The Last Campaign Mindanao - March '99 World War II Feature | HistoryNet MENU

The Last Campaign Mindanao – March ’99 World War II Feature

8/19/1999 • World War II

The Last Campaign Mindanao
The Last Campaign Mindanao

An 18-year-old soldier who entered combat during the final days of the war in the Philippines was forever changed by his experience.

By Brother Placid L. Stuckenschneider, O.S.B.

On February 17, 1945, with our hair freshly shorn, wearing new fatigues, and with numbers chalked on our helmets for quick identification, we boarded USS General Butner in San Francisco’s harbor. We filed down to the crowded quarters in the hold, unaware that we would be spending one solid month at sea before we reached our destination, the island of Leyte, in the Philippines.

I did not yet know the men of my squad very well, but I discovered that I was a replacement, assigned to the first squad of the first platoon of K Company, 34th Infantry Regiment, 24th Division (34/24), commanded by Maj. Gen. Roscoe B. Woodruff. From Leyte, we traveled to Mindoro, where a force was being readied for an invasion of yet another island. We were on our way to the last campaign of the war–to take the Philippine island of Mindanao from the Japanese.

After the fall of Manila, the largest group of remaining Japanese forces, estimated at 50,000, was positioned in and around Davao, on the southern side of Mindanao. They expected to be attacked from the south and had cut fire lanes through the jungle in that direction. But the 34/24, part of an invasion force that also included the 19th and 21st regiments of the 24th Division as well as the 31st Division, landed instead at Parang, south of Malabang, and advanced from the northwest. The assault was planned so that when we came on the Japanese from the opposite direction, they would be unable to bring their full firepower into play.

Woodruff’s division landed unopposed on Mindanao on April 19, 1945. Poking through the island’s jungle canopy and rising 9,690 feet was Mount Apo–cool, serene and aloof above the steamy, breathless green tangle. Occasionally, in the more open country and through gaps in the overhead greenery, I could see the top and flanks of the mountain, and I began to imagine it as a kind of presence that gazed down on the puny efforts of the soldiers at its feet, but was too detached to consider them a part of its world.

The rains were punctual. They came at 5 o’clock practically every evening, a drenching downpour. Ten minutes later the skies would be clear and bright. My usual practice was to grab a huge leaf, as large as an elephant’s ear, and use it for an umbrella. But nothing really stayed dry. The only relatively dry place was up inside the top of one’s helmet, a place reserved for matches and toilet paper.

Soon after we arrived on the island I learned how quickly heat and humidity can slow up even the most willing troops. Except when the mobile field kitchens caught up to us during our trek through the jungle, we lived with what we could carry on our backs–food, water, ammunition. In addition to 12 magazines of Browning automatic rifle (BAR) ammo, I carried my M-1 and its ammo, three days’ supply of K rations, a field pack and two canteens of water. It was enough of a load to work up a sweat on a cold day in Montana. In Mindanao’s hot, humid jungle–as well as on the occasional open plains, where the sun beat down on us mercilessly–the effect was devastating. To help combat heat exhaustion, a salt tablet a day was added to the atabrine we took to fight malaria. My back and thighs were never dry, and by 4 o’clock in the afternoon I was dizzy, exhausted and close to fainting. About that time one afternoon the BAR man, hot and tired as well and having forgotten to set the safety on the gun, accidentally goofed off a round, earning himself a few caustic remarks from the lieutenant.

Our first firefight came at night. We had dug in on either side of a road, facing into the black jungle. Sometime after we settled down there was the crackle of gunfire. I jumped up in my foxhole, saying, “Where are they? Where are they?” The acting sergeant growled, “Get down, you dummy!” The shooting had come from down the road. Although we could see nothing, we fired a few rounds into the jungle.

The next morning I saw five Japanese bodies scattered along the edge of the road. They had been carrying a couple of guns into the hills when our sentries spotted them. A few of our men went out into the wet grass to view the night’s dirty work. They almost did not return. One of the Japanese soldiers who had been shot was still alive and tried to activate a grenade by tapping it on his helmet when they approached. Suddenly, one of our .45-caliber “grease guns” ripped and stuttered, and the Japanese soldier was still. The GIs, now cautious, went through the enemy soldiers’ packs and pockets for souvenirs but found little.

Farther down the road we searched an abandoned Japanese supply dump. Under cover of the jungle canopy were piles of cartons and cases, some Japanese trucks that would not start, rations and the general litter of an army that has had to move out quickly. I opened a tin of what looked like carrots and tried them; they were not worth the trouble.

Again we were off the main road and into a growth of abaca. The abaca, related to the banana tree, grows about 10 to 12 feet tall and has small, bananalike seeds. It was grown on large plantations all over the island and harvested for its rope fiber. As we struggled to follow a muddy plantation trail, forcing our way through the tangled abaca leaves, we discovered we were not the first troops to have gone down that path. Some distance from the road we came across a fallen Japanese soldier. We were getting used to it by then; each GI stepped over the body without giving the corpse a second look.

As we neared a garden clearing, we fanned out and sought cover. The single Filipino house in the center of the clearing, we were told, held Japanese soldiers. When we were all in place, we sprayed the house with bullets. There was no answering fire, and a GI sprinted across the clearing, pulled back a window shutter, and tossed a grenade inside. The small structure shook from the blast. After the dust had cleared, a few men cautiously approached the battered building and pulled open the door. A single, dead Japanese soldier was dragged from the gloomy interior.

A small group gathered to watch first scout Byron Becker search the dead soldier’s pack. When he did not find the Japanese battle flag he was looking for, Becker threw down the pack in disgust, saying, “The unpatriotic SOB!”

K Company, whose captain had been killed in earlier combat, was now led by an ambitious first lieutenant whose father was a full colonel in the Regular Army. His ambition became apparent early in the campaign when someone overheard him remark, “Let’s go another thousand yards up the hill for that extra bar.” When it became known that he valued his advancement in rank more than his men, we lost faith in his leadership. He did not survive long enough to advance very far, at any rate. A Japanese sniper put a .25-caliber bullet through the lieutenant’s chest.

I do not suppose any soldier really fought the war in the way he expected to before he went into combat. But jungle warfare was even more different from what most men expect combat to be. There were no open distances where troops could line up and advance and engage each other. Nor were there any trenches where static combat could occur.

We used artillery in the jungle, but there were few large targets, and smaller ones were difficult to locate and eliminate. Maneuvering a tank in the tangled foliage was dangerous because of the ever-present menace of swamps where a tank could become bogged down. When we did find opposition in open areas, we would call in Navy airstrikes. A few planes would roar in and soften up a pillbox or machine-gun nest. But for the most part jungle warfare was extremely personal–small targets and close encounters of the worst kind.

For example, one evening we dug our perimeter, a big circle of foxholes straddling a muddy road, in dense undergrowth. We had set up our booby traps close to the road. A favorite type consisted of a grenade container strapped to a tree. A string would be tied to the grenade in the container and strung across the road to a tree on the other side. The pin on the grenade was then carefully pulled out, leaving the detonating handle to be held down by the container. Anyone tripping the wire would pull the grenade from the tube, and four seconds later the device would explode. If the wire was not tripped during the night, the pin was replaced in the morning and the trap reset the next night.

That night, about dusk, a grenade went off, and immediately the men on that side of the perimeter began firing in the direction of the sound. Fire from .30-caliber machine gun traversed back and forth, eventually cutting down an abaca tree. We saw no one, and our sporadic firing finally stopped. We set up our usual guards and, despite the excitement, went to sleep quickly because we were tired.

Toward morning Jim Bradley, called “Jungle Jim” because he was one of our combat veterans, spotted a dark shape crawling toward his foxhole. When the figure was six feet away, Jim fired. It was a Japanese soldier who had been wounded by our grenade booby trap but had revived and crawled to the edge of our perimeter with his own grenade, intent on taking some of us with him. Apparently he had been successful in similar missions in the past because his equipment, which we examined when the sun came up, was not all Nippon issue. He carried an American .30-caliber carbine and a U.S. officer’s web belt with two American canteens.

We must have been extremely tired the night before. When Becker–who had been in the hole next to Bradley–awoke that morning, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and saw the Japanese soldier lying six feet away, then asked, “Where the hell did that dead Jap come from?” He had slept through the shooting. I must admit that I had heard the rifle shot but did not want to be bothered with the details until morning.

The next morning we started out later than usual, and in a short time we were nauseated by the stench of dead bodies decaying in the tropical sun. The medics and soldiers in the lead found a wounded Filipino woman and an infant, both in need of help. Around the next bend we came on half of a house, its front ripped off by an explosion. It resembled a stage setting where one could watch the action move from room to room. There was no action, however, only 15 dead, bloated bodies scattered in the front yard.

We pieced together some of what had happened from the woman. The Japanese had herded the Filipino family into the house and then blown up the building. The one child had somehow survived for a day or more with its wounded mother, who had apparently regained consciousness just before we found her.

Another day, another trail, another foxhole to dig. I was becoming an expert on Mindanaoan soil. I took generous samplings all across the island. I especially loved the sweet smell it had when my cheek was pressed against it as I waited for the impact of a shell from a Japanese knee mortar. There was something very fundamental about foxhole existence. The one-man type went down deep enough to squat in, with only the head and shoulders exposed. One could rest, observe and shoot from this position. If trouble developed, simply by leaning forward one would be below ground level–safe from all but a direct hit.

Our daily ritual included filling our two canteens at the Lister bag if the mobile kitchen was near; if not, we added halazone tablets to river or stream water in our canteens. When I went one day to fill my canteens at the stream, on the way back a chance breeze brought a strong smell. I went to investigate and found a dead carabao in the stream, its whole carcass alive with maggots.

We were told we would be staying at one location for a few days; we were not told why. That night, after we had set our booby traps, a GI went down the path and across the bridge to the far side of the stream. He tripped a wire to one of the booby traps, and a grenade went off. A buddy went to help him, setting off a second one. We watched helplessly, unable to do anything.

The high point of the next day, May 19, came when I stood in my foxhole as my acting sergeant, from Ohio, sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I was 19 years old. I thought, “If I’m lucky and careful, in a few years I’ll be able to vote.”

Earlier that same day, while scanning the road, we had seen three figures walking toward our position. As they drew closer, our sergeant saw that they were Japanese soldiers, but they were so deeply engaged in conversation that they were not aware they were approaching an American sentry.

When they were within range, the sergeant shouted, “Surrender and we won’t hurt you!” They looked astonished, but we held our fire. They then slowly melted into the jungle, and we watched them without firing a shot. It was quite a while before our adrenaline levels returned to normal.

The following day, two medium tanks rolled up to spearhead our advance. We were not yet familiar with these behemoths, and we walked next to the squeaking, clanking crawlers half thankful for their protection and half afraid of them. Suddenly bullets ricocheted off the turret and into the jungle with a whine. We hit the dirt, grateful that the tanks were there. They moved up and sprayed .30-caliber machine-gun fire through the trees. There was no visible target, but the tanks continued to fire. Our squad stayed prone; we had the feeling that, despite the tanks’ presence, if we stood up we would be killed. The tanks pulled back slowly, still firing, and as they neared us we got up and moved back with them, crouching near them for protection.

As we waited for further orders, another tank rumbled back from the front. On it, a wounded GI lay on his stomach with a bandage on his rear end. We cheered and clapped as he passed through. He waved and smiled, a glorious hero with a “homer.”

We moved back over the road we had been on the past few days, then entered a section of jungle so thick and matted that only a rare shaft of sunlight reached the ground. The first and second scouts were on the point, and their .45-caliber submachine guns swung toward each sign of movement ahead of them. The squad followed, sharp and alert. We were like nervous birds, our heads constantly moving as we peered intently for any sign of the enemy.

In a small clearing we came upon another Filipino hut. Our nerves were stretched to the point where any sudden movement from within the hut would have brought instant and concentrated firing. There was a cooking fire in the back of the hut, and the scouts silently signaled each other and moved stealthily forward, their guns covering the area in front of them. There was some movement and noise inside the hut, and the scouts froze, motioning us to stop. Their weapons were trained on the doorway, fingers tensed on triggers, when the door opened slowly and a Filipino family carefully filed out of the hut. “We Americans,” the scouts said tensely. “Are there any Japs in there?”

“No, no,” the Filipinos answered quickly, “none here. We are so happy to see you. Mabuhay!” A teenage girl impulsively broke away from the others and rushed to kiss the first scout. He blushed in embarrassment. He had been too close to killing anyone in the hut a few seconds earlier to properly enjoy the kiss.

A little later our troops were searching the jungle up ahead. Crushed grass indicated that someone had passed this way. We spread out and began to search the undergrowth. Wesgerdist, a big, blond BAR man from Ohio, moved up to my position. Suddenly Wesgerdist stopped, swinging up the BAR on reflex and firing 10 rounds at a wounded Japanese officer lying in the grass. It was about nine rounds more than was needed. “Hey!” I shouted, “that’s enough!” Wesgerdist claimed the samurai sword and pistol of the dead officer as well as some papers written in Japanese.

A recent airstrike had raised havoc in the small village of Mintal, ripping the tin roofs off the buildings and pockmarking the streets and the surrounding area with bomb craters. Our company spread out as we approached the village, walking on both sides of the road. When a sharp, staccato burst from a Japanese machine gun spattered bullets down the road we dived for cover. I found myself behind a large rock that had been tossed up by a bomb. One BAR man had been in the back, but he was under cover and out of sight by then.

Our acting sergeant stuck his head out of a crater in the middle of the street and let loose a volley of choice oaths. He ducked down again instantly as a high-velocity “woodpecker”–a Japanese Type 92 7.7mm machine gun–raked the dirt just above his head. But Bob’s effort was in vain; we still could not locate the source of the firing. We were frustrated, crouching and sweating in the sun. I began to pray.

We were pinned down. We could not advance or retreat or shoot at what we could not see. Word finally was radioed back to troops with 60mm mortars that we could use some help.

When I heard a dull thud from a mortar in our rear, I got ready to run for better cover, repeating my act of contrition just in case God had not heard my first one out of all the prayers that must have been addressed to him from that tiny village. When a shell exploded near me, I ran. Two more mortar shells were on the way, and I knew the Japanese gunners would have their heads down. But the mortars did not have the right range, and the shells landed very close to my position. I was amazed–and thankful–that I had not been hit by friendly fire.

If our own mortars could not do it, maybe the Navy planes could. We carried a bright orange air panel with us, and somehow someone got it laid out on the ground. In a short time two Navy fighters appeared high in the intense blue sky. They spotted our panel and started screaming down to strafe the Japanese position. We saw puffs of smoke from their wings before we heard the hammer of their guns. Bullets sprayed into the trees where the shooting had come from. Two bombs fell from the planes and crashed into the same area. If the Japanese were not hit, they were certainly likely to leave.

With the opposition gone, we moved out. As we went down the road we discovered a new trick the retreating Japanese had devised to delay us. At intervals in the middle of the road they left small piles of dirt, resembling concealed land mines. Each one had to be carefully checked out in case it turned out to conceal a mine.

When our second BAR man had been hit in Mintal, I had inherited his gun. I remained a BAR man only a short time, however, until they picked a bigger, stronger man to carry the weapon. But I was still carrying that weapon when we came to a stream crossing where the bridge was missing. On the other side, a pillbox commanded the crossing. We split, our squad going upstream to seek a better place to cross, while others went downstream. We found a spot where we thought we could wade across, but it was also protected by another ominous-looking pillbox on the other side. The best strategy, we decided, was for me to keep the enemy inside the pillbox occupied while the other three men in our squad waded over and finished them off at close range.

I set up the BAR and started firing in three-round bursts. The others started to wade across, rifles high over their heads, only to find after a few steps that the water was too deep and the current too swift for them to cross. By the time they got back under cover, my six magazines were almost gone and the barrel was so hot it was burning my fingers.

We heard shooting from the direction the others had taken, and when we rejoined them we found that the GI we called “Tennessee” had been hit in the groin. His face had turned a sickly, pale, grayish-yellow. He continued to chew his gum mechanically, watching with a dull, glassy stare as blood stained his fatigues. His buddies started carrying him back–for him the war was over.

We pulled back to Mintal and set up our perimeter. One consolation was that we were able to suck on some fresh oranges the bombs had failed to knock off the trees. Since it appeared that we were going to stay put for a while, we did our best to fix up our foxholes and prepare the area to resist an attack. About 100 yards immediately in front of us was a four-room schoolhouse, a possible threat. A patrol was sent over to occupy the schoolhouse and discovered some spider holes.

Sometime later our squad went out to relieve the other one. I had hardly settled into a spider hole when I heard the crack of a Japanese sniper rifle and a GI scream, “Jesus! My wrist!” We ducked deeper into the holes, and with only our helmets and eyes exposed, scanned the area for the sniper. The wounded GI was helped back to our perimeter while the rest of us watched for some movement to betray the sniper’s location. We continued to nervously suck on oranges as we waited for our relief on guard duty.

When another squad came later in the afternoon, we ran back over the open ground to our perimeter. I followed 30 feet behind the lead man. As we ran, zigzagging back and forth, there was another rifle crack, and a sniper’s bullet smacked the ground between us. We ducked into a handy bomb crater, checked ourselves for wounds–found none–then jumped out and raced the rest of the way back.

We watched from our foxholes as two American tanks lumbered up to our forward position, wheeled around to face the jungle, and started firing. The gunners had apparently tied the triggers down and were traversing their guns back and forth. The firing was so continuous that it began to sound like a motor. It seemed they fired constantly for five minutes, and later, when they backed up to our perimeter and opened the hatches, the gunners shoveled the spent shells out by the helmetfull.

On the west side of Mintal was a bridge over a stream, and it was decided that the bridge should be guarded to prevent it from being retaken by the Japanese. Our squad sprawled out on a hill in the cool shade, within sight of the bridge but some distance from it. For a few minutes we almost forgot the war as we talked and lolled in the shade–until a rifle cracked in the distance and a bullet passed over our heads. A single leaf, clipped by the bullet, floated to the ground.

Half of the squad, suspicious of a Filipino shack across the stream, wanted to search it. Since there was open ground from our position down to the stream, they decided to circle back to our right under the lush cover of the kunai grass to a point downstream, where they could approach under cover. They disappeared from our sight and must have been nearing the stream when I saw the door of the shack open and a Japanese soldier step out and walk toward the bridge.

I tried to point him out to the others, but they could not locate him in the foliage near the stream. I raised my M-1 and was just about to fire when a BAR down by the stream erupted with half a clip. I fired four rounds, and the Japanese soldier slowly turned around and walked back to the hut. A few moments later we heard an explosion inside the shack, and we thought our patrol must have launched a grenade at the building. They later told us that the Japanese soldier had taken his life with his own grenade.

Soon after that we set up our perimeter on a bald hill. For once we had a commanding view of the jungle below us. The field kitchen had caught up with us at that point, and we had hot food again. The first day passed without event, but the second night was a different story. Bob, a BAR man, and I had dug our three-man hole overlooking a trail that led back on top of the ridge and into higher and deeper jungle. A .30-caliber machine gun was set up to our left, commanding the trail. On our right the hill was bare and steep.

During my turn at guard duty that night there was some faint light from the moon. As I watched the trail, I saw a dark shape moving up it toward us. I bent down and shook my BAR buddy awake. “Hey, I think there’s something moving down there,” I whispered. As I looked again, the figure loomed directly ahead and was coming right at me. Wham! I fired, but it kept right on coming. Now I could see that it was a horse. It stumbled into our perimeter and fell into the foxhole with the lieutenant, the radioman and the medic.

“Hey,” the medic shouted, “there’s a horse in our hole!” The rest of the perimeter erupted in laughter. Nobody slept much after that, and the next morning we rolled the dead horse–he had been drilled neatly through the brisket–over the edge of the hill. The medic limped for a week.

The next morning our squad moved out in the lead, down yet another wet, overgrown trail. Suddenly, a Japanese machine gun sprayed a burst of fire down our line. Jungle Jim Bradley, who was first in line, took a hit and rolled down a small slope. Smales, second in line, doubled over and fell in the soft mud of the trail. Robinson, next in line, went down like a sack. I was fourth. I dropped down, expecting the inevitable.

When the shooting stopped and I realized I had not been hit, I looked back and saw that the rest of the squad had taken cover. Robinson was not hit, either–he had ducked to take cover. But Smales was wounded. I shouted, “Medic!” and was angry when one did not instantly appear. I stripped off my pack and inched forward to Smales, who was lying on his back. He had been hit in the stomach and the knee and had pulled up his fatigue jacket to look at the damage. When I first looked up and saw his long eyelashes on his cheeks I thought he was dead, but then he looked at me with glazed eyes. Robinson was at his head, and I was down by his knees. We slid our arms under him in the soupy mud and inched him back to cover and a waiting medic.

Then we crawled back to Bradley, who seemed to be in shock. He was holding his helmet on with both hands and looked like he wanted to crawl up into it. We said, “Come on, Jim. Let go the helmet!” The blade of his hunting knife, sheathed in his belt over his back pocket, had been snapped off at the hilt, probably by the exiting bullet. By that time the Japanese soldier who had ambushed us had fled his spider hole, and the rest of the squad moved up and helped get Bradley back to the busy medic.

Although we did not realize it at the time, we had been bloodied in our very last skirmish. Shortly after that firefight we were taken to Talomo Beach in dusty 6×6 trucks.

When we arrived at Talomo, we attacked the brush with machetes to make room for rows of olive-drab tents between the shore and a long, shady curve of palm trees. Only when we stopped working did we realize how tired we were. And only when we looked at each other did we see how sweat-stained, sun-browned, begrimed and shaggy we had become in the previous months.

On the night of August 15, many of us were sitting on packing crates or makeshift benches watching Laurel and Hardy cavort on an outdoor movie screen when the program was interrupted by an officer who announced that the Japanese were surrendering. The war was over!

As the impact of the news hit us, we let loose with whistles, shouts and cheers. Laurel and Hardy were abandoned. It was hard to believe the war was over. We sat glued to any radios we could find the next day to hear the reports confirmed. Peace–at last.

Later, we learned that the 24th Division was to be a part of the forces assigned to occupy Japan. We welcomed the change, but we were not sure what our reception would be like in Japan.

I boarded the transport USS George Clymer with Headquarters Company and watched Mindanao recede as we churned toward the open sea. For the last time I looked at Mount Apo, disappearing behind us. It seemed to be untouched by all the devastation and turmoil that had taken place in its shadow. Now Mindanao and its people would recover. As we gathered speed, the island fell below the horizon.


Brother Placid Stuckenschneider, who was known as Lawrence as a young soldier, is a member of the Order of St. Benedict. Further reading: Our Jungle Road to Tokyo, by Robert L. Eichelberger; and Guerrilla Padre in Mindanao, by Edward Haggerty.[ TOP ] [ Cover ]

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