fire and maneuver

All posts tagged fire and maneuver

The days were finally starting to get a little longer. As the gray sky started to lighten we moved out past American front lines, climbing down a ways to cross a short flat. It was open rocky terrain and everyone felt self-conscious in our fashion ensembles of wet dark green.

The company advanced slowly in one double line up to the next hill, across the valley American troops had been watching for so many days. At the base three patrols split off, one to either side and the third moving up to the peak. The patrol I was with advanced cautiously around the right side of the hilltop. Just over the crest we found about a dozen shallow fighting holes. Abandoned shovels, packs, and a few rifles were left there in and around the holes. Also in the holes were three dead bodies.

It looked like the Japanese had moved up to that line the day before, or the previous night, and made a temporary fighting line. There was no fighting so the soldiers there had died of existing injuries. Outwardly they looked bloated, as if they’d been dead for days. A few odd large sores were visible on the head and hands of a couple of them. The private next to me tipped the helmet off one with the point of his bayonet, and clumps of thin dark hair came off with it.

Our senior sergeant growled out a quiet reminder about booby traps, and we left the bodies and materiel there for others to clean up. We advanced slowly through the rocks and leafless brush down the back slope of the hill. Over the next four hundred yards we found six more bodies, soldiers in ragged uniforms, some with whole limbs wrapped in dirty bandages. Most looked like they collapsed while crawling on all fours, away from our lines.

We had gotten ahead of the center patrol, and it was there from our left that one live solider came stumbling toward us. He moved out from behind the dark boulder he’d been leaning on in a staggering half-awake walk. His pathetic form did not carry a gun, and no one fired at him. His uniform was dirty like the others, but straight and neat, topped with a sharply creased brown cap. He had been their commander.

The young officer raised his sword with one wavering arm. One could see from twenty feet away that it was a cheap stamped steel model. The Japanese were mass-producing them for every new officer to make him feel like part of the ‘warrior elite.’ His jaw fell and the sores in this warrior’s cheeks opened to expose the tortured flesh inside his mouth. He attempted to yell but only made a raspy mewl. He was almost upon our left column.

The point man on that side froze, horrified and mesmerized by the almost inhuman apparition. At the last second he raised the butt of his rifle and deflected the sword’s feeble blow. The imitation samurai blade was slowly raised again, and a Thompson barked out a long burst. The second man in the patrol line put his slugs all clean through the officer’s wrecked body. That lifeless body fell at once into a disorganized heap of parts, barely recognizable as a human corpse.

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[Tuttle rode forward with a group of reporters to see the American line finally be joined continuously across Kyushu.]

1st Lieutenant Millard Wells drove his own jeep, which he succeeded in filling with three reporters. I rode in back with Bob Bellaire of Collier’s. John Elliot sat up front as the Australian representative.

It took some time to get back near corps HQ, continue southeast on a good secure (and freshly rebuilt) road, and finally get up to the front lines near Kagoshima Bay.

We turned the drive into an hour long press conference. Lieutenant Wells shared what he could about the larger situation. Fifth corps had top priority on everything for the current breakout – ammo, air support, even toilet paper stocks were advanced to keep the divisions ‘moving.’

What Lieutenant Wells had gathered us to see was the planned meeting of American units at the north end of Kagoshima Bay. Once connected there, the American front would finally be one unbroken line all the way across Kyushu.

He described the shore there as dense with small cities. They were well situated as a hub for commerce, closer to inland parts of Kyushu than any of the larger ports. Industrial development of the coast was sparse, but in aggregate it was something worth taking.
Intelligence suggested the area was still well populated with people. The lieutenant didn’t know why, but it was another reason we had not and would not thoroughly bomb and shell the area before moving in.

We drove right to the water’s edge north of Kagoshima city. Lieutenant Wells pointed northeast across the bay. “That flat land runs north all the way into the next really big mountain [Karakuni-dake]. The 12th Cav already tried to get across once and got lit up by big artillery. Then them and the 158th [Regimental Combat Team] got shelled at random all night after pulling back.”

I asked the lieutenant if there was anything we were going to do about the long range artillery before they moved out again. He hesitated a moment then answered without looking away from the road ahead, “Not really. Heavy bombers will carpet the mountains, but they did that twice already.”

This morning found me situated with forward observers for the heavy mortars of the 322nd Infantry Regiment. We were staked out on a small hill, hurriedly cleared of brush, looking down into one of the coastal towns on the north end of Kagoshima Bay.

Behind us was a similar town, one held by American forces for many days. That town had experienced tough urban fighting, followed by heavy artillery fire from the recently pacified Sakura-jima. It was less than a ghost town. Its few charred remaining buildings offered no outline of the former city streets. Paths cleared by American engineers went straight through, with no thought to the original map.

The town ahead was pristine. One could imagine people getting up for work that morning, and children running off to school along the quiet safe streets. In fact, a keen eye could pick out heat and faint smoke from cooking fires down below. I didn’t think they had made enough breakfast for the ten thousand guests they were about to get.

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[History repeats itself, sometimes only months apart.]

I entered one important looking tent and found staff officers huddled over local maps, noting positions of subordinate units and updating strength and supply tables for each. More senior officers were working around a smaller table. They had laid out another map, not of Kyushu, but of southern Okinawa. I was familiar with the area, from watching men train there. These officers knew it better, from watching men die there.

The 77th and the 81st infantry divisions had yesterday been repulsed, with tough losses. They were trying to jump from one line of anonymous hills and high paths over onto a larger set of named peaks and ridges. The 77th had tried the same thing on a smaller scale on Okinawa and also failed on the first several attempts.

Dead and injured were still being collected from yesterday, but the new attack would not wait. They were to go again this morning, with a new plan based on old lessons. Rain was predicted to continue for a third day, but that too was just like on Okinawa.

The Navy was called in to Kagoshima Bay to support with big guns. Once the attack started they would not fire on the mountainsides which our soldiers were attacking. They would plaster the reverse slopes, where it was expected Japanese defenders were only shallowly dug in. So long as they stayed hunkered down, American teams could work methodically through the valley between the two high lines.

Noise of the renewed assault was thick and loud by the time I went up with an observer from the headquarters unit. Engineers had worked through the last two days and nights to clear rough roads through and over the forested hills. Softer parts of the road were corduroyed with felled logs, brutal riding in a round-wheeled jeep. We came out onto one of the sharper peaks, dodging a hard working bulldozer to make the top.

Heavy tanks and larger self-propelled guns had been established on most such local peaks, owing much to extreme engineering effort. More than one had been left stuck, or had simply fallen right through the edge off of a waterlogged embankment.

Our tanks would be static guns for the day. They could depress their guns better than the heavy howitzers, firing directly down into the valley. Down in that valley mixed teams of tanks and liberally equipped infantry worked along the valley at a dead slow pace. They could rarely be seen.

Usually we could only track American progress by the smoke and dust made by their magnanimous application of firepower. When one of the smaller tanks came forward, there was no mistaking the sight of its long range flame thrower scorching a substantial patch of the mountain.

The opposing ridge was rugged and wavy, with many deep crevices in the near side. Each crevice was treated as a new objective, soldiers climbing up the near edge, before tanks turned into it as the men moved around the edge. Steady rain kept visibility short and footing haphazard.

Japanese guns waited for good targets and opened up only when the side of a tank or a cluster of men presented themselves, which was often. The Japs took a toll on the approaching soldiers and armor, often firing from close range where the covering guns on our side of the valley could not safely engage them. More than once the American GIs simply backed up and waited for friendly guns to pulverize the threat, before rushing the position with grenades and charges.

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[Tuttle got the outline on the next offensive, and picked his spot on one end of it.]

The next planned action was to be perfectly straight-forward – attack everywhere, all at once, using every mortar, gun, aircraft, tank, howitzer, bazooka, rifle, and knife at hand. “Nothing fancy, just meat and potatoes, and lots of it.” I kept my fork and napkin handy. I expected the dinner bell to ring soon.

Sure enough, before first light an earthquake on par with anything this volcanic island has felt in millennia woke me out of the hole I had taken for the night. Thick waves of bombers had come in from over the water, bombing inland objectives by radar . Some bombs may have fallen short, but I couldn’t confirm the details.

The 3rd Marine Division was working up the coast so it would get ample naval support. Small islands near shore gave up huge mounds of themselves as heavy shells made sure they would not present a hazard. The barrage picked up breadth and intensity as it moved inland.

I watched the bombardment from a small high spot with some of the artillery spotters. The bombardment was to spare the roads ahead, for our own use. Corrections were called backed several times after they watched the making of a large pothole through their specialized telescopes.

The division was established in a prosperous small coastal city northwest of Sendai, where a navigable river met a small harbor and a train line. The Marines were to drive another two miles north to the next such nearly identical town.

What drew me to the Third is what it would do next – nothing. The 3rd Marines would be the first large unit to reach the planned “line of advance.” The line is to run generally northeast from there all the way across Kyushu, about 90 miles. Some number of the combat divisions will dig in there and defend what we took, while bases are prepared to support the invasion of Tokyo itself*.

The Marines met little organized resistance today. The knobby terrain had only a few good roads connecting local villages. The Japanese had well disguised but uncoordinated traps set at most intersections or choke points. As usual, the American advance could not be stopped, nor could it move quickly. Ambulances had no trouble keeping up. They made numerous round trips.

* Naturally, this paragraph could not be published at the time and was not even submitted to wartime censors.

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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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[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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[Night action! Companies all along the line moved forward in a largely improvised attack, trying to overrun a retreating Japanese column. It was tough going.]

The end of our wait was a nervous twenty minutes, as the barrage line walked out of the valley, right up towards us. With ten minutes to go we could see the explosions directly, and the noise was becoming uncomfortably loud. Most men gave up spectating for a place back in their foxholes.

With two minutes to go the world again fell silent. The appointed minute came, and we moved out.

Captain Leonard figured we could manage the terrain ahead with modest difficulty. He was worried about men to our left, where three severe peaks broke up the landscape. It would be impossible for them to move in clean lines at any speed. And if they tried to work around the mountains, they would have to navigate in the dark to regain their place in the larger line.

We made our way down the face of our hill and picked through the forest below for a quarter mile before heading up again. It was relatively easy going under the mature forest canopy, where even the dense evergreens had thin lower limbs. Progress slowed in patches of shorter brush and was dead slow where our artillery had made a quick demonstration.

Felled limbs and shattered trunks littered the woods. In the harsh light of our star shells broken trees were levered aside or simply climbed over. Some weren’t stable and shifted or rolled under the weight of a scrambling GI. We suffered a casualty when one man had his leg broken under a falling twisting log. It cost us two men when his lieutenant detailed another man to wait with him until first light when he could be safely moved.

A distant rumble suggested that an American armored column was moving down to our right, out of the forest hills, into the outskirts of the city. It was confirmed by the sound of a series of small cannon shots from the same direction. Division was pulling out all stops to trap the Japs ahead of us this time.

We had started about 10 pm. It was just after midnight that we ran head on into the company to our right. That wasn’t supposed to happen, so another fifteen minutes were spent going over maps, arguing about which wavy contour line was which by artificial star light. The line got squared away, and we were off again, moving due south with only the near ends of our units in earshot of each other. We had only a mile to go to be at the road on our left (it ran northeast to southwest in our assigned zone).

With a half mile left we found our first band of Japanese, holed up behind a small knob, about 200 feet in elevation above the road bed.

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[Tuttle’s attached unit rested for a couple days getting ready for the next move.]

Today my company made one more move, south a bit into an area already cleared by another outfit. We are on the last stretch of high hilly terrain before the broad flat valley which holds Miyakonojo and her surrounding towns. I can look directly down into the outskirts of the city. In the afternoon winter sun it might normally be a picture perfect sight.

Today the sky is overcast in a soulless gray. The wet earth is bare and muddy brown where bombs have leveled most of the trees. Ahead of us the deserted inland village is black, still burning in places where an artillery barrage was directed on a formation of Japanese troops. Or it may have been a few lost cows; we don’t seem to care much either way. Shells are cheap to us and so are quaint Japanese villages.

Now that we own the southern pass through the mountain forest, big supply trucks and heavy weapons are moving through (the northern pass is still overlooked on one side by Jap held bluffs, which direct heavy artillery onto it as needed). We could push down into the city and meet our brothers from Ariake Bay any time now. Except they still haven’t broken out at Ariake to start up this direction.

We don’t know what is holding up the 98th Infantry Division, but the elite of the airborne division here have plenty of ready excuses for the green unit. Taunts range from, “I lost my pacifier!” to various gynecological afflictions that might trouble men of the other division.

We want to lock up any Japanese still in the mountains between Ariake Bay and Miyazaki before they too escape. They still hold a two mile thick line of mountains and ridges which includes the 3100 foot high Komatsu-yama. The Americal division has been holding the line north of Ariake, but is stretched across fifteen miles of mountainous front. The 25th Infantry Division is now joined by this 11th Airborne Division, driving south from Miyazaki.

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[Preferring to be up front near the action, Tuttle often found himself in sight and smell of it.]

The last bit of the day’s objective terrain was a jumbled mat of misshapen hills and winding shallow ravines, southwest of where we broke camp that morning. Contour lines on the map of this patch almost draw out rounded letter shapes. One squad ran out of high ground to scout over and moved down into a curving ravine for a while. They rounded a turn, and patient Japanese gunners waited until all dozen men were through before opening up. They were about 300 yards away and downhill from where I stood on a high clearing, the company command post for that hour.

The squad was immediately pinned down and cut off. No one could see them down low and around a bend, not even the adjacent squads. The sounds of at least two Japanese light machine guns and cries of “corpsman!” amply illustrated the situation. It was the middle squad of the middle platoon, whose lieutenant was trying to move the others to assist. But mortar fire, of mixed sizes, dropped in around the trapped men, keeping their help at bay.

Captain Leonard got involved, sending another platoon around to the left, staying low through the next couple ravines, to put eyes on the enemy machine guns. A radio man dialed up our own mortar section, ready to relay spotting to them. On the right, where we had no friendlies for some distance, the heavy weapons section set up machine guns to cover the gap while the company worked through its current problem.

Above us in the bright clear sky there were layers of fighters and attack planes circling, waiting for targets. The Captain cursed aloud, “We were supposed to have an air controller down here by now! God knows where they all are.”

The sounds below changed as another two Japanese machine guns started to fire. A squad of the other platoon was now pinned down like the first and soon bracketed by mortar fire as well. From somewhere to the west, small and medium artillery rounds began to pepper the whole area occupied by the company, heaviest around where the machine guns had set up.

It was a trap, a perfect ambush, and we were all the way in it. Holding still ensured being gradually consumed by artillery fire. Pulling out meant abandoning two dozen trapped soldiers. The captain stood up and yelled out, “Airborne! Give ‘em hell!!”

The radio man called in our situation as Captain Leonard ran forward to the platoon rears. This would be quick, but not a mad charge forward. He drew up a play like a sand lot quarterback, and his veteran unit snapped into action. I got down as close as the scattered remaining brush would still allow me a good view, which was about as close as I dared.

Two .30 caliber machine guns were marched along on the right, continuing to move so as to not be static targets for the mortar spotters. The gunners fired from the hip, each aided by two ammo handlers, sweeping the top of the high ground opposite where our men were pinned down. It was a long crescent shaped ridge, flat on top, bare in patches from many rounds of bombardment. The enemy machine guns could not be seen, but they had to be in that ugly rock. Our roving machine gunners were exposed, but they were suppressing any infantry that might be ready to protect the machine gun pits.

The surviving platoons, save one reserve squad, hustled forward, crouching low. Explosions kicked up dirt around and among everyone. They dodged between clusters of surviving brush and along hill sides, until they could see the problem.

The ravines our boys were stuck in curved together into a vee shape. The vee pointed directly into the arcing hill, across a small flat. Guns dug into the hill could fire down both lanes. A higher ridge some ways west afforded visibility to enemy spotters observing any approach into the trap, or anyone trying to flank it.

Captain Leonard crawled with the center most squad, on the high ground in the point of the vee. From there one could make out the Japanese machine gun positions, more by muzzle flash than physical features of the emplacements. Mortar and artillery rounds began to close up on the platoons as Japanese observers figured out where they were all clustered. The captain stood up and fired his .45 pistol at the enemy hill.

On that mark everyone rushed. One of our machine guns to the right began to rake the hill side, joined by three BARs. Two bazookas fired rockets from the left toward different Jap guns, both near misses. The Japanese gunners didn’t flinch at the direct fire. They had nowhere to hide or retreat. One immediately swung over to where the bazooka rockets had come from, tearing up one of the teams.

American smoke grenades began to fill the air in front of the machine guns. The Jap guns fired continuously, sweeping the whole flat, for a full two minutes. Certainly their guns would be melted quickly. Artillery fire from the distant ridge began to land near the crescent hill, undeterred by the presence of friendly forces. Aircraft began diving on the taller ridge, by direction or from seeing our plight themselves. The Japanese artillery men would have to close up shop and hide.

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