Chicago Tribune Report


Return to Leyte

By Arthur Veysey
Chicago Tribune
October 11, 1970

A Chicago Tribune reporter, who was there at Leyte on October 20, 1944, revisits the scene of General MacArthur's triumphant return to the Philippines. His guide, Atilano, is a local Filippino familiar with the history of Leyte. Together, they set out on a one-day trip, revisiting the battle scenes that the writer, Arthur Veysey, still vividly remembers some 25 years later. Mr. Veysey, and the Army's 24th Infantry Division, came to Leyte aboard USS Elmore. Read his story.

PALO BEACH, Leyte, Philippine Islands

Atilano slipped the governor’s jeep into four-wheel drive. The tires cut deeply in the fine, volcanic black sand that covers most beaches in this part of the world.

"About all that's left," said Atilano, "are some rusty landing barges. The governor is preserving them as part of a memorial we hope to build some day. Everything else has been cut up and taken away."

Three men scampered from the water that three-fourths covered the barges. One man had a hammer. Two were carrying a chunk of steel they had broken off.

"They aren't supposed to do that," said Atilano. But he made no move to stop them.

Atilano turned up the steep beach into the coconut palms fringing the sea. “You will notice that the palms broken by bombs and the shells have been replaced,” he said. “They’re quite tall now. Actually, the old trees were getting pretty ancient. For a really good crop, they should all be replanted.”

We came to a little clearing. A stone obelisk in a neatly fenced garden recorded that here, on Oct. 20, 1944, American forces and Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed to restore the freedom of the Philippines.

On either side is the grave of an unknown soldier, one American, one Filipino. Nearby a small shop sold soft drinks and, beside it, a tall billboard announced plans for the grand memorial. “It will cost 2 1/2 million dollars," Atilano said. When will work begin? “There is a little problem getting the money,” Atilano said.

Worry clouded his face. “This is the right spot, the place you landed, isn't it?” he asked. “You see, the villages all down the coast claim Gen. MacArthur came ashore in their places. They are trying to steal the honor, and the visitors, from us.”

I assured Atilano this was the place; we might even find the shell hole that was my first home. Beyond the palms were the same old swamp and some rice fields, then the coastal road. Several Jap bodies lay beside it all day bloating in the sun and beyond the road was cone-like Hill 522 where the Japanese defenders had dug in their mortars. It was green and peaceful today. It didn't seem nearly as tall or steep as I remembered it. Today a tall cross caps it.

The 24th Division had come from Hollandia, four days away, by ship, halfway down the north coast of New Guinea. When the 1st Cavalry and two divisions from the Central Pacific joined us, ships filled the sea from horizon to horizon – transports, cargo ships, landing ships big and small with tanks and trucks and guns loaded, ready to roll onto the beach. Destroyers and cruisers shepherded us, cutting fine wakes, pure white, in the sparkling blue sea.

Now and then on the horizon, we saw aircraft carriers, but these were usually far out, riding shotgun. We were 700 ships and 174,000 men, by far the biggest force the United States had marshaled in the Pacific. And how our vast numbers cheered us. Such a force had to win. Now at last, after three years, we could see the end of the war.

It drizzled at times, but most days the sun shone, drying up New Guinea sores and rashes, the GIs' jungle rot. One day, the captain of our transport [USS Elmore (APA-42)], Drayton Harrison, announced over the loudspeaker, "We have just crossed the equator." A GI cracked, "I thought I felt a bump." Tokyo Rose announced the Imperial navy had sighted our convoy and sent us all to the bottom. We laughed, but we made sure our lifejackets were handy.

“You are about to take part in one of the greatest campaigns in United States history," said a leaflet given to each of us.

One day, the captain of our transport [USS Elmore (APA-42)], Drayton Harrison, announced over the loudspeaker, 'We have just crossed the equator." A GI cracked, "I thought I felt a bump.'

A long way from Chicago

There were Chicagoans everywhere. Tom Milazzo gave final haircuts, short top and sides. A dentist, Edwin Thrap, gave teeth a final check. Mark Pomarano handed out atabrine pills which turned us all yellow but suppressed malaria. Robert Sheahan cooked farewell eggs. Fred MacFarlane offered to carry my typewriter ashore in one of his tanks.

[Webmaster’s note: A review of Elmore’s crew roster confirms that Seaman 1st Class Frank Thomas Milazzo was indeed the ship’s barber and enlisted in Chicago. Robert Sheahan was Ship’s Cook 1st Class and was from Springfield, IL. Lt. Edwin B. Tharp (dentist) was one of Elmore’s officers and was from Chicago. I could find no listing for Mark Pomarano, (on any ‘Mark’) as one of the ship’s Pharmacist’s Mates or as a ship’s doctor.]

We cruised boldly into Leyte Gulf at dawn. Rangers had already sneaked into three islets at the entrance to make certain no Japanese guns were there.

The battleships—we had never seen them before in the Southwest Pacific—sent shells whistling over us to crash among the palm trees. Carrier planes circled high. When, later in the day, Japanese bombers came, the Navy boys knocked down 14 in a few minutes.

We said goodbye to William Denniston and Tony Frank on the transport's guns, to Evert McDonald in the ship's store, to Stanley Kendra and Michael Simkus in the engine room where the temperature must have been 140, to Roman Bartosik, a deckhand.

[Webmaster’s note: A review of Elmore’s crew roster reveals that there was a Seaman 2nd Class John Robert Dennington (not William Denniston) as part of the crew. Tony Carl Frank was a Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class. While there was no crewmember named ‘Evert McDonald’, but there was a David Campbell McDonald, Seaman 2nd Class onboard. I did find Stanley Joseph Kendra, Boilermaker 2nd Class and Michael Alexander Simkus, Fireman 1st Class, both from Chicago. Additionally, the muster roll shows Roman Raymond Bartosik, Seaman 2nd Class, onboard and from Chicago.]

William Keitka climbed into his Higgins boat. A crane swung it. and a lot of others, over the side into the water, and soon we were scrambling down nets into the boats, looking brave in front of the newsreel cameras of William Rockar and Henry Knipp. Other transports disgorged. As each boat loaded, it joined a big circle. Then in the command boat, Richard Nixon—a Chicago man, not the future President—told us to head for the beach.

[Webmaster’s note: A review of Elmore’s crew roster reveals that neither William Keitka nor Richard Nixon were members of Elmore’s crew. Perhaps William Keitka was a member of Veysey’s army unit.]

The white surf waved a welcome. The big guns gave us courage. We sat on the lip of our barge, joking. The world was our oyster.

"We have been waiting a long time."

Then tall white fountains began rising among the charging barges. One shell burst open a boat – one moment the boat was there, the next it was gone. In our barge, we pushed ourselves against the thin bottom and wished it were a hundred feet deep. Poor Bill Keitka, the cox, had to stand exposed at the wheel.

[Webmaster’s note: This was the point during the landing that a Japanese mortar (situated on Hill 522) found its range and mark on the exposed boats. Two of Elmore’s landing craft were hit and the boat’s coxswain (the boat driver), Franklin Burgess, was fatally injured. He died shortly after being hit and was buried at sea from the deck of Elmore later that day. Coxswain Burgess was to be the only war causality that Elmore suffered. Consequently, his loss was deeply felt by the entire crew.]

The barge ground onto the black sand. The ramp plopped down. We came out running in thigh-high surf. I fell flat on my face. An Aussie buddy, Blaine Fielder, came back to pick me up. He thought I was dead. We ran into the palms beyond the beach and found a nice deep shell hole. The Japanese mortar rounds, which had been dropping amid the barges, now moved onto the beach.

The leading GIs quickly crossed the palm-covered sand bar some 100 yards wide and waded into the swamp that so often lies just behind tropical beaches. As they ran onto the rice paddies, Navy bombers began working Hill 522. That's where the mortars were coming from.

Bigger barges brought in the first tanks, I ran from tank to tank, banging on the steel and asking if the crew had a typewriter. The crews thought I had become shell-happy, but I did find the right tank. An enemy shell set fire to a large landing ship, an LST. On the beach, a man fell, his stomach blown open. Under a palm, a medic found a man without a head, and tenderly placed a big wad of cotton on the stump of the neck.

The battleship gun tore big chunks out of Hill 522 but the Japanese there were well dug in, and Col. Robert Spragins sent some of his men up the hill. Others turned south along the coastal road. They found a small bridge intact over a creek, but it was too frail to take our heavy vehicles.

There were some snipers about— one fellow got three in three hours – and some dugouts roofed with spongy, tough coconut logs. Tanks dealt with them although I remember sadly how one tank crew refused to move toward one dugout until the infantrymen had made sure the dugout didn't hold an antitank gun.

After an hour or so, the enemy mortars seemed to be concentrating on the incoming barges. Fielder and I decided to leave our comforting hole and head for Palo, the village just beyond the creek, to the south.

Small two-room houses — huts, really, of bamboo and coconut palm — were tucked into the trees by the creek. Under them, the earth was packed solid and clean, the Filipino way. Chickens roamed. We hoped everyone living there had been given enough warning to get out before our shells and bombs fell. The huts didn't seem damaged. Almost every house had an old foot-treadle Singer sewing machine.

"Anybody home?" we called out. Sure enough, some banana trees parted and out came a Filipino. We were already filthy but be was spotless. in white shirt and trousers, a dress we were to learn was normal.

A smile crossed his round face. He held out his hand. "Welcome," he said. "We have been waiting a long time."

So that's how it was, I told Atilano, on Palo Beach. He started the Jeep. We churned thru the coconut trees and came to a broad road, still firm after 28 years. Engineers had built it, and in few days, supplies were piled high on both sides. Now only the road remains. "We call it MacArthur Highway," Atilano said.

The old frail bridge was still there, but only pedestrians use it these days. A concrete span stands beside It. "There is where your engineers cut a ford that first day,” Atilano said. "I’ve heard that a tree fell on the first dozer driver and killed him. The bridge is named for him, but I can't remember his name.” Nor could anyone else.

Revisiting Palo

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.

Remembering the Battle of Leyte Gulf

On the beach, an endless parade of ships was spewing out supplies. To the north, the 1st Cavalry came ashore, hardly taking a shot, quickly overran the small airfield on a flat, sandy peninsula and poured into Tacloban, a town of perhaps 40,000, the biggest center of civilization we had seen since Australia.

It had streets and shops and a movie theater and a colonnaded capitol. Gen. MacArthur, who had come ashore briefly the first day, moved into the best house, owned by an American named Price who had owned the Leyte truck and bus system and had been sent to the concentration camp at Santo Tomas University in Manila. He never saw his home again. He died in Manila shortly after the 1st Cavalry liberated the prison.

To the south, the two central Pacific divisions met little trouble and had taken an airfield there. Engineers and Seabees were busy on the strips making a borne for fighter planes from New Guinea.

But the Japanese could not afford to let as stay on Leyte. They sent troops to Ormoc from other Philippine islands. They collected just about all the warships they had left—Stand massed them into four battle fleets and sent them to annihilate us. Two subs first saw them, PT boats fired the first shots.

Adm. William Halsey, lured by a Japanese feint, took the most powerful American fleet off to the north. One Japanese fleet, coming thru the strait between Leyte and Samar, turned back when attacked by planes but then resumed its daring run and came upon a covey of baby carriers and shelled them.

Some carrier planes, finding their home gone, slid into the unready Tacloban strip or crashed at sea or in the jungles of Samar. For two weeks fliers came walking out of the woods or floating in on rafts.

Ashore, the command said we should expect battleship shells. "We dug deep boles that night," I told Atilano.

The battle was perhaps the most fierce fought at sea during the war. It was one-sided. We had 232 ships, including 32 carriers. The Japanese attack failed Not a warship entered Leyte Gulf, and the beachhead was safe. The Japanese lost 26 ships in those two days, and the Imperial Navy could never again put up an effective threat. The sea approaches to Japan were now open.

The rains came. Six inches in one day. Ten inches in another. Trucks, tanks and artillery broke up the thin tar paving on the Tacloban streets and the highway. GIs quipped that the mud was so deep that one day it swallowed an entire convoy, except for a box of K-rations which the good earth refused to stomach. Jack Parker, an engineer dumping rock into the quagmire, thought it might be simpler to turn the road into a canal.

From Palo to Carigara is about 20 miles. For a while, Atilano and I sped along a new concrete road We did a fair clip, though a bouncy one. Then the concrete gave out. We stopped in a little clearing. Once before I had stopped there. That day, I climbed onto a half-track to talk to a machine gunner. From a tree somewhere on the fringe, a sniper fired. The gunner's helmet flew off. I dropped behind the armor, but the gunner stood there, spewing bullets into the trees.

Atilano and I drove on to Pastrana, now as then a cluster of huts on stilts. Under the earlier huts, 33 Japanese had built a series of dugouts, connected by trenches. Fourteen Americans were killed digging them out. No Japanese survived.

Thankful to be alive

The thin steel bridge still stands over the Manit River. The GIs had been surprised to find it. They thought the Japanese would have blown it. Apparently, we got there too fast. The enemy had piled up some wooden boxes on the far end of the bridge. A Navy fellow who knew about mines started walking across the bridge to examine the boxes A hid¬den machine gun fired at him. He ran back. Two infantrymen fell. William Forest, a medic, dragged them back, one after the other. The colonel, Aubrey Newman, drove up in his Jeep. He ordered everyone back and called for some artillery.

As the shells whistled in, we sat in a palm grove. A knowledgeable GI climbed a tree, cut off its tender tip, brought it down, sliced it and handed out pieces. It was good. "Millionaires' salad," he explained. You'll find it only in the most expensive restaurants because, when you cut the shoot, the tree dies."

Harold Smith, Lauren Faris and others went forward in their tanks, forded the river downstream, came upon the bridge from the rear. They smashed the machine gun pits. An-drew Presybysz laid in some mortars, and Carney Feminella, Edgar Bachman. Mitchell Leprich and others waded across the river, and any Japanese who could, by then, got out, scampered thru woods. The bridge was ours. Milton Metz brought up hot coffee, and we all crossed the bridge.

It was noon when Atilano and I drove into Carigara. The last time, with the GIs, the trip had taken 19 days. As in Palo, the fine old Spanish church has given way to a modern building, concrete, shining white on the outside, pale green within.

We stopped in the town square, packed with battered trucks and, squatting here and there, villagers selling fish and vegetables. A cafe offered clear soup with vegetables and fish heads. It was delicious if I turned the fish head so its eyes didn't stare at me accusingly.

We couldn't find any signs of the fight the 1st Cavalry had here. The troopers had come around the island by barge. They found the town almost empty. But the Japanese came back that night. The troopers cleared it the next day. The Japanese returned again by night. In the morning, the troopers found a buddy who had been captured the previous evening. His fingernails had been pulled out, three fingers cut off, chunks gouged from his arms and legs. The troopers took the town again and this time held it. The Japanese who remained retreated up into the mountains between Carigara and Ormoc.

The GIs of the 24th and the troopers were given a couple of days’ rest. They swam in the warm, shallow water of the bay just as villagers were doing today, clearing away the grime and the aches.

Headquarters announced Japanese dead had passed 45,000. Our own dead were 1,133. Headquarters said 500 Japanese planes had been shot down over or near Leyte. Japanese fliers had become suicidal, crashing their planes into ships. Destroyers were a popular target. When a plane crashed just behind the funnel, the destroyer often blew up, killing everyone aboard.

Atilano and I turned into the mountains. The road became a rough track. It was here the Japanese made the final stand on Leyte. They dug in deeply. Digging them out was a task of several weeks.

I remembered Thanksgiving Day in the mountains. Dinner consisted of powdered soup, Spam, biscuits, a bar of pressed figs, a stick of gum and four cigarettes. And that had taken two days to get there. Alligators had carried it part way Lawrence Figg and others toted it the final miles up the hills. I had asked Ted Walker what he was thankful for. "To be alive," he said.

Well, what do you know? It's Christmas.

Atilano and I stopped on a hill and looked down on Ormoc. The Japanese commander must have been hereabouts. looking with alarm. That day the 77th Division made an end run around the island and landed smack in Ormoc harbor. Suicide planes struck hard. I remembered counting 14 diving out of the sky at one time. Four hit, sinking two ships, but the troops had already been unloaded. I was glad to be aboard the smallest boat in the invasion force, a tiny rocket ship.

The last Japanese were now trapped in the mountains. Long Toms, our biggest land guns, pounded them. The crews seemed almost entirely Chicagoan—Howard Werth, Pete Fanale, Paul Neudeck, Frank Moses, Joe Krstenansky, Joe Nocar, Carol Stevens, James Kune, Bill Nietzce, Clarence Ellerie, James Creighton. One day, some fighter planes which had shot down 25 planes over Ormoc—Robert Campbell and Albert Mechaino each got one—came across a long line of Japanese tanks and trucks on the mountain pass.

"We put 30,000 shells into the convoy," Don Fisher reported. “It was the kind of a strafing job you dream about.”

Atilano and I got thru the mountains in two hours. The smashed trucks and tanks had long been carried away for scrap, the houses rebuilt. Rain and time had filled in the dugouts, but a lot of human bones mast still lie there in shallow graves.

We came down onto the Ormoc plain, thick with sugar cane. The town had been rebuilt, modem style in concrete. An old landing barge, called the 77th Division, was tied up at the pier.

We went into an air-conditioned cafe for a Coke and then up onto a grassy knoll south of town. Camp Downes stood there before the war. It was the first American military post to come back into our hands. A couple of hundred men of the Filipino constabulary now live there. Rusty shells were neatly piled beneath a tree.

Everything was peaceful. I remembered another peaceful night in these hills. The troopers wondered why everything was quiet. They counted up the days. They had come into the mountains on Nov 12. They had been up here 42 days. Well, what do you know? It's Christmas.

In the towns that Christmas, Filipinos put candles in windows and dipped bits of cotton in iodine and hung them in trees. Military hospitals served turkey. In Tacloban, Leyte, Lou did a hula dance in the Mercedes Theater.

By then guerrillas were coming out of the woods with tall stories and guns made from gas pipe. I had inherited the Japanese general’s car, a Packard, which some artillerymen had found abandoned in a coconut grove in the middle of the island. A Navy artist painted “Chicago Tribune" on its sides, but Gen. MacArthur's transport officer, a colonel, heard about it and commandeered it for the general. I didn’t tell the colonel that the motor had seized up, but neither did he tell me a Ford be offered in exchange had broken springs. Anyway, the roads were too deep in mud for anything but a Jeep.

End of a Peaceful Day

A Tribune linotyper, Joe Turek, had helped run off some Overseas Tribunes on a makeshift mission printing plant using Japanese paper. Peter Beal, a skin specialist, was busy. "Anybody who's been on Leyte for any time has some kind of skin trouble," he said. Papa Picson, who had taken in me and Nixon Denton, gave a dance. [Denton was a Cincinnati sports editor who turned war correspondent after his son was shot down in Europe.]

Big tented camps were springing up everywhere along the sea. Transports disgorged, and much of the stuff was immediately reloaded onto landing barges. We were all getting ready for the next jump, to Luzon and Manila and the end of the long, hard road back.

It was getting dark as Atilano and I arrived back at Palo. Just outside town, we turned off, passed thru a well-weathered wooded arch and a banana grove and came out into a valley tucked amid the hills. A battered mission tottered. Before it, ramrod straight, rose a rusty flagpole the rope clattering against it. This had been our cemetery. Atilano said that after the war Americans worked here many months, recovering the bodies and either sending them back home or to a permanent cemetery in Manila.

At Palo, we turned south to the Central Pacific Division's old beachheads We stopped beside a hill. “A Boy Scout climbed up there as your men came in,” Atilano said. "Shells and bombs were falling but, with his signal flags, he spelled out a message to the ships that the Japanese had gone from the area. The shells and bombs stopped."

We drove thru a gate to an elegant beach house, the summer home of President Marcos. We sat on its veranda and watched the moon come up, turning the white surf into gold. The palms danced.

"Beautiful, isn’t it?" Atilano asked.

"Peaceful, too," I said. “So peaceful.”

Source: Chicago Tribune Archives

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