Kyushu

All posts tagged Kyushu

[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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[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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[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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[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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[Back from the front, Tuttle got a look around the city of Miyazaki, and American engineers quickly remade her into a military staging ground.]

The material substance of the situation is apparent to anyone who looks out over the giant hive of activity throughout Miyazaki and the territory all around it. New buildings pop up whenever one glances away from a clearing for more than a second. Men and vehicles hustle day and night to move materiel, pushing most of it immediately south and west to where First Corps is still making its current push. A regular stream of vehicles head out to fetch casualties. They move slower coming back, either to be gentle on their live cargo, or because their cargo is such that there’s no reason to hurry anymore.

The only thing that mattered in the news I was fed was confirmation that the situation is the same for the other corps. Both have one big push under way – the same ones they had going when I went to the front a week ago – and are largely sitting still on their other fronts. Real news would be if things were going much differently elsewhere, for substantially better or worse.

11th Airborne Division Headquarters was still established in Takaoka on the Oyoda river. They are anxious to pack up and move forward through the mountains. All of its combat and support units were already clustered near the new front.

I made my way on foot the five or six miles from Takaoka back to Miyazaki. It had been cloudy and cold, but dry for two days. The main road was wide and paved, but the pavement had seen better days. Our heavy trucks were the heaviest thing it had ever seen, and steel tank tracks claw obvious scratches at every turn.

Miyazaki itself, largely untouched by fighting, was a fully functioning modern city. People went about their business like in any other business district. They just happened to be all young men in matching uniforms.
I got to the far side and found the Navy had an expansive presence.

Being the only port of any substance we hold on Kyushu, the Seabees had been hard at work improving and expanding it. In just two weeks since I first came through two old canals that branch off the small harbor were dredged out for larger ships to tie up. They offload using new cranes that must have come in kits right from the U.S. mainland.

The Navy also has a new airfield, wedged in between one of the canals and the main airport. I passed a short line of small rail cars being loaded with ‘beans and bullets’ on my way to the Navy complex. They bore entirely Japanese markings. I hoped our engineers could read the dials on the curious looking locomotive.

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[Tuttle found himself literally in the middle of the long pre-planned great Japanese counter-attack on Kyushu.]

This was no frenzied banzai charge. The Japanese moved quickly, but fought from cover and applied combined arms to reduce our hasty defenses and keep American units moving backward. It was all by the book, right from the latest war college papers* [*I had a lot of time to read on Okinawa].

Progress for the Japanese was terribly expensive. Their vehicles were easy prey to the growing variety of field guns packed by U.S. infantry. Long range naval fire was not an option for us with the Japs intermingled among American forces, but the destroyers which had come in close yesterday had positioned themselves to put direct line-of-sight fire on key roads and passes. In one surreal scene a Japanese tank commander brought his team of four tanks into a side-by-side line just a mile from the beach. They began to fire on the destroyer John C. Butler. The destroyer lined up her 5 inch guns and dueled mano a mano with the armored squadron. The destroyer won.

The latest kamikazes had only a limited impact, but one of their successes was to hit the destroyer Heerman, just once but low near the water line. The Heerman, no stranger to a tough fight, beached herself to keep from sinking and kept up fire support against targets on land.

American planes raged through the sky all day. Many of them went up with oversize rockets built for crushing hardened concrete bunkers deep under many feet of rock. I saw first hand one of those giant rockets slam into a Jap tank, practically re-smelting the entire steel monster, redistributing its constituent elements back into the earth from which they came.

Troops on Japanese trucks soon learned they were also priority targets. They quickly dismounted, by choice or by explosive force. The Japanese attack eventually slowed to a foot soldier’s pace. They kept coming though, merely tightening the focus of the attack. They were driving right through the middle of the 98th Division, the least experienced large unit in the invasion, whether they knew it or not.

My particular platoon of the 98th eventually made it back to a low long hill one mile in from the beach, where the 391st Regiment had regrouped to set up a fighting line. The acting commander, by that point a Lieutenant Colonel, had thought we were long lost and had set up the line without us. We were sent all the way back to the short dikes by the beach – right where we were supposed to have landed – to be the true last line of defense.

Tiny Tim rocket

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[Tuttle attached himself to a rookie-led platoon, which quickly got itself lost.]

Lieutenant Cooper didn’t complain when I followed him and his sergeant to find the HQ for which ever unit was there. It was our sister company in the 389th Regiment. Their Captain Charles Harrison, of New Orleans, Louisiana, said it was good to see us. His modest Cajun drawl was welcoming.

“We were holding the line with rifles and mortars. I was told to expect no heavy artillery support, and to get in line to request armor.” I told him about the loaded LSTs that went down in the bay yesterday. “Well that explains it. Still, we’re holding, or we were last I saw. My company came back here to get a rest while our reserve unit took over. So, what are y’all doing here?”

Lieutenant Cooper explained in schoolbook terms about variable force vectors and combat adaptability and was interrupted by the captain, “So, ya got lost! Well welcome to the party in any case. I suppose you want to find the rest of your unit. I’ll tell you what I know, and you can grab extra ammo here before you move out.”
As the officers talked, runners went to grab boxes of machine gun ammo and rifle clips which were passed on with a quiet “good luck.” Conversation was interrupted several times by low flying aircraft, each time a single Navy fighter-bomber, flying low under the persistent clouds.

We got directions to head roughly west on a local road. It was covered by a line of hills to the right, out of enemy view, until the point where we should meet our own division. For the next hour we marched, still under assault packs, until nearing the end of the last protective ridge.

We faced a broad shallow valley. Nothing moved in the valley, except the occasional cloud of dirt kicked up by an exploding artillery shell. Across the valley I could make out American soldiers and trucks, moving back southwest along the base of the hill which defined the valley between us. Vehicles had struggled to move over the soaked earth, more than one was abandoned in axle-deep mud. An occasional heavy shell streaked from left to right, probably from our Navy gun ships. Smaller rounds moving from right to left, from Japanese cannon and mortars, could not be seen until they exploded.

Lieutenant Cooper wanted a better look. He took a sergeant a ways up the hill next to us to get a better view to the north. He stood up tall at the crest, pointing and talking while looking through his binoculars. One minute after that the earth shook all around us, trying to swallow the entire platoon. Veterans instinctively threw themselves against the adjacent slope. Sergeants and corporals screamed at their charges to follow suit and get cover behind the hill.

The violence of heavy exploding shells defies description in terms any adult knows. The whole earth, the fundament upon which all our plans begin, is ripped apart and shot in all directions. To understand when something one has always relied on to suddenly be gone, one must try to remember the helpless fright of a small child. Almost anything can be terrifying to a person who hasn’t yet learned about the supposed permanence of the world around him.

The large artillery that terrorized us thankfully diminished quickly, but soon after it high trajectory mortar rounds fell close behind the hillside. We gathered up into a decent line and crawled up the ridge line toward the top, but not exposing ourselves like the looey, who was still curled up in a ball near the crest.

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With dusk approaching, 2nd Division HQ sent a jeep bound runner out to check the disposition of all its units before nightfall. I hitched a ride along to see for myself.

Our driver was Corporal Don Blue, who said he drove a county snow plow back in central Michigan. His slick-road experience paid off, since days of intermittent rain left the winding dirt roads we had to use persistently hazardous. This section of Kyushu is composed entirely of similar rolling hills, covered in modest evergreen trees or cleared for small terrace houses and farms.

Back near the beach everything had been completely leveled – buildings, trees, and anthills. It was perfect desolation, oddly beautiful as the smoke cleared revealing its special sort of purity. Further inland some of the hill faces are partly denuded, from shell impact and fires kicked off by incendiary bombs, but the spread of fires had been damped by regular rains. A constant smell wafts through the winding valleys, mixing churned earth with burning pines, gunpowder, and occasionally cooking meat.

Going forward most of the narrow road way is bracketed by a three or four foot high stone wall to one side and a similar drop-off to the other. Traffic knots are inevitable, even for ambulances trying to haul men back to the beach front.

Navigating through it all in the other front seat was 1st Lieutenant Martin Myers. By map, temporary signposts, and a few hollered exchanges with knowledgeable looking men on the ground, we reached each regimental headquarters. Lieutenant Myers conferred with the XO of each unit to get a face-to-face run down of how they were doing and what they needed. He would take back any priority written items for HQ or division intelligence.

I wandered around outside at each stop, taking in the action. Everything up here, just a mile or two from the very hot front line, is transient. It could fall under attack at any time and will probably move again in a day or two. Yet still there is an insistent order to each outpost. Engineers were busy making a clearing to expand a tent-bound medical aid station. A kitchen unit marked out space to work, with a dedicated lane for trucks to pull in, load up, and haul hot meals as far forward as they could be served.

With limited light to drive by, we hustled back while Lieutenant Myers caught me up on the rough details of his scouting mission. “We’re about four miles inland, all along a fifteen mile front. Third division is holding at the edge of Sendai and cleaning up the chunk of land left of them out to the sea.” He pointed on a map to the lumpy peninsula that was defined by our beach head and the wide Sendai river. “Second division here is holding the same way, already stretched out thin and waiting for the Fifth to land before making another move.”

I asked how well off the units were, as we pulled over to let a line of ambulances get by. “Truth is,” the Kansas City, Missouri native admitted, “they’re pretty banged up. Everyone’s reserves are already committed. We plan a morning rush to lock up the first good line of hills.”

He pointed again at the map, touching contour bubbles in a line southeast from Sendai. “That bunch of hills will be a great place to be once we take it. Thing is, that works both ways. The Japs here are dug in on all sides and not budging. Every move we make to dig them out is spotted and opposed. These guys so far seem lightly armed, but they call in some heavy stuff from the hills behind them.”

Glancing back out to sea the Lieutenant added, “The Navy has been hot and fast with fire support, but the Japs hide on the reverse slopes most of the time and there are so damned many trees we can’t spot them until too close most of the time.” He made a sweeping gesture at the forested hillside next to us. “Even if we had enough rounds to level all the trees, it would make an impassable pile of logs, a sniper behind every one.”

Once the immediate objectives are taken, the Marines will have fought uphill about 1300 feet from the sea. I noted that beyond the first prize ridge line sits another. After that the hills become mountains that have names. Here on Kyushu there is always one more hill beyond the one you just conquered, and it’s always just a little higher.

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