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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: They Served

article number 749
article date 02-14-2019
copyright 2019 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Agonizing Situation in the Philippines, Early 1942, Part 1: Homage to Bataan
by Yank Magazine
   

"Here is a Story of Courage that becomes more beautifully American with each telling. It’s a story that Americans hold sacred, and ever will. To the memory of those who died in the flaming maelstrom of Bataan, these pages are dedicated."

— —

THERE was an island called Luzon, and on this island there was a peninsula called Bataan.

It was a small peninsula, and it was hot. On the west were foothills choked with tropical growth, on the east steaming swamps and burning lagoons. Only in the center of Bataan was there open ground, made up of jungles and rice-fields, sun-baked and burning.

It was a hot and bloody place. The Japs came down from Aparri in the North and Lingayen Gulf in the Northwest. They came by thousands, like an army of ants, and there were not enough defenders to stop them.

It was like a knife through cheese, the Japs thought. Easier than China.

Then Bataan got up and hit the Japs in the face, with the old one-two, the uppercut, the right cross, the hook. The Japs got a G.I. kick in the teeth and a G.I. boot in the behind and a G.I. slap in the puss.

That was Bataan.

That was the first sector. . . .

The Yanks dug in at Hermosa. It was a strong line and they held it, for three bloody months, from January to April. They held it till they were the wonder of the world.

They weren’t even very special. They were just guys. They came from ordinary places like Kentucky, Michigan and New Mexico.

They were guys who drank cokes at the corner drugstore, who dated your kid sister, who tipped their hats to a girl they met on the street. You played baseball with them, and wrestled with them on the vacant lot, and talked with them about Benny Goodman and the new suit you were going to buy.

But they held that line.

It was the sweetest line you ever saw.

When the Japs tried to crack it they hit the riflemen first. The riflemen were Filipinos, and they were neat on the trigger and they liked yellow meat.

— —

The colonel and the sergeant were caught in a bombardment and jumped into a hole. It was intense bombardment, and the colonel started to pray out loud. He heard the sergeant praying, too.

When the bombardment was over the colonel said, “Sergeant, I noticed you were praying.”

“There are no atheists in foxholes, Colonel,” the sergeant said.

   
“The riflemen were Filipinos, and behind the riflemen were Yanks . . ."

Behind the riflemen were Yank Regulars and a mess of barbed wire. Machine guns were trained down every trail. Land mines waited in the hot, damp earth and every foxhole held a sharpshooter.

The Yanks fought like Indians, from behind trees and on their bellies. They moved like ghosts in the night.

They stuck thousands of bamboo stakes in the ground, stakes that were fire-hardened and sharpened and could pierce the sole of the thickest shoe. There would be a cry from someone who stepped on a stake and a sharpshooter finished the job.

The Yanks began to remember things that had been forgotten since Daniel Boone moved into Kentucky. The Japs tried to fight like Indians, but they were up against guys who had a copyright on the process. They got their ears pinned back and a bayonet in their gut. They were hurt, and they didn’t like it.

They sent bombers over by fifties and by hundreds, but the bombers couldn’t see accurately. The jungle hid the defenders and the bombers dropped their loads at random.

— —

The kid from the Quartermaster Corps picked himself up after a bombing. He was mad. “Wait till I see my old lady,” he said. “When I was enlisting she told me to get in the Q. M. C. so I’d be safe.”

— —

Bataan was hot as the middle of Hell. A man couldn’t see to shoot sometimes because sweat ran into his eyes. But sometimes the Japs came on in such numbers a man didn’t have to aim.

Japanese bodies piled higher and higher in front of the line and still the yellow men came on. They came on by hundreds and thousands. It was ten to one.

The barrels of the Yank rifles were red hot and then it was nine to one. Yank machine guns bit into the hordes on the jungle trails and it was eight to one. Yank artillery sent shells screaming over the line and it was seven to one.

   
“They sent bombers over by fifties and by hundreds, but the bombers couldn’t see accurately. The jungle hid the defenders and the bombers dropped their loads at random . . .”

But Jap replacements swarmed from transports down into Bataan. The bores of Yank rifles wore out and the ammunition diminished, a little more each day.

The defenders turned their eyes to the sea, searching for the battlewagons, looking for the relief that might race across the horizon, hoping for just a few more planes, a few more shells, a few more cases of ball ammunition.

But in their hearts the defenders knew that they would never come.

— —

“Where the hell’s the fleet” the gunner wanted to know.

“That’s easy,” the other gunner said. “The last letter I got from a girl friend of mine was postmarked St. Louis. She never lets the fleet get more’n ten miles away from her, so it’s up the Mississippi.

— —

You could count the remaining Yank planes on the fingers of your hands, and the defenders joked about them. They were the “Bamboo Fleet” and “The Baling-Wire- And-Glue Transport Line.”

The pilots got them up, though, and when they were told they were too tired to fight, they disobeyed orders and knocked down a couple of Zeros.

The planes were P-40’s patched up so often with wire that they looked like pianos, but they had slugs in their guns and the pilot said, “What the hell . . .“ One guy went up in a flying piano with a shotgun across his knees and a bolo around his waist. The shotgun was for aerial combat and the bolo was to cut himself from his harness if he had to bail out.

He never bailed out.

The pilots took off many times a day, week after week. They’d talk big over the radio, and if three planes went up they’d say, “Well, let’s get these 70 planes off the ground,” and the Japs were scared to go up after them.

When the Japs did go up they toted bombs and kept above the range of the flak. Sometimes the gunners cried at their guns because the Japs flew so high. But sometimes they connected and then it was Exit, Tojo, and the gunners felt better.

— —

The Coast Artillery private stood up on the parapet of his gun pit and rolled out the thunderous phrase from the Koran: “The heavens and the earth and all that is between them, think ye we have created them in jest?”

There was a silence, and then a Tennessee drawl from below answered:

“If you can do that well on a cup of yesterday’s coffee, what couldn’t you do on a bottle of cold beer?”

— —

The food ran low, and at last there was not enough to go around. Day by day the defenders weakened. The Q. M. C. set up bakeries behind the lines and for awhile there was plenty of bread, but at last even the bread ran out.

The slaughterhouses butchered the horses, the mules, the wild pigs and the carabao, but it wasn’t enough. And the defenders laughed and accused the Q. M. C. of killing pythons and crocodiles and issuing them as food.

The rice ran out early and a little inter-island steamer sneaked through the Jap blockade with rice and bananas and eggs. But that was the last boat. That was in January. Even that early the defenders went on half-rations.

The canned goods went bad, the sugar gave out, the salt was made from sea water. The coffee was so weak that guys asked for a whiff instead of a cup of the stuff.

There was no fruit, no vegetables, no milk.

While the meat lasted they made the most of it. It was tough, but so were the guys who were eating it, and at least when it went down it stayed. The carabao wasn’t so bad. It made good sandwiches. The men called the sandwiches “caraburgers.” They were something you couldn’t buy at Coney Island in a million years.

   
“While the meat lasted they made the most of it. It was tough, but so were the guys who were eating it, and at least when it went down it stayed. The carabao wasn’t so bad . . ."

— —

The old artillery sergeant looked dubiously at the forkful of mule meat he held in his hand. “Well,” he said, “I beat hell out of these critters for twenty years—they’re sure getting bock at me now.”

— —

The Jap hurled himself at the line continually, and he didn’t give a damn about losses. Some places the earth was soaked with blood, and the roots of jungle plants drank up the life of men.

   
“The Jap hurled himself at the line continually, and he didn’t give a damn about losses . . ."

The field hospitals were packed with wounded. Nurses threw away their white uniforms and wore khaki shirts and slacks.

The hands of the nurses were covered with blood, and when one of them wiped sweat from her forehead her face would be bloody, too. Almost everyone had at least one wound, and if it was only one, no attention was paid to it.

The wounded men went back into the line and gritted their teeth and kept firing.

An infantry colonel returned to action with his third wound unhealed, a great, yawning hole in his arm that was sprinkled with sulfanilamide and covered with a dressing.

As the battles went on the faces of the men grew tense and tight and drawn. Their eyes sank into their heads and the shape of their skulls appeared in sharp relief through drawn cheeks.

— —

Three privates were cut off and out of ammunition. A general grabbed a Browning machine gun and, taking a sergeant with him, crossed the Jap lines and brought the privates back. “You boys ought to be more careful,” the general said.

— —

While there was ammunition and while there were planes, the artillery had a circus. They knew where the Japs were and they knocked them off by hundreds.

The ammunition ran low and there were no more planes. The guys from the Air Force went into the line and those that didn’t know the weapons available were taught how to use them.

The Japs got cagey, painted themselves and their rifles green and fought from behind trees. They would wait behind a tree for hours, never moving, until something crossed their sights.

The time for Bataan was running out, and the Japs knew it.

They waited while the defenders grew weak from hunger and wounds and disease, waited behind their lines, eating some of the best food they had been given for a long while, drinking sake and biding time. Jap officers spent long evenings caressing their huge swords.

They would wait. Their time was corning.

   
“The hands of the nurses were covered with blood, and when one of them wiped sweat from her forehead her face would be bloody, too. Almost everyone had at least one wound . . ."

— —

The dirty Engineer private spat on the bole of the tree. “One thing I know,” he said. “There won’t be any Purgatory for us. After Bataan we’ll go right on through without any local stops.”

— —

At last the clocks on Bataan stopped. It was April, and at home the Spring was swinging up through Georgia toward the Great Lakes. In the cities robins were hopping in the parks, and in the country thrushes were singing on the pasture fences.

The line was still there, but something had gone out of the men who held it, something that hunger and death and disease had dragged out of them. They were game, but they hadn’t the strength.

The Japs cracked the line, and cracked it hard. It split down one end. The yellow men poured through the hole and it was almost over but the shouting. Even then the Yanks tried a counter-attack, but it was too late. They stumbled forward, hardly able to see, hardly able to think, and the fresh thousands of Japs caught them.

Blood ran out on the ground, blood from a lot of game guys who didn’t know when they were licked, who stuck when it was hopeless. They went down fighting, and when the ammunition was gone they used their bare hands and their teeth, and they almost threw the attack back on sheer nerve.

But it wasn’t in the cards. The Japs swept over Bataan and Death came with them. One by one the defenders fell, and at last there was only a little crowd left at the beaches, with nothing at their back but the waters of the Pacific.

They made a last stand on the beaches and died there one by one. Across the bay unsullied Corregidor stood grim and game, waiting for the fate that it knew must come. Finally all was quiet on Bataan and the cold-eyed gunners of Corregidor waited for the death that would soon come to them from every side of a lost island . . .

That was the island called Luzon—the peninsula called Bataan.

Americans fought a bloody fight there in the Year of Our Lord 1942, in the Year of the American Republic 159.

Many of them will not be coming home again. They lie where they fell. They will never again see an American sun shining on an American meadow, or step a sedan up to ninety, or grab some pie and coffee at a corner diner.

They were clerks and truck drivers, insurance salesmen and short-order cooks. They were little guys, but they went out big.

We’ll be coming back to Luzon one day, coming back hard and tough, with plenty of planes, plenty of guns, plenty of everything. We owe these guys a debt, and we’ve got to pay it.

We’ll pay it with interest.

   
“Blood ran out on the ground, blood from a lot of game guys who didn’t know when they were licked, who stuck when it was hopeless. They went down fighting . . ."
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