VE-Day and Readjustment
THERE are times when the moment seems to take on a peculiar significance. Glass in hand, as you waited for the first stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, haven't you felt, almost palpably, time rushing past? Haven't you felt almost impelled to stretch out your hand to stop it and look at it?
May 8, 1945, the day we call VE-Day, was one of the great moments in History. By their arrogance, ruthless tyranny over occupied countries and cold-blooded slaughter of thousands of defenseless men and women, the Germans had given us a horribly vivid forecast that, had they been victorious, they would have turned the World into a place of horror, darker and more hopeless than ever it was in the Dark Ages. At last, on May 8, 1945, the civilized nations of the Earth, up from the grim, seemingly hopeless days of 1940, when the cause of humanity, even of Christianity itself, seemed all but lost, had come to a moment in History, in greatness the equal of any; a moment when we could say, not in pomp and jubilation, but with humble thanksgiving, that this ghastly catastrophe had been averted.
Yet to members of the Brigade, far from home, committed to their daily tasks in the Philippines, it was hard to appreciate the full significance of this great day. There was practically no celebration. In truth the spirit of celebration was a scarce article in more ways than one. But, most potent reason of all, we still had work to do. While the Hun was being mastered in Europe, we had been engaged in a long running fight with his heathen partner the Jap. Earlier chapters of this History have told how, first with the 'Aussies,' then with the U. S. Sixth and Eighth Armies, this Brigade had done its part in getting the Japanese enemy down. But he was not yet quite 'out.' The battles of Iwo and Okinawa showed that he was just as tenacious as ever. There was, now, no possible doubt as to the outcome, but it still looked like a long, sweaty and bloody road before we could celebrate VJ-Victory over Japan-Day, which would finally set us free and bring peace on Earth at last.
But VE-Day did bring excitement in another way. The War Department's plan for Redeployment and Readjustment was announced and every officer and man saw the film "Two Down and One to Go." Immediately everyone started to figure his points and, when the cards were collected, it was found that many had the first announced initial score of 85 or over. Obviously the Brigade was slated to lose a large number of its veterans. Only a few days elapsed before orders for the first contingent arrived. On June 4 at Leyte, Gen Heavey gave a farewell and God speed talk to 114 of our original officers and men bound for civilian life after three long years in the Army, of which more than 28 months had been spent overseas. They had all made the trip from Cape Cod to the Philippines with stops at Carrabelle, Ord, Australia, New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago. Many of them went home with four battle stars as well as presidential Citation ribbons, Meritorious Service badges, and other awards.
Just before this, after many months with only a handful of men allowed going to the States on Rotation or furlough, the Brigade finally got another break. General Heavey had long realized that the Brigade had been so closely engaged that some form of rest and rehabilitation was essential. In the summer of 1944 he had practically concluded arrangements to take the entire Brigade to Southern Australia for a rest period. This was canceled when the date for the Leyte landing was stepped up several months and once again 2 ESB was declared essential. Now almost a year later it looked as if a period of relative inactivity was bound to intervene, while our forces from the European Theater were deployed to the Pacific. Seizing this opportunity, General Heavey petitioned General MacArthur himself for a special quota of officers and men to be returned to the States for rest and rehabilitation. This time the request was granted and within two weeks 36 officers and 600 men were on their way home for 45 days TD, free of travel time. For a large number of the lucky ones to draw 'winning tickets' in this quota, it was their first furlough since joining the Brigade back in Cape Cod in 1942. Their rest was certainly well deserved.
"2 ESB" COVERS THE PHILIPPINES
VE-Day found the Brigade working on every major island of the Philippines, a record attained by no other unit. Headquarters 532d was on Mindoro, but units of the regiment were operating on Palawan, Leyte, Samar, Masbate and at Batangas Bay on Luzon. 542d was performing all the boat and shore work required for the re-conquest of the central Vises. Regimental Headquarters was situated at Cebu City. Units of the Regiment were operating on the islands of Panay, Negros, Bohol and Cebu itself. Company A was still the backbone of all lighterage work in the Tacloban-Dulag area on Leyte, where the initial assault on the Philippines was made in October '44, and one task group was located at Macalajar Bay on the North coast of Mindanao. All of 592 was on Luzon but widely scattered from Subic Bay on the West Coast to Manila Bay, Batangas, Legaspi and on up the Eastern Coast another 300 miles to Infanta and Dingalan Bay. Headquarters 562d Boat Maintenance Battalion together with the Heavy Shop and part of one maintenance Company were camped at the head of Cancobato Bay near Tecloban while the rest of the Battalion was dispersed between Palawan, Mindoro, Cebu, Negros, Subic Bay and Batangas. The 562d was one of the best known units on Leyte, not only because they rendered yeoman service to the Navy and to Base King in addition to their regular maintenance of Brigade craft, but also because of their famous 'Sea Horse Theater,' of which more will come later. True to 2 ESB tradition of being spread all over the map, 262 Medical Battalion was also well dispersed at that time, with one company at Cebu, one at Nasugbu, not far from Batangas on Southern Luzon, and with their Headquarters and the third company on White Beach near Tacloban. Brigade Headquarters and special troops were also on Leyte at Catmon Hill beach about 20 miles South of Tacloban.
In all of our overseas camps, units of the Brigade have had their outdoor theaters. Most of us took a poncho and fatigue hat to the show even when the weather looked clear, and when the movies were running we were as faithful in attending three shows a week as we ever were a thousand dollar bank night. What the movies were, made no difference. At first the movies were a little old and we heard considerable conjecture during the shows as to whether William S. Hart would one day be a star. Later we saw Guadalcanal Diary, Casablanca, Gaslight, and Going My Way and told our folks back home not to miss these pictures when they came to the Uptown theater. We smoked during the show on nights when the rain did not extinguish the cigarette or a zippo lighter and the comments on the lieutenant who was at once indignant and dissatisfied with his assignment in Washington, in the midst of a bevy of beautiful girls, were always good especially at the climax where he triumphantly sailed past the Statue of Liberty or under the Golden Gate bridge. In a restrained sort of a way, such plots were known as "B"pictures.
Some of the theaters were on any likely hillside that afforded a maximum of visibility. However, at Finschhafen, Hollandia, and especially at Leyte in the Philippines, units of the Brigade had theaters known far and wide. The best known was the Sea Horse Theater at Leyte built during off-duty hours by the 562d Engineer Boat Maintenance Battalion. This theater was the first to stage "Hell-za-poppin", "This is the Army", "Oklahoma" and many other leading USO shows as well as first-run movies. The theater area and sports arena would seat nearly ten thousand troops and was attended by Navy, Air Corps, Engineer, and Base troops from a large area.
The Brigade Dance Orchestra was another feature to brighten our lives overseas. Headed by T/4 Theodore Piaseczny, it included five saxophones, four trumpets, two trombones, a piano, and drums. Many of the musicians had played professionally in civilian life and the ensemble was first rate by any standards. In addition to playing for dances at Officers' and Enlisted Men's clubs, they featured many stage performances often on movie nights before the presentation of the movie. In these shows they were sometimes assisted by T/4 John W. Eads, whose 'experiments' in magic - especially the inexhaustible canteen - will long be remembered.
Our shows were often interrupted by Red Alerts. Sometimes these would develop into a sizeable raid. Then the crowd would hastily disperse to take what cover could be found by coconut palms or in nearby foxholes. But more often it would turn out to be a visit from a lone Jay flyer, commonly known as "Washington Machine Charlie." His mission seemed to be fly around, make as much of a nuisance of himself as possible, close down all the shows in the area and then drop three or four 'eggs' and clear out. He was not a good aimer and generally the 'eggs' fell back in the jungle or in the ocean, but every so often he would succeed in dropping them in a troop area with tragic results. By the time the Biak and Leyte operations took place, we had sufficient radar-controlled ack-ack to fire at night, thus spoiling Charlie's game, but it was sometimes hard to decide which was the more dangerous, jap bombs or falling flak.
An amphibian casualty on the beach in New Guinea
LST launching Support Battery Buffalo at sea
THE COST OF CONQUEST
Victory costs the victor as well as the vanquished. Our prime mission has been to land and supply the infantry artillery and air force so that they could defeat the enemy. However, Engineer Amphibians have fully justified their classification as Combat Troops. In performing our prime mission we too have been in frequent combat with the enemy-on land, on sea, and in the air.
Our rocketeers, antiaircraft gunners and shore fighters are definitely known to have killed 1167 Japs up to May 31, 1945. These were ops no other unit was firing upon. Undoubtedly we killed many more which were included in those reported by others. To accomplish this, eight officers and seventy-six men of the Brigade paid the supreme sacrifice. Fortunately not a single member of the Brigade was captured by the Japs. To June 30, 1945, we captured 170 of them; pulling many of them out of the waters of Manila Bay.
As the Philippine Campaign closed we found we had lost only 28 of our landing craft to enemy fire and to storm and reef while we can definitely claim destroying or capturing 131 jap barges and disabling a medium tanker with our rocket fire. Probably our best combat credit against the Japs, however, was shooting down forty-eight of his planes. These planes were brought down by our fire alone, no others firing at them at the time they were hit. Undoubtedly our gunners hit many others.
The logistics of our work is hard to digest. To June 30, 1945, over two million passengers were landed from our craft without the loss of a single life through accident. It is true Jap fire killed some of them but not one allied life was lost through drowning or accident. The cargo discharged by our craft to June 30, 1945, was 1,530,056 tons, enough to fill two hundred Liberty ships. In doing these jobs our boats ran more than three million miles.