December 7th: Distant Memories by Benno Levi

PFC Benno Levi served with the 77th Infantry Division, 305th Infantry Regiment, 101st Battalion, Company A during World War II. After reading a historical account of how Benno saved his company from strafing by friendly aircraft in the Pacific, I realized he served in the same company as Uncle Arthur. I contacted Benno and he shared with me that had been friends with during their service together. Benno graciously shared with me his written memories of his days in the war. With his permission I have included those memories here, to share with you.

I should note that it is fascinating to be able to match up Uncle Arthur's written accounts with Benno's and with the history books. It gives me a better perspective of what actually took place. 

Silently, no lights showing, the ghostly convoy knifed through the Inland Sea, heading north along the Japanese held western coast of Leyte, deep into enemy waters. The day had been heavy with clouds and thick with fog; daylight faded early, much sooner than it should have.

Staring into the darkness, I was alone at the rail. The hypnotic sparkle of the ship’s wake relaxed me, easing somewhat my fears of the chaos and carnage that we might encounter tomorrow, December 7, 1944, the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day. My thoughts drift back to that Day of Infamy...

Details of that afternoon in 1941 remain vivid: I was relaxing on my bed reading the Sunday Detroit News; the background whisper of the NBC Symphony drifted from the earphones on the crystal set on the wall above my bed. Suddenly, the music stopped. Anticipating one of the frequent war bulletins, I grabbed the headpiece just in time to hear the announcer, as he finished with the first devastating bulletin, urging me to stay tuned for “further news of the attack on Hawaii.” Shocked, I dashed to the front room and turned on the big radio. Within minutes a new name entered our vocabulary: Pearl Harbor. I had never heard of it before and now, instantly, Pearl Harbor became a household word. Only the previous evening at the Woodward Jewish Community Center, where I worked on weekends, my co-workers and I had discussed the meeting in Washington where American and Japanese diplomats were trying to resolve the crisis in Asia. To the question of the possibility of war with the empire of Japan, my response was an emphatic, "Are you crazy? They wouldn’t dare start anything, it would be suicide."

Remembering back to that December afternoon, it was hard to believe that I would one day become an active participant in the far off Pacific, because of the attack that began that morning in Hawaii. I was then in my last year at Detroit’s Central High School, meticulously following the war in Europe and the diplomatic power struggle in the Far East. My participation was still limited to fantasies. I saw myself marching back to Germany, the land of my birth, for the battle to end the reign of Adolph Hitler.

Exactly three years later, I was on deck of the USS Ward, a WWI destroyer converted into a high-speed personnel assault ship. We were part of a convoy steaming north amidst the islands that make up the Philippines. Our goal was the Japanese supply port of Ormoc. It had become the strategic conduit for the provisions needed by the Japanese as they fought fanatically to blunt General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the scene of his initial defeat. Our mission; capture Ormoc; end the stalemate.

The fog that afternoon shrouded the numerous rocky islands as we rounded the southern tip of Leyte. Now as I stood at the rail, the thick blanket of darkness made them invisible. Only an occasional faint outline indicated their presence as we glided through the choppy sea. Aboard were three platoons from Company A, two infantry and one heavy-weapon, and two more infantry units from Company B. All of us, members of the 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division, would lead the assault as the first wave at dawn the next day. I was the runner in the 3rd platoon of Company A.

It was time for supper and I was hungry, so I headed down to the troop compartment, a large hall with tiers of bunks along two walls…. comfortable sleeping quarters, unfortunately, only for one night. Tables were in the center where we ate our meals. A cafeteria line along one wall that provided the “A” rations: fresh food with real meat, not the canned “K” and “C” combat rations, which we detested. The fare aboard ship was always something to enjoy. Too bad this was only an overnight cruise.

I filled my tray with stew, salad, a couple of slices of fresh bread and a big piece of apple pie and sat down at a table with my pals from the 3rd platoon and a group of crewmembers. The topic of discussion was tomorrow’s attack. ‘Khaki’ Kaylor piped up with, “Do you think they know we’re on our way?” “Hell no! In this weather you can walk right up to them without being spotted,” was the quick response from Walter Gibbs, our platoon sergeant.”

The next topic was baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals had beaten the St. Louis Browns in the World Series. The sailor next to me said that, Detroit, which had ended up only one game behind the Browns, was really the better team and should have represented the American League.

I immediately jumped in with, “Are you from Detroit?”

Yes, he was and lived in the Linwood – Dexter area, making us neighbors and immediate friends. In the course of our conversation, he wanted to know more about Guam, our first combat mission that had ended just a few months earlier. I told him that we fought right next to the Marines for a whole month. I watched from our mountain perch through a pair of binoculars as the flag rose one Saturday afternoon over the old Marine barracks on Orote peninsula below us.

What a sight! It was the first American possession captured by the Japanese; and the first one we took back. I also told him that we had left Guam on November 1 for rest and rehabilitant in New Caledonia. Ten days later, just after we had crossed the Equator, our convoy made a gigantic U-turn. We had been ordered to head for Leyte where General Mac Arthur needed us. We were bitterly disappointed, but General Andrew C. Bruce, our division commander, was in his glory, having successfully pulled some strings for another opportunity to flaunt his martial prowess.

I then asked my sailor friend, whose name, unfortunately I did not write down, if his ship, the USS Ward, had seen much action.

He said the ship had been only on one mission as a destroyer, but eight as a high-speed troop carrier. He pointed to a bronze plaque on the wall, and took me over for a closer look. It stated that the USS Ward had fired the first shot of WW II when, while on patrol, it detected and sank a Japanese mini sub off Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Tomorrow would be exactly three years since that had happened. My friend told me that the first shot was fired at 0645 that morning, several hours before the sneak attack began. Very impressive. I called my buddies Vince Quinn, Walter Gibbs and Ray Salvato over to show them this interesting footnote to recent history.

We hit the sack early since reveille was at 0330; we also wanted to take advantage of this last comfortable night’s sleep. Starting tomorrow, solid ground would be our mattress for weeks, maybe months.

Thursday, December 7, 1944 we were up at 0330, had a great last meal at 0400, with steak and all the trimmings, down the cargo nets at 0615, and our assault boats hit the beach at 0707. Enemy planes from the surrounding Japanese-held islands filled the sky; as the first wave, we became their primary target. With a feeling of horror, we watched as one dove after us. Fortunately, he was driven off by heavy fire from surrounding destroyers just as we approached the shore.

On land, the enemy was taken by surprise and before they could reorganize, we reached our objective and were dug in. We felt good. The fierce resistance we had dreaded did not materialize. In spite of the merciless onslaught on our shipping by Japanese planes, supplies and troops poured ashore in an uninterrupted flow. Sadly, a few of our ships were hit, a mile or two offshore. We could see billowing smoke from the victims.

Japanese planes continued to stream in at treetop level to attack our positions. In one encounter, an ammo dump on the beach just a few hundred yards away went up in a tremendous explosion, sending a black cloud and debris high up into the atmosphere. One of the attacking planes burst into flames as it flew right over us and then crashed. A flight of our P-38s flew in later from the American held eastern side of Leyte to protect us and stayed to patrol the skies until dusk.

Within four days, in spite of determined resistance from the Japanese, we took Ormoc with its vital docking facilities. Our commander, General Andrew D. Bruce, didn’t make the cover of TIME but the magazine did quote his triumphant message to higher headquarters when he affirmed, in the vernacular of the GI crapshooter: “Rolled two 7’s into Ormoc, --7 come 11.” The two 7s -- 77th Division, the 7th and 11th -- Divisions were unable to carry out their assignment to help us capture Ormoc.

On Christmas Day, we took Palompon, the last Japanese supply port and the island was declared secured. In spite of that, we fought bitter battles as we continued to destroy isolated concentrations of Japanese troops.

In early January, for the first time, I missed a couple of days of combat with my platoon when I was ordered into our makeshift hospital with a bad infection of “jungle rot”. Casualties arrived the next day. The news was devastating. There had been an ambush and my two best friends, Frank Faudem and Robert Sherman were dead. Frank was in B Company, a fellow Detroiter, captain of my high school baseball team and a minor league player signed up by the Detroit Tigers at the time he entered the army. Robert was a member of my platoon. When he needed a rifle for this patrol, I lent him mine. We had shared guard duty only a week before on the road leading through the village of Palompom. The war seemed far away on that pleasant, peaceful evening. He looked at me and confessed in a way that almost sounded like an apology, “Levi, -- I like this place, wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life here”. He did.

The following day I hobbled on my crutches up a little hill to the medical supply tent. It‘s where the bodies were brought before burial in the division cemetery in Valencia, a few miles away. I stood over the stretchers. Unwilling to give up the living images of my friends, I dared not lift the poncho that covered them. I stood alone and silently said a prayer. I felt so lonely, and once more, the cold fear of combat surged through my body.

As we finally began to settle down, we saw an avalanche of mail from home and an accumulation of newspapers and magazines that had piled up for weeks at some island Army Post office. I was reading about our invasion of December 7 in NEWSWEEK and as I turned a page, a familiar plaque stared at me. It was the same bronze tablet of the USS Ward that we had admired on the night before our landing. According to the report, the ship that had fired the first shot of WW II was sunk exactly three years later. A Kamikaze plane struck just below the water line and exploded in the troop compartment where we had spent our last comfortable night. The troops had debarked earlier and all of the crew of the USS Ward was rescued. Had we stayed aboard just a few more hours, we would have been obliterated. The story also revealed that the 77th landed on the beach hours ahead of a large Japanese convoy filled with reinforcements bound for Ormoc. Our planes had intercepted the ships and sunk four large vessels. The remnants beat a quick retreat. Again, a later assault and we would have been met with much stiffer resistance. Mentioned also was that the scheduling for this day and hour, December 7 at 0707, was because the commanding general of the 77th Division had a distinct fondness for the number seven -- truly our lucky number.

One year later, December 7, 1945, on a cold but sunny Friday morning, shouldering our duffle bags, we made our way up the gangplank of the USS Sea Runner in Yokohama, Japan. Next day, standing at the rail as we headed out of Tokyo Bay, homeward bound, I watched Mt. Fuji Yama fade away. My thoughts fell back to that Sunday in 1941 when my world changed and back to Ormoc on that Thursday, December 7, one year ago. I remembered my friends: Frank Faudem, who never saw the daughter born just a month before he died, nor was he able to realize his dream of playing for the Tigers. And Robert Sherman, my sensitive pal, whose fantasy, unfortunately, was fulfilled. So many others were left behind on Guam, Leyte, Ie Shima, and Okinawa. Captain Arthur Curtain, our company commander, recovering from battle wounds, wrote from his hospital bed in San Francisco about them, -- “So much that was so good is now forever lost.” I remembered also the little ship, the USS Ward, that made its mark in history and went down so dramatically exactly three years to the day from firing the first shot of WW II.

I stood at the rail for a long time. I was one of the lucky five in my platoon who participated in all of the campaigns – and survived unscathed. I made it! I made it – endured, survived. I said a prayer of thanks.

No comments:

Post a Comment