war correspondent

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[Not included in the original Kyushu Diary, this Tuttle column is often reprinted on Chirstmas Eve. We share it this week marking the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.]

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.

Much has been said about fast aircraft carriers taking over from the battleships of old as kings of the sea. That may well be true on the ocean, where fleets have engaged in air duels well out of gun range many times across the Pacific. But here on dry land, I can certify that the battleship is very much respected, or feared, depending on which side you’re on.

Navy ships sail with bigger guns than any army even attempts to drag along on land. Any place on the Earth within twenty miles of forty foot deep water can be blasted by one ton shells from our newest big ships. Japan is an island nation, and all of her conquests outside of China have been more smaller and smaller islands. All of them are vulnerable to the wrath of naval ordnance over almost all of their surface. Planes could drop bombs of the same size, but low flying planes can be shot down with the smallest of anti-aircraft guns. The only defense against navy guns available to most Japanese garrisons has been to dig and dig and dig, deep down into the rock if they can, and wait to be flushed out by flame throwers once the Army or Marines land under the support of those big old battlewagons.

Here on Kyushu, we found the main beach defenses lined up just exactly beyond the range of most navy guns. At Ariake there were the reverse-slope positions our Navy couldn’t get at until sailing into the bay, and that cost us something. But outside of that, the best tactic the Japanese had was to leave old guns in dummy installations near the shore to soak up shell fire.

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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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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[The first full day of the nuclear age dawned with American patrols missing and out of communication.]

Forest fires burned through the night, keeping a hazy glow above the northern horizon. Morning recon plane flights say that quarter to whole mile diameter areas were burned out. The bombs made clearings in the trees more thorough than area bombing and shelling could accomplish with thousands of rounds.

Light but steady winds had carried smoke and ash to the northeast. This put it all back over Japanese lines or empty rugged forest. Another reminder went out that fresh water sources from the high central forest, which was most of the supply for our lines, were not to be trusted.

By this morning radio traffic was largely back to normal. A few radios had simply quit working after the blasts, mostly ones that had been set up with units far forward. The battalion I was with was not the only one who had sent scouts forward against orders.

Our own scouting patrol finally made it back, escorted by a larger rescue patrol which had gone out after dark. Word is that they made contact with some Japanese. Both sides surprised the other in the dark and exchanged ineffective fire for almost an hour.

The original patrol had been up on a small ridge, looking out over the plain east of Takachihono-mine, when the first bombs went off. They got down behind the ridge but it was right in line with the last bomb and offered little protection from its flash. Their radio was completely shot.

They reported scattered Japanese activity all over after the bombs.
Positions up on the mountain all came alive ready for an expected rush. The American patrol hid for the day, planning to slip back at night. They would have come back fine without the rescue party.

I got all this second-hand. Both patrols were taken away into quarantine as soon as they got back by members of the 6th Infantry Division. That division did land yesterday, but not as a unit. They broke up into teams which went out to most American front line positions.

Teams of the 6th carried an array of bizarre looking equipment. They had portable radiation detectors, hand held units with shoulder bag batteries. Some machines rolled on two-wheel carts. Another looked like an industrial vacuum cleaner (which it was – it sucked up soil samples to pass through an enclosed analyzer).

Other odd contraptions could only be hauled on dedicated trucks, some of which looked hurriedly improvised. Men of the division tell me some civilian ‘eggheads’ came along. They stayed back near the beach, along with lead-lined gunless tanks which can roll out into the blast areas directly once we get there.

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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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[Tuttle wound up back in a sick bed, but had a kindred spirit for a ward mate.]

I had to give in and admit it – I was sick. Whatever I had caught which put me on a hospital ship a couple weeks ago never quite went away. I had shied away from tough living since then, never feeling quite up to it, but finally the bug caught up with me again.

Field hospitals were very busy this time, and they wanted to send me far back, even off the island again. This time I begged to stay close to the front. They compromised by shuttling me eastward over to where the land based facilities weren’t so busy with broken fighting men.

It was a jarring ride, even though our engineers have improved roads in the center of the island appreciably. A splitting headache, dry cough, and rumbling gut can turn the smoothest road into rough seas. I woke up miserable this morning on what I’m sure a healthy man would consider a comfortable bed, in the 40th Infantry Division primary hospital.

My roommate was feeling much better than I was. He had been there two days before me and was well over the bug that had laid him down. Master Sergeant Harold Elliot whiled away much of the afternoon telling me stories from Dodge City, Kansas. I wondered how a patch of table-flat farm land could hold many good stories, but Sergeant Elliot was good teller of tales. I didn’t mind his monologue one bit.

Finally he asked, “Don’t you ever get sick of it? Tired of writing the same story every time?” He hit a nerve. It was exactly what I’d been brooding over for days.

After every pitched battle I had to come up with a new way to say, ‘Things were destroyed. Men are dead.’ I had been at it for years. It seemed important, telling people what an awful spectacle I had seen. But somehow I still had to entertain them. I had to keep readers from becoming as numb as me and turning away from it all.

Sergeant Elliot perked up and leaned over closer at my account. “That’s exactly what I mean! I wanted to hear it from a civilian.” He confessed to me as a new found kindred spirit. “Honestly, there’s no solid reason for me to be laid up back here. I’ve been a lot sicker than this and stayed out on the line with my boys.”

He sat back against the metal headboard again and looked around the room, as if to make sure it was still just the two of us. “I’m just tired, sick and tired of it all.

Personally, I could get out there and fight forever, out on the line. In fact I was sure this was a job you just do until you get killed, no exceptions. But since they gave me those fifth and sixth stripes,” he pointed at his hanging service jacket, “all I do is feed good men into this… into that machine out there. It adds them up, spits some back out, and nobody knows how it decides.”

“And so what? So goddamned what?? These mountains, they don’t care. They’ll be here long after all of us. The ocean? It could swallow us all and not notice. Even the cities we think we destroyed, they’ll all come back. They won’t care one whit that their old people are dead, and if the new people are a slightly different color.”

The old master sergeant about had me convinced to resign, to give up and buy a struggling grape orchard somewhere. Since I didn’t have enough saved up to do that I continued the argument. We talked until well past the second lights out scolding from the floor nurse.

There was never a doubt that the sergeant would return to ‘his boys.’ He was part of the best chance they had to accomplish something, however indifferent the mountain might be to it, and to get back home alive. It mattered because they mattered.

We were people. Ultimately all we could worry about was people . The ambivalence of the birds we would have to live with, however many of us lived to hear them sing again back home.

I was suddenly impatient to leave my sick bed again. It felt like me getting out to witness things would help them along, just a little bit faster.

Yesterday a sand snake crawled by just outside my tent door, and for the first time in my life I looked upon a snake not with a creeping phobia but with a sudden and surprising feeling of compassion. Somehow I pitied him, because he was a snake instead of man. And I don’t know why I felt that way, for I pity for all men too, because they are men.

– Ernie Pyle, June, 1943

Ernie Pyle with front line dog

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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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[Supplying a moving force can be a hit or miss proposition.]

We crossed a small but fast running river several times as we wound our way out to the front. Most standing vehicle bridges were temporary ones laid down by American engineers. We passed several small foot bridges, ancient structures of classical oriental design and ornamentation. Their limited capacity was all that had saved them from bombardment or sabotage as the land around them was contested.

Corporal Shanahan gunned his engine to push us around or through patches of mud on the abused road. We neared Miyanojo from the south as I noticed fresh columns of smoke on the small mountain to our right. The steady rain, which had started two days before, would put them out quickly, but just then the hill was still being fought over.

Engineers and artillery men were already working to push big guns up to the marginally secure near end of the mountain’s long top. Saws and bulldozers cleared steep lanes while trains of tractors were chained together three at a time to pull one gun at a time up the wet slope.

We approached the outskirts of the city proper and were immediately pointed down a small side street to clear the main road. A steady stream of vehicles came through the other way, moving out of the town to the southwest. Finally a quartermaster man approached to find out what we had and to send us somewhere useful.

The 8th Marines had spent all the previous day fighting into the city. They got to the river which divides Miyanojo and found all its bridges gone. Any reasonable place to ford or place a temporary bridge was targeted by Japanese artillery. In fact, every part of the plain holding the city and its adjoining towns was vulnerable to fire from big guns hidden in mountains that push up abruptly about eight miles north.

Most of the 8th Marines was going to move back some and try to circle around on the left, under cover of some smaller hills. The 6th was to continue fighting from hilltop to hilltop on the right. We were directed to a new supply dump back a bit, between the rears of both regiments.

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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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