We drove into Palo. The GIs found two stout buildings, a fine, 200-year-old Spanish church and, across a green square, a two-story town hall. The regiment set up its phones and charts in the town hall, the medics moved into the church, and the tanks camped in the square, the crews setting up house snugly under the tons of steel. People began drifting back into the town, to their houses of wood or frond. They possessed little after three years, but they offered chickens and eggs. After New Guinea, GIs found the Filipino girls very pretty indeed and handed out Spam and biscuits and cigarettes and chewing gum as though they were Croesus.
[Webmaster's note: Croesus was the last king of Lydia c. 560–546 B.C. (6th century B.C.). Renowned for his great wealth, he subjugated the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor before being overthrown by Cyrus the Great of Persia.]
The town hall is still there, newly painted white. But the old church has I been replaced by a modern one in concrete. Like the earlier one, it has two tall steeples, but they are sharp and angular. The doors were wide open. A priest was saying early mass. Sunlight flooded through the clear glass. Worshipers knelt.
“The bombings and shelling weakened the old walls, and we bad to take them down before they fell down,” Atilano said. “But we saved the altarpiece. We have restored it and reguilded it. You may remember it.”
How could I forget Palo church? Army blankets hung against the crumbling walls to make room for litters, dozens and dozens of litters. Yellow light glinted from gasoline lanterns above the magnificent altarpiece that filled most of the chancel wall. There comes Roy Homan with another injured soldier. In a small chapel, Edmund Pisarski is wiring together a shattered jaw. Nearby Alfred Scales is picking shrapnel out of a GI's brain. Rose Chapman, Olga Holder, Joe Boguslawsky and other nurses rig new plasma bottles, and Lew Ayres, the movies' original Doctor Kildare, who had declared himself a conscientious objector, quietly makes himself useful and regrets his fame.
One night, when the rain was pouring down, they found room for me to sleep on a litter between two thick buttresses. I felt safe in this little island of tenderness where people were trying to help, not kill.
The war surged up to and, at times, over the church. As the biggest building hereabouts, it drew bombs from Japanese night raiders. And the second night a few Japanese, wearing Filipino clothes, came into the square carrying bundles. They chose a good spot in the comer of some low walls, opened the bundles, took out their guns and started shooting. Their attack was short and suicidal, but they traded their lives for those of Americans and Filipinos.
"Shall we head for Ormoc?” Atilano asked. "That's the way the GIs went."
At Palo, the road turns west, passes thru a gap in a line of hills about five miles inland, then goes straight across a prosperous central plain to the fishing town of Carigara on the west coast. There, the road turns southwest over the mountains that form Leyte's north-south spine, to Ormoc. the island's main port. It was there that the Japanese had their Leyte headquarters and most of their troops.
The couple of thousand Japanese who had been on and around our landing beaches, or in Tacloban a few miles to the north, set up their first real defense line on the hills west of Palo. So the GIs had to abandon their Jeeps and trucks and tanks and even the alligators which were supposed to go anywhere on land or sea, and get back onto their feet, scramble up the jungle hills and dig out the Japanese. Too often the deadly clatter of a machine gun or the crack of a sniper rifle was the first sign that Japanese were near. If the Japanese were few, GIs lobbed in grenades or mortars or set up a machine gun and drilled holes in the greenery or chopped off the tops of coconut trees suspected of holding snipers.
It took five days to clear that small ridge. Anthony Scatchell, Leonard Zynova, Calvert Pettigrew, Pat Kilboyle, Clarence Latchin were among the first on the summit. I plodded up with Roy Pozulp and Ted Andrejko and others toting mortar rounds. They came back down carrying a buddy with both legs in splints. In those five days, the 24th Division had counted 3,500 Japanese bodies. We had our own cemetery, in a quiet vale outside Palo.
But the road to Ormoc was open.