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[A day after being ordered to pull back, Tuttle and his unit found fighting and all supporting operations were at a complete halt.]

I had completely forgotten what silence sounds like. In the last two months the sounds of combat had been a steady constant. The intensity varied only between loud and ear-splitting. From any position one heard artillery shells either being fired or exploding on impact – or both. Engines of trucks and aircraft filled the air between every echo of every distant rifle crack.

This morning I heard a bird. All of the mechanical noises were temporarily muted. Sounds of combat were not heard anywhere on Kyushu in those few hours. Lastly I noticed that there weren’t even any distant aircraft engines.

Without fail since before X-day American fighter planes had been flying long figure eights high over a line well to the north. Even in bad weather at least a few planes did combat air patrol up there, to detect and impede any Japanese air attack. Their constant drone was the last steady lullaby for sleeping soldiers on the quietest nights before today.

A second bird answered the first. I listened to their conversation as my current camp woke up. The sounds of clanging canteen cups were eventually joined by the first mechanical sound of the day. A jeep, driven fast and hard, stopped at the edge of our camp. It gave instructions to the nearest man and sped off again.

“If something big happens, don’t look at it! Stay low, keep ready, and wait for instructions. Pass it on!” Some men wondered aloud what it meant. Some asked why it wasn’t simply radioed out. Those who had gas masks double checked them. Many moved their foxholes to spots with a better view of the Jap lines.

A little before nine am the fighter planes came back, in force. Three broad waves came in from the south, at three different altitudes. They continued many miles north, to at least their old regular patrol line, then turned east or west out to sea. The lowest group took some anti-aircraft fire, at least one plane going down deep in the Japanese held forest.

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[Just as a new offensive was gaining traction, Tuttle and everyone else was shocked at being ordered to pull back.]

A shock wave greater than that from any explosive shell ripped through American lines just after noon. All forward units, everywhere on Kyushu, got orders to pull up and move back to the previous good fighting line, not less than one half mile back – immediately.

The move had to be completed by nightfall. Also, every man was to check the state of his gas mask. Officers were to plan inspections of masks by no later than 9 am the next morning.
Whatever sort of uncomfortable shell-wracked muddy crap holes those men were in, they had fought for them. They were offended at the idea of pulling back. They did so anyway, but complained loudly to the wind, which should have turned red at the profanity it heard.

Field kitchens served men where they could before packing up, but some simply dumped a whole hot meal. Junior staff officers scrambled to figure out where people were, or were going to be, or simply to find room for everyone when units suddenly wound up on top of each other.

Still, the men assumed there was some marginally rational reason for the order (despite all previous experience with Army orders). Suppositions started with some use of chemical shells by the Japanese elsewhere on Kyushu, to wild stories of plague infested rats being loosed by the OSS.

I fell in with a heavy weapons platoon, making instant friends by offering to haul two cans of machine gun rounds. Once back to roughly where they would wind up, everyone sat down waiting for final orders from the battalion. Their commander, Utahan Lieutenant Levi Pace, took stock of the gas mask situation. Of 47 men active in the unit, ten had a mask with them. Six of those had a good filter canister.

A gas mask was on the fingers of every soldier on the morning of the initial landing. No one knew what to expect of Japanese tactics when Americans first invaded their homeland. Two months later, after zero need for them, most gas masks had been ‘misplaced’ as men lightened their combat load. The changeable filter canisters could be hollowed out to make cooking vessels or many other handy things.

The lieutenant tasked three men with running, as fast as they could, back to division depots for more masks. They were too late. Rear units had been there first, leaving only what supply men kept in reserve for barter. As night fell the platoon counted a lucky thirteen working gas masks, and had IOUs to fill with several division quartermasters.

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[His second hospital stay over, Tuttle was back on the job.]

It felt good to get back to the front again. I was there with my boys. Yes, they were my boys, just as much as they were Sergeant Elliot’s boys, or their mothers’ sons, or their nation’s best men. Three days of physical rest had afforded me a mental reset worth more than the physiological recovery.

I woke up later than usual, well after other men were stirring. I was ready to see this thing through, more ready than I was even at the first landing. To paraphrase Miyamoto Musashi, ‘The only blow which matters is the last.’ I didn’t plan to miss it.

Steady rain muted the sounds of war, but distant artificial thunder reassured me that it continued, and both sides were still determined. At my leisure this morning I went to look for a ride forward. I hooked up with an ambulance this time, not minding the dark red stains under the rear door.

The truck, painted dark green despite the prominent white and red crosses on all sides, carried me up a progressively worsening series of roads until we got to the very front units of the 40th Infantry Division.

The division’s 108th Infantry Regiment was about two miles north of Miyakonojo. It had fought its way there, clearing out deep rows of twisting hills. The hills were hundreds of feet tall, but they looked like stubble on the chin of the great mountain mass another mile to the northwest. The compound mountain, including Takachihono-mine and Karakuni-dake, lofted multiple peaks which all topped 4000 feet.

American units had lined up in a semicircle south of the great mountain, about a mile out from the base. They all had fought to get there, through rough terrain and resistance which took advantage of it. They all were punished with artillery fire from the mountain on a regular basis, especially if they tried to move through any of the flat areas which surrounded it. Heavy smoke screens laid over the mountains at times covered American movements, but also obscured the Japanese positions.

Another arc of good roads and developed towns circles the mountain to the north, lying in a broad flat valley. North of them the land rises abruptly into a dense rugged forest, full of beautiful waterfalls and invisible firing positions.

The men I found in the 108th Infantry were preoccupied with digging, rain or not, to make their home livable under the bombardment. To their right was the whole 11th Airborne Division, ready to swing around the great mountain on those good roads to the north. Beyond that other divisions were preparing to drive into that high forest. A mirror image of those maneuvers would happen to the west of Karakuni-dake.

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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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[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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[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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