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Barbed Wire and Rice
by James H. Cowan
May 1, 1972
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Barbed Wire and Rice
by James H. Cowan
May 1, 1972

Pearl Harbor and Bataan-words that are seldom remembered.

Let us forgive but not forget, and remember the bitter lessons learned from these events.

Let us not listen to the cries of the politicians and others who would have us let down our defenses. Let us remain strong while we work for a just and lasting peace. 

The world is still torn by war. Our enemies continue to prepare without letup. We do not know their intentions.

The men in my story were once young and full of life. Now they are nothing but faded heroes, remembered by a few aging buddies.

What I have endured I would gladly endure again if it would help my country. I pray that we will never endure another Pearl Harbor or Bataan.

Please let others read this story lest we forget.

December 8, 1941

 I was a young Air Force soldier stationed at Clark Field in the Philippine Islands.  We had come to the Islands in September and October of 1941 as part of the 19th Bombardment Group.  There were six squadrons in the group.  My squadron was Headquarters.  H.Q. was responsible for transportation for the group and some other administrative duties.  We were an old established outfit, one of the few heavy bomber groups in the USAAF at the time.  Our group had been assigned some of the first B-17s and B-24s in the air force.  We were proud of our giant four engine aircraft, some of the finest in the world at that time.  My job was aircraft engine mechanic on a B-17 crew. The crew chief was MSgt. Burel, a rough and tough old sergeant, but a good crew chief.

 We had heard the news from Pearl Harbor but did not realize how much damage had been done to our fleet.  We had also heard the President had declared war on Japan.  It was almost eight hours after the sneak attack and we could not understand why we had not received orders to bomb the Japanese Island of Formosa.

 Our Group Commander, Colonel Eugene Eubank, was at USAAF headquarters trying to get orders to send out an attack force.  Major David Gibbs, our Operations Officer, was in charge during the absence of the Group Commander.

 About 9 o'clock in the morning we received word that enemy planes were approaching and the thirteen B-17s were ordered to take off to avoid being caught on the ground.  Their orders were to patrol the coast of Luzon until further orders.

 At last Colonel Eubank returned with others to attack Formosa.  The B-17s were ordered to return to Clark Field to prepare for the attack. Our crews worked feverishly to load the planes but the orders had come too late. By this time the Japs had already taken off and were on their way to bomb us.

 Part of the group had moved to Del Monte Field on Mindanao, an island south of Luzon, still out of range of the Jap Zeroes;  thank goodness for that.  These planes were also ordered to get ready for action. 

 I had been working on an engine on one of our B-17s in the morning and had just returned from lunch. The time was about 12:35 when I returned to work.  I had barely started when I heard the sound of many airplanes. I looked up to see a tremendous formation.  They were at high altitude in perfect formation against the blue Philippine sky. I started counting and someone said, "Oh, look at the beautiful Navy formation."  By then I had counted 54.  Then all of a sudden I realized what was happening.  I yelled, "Navy, Hell! They're Japs!"  I started running for the nearest shelter I could find, which happened to be a large drainage ditch that carried away the base run-off in wet weather.  I must have reached the ditch in record time. There were a lot of men already there.

 Except for a few trenches that had been dug near the hangars, there were no shelters.  There was no advance warning and the Jap formation was directly over the field before we knew what was happening.

 Different reasons and explanations have been given as to why we were caught by surpass, none of which make much sense.  One of the things I remember December 8 was that the base was outlined by small fires that sent plumes of smoke up as if to guide the Japs in.  There were several other strange things that happened prior to the attack. For instance, three or four days before, a big four-engine flying boat flew directly over Clark Field.  It was a strange plane to me, without markings and flying at low altitude.  When I asked my superior officer about it he said that it was probably a China Clipper.  But I thought to myself that if this was the case then he must be a long way off course.  I am convinced now it was a Japanese recon plane. 

P-40s at Clark Field prior to the attack.
Clark Field before the attack
 The Jap heavy bombers made a saturation run across the base, dropping their strings of bombs.  Many of our planes and buildings were destroyed in this first run. Then low level dive bombers and Zero fighters came in to finish the job strafing personnel and equipment. It was a terrifying experience.

 I was snuggled as close to the side of the ditch as possible.  The Jap fighters were flying back and forth across the ditch strafing our equipment.  If they had come down the ditch they would have killed a lot of us.  A burst of 20 mm fire knocked off the side of the ditch and partially covered me with dirt. A row of slugs kicked up dirt about two inches from me. 

 The Japanese did a thorough job of destroying our base. There was little to salvage after the attack. The sudden, surpass attack had completely terrified everyone.  Three hundred military and civilian personnel were killed or wounded by bombs and machine gun fire. 

 There were stories of courage and heartbreak.  Of the few P-40s on the base, a few managed to take off and engage the enemy.  It was a futile attempt but the courage of the pilots that tried to get into the air in the middle of the attack is something I will  never forget.  One of the heartbreaking events that happened was a P-40 trying to get off the ground that was hit and suddenly veered into a B-17.  Both went up in flames.  Some of our air crewmen went into their ships to fire at the enemy from top gun turrets and died at their guns.  It seemed that everything conspired against us to make the Jap attack a complete success. 

Before the attack our pursuit planes had been sent on patrol and had missed the Jap planes on their way from Formosa.  The attack was in progress when the P-40s returned for fuel.  Being unable to engage the enemy, they were shot to pieces as they tried to land during the attack. 

 The Japanese losses were very insignificant, but the hatred against them had been born.  One of our sergeants, coming upon a downed Jap plane, immediately urinated on the dead pilot. 

 After the attack, our troops were scared and demoralized, as well as bewildered.  We had been caught so completely by surprise only hours after the President had declared war on Japan.  We had the means to give a good account of ourselves, but because of indecision and delays we were crippled in one attack from the enemy.  I pray and hope we will never be caught in this position again.

 My first concern when the attack was over was for my best friends. They were Amon Blair (Little Tex), Howard Gunn, and Gordon Smith.  Tex and I had worked together in Fullerton, California before the war and had joined the service together.  Howard and Smitty had met me in the service and we had become very close friends. I was relieved to find they had come through all right.  I was also sad to hear that some of my other buddies in the squadron had been killed in the attack. 

 After the raid, we moved out of the barracks into the jungle, for we knew the Japanese would be back.  Sure enough, there were raids every day.  I don't consider myself a brave person and the attack had scared the hell out of me.  I was having a hard time trying to keep from hiding every time I heard an airplane engine.  However, everyone was jittery.  Filipino and American troops had set up 50 caliber AA machine guns in the jungle around the base and they were so nervous they fired at anything that happened to be flying by, even our remaining P-40s.

 A salvage detail was organized as soon as possible, and I was assigned to this detail.  Our job was to salvage usable parts from the wrecked planes.  To go back to the air field where many of my buddies had lost their lives and where I had come close to death was a terrifying experience.  We often had to crawl into a tight spot to salvage parts, with the Jap planes harassing us.  We were hard pressed to get out of the blackened hulks and find shelter before the Japs bombed and strafed the hell out of us.

 One day there was a low overcast over the field.  We could hear the Jap planes above it waiting for a chance to break through.  I asked the Lieutenant in charge if we could take cover, but he said not to worry because the could not come under the cloud cover.  However, I had already picked out a shelter just in case.  It was a drain pipe under the runway in the same ditch where I had found shelter before.  I had hardly finished talking to the Lieutenant when the Japs came under the overcast at the other end of the base.  I made the pipe in record time and the Lieutenant was right behind me.  He was a little more willing to find shelter after that, especially since the area where we had been working was saturated with anti-personnel bombs.

 It was lucky that part of our B-17s were at Del Monte Field on Mindanao.  These few planes, along with four others we put back in service with our night and day salvage work, were the only remaining air-striking force left in the Pacific.  I will not try to tell a complete history of the 19th Bomb Group here.  Others have done this much better than I could.  But I have described as best as I can some of the things that happened while I was still at Clark Field.

 At last the 19th Bomb Group began to fight back.  When a large Japanese invasion convoy was seen heading for Luzon, our remaining B-17s were ordered to attack.  On December 10, five planes, led by Capt. Cecil B. Combs, made the first air raid attack in World War II. They found the convoy heading for the towns of Vigan and Aparri on Northern Luzon.  They made their bomb run without much opposition, surprising the enemy.  However, not much damage was done to the convoy in this raid.

The Japs were not surprised again.  They were well prepared for succeeding mission we flew that day.  Our B-17s battled their way through swarms of Zeroes to try to stop the Japanese landing forces.  The courage and devotion to duty shown by these men should have a permanent place in American history. 

 One of the crews flying that day was commanded by a young West Pointer named Colin P. Kelly.  He and two other pilots, Lieutenants G. R. Montgomery and George E. Schaetzel, had managed to get their planes into the air with only short bomb loads because the crews that had been loading their planes at Clark had been interrupted by a red alert.  Montgomery had 1 bomb and Schaetzel carried a full load of eight.  Montgomery flew north and dropped his lone bomb on the transports and headed back to Clark for more bombs.  He took on a load of 20 100 pounders and took off to follow the others to Aparri.  He was unable to locate the other B-17s, so he dropped his bombs near the beach, certain he had damaged a troop ship.  He put in again at Clark and was ordered back to Del Monte, but never made it.  He ran into a storm and was forced down in the surf off the island.

 Lieutenant Schaetzel had flown to Aparri and dropped his bombs before being attacked by Zeroes.  He managed to elude them in a cloud and land at a small field between Clark and Del Monte called San Marcelino.  His B-17 was shot to pieces, but he and his crew were all right.

 Japanese News Photo of the Attack on Clark Field
 Captain Kelly had also headed toward Vigan, where the crew could see the Japanese landing troops.  However, Kelly decided to fly to Aparri to search for an aircraft carrier that had been reported.  They could see six small ships and a large one they thought was a battleship off Aparri. They did not find the carrier so they decided to attack the big ship.  Captain Kelly turned his plane for a bomb run and turned the controls over to Sgt. Meyer Levin, the bombardier.  Three bombs were dropped; the first two missed the ship, but the third was a direct hit on the aft turret of the huge vessel.  A great explosion shook the ship and black smoke enveloped her.  The crew thought they could see an oil slick but the smoke made it impossible to tell how much damage had been done. 

 Kelly headed his plane back, but shortly before he reached Clark Field he was attacked by a group of Zeroes.  The attack blew up the oxygen tanks and one crewman was killed.  The model B-17C did not have self-sealing tanks and was soon on fire.  Inside the smoking plane, Captain Kelly struggled to keep it on a level course so the crew could bail out.  At Clark we heard the battle and could see the plane being attacked and set on fire.  We knew the ship was done for, but hoped the crew could get out.  Soon we counted six parachutes opening under the big plane before it exploded in a ball of fire.  The Captain's body was found near the wreckage, his parachute unopened.  Without regard for his own life he had held the B-17 level until the last moment to let his crew get out safely. 

 When the crew was questioned it was decided that Kelly's crew had indeed sunk a Japanese battleship.  The news was flashed to the U.S. where Kelly was hailed as the first great American hero of World War II.  Later we found out that the ship was only a heavy cruiser and had been badly damaged but not sunk.  To the men that served with Kelly, he will always remain a hero, not because of the strike on the Jap ship, but because he gave his life to save his crew.

Meyer Levin
 There were other courageous attacks on the enemy by men of the 19th Group, as they fought desperately to stem the tide of Japanese landings on Luzon.  The enemy had almost complete air and naval superiority and an unlimited supply of landing forces, so there was little we could do but continue to harass the Jap landing forces even though the crews were tired and their planes were full of patches and in need of repairs.  There were now only 14 of the original 35 B-17s that had been at Clark Field.

 The enemy controlled the air over Luzon and most of the ground as well.  He had landed to the north and to the south of our troops, which were retreating on all fronts. Soon the Japs would be landing on Mindanao. 

 On December 17, it was decided to move the remaining B-17s to Australia out of the range of Jap bombers so they could continue to fight.  The enemy had already discovered our secret base, and on December 19 bombed Del Monte Field for the first time.  Little damage was done because the B-17s were well dispersed and camouflaged.  This was just a prelude for the bombing raids to come.  Clark Field had already become too dangerous to operate from because of the persistent enemy air strikes. 

 By Christmas 1941 all of the remaining B-17s had moved to Australia with their crews.  Left behind were at least half of the group personnel who were unable to leave.  Some of the best trained men in the USAAF were now surplus and were used to replace casualties in the infantry, artillery, and other outfits, where they fought bravely until the surrender.  After December we had lost track of our friends in Australia except for news reports.  After the war I learned that the 19th had stayed in the Pacific and continued to fight, becoming famous for their courage and bravery. 

 On Christmas I was ordered into an anti-aircraft artillery outfit, the 200th Coast Artillery, a New Mexico National Guard outfit.  They had come over to the Philippines about the same time as the 19th Group and had been assigned to protect Clark Field and other bases. 

 The company set up in the rice fields near the approaches to Clark.  I went into action immediately, passing shells from the bunker to the gun crew.  The AA guns were old Model 3-inch guns without modern ammunition-it was not very effective against high flying planes, falling far short of the target.  We fired on the Japanese bombers on their daily runs.  I must admit the noise, concussion of the guns, and being able to look up and see the open bomb bays of the Jap bombers terrified me, but at least I was fighting back.

 One night we moved to a new position.  The next morning the Japs came in low.  I guess we surprised them for we put a burst right in the middle of the formation and knocked down three.  We were overjoyed to see them get some of their own medicine.

 Since the 22nd of December when the Japanese had landed at Lingayen Gulf on Luzon Island, they had been steadily advancing on all fronts.  It was plain to me that the entire island would be lost if we did not receive help soon.  The only recourse left to our hard-pressed troops was to fall back to the narrow peninsula of Bataan and the fortified island of Corregidor.  There was no doubt in my mind that Bataan was to be our last battle.  With the Japanese virtually in control of the South Pacific, I could see no way we could receive help.  The only thing we could do was to fight as long as possible, slowing up the rampaging Japanese on their drive towards the Dutch East Indies. 

 My life with the anti-aircraft company became one constant whirl of action, setting up the guns to protect bridges or other strategic points as our troops retreated to Bataan.  We seemed to move all night and fire at the Jap planes all day.  About all we could do was force them to fly high because of our poor ammunition.  We would dig our foxholes only to have them fill halfway with water.  Jap fighters came often to strafe our gun positions, but we had 50 caliber machine guns set up and when they came in they got a good hot reception. 

 Most of the company got muddy and wet when we dived into the fox holes.  Some amusing things seem to happen even in war.  We had one little Mexican G.I. in the company we called Pancho.  One day the Jap Zeroes strafed us.  After the raid we couldn't find Pancho.  Finally we heard cries for help. When we located them, they were coming from a Filipino water well.  These wells were usually 10 feet deep and 6 to 8 feet in diameter, with 3 to 4 feet of water.  Our Pancho had jumped into the well and was stuck in the mud and water at the bottom.  We pulled him out and had a good laugh.

 Though we seemed to have one disastrous defeat after another, our troops in the north under General Jonathan Wainwright were fighting a rear guard action and managed to give our troops a chance to get to Bataan intact.  The troops in the southern division under General Parker also escaped to Bataan due to General Wainwright's holding actions in the north.  Our troops set up a line at Abucay on the peninsula and at last began to slow the Japanese advance.  The Japanese continued to put heavy pressure on the line and by the last part of January 1942 we had pulled back to a new line at Orion.  It stretched across the peninsula to Bagac, about 13 miles to the west coast.  This was the main line of resistance for several weeks.

 After we had been on Bataan for a while I contracted a tropical rash that covered me from head to foot.  When I came down with a high fever, I was finally sent to the field hospital for treatment where I was given some medicine and soon recovered.  I was told to go back to duty.  I knew my squadron was at a small airstrip called Cabcabon Field, and since I realized our time was limited I wanted to be with my own group.  I made my way to where they were camped and asked the C.O. if I could rejoin the squadron.  He thought it would be okay.  I learned that Smitty had gone to Mindanao and Howard was with the infantry, but I could find no information about Tex. 

 We had a few P-40s hidden in the jungle to be used for special missions only.  Some of our men were helping work on them, and I was assigned to guard duty.  The P-40s were rigged to carry a 500-pound bomb and they were better dive-bombers than fighters.  One night they bombed Lingayen Gulf, making several trips to carry as many bombs as possible.  They must have done a lot of damage because the next day the Jap radio reported that wave after wave of B-17s had bombed Lingayen.  I will never know why their Zeroes did not try to break up our raid. 

 The Japanese were also shelling Corregidor with heavy guns from Cavite, a naval base on the mainland opposite Bataan.  Our artillery on Corregidor could not get their location, so our PT-12 biplane was assigned to get pictures of the Jap artillery.  The PT-12 was to be escorted by P-40s.  They got the pictures but were intercepted by Jap Zeroes.  In the ensuing dog fight the Japs lost 7 planes.  All of our P-40s returned, as I recall.

 Despite heavy pressures, the Philippine and American troops were holding the Orion line and were inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking Japanese troops.  The Japanese had tried several infantry and artillery attacks but were repulsed.  The morale of our troops remained high.  One of the worst handicaps our troops had was the obsolete equipment.  It was extremely old-mostly World War I vintage-our rifles were old model Springfields and British Enfields.  Our artillery was also obsolete.

 The Philippine scouts were excellent soldiers and they had some 155mm guns that they used very effectively.  It is said when they were firing they would say, "Tojo, count your men."  They would fire again and say, "Count them again."

Philippine Scouts from a Pre-War Photo
 Our hand grenades had a habit of not going off.  When they were tossed that Japs often threw them back.  Our ordnance men were soon making their own from bamboo, putting powder in one section and whatever could be found in the other, and attaching a short fuse.  These proved very effective when thrown end over end.

 Another tactic used by the scouts was to dig a large spider hole just large enough to crouch in.  The Jap tanks would run over these holes and the scouts would jump out, pour gas on the tanks, and set them afire.

 The Filipino scouts and Constabulary were fine soldiers; often the sons followed in their father's footsteps, and the outfit became a family tradition.  But the regular Philippine army troops were poorly trained, having been conscripted just before the war started.  If they lost their officers, who were usually American, they would panic and back out of the line leaving another outfit flanked.  Some of the best troops were held in reserve to plug these holes. 

 Our rations became less as the weeks passed.  We ate all the horses and mules from the 26th Cavalry, even General Wainwright's champion jumper was sacrificed.  A buddy and I were assigned to outpost guard near our camp.  A Filipino civilian had set up his camp near us and each day he would bring a can of rice mixed with meat around and we would buy some food from him.  I asked him what the meat was and he assured me it was chicken, but I had a feeling the meat wasn't chicken.  One day I decided to see what kind of meat it really was and went to his camp.  From a distance it looked as if he had skinned babies, but on closer inspection I found they were monkeys.  When you get hungry enough you get less particular about what you eat, but I tried not to think of the monkeys when I ate his mixture.

 We had a visit almost everyday from a Japanese airplane we called "Washing Machine Charlie."  This was because of the funny noise his engine made.  I guess he was some kind of recon plane.  We had several air-cooled 50 cal. machine guns set up around the air strip and when Charlie came over he caught hell.  Once in a while we would get one of the Charlies.  They scared us for a while because they would drop delayed action firecrackers and hand grenades.  Just as we figured we were safe, his firecrackers would start going off and our duties would be disrupted again.  This was a good tactic until we got used to it. 

 Sometime during March or April 1942 the Japanese landed a group of Imperial Marines on Longoskawayan Point and Quinauan near the tip of Bataan, with the idea (I suppose) of establishing a beach-head so they could divide our forces by engaging us on two fronts.  They were picked men and would fight to the last man.

Not many troops could be spared from the front, so with the help of some artillery from Corregidor, some Philippine scouts and navy troops were assigned to clean out this pocket of Japs.  After a lengthy battle, they were backed up against an ocean cliff.  But when our troops would call for surrender, the Japanese would yell, "Come in and get me, you S.O.B."  Most of them were killed and the rest committed suicide, with the exception of a few that were badly wounded.  The Japanese never found out what happened to their troops, although they tried questioning the P.O.W.s several times, but no one would tell them what happened. 

 My buddy, Howard Gunn, was with the group that was fighting the Imperial Marines.  One day I slipped away to visit him and found him near a fox hole, for not all the Japanese had been cleared out at that time.  It was great to see and talk to him; he had some wild stories to tell.  I felt sorry for him for the smell of death was there from the unburied Japanese.  The flies were terrible. But Howard always made the best of any situation.  I finally had to say goodbye, not knowing the next time I was to see him would be under much sadder circumstances. 

 By March 1942, about 80% of our front line troops were sick with malaria and our food supplies and medicine were running out fast.  My squadron was issued six cans of salmon for 100 men.  The ammunition was also running low.  We prayed that somehow the good old USA would send some help.  We still could not realize that our country could not help us.  Each night the sound of battle came closer and closer.  We heard that General MacArthur had been ordered to Australia and General Wainwright would take over.  I knew that something important would happen soon.  About April 7, 1942, I heard that the enemy was putting heavy pressure on the front line.  I did not know that it was their all-out drive.

 On April 8, early in the evening just after dark, one of our 155mm guns began to fire over our air strip.  I could not understand what was happening, and I was scared.  One of our officers soon told us we were to move to the small town of Marivales on the tip of Bataan.  We moved out as fast as we could on foot.  We walked all night and as we walked we knew that something dreadful had happened.  Everything in the world seemed to be blowing up around us.  A severe earthquake shook the end of Bataan that night too.  It seemed like the end of the world.  A few hours later the ground shook again, like another earthquake, but we learned later that our commanders had been ordered to destroy all remaining ammunition and supplies to keep them from falling into enemy hands.  We walked as far as we could go and there was nowhere else to go.  This was the end. 

 Soon the word was passed for us to surrender and await further orders.  This was the saddest day of my life.  I cried in frustration.  General Masaharu Homma had launched an all out attack on the front line with a terrific artillery and air attack, followed by a tank and infantry assault.  The American and Filipino troops could not hold out any longer. 

Part 2
Part 3