By Sgt. DAVE RICHARDSON - YANK Staff Correspondent|
(from Yank the Army Weekly British Edition Vol 3. No. 3) July 2 1944
BEHIND JAPANESE LINES IN NORTHERN BURMA .
Things were a little too quiet, even for a Sunday. After all. there should have been some fireworks by now. considering that part of the Jap 18th Division was dug in on one side of the muddy 40-foot-wide Nambyu River and our unit of Merrill's Marauders was on the other.
"Looks to me," observed a BAR man as he stripped his gun for cleaning, "like the lull before the storm. The Japs won't take this lying down." He didn't know how right he was.
The Marauders had just completed a 75-mile end run around enemy positions in the Hukawng Valley and now our unit was only 200 yards from Walawbum. We had met only small resistance from Jap patrols during our march. But surely the Japs would stand and fight us here. The native village of Walawbum was the bottleneck through which all supplies had to flow to their front-line troops, 15 miles to the north.
Across the river from us was a pretty tough bunch of Japs. We could hear their trucks pulling up, and every once in a while we could spot a few of them for a fleeting instant as we moved through the dense jungle. These were the Japs who had smashed their way into Singapore two years before and now had succeeded in slowing the Chinese drive down this valley to a measly 10-mile gain in the last month. They were fighting a stubborn delaying action from well-chosen positions, falling back from foxhole to foxhole, pillbox to pillbox.
On our side of the river were some Marauders known as the Dead End Kids. This was an appropriate nickname for this unit of Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill's volunteer American raiders. They had already fought the Japs in the jungles of Guadalcanal, New Guinea and New Georgia. They had joined the Marauders after President Roosevelt had issued a call to their outfits for volunteers for an "extremely hazardous" jungle fighting mission in another theater.
"Most of us guys volunteered," one of them explained, 'because we figured we might get back to the States for training first. We had all been overseas 18 to 24 months at that time and we wanted to get home. Don't get the idea that we volunteered just because we were itching to fight the Japs again."
I would have believed that statement if I hadn't heard Brig. Gen. Merrill say, a few hours earlier, that the Dead End Kids had been begging all day for permission to attack Walawbum. And if I hadn't come to know them in training camp.
The-Dead End Kids wound up in India for training instead of in the States. At Christmas time they went AWOL in droves, popping up in several Indian cities to spend wads of dough that had been useless during their months in the Pacific jungles. When they returned to camp, broke but happy. they were reduced to privates. But they didn't give a damn.
They hated the GI routine of garrison life, standing formations and inspections, shooting on the ranges and going on field problems. They broke- the monotony by disappearing alone into the woods and shooting deer, then bringing back the venison for a change of chow.
On training problems with other Marauder units, most of whom were proud of their preparation for combat in the jungles of Panama. Trinidad or Puerto Rico, the Dead End Kids confused and harassed their make-believe enemy with screwball tactics they had picked up while fighting the Japs. At night they would sit around their tents and bitch about "parade-ground soldiering" or reminisce about their fighting exploits.
"Combat," as one of them put it, seems to seduce a guy. He's scared as hell while he's in it, but get him back in garrison and he'll start longing for those foxholes and shellings and bombings."
This Sunday afternoon the Dead End Kids had patrols out across the river to the north and south of Walawbum. As the patrols returned, they reported that the Japs were digging artillery and mortars into position and bringing up truckloads of men and ammunition from the south.
But the night was just as peaceful as the day had been. Next morning at 0930 hours, Sgt. Andrew B. Pung of Maiden, Mass., a mortar observer. shinnied up a tree to a perch 40 feet above the river from which he could look down across a grassy clearing on the other bank.
Pung had a walkie-talkie radio with him. Soon he reported seeing some telephone wires and several emplacements at the edge of the grassy clearing. Then his routine report changed to an excited one. He forgot all about radio etiquette. "Listen, he blurted into the microphone, There's a bunch of Japs coming out of the jungle and into this grass across the river. A big bunch. Get ready for an attack. I'll tell you when they're near enough to open fire."
The Dead End Kids jumped into their holes all along the riverbank. Bullets were clicked into chambers and machine-gun bolts pulled back twice to cock them. Pung sent firing data to the mortars as crews ripped open shell cases. Minutes ticked by. There was a tense silence.
GIVE it to em, yelled Pung from his perch. The Japs had crossed the clearing to within 35 yards of the opposite riverbank. They were now in plain sight. Machine guns, BARB, mortars and rifles opened up in a deafening deluge of fire. Shrieks and yells came back from the field. Then the Japs began returning the fire. Their 90-mm mortar shells soared over the river and burst in trees behind the Dead End Kids. Shrapnel and bullets hummed through the brush.
Up in the tree some of the lead knocked off Pung's canteen and splattered all around him. He dropped the walkie-talkie and shinnied down.
The Dead End Kids were dug in on a bluff along the riverbank, a couple of dozen feet higher than the grassy clearing on the opposite bank where the Japs were advancing in spread-out skirmisher formation. This high ground was natural cover; the Japs were firing into the bluff or high over the Marauders' heads. The Americans just lay in their holes and blasted away.
Wave after wave of Japs poured out of the jungle and into the clearing, running and diving and creeping and crawling. Many of them carried machine guns and ammunition boxes. Some, probably the officers and noncoms, yelled " Susume! Susume!" which means "advance." Others shrieked "Banzai," the familiar battle cry.
In a few minutes Jap bodies lay sprawled on the field in little bunches. The Dead End Kids could hear the wounded crying and moaning. But the Japs kept coming, at least a company of them.
The Dead End Kids were happy They yelled at their machine gunners and BAR men to "Mow down that bunch over there boy!" and then shouted "Atta boy," as they concentrated their rifle fire on single targets. Pfc. George Fisher Jr of Napoleon, Ohio, spit a gob of tobacco juice every time his M1 got a Jap.
"Those little bastards must think we're amateurs at this jungle-fighting stuff." grinned 1st Lt. Victor J. (Able) Weingartner of St. Albans N. Y., commanding the platoon in the center of the American positions along the riverbank "Banzai charges might :leave terrified the civilian. fans in Singapore, but they're nothing but good moving target practice for us."
Lt. Weingartner was considered one of the most daring leaders of Dead End Kid patrols. Characteristically, he insisted on wearing into action the same dirty mechanic's cap that brought him through New Georgia unscathed, he willingly-paid a $100 fine for not Wearing a helmet at the last showdown inspection before the Marauders started their 200-mile march into battle.
Half an hour after the Jap attack began, it halted abruptly. But the Dead End Kids knew that the Japs would try again. Almost as soon as the attack ended. Jap artillery boomed several hundred yards back in the jungle. The shells whistled overhead and landed a half-mile behind the Americans, near a rice paddy. This field had been used in the previous two days as a landing area for Piper Cubs evacuating a few wounded, and as a dropping area for transport planes supplying the Marauders with rations and ammunition. Jap mortars threw a few shells into the American positions the rest of the morning.
In the afternoon the good news came that another unit of Marauders had thrown a road block on the main enemy supply route from Walawbum to the front. With Walawbum threatened by the Dead End Kids' position and with the supply route blocked, the stubborn Jap defenses 15 miles northward had collapsed. As the Japs streamed back to reinforce the Walawbum garrison, the Chinese began driving through to relieve the Marauders and make a large-scale attack. As a hit-and-run raider outfit. the Marauders were supposed to keep their positions only until relieved by Chinese divisions with the men, and large weapons needed to do the main attacking. The Chinese were expected within 24 hours.
But a lot could happen in 24 hours. The Dead End Kids cleaned their guns, opened more ammunition and placed men every three or four feet along the riverbank. While they worked they could hear the Japs digging, driving up more trucks full of men and ammunition and wheeling in their artillery closer.
At 1645 hours the broiling Burma sun had sunk low in the sky. It glared into the faces of the Dead End Kids as they kept their eyes focused on the field across the river. The attack would have to come from the field again because the terrain was unsuitable at other places along the river, where the banks were too high or the jungle too dense for a field of fire. And it came. Two Jap heavy machine guns hammered away like woodpeckers from the flanks of the field. Artillery and mortar fire increased Knee mortars started clicking out grenades at close range.
The Japs really attacked this time. They came in waves that were wider and more frequent than the first attack. And they had better support from weapons of all kinds, placed nearer the river. In each wave were several two-man teams lugging heavy machine guns. As soon as one team was hit, another ran out and grabbed its gun, only to die within a few steps.
Again the machine gunners and BAR men did most of the killing for the Marauders. They raked each wave with fire. But the Japs surged on across the field until they fell. A few of them even reached the river before they were hit. but nobody crossed. This time there was at least a battalion of Japs attacking the Dead End Kids.
And this time the Japs were more accurate with their fire. Bullets sped only a few feet over the Americans heads. Practically every leaf and every tree was marked by the fire. Some of the stuff barely cleared the bank and did some damage. Bullets smashed two BAR magazines on the bank of the foxhole where T-5 Bernard Strasbaugh of Lewisburg, Kans. was stretched. An other bullet nicked his helmet. Strasbaugh was in the center of the attack, firing as fast as he could shove magazines into his weapon. When he spotted five Japs in a group running toward a dropped machine gun. he stood up. riddled them with fire and flopped down again. He hit the ground just soon enough to escape a burst of fire. , "All a guy has to do to get a Purple Heart here is stand up for 10 seconds," he muttered.
Pfc. Clayton E. Hall of Strawn. Tex., had a close call at his machine gun on the right flank. A knee-mortar shell burst only three yards in front of him. Then two bullets pierced the water jacket on his gun. With his machine-gun corporal Joseph Diorio of Cleveland, Ohio, Hall managed to keep the gun going by pouring water into the jacket from every available canteen. He burned his hands on the red-hot jacket doing it. but the gun fired 4.000 rounds in 45 minutes.
Back at the Dead End Kids' CP. Maj. L. L. Lew of Baker, Oreg.. the unit commander, received a message saying that the Chinese would relieve his unit around midnight. It was then 1730 hours.
The Dead End Kids were running low on ammunition. Men started shouting back and forth above. the din "Hey, you got a spare clip of M1?" From the left flank came a request for every available hand grenade. A unit there, commanded by Maj. Edwin J. Briggs of La Grande? Greg., was being attacked by Japs who had infiltrated through the jungles from the south.
As ammunition ran out, the tension increased. Dusk turned to darkness, but the Jeeps still fired furiously and attacked fanatically. Their bullet riddled bodies littered the field from the edge of the jungle to the river. The wounded screamed.
Then, as suddenly as the morning attack had ceased, the dusk battle halted. Both sides stopped firing. The silence was broken by a Dead End Kid who rose to his feet on the river bank. cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled: "Come on. you little bastards. Come and get your lead!"
Now they removed their wounded from the field in the dark. The Americans could hear the wooden sound of litters being carried through the brush and the terrifying cries of the wounded as they disappeared in the jungle.
Among the Dead End Kids. thanks to the natural protection of the high riverbank and to the dug-in emplacements, there had been only three casualties all day. But several pack mules, which carried mortars, radios and ammunition, had been wounded or killed by mortar shells.
The little remaining ammunition was doled out equally. A patrol from Maj. Briggs' outfit south of the Dead End Kids brought up some more BAR and machine-gun ammunition.
At 2000 hours T/Sgt. Jim Ballard of Spokane, Wash., chief of the unit radio section, entered the perimeter, leading a mule pack train loaded with all kinds of ammunition. He had tried to contact Brig. Gen. Merrill's CP early in the attack, but couldn't get it on the radio. So he had taken Maj. Lew's message requesting more ammunition and run back four miles to another Marauder unit over a dark trail flanked by Jap patrols and through Jap shelling part of the way. He brought back the ammunition mule train through an even more severe shelling.
The hours dragged on and a heavy fog set in. A few Japs had sneaked across the river and were booby trapping trails in the vicinity. Across the river the Japs seemed to be getting reinforcements and ammunition again for another attack.
While some of the men peered through the mist at the field across the river, others dozed off in their foxholes, with their heads propped on horseshoe-type packs. The Dead End Kids weren't cocky or swaggering tonight: they were exhausted from the tension of the two attacks.
Finally the expected message came: "Withdraw at 0200 hours to join Marauder CP. Chinese are taking over your position.
The weary Dead End Kids put on their packs and moved silently Indian-file out of their perimeter with their pack mules.
A little way down the trail another column passed the Americans, going in the opposite direction. It was the Chinese.
Megwaw, ting hao' they grinned as they plodded past the Dead End Kids. They meant: "Americans are okay." A Chinese divisional commander later put it another way: "Your unit.' he said: "made it possible for us to gain more ground in one week than we covered all last month."
One of the Dead End Kids, after returning the Chinese greeting, turned and said to the man behind him: You know, I could almost kiss those guys, they look so good to me now." He wasn't the only one who felt that way.
Next morning an official report reached Merrill's Marauders that one of their units, as the first American infantrymen to fight a battle on the continent of Asia, had left 800 Japanese dead on the field near Walawbum.
Hearing this, a cocky, swaggering bunch of Americans swung along the jungle trail toward an area where they could rest for two days before going on another mission behind Jap lines. The Dead End Kids were back in their element.