The 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion
The unit that was to become the 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion with a war record of Pacific invasions was activated on September 10, 1943, as a tank battalion, preparing for European action. From beginning to end it was under the command of Lt. Col. Francis G. Hufford of 112 South 40th Street, Louisville, Kentucky. His was one of 118 tank battalions in the U.S. Army in World War II. Advanced training was conducted with the 83rd Infantry Division at Camp Campbell, Kentucky. When World War II had started in Europe in 1939 the United States had the 18th largest army in the world, behind Romania. The Texas A & M officer who would be the 788th's executive officer, Nathaniel B. Read, was drilling as in a horse cavalry unit of the Army Reserves riding over hills waving his sword. The learning curve for the U.S. Army and for the 788th would be a steep one. Among the first soldiers to arrive was Fred W. Carlson who remembered, "They only had tarpaper covered barracks, a mess hall, a latrine and a shower, all in the same building. No sidewalks anywhere and we soon found out that was to be one of our first duties. After three different tries we finally made everyone happy." Another of the soldiers was a junior officer named Eugene A. Chappie, who would become a U.S. Congressman (R-Calif.) after the war.
In the 17 weeks of tank training the 788th Tank Battalion was drilled in basic soldier skills, such as drills, physical fitness and small arms training before learning tank skills, such as driving. The second half was dedicated to maintenance, tactical movement, and gunnery. By this point in the training the unit was being opposed by "aggressor units" dressed as German soldiers, with flares, explosions and the sound of gunfire to provide the feel of combat.
At two in the afternoon of March 30, 1944, as the unit was finishing its Army Ground Forces Tests, its companies were suddenly and mysteriously ordered to end their exercise, return quickly to the base, turn in their tanks and prepare to move immediately to Fort Ord in California.
By the second week in April, 1944, at Camp Campbell, the 788th Tank Battalion had become the 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion, assigned to the 13th Armored Group, forgetting what it had perfected in tank combat in Europe and began to learn about amphibious invasions in the Pacific. (Although the now-common term for them is "amphibious" tractors, the word "amphibian" was used by the unit itself at that time.) The 788th was one of nine tank battalions to learn to swim. Four were battalions of amphibian tanks, LVT(A)s, (the A standing for armored), which looked much like conventional tanks. The 788th was one of five U.S. tank battalions that were switched to amphibian tractors.
Their vehicles were the new Amphibian Tractors (LVTs, or Landing Vehicle Tracked) called amphtracks, amtracs or amtracks. The basic model was nicknamed "alligator." The 788th in the invasions also had subsequent models, LVT (3)'s ("Bushmaster") and LVT (4)s. Their vehicles were the new Amphibian Tractors (LVTs, or Landing Vehicle Tracked) called amphtracks, amtracs or amtracks. The basic model was nicknamed "alligator." The 788th in the invasions also had subsequent models, LVT (3)'s ("Bushmaster") and LVT (4)s. The tank-trained soldiers were not happy with their new rides and morale was low. Five weeks of pre-amphibian training began before the unit was assigned to the 18th Armored Group and finally introduced to the LVT vehicles themselves. The battalion then completed eight weeks of training along with battalions of armored infantry, tank destroyers and amphibian tanks, and by that time the 520 men of the battalion were familiar with their vehicles, confident of their expertise and filled with the same high morale they had enjoyed at Camp Campbell after they'd mastered tank operations.
What would have been the fate of the 788th had it remained a tank battalion, destined for Europe? It's fate would not have been nearly as severe as some other U.S. armored units in Europe. When the 20th Armored Division arrived in France on February 18, 1945, it was woefully unprepared for battle and underwent a full month of additional training in Buchy, France. It saw little action and was credited with only eight days of combat, losing only 46 men killed in action and 134 wounded. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame was that the Peanuts comic strip creator, Charles Schulz, was a staff sergeant in the division.
American amphibious policy was evolving as the 788th was being trained for war. The Navy and Marines had begun their formal amphibious policy in 1934, but the Army didn't pay serious attention to the subject until February of 1942, when the Atlantic Amphibious Force was established. The Pacific Amphibious Force was established on April 10. As late as 1942 the Army was still arguing that it should oversee amphibious operations in the Atlantic and that the Marines should be responsible for those in the Pacific. As it turned out, the Army conducted amphibious operations in both theaters, but the Marines limited themselves to the Pacific, even though the Army fielded greater numbers of troops there. In the Pacific, Marines landed on the most heavily defended islands and were often then replaced by Army units to finish the jobs, while they deployed against some other enemy stronghold. U.S. amphibious doctrine was written in blood, evolving from lessons learned in early encounters, such as on Tarawa Atoll on November 20 1943.
The job of the LVT was "to transport assault troops, equipment and supplies to the shore and across the vulnerable beach area and as far inland as the situation permitted." If the landing was opposed, the LVT crew members were to join the fight with the four machine guns mounted on the vehicle. An amphibian tractor looked like a tank with a haircut, an open vehicle with tracks looping along both sides with almost nothing extending above the upper profile of the tracks. They swam as boats in the water and crawled as carriers of troops and supplies on land, but because of the effort to perform both tasks they were handicapped in both capacities. They could cross reefs that blocked boats and could make their way on soft sand, through swamps and through underbrush and small trees, but they were stymied by rough ground, thick mud and deep craters and literally stopped in their tracks by obstacles such as large rocks and tree stumps. Their sides were so thin that rifle fire could penetrate them and if they ran out of gas at sea because of their small capacity fuel tanks, their bilge pumps died and they sank quickly. They needed constant maintenance because of the pounding they took on land and the corrosion they suffered from the salt water.
LVTs were nicknamed Alligators. Amtracks were first used by the Marines at Tarawa and by the Army at Makin Island on the very same day. Senior commanders were so impressed with their contribution that the importance of this vehicle was elevated in Allied strategy for successive landings. The 788th's Okinawa landing was the last time in history that U.S. amtracks were used in battle, and by then the amphibious Allied doctrine bore little resemblance to the Tarawa and Makin.
The 788th's LVTs were transported by Navy LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) whose bows were gigantic doors that could be opened at sea to disgorge its 17 amphibian tractors and amphibian tanks or upon the beach itself, to roll out trucks, jeeps and traditional tanks.
The U.S. military divided the 70-million-mile/13-time-zone Pacific Ocean into two areas: the South/Central/North Pacific under Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and the Southwest Pacific under the command of Army General Douglas MacArthur. The Allied strategy was to "island hop" towards the ultimate objective Japan by conquering islands where the enemy was weakest, avoiding those where the enemy was strongest, focusing on islands suitable for air, naval and troop staging bases.
The battalion arrived from Ft. Ord at in Seattle on a troop train on July 24, 1944, and boarded a converted troop ship (identified in the unit's history as "the SE 2110") on July 28, triggering a twenty percent pay increase as the 788th soldiers headed for war. Fred Carlson's impression was that "it was so poorly put together you could see daylight between the welds in the bow."To their disappointment the soldiers were not met on their arrival on August 9 by the iconic grass-skirted Hawaiian dancers they had expected, but by an Army band and a convoy of trucks. They were given an area in the Koko Head Amphibious Training Camp, and assigned on that day to the 96th Infantry Division. The day after arriving in Hawaii the 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion began to draw its vehicles and coordinate with the infantry division that they would transport to their first combat assault beach, code named "Stalemate." The target would be Yap, a Japanese-held island in the Carolines roughly in the center of triangle points of the Philippine Islands, New Guinea and Guam. The coral network off Yap's beaches, which ruled out traditional boats, was the very obstacle LVTs were designed to cross. The 788th was assigned to the XXIV Corps under the overall command of Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas. In the next month of frenetic activity, the 788th readied its 110 LVTs for the invasion, nine short of a full complement. Twenty six of the LVTs were unarmored and 84 were armored. The Navy grey vehicles with their Navy TCS radios had to be repainted in Army olive drab and given Army 500 series radios. False bottoms were installed in the forward ends of the vehicles so machine gunners could reach their weapons. Quarter-inch armor plates were wrapped around the gun cradles and added to the sides of the alligators themselves until their supply ran out. Four of the LVTs were converted to maintenance vehicles. The soldiers tested their vehicles again and again until they operated in a dependable way. Reliability was going to be paramount.
The 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion was assigned the 383rd Regimental Combat Team of the 96th Infantry Division, and, with 103 of its LVTs, was loaded aboard nine (Other accounts says seven or eight) Navy LSTs. Soldiers said the letters stood for "Large, Slow Target," but the real answer was Landing Ship, Tank. A World War II LST was a bit longer than a football field, 382 feet, with a 100-foot-long double-hinged ramp that folded out of its cavernous mouth once its bow doors opened. It had a flat bottom and sat 15 feet deep in its stern, but only four feet of draft at the bow, making for a very rough ride at sea. It could carry 22 tanks (25-ton variety) or 33 three-ton trucks or 17 amtracks and had berths for 217 uncomfortable combat troops. Combat troops could be carried in boats to a "motor transfer line" on the ocean side of a reef where they boarded amtracks. Or, amtracks could be loaded inside the well deck of the LST and floated out ready to approach the beach.
The entire amphibious invasion was rehearsed on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, (August 31 through September 7) where four of the LVT(4)s sank in the high seas. Then the XXIV Corps headed in to Eniwetok, an atoll five days away from Yap, for advanced staging.
LST 672 carryied the 788th command post. En route from Eniwetok to Manus, one of the men in Company A, Cecil Hines, fell overboard from LST 564 and drowned. His body was recovered and carried to Manus where he was buried in a Navy cemetery.
When the 788th arrived in Hawaii, the unit was under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas. Now it was transferred to the command of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander, Southwest Pacific Area.
The tiny atoll of Eniwetok had been captured by the Americans six months earlier, in February, 1944, and would become famous after World War II as the site of 43 nuclear tests, including that of the first hydrogen bomb. But as the eight LSTs carrying the 788th were dropping anchor at Eniwetok, word came that American military leaders had decided not to challenge the heavily fortified stronghold, but go around it. The schedule of stepping stone conquests on the path to Japan was revised, and plans advanced for an invasion of the Philippine Islands. The 788th was moved to Manus Island Papua New Guinea, in the Admiralty Islands, by now an American staging site, to join up with Marines. The unit arrived at Manus on October 4, 1944, and departed for Leyte on October 11.
Getting there meant crossing the equator and 90% of those aboard were "pollywogs" who were made "shellbacks" in the traditional rough initiation. Costumed characters of Neptunus Rex, Davy Jones and other oversaw the ritual. Pollywog members of the 788th were forced to crawl on hands and knees to "court" where he was sentenced to various unpleasant experiences. Odious substances were squirted in their mouths and rubbed on their bodies. They were forced to crawl through a canvas chute while shellbacks beat him from the outside with loosely plaited ropes. The Royal Barber gave them haircuts leaving half their heads practically bald and the other half shaggy. They then had to slide down a slide into a tank where they were held under until they could say "shellback."
The units scheduled for the Yap invasion stayed loaded on their ships and were redirected to the island of Leyte in the Visayas Group of the Central Philippines, an island 115 miles long and 15 to 40 miles wide. The timetable for the Leyte invasion was moved forward two months.
This invasion would begin the re-taking of the Philippines, which had been occupied by Japan for three years. By taking Leyte, the Americans would sever Japan's supply line from the East Indies, from which it got most of its raw materials for the war effort.
Code-named King II the invasion date was set for October 20, 1944. Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi, the Commander in Chief of Japan's Southern Region Forces, said later that "The war could be won or lost at Leyte. Thus, we [sent] enough forces into Leyte to contain the American invaders, and perhaps drive them off this island altogether. Such a defeat would have been disastrous for the United States in her war with Japan.
General MacArthur chose the large island of Leyte because its numerous deep-water approaches and sandy beaches were ideal for amphibious assaults and continuous re-supply and its roadways lent themselves to tank and infantry operations inland. The topography also was suitable for a large airfield that could operate against the entire Philippine Islands. Members of the 788th learned where they were going from "Tokyo Rose", the English-speaking radio voice whose job it was to lower the morale of American G.I.s.
The attack on Leyte was the largest amphibious invasion in the Pacific to that time, and by some measurements, the largest in human history. Admiral Kinkaid's 7th fleet included 710 ships, including 127 warships. Australians provided another five warships and eight other vessels. Lt. General Walter Krueger's Six Army contained 202,500 ground troops. The 788th was transported in LSTs, while the unit's executive officer, Major Nathaniel Read, rode with the command staff in the headquarters ship, USS Bolivar (APA-34).
"A Day," the day of the assault, was October 20, 1944. "Jig Hour" was set at 10:00 a.m. The LSTs carrying the 788th arrived on station at 8:30 and the LVTs swam from their metal wombs and began to organize into waves.
The 103 LVTs of the 788th Amphibious Tractor Battalion carried the 383rd Regimental Combat Team of the 96th Infantry Division. Of the total 11 were LVT(2) armored, 75 were LVT(4) armored and 17 were LVT(4) unarmored. The initial wave of amphibious tanks was followed by row after row of amphibious tractors, carrying 20 fighting troops each, with some jeeps and howitzers. When Fred Carlson's LVT was about 1,500 yards from shore it waws hit by a round which killed six of the infantrymen riding in the vehicle.
Upon landing, the first three waves came under light mortar, shell and sniper fire from the trees. The fourth, fifth and sixth waves received "considerable mortar fire which caused the infantry to dismount soon after clearing the beach." The 788th was to have transported Battalion Landing Team II as far as the first swamp and BLT I as far as the terrain would permit or until organized resistance was encountered, at which time the infantrymen would dismount and fight on foot. The plan was to press forward a mile or two to get the troops across the Labiranan River if possible. The LVTs landed BLT 1 on Orange Beach II and BLT 2 on Orange Beach I in six waves on time, 50 yards behind the amphibian tanks, and discharged their Infantrymen just short of the swamp. Thirty-five LVTs of the 788th A Company followed Battalion Landing Team 1 to the front line and ferried them across the Labiranan River one mile inland. Company B followed BLT 2 to its first objective in the vicinity of Tigbao, about two miles inland. After the initial landings, the 788th encountered occasional sniper fire during trips to the front lines and air attacks along the beach. The unit's commanding officer, Col. Hufford, went ashore with his troops.
With the completion of landing the combat troops, the 788th reverted to a supply function, taking supplies and ammunition to troops on the front lines and bring wounded soldiers back, as directed by the supply headquarters function. Where engineers were not able to cut roads by chopping down trees, the LVTs were needed to move supplies inland. The LVTs were also used to ferry troops across mouths of rivers along the beach road. The unit later helped the 6th Marine Amphibious Tractor Battalion land across from the city of Naha. A detachment of the 788th was assigned to relieve the 727th Amphibian Battalion attached to the X Corps at Carigara Bay, Leyte. One platoon of the 788th took part in four assault landings along the northeast coast of Leyte Island. Of these four successful landings, two were unopposed, one was opposed by the enemy deployed for defense and the other was opposed by machine gun fire only.
Four men of the 788th were killed in action on landing day in Leyte. All four died of shrapnel wounds: Private Ube B. Barrilleaux, assistant driver; Tech 5 Milan J. Blasko, driver; Corporal Frank W. Goodwin, tractor commander; and Staff Sergeant Frank Setti, Jr., crew chief. Of the twelve wounded in action on that day, one suffered a bayonet wound, another a bullet wound and the rest were injured by shrapnel. None were taken prisoner or listed as missing. On November 28 an LVT (4) caught fire while being re-fueled at a fuel barge, seriously injuring Captain Muller, Staff Sergeant Moes and Tech 5 Hicks. Sergeant Moes died from his burns a few hours later.
The sector where the 788th landed its troops happened to contain a large and problematic swamp, about 500 yards from the ocean. About a fourth of the LVTs mired down in the swamp. Some could be pulled out by other tractors, but others took as long as 24 hours to recover. The presence of the swamp narrowed the beach area available for staging supplies, establishing a headquarters and a place for the troops to live. Finding no trees or large bushes for protection the command headquarters was set up in a tent out in the open. Heavy rain made the environment worse and many of the unit records were lost. Annual rainfall on Leyte is 68 inches, and rain falls there 163 days of the year. Unfortunately, the 788th had landed in the rainy season. The executive officer, Major Read, dug himself a foxhole, but it continued to fill with water. He was battling to keep his finicky Alligators running, knowing their importance as a lifeline to men fighting a life and death battle at the front. Adding to the chaos, about 150 displaced Filipinos wandered into the command site the first night seeking shelter. The swamp was a major problem for the unit. Many of the vehicles became mired in the mud, making it impossible to get back into the beach defense zone by nightfall. Major Read and his men had to set up a defensive perimeter around their Alligators, knowing that they were still quite vulnerable to enemy infiltration. Major Read tried to get word of his detail's presence to the American troops behind them, knowing how dangerous "itchy fingers" are with the small sounds in a combat zone. The next morning the vehicles were able to make it back to safety. The system for unloading the LVTs broke down entirely and 788th personnel had to unload their own vehicles, slowing the logistics process considerably. The system for guarding the unloaded supplies broke down as well, and many important items were stolen.
The 788th worked continuously around the clock for four days unloading supplies from the ships, the men sleeping in turns when they could. There were periods of hard rain. Major Read wrote home, "We were already in a swamp and now are really in a swamp. Everywhere you turn there is water and very gooey mud. It's one of those situations you have read about others being in but never figured you would be in such a place ... Sherman was right," he wrote, referring to the Civil War general's pronouncement that "war is hell."
Japan was bent on destroying America's landing force and the U.S. Third and Seventh Fleets stood out to deny them. The result was the greatest naval battle of World War II and one of the great naval battles of history. A number of engagements stretched over 450,000 square miles -- a sea space the size of Nevada -- have been lumped together by historians as the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23 through 26. It was the largest naval battle in history in terms of the tonnage of the warships present in the engagement area, though not necessarily by the ships actually engaged in the battles. The U.S. and Australian forces included 32 aircraft carriers of various sizes, 12 battleships, 24 cruisers and 141 destroyers. The Japanese had four aircraft carriers, nine battleships, 19 cruisers and 34 destroyers. Some 200,000 sailors were aboard the ships present. It was the last time on earth that battleships would face battleships in battle.
Life in the Philippines settled into a routine for the 788th. The skirmish lines of combat retreated farther and farther. By Thanksgiving the men of the 788th felt lucky to have turkey, even though there were no trimmings. By Christmas the unit feasted on turkey, dressing, peas, fruit cocktail, cake, pie and coffee. The men of the 788th were absorbed in collecting souvenirs and pets, and selling scrap steel at handsome prices to Filipinos for conversion into "native knives." For two months, the executive officer, Major Read, slept in his overalls with his shoes on, or nearby, ready to spring up for emergencies, which sometimes came multiple times in a single evening. Just before Christmas he wrote that he had slept in his shorts the past two nights, which he labeled "eventful." The humidity and frequent rain (100 inches a year, he wrote) filled his shoes with mildew. He would bathe and wash his clothes in the ocean. When water rations increased he was able to wash his clothes in hot water using the "secret" of machine-less laundry: A toilet plunger.
Towards the end of November Major Read was able to get his laundry done by Filipinos and wore clean clothes for the first time in two months. The cleaning was accomplished in a nearby stream, with clothes wetted, then soaped, then assaulted brutally with a board or other object. The men of the 788th were living a postcard life, with beach, glorious sunsets, light surf, coconut trees, monkeys on his shoulder and moon paths stretching to the horizon. But in their circumstances they developed a hatred for the tropics. They saved money because there was almost nothing to buy. No cigarettes, pencils, tooth paste or candy. The only thing they could spend money on was stamps, stamped envelopes, native laundry or a haircut. In the absence of a PX (military store) cigarettes and toilet articles were issued to the troops. By the third month the unit was enjoying movies and a PX. "We are having more comforts and conveniences as time goes on. We will soon be sissies," Major Read wrote. In the fifth month after landing their footlockers arrived ... and beer. Twelve cans per man!
At some point the executive officer's LVT picked up an American aviator who had bailed out of his plane six hours earlier. On November 1 a crippled Japanese plane was forced to land on Orange Beach 400 yards west of the battalion area. American soldiers killed the escaping pilot and buried him near the plane. The American commander ordered that a guard be posted to protect the intact aircraft and strictly forbad the taking of souvenirs. A few hours later Japanese aircraft arrived overhead and attempted to destroy their captured plane, dropping incendiary bombs, which fell wide of their mark. Later in the month a two-engine enemy plane landed on the beach to the right of the 788th's sector. Two fleeing Japanese were shot and others fled and were never captured.
In late December of 1944 and early January, 1945, LVTs from the 788th landed troops in Taglawigan, Daha and San Isidro Bay. The first two attacks were unopposed. In San Isidro Bay, under machine gun fire from the enemy, three of the LVTs became mired in mud 150 yards from shore as the tide was receding. Half of the Infantry troops waded ashore and the other half were transported across the bay in a tractor that had remained free of the mud. No American casualties were suffered in the landing. Moving inland 31 Japanese were killed and two taken prisoner before taking the town of San Isidro, the objective of the mission. Four LVTs moved on to the town of Gravelo, pinning down an estimated 400 Japanese troops. Landing in Gravelo about 36 Japanese were killed; the remainder scattered, leaving behind their dead and wounded. The Americans suffered no casualties in taking the town. An LVT found a Japanese floating on a bamboo pole in the water off Gigalangan Island. As the tractor came alongside the man he released his hold on the bamboo, pressed a grenade to his chest and sank out of sight.
Now that MacArthur had a foothold in the Philippines with the island of Leyte he planned for the major Philippine island of Luzon. To conquer Luzon MacArthur plotted a strategy of overcoming the island of Mindoro, just south of Luzon. Owning Mindoro would give MacArthur additional airfields and Mindoro was lightly defended by the Japanese. The Sixth Army's 24th Infantry Division and the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team were chosen to capture the island, and the 788th was chosen to ferry them to shore. The invasion of Mindoro took place on December 15, backed by six escort carriers, three battleships, six cruisers and other U.S. warships. Forty-eight hours later the island was securely in American hands, and 13 days later American airfields were in operation against Japanese forces on Luzon.
The 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion was then folded into the massive invasion of Okinawa, again carrying the 96th Infantry Division and its 383rd Regimental Combat Team. The 788th began training for the Ryukyu campaign on January 22, 1945, north of Bincay on the island of Leyte. Their assignment was Hagushi Beaches Brown 3 and Brown 4, roughly in the center of the long assault zone, where they were to land the 1st and 3rd Battalion Landing Teams, and stand ready to land reserve elements of the Regimental Combat Team if necessary.8 The 383rd Infantry Regimental Combat Team consisted of the following units, which had worked as a team, for the most part, in the earlier campaigns:
921st Field Artillery Battalion174th Engineer BattalionC Company 763rd Tank BattalionB Company 88th Chemical Battalion780th Amphibious Tank Battalion788th Amphibious Tractor BattalionC Company 321st Combat Engineer BattalionC Company 321st Medical Battalion
General Eisenhower's forces crossed 30 miles of the English Channel or came from a maximum of 400 miles from distant British ports. General Buckner's invasion fleet had steamed from the embarkation ports of San Francisco and Seattle, 7,355 miles away and launched from Hawaii 4,155 miles distant.
The armada was so large that only a fraction of it could be viewed from any one vessel. The wider presence of vessels was only indicated by the thunder of naval guns over the horizon and by the reflection of red flares against the still-dark clouds. Technical Sergeant Thomas B. Gilmarin of the 788th wrote that "visible and audible meaning was given to the oft-used descriptive phrase "air umbrella" in that Easter sky. Planes, American planes, were overhead in locust swarms. Others were beyond sight by reason of altitude or horizontal distance. The sound effect was beyond Wagnerian conception."
Warfare technology has so changed that there will likely never be an armada and invasion force to be massed in one place ever again.
Guessing the unit's next invasion assignment had been a major preoccupation of the 788th personnel. As the unit's executive officer was attending briefings on the coming invasion as early as February 14, 1945. Now that the men knew where they were headed they began to read up on Okinawa, and what quickly gripped them with terror was snakes. One CincPac-CincPOA bulletin devoted a full page, some 13 inches by 13 1/2 inches, to three large pictures under the heading of "Venomous Snakes." The worst was the Trimeresurus Flovoviridis, known at the Habu. The Hime-Habu was listed as the second greatest menace, while the Mamushi was dismissedc as "less deadly than the Habu." The famous war correspondent of World War II, Ernie Pyle, wrote, shortly before his death on Okinawa, that among the Marines he accompanied there was more discussion of snakes on Okinawa than of the Japanese enemy. As it turned out, during the initial time on Okinawa soldiers of the 788th say only one live snake, a water snake.
It was almost impossible for the men to keep the 788th's temperamental LVTs in working order. The vehicles had suffered rough treatment in the Leyte landing and the Army spare parts system seemed not to know the 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion was on their list. The 788th expected a large number of replacement LVTs as replacements for the vehicles in the worst condition, and a supply of parts for making the other alligators serviceable. After a massive bureaucratic back-and-forth, the unit was able to get only six replacement vehicles in the end when 35 of the unit's LVTs were out of service. Instead of the 1,168 track bolts needed, each vehicle was allocated only a handful. These track bolts, or cap screws, crystallized under heavy use and broke off or wore down until no longer serviceable. All of these cap screws should have been replaced after their debilitating pounding on Leyte, but even a ten percent replacement would have required 11,000 to 12,000, but the supply system only allotted the 788th a few thousand at a time. Bad quality parts were salvaged from the worst of the LVTs just to keep other vehicles running at even a minimal level.11 When Colonel Hufford learned that his crippled LVTs would not be replaced he called off the training and focused the unit's energies on conditioning the vehicles on hand. He complained, "There can be no adequate excuse for a system of supply that forces assault troops to go ashore against a capable and determined enemy, in equipment that is not combat serviceable.
Yap Island had presented a coral obstacle, but that invasion had been called off and the 788th had not used its LVTs against the coral they had been designed for ... until now. A coral reef extended a thousand yards seaward and beyond that another 100 yards of a reef six to 12 feet below the surface at low tide. The beaches themselves were 15 to 90 feet deep, backed by a sea wall of rough stones six to 12 feet high. Six LSTs were assigned to carry the LVTs to their launching area. Combat troops were transferred from boats to Alligators at a transfer line a mile off shore. Each battalion landing team was loaded into 38 LVTs and launched in five waves of seven or eight vehicles each. Two LVTs were to search the reef for possible boat passages after the initial assault and an additional six were assigned as ammunition runners or other needs. Each LVT in the assault waves was to place its bow against the seawall so that infantrymen could use the vehicle as a step. Two ten-foot ladders were lashed to the bow of each LVT for contingencies. As soon as the LVTs had discharged their infantry troops they were to return to the transfer line for successive waves. The commanding officer, Colonel Hufford, chose to be with his troops at the front. The Navy conducted a tabletop invasion with small wooden models to show the 788th Battalion's officers and vehicle commanders what their roles in the overall invasion would be. Two rehearsal landings were practiced on the beaches of Leyte Gulf while the unit was still in Philippine Islands. On March 22, the battalion was exposed in the rain for hours during a delay in loading their LVTs into the LSTs. Once aboard LST 991 the commanding officer of that ship refused to re-open the breakfast line for the 788th troops despite the fact they had gone without dinner, as well. After Col. Hufford protested this treatment to the ship's commanding officer, Lieutenant Lou Zeleskey, Zeleskey relented and furnished a cup of coffee to each enlisted man. Replacement soldiers arrived in the 788th a week before the invasion, although not as many as promised, and the replacements had tank experience, but no familiarity with amphibian tractors.
On March 21 and 22 the battalion loaded its 94 LVTs into six LSTs, and at 12:15 on March 25, they sailed from Leyte Gulf for Okinawa, in LSTs 789, 808, 624, 1033, 726 and 991. The night before the landing an Army officer was transferred from a destroyer to the transport ship carrying the Regimental Combat Team's command staff. This officer was the liaison to the Navy's Underwater Demolition Team and had returned with sketches of the reef and water-level panoramic photographs of the beaches and seawalls.
Aboard their respective LSTs the men of the 788th were briefed by a letter from Colonel Hufford, the commanding officer:
You are about to take part in one of the toughest and most important operations of the whole Pacific Theater. Its success depends entirely upon how energetically and carefully we work as a team to obtain the maximum effectiveness from our combined arms ...
The Infantry is helpless until they are on shore and in good order, the whole success of the operation depends initially on how promptly and efficiently you perform your assigned tasks ...
There is always the possibility that the Japs will use more and more mines and beach obstacles. The Japs are usually not careful about concealing their mines. Be on the lookout for them wherever you are ...
Let nothing prevent your hitting the exact spot where you are supposed to land. Be particularly careful to avoid veering away from flanking fire for you will interfere with the success of the whole operation if you do....
As soon as the Infantry has reached the top of the wall ...back away from the wall to the LEFT until clear of oncoming traffic and then move straight out to sea, keeping oncoming traffic to your left ...
There will be many more friendly aircraft over this target ... No one will fire at any aircraft at anytime unless under direct attack by enemy plane...
There will probably be more attempts at infiltration by enemy forces on this target than in the past. Remember that if you use a machine gun inside your own perimeter you will likely kill more friendly troops than the enemy will. The carbine at close range, and the knife, are more effective and safer weapons for this work.
Weapons will be test fired only if necessary and then only under supervision of an officer and between 1200 and 1300....
It is never known beforehand what condition we will find water in on a Target. It may be polluted or poisoned. ...
One of the principal industries on this target is manufacture of liquor. On Saipan, the Japs left poisoned liquor where our troops would find it, also, they distributed it to civilians to sell to our troops. It is to be expected that they will try it again. To prevent casualties from this source, absolutely nothing except GI food and water or beverage will be consumed until after Medical authorities have tested and placed their approval on it.
All natives on this target are Japanese and will be hostile to us even tho they may try to gain favor by appearing friendly. They will be treated firmly and fairly at all times in a cool and business like manner. There will be no fraternizing with them except on official business. We may expect to find many Jap soldiers disguised as civilians. Don't be a sap and play into their hands.
It is known that there are numerous deadly poisonous snakes in 3 different varieties on the target and there may be dangerous animal life on the reefs ... no one will ... bathe in the ocean until it is authorized by this headquarters.
Men will not be permitted to grow beards ... They will wear full uniform at all times and it will be prescribed uniform and not a mixture of uniforms ...
Don't be a sucker for a booby trap. Leave souvenirs alone. You can live without them and there are many left by the Japs that you cannot live with. There will be plenty of time later for souvenirs, so don't be tempted. You may lose your life and in any event it will interfere with your mission.
Finally, I want to say that we are closing in on the enemy now and should soon be ready for the "kill." He is still a dangerous and worthy foe but shows some signs of being a bit groggy. The more hatred and fury that we put into our attacks from now on, the sooner we will be able to make the kill. He will use every means possible to him to kill you, so don't expect any quarter and give none. If any should be captured, remember that you are required to give you name, rank and Army serial number -- Good luck! HUFFORDCommanding Just before daybreak on L Day, Easter Sunday, April 1, the six LSTs in columns of twos slipped into place1,300 yards beyond the line of departure off Beaches Brown 1, 3 and 4, about two and a half miles from shore. General quarters was sounded at 0400, but most of the soldiers were already awake.
At dawn the naval bombardment of the shoreline began in earnest, capping a week of softening the target. The naval gunfire was so intense that it seemed to fuse into a single continuous roar. At the same time dive bombers were swooping through their shore attacks and rocket boats were adding to the fireworks and noise. The huge bow doors opened at 7:30 a.m., ramps were extended above the water and the 788th's LVTs nosed off the ramps to form their columns. Naval guide officers in LCVPs flanked the Alligators and guided them into their proper wave formations as far as the coral reefs. Six mortar boats preceded the LVTs emptying their ammunition towards the shore as they went. Aboard the control vessel, Submarine Chaser PC 1081, wave number flags were raised to signal each wave up to the line of departure and lowered to launch the wave toward the beach. The LCVP guide boats and mortar boats peeled away at the reef line leaving history to the first wave of amphibian tanks and the following five waves of amphibian tractors as they streamed in successive shock waves toward the enemy beaches two miles away. The time was 0800 on Easter morning, April 1, 1945, exactly 30 minutes away for "H" Hour, the moment when Americans en masse would set foot uninvited on Japanese soil.
Four infantry divisions were landed on Okinawa. The Army's 7th and 96th (constituting the 24th Corps) were landed by Army amphibian units and the Marine 1st and 6th Divisions (constituting the 29th Marines) were landed by the Navy. The 788th unit carried the 96th to a beach on the right flank of the assault zone, near Tacloban City. To their left, the 717th Amphibian Tractor Battalion landed the 7th Division. The two Marine divisions were landed by the Navy on the assault's left flank. General Douglas MacArthur made his famous return to the Philippines wading ashore with the 7th Army Division near Tacloban City to the left of the 788th.
Amphibian tanks made up the first wave of the Army's assault. The next two waves were amphibian tractors carrying two assault companies. The fourth, fifth and sixth waves were amphibian tractors carrying the remainder of the rifle battalions, the reconnaissance elements of the shore party, artillery, chemical mortars and teams of demolition engineers. These six waves were timed at five minute intervals. At that time the demolition engineers were charged with blasting passages through the sea wall, so a twenty-minute pause was scheduled into the invasion waves. Colonel Hufford, the battalion C.O. came ashore in the fourth wave, loading out of LST 991, and flying a red flag to designate his presence.
Mercifully for the LVT units, the Japanese chose not to contest the landing but to grind the Allies down cave by cave as they came inland. Thus the 788th's landing was uncontested. The LVTs had landed the entire Regimental Combat Team by 10:45 that morning, at their scheduled times, without a single casualty of men or vehicles.
By nightfall 60,000 Americans of the 10th Army had come ashore in amphibious vehicles, boats and ships.
Throughout the day of this monumental amphibious assault only 28 Americans were killed and 104 wounded. Resistance was so slight that by dusk the Americans pressed forward to phase lines days beyond the original projections. A Japanese plane dived in an attack on LST 624. A projectile from another LST wounded Staff Sergeant Von Haden and Tec 5 James Kennedy who were aboard the LST under attack. A total of 26 LVTs were inoperable after L Day, 14 of which could be repaired in 48 hours. Two days later 38 were out of service.
But once ashore, the American troops had to win the island bloody inch by bloody inch against an enemy dug into an elaborate cave and tunnel network for a suicidal fight to the end. It was against this combat backdrop that the 788th had to keep those problematic LVTs running. The vehicles had been made barely serviceable for the invasion and now had been damaged by their rough ride over the coral reefs. Seven new LVTs had been delivered to the unit for the Okinawa invasion and these were the only vehicles in combat serviceable condition. After the initial invasion the LVTs turned around and headed back to sea in a war dance so minutely choreographed that there was no congestion or confusion on the narrow beach. During the coming days and weeks the 788th ferried food, water, ammunition and other supplies from the ships to shore and from the shore to the front line combat soldiers and Marines. The LVTs of the 788th carried 235 loads from the reef to the supply dumps in the first two days alone. The alligators also relayed casualties from the front lines back from shore aid stations to hospital ships offshore. The men of the 788th again worked around the clock. Technical Sergeant Gilmarin of the 788th wrote, "In the end, red eyes peering out of beard-blackened faces, and shoulders stooped with fatigue, were the identifying marks of the membership in the Battalion." He continued, "heart-breaking, back-bending work lies in keeping supplies moving in a stage of operations where sometimes only tractors can negotiate natural hazards lying between ship and shore, and in keeping the tracs moving to keep supplies moving." On April 8 the battalion moved to the rear of Orange Beach 1, near Nazato Village and moved to Baten-Ko, near Yonabaru on July 6.
Two months after the initial invasion, a provisional company of the 788th, with five officers, 160 enlisted men and 35 LVTs, was lent to a provisional company of the 1st Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment of the 6th Marine Division (June 3-13, 1945) for an assault on Oroku Peninsula, Beach Red II. The 788th also helped land the 29th Marine Regiment. Some of the LVTs were unable to reach the shore, forcing the Marines to wade ashore. In bringing supplies to the Marines' front line and transporting casualties one officer and two enlisted men from the 788th were wounded. The 6th Division's commanding general commended the Army's 788th Amphibian Tank Battalion, writing "Despite lack of time for preparation; operations in darkness, torrential rains, rugged reef conditions, enemy fire and numerous mechanical failures, this Unit worked night and day to aid greatly in the success of the recent landing on and capture of Oroku Peninsula." Colonel Hufford, the 788th's commanding officer, went in with the first wave, and the executive officer, Major Read, went in that evening, after coordinating his unit's invasion from aboard ship. Major Read reported "a lot of dead Japs" and "a lot of mortar fire" where they came ashore. A small shell of some kind landed between the feet of one of the 788th officers scratching him slightly, but mercifully it didn't explode. The Allied bombing had leveled the nearby city, creating a cover of filth, which had attracted a plague of flies. One of Major Read's surprises upon coming ashore was finding a small American cemetery of 15 to 20 concrete tombstones. Some graves were those of U.S. Navy personnel from Commodore Perry's expedition, dated 1854, and at least one other was that of an American school teacher who'd taught on the island many years later.
The 6th Marine Division, and units supporting it, was later awarded the Presidential Unit Citation medal for that operation. When the former executive officer, Major Read learned of this after the war, in 1947, he wrote the Secretary of the Navy asking about the oversight of not including his battalion among the "supporting units" eligible to wear the ribbon. He received a frosty reply from a Colonel L.S. Hamel in the Marine Commandant's office, addressed to "My dear Mr. Read" instead of his military title, writing "The units were selected according to the length of time they were attached to the division during the period cited; service performed in a front line combat nature and the contribution of such units to the successful completion of the Okinawa Operation as compared to those units performing comparable duties." In short, drop dead.
On June 24 elements of the 788th took part in an invasion on Sesoko Shima. The personnel of the 788th prevented enemy movement from the island to Okinawa Shima and to fire into caves that faced the sea. The unit suffered no casualties but lost two LVTs in the rough surf.
Altogether in the Okinawa invasion the 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion killed 16 of the enemy and captured 14. None of the 788th personnel were killed in action, but one officer and nine enlisted men were wounded in action.
For three months the 788th was "uncomfortably close" to targets the Japanese concentrated on, Major Read wrote in a letter some months later (August 5, 1945). He wrote, "Thus we had ringside seats for many air raids and were inside the ring a time or two." On April 22, 1945, he wrote, "... Yes the fight here is plenty hot. I am still in one whole piece ... The Japs keep us awake some nights with some of their foolishness but my foxhole is quite handy." His letter of April 29, 1945, described the experience of living in an air raid and artillery zone:
"Ernie Pyle's ... columns reminded me of letters that we might write describing various small subjects. Only correspondents can tell some things we can't." ... As I wrote the last word of the above paragraph the sirens began to wail and moan and so did we. The damn (no apologies for the English)15 Japs were visiting in the air in our vicinity without being invited and for the third straight night our sleep was interfered with. [He then chronicles the lengthy episodes of night air attacks during a number of nights.] A couple of these nights artillery fell not too far away ... An air alert is an interesting thing in a way. Back on Leyte in the latter weeks there it was a bit difficult to get everybody to get their lights off and keep foxholes handy. In the first few days of relative inactivity by the Japs here we became careless again even when the front lines were close enough we could see and hear both sides shooting everything from machine guns to artillery and mortars and could sit and watch our own planes pour lead and bombs into Jap positions in a seemly endless precision. Then a few bombs in nearby areas, some strafing not very far away and zippo, when the sirens wail the lights go out in nothing flat. During an air alert the procedure is something like this: The sirens sound off. You grab your steel helmet and get out in the open and see if you see or hear anything. Then you wait, have a bull session or so and then decide they aren't coming over your section anyway and you go back and lie on your bunk. You get comfortable and bang, bang, the ack-ack guns let go all around you and you jump up and dash out again to see where they are shooting. If it's off some distance away you watch the sheet of fire going up and you are glad you are not the one being shot at and also wonder why the plane keeps going. When the plane and the AA fire move anywhere close overhead you dive in the old foxhole. There are three things you are in danger of. First the bombs the plane may drop; second, the falling pieces of our own AA shells exploding in the sky and third, possible strafing by the enemy plane. By no means the least of the three is the AA fire. In your foxhole there is, I figure, about 1 chance in 20,000 or so of any of the three hitting you. On the ground without being in a foxhole the chances probably aren't more than one in several thousand of being hit unless in a concentrated attack -- but you like the odds to be as big as possible. ... It's rather funny, when you stop to think of it, how accustomed you get to things. You realize there is danger near but you get hardened to it ... Of course if they start dropping close and the ground shakes around you, you hug the bottom of the foxhole, and you promise to dig it deeper tomorrow -- and think you are not as secure after all.
"From a strictly impersonal viewpoint watching an enemy plane caught in the fingers of giant searchlights -- crossing through the sky with red tracers of thousands and thousands of AA going up and bursting all around the plane it is a truly awe-inspiring sight. In the light the plane looks like a gilded surfaced plane. When a plane bursts into flames and starts its crazy irregular path downward the cheers you hear remind you of a football game only some of the expressions you hear would drive most of the gals away from the stands. So again I don't think I'll be interested in paying to see 4th of July fireworks when the war is over."
By now kamikaze (suicide) aircraft attacks had become the major defense strategy of Japanese forces. Before the invasion kamikazes had scored a major hit on the U.S. cruiser Nashville, caused the sinking of two LST ships and damaged other American vessels as well. This despite the fact that American aircraft had destroyed over 700 Japanese warplanes in an effort to thwart their kamikaze campaign. On May 2, 1945, Major Read wrote:
"I notice that Admiral Nimitz has released news on the Jap suicide missions so now I suppose we can talk about them too. Both at (Leyte) and here the Japs have used a lot of planes for attempting suicide crashes into our shipping. I have seen Jap planes start in on long downward glides towards ships and keep going through almost a solid sheet of AA fire right into -- or near -- the ship. However, I have seen a lot of them explode or fall dizzily into the water before they reach the target. You can't help but admire the intestinal fortitude of the pilot who will go through all of that knowing if he lives to hit the ship he will be blown to bits. The little special jet planes ... Time told about look almost like toys even beside a cub airplane -- until you see the size of the explosive container and then you realize it's not much of a toy at that, but a vehicle of certain death to the pilot and possible death where it hits."
On July 28, 1945, Major Read wrote, "We all got "stimulating" or booster shots yesterday for typhoid and tetanus. I counted [25 separate entries] on my immunization register."
On July 29, 1945, he wrote home describing the recurring cycle of life in the 788th.
"[We will be] off sometime (I haven't the slightest idea when or where -- truly) in the future I suppose the various stages of the development of living quarters after D-day will begin over again. One spends weeks or months wondering where and when we go again, then after he finds out when or where -- or both, he spends weeks wondering what 'this one' will be like and then goes through the crucial moments of the first few hours of an amphibious landing and then for the balance of the campaign he wonders from day to day what will happen the next day or the next week that he will be affected by; and then it's over and the cycle of 'wondering' starts all over again. One good -- or bad -- thing about the army life overseas is the constant flood of rumors. It's easier to get rumors started and harder to get them stopped than one can imagine..."
The Japanese had known, or deeply suspected, that they could not prevent the Allies from taking Okinawa, the island, only 350 miles from Japan and from which assault on the main islands of Japan was at last possible. So their strategy was one of attrition. Each Japanese soldier was to take out ten American soldiers before perishing for the Empire. It was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war, in which a quarter of a million souls perished. An estimated 150,000 Okinawans died, about a third of the island's population, and between a third to a half of the Okinawa civilians who lived were wounded. A hundred thousand Japanese troops fought to the end rather than surrendering, with fewer than 10,000 being captured. The American Tenth Army lost 7,613 men and evacuated 30,000 from combat zones with wounds. And more cases of combat fatigue were reported than in any other U.S. engagement in history. Both commanding generals died in the battle, America's General Simon B. Buckner in battle and Japan's General Mitsuri Ushijima, of ritual suicide. By the end of the operation 548,000 Americans and Allies had followed the 788th onto the shores of Okinawa.
On June 21, 1945, the U.S. military command declared Okinawa "secure" of organized resistance, although many individual Japanese soldiers continued to harass American forces from isolated hideouts.
As the 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion began preparing for its part in the invasion of Japan itself, it now came under General Joseph Stilwell, who had succeeded General Buckner, after Buckner's death in battle. The 96th Division and another division constituted the 24th Assault Corps, which was to be joined by I and IX Corps from General Douglas MacArthur's force, when its troops would become the Assault Landing Force for Japan.
A few weeks later it was all over. American leaders, aghast at the huge losses suffered in the battle to take Okinawa, had calculated that a million American lives would be lost in an assault on Japan itself. American planes dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, and the U.S.S.R. broke its Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact August 9 with a surprise invasion of Manchuria. Japanese Emperor Hirohito ordered the country's political and military leaders to accept the Allied terms of surrender, and on August 15, made a radio broadcast to his nation announcing defeat. By this time the 788th Battalion, expecting to lead an assault on Japan, had already embarked on a ship that was anchored a few miles off shore awaiting developments. With the first news of Japan's surrender offer a mad display of fireworks erupted from the shore, as every imaginable gun, rocket and flare was used in the celebration. Ships joined the festivity with gunfire of their own. Unfortunately, some people lost their lives because of the falling shell fragments.
Major Read wrote from the ship on August 15, 1945:
"There has been such a rapid fire development of sensational news since we boarded the ship that it seems useless to try to make many comments on it. The atomic bombs, the Russian declaration of war against Japan, the Japs' surrender offers and, according to word just received over the radio, the actual surrender acceptance by the Allies, all of this has been about the most history-making week I have ever known. When Germany surrendered, their armies were completely disorganized except for a few minor exceptions and a few more weeks would have seen them gobbled up, surrender or no. Over here, with many islands and amphibious landings necessary, the war could have dragged on for months even with the use of atomic bombs. The cost of lives would have been heavy if it had gone on. The news has been more or less an anti-climax. There was much rejoicing when the first unofficial news of the offer of surrender was received, but in the several days since it has been believed by us that this news would come. The rejoicing isn't as wild as you would probably imagine since we all assume it will be months before we can get back to the States. However, there is now a happy feeling that it shouldn't be to many months, and anything could happen, depending on how occupation is handled. Am glad it wound up before they had to bring the additional million or so of troops from Europe. It will simplify the transportation problems a lot and then the boys from over there can't say they had to help win this war as well as the one against Germany.
The 788th was put ashore on the Philippine island of Mindoro, an island southwest of the major Philippine island of Luzon, on August 18, aboard LSTs 612 and 1040 and established camp near Bubug Village. On August 25 Major Read wrote:
"Our future is still a very murky unknown factor to us ... If we are going to have to stay over here a while (and I feel we will) we would much rather go on into Japan and see the country there than to sit around this deserted island. Of course what we all want to do is come home right away. From here right now, based purely on my own guesses, it looks to me like I will be overseas at least another six months. It could be less and it could easily be longer ... It is my belief there won't be a whole lot of mass movement towards the States until most of Japan has been occupied and the reaction of the Japs has been determined.
Two days later he wrote,
"The uncertainty has everybody kinda on edge. There isn't anything for us to do just now and everybody is getting stale. When you are busy you want to rest and when you have nothing to do but rest you want something to do. Such is life."
By October 11 the 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion had been declared surplus, and the U.S. Army Base on Mindoro scheduled to close.
Around October 25, a dozen senior officers of the former 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion were on the Philippine island of Mindanao and had been assigned to a medical battalion for processing purposes, but two days later the ad hoc group was assigned to an infantry regiment. Finally ships were ordered to pick up large groups of soldiers from Mindanao during the first week of November, but at the last minute were diverted to embark soldiers with higher numbers on another island, deeply disappointing the Mindanao contingent, of course. On the other hand, the soldiers were earning a steady income for doing absolutely nothing.
The 788th broke camp on Mindoro on November 30, 1945, and was transported aboard the Liberty Ship USS Frank B. Linderman to Batangas, on the Philippine island of Luzon, where the unit encamped at the 14th AA Command Staging Area. Other members of the 788th were carried home on USS Elmore (AA-42). The 788th Amphibian Tractor Battalion ceased to exist on December 15, 1945, two years, three months, and five days after its organization on September 10, 1943, at Camp Campbell, Kentucky. Four men had been killed in action, one had drowned and one had died of burns suffered in a gasoline explosion.
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