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All posts for the month December, 2015

[Routine housekeeping for Marines usually includes explosives.]

When the assault on Sakura-jima was complete the Marines and soldiers who had won her had one job left to do. I moved along with the 26th Marines as they swept back over and around the mountain island. They advanced in one big line, each slouching tired shoulder practically touching the dirty arm patches of the next man. The wave of men moved in fits as parts of it stopped to work.

The job was to tag any possible booby trap for later demo teams, and to double check every hole in which a Jap could still be hiding. The ubiquitous flame thrower men followed close behind the main line, like impatient semi-mechanical grim reapers.

I went around the mountain with a group in the middle. It had little work to do, out on the rolling lava fields. Marines nearer the shore had a few holes and old buildings to clear. Uphill from us the others had a tough time.

All the impossibly steep spiny gullies they’d fought through they had to climb through again in closer detail. Sleep deprived men and climbing ropes are a testy combination. I caught bits of profane arguments echoing out from many valleys.

They were thorough, in a fashion. Every rat hole, however shallow, swallowed a grenade or three. Any hole that turned or went deeper than a glance could fix also got a long pulse from a flame thrower*.

Eventually the sweep was done and in low afternoon sun the Marines loaded the same small boats which had brought them over. Originally the boats had needed four trips to bring every one across, including their equipment. They needed just one sortie to take the regiments back.

Their injured had already been moved across or out through the Army hospital chain. The dead were still being collected. Most of the ammo which had come forward had been expended and much of the equipment used up or destroyed.

* Portable flame throwers only had a few dozen seconds of fuel to begin with. Several times the men got a sit-down break waiting for more heavy canisters to be hauled up.

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There is a small cemetery, barely marked, on the short plain east of Minami-dake. A small river runs between it and an abandoned temporary city, running out into the still inner shallows of Kagoshima Bay. On one side of the river Korean slaves and conscript civilian workers for the fortifications on Sakura-jima were camped. On the other side they buried their dead. Digging in the gravel and dark sand near the water would have been immeasurably easier than cutting through solid rock on the mountain.

The G-2 men of the 5th Marine Division have been through the remains of Jap fortifications on the island, the ones that weren’t blasted shut by bombs and rockets and hand-placed satchel charges, and they tell a tale of woe for the builders. Innumerable pits and caves were cut into the steep rock faces with hand tools.

These defenses are not as interconnected as with the tunnel systems we found in places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but the number of positions is staggering. Firing pits for infantry were everywhere. Among them were double-L shaped rooms for teams manning machine guns or field pieces. None of them could be resupplied or reinforced once we were on Sakura-jima. All of them were there to protect the crown jewel of this hand chiseled gem set.

A tunnel with parallel light rail tracks cut high up through the volcano, running around the entire west side of the main crater. Two of the now infamous eight inch naval guns were mounted on carts for the track. Either gun could be moved to either end of the tunnel, or into the center where we found a small workshop and store room.

At those tunnel ends, heavy doors of welded scrap iron and old steel plate, salvaged remnants repurposed instead of melted down to make new shapes, closed up the tunnel when the guns were pulled back. The two doors sat under bony protrusions of rock, like the mountain itself was scrunching its furrowed brow at the headache caused by all our commotion outside. The Japs even thought to tack small round bands to the face of the doors, where fresh brush could be tucked as camouflage. They were practically putting up Christmas wreaths.

The southern end of the tunnel still had tools and iron scraps and empty gas canisters for a cutting torch piled to one side. That position was silent for several days after we bombed it, but it seems they got busy with repairs right away. It’s not like they had anything else to do.

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[Tuttle got up front with the Marines just after they cleared out the top peaks and craters of Mthe great volcano in the center of Kagoshima Bay.]

It was assumed that any dead Jap was booby trapped. They were left behind for others to check out and disarm. This meant the Marines could not use the fighting holes those bodies were in, even though they were the best positions, dug deep into the inside of the crater rim. Across the crater other Japanese, with better weapons, were still dug in and alive. Marines in the open took rifle and machine gun fire from every direction. A few Japanese field guns even got in on the action, firing their last rounds from small bunkers before being overrun.

By smoke screen, mortars, artillery fire, air support, tenacity, and not a little sweat and blood, the 27th Marines eventually took the entire crater. The 26th Marines kept up outside the crater, leapfrogging itself over several spiny ridges on the west face. On the east face the 8th Cavalry had a harder time moving over a much wider stretch of haphazardly broken terrain.

A mile wide lava field, the youngest part of the island, provided scattered obstructions but very little cover to the advancing cavalrymen. Some Japanese positions still in place on the northeast face of Minami-dake could fire across the whole field. No Navy guns or established Army artillery could hit back at those positions. The cavalry regiment pushed forward anyway with what air support could be provided under unbroken rain clouds.

The first elements to complete their dash across the open lava field came within sight of an occupied coastal village. It was the only occupied settlement anyone had seen on the island. American soldiers were met well outside the town by a group of civilians, one of whom spoke passable English. The people hoped to avoid seeing their town pulverized by American artillery and bombs*.

A little snow fell late in the day, just as I caught up with the 26th Marines. I let someone important looking know I was there and made camp on a damp cold slope with Charlie Company of its Third Battalion. We were almost 3000 feet up, barely a mile from the shore. I don’t think anyone had a flat level spot to lie down on, except for the lucky few who found a spot on the rock soft enough to dig into.

* Division artillery orders reviewed later showed that the town was saved with less than two hours to spare.

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[Sakura-jima was barely half American held when Tuttle squeezed onto the island among the thousands of troops already there.]

There was nothing else to see from my viewing position on the main land, so I made my way onto the island. It was a record slow two mile trip.

The only road onto the island and into American base camps was beaten up and overburdened. A mob of fresh troops, new equipment, and odd personnel like myself were trying to move onto the island. As many injured, tired, or broken men and machines were trying to move the other way.

All along the shore road burned vehicles, or pieces of them, had been pushed onto the black beach or over ledges directly into the water. In two spots along my way engineers had no choice but to close the road for some time while cratered sections were cleaned up, and whatever temporary structure or fill was available was put in to make the road usable for a little while longer. Ambulances were cleared through but then everyone else had to wait.

A few men pushed through off road on foot, but overnight rain made that sticky in some places. In sandy places those men will have picked up abrasive grit that they will be chasing out of their boots for days.

Everything was compressed into a narrow band at the base of the mountain. Since there clearly wasn’t enough capacity over the one road for all the division services to support its two cavalry regiments – and the Marines, which had only small boats connecting them to Kagoshima city – the facilities had to set up on the island. An artillery battery worked across a narrow alley from a field kitchen. A medical aid station was uncomfortably close to a pile of fuel drums.

Eventually I got through to the one substantial town on the south shore. It was a cluster of poor looking buildings, two blocks deep from the shore, formerly prospering in whatever fishing and commerce happened through its few docks and piers. North of the town was a gentle rocky slope, almost a plain. In it was a quiet spot, relative to every other clear area, which were all being put to immediate use.

I walked up to find the quiet area was a temporary cemetery. Poncho covered bodies laid in neat rows. A crude signpost at the far end of each row I guessed must categorize the men there by branch and unit. A small team of men was unloading an assortment of vehicles at the far corner. The vehicles were lined up almost back into the town, each bringing over bodies that had come down the mountain or been discharged from a medical station.

I walked between the rows to where the team was working. Looking closer it was clear that some of the old ponchos on the ground covered only a portion of a human body. There were five men working the yard, rotating who was off as pairs of them carried each new case. They had a few stained stretchers to use. I offered my services to the chief NCO there, to make it an even six men working.

Staff Sergeant Bill Allen looked me over for a few seconds, unsure if I was serious I suppose. Few men volunteer for the job, even the drivers who bring over several corpses at once. I was paired with a young Army corporal and we got busy clearing their backlog. Footing was tricky in some spots, the day’s rain putting wet rocks or slick mud under foot, and making them hard to tell apart.

Corporal Warner Thompson hails from Fairfax, Virginia. Most of his infantry unit is doing back-line jobs like this one. Their part of the 5th Cavalry was hit hard and probably won’t do much until it can get off the island to rebuild. We talked about his experiences in the fight, and about life back home, and pretty much everything except what we were doing.

Finally he broached the subject, by way of a standard soldier’s gripe about getting a lousy job. I asked how long he’d been at it. “This is the third day. They had us stack ‘em here almost right from the start.” Getting ambulances back and ammo forward took priority on the narrow road.

I asked if he ever started counting them. “Start? Hell, I can’t stop.” We had just finished placing one body at the end of a long row. Corporal Thompson stood arms akimbo as he allowed himself a wide look around. “Last night I tried to sleep, and it was like counting sheep. They just kept coming, one at a time, all night.”

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[Skies cleared and Tuttle watched the attack on Sakura-jima gain a new dimension.]

Each spiny ridge must be taken in turn, but none of them are worth anything in isolation. The sharp top crease offers little safe ground to hold, and both sides can be fired on by the adjacent enemy held faces. There is little cover to use and no chance to dig positions into the bare rock. Every effort forward soaks up a great deal of manpower and firepower.

I was still observing from a high spot overlooking the island’s land bridge when an officer from a 1st Cavalry Division artillery unit joined me. Captain Condon Terry’s guns were somewhere on the shore of the island in front of us. He came back to “watch the show.”

In a slight north Texas drawl the captain told me what to watch for. “This is the only job going anywhere [on Kyushu]. The Army needs that rock taken out; it’s the last thing keeping us from pushing north.” He paused while a dense chevron of attack planes came in low overhead. “Here it is! It’s on now.”

The planes let loose volleys of large and small rockets, each pulling up and turning to the east as it got light. The rockets all impacted some ways up hill from a line of colored smoke being made by American troops. Before the rocket planes were out of sight regular bombers came across the line from the southwest, laying iron bombs into points higher up, including the main volcanic crater. Loose anti-aircraft fire tightened up as the formation passed. The very last plane, of about two dozen older B-17s, poured smoke from the left side for a mile as it slowed down behind the others. It tried to turn with the formation and that wing simply fell off into the bay. The rest of the plane joined it just short of the American held shore.

Captain Terry was still enthusiastic about the display. “That’s going to happen every two hours on the dot, so long as weather holds.” He checked his watch. “They’ll give it another four minutes for smoke to clear then my artillery will start working the hill. Twelve minutes after that, everybody advances, the Marines too.”

As he called it, guns below us barked out fresh ranging shots. I heard louder booms to the left and looked to see Navy destroyers and a couple cruisers in the bay. They were not about to miss this party. “Everything is pre-set and timed out,” the captain continued. “There’s naught for me to do but sit back and watch. An artillery man doesn’t hardly ever get to see his own work!”

Late in the afternoon one of the Navy LSTs which had been used weeks ago as a temporary beach-front hospital ship was moved to a small dock on the southwest corner of Sakura-jima. Army and Marine Corps units had met there this morning, including engineers. The small floating hospital was full to capacity as quickly as it could be loaded. The engineers were still clearing space and setting up a large aid station. Scattered harassing artillery fire reminded the engineers and doctors that their position was still at risk, but it didn’t look like it had been singled out by Japanese spotters.

Our own observation planes several times have caught small boats bringing supplies or reinforcements to the north side of Sakura-jima. Everyone is reminded that taking the island volcano quickly is tantamount to taking it at all.

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[The assault on Sakura-jima began, and Tuttle had a stadium seating view of the action.]

Before dawn I moved up to be with the forward observers for the 8th Cavalry Regiment, which stood ready to move in beside or through the 5th. The weather was clear, and in the dim morning light I could see gunpowder flashes from the mountain as Japanese guns on the dark sides of each sharp ridge took aim on the landing Marines.

Marine close air support planes were up early though, and rockets were soon let loose against any gun that dared light itself up in the shadows. The Marines had slipped a few radio-equipped spotters onto the island overnight, ready to guide in our planes using pre-arranged terrain marks. The part of the bay I can see does not have any Navy ships in it. The wreck of the USS Hazard can still be seen at low tide, where she tried to beach on the south shore of Sakura-jima to save her crew .

The sun rose over the few hills that push into the area occupied by 5th Cav, and Japanese spotters began to find plentiful artillery targets. Whichever guns could fire without inviting immediate response from attack planes made life miserable for the cavalry men. The 5th Cavalry didn’t have far to go to reach the base of Minami proper, where they could find some shelter, but very little heavy equipment made it up with them.

I watched as small groups of men dashed over open lava flats to seek cover in small ravines and depressions. Japanese machine guns had been sighted down most long low spots. Squads pulled back out of them under cover of smoke screens.

The smoke made things difficult for other units. Smoke works well when pulling back or moving sideways, but it blinds men trying to advance. Eventually they must emerge from the smoke, in an uncertain location, and likely in the sights of enemy rifles.

Japanese mortar fire from deep pits was distributed liberally from the mountain down to the shore. Navy fire support could not get down into such positions, and aircraft took risks flying low enough to find them. Attack planes dove against the mountain, playing chicken with the unblinking rock. A few were damaged by ground fire on the way down and didn’t or couldn’t pull up in time.

By last light two battalions of the Army regiment were pressed up tight against the base of Minami-dake. They waited for darkness to move casualties back and bring up more equipment.

Marines on the west plain had made better progress. They landed through a pair of deserted fishing villages and moved over a mile up hill across a lumpy lava plain. The lava field makes an easy approach to the mountain, mechanically, but it offers little cover from enemy fire. They were exposed, though in the morning the dark side of the mountain dared not fire its larger guns into the lingering night that clung to the western face.

By mid morning the Marines had found cover at the base of many bluffs and ridges well inland. They took only ‘ordinary’ casualties for an amphibious assault, but that was better than would be expected for running across a hard surface into the face of a jagged mountain loaded with defenders. By early afternoon progress was halted. Enemy fire made it impossible to move anything across the lava field to the covered positions up front.

The entire afternoon on both sides turned into a machine gun duel. Marine and Army positions were then in small arms range of Japanese positions on the mountain. The front lines were still very thin, so to get other teams up they sprayed the anonymous rocks ahead with rifle and machine gun fire. The Japanese who were not forced into cover by all that shot into the open areas that they knew the Americans had to move through. The entire world as can be seen from here is divided up into many unsavory pie slices, each of them the field of fire of a traversing machine gun. The team who can serve up more slices wins.

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I made reference back on the 7th to the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941. For me this date, December 24th, Christmas eve, will always remind me more of that horrible fateful day. Because the destruction from the attack didn’t end on the 7th. One story of loss will stick with me. On December 8th tapping was heard from deep inside the partially sunk battleship West Virginia, where some number of men were trapped deep below deck. On December 24, 1941, the tapping stopped.

The West Virginia is here with us now, along with four of her sister ships from Pearl Harbor’s now infamous ‘Battleship Row.’ The trouble with sinking ships in a harbor, especially Pearl, is that you can’t. It’s too shallow. Big ships settle on the bottom, still half above the surface, and a good harbor has every facility one would want to patch up and re-float the ships. In fact the Nevada, the only big ship to get under way that morning, was deliberately grounded after she took damage so she could be recovered and repaired.

The hit at Pearl was a big one for sure, and permanent for thousands of young servicemen, but for most of the big ships ultimately only temporary. Certainly Japanese planners knew this going in. The U.S. Pacific Fleet was mighty thin for the next year, reduced to hit-and-run harassing strikes with the carriers that by luck weren’t there in Hawaii. But since then, with scores of new and repaired (and upgraded) big ships joining the fleet, it has leapfrogged the worst nightmares of those admirals in Tokyo.

The ships that came back from the knock-down at Pearl Harbor were mostly older slower vessels, but they work just fine for work along the shore. Islands don’t move very fast after all. The battleships have been kept very busy. The USS New York just rejoined the fleet after having her guns re-lined. They were worn out from firing so many thousands of big shells at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Back to the story of the West Virginia. Re-floating a damaged ship does take some time. She didn’t make it into dry-dock for repairs until June 18, 1942. Before that many attempts were made by divers and search teams to enter the lower compartments and rescue survivors or recover bodies. That is also necessarily slow work. Cutting into a closed compartment will flood it, and possibly many more compartments if the hatches aren’t all closed. Letting a lot of air out and water in can destabilize the whole ship, sending it over and ruining all chances of rescue or recovery.

I have it on good authority, but off the record, that three young men were recovered from the last compartment opened on the West Virginia. By match light they had marked off the days on a calendar through December 23rd. The Navy has decided never to identify them. They will be officially listed as Killed-In-Action, December 7, 1941.

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[Most of southern Kyushu was under American boots, except one stubborn island fortress.]

Sakura-jima is a castle. Kagoshima-wan is its moat. There is one drawbridge, a narrow causeway to the southeast corner of the fortress island. Jagged mountains at the center command a view over lumpy lava fields that slope down to the water for a mile or more to east, north, and west. Short needly pine trees and thin brush cover patches not as recently thrown under searing liquid rock*.

Minami-dake, the dominant peak, rises steeply from the south to a volcanic crater 3600 feet high at the rim. Lesser peaks and craters step down from Minami to the north. The approaches from shore are generally rolling gentle grades at first, but at the base of the mountains proper the land shoots up in crooked knife-edge ridges. Hot steam and ash rise frequently from vents in the active crater. It all looks exactly like some ancient dragon built this place for her keep, then abandoned it for us puny mortals to squabble over.

In the next day or two we will assault Sakura-jima. Our units who venture too close to it, be they Army, Marine Corps, or wandering Navy ships, have been set upon by artillery hidden in the rocky heights. Our airplanes have taken out many of the guns, but sometimes only temporarily. The dense volcanic rock is a natural cover deeper and harder than any of the concrete shapes we destroyed close to the invasion beaches.

Some number of very large guns on the island have brought trouble for us more than ten miles away. They never fire a great many rounds, but they are deadly accurate. Since we still do not control the bay, not coincidentally because of the island mountain guns, Japanese spotters have slipped out by small boat to observe our camps.

After Marine guards found and shot up one Japanese scouting party with a precious radio, two others have been captured with nothing but note paper. Once American camps are made before dusk, they can note locations of the more important looking tents and have plenty of time to get coordinates back to the gunners before dawn.

This morning I checked out of the floating hospital and was shuttled by three different boats over to the docks in Ariake Bay. The Army has regular land transport running now, like the Navy set up at sea. I took a scheduled green canvas topped ‘bus’ west to where units are camped around Kanoya.

On my way in I made a point of touring the big air base at Kanoya. My guide told me all about how much American engineers have already built up and expanded the facility and how many cargo flights and attack runs we can make out of it every day. He pointed out some of the new aircraft types and their latest weapon upgrades. I was there looking for one thing.

I didn’t see any cemetery in the infield, as promised by General Connor Colt. I did see a prominent sign, posted between the first main runway and a parallel taxiway. An arrow under its words pointed to the southeast. “Courtesy of the 1st Cavalry Division. First Team Cemetery, 3000 yds.”

* The island is an active volcano. It only became connected to the mainland during a giant eruption in 1914. In 1946 another large eruption covered over much of the eastern sector.

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[Still recuperting on a hospital ship, Tuttle had to get second hand news about a heavy kamikaze raid on the city.]

Japanese Army bombers joined the kamikaze wing this time, covered by a few of their newest top-line fighter escorts. The bombers came down out of the clouds in four or five waves, mostly dead-on target. They were hunting fixed locations on a land mass which would be well familiar to them.

They say our fighters actually intercepted and damaged most of the Jap heavies, but the mass of each bomber, and its substantial payload, isn’t deflected by a few machine gun bullets. High explosive and incendiary bombs, wrapped in plane parts, first hit on and around the facilities in Miyazaki harbor. The largest old wooden pier burned for hours. One newly built metal causeway was cut in half by a recently erected metal crane which fell through it into a freshly dredged corner of the harbor.

The Japanese were lucky to find a laden tanker car in the main rail yard. The odds were good since there is almost always a tanker loading there, to bring fuel forward to our thirsty heavy armor. Some hundred thousand gallons of gasoline lit the city for an hour, consuming untold other buildings and equipment with it.

At least one road bridge was cut in two. A number of the more densely occupied building blocks were also hit. The Japanese seemed to know just where the key facilities were set up. First Corps headquarters was barely missed. Medical staff on my ship are anxious to get word about the hospital complex, which had a falling bomber explode just outside the largest building. The building was badly damaged and may not be usable. Dozens of patients and staff were killed.

I was more motivated than ever to get back into the action, but all I could do was write about activities and conversation on the hospital ship. There is little for men to do on a ship like this but to one-up each other with combat stories, or try to chat up the outnumbered nurses. I held a losing hand at either game, so I caught up on news from far away.

Home front news which should be encouraging was bemusing at best to men deployed here. A rush to demobilize and kick start the peacetime economy was both exemplified and fueled by boat loads of servicemen returning from Europe. Tokyo Rose reminded us often that guys at home had a head start on taking all the good jobs – and good women. I myself couldn’t help but scan the major newspaper mastheads for new editors and feature columnists.

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[Tuttle lost some days to illness. Always a reporter, he took advantage by making it a tour of the military medical chain.]

My affliction was likely to be short-lived. I was welcomed to stay and fight off the unspecific viral infection they vaguely diagnosed. I asked for a favor, if it wouldn’t displace a fighting man on his way back. I got sent ‘upstream’ to the Navy hospital ship anchored off shore.

A seriously injured soldier would take the same trip. He would move from the battle front through a succession of larger and larger aid stations and field hospitals until it would be decided if he needed long-term care. (Early on the final field hospitals were actually assault ships landed on the beach.) From there the chain runs through fleet hospital ships, to hospitals on Okinawa, to the Philippines or Marianas, then back to Hawaii or all the way to the U.S. if the soldier is likely to be discharged.

It is now routine to see one or two helicopters ferrying a few of the most urgent cases out to hospital ships. They fly as far forward as we dare send the delicate aircraft. Several dozen transport planes have been reserved to airlift badly injured men directly to the best facilities for them, however far away. Mundane cases like my Japanese variety of influenza take the slow road.

On the way to a pier by Army ambulance I finally found out what had become of the civilians I was sure had stuck behind around Miyazaki. No matter how urgently an evacuation is ordered, or however violently an invader arrives, some stubbornly stay behind. They always have.

A dense neighborhood, almost a small town in its own right, was completely fenced in. High barb-wire topped runs joined small guard towers to make a well observed perimeter around the town. Any Japanese encountered by our forces nearby had been moved there. No one presumes to know which among them will live peacefully around American occupiers and which would plot attacks. So they all get boxed up together. From outside the fence the town looked sad and isolated. Cold winter rain complimented the setting.

Viewed inside the fence the Japanese city went about its normal business as if nothing was unusual. We drove through the middle, as American MPs patrolled the main street where a few shops were open for people to trade for what they needed. The people had little to do but volunteer for supervised work parties organized by the Americans, who also provided everything stocked in the stores.

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