When people think of the paratroopers of World War II, they tend to think of the European theater — the 101st Airborne Division and the Band of Brothers.
But paratroopers were also deployed in the Pacific, and here to unpack their lesser-known but equally epic and heroic story is James Fenelon, a former paratrooper himself and the author of Angels Against the Sun: A WWII Saga of Grunts, Grit, and Brotherhood. Today on the show, James tells us about the formation, leadership, and training of the 11th Airborne Division, the role they played in the campaigns of the Pacific — which included being dropped one by one out of a tiny plane described as a “lawnmower with wings” — how they built a reputation as one of the war’s most lethal units, and the division’s surprising connection to the creation of The Twilight Zone. At the end of our conversation, James shares what lessons we all can take away from the exploits and spirit of the 11th Airborne.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Podcast #1: We Who Are Alive and Remain
- AoM Article: Motivational Posters — Band of Brothers Edition
- Lieutenant General Joseph Swing
- Colonel Orin “Hard Rock” Haugen
- Medal of Honor citation for Private First Class Manuel Perez Jr.
- “Combat in Twilight: Rod Serling’s World War II”
Connect With James Fenelon
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. When people think of the paratroopers of World War II they tend to think of The European theatre, the 101st Airborne Division and the Band of Brothers. But paratroopers were also deployed in the Pacific and here to unpack their lesser-known but equally epic and heroic story is James Fenelon a former paratrooper himself and the author of Angels Against the Sun: A WWII Saga of Grunts Grit and Brotherhood. Today on the show James tells us about the formation leadership and training of the 11th Airborne Division the role they played in the campaigns of the Pacific which included being dropped one by one out of a tiny plane described as a “lawnmower with wings” how they built a reputation as one of the war’s most lethal units and the division’s surprising connection to the creation of The Twilight Zone. At the end of our conversation James shares what lessons we all can take away from the exploits and spirit of the 11th Airborne. After the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/pacificparatroopers.
James Fenelon welcome to the show.
James Fenelon: Thanks Brett I appreciate it. As a fan it’s a privilege to be here.
Brett McKay: Well you are a historian that has written two books about paratroopers during World War II. Your first book was Four Hours of Fury which is about the largest airborne operation in Europe that’s with the 17th Airborne Division. You got a new book out about paratroopers and that is called Angels Against the Sun which is about the 11th Airborne Division in the Pacific. What’s interesting about you as a historian of paratroopers you were a paratrooper yourself before you started writing about paratroopers. So tell us about your career as a paratrooper and at what point in your career did you start getting interested in the history of airborne operations?
James Fenelon: Yeah I think it’s actually a little bit flipped. I think it was my interest in history as a kid that kind of got me interested in enlisting in the service actually. My uncle was a paratrooper in Vietnam and his stories of his service and my own natural interest in history led me down that path and I enlisted in the Army right out of high school. I went to Jump School in 1988. I served for the vast majority of my time in what used to be called Long Range Surveillance units which are kind of like small reconnaissance teams or maybe LRRPs is another concept that kind of came out of the Vietnam era of the Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols. And so that’s kind of what I did during my service small airborne operations six-man teams. That capability of course nowadays by and large has been replaced by drones. I still think they have some of those teams but not nearly as many as they used to. But it was during that time I got to go to jump master school and several other schools in the army and it was during a conversation with a sergeant I think I was a corporal at the time we were looking at a picture of some guys who had their picture taken right before their jump into Normandy and they were all standing outside of their plane all kitted up.
And the sergeant said to me he said “Wow the names change but the faces stay the same don’t they?” And that comment really stuck with me and that’s kind of what’s driven my mission if you will to document some of these stories is to tell their story and to have us all connect to the fact that these are all ordinary guys put in extraordinary circumstances.
Brett McKay: And how have you leveraged your first-hand experience into your history writing?
James Fenelon: Yeah I think one of the things that again struck me with that comment about the faces never changing looking at those pictures of those young men in their late teens or early 20s was… I think one of the things that makes the greatest generation great is that it’s not a magic formula per se. It’s that those guys in particular recognized that you can’t choose what happens to you but you can choose how you respond to it. And so I think I kind of leverage my service in and my writing as a way to kind of initially introduce readers to the normality of these guys in their late teens. Their future is uncertain. In most cases before they even get to the war zone their primary mission in life is to escape the mundaneness of Army life of service life. A lot of these guys have left home for the first time. They find themselves in the army. Every minute of their day is being directed by somebody else as to what to do and where to go and how to do it and all that kind of stuff and so I really kind of wanted to… I use my services as someone who was in that circumstance as a way to kind of bring the humanity out if you will and I know that may be overstating it but…
Brett McKay: No I think you did a good job with that. You’re able to really… The transition from your training life which was just boring and mundane to I’m suddenly thrown in the jungles and we’ll talk about that. It was jarring and you did a good job capturing that. So Angels Against the Sun it follows the 11th Airborne Division in their campaign in the Philippines and then eventually into Japan during World War II. And I think when most Americans think of airborne troops they typically think Band of Brothers and the European Theater and I think when most people think about the Pacific Theater. They think like amphibious landings. So what role did paratroopers play in the Pacific during the World War II?
James Fenelon: Yeah I think it’s a great question and it’s a great point of comparison. And I think we’ll use that familiarity of band of brothers as a kind of way to explore the topic because I think when we first talk about the Pacific and lean in to answer that question I think the first thing to understand is just the vast differences in the Pacific theater versus Europe and of course the Pacific is characterized by immense stretches of ocean between islands. The island-hopping campaign is of course this concept of starting basically in Australia and island-hopping our way closer to the home islands of Japan using those islands to build up logistical bases and airfields to then fuel and feed the campaign onto the next island. So that means a couple of things. First the Pacific Theater was dealing with this concept of scarcity. Resources are finite just like they are in any circumstance we never have enough of what we want and so you’re dealing with… How do you navigate that? And in the Pacific that meant of course scarcity in that supplies took a long time to get from point A to point B because they were always invariably traveling by ship sometimes those ships started as far away as San Francisco and so aircraft were limited and so that had an impact on the use of paratroopers and parachute operations in the Pacific theater.
And then you also had this idea that Europe had the priority at the time when the 11th arrived in the Pacific Theater it was still very much a Germany first strategy. And so that also had an impact on the scarcity of men and material. And so it’s interesting when we look at the European conflict and we compare airborne operations. Certainly the band of brothers… They jumped into Normandy and then later Holland and in these massive strategic use of airborne forces almost to lay either security on the flanks or seize bridges in advance as the armies advanced into Holland whereas in the Pacific what you see is a much more tactical use of parachute operations. And so I’m sure we’ll get into some of these more explicitly but you go from these massive division-sized jumps in Europe to in some cases down to individual guys jumping out of observation planes into the jungles in the Philippines and it’s really a great contrast to kind of understand the full range of capabilities of our airborne forces in World War II.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you wouldn’t have those scenes that you’d think Band of Brothers were just like hundreds or maybe thousands of parachutes falling down it be maybe just a few dozen in the Pacific?
James Fenelon: Yeah there were some regimental-sized drops in Lausanne in the Philippines and those were certainly larger but even then when one regiment jump you see the aircraft having to go back to the airfield multiple times to pick up the rest of the troops and bring them in so when you see a regimental jump in the Philippines and a regiment’s about 2000 guys the aircraft are going back to make multiple trips to pick them up and drop them so it’s taking three round trips essentially to drop 2000 guys where in Europe you see to your point it’s a one lift operation, thousands of chutes in the sky at the same time so it’s again that concept of scarcity and having to make do if you will.
Brett McKay: So when was the 11th Airborne Division created?
James Fenelon: Yeah so the 11th was created in February of 1943 at Camp Mackall, North Carolina. They were commanded by a guy named General Swing and by Airborne Division again using the kind of band of brothers example an Airborne Division was intended to be delivered into combat via glider and parachute so you had two types of units in an Airborne Division you had the glider troops which were guys that were assigned to these units so imagine if you will for a minute. You’re a kid coming out of the Great Depression you’ve never been in an airplane. You’re assigned to the element Airborne Division and a glider unit so your first ride in an aircraft is an engine-less glider you don’t get any additional hazardous duty pay like the parachute troops and you don’t get a parachute like Aircrew do right? So if you think of Aircrew and Bombers or fighters they all had the safety net if you will of a parachute whereas glider troops didn’t have any of that. And then the other units of course were the parachute units. And in the case of the 11th Airborne that was the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment. These guys were all volunteers one of the more notable volunteers in that unit was Rod Serling the creator of The Twilight Zone television series of course that was after the war.
And these guys like Rod Serling were attracted to volunteer to the parachute troops because of the tough nature of their training in many cases Rod Serling wrote home to his parents after he volunteered that he thought going through the tough training would make him a better soldier and make him a better man and so he was looking forward to that challenge other guys were motivated because they liked the uniform and then of course they also all got paid $50 more a month for hazardous duty pay and that of course attracted a wide share of recruits as well.
Brett McKay: I came across all socio-economic there’s people from the country, rural, city, rich, poor, just it attracted a certain type of person. Of course there’s guys who wanted the money but a lot of guys they just liked the prestige and the toughness of it.
James Fenelon: That’s right I think it’s a great observation because of that wide appeal of that elite status if you will it did attract every walk of life you had some guys that were rodeo clowns all the way up to Harvard graduates who wanted to test themselves and join the ranks of these elite soldiers.
Brett McKay: So when it was initially formed in 1943 did they know they’re gonna be going to the Pacific or was it just like okay we’re gonna use you somewhere we’re just gonna get you prepared for wherever you’re gonna go.
James Fenelon: Yeah so the short answer to that question is no. They did not know that they were going to the Pacific. Of course one of the favorite topics of conversation when guys were sitting around with time on their hands was where are we gonna be deployed and there was raging rumors and debates on which direction they were gonna go but it wasn’t really until they were leaving Louisiana they did a series of training exercises at Camp Polk and it was when the train started veering left meaning they were going west towards the west coast that that was when it dawned on them that they were in fact headed to the Pacific Theater.
Brett McKay: So this was led by a guy named General Joseph Swing. Tell us about this guy. What was his military career like before he was put in charge of the 11th Airborne and what was his personality like?
James Fenelon: Yeah Swing was an interesting character. I really enjoyed learning a lot more about his military career and I would say that where we start to see his leadership style kind of emerge was not long after he graduated from West Point he graduated… He earned his commission rather as an artillery officer in 1915 not long after that he was assigned as a young lieutenant into the Punitive Expedition or Black Jack Pershing’s expedition into Mexico. And this was really the Army’s first experiment with mechanization. So this is right before World War I. The Army at that point was… You’re either moving on your feet or on the back of a horse and the expedition into Mexico was really the first time the army started integrating in things like vehicles cargo trucks to move troops they had some very rudimentary armored cars they were using motorcycles to deliver messages and for scouting they had a handful of biplanes that they were using and so what you see is this Swing is really exposed to this concept of modernization early in his career and probably the biggest impact that had on him was that there was no doctrine at this time so these guys are getting all this new equipment nobody really knows how to incorporate it into their scheme of maneuver or how they’re gonna actually conduct their campaign.
And what came along with that of course was a series of cautionary tales these things broke down or they didn’t arrange to have enough fuel for them in the field and so they were waiting on guys to bring gasoline forward and so all of these things were kind of witnessed by Swing and in my opinion and I think I’ve tried to make the point in the book you start to see later in World War II where he becomes very comfortable with for lack of a better word making things up as he goes along and I think that that flexibility of mindset was developed in this early part of his career and then from there of course he went on to serve in World War I with the First Infantry Division and then worked his way up the ranks until he became the commander of the 11th Airborne Division in early 1943.
Brett McKay: Another leader of the 11th Airborne that had a big impact on the division as a whole was this guy named Colonel Orin Haugen who was this guy and what was he like as a leader?
James Fenelon: Yeah Haugen was another interesting character he’s kind of what I call an OG parachute guy so he… As a captain in 1940 he was a company commander in the Army’s first organized unit of paratroopers the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion. And he kind of came at things parachute operations and airborne from a very different perspective than Swing did so Swing… You can almost use the term kind of big army he viewed parachuting as simply a means to get to work a commute a unique commute to get to the battlefield whereas Haugen had come up through the ranks and like I said as a captain in this initial parachute unit where it was drilled into these guys that they were elite… At that point the parachute battalions were very similar to the early days of the range of battalion so they were elite infantry rating units that were intended to be used to jump behind the lines and blow up bridges and railroad lines and seize airfields and things like that.
So Haugen really leaned into this concept of self-reliance and again if we use the band of brothers as a comparison point their motto of, We stand alone together well Haugen in the 511th trained right there at Camp Toccoa and run Currahee just like the guys from Band of Brothers did and so Haugen really embraced this concept of self reliance and relying on the guy next to you and not being the weak link so to speak and he really led by example he led all of the runs of the unit up Mount Currahee. He would yell at them You are the best you are the best and encourage them to run faster but he was a very strict task master and so that his men’s nickname for him was hard rock and that was kind of in reference to his hard core way that he viewed their training he was extremely competitive he wanted to win and be the first at everything so he formed a regimental boxing team a regimental football team and was constantly relieving coaches and players to make sure that he got the best guys in there to win at whatever they were doing.
And he also… I think one of the important things about Haugen was that he recognized early on that the time for his leadership his officers to establish trust with his men was there during the training and that was the time to establish trust with the enlisted men if you waited till you got into combat to establish that trust it was too late and so he was really a hard taskmaster on his junior officers to get them to again lead by example put their men first and establish that trust.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned some of the training they did before they got shipped out I always love reading about the training of the paratroopers in World War II tell us more about their training. What was it like?
James Fenelon: Yeah So Jump School at Fort Benning at the time in World War II was four weeks long and so that was kind of the individual training or the individual skills to jump out of an airplane was done at Fort Benning four weeks long there was some ground training where they did… Going through mock aircraft doors and learning how to perform in the aircraft and then there was a tower week where they were learning how to do parachute landing falls.
And one of the things again that’s important to remember at this time is that the vast majority of these guys had never been in an airplane and so for most of the recruits at this point the first time they’re in an airplane is the same day that they’re going to jump out of it. And so the Army spent three weeks and in some cases four weeks getting these guys ready for that event through a series of the crawl walk run kind of strategy if you will of building them up over a period of weeks to then the final week being jump Week where they spend that week making five jumps culminating and then their graduation from that event where they earn their jump wings the Jump School today is very similar. The big difference is in World War II you spend a week learning how to pack your own parachute which is not something that they do anymore they now have a dedicated group of professionals fortunately whose job is to pack those parachutes because as you can imagine packing a parachute is a perishable skill and it’s something that you wanna be a expert in so they leave that to experts to do that and then units would get together and then start going through a series of unit exercises to where then they started to learn how to perform as squads and platoons and maneuver in those larger elements as a team.
Brett McKay: And so as you said, they didn’t learn, they are going to the Pacific till they were on the train and they started going west. When they got to San Francisco, or where they shipped… Did they get shipped out of San Francisco? I think it was San Francisco.
James Fenelon: Yes, that’s right.
Brett McKay: Shipped out of San Francisco. Where did they go initially to the Pacific?
James Fenelon: So their first destination was to New Guinea, just north of Australia. At that point, New Guinea had largely been secured. There were still some Japanese holdouts on the far side of the island, but the 11th Airborne did not see combat on New Guinea. They went into a training regimen there and took advantage of the fact that they were now in an environment in the terrain, very similar to what they would be fighting as they moved into the Pacific, and so again, you start to see here Swing and Haugen’s personalities really start to influence how the division would fight. They started going through a series of fairly elaborate live fire exercises, incorporating live ammunition, mortar fire, artillery fire, and we know that it was realistic training because, unfortunately, several guys were killed by friendly fire in those exercises. So it was very demanding. They also had the benefit of being trained by several Australian soldiers who had already been fighting the Japanese, so they incorporated those lessons learned, and it was really a time of development for the division as they started figuring out how to operate in this jungle environment.
Brett McKay: What year was this? Is this 1943 still, 1944?
James Fenelon: This is middle of 1944. So they had just arrived in May of 1944.
Brett McKay: And what was the state of the war in Pacific at this time?
James Fenelon: Yeah, so at this point, the allies were pushing their way across the Pacific, working their way, again, as in line with that island hopping campaign. New Guinea had largely been secured, so this was when MacArthur was in the process of fulfilling his famous I shall return promise that he made to the Philippine people, and the Americans invaded the Philippines in October of 1944. The 11th initially sat out the invasion, and it wasn’t until November of 1944, that the 11th Airborne landed on the island of Leyte, initially in an administrative capacity, so they were just kind of, if you can imagine following along that island-hopping campaign and landing on a secure beach after the invasion had already started, But pretty quickly into that campaign, MacArthur and his ground commander, a guy named Walter Kruger, had started realizing that they were suffering higher than expected casualties, and so the 11th was kind of then pushed up into the line to fill in as replacements and start moving into combat.
Brett McKay: So what was the objective on Leyte? Was it just to take back the island? Was that what it was?
James Fenelon: Leyte offered what they thought at the time was going to be access to a number of land-based air strips, which would put the allies in a great position to then use those airstrips to extend their air power to the other islands in the Philippines, specifically the main island of Luzon, as well as use them as bases to cut off Japanese sea lanes where they were bringing in the raw materials to still feed their war machine, if you will. Now, there was some assumptions that went into that initially, which failed to take into account the horrific torrential rains on Leyte. So these airfields that MacArthur and his staff had planned use turned out to be muddy quagmires at the time that they landed in October, so things didn’t quite work out that way initially. And the 11th Airborne was brought in and then pushed up into the central mountain range to cut off Japanese reinforcements that were working their way from the west side of the island over these mountains to try to come down into the valley where those airfields were located.
Brett McKay: So these guys were trained as paratroopers and gliders. Did they do any para trooping and gliding at Leyte?
James Fenelon: So yes, kind of. No gliding, but this is where we start to see Swing’s, flexibility, and improvisation is the way that I like to think of it. So as these guys started moving up into the mountains… This is basically like light infantry tactics at its finest. There’s no roads going up into the mountains, so there’s no jeeps can get up there, no trucks can get up there. All the supplies that are going up into the mountains are man-packed, and so if you think about it, these guys are going up like these little trails. You got a division going up into the mountains, and you’ve gotta keep them supplied with both food and ammunition as they’re engaging the Japanese. And so at some point, they get up to this plateau, and this is where Swing starts to utilize the unique airborne capability of his division.
Of course, aircraft being in short supply, as I mentioned earlier, what he did have access to was a handful of these small single-engine observation aircraft. One guy described them as a lawnmower with wings, so think as the smallest airplane you can imagine. They literally bring it ashore and then bolt the wings onto it, and so Swing tapped a platoon of his airborne engineer, so 30-some-odd guys of his combat engineering unit, and one by one, they climbed into the back of one of these aircraft and then jumped into the jungle with their shovels and demolition charges to expand and create a drop zone in the middle of the jungle. So these guys were literally climbing in, wrapping the static line of their parachute around the spars of the chair in the back seat of this airplane and parachuting in.
So those guys, 30 of them soon landed one at a time, they started chopping down trees, using demolitions, and expanding the footprint of that drop zone, so that Swing could then start dropping in supplies, additional men and material into that forward base, and using that as a way to then keep his men supplied. Surgeons jumped in there as well, parachuted in, which allowed the rest of the unit to then keep pushing forward up into the mountains.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. And what was the fighting like at Leyte?
James Fenelon: Yeah, so I think when we think about the fighting on Leyte, I always like to begin with just the elements themselves, and so I mentioned it had been raining for a number of weeks on Leyte. So the first enemy that the troopers actually engaged was just the mud. They’re hacking up into these mountains, the mud in some cases is shin-deep, everything you own is wet, you’ve got disease, you’ve got the heat and humidity. So they hiked their way up and then that’s when as they’re in the mountains, that’s when they start to engage with Japanese patrols and as there up in these mountains, it’s really… The whole advantage in the way that the American army had geared itself around technology advantages and firepower advantage were really negated by the mountains because you couldn’t get any of that stuff up into the mountains.
You couldn’t get artillery pieces up into the mountains. You couldn’t get a lot of these larger radios. The mountains were covered in clouds, so air support was difficult. The maps were horrible, so nobody actually ever really knew where they were. These maps that they had were often hand-drawn and had villages mislabeled and entire ridge lines or mountain peaks were missing from them. That was kind of the conditions under which these guys moved up into the mountains, and then of course, on top of that, they had the enemy, the Japanese, which started almost kind of imagine this head-to-head collision up in the mountains as you had squads of the American paratroopers going forward, and in these very close combat conditions bumping into squads of Japanese who were heading in opposite direction.
Brett McKay: And the Japanese, they were just formidable opponents, and at this point, for the Japanese, they kind of understood… The generals and the leaders there, they understood that their backs were against the wall. So it was kind of turning into a fight to the death for these guys.
James Fenelon: Yeah, I think a fight to the death is a great way to describe it. At that point in the war, the Japanese leadership was really… Their strategy was to win just one massive campaign, right? The strategic concept kind of was like, “Well, if we can bring the Americans to their knees in just one battle, hit them with heavy, heavy casualties, maybe we can approach a treaty on equal terms” And of course, the Americans had already made their unconditional surrender kind of demand, but that was the idea of the Japanese, and so they were throwing in troops seeking a decisive victory, if you will. And one of the things…
One of the traits of the Japanese soldier was this concept of Yamato de Machi, and I hope I’m pronouncing that right, but it’s this idea of an unwavering belief in the righteousness of their cause, and these guys were kind of steeped in that ethos, if you will, that kind of involved equal parts Bushido Shinto religion, and of course, honor played an important component of that, but it was this idea of, “Well, if we’re brave enough and if we fight hard enough, our spirit can overcome technological advantages that the enemy has.” And it was interesting because up in the mountains of Leyte when those two elements came together, and at this point in the war, of course, all of the Americans understood that the Japanese were not gonna surrender. They understood from the news that had leaked out about the Bataan Death March that they could expect to be treated very poorly as prisoners themselves, and so it really devolved into this battle of attrition because neither side was willing to give up. The Americans weren’t gonna give up, they’re not gonna put themselves in the position to where they’re gonna be taken prisoner.
Japanese units were fighting to sometimes 96-97% of casualties, and so you really get this head-to-head, no-holds-barred combat up in the mountains of Leyte, and honestly, all the Pacific campaigns were very similar to that.
Brett McKay: You also talk about these reports from American soldiers that the Japanese at some points, they would just attack with a samurai sword and it was terrifying. Usually, they got gunned down, but it was terrifying to see some guy coming at you with just a sword.
James Fenelon: Absolutely, yeah, that’s one of those things that’s just really… It’s kind of hard to comprehend the terror of that when you’ve got guys, human wave attacks coming at you with swords over their heads. The Japanese bayonets were extremely long, so that’s intimidating, as well. There was one veteran I interviewed remembered, he shot a guy that was running towards them in a bonsai attack and all he was armed with was a fountain pen. He had a fountain pen raised up over his shoulder like a dagger. That’s how fanatical some of these attacks were.
Brett McKay: Alright, so they took Leyte. It took a month, and then you talk about after they finally to control the island, they had to do this mopping up, like, “Oh, let’s go mop up,” and basically that was to go find Japanese forces that were still there in hiding. But you talk about the mopping up was actually more dangerous than the actual assault. What made mopping up “More difficult or dangerous”?
James Fenelon: Yeah, I’m glad you put the mopping up in quotes, ’cause it’s one of those terms that is easy to overlook. I think what you had there was even a bigger level of desperation. When you’re dealing with these Japanese units that have been, in many cases, overrun or bypassed, so imagine a group of Japanese on a hill top where the Japanese have kind of, the Sun Tzu kind of way of just going around that hill top, isolated it, we’ll come back for it later type of thing. When you come back for it later, you’ve now got Japanese who are cut off, they’re viewing their mission now is to take as many Americans with them as possible, and so there’s just no real easy way to go about doing that. Again, at one point, Swing did utilize the unique capabilities of his division and dropped in four small artillery pieces, so they did have some heavier firepower at that time up in the mountains to kind of help them in these situations where they’re trying to winkle out these holdouts, but they’re in caves, they’re not gonna come out. You have to bring the mountain down around them, basically. I mean, Swing was very good about using flanking attacks, and he despised frontal assaults that some other army commanders were very comfortable with, but it was just very nasty, dirty work to go up there and try to get into these fortified positions and get these guys out of there.
Brett McKay: So what was the result of Leyte? So apart from, we took control the island, what were casualties like? And how did this… I mean, this is the 11th’s first… I mean, it was like baptism by fire. How did this affect them for the rest of the war.
James Fenelon: Yeah, so I think the Hard Rock Haugen’s unit came out of Leyte. It took them a month of tracking from one side to get to the other side of the island coming down out of the mountains on Christmas day, essentially, is when they started to emerge, on the far side of the island. They had a number of casualties, some of which they had left buried up in the mountains, so there was efforts to go get those guys. They had, I wanna say, right around 500 casualties from that fighting. They had just as many, if not more, guys that were suffering from disease up in those conditions, but Haugen did the math when they came out of the mountains, and he and his men were boasting of a 45 to one kill ratio of their time up in the mountain. And so again, this is where you start to see the real aggressive nature of Haugen and Swing both really always wanting to maintain contact with the enemy, always wanting to move forward, and so they kind of boasted of this kill ratio, if you will, as a way to set expectations for the unit, for the division, as to how they were gonna continue to lean into the fight.
Brett McKay: Did that give them a reputation amongst the Allies and the Japanese?
James Fenelon: Absolutely. One of the interesting things about the 11th Airborne Division is that I use the term punch above their weight. So both the 101st and the other Airborne divisions that were fielded during World War II were only 8500 men in the division, and so this made them, in most cases, a little bit more than half the size of a regular infantry division. So regular Infantry Division was anywhere between 14 and 15000 guys, and again, the 11th Airborne was 8500. So to kind of develop this reputation of doing so much damage with about half of what they had to a regular division, and the course that also included having far less artillery than a regular infantry division did, it really bolstered their reputation and you see them, particularly with General Eichelberger, one of MacArthur’s field commanders, really leaned on the 11th Airborne for their aggressive spirit.
Brett McKay: So what happened to the 11th after Leyte?
James Fenelon: So after Leyte, MacArthur had moved on and moved his invasion next to Luzon, which was the main island in the Philippines. Of course, the main prize of that campaign was to be Manilla, which was the capital city. Before the war, it was known as the Pearl of the Orient, and I think it’s important to kinda get a good idea of what that city was like. It had just under a million people living in it, so it was a massive urban area. Many of the boulevards along the bay there, the reason it was called Pearl of the Orient was these beautiful wide boulevards where people could stroll to watch the sunset. Many of the government buildings rivaled anything that you would see in Washington DC with these massive white marble columns. MacArthur had hoped that the Japanese were going to declare Manila an open city, meaning that they would withdraw their forces out of the city to avoid what would become massive bloodshed in an urban battle.
The Germans did that in Paris. They declared Paris an open city and left so that it wouldn’t turn into the blood bath that it could have. That didn’t happen unfortunately, in Manilla. And so as MacArthur campaign was slowing down, he had landed several divisions to the north, was pushing down towards Manilla, he decided to launch several other landings, if you will, south of Manila as a way to kind of divide Japanese forces. The 11th Airborne Division was assigned to one of these landings. General Swing really advocated for air dropping the division in total. So again, using gliders and aircraft to land them south of Manilla. Unfortunately, again, we see a lack of aircraft, so there just wasn’t enough aircraft at that point to be able to lift his division, and so they ended up going in kind of what he described as half a loaf, meaning that half a loaf went in amphibious-ly, meaning he landed his glider units along the shore, and then further inland, he air dropped Haugen and his men south of Manilla to where the two units then linked up on the ground, his glider units and the parachute units linked up and then started pushing their way north up into the city limits of Manilla.
Brett McKay: So how did the fighting differ in the city compared to the jungle? What were the unique challenges?
James Fenelon: The main thing was just the urban nature of it. So as the 11th was moving up, the Japanese had anticipated the Americans returning to the Philippines and that they would be attacking Manilla, so they had built a belt of defenses along the southern edge of the city. Their initial thought was that MacArthur was gonna attack from the south. He didn’t. He attacked from the north, but the 11th did attack from the south, so they ran into this belt line of defenses, which the Japanese had labeled the Genko line. Think about this as a series of pillboxes, machine gun nests, these are built out of brick, these are built out of bamboo tree trunks, they have taken aerial bombs and buried them in the ground as mines across the road.
They’ve overturned bulldozers and city buses across the roads to create blocking positions, and so it really just becomes this brick-by-brick concrete battle as the 11th start pushing their way up into the city. They’re swarming through the city, they’re finding Japanese holdouts in attics and in basements, behind them in areas they thought they’ve already cleared, they start to… The 11th and Swing start to really work with Filipino gorillas, who are really important in this battle for the 11th because of course, they know the terrain, they know the layout of the city, they know a lot about the Japanese defenses because, of course, they watch them being built, and so Swing really starts to leverage several battalions worth of Filipino gorillas in his scheme of battle.
Brett McKay: There were some pretty epic exploits by the individual members of the 11th airborne. I think at this point, there’s a guy named Manny Perez who… Basically, he won the Medal of honor for this, what he did. Can you talk about what he did at this point in the war?
James Fenelon: Yeah, so Perez was a member of Haugen’s parachute infantry regiment. He was 21 years old at the time of this attack. So they were working their way up through this Genko Line at this point. They had pushed their way north and were now kind of maneuvering east, if you will, trying to hook around some of these defenses. His unit had been engaged all morning in attacking several pillboxes. The counts vary, but the general consensus is they had taken out his squad and platoon had worked their way through 11 Japanese pillboxes. And the 12th one really had the squad pinned down. It was a dual twin-mounted machine gun that had a pretty good field of fire over some open terrain. The squad had gone to ground in front of this.
And as the story goes from lieutenant who was up front trying to figure out how they were going to attack this position, he looked over and all of a sudden, Perez and his nickname, his buddies called him Manny, was sprinting forward towards the gun position and they yelled for him to get down, he kept going. He threw himself down on the side of the gun position within hand grenade range. He threw a couple of hand grenades into the machine gun position. Right as they exploded, he’s jumping up and following them in, find several Japanese guys that have been wounded, he quickly shoots them.
Japanese soldier approaches him and attacks him with his bayonet on the end of his rifle. Perez ends up taking the rifle away from him, killing the guy with his own rifle, and then at one point beating three Japanese guys to death with that rifle, ends up breaking that rifle, grabbing another one. It’s really one of those stories that if you put it in a movie, it would be hard to believe, but at the end of it, Perez had taken the machine gun nest and his Medal of Honor citation cites that he had killed single-handedly, 23 of the enemy in that action. He was, to your point, awarded the Medal of Honor. That was interesting because several of his comrades that witnessed the event actually disputed the citation, wanting to amend it because by their count, during the entirety of that morning, Perez had actually taken out anywhere from 70 to 75 Japanese during the assault on all those other previous pillboxes. So he was quite a one-man machine. Sadly, even though he survived that event that he was awarded the Medal of Honor for it, it was awarded posthumously because he was killed later on in the campaign.
Brett McKay: So the 11th… They take Manila, the 11th with other divisions as well. What happened to the 11th after that?
James Fenelon: So one of the more interesting exploits of the 11th’s campaign while they were on Luzon was their liberation of the Los Banos prison camp. So when the Japanese had invaded the Philippines, they had taken prisoner several thousand civilians. So think of Americans, French, British, these were engineers who worked on the island, entrepreneurs who own businesses, clergy, on missions, things like that. And the Japanese had put them in a number of prison camps, some of which were in Manila proper. Los Banos was a couple of miles, maybe 20 miles outside of the city limits. It was a camp that held a little over 2,000 of these civilian prisoners. And MacArthur and his staff were worried that as the Japanese were being pushed across the island that rather than evacuate these prisoners or just simply release them, that they would execute the prisoners.
And so MacArthur put Swing in charge of figuring out how to rescue these guys. And this again is where you see Swing’s kind of flexible approach to his war fighting. The plan that his unit came up with was a kind of a multi-pronged attack that started with a ground assault by his reconnaissance scouts. They worked in conjunction with the Filipino guerrillas to sneak up to the outskirts of the camp. They timed their assault to be launched simultaneously as the Japanese were conducting their morning calisthenics. So the only armed Japanese were the guys that were around the perimeter of the camp. Everybody else was in there doing their morning exercises. Right as that happened, a company of guys parachuted in on the far side of the camp. So about 120 men parachuted in and they joined in the assault. While that was happening, the rest of that battalion came across the lake in amphibious tracked vehicles that then made their way into the camp, knocked down the gates of the camp with those tracked vehicles, and they loaded all of the prisoners onto those tracked vehicles to evacuate them.
It was a raid, meaning that they were just going in to rescue these guys and then get out. And so it was stunningly successful. None of the prisoners were killed in the crossfire. A couple of them were wounded, but nothing serious. Unfortunately, two of the guerrillas were killed in the firefight, but all of the American rescuers were evacuated unharmed as well.
Brett McKay: So this is about February 1945 when that prison liberation happened. And then the next couple of months, the 11th Airborne along with the other divisions there, they eventually secured the Philippines. Was it pretty easy after that point, if they got Manila, or was it hard fighting even then?
James Fenelon: It was pretty much hard fighting all the way across the island. Again, I think one of the things that’s interesting to note, I think, to just provide some additional context, the last Japanese soldier to surrender in the Philippines took place in 1974, and so that gives you kind of an idea as to the tenacity of these guys and their willingness to stay in the fight. And so, again, we use that term in quotes, “mopping up”. There was a lot of mopping up in Luzon. Swing kept pushing his division east across the island as an attempt to cut the island in half, if you will, as other units were both to the north and the south of them as they made that cut across. And it was similar combat, pushing through, sweeping past some of these more heavily defended areas, cutting them off so that they couldn’t get resupplied with food or reinforcements, and then coming back and dealing with them later.
At one point, Swing had a garrison of something like 300-some-odd Japanese kind of cornered on this mountain fortress that they had built, and they sent a guy up to try to get the Japanese to surrender, the Japanese shot at the guy who was bringing up the surrender terms. And so Swing was content just to sit back. And I think something like, they launched a thousand artillery shells a day at this place until they finally just reduced it to rubble. And that again was just kind of that battle of attrition that took place all across the Philippines.
Brett McKay: They finally took it towards the middle of 1945, and at this point, the military was getting ready for just an all-out invasion of Japan. What was the 11th Division’s role gonna be in that land invasion of Japan?
James Fenelon: Yeah, so everybody… All the troopers in the 11th were convinced that they were going to be dropped into the Japanese main island as part of MacArthur’s invasion. If you go look at the actual plans that were drawn up, the 11th Airborne was gonna be used in that invasion, but as far as I can find, they weren’t actually going to air drop them in. Again, maybe that was due to a lack of aircraft. The plans that I’ve seen indicate that they were gonna be landed amphibiously. But the guys at the time didn’t know that. The guys at the time all assumed that they would finally be used in one of these massive air drops that we’ve already compared Europe to. But of course, that didn’t happen. The United States dropped two atomic bombs, which then brought about the surrender, negotiations and ultimately, the end of the war.
Brett McKay: Did they occupy Japan? Did they play any role in that?
James Fenelon: Yeah, so this is where you finally start to see the small size of the 11th Airborne Division play into their favor. So they were the first troops to be air landed in Japan. They had flown from airfields in Manila initially to Okinawa, where they stayed for several weeks. And it’s kind of a misconception that the war ended immediately after the atomic bombs were dropped. There were several weeks there where there was internal debate going on in Japan about how to respond to the bombs, how to approach the surrender terms. Those were ironed out. And then several…
After the division had sat on Okinawa for several weeks, they then flew from Okinawa to a small airfield outside of Tokyo. They secured that. All of the guys from the 11th flew in fully armed, expecting a trap. One of the troopers commented that while the Japanese surrendered as hard as they fought. And so there weren’t any incidents once they landed fortunately. There was compliance with the surrender terms. And a couple of days after they got there, MacArthur landed at that airfield for the eventual signing of the surrender documents on the Missouri.
Brett McKay: When did these guys go home? Did they go home in 1945?
James Fenelon: Some of them did. It’s an interesting kind of return, if you will. So similar to what we saw in Europe, there was the point system of when these… You earn points for how long you’ve been in the service, if you were wounded, things like that. The 11th itself stayed in Japan for a number of years as an occupation force. So their initial mission, once they landed in Japan and secured that airfield was disarming the populace. So the Japanese had armed millions of civilians for this big fight that was anticipated to occur on the home islands. And so occupation troops were responsible for patrolling, conducting inspections and overseeing weapons turn in. And so the 11th kinda came home in drips and drabs and one’s and two’s as these guys would get on ships and make their way back to the States.
Brett McKay: What happened to some of these guys when they came home? Did they… Did a lot of these guys have a hard time processing what they went through?
James Fenelon: Yeah, of course, we know a lot more now about post-traumatic stress than we did back then. It was largely undiagnosed. Interestingly enough, I think one of the most vocal guys on that topic was Rod Serling who… He certainly didn’t call it post-traumatic stress, but he certainly knew what was going on. And he talked about himself and his friends who did come back and there was those that had been physically wounded, and then of course, those who had suffered mentally from their experience. And he talked pretty freely about that and some of the challenges he had and that’s really where he turned to writing. He found that as an outlet. Of course, now we know that writing and talking about it is a great way to kind of excise those demons, if you will, but that was kind of his way of going about it. And of course, I think if we look at the Twilight Zone, you can certainly see some of the themes in those episodes that he wrote of trying to kind of explore humanity and the perception of what the human experience entails.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you can see that definitely in the episodes, the themes like war is bad, that was a theme you see in Twilight Zone. Also, the Twilight Zone, there’s like an empathy for people dealing with mental illness that I don’t think you saw in other shows, but you saw that on the Twilight Zone.
James Fenelon: Yeah, absolutely. One of the most horrific events of the war took place right in front of Rod Serling ‘s eyes. When they were up in that forward base that I was talking about, they were dropping supplies into them and sometimes those supplies were just literally thrown out the side of the airplane. And one point in that campaign, they had gone five days without food because the clouds had socked in the mountain where they couldn’t get aircraft up there. So the clouds finally broke, the planes are flying over to push out these crates. One of Rod Serling ‘s best friends jumps up and is impromptu singing a song about food, getting a laugh out of everybody, when all of a sudden one of these crates falling out of the sky crushes his skull and kills him right in front of everybody who’s sitting there watching him in this moment of glee that he’s getting ready to get some food.
And again, I think… So you can imagine yourself sitting there as a 19, 20-year-old, and all of a sudden this moment your best friend’s head has caved in. And I think Rod spent a lot of his life trying to process those kinds of things through the exploration of his writing in his show.
Brett McKay: What lessons about life and being a man do you hope readers take away after reading about the 11th Airborne Division?
James Fenelon: It’s a great question. I think there’s so many interesting lessons to learn from both Swing and Haugen and the way that the unit comported themselves during the war. But I would say one of them was this concept of flexibility or imagination. It’s the idea of… When we see that in Swing’s comfortable take on how to not stick to doctrine or not stick to a plan when it wasn’t working, I think that’s something we could all benefit from, right? We gotta be comfortable and objective enough with ourselves and our approach to understand when we might have to pivot and attack something from a different direction to make it work. I think also the idea of initiative in the 11th Airborne, that meant always taking the initiative, always pushing forward, always keeping the enemy off-balance. Whereas I think in our daily life, always looking for opportunities to stay on the initiative, there’s always something that we can do to help ourselves, to help others, and that’s certainly within the spirit of that, always leaning into a scenario or a task. And then finally, I would say endurance is another big lesson that I certainly understood from learning more about these guys. And by endurance, I mean both physically and mentally.
I think one of the things that got them through some of that horrible jungle fighting was both their physical and their mental endurance, right? So staying in shape, staying in the game. And certainly, your podcast gives us lots of tools as far as mental and physical endurance.
Brett McKay: Well, James, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
James Fenelon: Yeah, so the book is available at all the usual suspects. You can order it online on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. If you wanna learn more about me and my work, you can go to jamesfenelon.com.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well James Fenelon thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
James Fenelon: Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was James Fenelon. He’s the author of the book, Angels Against the Sun. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, jamesfenelon.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/pacificparatroopers where you can find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.
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