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.
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.
In the early morning hours of February 25, 1942, the city of Los Angeles found itself in the grip of a mass panic. Spurred on by reports of a Japanese air raid, local military units sounded warning sirens, ordered a mass blackout and lit up the sky with machine gun fire and over 1,400 anti-aircraft shells. The so-called “Battle of Los Angeles” would eventually drag on for several terrifying hours, yet when the guns finally fell silent, no evidence of an enemy attack was found. Military brass chalked the false alarm up to “jittery nerves” caused by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but it remains one of the most mysterious chapters of World War II.
In the frantic weeks that followed the Pearl Harbor attack, many Americans believed that enemy raids on the continental United States were imminent. On December 9, 1941, unsubstantiated reports of approaching aircraft had caused a minor invasion panic in New York City and sent stock prices tumbling. On the West Coast, inexperienced pilots, and radar men had mistaken fishing boats, logs and even whales for Japanese warships and submarines. Tensions were high, and they only grew after U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson warned that American cities should be prepared to accept “occasional blows” from enemy forces. Just a few days later on February 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and hurled over a dozen artillery shells at an oil field and refinery. While the attack inflicted no casualties and caused only minor damage, it marked the first time that the mainland United States had been bombed during World War II.
The day after the oil field raid, paranoia and itchy trigger fingers combined to produce one of the most unusual home front incidents of the war. It began on the evening of February 24, 1942, when naval intelligence instructed units on the California coast to steel themselves for a potential Japanese attack. All remained calm for the next few hours, but shortly after 2 a.m. on February 25, military radar picked up what appeared to be an enemy contact some 120 miles west of Los Angeles. Air raid sirens sounded and a citywide blackout was put into effect. Within minutes, troops had manned anti-aircraft guns and begun sweeping the skies with searchlights.
It was just after 3 a.m. when the shooting started. Following reports of an unidentified object in the skies, troops in Santa Monica unleashed a barrage of anti-aircraft and .50 caliber machine gun fire. Before long, many of the city’s other coastal defense weapons had joined in. “Powerful searchlights from countless stations stabbed the sky with brilliant probing fingers,” the Los Angeles Times wrote, “while anti-aircraft batteries dotted the heavens with beautiful if sinister, orange bursts of shrapnel.” Chaos reigned over the next several minutes. It appeared that Los Angeles was under attack, yet many of those who looked skyward saw nothing but smoke and the glare of the ack-ack fire. “Imagination could have easily disclosed many shapes in the sky in the midst of that weird symphony of noise and color,” Coastal Artillery Corps Colonel John G. Murphy later wrote. “But cold detachment disclosed no planes of any type in the sky – friendly or enemy.”
For others, however, the threat appeared to be very real. Reports poured in from across the city describing Japanese aircraft flying in formation, bombs falling and enemy paratroopers. There was even a claim of a Japanese plane crash landing in the streets of Hollywood. “I could barely see the planes, but they were up there all right,” a coastal artilleryman named Charles Patrick later wrote in a letter. “I could see six planes, and shells were bursting all around them. Naturally, all of us fellows were anxious to get our two cents’ worth in and, when the command came, everybody cheered like a son of a gun.” The barrage eventually continued for over an hour. By the time a final “all-clear” order was given later that morning, Los Angeles’ artillery batteries had pumped over 1,400 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition into the sky.
It was only in the light of day that the American military units made a puzzling discovery: there appeared to have been no enemy attack. “Although reports were conflicting and every effort is being made to ascertain the facts, it is clear that no bombs were dropped and no planes were shot down,” read a statement from the Army’s Western Defense Command.
Ironically, the only damage during the “battle” had come from friendly fire. Anti-aircraft shrapnel rained down across the city, shattering windows and ripping through buildings. One dud careened into a Long Beach golf course, and several residents had their homes partially destroyed by 3-inch artillery shells. While there were no serious injuries from the shootout, it was reported that at least five people had died as a result of heart attacks and car accidents that occurred during the extended blackout. In a preview of the hysteria that would soon accompany the Japanese internment, authorities also arrested some 20 Japanese-Americans for allegedly trying to signal the nonexistent aircraft.
Over the next few days, government and media outlets issued contradictory reports on what later became known as the “Battle of Los Angeles.” Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox dismissed the firefight as a false alarm brought on by “jittery nerves,” but Secretary of War Henry Stimson echoed Army brass in saying that at least 15 planes had buzzed the city. He even advanced the provocative theory that the phantom fighters might have been commercial aircraft “operated by enemy agents” hoping to strike fear into the public. Stimson later backpedaled his claims, but there was still the matter of the thousands of military personnel and civilians who claimed to have seen aircraft in the skies over L.A. According to an editorial in the New York Times, some eyewitnesses had spied “a big floating object resembling a balloon,” while others had spotted anywhere from one plane to several dozen. “The more the whole incident of the early morning of Feb. 25 in the Los Angeles district is examined,” the article read, “the more incredible it becomes.”
What caused the shootout over Los Angeles? The Japanese military later claimed it had never flown aircraft over the city during World War II, providing fuel for a host of bizarre theories involving government conspiracies and visits by flying saucers and extraterrestrials.Still, the most logical explanation for the firefight is that trigger-happy servicemen and rudimentary radar systems combined to produce a false alarm. In 1983, the Office of Air Force History outlined the events of the L.A. air raid and noted that meteorological balloons had been released prior to the barrage to help determine wind conditions. Their lights and silver color could have been what first triggered the alerts. Once the shooting began, the disorienting combination of searchlights, smoke and anti-aircraft flak might have led gunners to believe they were firing on enemy planes even though none were actually present.
While it’s likely that the Battle of Los Angeles was only a mirage, it was still a chilling reminder of the vulnerability that many Americans felt at the beginning of World War II. The Japanese would later hatch several schemes to attack the American mainland – including launching over 9,000 explosives-laden “fire balloons” – yet none of them ever produced the level of mass hysteria that accompanied the phantom shootout over Los Angeles. Even at the time, many journalists noted that it was fitting that the incident had taken place in the home of the film industry. In an article from March 1942, the New York Times wrote that as the “world’s preeminent fabricator of make-believe,” Hollywood appeared to have played host to a battle that was “just another illusion.”
Newsreel of the incident: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5m7736RMBEg
By LtCol Mike Christy TWS Dispatches
Very little is known about the life and times of Minoru Wada except for a moment in time during August 1945; but what a remarkable moment that was.
Minoru Wada was born in the United States and followed the Japanese-American Kibei custom of traveling to Japan for his education. He attended the University of Tokyo and then the Kyushu Military Academy. The Kibei practice was to return to America after their schooling but in Wada’s case, the Pacific war broke out while he was in Japan and he was pressed into service in the Imperial Japanese Army. Wada became a junior officer in the Army’s transportation section and by 1945 he was serving with the Japanese 100th Infantry Division on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Lt. Gen. Jiro Harada commanding.
As the war progressed, Wada detested all the killing and he became very disillusioned with the nature of war. He never believed in the warring character exhibited by the “Old Guard” of the Japanese military. After seeing war up close, more than anything he wanted peace to return to the Japanese islands and to the Japanese people. As the Pacific war moved past the Philippines, past Iwo Jima, and was passing Okinawa, Wada’s anti-war feelings began to fume as the fighting and dying on Mindanao seemed more and more pointless. Then, in the first week of August 1945, Wada was captured by American troops – defected, according to some sources – but in either case, he became a Prisoner of War.
Japanese Prisoners of War were routinely interrogated by Intelligence personnel but the interviewers found an unusually sympathetic subject in Minoru Wada. He shared his disillusioned feelings about the war and described his strong wish for the war to end. He said he would do anything, even sacrifice his own life, to stop the war and bring ultimate peace to the Japanese people. The Army Intelligence officers offered him the chance to help the Americans end the war on Mindanao but he initially refused the request, since bombing his own countrymen was something he was unwilling to do. Wada then reconsidered after going through a thought process that was eerily similar to what U.S. President Harry Truman had just gone through days before and it led Wada to the same place: perhaps it was better for a smaller number of people to be killed now than for vastly larger numbers to be killed later. For Truman, this led to his decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan in the hopes of avoiding greater losses in an invasion; for Wada, this led to his decision to help U.S. forces destroy Lt. Gen. Harada’s well concealed headquarters complex in the hopes of avoiding greater losses from prolonged and pointless fighting.
As a transportation officer, Wada had an excellent knowledge of the island and its terrain. He also knew the key locations of the command structure of the Imperial Japanese forces. Wada pointed out the headquarters location on maps but the rugged terrain and dense jungle of Mindanao’s Kibawe-Talomo Trail region meant that the only sure way for the Americans to find the complex would be for Wada to take them there. Thus the stage was set for one of the most unusual raids of the war.
On August 9, 1945, the day the second atomic bomb of the war was dropped on Nagasaki, Marine Bombing Squadron VMB-611 flying PBJ-1D Mitchell bombers and Marine Fighting Squadron VMF-115 “Joe’s Jokers” flying F4U Corsair fighters prepared for take-off from Moret Field in Zamboanga, Mindanao bound for Gen. Harada’s headquarters. Wada helped brief the pilots and then the pilot of the lead plane had to add the names of three unusual passengers to his flight manifest: Army Ground Liaison Officer and Strike Coordinator Maj. Mortimer Jordan, interpreter Sgt. Charles Imai (Wada did not speak English), and Imperial Japanese Army 2st Lt. Minoru Wada. Still dressed in his Japanese Army uniform, Wada sat in the radio-gunner’s position and looked for familiar landmarks. Speaking through Sgt. Imai, he was able to direct the bombers right to his own headquarters complex. The strike group then dropped 22,000 pounds of bombs on the area plus a healthy dose of 5-inch rockets.
Wada also identified a number of additional critical targets, and the Marines pounded the target areas with napalm, fragmentation bombs, rockets and heavy machine gun fire. The raid was extremely successful and the headquarters network was thoroughly demolished. Major Jordan later told debriefing officers, “The Japanese officer put us zero on the target and we did the rest – maybe overdid it.” The loss of the 100th Division’s command and control establishment virtually ended the fighting on Mindanao overnight.
Many aspects of this mission remained classified and the full details have still not been disclosed. For Wada, the raid brought him mixed feelings, but he did not regret his actions and firmly believed he helped save the lives of many for the sacrifice of a few.
In the peace that followed, Wada was given a new identity and appearance and a place to live by the U.S. Government. He was then allowed to disappear into history.
Photo One: Sgt. Charles T. Imai, right, interpreter, explains to the 1st Marine Air Wing fighter and bomber pilots the nature of the target as described by Minoru Wada. Maj. Mortimer H. Jordan, the air strike coordinator, stands on the left, checking the information which Wada has already given him.
Photo Two: In the waist of a Marine Mitchell bomber, Minoru Wada scans the mountains below, picking out landmarks that will aid him on leading other Marine bombers and fighters over the target. Maj. Jordan has moved forward into the nose of the bomber to take command immediately as the target is pin-pointed.
By LtCol Mike Christy Together We Served Dispatches
Following the December 1941 Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Wake Island and other Pacific islands, the U.S. began to halt Japan’s aggression expansion with important battle victories at Midway Island in June 1942 and Guadalcanal from Aug. 1942 to Feb. 1943. To continue the progress against the Japanese occupying scattered island chains, Allied commanders launched counter-offensive strikes known as “island-hopping.” The idea was to capture certain key islands, one after another, until Japan came within range of American bombers. Rather than engage sizable Japanese garrisons, these operations were designed to cut them off and let them “whither on the vine.”
By themselves, the islands held little value to the Japanese or the Americans. They were situated about halfway between Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and were barely large enough to hold an airfield. But they served as an essential steppingstone across the Pacific: If American bombers wanted to reach Japan, they would need an air base in the Mariana Islands; to capture the Marianas, they would first need the Marshall Islands; and for the Marshalls, they needed Tarawa Atoll, a series of small islands in the Gilberts. The major Japanese outposts were on Betio, a bird-shaped island in the southern part of the chain; and Makin, which was raided early in 1942 by U.S. Marines.
Tarawa turned out to be the most fortified atoll America would invade during the Pacific Campaign. The leader of the Japanese garrison, Rear Adm. Keiji Shibazaki, and 2,500 Imperial Naval Marines with 2,300 Korean and Japanese laborers transformed Betio into a fortress of unparalleled intricacy, with coconut log bunkers cemented with crushed coral and intersecting zones of fire supported by coastal guns, antiaircraft guns, heavy and light machine guns and light tanks. Betio’s beaches were naturally ringed with shallow reefs, which were covered with barbed wire and mines. Shibazaki reportedly bragged that the U.S. “couldn’t take Tarawa with a million men in 100 years.” American forces proved him wrong.
On Nov. 20, 1943, after a three-hour bombardment by naval gunfire and bombing runs by carried-based aircraft, the 2nd Marine Division landed on Betio. It would take 35,000 men three days to conquer Tarawa. At the end of the battle, neither side would look at the war the same way.
The attack was a monumental effort of combined arms coordination in a new war tactic which relied upon heavy pre-invasion bombardment by battleships and carrier planes. Marines were to approach the shore in new amphibious tractor vehicles dubbed amphtracs. These landing crafts, armed with machine guns and carrying 20 troops each, were able to crawl over shallow reefs and other barriers.
The highly coordinated U.S. battle plan at Betio relied on the precise timing of several key elements to succeed, but almost from the beginning there were problems. Heavy sea turbulence slowed transfer operations of the U.S. Marines to the ship-side landing crafts. A pre-invasion air raid was delayed, upsetting the timetable for other parts of the assault. Holding for the air raids, support ships ready to launch massive pre-invasion bombardments lingered in position longer than expected. They were forced to dodge increasingly accurate fire from the island where Japanese defenders were dug in.
Compounding these problems was a lower-than-anticipated tide level around the island that morning. Most amphtracs in the first assault wave were able to reach the beach as planned, but nearly all the larger, heavier landing crafts behind them jammed into coral reefs exposed by the shallow tide. Japanese coastal guns pounded the snagged vessels and desperate Marines gave up on freeing the boats and instead waded toward shore hundreds of yards away through chest-deep water under intense enemy fire, and within the first hour the first wave had suffered almost total casualties.
Precious gear, especially radios, became soaked and useless. Many Marines were hit in the open water, and those who made it to shore arrived exhausted or wounded, ill-equipped and unable to communicate with supporting forces.
Making matters worse, the assault path through the lagoon to the shore became congested with disabled landing crafts and bloodied corpses, which hindered the dispatching of reinforcements. Marines on the beach crawled forward, inch by inch, knowing that to stand or even rise slightly made them easy targets. By the end of the first day, 5,000 Marines had landed at Betio; 500 had perished in the process. By the end of the first night, it was not definite that the Americans were here to stay.
Like the Japanese Navy in the Solomon’s, Americans were losing their junior officers and non-commissioned officers rapidly. Advance was only due to a Sergeant or a Lieutenant leading their squad or platoon over the seawall and moving inland. The Japanese would not give up. They would fire until they had one bullet and kill themselves with their big toe in the trigger of their rifle.
On the morning of November 21, the second day of fighting, unexpectedly low tides continued to plague the U.S. assault. Again, assault troops had to leave their crafts short of the shore and wade in through enemy fire. In addition to being fired upon from shore, Marines were also assaulted from their sides and rear by enemy snipers who had entered the lagoon under the cover of night to position themselves on crafts that had been wrecked and abandoned the day before.
By noon, however, the tide finally began to rise, and U.S. destroyers were able to maneuver closer to shore to lend accurate supporting fire. Reserve combat teams and support craft transporting tanks and weapons raced to shore, and the ground assault finally took orderly form. The Marines moved inland, blasting surviving enemy emplacements with grenades, demolition packs and flamethrowers.
On day three of the battle, November 22, the Marines fought on, destroying several Japanese pillboxes and fortifications. Dead and wounded were mounted on both sides and even the division reserve could not turn the tide. At dusk the Americans had occupied enough ground to ensure that Tarawa would be taken; the only question was the amount of blood. Shibasaki and his entire command staff died sometime on the third day, committing suicide rather than face capture.
That night, the remaining 300 Japanese and Korean laborers came out of their last positions and attacked in a desperate attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible. If these men had died in their pillboxes, certainly more Americans would have died.
At morning light on November 23, the island defenders lay in tangled heaps: All but 17 Japanese soldiers had died defending Betio. Seventy-six hours after the invasion began, Betio was finally declared secure.
It was a fight that lasted only three days, but it was among the bloodiest in 20th-century American history. By the time the battle ended, 1,084 U.S. Marines lay dead on the sandy earth and churning water. Some 2,101 were wounded. In the 76-hour Battle of Tarawa, U.S. Marines suffered almost as many killed-in-action casualties as U.S. troops suffered in the six-month campaign at Guadalcanal Island.
Legendary war correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote, “No one who has not been there, can imagine the overwhelming, inhuman smell of 5,000 dead who are piled and scattered in an area of less than one square mile.”
Offices of government and military offices were flooded with angry letters over the number of Americans dead on Tarawa. The number of dead and wounded on both sides would only get larger as the war in the Pacific progressed. However, according to “The Pacific War” by John Costello, U.S. commanders learned important lessons from the Battle of Tarawa that would be applied to future island wars, including the need for better reconnaissance, more precise and sustained pre-landing bombardments, additional amphibious landing vehicle and improved equipment.
After the battle, Marines who died were wrapped in ponchos and folded into shallow graves in several areas around Tarawa. But there were so many bodies, including the thousands of Japanese soldiers, that the U.S. Navy eventually bulldozed the site and expanded the airfield and built a network of roads and offices. By the time an excavation team arrived in 1946 to exhume and identify the dead, no one could remember where they were. Investigators spent three months searching, but they found only half the Marines in five of eight known impromptu burial sites.
One of the unfound sites was Cemetery 27, presumed to contain the bodies of 33-year-old Medal of Honor recipient 1st Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr. and approximately 40 other Marines killed in action. Its occupants were officially declared “unrecoverable” by the U.S. government which issued a letter stating that most of the Tarawa war dead were presumed lost at sea near the island.
But without conclusive proof that Bonnyman was among them, his family began a decades-long campaign to procure information about their beloved soldier’s final resting place.
In 2008, working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Mark Noah’s History Flight funded and conducted two six-week long searches in the Marshall, Caroline and Gilbert Islands hunting for remains previously believed to be unrecoverable. History Flight also hired a geophysical inspection firm and brought a geophysicist to the island of Tarawa to search for “lost” Marine graves with a ground penetrating radar. In the six weeks the team spent on Tarawa â interviewing local residents who had accidentally unearthed 20 American skeletons during construction activity on the island â they were able to locate, identify and survey five large American burial sites and three individual sites that contained over 200 U.S. Marines left behind after WWII. Cemetery 27 was not among the burial sites found.
Over the years, letters and calls went unanswered as Bonnyman’s family sought answers, and the details of the soldier’s death and burial became even further muddied in the memories of his loved ones.
A glimmer of hope came in 2010, when a joint team from the Defense POW and MIA Accounting Agency began a recovery mission on the Gilbert Islands in hopes of locating the mass graves in which U.S. and Japanese soldiers were said to have been buried.
That was the first time members of Bonnyman’s family – some of whom were unaware the remains were still missing – heard that there might be chance of recovery.
In 2011, JPAC discovered Cemetery 27, the site where Bonnyman and 35 others were buried underneath a parking lot. Excavation began in March 2015 and continued through the end of June.
When History Flight began calling families to obtain DNA samples of the Marines unaccounted for at Tarawa, Bonnyman’s grandson Clay Bonnyman Evans jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with the group and flew to Betio to assist in excavations.
“I spent my childhood idolizing him, even though he died 18 years before I was born,” said Evans, who made the long trip from his home in Boulder, Colorado, to Tarawa to be here while JPAC is digging for remains. Evans traveled at his own to observe the team’s work, hoping they might find his grandfather’s remains.
“I have felt a very strong connection to this man that I never knew. He loomed large for me as a kid …,” Evans said. “I have wanted to come here for a long time.”
He retraced his grandfather’s steps at Tarawa, wading through the water onshore, then climbing to the top of a bunker referred to as “Bonnyman’s Bunker.” Now overgrown and filled with trash, the bunker was a Japanese stronghold during the battle.
It was at this bunker that assault troops were pinned down by heavy enemy artillery fire at the seaward end of the long Betio Pier, on his own initiative Bonnyman organized and led five men over the open pier to the beach. There he voluntarily obtained flame throwers and demolitions and directed the blowing up of several hostile installations.
On the second day of the struggle, Bonnyman, determined to breach the enemy’s strong defensive line, led his demolitions teams in an assault on the entrance to a huge bombproof shelter which contained approximately 150 Japanese soldiers. The enemy position was about forty yards forward of the Marine lines. Bonnyman advanced his team to the mouth of the position and killed many of the defenders. His team was forced to withdraw to replenish its supply of ammunition and grenades. Bonnyman again pressed his attack and gained the top of the structure, thereby flushing more than one hundred of its occupants into the open where they were shot down. When the Japanese fought back, the Lieutenant stood at the forward edge of the position and killed several attackers before he fell mortally wounded.
For his actions during the battle, Bonnyman was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The medal was formally presented to his family by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in 1947. His 12-year-old daughter, Frances, accepted the medal on behalf of the Bonnyman family.
Evans knew that his grandfather had distinctive dental work, including gold teeth. He said he was breathless when Kristin Baker, the History Flight Recovery Team leader, called him over to examine the teeth on an exposed cranium.
“It is gold,” Baker told him. Evans said it’s very likely that the remains are those of the Medal of Honor recipient, but legal verification was still required.
On July 26, 2015, the remains of the three dozen Marines arrived at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu Hawaii where a team of specially trained dentists and other experts work to authenticate their identities.
On August 27, 2015 Bonnyman’s remains were identified and on September 28, 2015, he was returned to his childhood home town of Knoxville, Tennessee and interred with his family, with full military honors at West Knoxville’s Berry Highland Memorial Cemetery.
For nearly 73 years, Bonnyman’s family – members of which now live in Boulder County – remembered the handsome, adventurous man they had lost with what few artifacts they had left: his Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously for his efforts to hold back a Japanese counterattack; a large portrait, commissioned from an Italian oil painter; and a few black-and-white photographs taken during the assault on Betio.
“It feels great,” Clay Evans said of the culmination of his family’s generation-spanning quest. “My great-grandparents really worked hard to get his remains back. They wrote letters, and they just sort of got every story in the book from the military; they thought they would never have his remains.”
“I actually grabbed my stomach and thought, ‘Good grief. Is it really going to happen?’ I never thought it would,” said Bonnyman’s oldest daughter, Frances Evans, now 83.
Bonnyman was the last of four Medal of Honor recipients from the Battle of Tarawa to be located.
With the discovery of Bonnyman’s remains, there are only 30 Medal of Honor recipients killed in World War II whose final resting places are still unknown, according to Laura Joyey of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.