for stealth evaporated.
“Paddle like the devil!” Fluckey bellowed through a megaphone to his men. At 1:47 a.m., the 16-car train hit the detonator. The explosion sent pieces of the engine into the sky like a fireworks display. Five minutes later, all of the men were back on Barb. Upon reaching deeper water, Fluckey ordered all non-essential hands on deck to witness their achievement – “sinking” a train on Japanese soil.
Barb’s final patrol ended Aug. 2, 1945, at Midway. A few days later, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II.
The submarine’s battle flag reflected Barb’s remarkable accomplishments: 12 war patrols, five in the European Theater and seven in the Pacific; six Navy Crosses, 23 Silver Stars, 23 Bronze Stars and a Medal of Honor earned by members of the crew; a Presidential Unit Citation, a Navy Unit Commendation, and eight battle stars; 34 merchant ships damaged or sunk; five Japanese warships damaged or sunk, including the 22,500-ton escort carrier Unyo; rocket and gun symbols to denote shore bombardments, and ever so improbably, a train to commemorate Barb’s final war patrol.
Yet if you asked Fluckey which of the awards and recognitions represented on Barb’s battle flag he was most proud of, he would say it was the one medal not on the flag “the Purple Heart. Despite sinking the third most tonnage during World War II. ” 17 enemy vessels, 96,628 tons and a 16-car train – not a single Sailor’s life was lost or wounded on USS Barb.
A remarkable feat that earned the submarine, skipper and her Sailors their share of World War II fame.
To read more about Admiral Fluckey, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/02/us/02fluckey.html
View the service history of actor:
TM3 Rod Steiger
View his service profile on TogetherWeServed.com
Short Bio: Oscar winning actor Rod Steiger is best known for his portrayal of Chief Gillespie in “In the Heat of the Night”, quit high school in 1942 to join the navy. He served as a Topedoman’s Mate on two destroyers. One suffered such heavy damage by kamikazes that it had to be skuttled.
Kurt Chew-Een Lee is believed to have been the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps, rising through the ranks beginning his career from World War II to the Vietnam War.
Lee was born in 1926 in San Francisco and grew up in Sacramento, California. Lee’s father was M. Young Lee, born in Guangzhou (Canton), emigrating in the 1920s to the Territory of Hawaii and then California. Once established in America, M. Young Lee returned to China to honor an arranged marriage. He brought his bride to California and worked as a distributor of fruits and vegetable to hotels and restaurants. Two of his brothers, Chew-Fan and Chew-Mon, became Army officers who also served in the Korean War. Chew-Mon received the Distinguished Service Cross and Chew-Fan the Bronze Star.
Eager to fight in World War II, Kurt Chew-Een Lee joined the U.S. Marine in 1944. Instead, he was based at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego as a language instructor.
From October 1945 to April 1946, Lee was enrolled in The Basic School, newly reactivated for USMC officer training. Second Lieutenant Lee graduated to become the first non-white officer and the first Asian-American officer in the Marine Corps. He deployed to Guam and China to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war
He was the only person of Asian ancestry many of his fellow Marines had ever met. Behind his back, some called him a “Chinese laundry man” and questioned whether he was ready to kill Chinese soldiers. Some even questioned his loyalty as U.S. forces were battling Chinese forces, which had joined the conflict on the side of North Koreans
But as his unit faced the intense enemy fire, rugged territory, and brutal weather, he won his men’s loyalty as he repeatedly put himself at risk to protect his unit and others.
When the North Koreans attacked across the DMZ in June 1950, Lee’s unit was shipped out to Korea on September 1, 1950. For two weeks he drilled his machine-gun platoon day and night on the deck of the ship, enduring derision from the other platoon leaders.
After arriving in Japan for final battle preparations, Lee’s superiors tried to reassign him as staff officer handling translation duties. Lee insisted that he was only there to “fight communists,” and allowed to retain command of his machine gun platoon.
The 1st Battalion 7th Marines, including Lee, landed at Inchon on September 21, 1950, to attack the North Koreans and force them to retreat northwards. The People’s Republic of China sent troops to stiffen the North Korean fighting response. On the night of November 2 – 3 in the Sudong Gorge, Lee conducted a sole reconnaissance mission in heavy snow, moving well ahead of his unit. He fired rounds and threw grenades to make it sound like the Marines were advancing.
When Lee reached the outpost where the Chinese forces were hiding, he employed a ruse no one in his unit could’ve done. “Don’t shoot!” he yelled. “I’m Chinese.”
Hearing Chinese confused them and the temporary distraction proved crucial as the Marines launched a counterattack.
During the attack, Lee kept his men focused by directing them to shoot at the enemy’s muzzle flashes. Following this, Lee single-handedly advanced upon the enemy front and attacked their positions one by one to draw their fire and reveal themselves.
His men fired at the muzzle flashes and inflicted casualties, forcing the enemy to retreat. While advancing, Lee shouted to the enemy in Mandarin Chinese to sow confusion and then attacked with hand grenades and gunfire. Lee was wounded in the knee and in the morning light was shot in the right elbow by a sniper, shattering the bones. He was evacuated to an army field hospital outside of Hamhung. For bravely attacking the enemy and saving his men, Lee was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest honor given for combat bravery.
“Despite serious wounds sustained as he pushed forward,” the citation read, “First Lieutenant Lee charged directly into the face of the enemy fire and, by his dauntless fighting spirit and resourcefulness, served to inspire other members of his platoon to heroic efforts in pressing a determined counterattack and driving the hostile forces from the sector.”
Some who either served with Maj. Lee or knew of him said they believed he was deserving of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.
Less than a month later, while Lee was recovering in a field hospital from a gunshot wound to an arm, tens of thousands of Chinese forces surged into the region, overwhelming 8,000 American troops fighting as United Nations forces.
His arm was still in a sling when he and a sergeant left the hospital against orders, commandeered an Army jeep and returned to the front. Over the next two weeks, Lee helped lead his unit of several hundred Marines across snowy mountain passes at night, using only a compass to find and reinforce smaller groups that had been surrounded.
Late on December 2nd after several days of exhausting combat during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Lee’s platoon was given the task of spearheading a 500-man thrust against the Chinese forces to relieve the outnumbered Fox Company of 2nd Battalion 7th Marines trapped on Fox Hill, part of Toktong Pass and strategic to controlling the Chosin Reservoir road. Lee’s relief force was given heavier loads to carry through the snow, up and down lightly wooded hills, through the extreme cold (-20 F, -29 C), and under the very limited visibility of snow blizzard and darkness. Lt. Col. Ray Davis, Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, had no instructions for Lee on how to accomplish the mission except to stay off the roads with their heavily reinforced roadblocks.
As point man of 2nd Rifle Platoon in Baker Company, Lee used only his compass to guide his way, leading 1st Battalion in single file. Suddenly pinned down by heavy enemy fire coming from a rocky hill, Lee refused to be delayed in his mission. He directed the men to attack the hill with “marching fire”, a stratagem used by General George S. Patton in which troops continue to advance as they apply just enough suppressive fire to keep the enemy’s heads down. Upon reaching the rocky hill, Lee and the battalion charged, attacking enemy soldiers in their foxholes. Lee, with his right arm still in a cast, shot two enemy soldiers on his way to the top. When he reached the top, he noticed that the other side of the hill was covered with enemy foxholes facing the other way in expectation of an attack from the road, but the foxholes were now empty and the enemy soldiers were over 400 yards (370 m) away in rout because of the fearfully sudden 1st Battalion attack from their rear.
Following this success, communication was established with nearby Fox Company on Fox Hill. 1st Battalion directed mortar fire against the enemy and called in an airstrike, then Lee led Baker Company forward in an attack which forced a path to Fox Company. During this attack, a Chinese machine gunner targeted Lee, wounding him seriously enough to end his Korean War service. Regrouping his men, the badly wounded Lee led Baker Company in more firefights against pockets of enemy soldiers in the Toktong Pass area, securing the road. Lieutenant Colonel Davis received the Medal of Honor for commanding the relief of Fox Company. For this action, Lee was awarded the Silver Star.
“First Lieutenant Lee’s platoon was pinned down by intense hostile fire while attacking south on the main service road from Koto-Ri,” the citation said. “Observing that the heavy fire was inflicting numerous casualties, he exposed himself to the deadly fire to move among his troops, shouting words of encouragement and directing a withdrawal to covered positions. Assured that the last of his wounded was undercover, he was seeking shelter for himself when he was struck down and severely wounded by a burst of enemy machine-gun fire.”
In addition to the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, Maj. Lee received many other military honors, including a Purple Heart. While serving in the Vietnam War, he received his second Purple Heart. He also received the Legion of Merit.
Slight of build at 5 feet 6 inches tall and 130 pounds, he brought outsize determination to the battlefield, and his heroics have been recounted in books and a documentary film, “Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin,” shown on the Smithsonian Channel in 2010.Among books written featuring his exploits is “Colder the Hell: A Marine Rifle Company at Chosin Reservoir” (1996) by Joseph R. Owen.
Lee retired from military service at the rank of major in 1968 and worked a civilian job with New York Life Insurance Company for seven years. During this period, Lee’s mother died in Sacramento, and Lee’s brother Chew-Mon Lee died at the rank of colonel in the US Army while serving as an attache in Taiwan. His brother Chew-Fan Lee advanced in his career as a hospital pharmacist. In 1975, Lee began working as a regulatory compliance coordinator for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; a position he held for almost two decades.
His first wife, Linda Rivera, died. His second marriage, to Helga Schneider Lee, ended in divorce. Neither marriage produced children. He had a step-daughter from his second marriage.
Kurt Chew-Een Lee died on March 3, 2014, at the age of 88.
Survivors include a stepdaughter, Nicole Ashley; and three sisters: Faustina Lee, Betty Mar and Juliet Yokoe and his brother Chew-Fan.
The Aleutian Islands are known for their rugged, treeless tundra and almost perpetually foul weather, but during the early days of World War II, they were considered a valuable piece of real estate. Fresh off their success at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were looking to consolidate their gains in the Pacific while also stymying any potential U.S. attacks against their home islands. The Aleutians – situated at the center of the shortest route between the United States and Japan – were viewed as a key part of their defensive shield. The Japanese high command scheduled an advance on the islands for June 1942. While the bulk of their navy looked to demolish the American Pacific fleet at the Battle of Midway, a smaller force consisting of two aircraft carriers and a handful of destroyers, cruisers and submarines sailed for the frozen north.
The island of Unalaska, in the heart of the Aleutian Chain, is approximately 80 square miles in size with an elevation as high as 6,680 feet at the top of Makushin Volcano. The Port of Dutch Harbor, which is part of the City of Unalaska, is located on Amaknak Island and is connected to Unalaska by bridge. The current day population of the City of Unalaska is about 4,300. The population triples between August and May due to the arrival of commercial fisherman. Unalaska is approximately 792 miles by air south and west of Anchorage.
December 7th, 1941 was proclaimed to be a day that would live in infamy by then President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a result of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Hawaii, of course, isn’t connected to nor is it physically part of the contiguous 48 States. The attack on Pearl Harbor thus presented itself to Americans living on the “mainland” as an event that took place in a somewhat detached and remote location, given that Hawaii is located some 2,400 miles to the west of San Francisco by air.
On the 3rd and 4th of June, 1942, six months after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, they attacked and bombed the port of Dutch Harbor. Now, Dutch Harbor, being around 792 miles from Anchorage, is a little closer to home. One would think that the mainland Americans would be outraged, concerned to the maximum extent, but given that American soil was attacked directly by the Japanese, and that this was seen as a demoralizing factor, the military clamped down on any news reporting of this event. Little was known at the time in the lower 48 about this attack on Dutch Harbor.
U.S. forces at Fort Mears met the first attack on June 3rd, with anti-aircraft and small arms fire, but on June 4, the Aleutian Tigers (eight P-40s), engaged the Japanese planes in aerial dogfights. The U.S. planes were launched from Cape Field at Fort Glenn, a secret airbase on neighboring Umnak Island. The Japanese had thought the nearest airfield was on Kodiak, and Cape Field, disguised as a cannery complex, had remained undetected. The surprise aerial counter-attack destroyed four Val dive bombers and one Zero.
In the following days, U.S. amphibious and bomber aircraft searched the Pacific Ocean for the Japanese carriers and their escort ships. Low visibility weather exacted a heavy toll on the search planes. Of six Catalinas that came within sight of the Japanese fleet, four were downed by Japanese fighters, another was lost in the fog.
Notwithstanding the tragic loss of American lives, the first forty-eight hours of the Aleutian Campaign exacted little substantive damage on U.S. or Japanese forces. No Japanese vessels were damaged and Fort Schwatka at Dutch Harbor was quickly repaired. What had quickly become apparent to both sides, however, was the role the capricious Aleutian weather would play in the campaign; at times an unpredictable ally, at times an uncertain foe. Weather claimed more than its share of lives. Soldiers shot their own in the fog; unable to penetrate fog and clouds, ships were thrown against rocks and sunk in heavy seas; pilots met the sides of mountains in low overcast skies or flew off course never to be seen again.
The casualties and damage on a remote Aleutian islet amounted to little more than a blip in the cataclysm of World War II. To this day, educated Americans are unaware that it happened at all.
But the battle permanently changed Alaska in ways that few at the time realized.
In an essay in the collection “Alaska at War,” historian Stephen Haycox describes Anchorage in 1940 as “a sleepy little village” with a population of about 3,500.
The summer of 1940 saw the beginning of construction of a military base on what had hitherto been hay fields and birch forests north of Government Hill.
Uncle Sam had been content to leave Alaska as an undefended frontier. A military buildup was reluctantly initiated only when the global war began to seem inevitable. Progress was slow and patchy. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, officials aware of the territory’s vulnerability flew into high gear.
Haycox says the next seven months were “characterized by a great deal of panic. There was not enough of anything, and there was a sense that everything had to be done at once.”
Construction of a naval base on Amaknak Island, across the channel from Unalaska, had started in September 1940. Dutch Harbor had an excellent port, but no place for a runway. That would be on Umnak Island, 70 miles away.
News from the Atlantic was grim; 231 ships had been sunk close to U.S. shores by German U-boats in the month of May alone. The Pacific Front was even worse. The Japanese added victory to victory with ease, wiping out a combined Allied fleet in the Battle of the Java Sea, taking Singapore from the British in a single maneuver and forcing the surrender of American and Filipino soldiers in the grueling siege of Corregidor.
One bright spot was the bombing raid on Japan led by Jimmy Doolittle on April 18, 1942, a special source of pride for Alaskans since Doolittle had grown up in Nome.
And yet there was an odd sense of normalcy in Anchorage that spring. Temperatures were warm; people flocked to Spenard Lake – the “Waikiki of Anchorage” – in mid-May. Rationing had not hit a population that was largely self-sufficient in terms of food. Cesar Romero starred in “Dance Hall” playing at a local theater. Celebrity news included child star Shirley Temple’s first on-screen kiss and photos of the New Orleans Jax Brewers women’s professional softball team. Crooner Al Jolson was due to make an appearance for the troops and the civilians were welcome to attend. A house rented for $15 a month. William Hesse, the Territorial Highway Engineer, publicly derided the idea of a highway to the Lower 48, calling it a “rat hole” with “no necessity, military or otherwise.”
The first nighttime blackout wasn’t ordered until June 2nd, and there’s some evidence that few people took it seriously.
They might have felt differently had they known that Japan’s 2nd Carrier Division was steaming through the fog toward the Alaska Peninsula.
Starting at 3:25 a.m. on June 3, warplanes took off from the carriers Ryujo and Junyo; Val dive bombers, Kate torpedo bombers, Zero fighters. The weather turned many back, but those that continued found clear skies between them and the 6,282 Soldiers below.
On the ground, sirens screamed. Men raced to anti-aircraft guns. Ships rushed to clear out of the harbor.
Army Fort Mears, with neat rows of closely-packed wooden barracks, presented a choice target. The bomber aimed for it and the communications facility on what became known as Suicide Hill. Zeros strafed the defenders in the trenches, then zipped back to their carriers.
“By 7:45 a.m. all the pilots and their crews had arrived safely home,” wrote historian John Cloe in his book “The Aleutian Warriors.”
Numbers reported by Cloe indicate more than 40 American dead at the end of the first day of the battle.
Dutch Harbor’s defenders were handicapped by radio and radar problems. The closest air support, on Umnak Island, remained unaware of the attack until it was over. Planes based at Cold Bay heard the news but were too far away to get there on time.
Nine newly arrived destroyers sat anchored in Makushin Bay, awaiting orders. But Rear Adm. Robert Theobald, in charge of Alaska Navy operations, was in the Gulf of Alaska with his flagship and observing radio silence. Six ‘vintage’ submarines patrolled the North Pacific without encountering the invasion fleet.
The Navy force left to defend the Aleutians consisted of the gunship USS Charleston, five Coast Guard cutters and what Cloe calls “a motley collection” of patrol boats and requisitioned fishing craft. Only the Charleston had sonar or large guns. There were no guarantees that any of the weapons would work. Gov. Ernest Gruening heard from one officer that his ship had plenty of anti-aircraft ammunition but no anti-aircraft guns, and lots of depth charges but no way to safely deploy them.
Air power was similarly iffy. Planes deemed obsolete elsewhere were sent north, including B-18s, essentially a DC-3 prototype fitted to drop bombs. Cloe notes the military didn’t want the clunkers but Congress bought them anyway. There were a number of seaplanes, good for scouting oceans but flying coffins in combat. The famed PBYs could carry bombs and guns, but with a cruising speed of 125 miles an hour, they seemed to be sitting still when challenged by a Zero coming in at 300 miles an hour. Three PBYs were shot down on the first day and another destroyed as it tried to take off.
But it could have been much worse.
The Japanese thought they would catch the Dutch Harbor defenders by surprise. In fact, the Americans were on high alert. Their anti-aircraft fire surprised the attackers. Most of the PBYs had been dispersed to scattered bays and coves as a precaution. It was no accident that authorities ordered Anchorage’s first blackout the night before.
America had broken the enemy’s code. Top commanders knew the Dutch Harbor attack was coming. They also knew that the main Japanese force would not target Alaska, but west of Hawaii.
On the same day the Ryujo’s bombers hit Dutch Harbor, B-17s made the first contact with the Japanese fleet approaching Midway Atoll. There, over the next four days, a monumental battle took place that has gone down as the most important naval engagement since Trafalgar – maybe ever. By June 7th, America had won a decisive victory and Japan’s slow, hard-fought retreat had begun.
All of that lay in the uncertain future as the Aleutian defenders braced themselves for the next attack. It came on the afternoon of June 4th and began with Americans getting their first kill.
The Americans were better prepared on this second day of fighting and, with photographs taken during the first raid, so were the Japanese. They knocked out a tank farm, set ablaze the Northwestern, a former passenger ship pressed into service as barracks, a vacant Bureau of Indian Affairs hospital, warehouse and hangar facilities.
The Raiders regrouped at a predetermined point off Umnak Island where they were confronted by Col. John Chennault’s P-40s. The Japanese had not known that an American field was in the area. The Americans, still struggling with spotty radio connections, had no news from Dutch Harbor; they had taken to the air as a precaution since the island had no ground defenses.
The ensuing dogfight took a toll on both sides. But the bulk of the Japanese force made it back to the carriers. The planes were stowed below and the fleet steered back into the fog.
They left behind one important trophy. A disabled Zero crashed on Akutan Island, killing the pilot but leaving the plane mostly intact. Americans retrieved and rebuilt the machine, testing it against their best fighters and discovering the feared warplane’s Achilles’ heel – its formidable speed was the result of minimum armor.
People in Anchorage had bare-bones information. The Anchorage Times ran a hastily prepared extra edition with the giant-print headline, “Raid Dutch Harbor!” But the accompanying ‘story’ was merely a press brief.
Gruening issued a short message, “To the people of Alaska: The anticipated air raid on Alaska began this morning with an air attack by Jap planes on Dutch Harbor.” No other details were added.
Information about the fighting was frustratingly scattershot. Reports came in that Japanese ships had been sunk, that air raids on Anchorage loomed, that enemy soldiers had invaded Attu and been fought off by the brave villagers.
None of this was true, but it satisfied the curious more than the official declaration on June 8 that, due to bad weather the situation is still obscure. Adm. Ernest King, Fleet Commander, went on the record saying, “We have none too clear a picture of what is going on (in the Aleutians), but it is going on.”
Meanwhile, residents were told that the blackout would be strictly enforced.
It would be days or weeks before the scope of the incursion was reported, including the sobering information that Japanese troops had indeed landed on two Alaska islands, capturing the weather crew on Kiska and sending the Attu villagers to internment camps in Japan.
For the next 18 months, the recapture of the Alaska islands was a primary focus for the military. Tens of thousands of troops, up-to-date warships, and state-of-the-art planes poured into the territory. Radios and radar worked. A road from the states was pushed through in record time.
This second phase ended with a U.S. Navy victory in the Battle of the Komandorski Islands, the bloody Battle of Attu and a remarkable bloodless evacuation of the occupation force from Kiska. By the end of the war, American bombers were striking Japan from the air base on Shemya Island. The overland route sending American planes to the Soviet Union via Fairbanks and Nome is credited with turning the tide on the Russian Front.
Despite that, Alaska’s role in World War II is largely unrecognized. The proposition that the government covered up Alaska battles to protect civilian morale is a myth, said Cloe.
“There was a lot of coverage at the time,” he said. “There were big spreads on the Aleutians and Dutch Harbor in Life magazine. There was no cover-up.”
Instead, Cloe suggests, the bombing was overshadowed by bigger events that followed it – D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima. The Dutch Harbor casualty list of less than 100 American and Japanese dead pales next to the 3,300 or more who died in the simultaneous Battle of Midway.
The real legacy of the battle has less to do with war than with peace. When those bombs fell, 75 years ago, they brought not just destruction but the seeds of coming prosperity. The war in Alaska turned serious and the haphazard backwater afterthought, a dumping ground for old equipment and token commands, was suddenly transformed into a fortress and major depot as big and modern and efficient as military planners could make it. That status grew as the threat from Japan ended and the threat from the Soviet Union emerged.
Military spending replaced the gold, coal, and fur that had sustained Alaska before the war, ushering in two booming decades that would see the territory to statehood and keep it growing until oil became the state’s major economic engine.
In the process, the sleepy village of Anchorage became a large, permanent city.
By LtCol Mike Christy, TogetherWeServed Dispatches
By LtCol Mike Christy, TogetherWeServed Dispatches
Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor exposed American’s ill-preparedness for war, and the scenario grew even darker as the talons of the Japanese war-machine grasped toward another plumb target – the Philippines. One day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Clark Field and Manila. Two days later, on Dec.10, 1941, Japanese troops landed on the beaches of Luzon.
These small-scale landings were followed by the main assault on December 22, 1941, at Lingayen Gulf in Pangasinan and Lamon Bay, Tayabas, by the 14th Japanese Imperial Army, led by Lt. General Masaharu Homma. American’s makeshift defenses rapidly crumbled.
The new Filipino recruits of Maj. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright’s North Luzon Force was no match for their experienced enemy. They could neither repel the landings nor pin the enemy on the beaches. By nightfall, December 23, the Japanese had moved ten miles (16 km) into the interior.
It was apparent that Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s combined American-Filipino defense forces were in no condition for the imminent onslaught of an enemy hardened in the mountains of Manchuria and the jungles of Southeast Asia.
In stark contrast to Japanese Gen. Homma’s veteran forces, MacArthur’s divisions lacked training, equipment, and manpower, but one unit was fully prepared for combat. The 26th Cavalry was one of the best-drilled regiments in the entire U.S. Army. Composed of Filipino enlisted men and American officers, the crack regiment was commanded by a born to lead “thundering columns of horse cavalry into battle.” With his dapper mustache, rugged features and bulldog physique, Col. Clinton A. Pierce was his generation’s embodiment of such legendary Cavalrymen as Phil Sheridan, JEB Stuart, and George Custer.
To stem the enemy tide, Wainwright threw his friend’s Cavalrymen directly into the path of the Japanese juggernaut and remarked to an aide, “The 26th is the only hope to stop them before being in Manila in a few hours.”
Hurling themselves and their mounts against machine guns and tanks, supported only by personnel carriers with thin armor and light machineguns, Pierce’s men slowed Homma’s onrushing divisions. Mounted on horses or riding in personnel carriers, the Scouts continually and aggressively counter-attacked the Japanese tanks and sacrificed their lives to protect the Filipino and Americans as they fell back.
After falling back to regroup, the Japanese unleashed a murderous trio of tanks, aircraft and naval bombardment upon the out manned and outgunned 26th. The shredded columns of horsemen refused to yield. The charged the clanking tanks and picked of Japanese infantrymen who dared lift their heads. Developing tactic on the gallop, bands of horsemen used the jungle terrain to separate Japanese tanks from each other and attack single tanks from three directions at once. The rider’s unleashed small arms fire to force the tank crews to button up their turrets and then closed in to destroy them with grenades and by tossing gasoline-filled soda bottles.
Knowing he could not fight off the powerful Japanese with his understrength and badly bruised force, MacArthur ordered a tactical retreat up the Bataan peninsula. Homma’s threatening to cut off the strategic retreat of MacArthur’s American and Philippine troops to the Bataan peninsula. To prevent a disastrous possibility that Homma would cut off the strategic retreat, the elite Philippine Scouts were given the dangerous task of fighting a delaying action.
Twenty-four-year-old Lt. Edwin Price Ramsey was one of the American officers attached to the Philippine Scouts, serving as the commanding officer of a platoon in the 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts). Born in Carlyle, Illinois in 1917, but moved to Eldorado, Kansas when he was two and 10 years later to Wichita, Kansas, with his older sister Nadine – who flew US fighters and bombers during the war – and his mother, who ran a dermatology clinic, after his father died. While at school, he worked in a soda fountain and a waiter in The Palms nightclub in Wichita to help feed his family.
As part of his high school education, he went to the Oklahoma Military Academy in Claremore, outside Tulsa, largely because they had a “horse artillery unit” and a serious polo team. As the war in Europe loomed he applied for active duty in the Philippines, where the U.S. had major military bases although they were not yet involved in the conflict.
On Jan. 15, 1942, Ramsey and his troops were looking forward to some rest and relaxation following a demanding reconnaissance mission. But a counterattack was being planned, and because he was intimately familiar with the region, he volunteered to assist in the assault.
Wainwright wanted to make the Japanese-held village of Morong, strategically located on the west coast of the Bataan Peninsula, the anchor for a defensive line stretching inland to the rugged Mount Natib. On the morning of January 16, Wainwright ordered Ramsey to take an advance guard into Morong. Ramsey assembled a 27-man force composed of mounted platoons from the 26th Cavalry and headed north along the main road leading to Morong.
Upon reaching the Batalan River that formed part of Morong’s eastern border, Ramsey’s unit swung west and cautiously approached the seemingly deserted village, composed of grass huts suspended on stilts, with livestock living beneath the structures. The only stone building was the towering Catholic Church, located in Morong’s central plaza. Ramsey halted his column short of the village and pulled out a pair of binoculars. Three trails branched from the road. The middle one led directly into the village, a jumble of nipa grass huts atop bamboo stilts rigged to pen livestock.
Ramsey raised his left arm and gestured toward the middle trail. He divided his platoon into a column of three squads. On his signal, every man reached for his hip holster and withdrew his Colt .45 pistol. Ramsey ordered the point riders to advance into Morong. As this vanguard, pistols aloft, trotted into the outskirts, the rest of the men steadied their mounts and listened for opposing gunfire.
None came. Ramsey nudged Bryn Awryn forward, his platoon following. Even though Morong seemed deserted Ramsey halted short of the square.
Beyond the town lay dense coconut groves inclining through a swamp stretching the sea. To their right coursed the narrow Batalan River, spanned by a crude wooden bridge. Ramsey’s vanguard had turned into the square and out of sight. His three squads followed cautiously, pistols at the ready and eyes on the huts.
Suddenly explosions erupted. Birds screeched and soared away in a flutter of brilliant plumage. Horses reared or bucked. As riders swiveled their heads and struggled to rein in their mounts, rifle and machine-gun fire chattered from the north. Ramsey could see scores of Japanese infantrymen who, he said later, “turned out to be the advance guard of the Japanese who had been landed from Subic, north of Morong.” Following behind these skirmishers came rank upon rank of what appeared to be hundreds more enemy soldiers, some wading the chest-deep river, others crowding the ramshackle bridge.
Ramsey’s point men galloped back. One, Private First Class Pedro Euperio, had been shot several times in his left arm and shoulder. Remarkably, Euperio “held his pistol with his right hand while the rein of his mount still remained hanging in his left elbow.” Ramsey ordered the wounded trooper to the rear for medical treatment.
It was now fight, or flee. With the Japanese attackers advancing on the church, Ramsey drew on ingrained training. “I formed a line,” he said later. Then, pistol aloft, he shouted, “Charge!”
The command was as old as mounted cavalry – and as stirring to Ramsey’s “Yellowlegs” as it had been to generations before. Instinctively, men crouched low in their saddles, hugging their horses’ necks. Outnumbered and outgunned, the scouts galloped forward and slammed into the Japanese, trampling some and felling others with point-blank pistol shots. When Dan Figuracion and other troopers found themselves blocked by bamboo fences, they dismounted, holstered their 45s, unsheathed their M1s, and continued afoot.
Panicked enemy soldiers vaulted into huts. Others bounded for the river. “They say Japanese don’t run but they did that day,” Figuracion said. “We caught them by surprise.”
One kill rankled Figuracion long after. “I shot him in the back, still bothers me,” the cavalryman said. “But he was the enemy.”
Knowing he had to hold Morong long enough for John Wheeler to arrive and reinforce him, Ramsey halted the charge. While a handful of troopers grabbed reins and led horses to shelter, one squad established a perimeter, hoping to pin down the main Japanese column.
With his second squad, Ramsey galloped into Morong, intent on clearing its huts. Mounted and afoot, the men systematically fired into windows, doors, and grass walls. The men inside returned fire and crossfire erupted from Japanese advancing on the eastern flank and enemy light mortar crews whose 50mm projectiles set huts ablaze and terrified horses. The hooves of riderless mounts thumped and skidded along Morong’s paths. One horse, standing calmly near the church as its rider fired into a hut, took the brunt of a mortar blast. The doomed animal reared, screamed, and “crumbled onto its haunches,” as the trooper, wounded and enraged, regained his feet and resumed shooting.
Amid the explosions, small fire, shouts, and horses’ shrieks, the troopers barely heard approaching hoofbeats: John Wheeler’s reinforcements had arrived. In a letter to his father, Wheeler had written, “I have found myself entirely equal to everything we’ve been up against, steady and unafraid, as for my men, they have proved themselves splendid fighters.” Now, steady and unafraid, Wheeler waved one platoon of his splendid fighters to reinforce Ramsey’s riverbank line while he and his other platoon joined the door-to-door melee. Several of Wheeler’s horsemen chased fleeing Japanese, leaving enemy bodies in their wake all the way to Morong’s outskirts and pressing the chase to the banks of the Batalan.
In Morong, Wheeler’s reinforcements joined Ramsey’s scouts in securing the town center. For hours, as enemy mortar rounds landed and riverbank sharpshooting held off the Japanese main column, the Cavalrymen secured Morong. At midafternoon, Fidel Segundo’s infantry regiment, accompanied by Wainwright, poured into town and chased the Japanese into the jungles beyond Morong.
Enemy casualties littered the area. One horse soldier lay dead; at least six had serious wounds, including Pedro Euperio, who had not gone for care. “Here he is standing, waving a pistol in his hand,” Ramsey said. “He was so brave. I thought he was dead.”
Neither Wheeler nor Ramsey escaped being wounded: Wheeler had been shot in the calf and shrapnel had caught Ramsey’s knee.
Shortly before the capitulation of U.S forces in the Philippines, the troopers of the 26th endured the ultimate nightmare of a Cavalryman, for, with provisions virtually non-existent, the 26th’s beloved mounts were slaughtered to feed Wainwright’s doomed Army. Surviving troopers who stoically recall the deaths of comrades in arms have a hard time holding back tears in describing how they had to shoot the horses. “They shared all our dangers, loving and trusting us as we did with them. There’s a special bond, and we were the last to share it,” reflected a rider of the 26th.
All but a handful of the Cavalrymen who were forced to surrender with the rest of MacArthur’s encircled Army would share the horrors of the Bataan Death March and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
When Bataan fell on April 9, 1942, Wainwright and Wheeler were among those captured; Wheeler died in the subsequent ordeal. Others, including Figuracion and Ramsey, avoided capture. Ramsey originally thought “to get out of Bataan, down and across into the Sierra Madre, south to where he could get a boat and work our way to Australia. It was very ambitious, probably stupid.”
Escaping capture during the Japanese advance, Ramsey retreated to the jungle and mountains, building a guerrilla force of Filipinos, eventually totaling 40,000 men. They harassed the enemy for the next three years while most American soldiers and their allies had retreated or been captured, many forced into the infamous Bataan Death March. The Japanese offered a reward of $200,000 for his capture (the equivalent of millions now) and capture meant certain execution.
For three years Ramsey’s family assumed he was dead – as did Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had been forced to retreat from the Philippines – until Ramsey started getting messages to him from the Central Luzon jungle, via guerrillas, sympathizers, and American warships. Ramsey recalled how he smuggled messages through enemy lines: “You take lemon juice and write with it and you don’t see it until you put heat under it. Unless you put a match under it, you couldn’t see it.”
On retreating from the Philippines MacArthur had said: “I shall return.” He did, famously wading ashore in October 1944, and after the Japanese surrender the following year he insisted on personally pinning the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart on Ramsey for harassing the enemy for those three years, a major factor in securing an eventual allied victory in the Pacific.
MacArthur later estimated that Ramsey’s guerrilla activity, and the intelligence he gathered, had saved tens of thousands of American and Filipino lives. His operations became a blueprint for modern-day U.S. Special Forces and to this day, to Filipinos of a certain age, the name Ramsey is second only to MacArthur as their most-loved American.
Relics of bygone days, hopelessly overmatched against mechanized forces, the dauntless riders of the 26th Cavalry nevertheless wrote a stirring conclusion to the glorious chronicles of the mounted warriors who had charged with resolute courage onto the battlefields of the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars.
Gen. Wainwright’s official report of the Philippines Campaign provided the ultimate epitaph for the gallant men of the 26th when he wrote: “The savage clash between Ramsey’s riders and the Imperial Japanese Army marked the end of an institution whose roots stretched back to the Revolutionary War. The “hell-bent-for-leather” strike of Ramsey’s troopers, however, was hardly the first mounted action unleashed by the 26th during General Douglas MacArthur’s ill-fated defense of the Philippines. From the first few hours after the Japanese troops had poured from their landing craft onto the shores of Luzon Island to the final months on “The Rock,” the Corregidor fortress, the Scouts had bought time for MacArthur’s Army to fight back. The Cavalrymen fought the last “horseback campaign” in America’s annals, paying a terrible toll but exacting an even higher one upon the Japanese troops.”
After the war, Ramsey became an attorney and worked as an executive with Hughes Aircraft Corporation. He returned to the Philippines as a private businessman before retiring to California. In 1948, in Manila, he married Madeleine Willoquet, daughter of the French Ambassador there and they went on to have four children. He remained active in U.S. Veterans’ affairs for the rest of his life and recorded his wartime exploits in the 1991 book “Lieutenant Ramsey’s War.”
Edwin Price Ramsey died in 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Please view a short video featuring Edwin Ramsey at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNk2fZAmkFs
By LtCol Mike Christy
Together We Served Dispatches
In the deep silence of the vast Russian pine forest, a small, lonesome figure was walking. It was just a few years before the outbreak of the Second World War. She had set out alone, without the permission of her parents, carrying only enough food to keep her on her feet for the long march. She was used to walking. Every day for years she had walked eight miles to and from her school in the little village closest to her home; she knew she could do it. Her self-belief and determined spirit drove her steadily on. She was fourteen years old.
This was Roza Shanina. She walked one hundred and twenty miles all alone, at last reaching a train station. From the station, she took the train to the city of Arkhangelsk, where she enrolled in the city’s college.
She loved the city. The cinemas, the lights, the people and the bustle were worlds away from the isolation of her early years. She was friendly, quick, talkative, and highly intelligent, and so she made many friends. Often, she would return to her college dormitory after the doors had been locked, entering with the help of a rope of tied bed sheets let down by her friends inside.
When tuition fees were introduced she had to find a job to support her studies. The job was at a Kindergarten in the city, where she was well liked by the children, the parents, and the other staff. The job came with a little apartment, and for the first time, she had a place of her own. She worked during the day and studied at night, and the days were full and happy.
It was in 1943 that she enrolled in the military. Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, launching the colossal Operation Barbarossa. By 1943, Roza Shanina had lost two brothers to the war, and she would lose a third before it was over.
She joined the Central Female Sniper Academy, where she excelled. In April of 1944, she was given command of an all-female sniper platoon and was deployed to the front.
In the aftermath of the hard-won Soviet victory at the battle of Stalingrad, the Russians launched a series of counterattacks against the German army. It was during these actions, in early April of 1944, that Roza took a human life for the first time. She was shaken, but her comrades congratulated her.
As the months passed she became battle-hardened and cold. Seven months after that first kill, her wartime diary recalls her feeling that she had found the true purpose of her life. She writes that, given the chance to go back, she would not change a thing.
It takes a steady hand and a resolute will to kill at range, and these elite soldiers were indeed resolute. Roza Shanina’s unit screened the advancing infantry, hunting enemy snipers. then picked off enemy officers when committed to open battle.
The Soviet commanders were of a mind to keep the sniper units, including the women of Roza’s command, back from the perils of the front in a pitched battle. Despite this policy, the women went where they were needed, and more than once this meant going into action against direct orders. Roza Shanina was sanctioned for disobeying orders, but her actions in combat and the actions of her unit made the commanders relent from pursuing harsh punishment.
Roza Shanina was sanctioned for disobeying orders, but her actions in combat and the actions of her unit made the commanders relent. She was soon back in the fight.
The women fought in battle after battle. In one action, their position was stormed by the enemy, and they fought hand to hand with bayonets and even shovels, killing many of the enemy and capturing the survivors.
In another action, Roza hunted an enemy sniper who was camouflaged in a tree. When dusk fell, the sky behind his tree was lit by the last light of the setting sun, and his sniper’s nest was clearly silhouetted against the wide sky. She fired her trademark, two shots in very quick succession. His body slid silently from the tree and thudded to the ground.
By September of 1944, the Soviet army had crossed into German-controlled East Prussia. The German army, embattled though it was, resisted strongly, and fighting intensified as winter deepened. The Soviets began their full-scale East Prussian Offensive in January of 1945, and the women’s sniper platoon was engaged in heavy fighting. The German army positions held out fiercely against the huge Russian advance.
The East Prussian Offensive involved more than two million soldiers. The Russians advanced steadily toward the city of Konigsberg, and in the freezing winter of 1945, the Germans fought hard for every kilometer of ground. Casualties on both sides were terrible, but always the Germans were pushed back under the weight of the Soviet army.
Everywhere along the front heavy shelling preceded assaults by tanks, field artillery, and infantry. One by one, the fortified positions still held by the Wehrmacht fell. In villages and towns, ridges, valleys, forests and open plains, vicious fighting took place, and always the Russians crept forward.
The Snipers had been committed to the front of the offensive, and it was at the end of January, after ten months of active service, that the war finally claimed the life of Roza Shanina.
Under heavy shelling and machine-gun fire, two Russian officers found her broken body slumped over that of a wounded artillery officer. She had been standing over him with her rifle in her hand and she still clutched it with one hand when they found her. A shell had burst right next to her, and she was mortally wounded. Though they tried to save her life, there was little that could be done, and she died the next day, on January 28th, 1945. She was 20 years old.
Roza Shanina was a prolific writer, and her diaries – kept against army regulations – were published many years after the war. They give a profound insight into the determined mentality of this young woman. Before she died, she told a nurse that her only regret was that she had not done more in the war effort. Talented and utterly committed, she gave up everything she had to resist the advance of Fascism against her people. Her story, just one among the stories of the millions who died in the Second World War, resonates to this day.
By LtCol Mike Christy
Together We Served Dispatches
Within weeks of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial Army pushed American and Filipino troops out of Manila. They were forced into the jungles of the Bataan Peninsula and the Island of Corregidor where they were cut off from supplies. Hungry and suffering from tropical disease, the troops were promised by the commanding Gen. Douglas MacArthur that “thousands of planes” with food, medicine, and reinforcements were on their way. But no help had arrived by March when MacArthur was ordered to leave and set up a command in Australia.
By April, Allied losses and the lack of supplies in Bataan were so bad that Maj. Gen. Edward King, the local commander, ordered the surrender of 70,000 troops (Filipinos and Americans); the largest American army in history to surrender. Having made plans to accept the surrender of about 25,000 soldiers, the Japanese were overwhelmed with POWs.
Food, water, and housing for all the unexpected prisoners were never supplied. Less fortunate than the men on Corregidor who surrendered a few months later, the exhausted, sick men pouring out of the Bataan jungles were force-marched through the heat on what survivors called “the Hike.” History named it the Bataan Death March after thousands of United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) soldiers died from deprivation, disease, or simple execution; all stragglers were killed. Prisoners who reached the squalid prison camps alive realized that hunger, thirst, sickness, and brutal treatment would now be routine.
Imperial Army soldiers had been trained to commit suicide to save their families from the “dishonor” of surrender. Ready to take their own lives, they had little concern for the lives of a dishonored enemy. Still, deadly as they were, Philippines POW camps weren’t extermination camps – not until December 1944.
By then, the Allies were winning battle after battle and MacArthur was making good on his promise to “return.” Japanese commanders of POW camps were given the option of killing their prisoners rather than return them to the Allies. On December 14, guards at the Palawan prison camp, fearing defeat, herded nearly 150 prisoners into bunkers and set the bunkers on fire.
MacArthur’s forces invaded the Philippines in January. As they advanced, word reached Lt. Gen. Walter Kreuger of the Sixth Army about the Cabanatuan POW camp north of Manila, where 516 British and American Soldiers still survived. Many of them were survivors of the Hike. Kreuger ordered a rescue mission.
But how to do it? Cabanatuan was 30 miles (48 km) inside enemy lines and heavily guarded. Surprise was essential: the Americans had to take control before the guards had time to kill the prisoners. But the prison was on open ground, and Caucasian U.S. Soldiers didn’t exactly blend in with the Filipino community. And if the raid was successful, how could they move the prisoners out of enemy territory? The survivors in Cabanatuan were living skeletons who could barely walk.
But after all those soldiers had suffered, Kreuger refused to let the men of Cabanatuan die. To accomplish his mission impossible, the general called on the Rangers.
The Sixth Army Rangers started out as “mule skinners,” leading mules that packed heavy artillery through the mountains of New Guinea. The army decided pack mules were obsolete, but they kept the guys- sending them to train under Lt Col. Henry Mucci. Under Mucci’s tough regime, homegrown farm boys became experts at hand-to-hand combat, bayonet and knife fighting, and marksmanship -elite fighters.
Mucci asked for volunteers who would “die fighting rather than let harm come to those prisoners.” Every single Ranger volunteered. And on January 28, 1945, they set out on their liberation mission. Guiding them secretly through rice paddies and cogon weeds were the Alamo Scouts (a Sixth Army outfit that gathered intelligence behind enemy lines) and Captain Eduardo Joson’s group of Filipino guerrillas. The Scouts would provide information on the prison layout and the numbers and positions of the guards. Joson’s guerrillas would cover the Rangers during the attack and -if all went well- on the return to base camp, too.
After close calls with enemy patrols and acquiring plenty of blisters, 120 Rangers and their guides ended their march successfully five miles from Cabanatuan. But Scouts brought bad news of heavy Japanese activity in and around the prison. A surprise attack and safe escape seemed more impossible than ever.
Then salvation appeared in the form of Captain Juan Pajota. The United States Army Forces in the Far East guerrilla captain had heard that the Rangers planned the surprise break that night. Pajota and his men had arrived to help, but the Captain warned the Rangers to wait 24 hours, since many of the Japanese would be moving on. Mucci didn’t like the delay, but he eventually agreed to it -and to some of Pajota’s more unusual ideas, too.
On the evening of January 30, Filipino guerrillas cut the phone lines to Manila. Captain Joson and Captain Pajota’s combined forces of about 300 Filipino guerrillas blocked the east and west ends of the road that passed the POW camp, isolating the camp from enemy forces. But as the Rangers crawled the last mile through an open field, they knew the guards would spot them.
Suddenly, a P-61 night fighter or “black widow” buzzed Cabanatuan POW camp. The plane (Pajota’s idea) had been requested by Mucci. While the Japanese guards stared up at the sky, wondering if the plane would crash, the Rangers crawled into position.
They divided up, some going to the main front gate and hiding until the others reached the back entrance, where signaling shots were fired. Then locks were shot off and the Americans moved inside the prison, guns blazing. They quickly overwhelmed the guards and the raid went like clockwork -until the evacuation.
Hearing gunfire and sure they’d be murdered, many POWs hid. Others, out of touch for years and nearly blinded from starvation, didn’t recognize the Rangers uniforms or weapons. Some POWs fled at the sight of their saviors; a few believed it was a trick and refused to go anywhere.
Pushing some prisoners toward freedom and carrying others, the Rangers hustled them to a site where Filipino civilians waited with Pajota’s final gift -ox carts pulled by tamed carabao (water buffalo) for the prisoners to ride in. As Filipino guerrillas bravely held off the Japanese, and the Scouts stayed behind to fend off any retaliating Japanese, a strange band of prisoners, carabao, and former mule skinners traveled all night to the safety of the Allied front lines. About 1,000 people, including the U.S. Army, Filipino guerrillas, and unnamed Filipino civilians, had worked to set them free, resulting in the most spectacular and successful rescues in military history.
Liberation of 552 Allied prisoners of war
2 prisoners died
530 – 1,000+ killed
Eventually 272 American survivors of Cabanatuan sailed into the San Francisco Bay. Greeting them were crowds massed on the Golden Gate Bridge. As the former POWs sailed underneath the bridge, the cheering crowds threw gifts (coins, show tickets, and even lingerie) down to the deck of their ship. These heroes of the Philippines hadn’t been forgotten after all.
In late 1945, the bodies of the American troops who died at the camp were exhumed, and the men moved to other cemeteries. Land was donated in the late 1990s by the Filipino government to create a memorial. The site of the Cabanatuan camp is now a park that includes a memorial wall listing the 2,656 American prisoners who died there.
Lt. Col. Henry Mucci and Capt. Robert Prince received the Distinguished Service Cross for their part in great raid on Cabanatuan – the most successful rescues in military history
Short film on survivors following their liberation.