|Yank The Army Weekly-June 09 1944-Vol. 2 No 51 By Sgt. Dave Richardson Yank Staff Correspondent|
Behind Japanese Lines In Northern Burma
The crackle of a couple of Nambu light machine guns and the whipsnap of Ariska rifles stopped the single-file column of Merrill's Marauders and sent the men scrambling for cover on both sides of the narrow jungle trail.
They had trudged nearly 250 miles in the last four weeks. After marching up 116 miles of the Ledo Road, they had swung wide around the Jap positions that were holding up the Chinese drive in the Hukawng Valley of Northern Burma. They had followed narrow native paths and elephant trails through dense undergrowth and high elephant grass and across dozens of rivers and streams.
This was to be the first of their missions as a volunteer raiding outfit behind Jap lines--attacking the enemy rear supply base of Walawbum to force a Jap withdrawal 30 miles northward so the Chinese could push through. The Marauders led by Brig. Gen. Frank D Merrill, who had walked out of Burma with Stilwell two years before, were this afternoon only three miles from their goal.
The CO of the unit that had bumped into Jap resistance sent for 1st Lt. Logan E Weston of Youngstown, Ohio. A slim, quet pokerfaced young officer, Weston edged his way through the bush to the CO's side.
"Weston," said the CO, "take your intelligence and reconnaissance platoon across the river and move south to a position near the river bank that will cover us from the Walawbum area when we drive through this village of Langag Ga. on the east bank."
Lt. Weston, like most of the others in this Marauder unit, had fought Japs before. Quitting Transylvania Bible School in Freeport, Pa., midway through his study for the ministry, he had joined the Army. He went to the South Pacific as a squad leader in the 37th Division, he was graduated from OCS in the Fiji's, and then he fought in New Georgia as a platoon leader in the 37th. That's where he picked up a nickname.
"Fightin' Preacher," his men called him. As one of his original platoon explained it, "Lt. Weston continued his bible study in spare moments, but when we got into a scrap with the Japs he was one of the fightingest platoon leaders in the outfit."
In New Georgia the Fightin' Preacher had always made one point clear to his men: he did not like to kill. After each action he got his men aside and said, half-apologetically: "I'm sorry I had to kill those Japs, fellas, but today it was a case of either my getting them or their getting me."
Lt. Weston's tough, swaggering platoon was a marked contrast to its gentle, mild-mannered leader. Among his men were such veterans as Cpl. Werner Katz of New York, N.Y., who fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and with the Americal Division on Guadacanal. Katz, a burly first scout, became the first American Infantryman to kill a Jap on the continent of Asia when the platoon had a fleeting brush with a Jap patrol the week before.
Then there was Pfc. Norman J. (Chief) Janis, a full-blooded Sioux Indian and former rodeo rider from Deadwood, S. Dak., who thought it was a bad day during the Buna battle in New Guinea if he had to use more than one bullet to kill a Jap. And Sgt. William L Grimes of Lonaconing, Md., who won the Silver Star for knocking off 25 Japs at Quadalcanal. And a couple of dozen others who had battled Japs in the jungles and swamps of the South and Southwest Pacific. They had all volunteered for this "dangerous and hazardous" jungle-fighting mission.
The Fightin' Preacher's men got to their feet and slung on their 60-pound horseshoe-type packs. They moved through the dark jungle undergrowth down to the muddy little river and crossed it Indian file wading 40 feet to the other side through crotch-deep water. Then, rifles cradled in their arms, they climbed the bank.
They rustled their way through the brush alongside the riverbank all afternoon, cautiously covering a few hundred yards. One or twice the scouts spotted Jap sentries and traded a few bullets with them, but the Japs got away. Just before dusk the platoon halted and dug in a perimeter of fox holes to spend the night. They could hear the main body of Marauders pushing through the Jap resistance across the river, using lots of tommy guns and BAR's.
The men ate no supper; they had run out of K-rations two days before. (While the Marauders were behind the Jap lines, they were supplied entirely by airdrop and there were never any drops when the men were sneaking close to their objective, because this might reveal their position and strength.) There was nothing for the men to do but decide on the hours of perimeter guard and then curl up in blanket and poncho and go to sleep.
By dawn the next morning the Fightin' Preacher's platoon was on the move again. The scouts had located a bend in the river from which the platoon could command a wide field of fire to the south. From here they could cover the main Marauder unit as it pushed down the trail along the opposite bank.
The river bend was only 150 yards away from the night perimeter, and the platoon reached it in half an hour in the early-morning fog. They started to dig in at 0700 hours. Half an hour later Pvt. Pete Leitner, a scout from Okeechobee, Fla., was out in front of the perimeter collecting green branches to camouflage his fox hole when a Nambu light machine gun opened up.
Leitner was hit in the middle and crumpled to the ground, severely wounded. Before anyone could get his sights on the Jap machine gunner, he ran away through the brush. Sgt. Paul Mathis of Grey Eagle, Minn., platoon guide and Lt. Weston went out and dragged Leitner back to the perimeter. The rest of the men in the platoon got down in their holes and braced themselves for a Jap attack.
They didn't have long to wait. Through the brush they spotted tan-uniformed Japs walking toward them at a crouch, some with twigs camouflaging their helmets. The platoon opened up. The Japs hit the ground and fanned out, crawling closer and shooting furiously. The Japs chattered among themselves; some seemed to be giving commands.
Then came the hollow snap of knee mortars being discharged behind the Japs. Seconds later the mortar shells exploded in the trees over the Fightin' Preacher's men. After that the mortars were fired in salvoes.
"Five Japs on the right flank!" somebody yelled. Sgt. John Gately of Woburn, Mass., spotted the first one and killed him. Pfc. Harold Hudson of Bristol, Conn., glimpsed the other four and mowed them all down, starting his tommy gun at the rear of the quartet and working forward.
The main Jap attack was coming in the center of the platoon's defense. A squad of Japs moved in closer, crawling and shooting. Grimmes, the Silver Star winner from Guadalcanal, now added to his record of 25 Japs by pumping bullets into each one that lifted his head. T-5 Raymond F Harris of Pekin, Ill., sprayed the squad with his BAR as some of the Japs managed to creep within 30 feet of his position. One Jap shot at Harris just as he ducked his head to put a magazine in his BAR. The bullet dented his helmet.
Inside the perimeter, Lt. Weston and his platoon sergeant, T/Sgt. Alfred M Greer of Malden, Mass., got a message from Pfc. Benny Silverman of New York, N.Y., walkie-talkie radioman, that the main body of the Marauders had chased the remaining Japs from the opposite bank of the river and had taken up position there.
"Fine" the Fightin' Preacher told Greer. "Let's get them to help us with their mortars." Acting as mortar observer, Greer got Silverman to radio back a rough estimate of positions based on his map. Soon the crack of a mortar discharge answered from across the river. An 81-mm mortar shell burst with a hollow explosion behind the Japs. Greer gave Silverman new elevation and azimuth figures. Another mortar shell lobbed over. It burst a little closer to the Japs but over to one side.
"Anybody got a compass with mils on it instead of degrees?" asked Greer. Near him Cpl. Joe Gomez, aid man from Gallup, N. Mex., had just finished working on Sgt. Lionel Parquette of Calumet, Mich., who was mortally wounded in the head. Gomez opened a pouch at his belt and handed his compass over to Greer. "We medics got everything," he grinned.
Greer told the mortars to lay in a smoke shell and he took an azimuth reading on it. Then he gave Siverman a new set of figures to radio the mortar crew.
Across the river, the mortar chief--1st Lt. William F Woomer of State Collage, Pa., called "Woomer the Boomer" in New Guinea--shouted the figure to the mortar crew. Sgt. Edwin Kopec of Lowell, Mass.; Pvt. James McGowan of West Newton, Mass., and Pvt. Wise Alderman of Floyd, Va., set the figures on the scales and lobbed over another one. Theirs was the only mortar in position to fire across the river. Another mortar crew was changing it's position to clear some trees with its trajectory.
Soon with Greer's observation, the mortars were right on their target. Greer then varied the figures every few rounds to cover the Japs from the flank.
"Nice going boys," he yelled after a series of six burst. "We just saw a couple of Japs blown out of their holes 40 yards from our point man." As fast as the mortarmen could rip open shell cases, they poured fire across the river.
The Japs kept coming. They edged into position on three sides of the perimeter and were even trying to get between the river and the Fightin' Preacher's platoon. Their machine-gun and rifle fire increased in intensity and volume. Lt. Weston estimated about a company Japs was opposing him.
Then Silverman at the walkie-talkie got an order for the platoon to withdraw to the other side of the river. Its mission had been accomplished. There was no use staying to fight the Japs with such a small force when the main body of Marauders was moving south to make a direct attack on Walawbum.
Greer, Siverman and a couple of others made litters out of bamboo poles and buttoned-up fatigue jackets to carry the few wounded who could not walk. Then, under cover of Lt. Woomer's mortar fire, the platoon withdrew to the river and prepared to cross. The Japs followed, figuring on catching them in the riverbed.
Across the river four BAR's opened up to cover the crossing. The bullets whined over the platoon's heads. Lt. Weston told Silverman to radio back that the Japs were on the flanks waiting to knock off some men crossing the river. Then two of the platoons peeled off their white undershirts and put one in a tree on each flank of the platoon to serve as firing guides for the BAR's. Just before crossing, Lt. Weston ordered the mortars to throw smoke shells to the rear and flanks of the withdrawing platoon to screen the move.
One by one the men of the platoon splashed back across the river as BAR's stuttered away and mortar burst echoed down the riverbed. After Chief Janis, the Indian crack shot, had crossed, he turned to watch Pfc. John E. Clark of Windsor, Vt., and Katz, the International Brigade veteran, carry the wounded Leitner across on a litter. Out of the corner of his eye, Janis spotted a movement in the bushes on the bank. A Jap with a light machine-gun had parted the bushes and was taking aim at the litter-bearers and their burden. Janis raised his M1 and fired two shots. The Jap squealed and slumped over his gun.
"I just wanted to make sure I got him," said Janis, explaining the extra shot. His score for the day was seven Japs.
Meanwhile the BAR men covering the withdrawal were busy. Japs seemed to pop up all over the riverbank. Pvt. Bob Cole of Englewood, Calif., got six of them, and T-5 Clyde Shields of Egg Harbor, Wis., saw two roll down the bank in his sights
At 0930 hours the last man withdrew. The sweating mortarmen were ripping open their 113th shell case when the cease-fire order came. Lt. Weston trudged wearily into the unit CP, head bent as he worked the bolt on his carbine.
One of his men watched him with obvious admiration. "You know" he said "the Fightin' Preacher got at least two Japs before we withdrew. I thought he was going to apologize again. Instead, all he said was that he could have got another Jap if his bolt hadn't jammed.