The Acaba Tree

January 24, 1945

I enjoy hearing the rain beat down on the roof. I makes you feel so smug and comfortable. We have cots now and sleep off the ground–just like civilized people.

As for purchases of cloth–you seem to forget that economic life has been at a standstill here since the war. The only clothes the people have is what they possessed before the war. Since we arrived there has been some stipulation of native cloth wearing. However, it is hardly suitable for making garments that could be worn in the states. It is woven from threads made by drying strips of abaca. The abaca tree looks like the banana tree. The trunk is very soft and pulpy and can be torn by hand into long strips or threads which when dried make a very tough fiber. The Filipinos weave some very attractive table cloths and napkins out of this and I plan to buy some the next time we get paid. Right now my capital is non-existent.

Some of the schools have now opened here and life is beginning to approach normal conditions and civilization has finally come to the Filipines. You can see little Filipino boys carry cartoon books–Dick Tracy, etc.–which they have been given by the fellows. You’d be surprised how the GI’s mother these kids. Quite a few now have “number one house boys” who do odd jobs around the camp–cleaning up, carrying water, etc–and in return they feed the kids & give them clothes, take them swimming and to the shows–just like a father. It only goes to show how home-sick and lonesome they are. The Nazi soldiers certainly must have a beating when they moved into the occupied countries and found that the people wouldn’t speak to them.

Do you realize how much it means to a soldier away from home to be able to talk to somebody other than a soldier. These people have certainly helped a lot. They invited a lot of guys to dinner on Xmas and often invite them to dances and baptisms. They wander through the camps soliciting clothes to wash, selling bananas, tangerines, onions, etc. There are even rumors that some of the guys have married, but I haven’t actually seen any weddings. The Negro troops are quite popular here, The Filipinos think they are American Indians. Whenever a truckload of Negro soldiers goes by they attract lots of attention. The girls point to them & giggle. They think the boys are pretty cute. I suppose quite a few will marry here & settle down in the Philippines.

Poor as these Philipinos are, their standard of living is still much better than that of many of the Southern Negroes & so-called “white trash”. They are very alert and enthusiastic about eduction. However, most of them would never be able to do more than go through high school. The girls will learn home-economics & the boys will study agriculture.

The salami is almost gone now. I was saving it for the beer, which is now aa week overdue, and finally could not resist no longer. If you can spare the ration points, I certainly could use another one. The last one arrived in excellent shape because you didn’t wrap it.

Acquilino

December 28, 1944

The results of my birthday party were quite interesting. The next morning a number of kids came to greet me with gifts of eggs, bananas, camotes and green onions.

One little fellow of 15 is a particularly good friend of mine now. His name is Acquilino and when I gave him and his buddies some candy he said, in a very precise English – “I am so sorry sir, I have nothing to give you.”

I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Acquilino, you have very much to give me—and that is your friendship.” He was visibly touched—a lump came into his throat and then he smiled.

The next morning he was back very early with a little sack of camotes—It is the only food the family has and I was not so sure he could spare it, but to refuse was impossible as I looked into that bright eager face. So I took the camotes and gave him an armful of things that would be very useful at home.

Acquilino wants to be a doctor but his family is too poor, so he will be a farmer like his father. His brother was a school teacher in a very small barrio (village), but when the Japs came in he was pointed out by spies as the leader of the underground movement. He was brutally beaten & then taken away and has not been heard of since.


Despite heavy casualties, the Japanese mounted two more attacks on consecutive nights. Not until the morning of 27 November were American troops able to take the offensive, counting at the time some 400 enemy dead outside of their perimeter and discovering over 100 more along with 29 abandoned machine guns as they advanced farther northwards that day. The 7th Division soldiers dubbed the successful defense of the Damulaan area “the Shoestring Ridge battles” after the precarious supply system that supported them rather than after the terrain fought over.

After a few days’ rest and a rotation of units, General Arnold finally began in earnest his advance toward Ormoc with a novel tact tic. On the night of 4 December vehicles of the 776th Amphibian Tank Battalion put to sea and leaped-frogged north along the coast 1,000 yards ahead of the ground units. The next morning, the tanks moved to within 200 yards of the shore and fired into the hills in front of the advancing 17th and 184th regiments. This tactic proved effective, greatly disorganizing the defenders, except where ground troops encountered enemy pockets on reverse slopes inland, shielded from the offshore tank fire.

As the 7th Division pushed north with a two-regiment front, the 17th Infantry inland encountered heavy enemy fire coming from Hill 918, from which the entire coast to Ormoc City could be observed. It took two days of intense fighting against enemy units supported be mortar and artillery fire for the 17th and 184th regiments to clear the strongpoint, after which the advance north accelerated. By 12 December, General Arnold’s lead battalion was less than ten miles south of Ormoc City.

Pollywog or Shellback

November 5, 1944

We are now in a rest camp, about 8 miles behind the lines. It certainly helps the nerves to be able to get away from machine gun and artillery and sniper fire. The rest camp is in a beautiful coconut grove and close by is a river. Yesterday, we went swimming in the river, and I can’t remember when I have ever had a more refreshing bath. I also washed some clothes. Some of the fellows made a deal with the natives giving them a package of cigarettes or candy in exchange for laundry service; but I preferred to wash my own. Returning from the swim, I found our barracks bags had arrived and I was able to get some clean clothes. Surprising how a bath and clean clothes will revive your spirits and make one feel human again. The best news of all is that mail is expected within a day or 2.

It is now 0900 in the morning. The sun is hot, but it is still cool and moist beneath the banana trees where I am sitting on a 5 gallon water can. In front of me is a big picture of Willie tied with a string to the base of a coconut tree. This is really home.

Well, permit me for a moment to digress for a moment to describe the experience of crossing the equator. Contrary to popular belief, the equator proved to be a pretty cool region. In fact, we had some cool and refreshing rain.

One who has never crossed the equator is a landlubber or pollywog. The veterans who have crossed are called shellbacks. Of course, the pollywogs are initiated when crossing the equator. We had very elaborate ceremonies, presided over by King Neptune and Davy Jones. King Neptune, who rules the Equator, appeared in full regal garb, complete with crown, colorful purple robes, and a long white beard made by tying a mop under his chin. Davy Jones is a typical buccaneer—with a handkerchief cap, black patch on one eye, black boots. Hairy chest covered with tattoos, and short black trunks tied around the waist with a red sash.

I am enclosing a copy of the charges made against me. [1. Sneaking across the line in a snide and clandestine matter without proper obeisance to His Majesty; 2. For practicing guard house law without a license and chasing ambulances; 3. For having an extra meal ticket so he can be first in line; 4. For using chemical agents in his pipe with intent to stifle his comrades.”] They included several offenses, in addition to attempting to cross the Equator without making proper obeisance to King Neptune. When my name was called, the Royal Police brought me before the King and the charge was read. Davy Jones pronounced me guilty, and I had to pay the penalty. King Neptune prodded me with his tribune, and then the fun began. First to the Royal Barber, where I was placed in a stock while the barber proceeded to cut all kinds of fancy designs in my hair. Then I was hustled over to another corner, placed in a wooden casket with holes in it. The lid was closed and Davy Jones availing helper poured buckets of sea water through the holes while others created a terrific racket by pounding on the sides with clubs. Emerging from the casket, somewhat dazed, I was rushed to a chair, and immediately received a series of stimulating electric shocks. A siren sounded, and before I knew it, the chair, fixed on hinges went over backwards and I was plunged headfirst into a pool of water 5 feet deep. There, various shellbacks proceeded to duck me under water. Each time I came up they would ask: “Pollywog or Shellback?” Before I could catch my breath and answer, I was down again. Finally, I managed to sputter “Shellback”, and was allowed to clamber out of the pool—a full fledged shellback. Some fun eh?

Succession of Contrasts

November 3, 1944

I am sitting under a banana tree and it is quite cool and moist in this particular spot, although the morning sun is shining very hotly already.

At times it is hard to realize that we are on a battlefield. War is a succession of contrasts. In the evening you are sitting on the edge of your foxhole, watching a full round moon slowly climbing into the sky and throwing a soft golden light across the rice paddies. Tall coconut palms are silhouetted against the stars and billowy white clouds that hang in the heavens. Except for the chirping of the crickets and the husky croaking of the frogs in the swamps, or the occasional shrill cry of the night birds, all is quiet. You are contentedly smoking your pipe and for the first time in the day are able to forget the war and think of home.

Suddenly the enemy artillery opens up. In a second all is changed. It is a war again Down into a foxhole again. The enemy guns are located by their flashes and our own artillery sends its answer. A thunderous barrage makes the ground come to life, as though an angry giant were shaking the whole world. The concussion rattles you around in your foxhole like a bean in a jar. For 20 or 30 minutes it continues, as you lie there cursing the goddamn enemy. Then, as suddenly as it began, the whole nerve-shattering racket closes. The clouds are white again, whereas before they were angry red, reflecting the flashes of the guns. The frogs, the birds and crickets take up their interrupted symphony. The palm trees wave gently in the cool night air and the gentle moment soothes the tried nerves and you are thinking of home again.

The 17th landed on Leyte on October 20, 1944. The regiment captured the town of Dagami on October 29th. By November 23, 1944, the fighting on Shoestring Ridge was ferocious. Japanese artillery rained down on US positions and launched a fierce charge on troops holding the ridge.