THREE - In the Philippines
Olongapo was a quaint little seaport town just outside the gates of a lush and verdant U.S. Naval Station. It was like a tropical resort, one of the jewels in a string of great duty stations where Marines and Sailors served. They said Frank Buck, the famous wild animal collector, often stayed there while seeking specimens in the Bataan jungles nearby.
The big green, two story Marine Barracks neatly trimmed in white was home to a regular guard detachment who enjoyed good relaxed living there. Framed among lovely palm, acacia and coconut
trees, it would have made a pretty picture post card from any direction. With the exception of monsoon rains that came regularly each year, it was a sometimes warm but an almost always pleasant climate. Naval stations like this had a great reputation for being a good place to serve. The small size of the garrison, friendly people in the area, and it’s geography, made it one of the best stations of all.
The sudden arrival of 400 China Marines, about half of the regiment, maybe, placed a greater stress on station resources. The “hotel” was booked solid and there was little room for the “visitors”. Preparations for us had begun days before and were still under way when we disembarked. Some warehouses had been cleared out for our sleeping quarters where we bunked on GI folding cots. Filipino workmen were still busy constructing washrooms and heads out doors along side of them. Our company cooks set up a field kitchen near by and began preparing meals. They were served outside under the palm trees. Eating out was a novelty for us. We had been accustomed to dining inside off chinaware and glass set on tables covered with clean white
bed sheets in comfortable mess halls. Now, for the first time in my experience, the band sat down to eat from our aluminum mess kits. Before that it was just one more thing to keep clean and highly polished. After the crowded ship, it was like a big company picnic; plenty of room to spread out. Not the best food in the Corps, but there was enough of it.
The band had it pretty soft. No rehearsals, no concerts, and no parades. It never functioned as a musical organization after arriving in Olongapo. Most of the instruments and music were still packed so the first few days on the station were spent on working parties handling and storing tons of stuff we had managed to bring out of China. There was crated furniture, belonging to the officers mostly, footlockers, extra steamer trunks, sea bags, big black carved teak wood chests, rations, ammo, and one little mongrel dog, named Soochow, the 4th Marines mascot. Not very heavy duty.
There was a payday a day or two after we arrived and we bandsmen lined up to draw money in new crisp Philippine pesos, two to the dollar. The bugler sounded pay call, chow call and liberty call, almost all in one breath. Half of us were given liberty “ashore” the first day and the other half the next.
It was December 7, the 6th Hawaiian time, the last day of peace in the Pacific, and the boys in the band got ready to go “ashore”. Barrio Olongapo had only a few bars and night clubs, it was a far cry from the kind of a liberty port that Shanghai was. Some of the stuff served in P.I. bars must have been made of rotten coconuts. It left a bad taste in the mouth, like kerosene. A few of us brought back some throbbing hangovers, maybe more than just a few. The noise workers made finishing the wash room next to our barracks was disturbing, like World War II had already started. When a carpenter just dropped a nail it sounded like the clock striking on Shanghai’s Race Course tower. Since I couldn’t sleep in, I got up to go see what all the noise was about. One of the contract workers had his 1928 Chevy parked next to the job site and was sitting behind the steering wheel with the door open listening to his car radio. He had it tuned to a Manila station news broadcast. The announcer was making a frantic report of the terrible and devastating sneak attack in Hawaii. No warning. Boom! just like that. Sunday morning. Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines, some still half asleep, Others, like us, still a little hung over, caught by surprise and not ready.
The man said almost the whole Pacific Fleet had been completely destroyed, or so he made it sound. At first I thought it was some dumb joke, but then, finally, I knew it was not. Japan had really started a war. It would come to the Philippines soon, I was very sure.
Later that day I learned the station whistle sounded an alarm in the early hours and conditions of a war alert had been set before I woke up. Then the Fourth Marines Band became the 3rd Platoon of ‘E’ company, 2nd Battalion; riflemen now, no longer bandsmen. When there is a fight, in the Marine Corps you were a soldier first and everything else is secondary.
It was only a matter of hours, on December 8th, that a flight of Japanese Mitsubishi bombers flew low over Olongapo and gave every body their first taste of war. The bombs they dropped hit mostly in the barrio killing and wounding many civilians and we suffered our first casualties. Several Marines on patrol, searching for those not yet returned from liberty and looking for any suspicious activity “ashore”, were hit and several badly injured. The wounded were taken to hastily established medical aid stations in the Riverside Cabaret. PFC Neil lovino, the Colonel’s driver and one of our first casualties was treated there. Many citizens hurt in the raid were also treated by the Regiment’s Navy doctors and
corpsmen there at the Cabaret.
The next day Japanese planes followed a flight of our PBY Aircraft in from patrol. The big two motored seaplanes were moored to their floating buoys in the bay near an old abandoned coaling dock, once used for fueling ships before they burned oil. Tied to it was a big barge load of fuel drums filled with aviation gasoline. Another man from our company and I were detailed to guard it. When the enemy planes came I was in the head; what served as one. It was just a makeshift seat out over the water on the rickety old rusting structure. There was no privacy, the place was uninhabited. “Wouldn’t you know they would attack at the worst possible time.” I thought. We knew they were coming and had been waiting. I chided myself, “Not now! with your pants down! You dummy! What a rotten break.” The first Jap plane was already diving his craft toward the PBY amphibious airplane, anchored closest to me, and opened fire when my partner yelled, “Get the hell off there!”
I grabbed my rifle and slung it over my shoulder. Then, clutching my trousers around me, ran off the dock getting as far away from
~5000 gallons of high test avgas as I could. Had it been set ablaze I would have been instantly roasted alive like a wiener on a stick. Apparently the enemy thought they would need the fuel soon and never fired a single shot at the barge. For the moment I had no feelings of gratitude.
Machine gun bullets crackled behind me in the water as I ran off the dock. They were being directed at our airplanes, but at first I had the feeling that they were shooting only at me. “How could they have known where I was, what I was doing and catch me with such surprise?”~ the thoughts running through my mind faster than sixteenth notes in circus time.
By the time I took cover under a canopy of trees and brush high up on the shore above the decaying coaler, the other Marine was firing his BAR at the Japanese planes, “zeros” they would be called later in the war. We called them “flying meatballs” because of the red circles painted on their wings and sides. Considering where we were, separated from the rest of our guys, the closest troops being the poor sailors out there in the water trying to save themselves and, uselessly, their airplanes, right there on the dock, it seemed like it was just we two against all the Japs.
The noise of our guns was hardly noticeable amid the din of shooting just off shore. My comrade directed his BAR fire at the planes as they came into view from behind the coal bunkers just in front of us. Our planes were like decoy ducks in the water tethered to their anchor buoys and some were already burning as I hurried to join him. Our position would have been great had we had a little more fire power, like twin 50 caliber machine guns. Missing them was hardly possible being less than a hundred yards away. Tracer bullets from our rifles were hitting the side of the enemy’s planes. We could see the smoke trails ricochet off of them, but our firing had no noticeable effect. They just kept coming, paying no attention to us, concentrating on those big beautiful airplanes that burned quickly before our eyes, seven of them. Some of the crews, still aboard securing the planes and readying them for another flight, fired their machine guns at the enemy’s planes until they had to jump in the water to escape the flames. They swam ashore near us badly shaken.
Then the enemy planes joined those striking the facilities of the Naval Station proper. Thirty caliber machine guns in sand bagged emplacements had been positioned all over the area. Some in the wide shady lawns and others along the old stone sea wall. One was even in the crows nest of the old USS Rochester, a
decommissioned cruiser once a part of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White” fleet in the early 1900’s. I have since thought that I would have preferred to have been a member of that gun crew. If so I could sit down with my grandsons and say, “Now let me tell you about
the time I was a gunner on ....etc. etc.” Like as not I’d have to precede such a yarn with a history lesson so, maybe it’s just as well. Here, the rest of the battalion with its new platoon of musician fighters fought back at the marauding airplanes with rifles and machine guns; the former bandsman playing a much, much different tune, about one shot at a time.
In spite of the hail of bullets thrown up at them, the Japanese bombed and strafed the station with no mercy. The attack had not the fury of the Pearl Harbor raid and the defenders were not caught so surprised. Although some believed they saw smoking enemy planes disappear over the horizon, none were shot down for sure. It was not a costly mission for the Japanese. The attack left the once tropically elegant base reeling and smoking. The water tower that looked the same as many in small towns back home, spouted great leaks from enemy cannon fire like a huge giant crying in agony.
The attack left me with some weird ideas. I began to hate doing anything that would leave me in a ridiculous position should the enemy suddenly attack again; changing clothes, going to the head or taking a bath. Anything like that. I was almost superstitious about it. Like just unbuckling my belt would invite an unmerciful onslaught. Crazy superstition? I found out if you don’t know the real reasons for bad things like that happening, the mind invents them.
Then we went into the field. The band’s first bivouac was the USNAS rifle range north of the station. We spent a night or two in the “butts”, among the equipment used to raise targets above the parapet for the shooters. We slept on the hard concrete bases around the target elevators or on the ground. Later we moved on up into the jungles just above a beach front coconut grove. Here we washed and dyed our white
skivvie underwear beige in a vat of super strong coffee. It would be harder to spot from the air while hanging on the brush to dry.
Several times we were rushed down to the waters edge and were ordered to dig in and prepare to repel enemy landings expected there. Our battalion commander,
Lt.Col Herman R. (Red) Anderson strolled up and down the beach urging us to dig in but not to worry, “That’s okay men, they got nothin’ bigger than 8 inch shells to throw at us!” I thought that to be little consolation at the time. I learned how to dig fox holes and wore the enamel off my entrenching tool.
The most powerful weapon we had for repelling any attack was a 30 caliber Browning Automatic Rifle ( BAR), some guys had a few hand grenades but I don’t remember being issued any. I had thrown a few practice grenades in boot camp and remembered only that you had to pull the pin, let the handle fly, count off two or three beats and then heave it, something like a shot put. That might not be right but it is what I remember, that and to duck real fast. We sat all night under our tin pot helmets watching for Jap warships and landing craft to enter the bay. This might have been the first battle of the last China Band of 2nd Bat, 4th Marines if the Japanese had landed troops on our positions that brilliant moonlit night at Olongapo. I am sure all of us musicians turned infantry, would have given a good account of ourselves. We certainly had a good spirit, and excellent morale. We knew ever so well what we were supposed to do and the great tradition we had to live up to. But we did not know that thousands of veteran Japanese troops, the main thrust of their 14th Army were already streaming ashore not far north of us at Lingayen Gulf. What force was expected at Subic Bay I don’t know but someone must have thought it might have been a fair fight, at least for a time.
The next day we moved back to Olongapo Barrio. The “band” platoon was assigned a stretch of the beach front. I dug my fox hole in the soft sand just above the tide line at the end of a narrow
street. Sgt. Claude Brent dug one on the other side opposite mine. His was behind a fair sized bakery, still in operation. We augmented our rations by buying fresh baked food. The aromas from the rolls, bread and cakes were absolutely irresistible. The rolls were especially delicious and augmented our C rations nicely. Our cooks were not idle though, and prepared some hot food frequently. I don’t know how they managed it because they kept their Springfields slung around their shoulders just like we did, most of the time.
Once dug in, some NonComs came by and issued us a Lewis gun, a kind of hand held machine gun. It looked like about a yard of drain pipe with a built-in record player. I don’t recall that it had any great reputation but it was standard arms on ships and stations. Ammunition for it had to be inserted into drums about the size of a small stack of 78 rpm discs. We filled them with rifle cartridges from bandoleers we carried slung around our necks. Brent decided it would take both of us to handle ammunition and operate the gun. So we converted my fox hole to a machine gun emplacement and waited again for the invasion we expected to come.
A young Filipino boy from the village joined us and let us know he wanted to help. So we let him keep our canteens full and do some shopping at the bakery. His family lived in the Barrio somewhere back of the sea wall where the few civilians remaining seemed to go on living unaware of an invasion threat. But most of the residents had left and, along with thousands of others from all over Luzon, were streaming into the hopeful refuge of the Bataan Peninsula.
We passed the time talking about music, photography and exchanging stories of our home towns. Brent told me about his upbringing in the deep south and about the black lady who raised him. It was all strange and very interesting to me for where I had been raised no black folks lived at all. As yet none were being recruited into the Marines. A few infrequently visited my home town in south central Nebraska, most coming from the old post civil war settlements of freed slaves in northern Kansas. It was such a rare event that most kids and some of the adults for a few miles around would come in just to see them. The differences in our backgrounds provided much for us to talk about. Brent told me about food the kind and gentle old lady cooked and how she cared for him when he was ill. He loved her dearly.
One night as we were watching the colorful, fluorescent ripples in the water wash up on the sand, he said, “When this is all over Don, yawl’ have to come to “Nawlin’s”. There we can get some mighty powerful things to eat, like; corn bread,
black-eyed peas, greens, and the best peach cobbler in Dixie.” He didn’t call it soul food then but, many years later I’d learn that was what he was talking about. I was to taste it in my imagination a thousands times for many months before an opportunity ever came. Sadly, Corporal Brent never made it back to New Orleans, another casualty on a hellship going to Japan in 1944, but I always think of him when I eat southern cooking.
With our Lewis gun and two fine 1903 Springfield rifles, mine with it’s custom finished cherry wood stock (not the most powerful but certainly one of the great weapons of the old Corps), we felt pretty safe. Our sense of security somewhat bolstered by the knowledge that Grande Island, the U.S. Coast Artillery’s Fort Wint with it’s big
10 inch guns stood formidably in the mouth of Subic Bay. To get past Claude and me the enemy would have to face them first.
During the day we watched more Jap planes fly over going toward other targets; Cavite, Manila, and near by Clark Field. Little seemed to be done about it by our own aircraft. Later we learned most of our planes had already been destroyed on the ground. Why that was I’ve never understood. Occasionally we saw a
friendly plane or two, one a beautifully shiny B-17. But there were no air battles in our area.
It was the sorriest Christmas eve I had ever experienced thus far when we left Olongapo in trucks for the lower part of Bataan. We had repacked everything, taking as much as we could carry; food, cigarettes and extra clothing. Left though, was all our band instruments, blue uniforms, books, and music to be destroyed by the engineers staying behind to blow up the base before the oncoming enemy would get there. Gone forever were all the wonderful horns and drums; my beautiful, issue Conn, double french horn, Lou Curtis’ alto saxophone, Chic Chariton’s slide trombone, everything gone. The last crashing “stinger” note was 300 pound mines used to blast everything away. The final note, and then only the crackling of the fire that consumed the debris, like the sound of shimmering cymbals fading away.