Editor’s note: The following comprises Chapter 4 of Children of Yesterday, by Jan Valtin (published 1946).
“Duty is weightier than a mountain, while Death is lighter than a feather….”
(from a Japanese Imperial Rescript)
Silence on the perimeter; a silence which is the difference between life and death. Mosquitoes roaming. A brown child meandering among machine gun muzzles, searching for its mother. Flares, white and green and red floating from paper parachutes, casting their eerie light upon the swamps and plantations of the coastal flats. The multitude of vessels of San Pedro Bay is blacked-out and still, and the tumultuous congestion on the beach has frozen into chaotic immobility.
Darkness and silence; but silence not for long. The Jap is trained to fight at night when a rifle’s sights cannot be seen against the black opaqueness. He is a believer in stealthy infiltration, in crawling through enemy lines to harass, disrupt and blast from the rear. He is a believer in the rapid traverse of terrain held impassable, to appear abruptly in most unexpected places. Have not these methods worked in his favor in Malaya? In Java, Cochin-China, Sumatra and Singapore? Had not western soldiers who found themselves outflanked, their lines infiltrated, invariably retreated to safeguard the continuity of their positions?
The Jap is, too, a believer in the paralyzing effect of the sudden, savage charge in the dark.
On Hill 522 grenades are lobbed to and fro across the embattled crest. The Division’s artillery is pounding the roads beyond Palo to block their use to enemy reinforcements. Jap snipers still pockmark the beachhead at nightfall, but as yet the beachhead perimeter is tranquil.
Then, suddenly, there is a yell that chills the blood. The night boils with sound and motion: indistinct shapes scurrying up the notched trunks of palms like spectral baboons; shadows squirming like snakes between the lines of foxholes; insidious endeavor to make the blasted pillboxes along Red Beach come back to life at dawn; mortars thumping in the darkness; the dry crack of the Garands and the lesser bark of carbines, and the whip-crack counter barks of the long-barreled Arisaka rifles; the eager clatter of the automatic weapons; the howls of the recklessly rushing foe; the scraping and panting of men carrying away their dead; the moans of the wounded and the rustling of rats among the scattered corpses, and dampness falling steadily from a starlit sky. At 0130 the enemy struck from the south along the Palo-Tacloban highway. He moved forward under the cover of a heavy mortar and machine gun barrage. Leading elements pushed rapidly toward our positions. Following forces branched into a double envelopment of our flanks. The main assault, however, bore straight down the road. It struck the perimeter at the village of Pawing.
Somewhere on the left flank of the perimeter the crews of two machine guns led by Sergeant Karl Geis, of the Bronx, could hear a mass of men approach along the Palo road. An assistant gunner inched forward to reconnoiter. He found the road empty, its surface pale in the starlight, but the sounds of men moving forward through the gloom continued. The assistant gunner wriggled to the far edge of the road. He peered along the steep embankment and he studied the blackness beyond: palms, under brush, clumps of jungle grass taller than a man. There was a faint swishing and crackling that seemed to filter from every pore and crevice of the earth.
The enemy attacked abruptly, and in force. He attacked with mortars, automatic weapons, grenades and rifles. Both American machine guns at this point of the perimeter fired angrily. In the ensuing melee some men of their crews were wounded by grenade fragments. The “Banzai” screaming of the attackers was around them like an engulfing tide. The gunners’ hands never left the triggers. Between feeding their guns the ammunition bearers of the team fired their rifles and carbines, and hurled grenades to keep the Japs from the final closing in….
Geis’ gunners counted at dawn. There were one hundred and sixty Japanese dead in the path of the blackened muzzles.
Some distance forward and to the flank of the machine guns lay Corporal Jack Guttentag of New York City. He and another soldier had been separated from their platoon. They had dodged around in the dark, and once a squad of yelling Japs had rushed past them less than five feet away.
Surrounded by a battle-crazed enemy, Jack Guttentag and his companion took cover behind a toppled palm. From their haphazard shelter they could see their own machine guns spurt fire. Not far away a clump of brush was burning, and in the light of curling flames Guttentag saw a detachment of Japanese creep upon the machine gun position from the flank.
The two soldiers opened fire with their rifles. The enemy be came confused. But seconds later a Japanese machine gun was firing straight at the two isolated Americans. Guttentag’s companion was hit. He cried for help.
Jack fired until his rifle was shot from his hands. Then he crawled to the wounded soldier but could not find the other’s rifle in the dark. There was nothing to do but to clear out. He bandaged the wounded man and gave him water from his canteen when he felt a sudden stab of pain. But he was still able to stand on his feet. He put his arm around his companion’s waist, and together they staggered away. Gradually Jack felt his comrade grow heavier in his arm. He continued to struggle from one palm to the next. They almost made it.
Then Guttentag fell. A burst from a machine gun had killed him.
Defending the right flank of his battalion was a machine gun section led by Sergeant Eric Erickson of Blairstown, New Jersey. The Japanese attacked like demons and Erickson ‘s twin guns spat lead. The first onrush was thrown back. In the sweltering darkness the enemy then managed to push forward a machine gun to the cover of a nearby mound of rubble. Erickson’s gunners were compelled to duck out of the path of death snarling into the flank of their emplacement. The sergeant knew that he must do something to prevent the Japs from rushing his momentarily silent position. Do it quickly.
On his belly he crawled through grass and mud. Compulsions of war are often stronger than the love of life. Rules and regulations had nothing to do with it. It was simply the urge to do what must be done.
Erickson outflanked the enemy gun. He then crept toward it until he could see the reflections of its muzzle flashes in the gunners’ helmets. In quick succession he tossed three grenades.
The machine gun toppled, its gunners killed. Beatrice Erickson has reason to be proud of her man.
A lone gunner was Carl Plouvier of Howardstown, Kentucky. In the pandemonium of the “Banzai” storm his squad was broken up and pushed thirty yards to the rear. Plouvier found himself alone in a foxhole, an automatic rifle as his only companion. A band of Japs crouched scarcely fifteen yards in front.
The twenty rounds in the magazine of a B.A.R. can be expended in less than ten seconds. And Carl Plouvier was down to his last magazine. Between short bursts of fire he yelled for ammunition.
To his rear, others realized his plight. With the accuracy of big league players they tossed him bandolier after bandolier of ammunition. Plouvier burned up the rounds as fast as they came. The Japanese withdrew to reorganize before lashing out anew.
Flat behind a heavy machine gun on the perimeter lay two Clevelanders, Ernest Kolenc and Arthur Rominske. Their sector had been relatively quiet. But shortly before 5 A.M. they heard light footfalls nearing their position. In the ephemeral illumination of nearby grenade flashes they saw a group of people move toward them through no-man’s-land. Some figures in the group looked like women. The two men notified their sergeant.
“Hold your fire,” the sergeant whispered. “Might be natives looking for lost kids and stuff.”
A voice in the night said loudly: “Friends. Filipinos.”
The gunners lay still and waited. The bevy of strangers was less than twenty yards away. More and more of them came on.
“Nips!” said the sergeant.
Their machine gun cut loose in a convulsion of sound. The Japanese screeched, dispersed, lunged forward. The fire fight that followed was savage and brief. Not many of the enemy escaped.
Manning a machine gun at another spot on the embattled beachhead were Samuel Jepma, a Minnesotan from Hancock, and two companions. The onset struck them at 4 a.m. This was neither a trick maneuver nor a suicide assault; it was deliberate assault executed by skilled and fanatical troops. The Japanese advanced in short rushes, bounding from concealment to cover. They did not fire until they were within forty yards of the perimeter.
Jepma could not see the attackers, but he could hear them. The sounds of their forward rushes had ceased. They were at the point of pouncing on his position. He fired several bursts into the invisible skirmish line. Cries in the dark told him that his bullets had reached their mark. But his firing had also betrayed his position.
A Japanese machine gun chattered. A slender cone of bullets sprayed inches above Sam Jepma’s emplacement. Soon there was a familiar popping in the distance. A half-minute later falling mortar shells added to his troubles. Under the cover of their point barrage the enemy riflemen advanced. They fired as they came, howled, and hurled grenades.
A grenade plopped into Jepma’s hole. The explosion badly wounded one of his companions. He heard his comrade thrash the earth and he knew then that death had its hand on his shoulder. One hand lifting the trigger of his gun, the other twirling the traversing mechanism, he blasted away with a hundred rounds into the darkness in front.
The Japs hugged the ground. Jepma could hear their leaders jabber instructions in the dark.
He used the breathing spell to roll his wounded comrade out of the foxhole. He turned over the gun to his remaining companion. Then he crawled out of the foxhole. On elbows and knees, without once rising to a kneeling position, he dragged the wounded soldier to the shelter of another empty hole nearby. After that he returned to his gun. He put in a fresh belt of ammunition and continued to spray the terrain to his immediate front.
But while he had tended his wounded buddy, the Japanese had worked men around to the rear of the emplacement. The two gunners now received fire from the front and from the rear. An outcry made Jepma turn. He saw that his companion had sagged into a corner of the foxhole, killed.
Jepma fired. The sequence of bursts kept the foe glued to the ground. He could hear the Japs’ excited breathing, but he could not see them. “Now,” he thought.
He grasped his machine gun in a bear hug and clambered out of his hole. At a crouch he carried his gun to the hole in which he had deposited his wounded comrade. Even as he was mounting the gun he could hear his assailants wriggle toward his old position. Seconds later they charged the abandoned emplacement. Sam Jepma was ready. The hammering of his machine gun became a continuous roar.
The Japanese scattered. But they were a tenacious crew. They rallied and renewed the attack. There was a metallic crack and a play of sparks. A bullet had hit the barrel of Jepma’s gun. The bullet ricocheted into the night. Another bullet passed through the top of his helmet. Half stunned, Jepma continued to fire. A third bullet ripped through his shoulder. Jepma fired with dogged ferocity. All through the night he had the feeling that it was not he, Sam Jepma, who lived through this nightmare, but someone else, someone he had known, maybe, seven or eight thousand years ago. He fired until the last cartridge had passed through the burning barrel of his gun.
“Time to quit,” thought Gunner Jepma.
He gave the mute machine gun a regretful kick. At his side the wounded man lay quiet.
He took the wounded man on his shoulders. He crossed the Japanese trap at a dogtrot and plunged into a swamp.
“By 0200 the Japanese had pushed to within a few feet of our positions, employing mortars and machine guns which killed or wounded all personnel in the first two three-man positions except Private Harold H. Moon “
(from the Division Record)
In faraway Gardena, California, a mother gazes at a picture of the son she bore and cared for through workaday years. Hazel Moon found it hard to believe that never again would she hear the laughter of her boy, never again hear him tap out a sure footed rhythm to the music he loved, never again see him brush up to meet a girl, or shoulder briskly through the door, and ask, “Mom, what’ve we got to eat?”
Go and ask the fighting men of “George” Company of the Thirty-Fourth about Harold Moon. “He was a happy-go-lucky sort,” they will say, “sloppy in garrison. He cursed the Army. He thought most officers were jerks. He didn’t give a damn for any thing.” Moon lugged with him a phonograph whenever the Division was on the move. Between turns of fighting his hole was riotous with music. But his carelessness sheathed an indomitable courage. “A go-to-hell type of courage,” they said.
At 0130 that first dark night on Leyte the foe began his most determined bid to push the invaders back into the sea. By 0200 Harold Moon knew that all of his mates in two neighboring emplacements had been wounded or killed. A squad sent forward to reinforce the threatening breach had lost its way in the tangled undergrowth beneath the palms.
Moon knew that he was the only man left to defend his point of the perimeter. He realized that if he should fail to hold out until dawn the enemy would score a breakthrough into the heart of the slender beach position.
He expended what grenades he had to repel the first onrush. His buddies in the three-man foxhole had been badly hit; one was dead, the other dying. He had their rifles and their remaining ammunition. And he had his own Thompson submachine gun, already smoking hot in the damp night. Fifteen feet away on one side lay the Palo-Tacloban highway; coconut palms going over into swamps on the other.
Moon heard the slurring of Japanese creeping through the darkness under the palms. He could not see the enemy and he did not want to waste his ammunition on a blind spraying of the ground. He must do something to force the enemy to show himself. He stood up in his foxhole and insulted the attackers.
“Come on, you yellow sons-of-bitches,” he challenged.
The muzzle blasts of rifles stabbed through the gloom. They were firing at the sound of Moon’s voice. Moon replied with quick, short bursts from his Tommy gun. Two of the attackers crumpled. Another burst made them quiet. Moon heard a third Jap about five yards away tap a hand-grenade against a palm log. One— two— three… The Jap rose from his hiding place to hurl the grenade. Moon fired. The Jap gave a piercing cry. Then his own grenade exploded in his face, and the others lay low.
“Listen, Japs,” Moon shouted. “Come on and fight.”
Yamashita’s men were trained to die. They came, this time in a rushing squad. Death clamored from the Californian’s gun. The Japs changed their minds. They sank to the ground as if the earth had swallowed them. Moon’s high-pitched taunts rang through the night.
A lone enemy who had succeeded in crawling to within a few yards of the one-man bastion leaped up and threw a grenade. The grenade rolled into Moon’s foxhole, two seconds from bursting into forty cast iron fragments. In these two seconds Moon killed the Japanese. He kicked the grenade into a far corner of his hole. He threw himself out over the soft earth rim of the emplacement. The grenade roared. Dirt, fire and fragments shot up high. Harold Moon was wounded in the leg. He slipped back into his foxhole, his gun at the ready.
“Come and get me, you bastards,” he shouted.
That was at 0240. No one answered his challenge. There was the noise of night battle elsewhere along the perimeter, the wedge-like flashes of grenades and the lightning wake of the tracers. And there was the moaning of the wounded in adjoining holes.
“Oh, come on and fight,” mocked Harold Moon.
At 0300 the nearest American machine gun was destroyed by a mortar shell. An infiltration party killed its crew. The Japs waxed bolder. Their own machine guns raked the road without opposition.
“Come and get me,” Moon shouted angrily.
“Coming,” a voice said from across the road.
“Who’s that?” demanded Moon.
“This is a Japanese officer,” the voice stated precisely.
“That’s fine,” said Moon. “Come on and fight, you bastard.”
The voice screamed: “Filthy American.”
Moon saw a shadow dart upright on the far side of the road and vanish in an instant. The Jap had thrown a grenade.
“Missed,” Moon announced. ‘Try again.” This time he was ready. His shoes and leggings were sticky with blood from his leg wound. The officer tossed a grenade. Moon fired. Seconds of silence followed. “We both missed,” said the Jap.
“So sorry,” replied Moon.
“I shall try again,” the officer announced.
‘Try again, you crooked rat.”
The duel continued for an hour. The Japanese grew wary of showing himself to that apparent maniac with the submachine- gun. Moon shouted every insult he could think of to tease his adversary into showing himself against the blackness of palm and brush. The Jap was too seasoned to accept the bait. But he continued to accept the challenge.
Harold Moon deliberately exposed himself to get a shot at the officer. He sat on the edge of his foxhole. “Here I am,” he taunted. “Now come and get me.” In a flash the officer was on his knees, grenade poised. A long burst from Moon’s gun cut him in two.
While Moon was thus engaged, other Japs inched forward, fanning out as they came. By 0430 Moon was completely surrounded. By 0500 a Jap light machine gun had been pushed to within 20 yards of the position. Curiously, its fire ignored Harold Moon. With deadly accuracy the gun played havoc with the survivors of a platoon farther down the line.
From this point on the Californian’s stand would appear a Homeric incredibility were it not a sober military fact recorded in an affidavit by Staff Sergeant Verdun C. Myers of Tecumseh, Oklahoma, at whose emplacement the sudden holocaust of fire was directed.
“Although under heavy machine gun and mortar fire himself,” swore Myers, “Private Moon with extraordinary heroism exposed himself to locate this enemy machine gun, and then, remaining exposed, he directed and adjusted fire upon it, destroying the entire crew.”
The night was pregnant with a weird crescendo of shrieks. There was a commotion of barely discernible shadows, of ghostly shapes darting hither and yon. The shrieks subsided into a chant of frustration, and in a clump of grass a Japanese voice jabbered. A silence followed, punctuated by the dull crashing of grenades elsewhere on the perimeter, and by the moans of the uncared-for wounded.
Through the pre-dawn blackness drifted the worried voice of Platoon Sergeant Ferguson:
“Harold, are you all right?”
No answer. The Jap voice in the kunai chattered on with blunt authority. There was an anxious cry, the padpad of feet running over palm fronds, a whimpering that seemed to filter from the brooding swamps, the croak of a bull-frog, and then there was Moon’s voice bellowing abuse.
“You lousy bunch of — ! Got you, didn’t I.” And then with coaxing derision: “Why don’t you guys come over here and get my gun?”
He cut loose with a quick burst at a shadowy figure six feet away.
“Come and get it,” said Moon defiantly.
Across the highway, shrieks again stabbed skyward.
“Stop your caterwauling,” shouted Moon.
Somewhere off to his rear John Ferguson laughed. “Moon is all right,” he said. Ferguson came from Utica, Kentucky. He was wounded and bleeding, but in this horror-filled night he had led his decimated platoon in the repulse of eight Japanese assaults, and four of these had been “Banzai” charges.
Next the enemy laid down a mortar barrage. The first shells fell short; the following exploded in the immediate rear of Ferguson’s platoon. Thus bracketed, with hits creeping closer and closer, the hollow booming of the explosions signaled doom. Ferguson called for counter mortar fire. But communication wires were broken. The mortar men in the rear had only hazy knowledge of the foe’s mortar positions. They fired ‘by God and by guess.’ Their shells missed the Jap gunners.
Again Moon sprang into the breach. Sergeant Myers reports that the youth from Gardena “knowingly exposed himself to hostile mortar fire to shout range corrections to friendly mortars.”
The Japanese mortars were silenced.
Minutes later there was a shout that a soldier was bleeding to death in a forward foxhole. A corpsman rushed forward. Braving the awful chance of being shot by his own friends, he slithered into the dying man’s hole. A few rifle lengths distant lurked the Japanese. Unarmed, the aid man applied a tourniquet, using the wounded soldier’s bayonet and belt.
Standing upright in his foxhole, Moon watched the medic work. He was unaware of the two Japanese who neared the group, sliding on their bellies. Sergeant Myers’ affidavit continues:
“Hearing the Japs yell as they closed in for the kill, Private Moon turned and killed them both before they were able to harm the aid man.”
“By 0545 Private Moon was running short of ammunition. His position had been the focal point of the enemy attack for over four hours. They were determined to take it. Private Moon was determined to hold it. The Japanese had worked men around on all sides of Private Moon’s position.
“At dawn an entire platoon of the enemy arose and rushed the position in a desperate bayonet assault. Private Moon calmly steadied his Tommy gun between his knees, and calling to the Japanese to come and get him he emptied the entire magazine into them, killing eighteen (18) before they overwhelmed and killed him.”
With Moon dead, the enemy pushed forward again. Dawn was on the way. From the surrounding swamps the mists rose in tormented spirals. Sergeants Myers and Ferguson realized that if any men of their platoon were to escape they would have to do so at once.
“What about our wounded?” asked Myers.
Verdun Myers, thrice wounded in three successive campaigns, was a tall, handsome man in his twenties. He was intelligent and self-taught. At home, in Oklahoma, a young wife and a child were waiting for him, hoping for him. There he was: dead weary, his hair caked with sweat and mud, his helmet creased by an enemy bullet, his uniform spotted with blood.
Earlier that night a grenade had burst in Sergeant Myers’ three-man emplacement. Both of his mates had been struck down by fragments. Across the killing zone the Oklahoman had carried his disabled comrades to the center of the perimeter where medical aid was at hand. He had then returned to his hole and rejoined the fight. But now, with broad daylight in the offing and swarms of Japs surrounding the remnants of his platoon, the fit would surely die with the wounded if the fit were to attempt to lug their wounded in a dash through hostile lines.
“Hide the wounded,” the two sergeants agreed.
It was the best they could do.
They probed through clumps of underbrush and grass with their last grenades. They then dragged their wounded in the undergrowth.
The short black steel clicked into the muzzle studs of the Garands of those who still could walk. The last of their cartridges clicked into the chambers. “What,” said someone, “will the guys on the perimeter do when they see us charging up in front of their lines?” The most repugnant of all war’s ironies is to be killed by one’s own.
“We’ll take that chance,” said Myers. And then: “On your feet— Follow me!“
As one man they rose and charged.
Yelling and firing they broke through the enemy lines.
With daylight the battalions resumed the offensive. Strewn along the Palo-Tacloban road lay more than six hundred Japanese dead. No one went to the trouble of counting the corpses which littered the adjoining fields and swamps. The enemy dead were first line troops: members of the 16th Japanese Division, veterans of Manchuria and Bataan.