Three years ago I had an emergency hospital visit, which required an X-ray. “Why do you have a bullet in you?” the technician wanted to know. When I replied that I didn’t, he unfurled the film, and there was a perfect image of a .20-caliber bullet, a half-inch from my spine. Instantly, I was transported back 60 years. I remembered getting shot, of course. But the field hospital doctors who treated me at the time told me the bullet had exited near my hip.
Of his 22 days of combat on the island, Harold Sargent says, “Each day produced a series of actions that left us drained of energy and adrenalin.”
I was a private with the 132nd Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 23rd “Americal” Infantry Division in late March 1945, and we were on Cebu Island, in the Philippines. Two days before my arrival, one battalion from the regiment had recaptured Cebu City from the Japanese; now Company E, which I’d just joined as a replacement, was charged with rousting out bands of Japs hidden along the island’s mountainous spine.
We marched north near the Camotes Sea, over fields pockmarked from shelling. Dodging craters and abandoned foxholes, we finally came to a grove of coconut trees that offered welcome shade. Our platoon leader, Lieutenant Goss, stepped before us, his face a study instress and concentration. “OK, men. Make yourself comfortable for the night. No smoking. No loud noise. Check your rifle, ammunition and water. We’re going to move out tomorrow morning.” The handsome officer, thin to the point of emaciation, pointed toward the hill rising a mile or two from us. “There’s the destination,” he said. “Those of you with pens can write a letter home.” That’s how battle was for us. No explanation. Follow orders, or else. We laid back on our packs and talked quietly about what tomorrow might bring.
Scarduzio was an Italian from Philadelphia. Soldier buddies always called each other by their last names or by a given nickname. I was “Sargent” or “Sarge,” which was an occasional cause for confusion — especially with none of the officers around me wearing stars or bars, to avoid being first in a sniper’s sights. I liked Scarduzio. His beautiful smile was a welcome contrast to the devastation all around, and his stories intrigued me. I listened for the next hour as he talked about his girl back home — “Polish,” he called her. “She’s the only girl I’ve ever been with or ever want to be,” he told me. “I love her. If I ever get back, I’m gonna marry her.” I looked up at the waving coconut trees and thought of home. Just before we fell asleep he leaned over to me.
“Are you scared?” he asked.
“No!” I said with all the conviction I could muster. “No bullet has been made with my name on it.” I had made up my mind that I would never admit to fear.
“Sargent, I have this premonition. I’m gonna be killed tomorrow,” he said. “Will you do something for me?”
In the black of night and of mind, I leaned toward him and nodded.
“When I die, write my mother and tell her how it happened.”
What the hell could I say to something like that? Combat’s bad enough without thinking of death. “Go to sleep,” I replied. “Be ready for tomorrow. You’ll probably marry ‘Polish’ and have five kids.”
Mount Lanibga was only about 2,000 feet high, but because it rose directly from the face of the sea it seemed much higher — especially when we had to go up a steep incline to take it. In between us and the summit was nothing but devastation. Shelling from destroyers, tanks, mortars, artillery and dive bombers had turned every inch of soil over several times. The island of green was now gray and tan. Trees had been shorn into small, ragged limbs sticking up from the coral. We crawled inch by inch toward the hill. There was no enemy fire, but the heat was terrible. Each of us carried two canteens, one on each hip. Others were devouring their water, but I meant to save mine. At last, suffering from unquenchable thirst, I reached for the canteen on my right hip. It was empty. Panicky, I reached for the one on my left. Empty! I had committed the unforgivable.
Within an hour I started feeling weak and my buddies began to dance around my eyes. There was no way I was going to tell them that I had forgotten to fill my canteens, and for sure I wasn’t going to ask for one of theirs. Quietly, I began to inquire about where I could find water. The sergeant pointed to the rear: “It’s back there somewhere. But I’m not going back. It’s not secure back there, and you could be picked off by Japs.” We could hear sounds of battle in the distance.
“Could I go?” I asked.
“What the hell’s wrong with you, Private? Yer puttin’ yer life in danger.”
“I’m goin, if it’s OK with you.”
“OK, but if you’re goin’, get some water for the rest of us. We’ll all be out in another hour.”
The squad searched the rubble and came up with two sticks about 5 feet long. They pushed 20 canteens over the rods and, loosening the strap of my M1 so the rifle looped over my chest and I could hold the rods in my fists, I took off for the rear without further ado.
Keeping my body low to the earth, I wormed my way to the rear, seeing more stars before my eyes with each minute. Torn between the desire for safety and the need for water, my eyes traversed a thousand feet of wasted landscape. I saw nothing that looked like a water bag and wasn’t sure what else to look for. Talk about panic. I looked for Japanese and listened for bullets. Nothing. On a nearby plateau I saw something that looked like a dirty swamp. At its side sat a contraption with a long hose sticking into the water. Beneath it hung two large bags. Taking out my canteen cup, I drank that awful, chlorinated swamp water until my belly distended, making me look pregnant. Only then did I fill the canteens and thread them onto the poles. Needless to say, my squad heartily welcomed me back.
The following day, April 12, we were taking whatever protection we could find on a nearby slope when an NCO came along and told us that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died. We looked at each other for a few seconds, each thinking the same thing: that Roosevelt was the only president each of us had ever known. But we all also knew that the news changed nothing about our immediate situation.
At noon, we began to receive mortar fire from the hills directly in front of us. We crawled to join the rest of the company where they had taken a position in the mud. I crawled into an old foxhole containing a pool of muddy water. Lieutenant Goss jumped in beside me. “Scarduzio has been killed,” he told me. “A knee mortar landed on top of him. Sargent, I want you to go up there with your buddies and help carry him to the rear. It’ll take four of you.”
Remembering what Scarduzio had told me, I was paralyzed. I could hardly talk. “I can’t do it, Sir,” I said. It was the only order I ever refused in this man’s army. The lieutenant looked at me and understood. I sat in the mud and thought of “Polish” and Scarduzio’s mother and of my promise. Five minutes later, four men carrying a burdened poncho came past my hole. It sagged in the middle from the weight.
Scarduzio’s death caused a commotion in our platoon. Someone had to be assigned his Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). At 25 pounds, it was too heavy for some to carry easily. Goss walked off a few yards and returned to stand before me with the weapon. “You’re the biggest and strongest man in the platoon,” he said. “It’s yours.” I knew it was not a request. “Work on it. Clean it. I’ll get the ammunition.” He returned with 100 cartridges and two bandoleers.
We moved up the scarred, beaten hill a few feet at a time. As darkness came on, I crawled into another abandoned foxhole. About midnight, the Japs rolled their howitzers out of tunnels they’d dug in the hillside and began firing straight down on us. As we hunkered down, the shells flew two feet over our heads. Someone had told me that if those shells hit even a raindrop they would explode. Frightened out of my head, I figured that as long as I hugged the earth I would be OK.
We advanced the next day, staying as close to the earth as possible until we came to a system of trenches the Japs had fashioned, deep enough so that we could walk with only our heads above the embankment. Looking back down over the route we’d taken, it was painfully obvious that the Japs could view every move we’d made; even our going to the slit trench we used for a toilet. Looking up the hill was another thing. There was one level space, bearing nothing that looked like life, and then the hill rose precipitously. It had been shelled, bombed, dive-bombed and strafed for more than a month. With the peak escarpment rising ahead of us, we began to believe our ordeal would soon be over.
My squad took a position astride what appeared to be the center of the entrenchment system. The more adventurous soldiers crawled out of the trenches to investigate the premises. One of them called, “Sargent, come out here and look at this.” I emerged from the trench to view the most ghastly scene I had ever witnessed or ever would.
As many as 25 Japs in full khaki uniform lay where they’d died days before. Heat had swollen their bodies until their uniforms stretched against their flesh. The awful stench of decaying flesh left an odd, sweet aroma that I had never smelled before. Several of us vomited repeatedly. Holding our noses, we meandered through the bloated corpses. Hadley, a trooper from Idaho, jammed a bayonet on the end of his rifle and began to cut buttons from the stretched tunics. With my bayonet, I opened a tunic and a wallet dropped out of a breast pocket. As I opened it, a photo came into view. A wife and three children gazed up at me amid the rotted remains of a body bursting from the tropical heat. I removed the bayonet from the rifle, shoved it into the sheath and dropped back down into the trench.
A short time later, Lieutenant Goss jumped in to kneel beside me. I knew by now that meant he was about to ask me to do something I’d rather not do. “Sargent, after dark I’m sending you and two other guys out to the front beyond our position to make sure we don’t get overrun during the night,” he said. He pointed to the foxholes. “Take your BAR and get in the one to the right.” “Alone?” I asked. He didn’t bother to reply. “Olmstead and Oporto will take the one on the left.” It still puzzled me why I was to be a single outpost. Then I knew. My previous heroics had caught up with me. I was the only one dumb enough to go beyond the platoon. Plus, I had been in the front lines for only 10 days; most everyone else had been at it for months or years. It was my time.
Fortunately the night passed uneventfully and, along with the rest of my platoon, I was able to view our dominant height with impunity the next morning. The battalion commander and Goss were in a huddle, pointing to a worn path that went up the steep face of the mountain. Then Goss came over to our platoon. “OK, we’re going up,” he said. A single file of about 20 men formed, and within 15 minutes we’d reached the brow of the hill. From here, we looked down on the land that we had secured over the last three days.
Hadley disappeared into one of the Japs’ tunnels. No one else followed; we thought it would be booby-trapped. He reappeared with Filipino scrip the Japs had printed by the pound, tossing sheaves of bogus money into the breeze and letting it float down the mountainside. Laughing derisively, he remarked, “There’s no guns in there.” He went back into the tunnels again and emerged with propaganda leaflets intended to undermine the natives’ support of the Americans. The next time, he came out with a Japanese flag and handed it to me.
We had now taken up residence facing west away from the bay, where the slope of the land afforded a place to sit, much like a stadium. During the last several days of combat, we had suffered from the defensive advantage afforded the Japs, yet in that time, we’d never seen a live Jap. Then — suddenly — “There they are!” someone shouted. In the valley some figures were moving slowly, loaded down with gear. They were assumed to be Japanese, of course, but were too distant for us to be certain. Nevertheless, Hadley and several others began peppering them with bullets. Eventually the last one fell. No one felt victorious, but Hadley’s explanation made sense: “If we hadn’t killed him, he’d kill us on the next hill.” We sat for several minutes pondering the incident. Battle isn’t a place where one has the time to sort out morality. Mostly it’s about how to stay alive, and kill rather than be killed.
On April 19, three trucks approached and everyone in our company was ordered to jump on the back and hold on to the racks. Racing north up the improved road, we reached the rest of the battalion in less than 15 minutes. We were about 10 miles from our previous position but now much closer to the coast. As usual, we hopped out and made for the coconut trees. Two jeeps drove up and the officers jumped out and spread a huge map over the back of one of the vehicles. Grouped around the map, they pointed animatedly toward a substantial hill covered with trees and brush. It did not appear navigable by troops with heavy equipment.
This time, our platoon was going to be the reserve. We waited quietly as other platoons disappeared into the woods. Mortar and gunfire echoed in the distance. It is difficult to describe how men go into battle, knowing full well that they might not come back. Some can’t take it. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t talk. Having had my birthday recently, I was 19 by a little more that a month; even so I wasn’t the youngest of the young.
Lieutenant Goss waved his arm forward and the platoon, with him in the lead, joined the file heading up the hill. In addition to the backpack, the weapon and web belt, I had at least 100 rounds of ammunition in two bandoleers slung over my shoulders and more in a special web belt around my waist. I looked like Pancho Villa.
Mortars came in with that famous whining sound that instills fear into the most courageous of veterans. A soldier next to me said, “If you can hear that sound, the mortar is beyond you.” That was a modest consolation. Another went over: Screee-RUMP. It always seemed an eternity until the mortar exploded.
As mortars continued to whine down, a flare rose up and exploded 200 feet above us. Bullets zipped over our heads, and once in a while we heard a moan. Troops ahead of us had tied ropes around trees to ease our climb; even so, it was slow going. We were close to the crest of the hill when orders came down to run toward an opening. As we emerged at a trot out of the jungle growth, a small open plateau lay before us. Fifteen dead Japs were sprawled in every position, still holding weapons in their fists. As the walking wounded from the first assault team left the hill, Lieutenant Goss took over.
Unfortunately, the flare — which had been shot to notify battalion headquarters we’d reached our objective — had ignited a blossoming fire that now surrounded the entire hill. The Japs were one thing; a meadow fire blazing up 3 feet around our heels was another. The temperature was 90 degrees to begin with; the blaze brought it to well over 100. My fatigues were soaked. Goss ran through the raging fire while we waited, our weapons at ready. In less than a minute, he jumped back through the flames and motioned toward me. “See that elephant grass down there?” With trembling hands, he pointed to a level area, 200 yards away. “Take your BAR, and go down there in that tall grass. We can’t afford to let them flank us.”
Without waiting for my response, he turned and leaped through the flames into the copse where I assumed the rest of the company was busy. My brain worked overtime trying to figure out what the hell was going on. I felt safe from snipers at the moment. But there was no sign of a breeze; the heat was my real enemy. In an effort to keep as cool as possible, I already wasn’t wearing any underclothes. Now I stripped off my fatigue shirt and readjusted the bandoliers over my wet skin, wondering, again, why Goss ordered me down there alone.
I ran down 100 yards and squatted behind the high grass. I picked out one of my clips and placed it on the ground so that I could retrieve it in an emergency. For several minutes, I breathed deep and enjoyed the safety the grass afforded. Then, curious to see what was going on, especially up on the hill, I lifted my eyes just enough to see over the grass. My heart skipped three beats. Two hundred yards away about eight Japs were advancing on my position, carrying a heavy machine gun. I dropped down to take stock of my situation. When your life is at risk, even a callow 19-year-old can think fast and hard. Their goal was to reach the hill behind me where they could gain high ground and zero the gun in on our wounded troops, who were taking their ease in the rear.
I didn’t have time to equivocate. Rising high enough to get a good bead on the advancing Japs, I squeezed 20 rounds and dropped below the high grass. Wishful thoughts raced through my brain: Perhaps they would leave. Maybe I had wounded or killed many of them. I jammed another clip in the gun and, rising again, poured another 20 rounds into their midst. From the distance they appeared to waver and scatter slightly. Then sand and dust began to skip off the dry earth beside my combat boots, like dust hit by raindrops back home in Pennsylvania. Grass fell on me like it had been cut by a scythe. Bullets were striking all around me. They knew where I was.
I thought to myself: Those guys are shooting at me! It was like an insult. That put a new slant on my dangerous plight. I decided to try to escape. Although they outnumbered me, until they could set up their machine gun I was the one with the advantage. With three or four of them carrying the machine gun mount, they only had .20-caliber carbines available for immediate use, while I had an automatic that could deliver 20 shots in five seconds. Quickly, I moved to the left about 10 feet, where the grass was high. I could see bullets striking the dust and grass where I had just been standing.
I danced farther to my left, where I thought they couldn’t see me. When I peeked above the grass, they were still advancing, moving as quickly with the gun as they could. Aiming carefully, I emptied every shell into their midst, inserted another clip into the rifle and let them have it again. Silhouetted against the tan landscape, the figures began to topple. At that distance it was impossible to tell for certain what effect the 80 bullets had on the group.
I was out of my depth; basic training had not taught me what to do in a situation like this. Sitting on the ground wearing nothing but my fatigue pants, I waited, thinking that this teenager was too young to die. The Japs could make a desperate banzai charge. I could mow most of them down, but those who remained could eliminate me.
I churned up the guts to peer over the grass again, assuming I’d be looking into the whites of their eyes. What I saw brought me more surprise and joy than I had ever known in my short life. A few yards away, I could see their backs. They were leaving! Dropping to the ground again, I did some hard thinking. Should I run after them to polish them off completely? Or should I be happy that I was still alive and had thwarted their mission? Let ’em go, my mind said, and I did. Sitting alive and safe without a shirt in the awful heat of that day was very acceptable.
On the perimeter at the top of the hill, Lieutenant Goss appeared in the distance and shouted: “Sargent! Come up here.” With my BAR at the ready and the remaining ammunition over my shoulders, I struggled up the small hill to face Goss, who no doubt had seen plenty himself over the last hour. He didn’t ask what had happened to me and I was too traumatized to tell. It was a good deal hotter up here, well into the 100s, as flames flickered at our boots. Dead Japanese lay on the meadow. Under the pressure of battle, Goss could barely talk. “Follow me!”
Running, he jumped through the wall of flame and I followed. As he threaded through a copse of slim trees, he pointed to a line of kneeling troops with M1s pointed toward the enemy. “Help those guys!” he bellowed, and disappeared. As I looked around to get my bearings, a volley of shots echoed over on the right. Oporto — one of the pair who spent the recent night on watch with me in a neighboring foxhole — lifted his hand into the air with four fingers pointing upward and shouted with elation: “I got four of ’em — Four!” Standing 5-foot-1, with biceps the size of my upper leg and a body like a locomotive, he had the broadest smile I’d ever seen in my life. Fearless, he waved his fingers around in the air several times, shouting over and over again: “I got four! I got four!” Before he pulled his arm down, a piece of shrapnel took a gash out of it, leaving a square-inch, bloody hole. Looking at his arm in astonishment, he mumbled “Medic,” and stumbled to the rear.
Things happen fast in battle, yet each minute seems like an hour in slow motion. There was a slight rise ahead of us, with some brush no more than five feet to the left. I was searching the brush for any trace of movement when a hand shot above it, releasing a grenade that sailed five feet into the air. “Grenade! Grenade!” I screamed. The missile came in on the right. No one was hit. Sighting my BAR to where the grenade had been thrown, I unloaded 20 rounds into the brush. Then, taking a grenade from my waist, I pulled the pin, waited four seconds, and threw it. It rolled back a foot and exploded. All was quiet now.
During the action, I’d taken to kneeling with my right knee raised to support the weight of the BAR, my other knee on the ground. It sacrificed accuracy but dramatically increased the number of rounds I could fire. Suddenly, I felt as if a horse had kicked my right leg. I slapped my right hip but there was no blood. Feeling a tingle, I again slapped my hip. This time I brought up a bloody fist. I’d been hit.
Examining my wound, I moved slightly to my left, raising an incredible stench. Who could believe? I had rolled over into a pile of Japanese excrement. Talk about problems. I stripped my fatigue pants off and screamed: “Medic! Medic!” In pain, I wiped myself off the best I could. Soon a medic came forward. “I’ve been hit,” I said. He looked at me slightly amused and replied, “You and everybody else.” Looking at my sad condition, he added: “Well! Go to the rear.”
I left my weapon, ammunition and fatigues and made for the rear, joining a group of several soldiers leaving in the same manner. Even in the sorriest of circumstances, GIs can find something to laugh about and this was no exception, as many of them saw fit to comment about the size of my equipment. What could I say? Until then I hadn’t been fully aware I was naked.
At the aid station, they laid me on a stretcher, punched an M1 with a bayonet into the ground and set up a plasma drip. I began to sob. A medic looked at me quizzically and muttered, “What ya’ crying about, son?” As tears rolled down my cheeks, I replied, “Left my wallet up on the hill and it has my sweetheart’s picture in it.” At the time that seemed like as good an answer as any.
Less than 20 minutes later, I lay on a hard table inside what looked like an abandoned church. Two doctors, one on each side, poked and scrubbed my wound. “You got lucky,” one of them opined. “Looks like it went in here” — pointing two inches above my right knee — “and came out here.” He grunted as he swabbed an area just below my buttocks. The examination didn’t last more than three minutes.
The next morning, I was loaded aboard an ambulance plane bound for nearby Leyte. After a month of rest and recuperation, I returned to Company E. Just a few months following that, I was aboard a troop transport ship in Tokyo Bay, the day after the Japanese surrendered — a memory that has lasted a lifetime.
But when I look back on everything that happened to me on Cebu, I recall those days as the best of my life. When you’re 19 years old, everything is an adventure. Now, looking at my X-ray, I realize I’ve had a souvenir of that adventure with me all along.
This article was written by Harold R. Sargent and originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of World War II magazine. After serving a year in occupied Japan, Sargent came home to attend college, eventually receiving a Ph.D. in educational administration from Penn State University, where he worked for years as a teacher and administrator. He is also a published poet. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!