ANGELO J. “RED’ MANTINI
“The 19th Infantry
By Richard A. Beranty, World War II History – Excerpted by Heidi Edgar, Associate
ANGELO J. “RED’ MANTINI was hardly an angel growing up in the
small coal-mining towns of western Pennsylvania in the 1930s. By his
own admission he was kicked out of school more than once for being a
trouble maker; a character trait that did not endear him to his
But the penchant he showed for getting into fights, along with the grit and savvy he possessed to win them, would serve him well during World War II. On New Guinea and in the Philippines, he proved to be as quick with the trigger on his Thompson submachine gun as he had been with his fists. Whether you stood on a dark street corner in America or pushed your way through the dense undergrowth of a sniper-infested jungle, Mantini was the kind of fighter you wanted to have on your side.
“I was always pretty quick with my hands,” offers this 85-year-old retired shoemaker from Ford City, Penn., explaining his reputation as a person not to mess with in Hometown USA. “And I had a pretty good reputation in the Army. Nobody would fool with me, not even the company commander. I didn’t take crap off of nobody.”
With an attitude like his it is little wonder that Mantini found himself doing time in the stockade, or busted in rank, several times during the war. Rarely did he take guff from anyone, including his higher-ups, which is why, at various times, he was a sergeant, then a private, then a sergeant, and so on. Somebody once remarked about him, “He was up and down like a yo-yo.” But Mantini proved to be a survivor while many of his enemies were not. By war’s end this former platoon sergeant with the 24th Infantry Division was officially credited with killing more than 40 Japanese soldiers in fighting on five different Pacific islands.
His success at eliminating the enemy was due in part to the great American pastime of baseball.
“When we were advancing in combat, I always figured distance by the length of a ball field,” he explains. “I would think to myself, from here to over there is the distance of a ball field, so I’d try to measure it with my feet. I’d go this way 30 feet, then I’d shoot forward another way 30 feet.”
Mantini’s journey into the nightmare called the Pacific War began on October 20, 1941, when the 24-year-old was drafted and sent to Camp Lee in Virginia, where he was stationed when the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor. “I was on a pass in Richmond when the Japs attacked. Loudspeakers everywhere were broadcasting that everyone had to get back to camp. We were told to hitch a ride with any car going our way.”
Trained for duty in the supply ranks, Mantini arrived in Hawaii eight months later and recalls seeing some of the wrecked hulks of ships, remnants of the mauled U.S. Pacific Fleet, still littering the harbor at Pearl. “I was in the Quartermaster Corps when I got to Hawaii. When we got off the ship we were told, ‘50 drop off here and go over there, 50 drop off and go over there, 50 drop off and go over there.’ Finally, somebody walked by me and said, ‘Twenty of you break off and go over there. You’re in the 19th Infantry Regiment, Company A.’
They didn’t even look at our service records. Guys like me, who took quartermaster training, were put in the infantry. And guys that took infantry training were put in the Quartermaster Corps.”
The 19th Infantry Regiment to which Mantini was assigned was one of three regiments to comprise the 24th “Victory” Division, one of the few Army units specially trained during the war as assault spearheads for tropical operations. Activated at Schofield Barracks on Oahu in 1921, its stated mission to protect the Hawaiian Islands from foreign attack was realized in December 1941 when it became the first Army ground force to engage the Japanese in combat during those confusing early hours of the war. This gave the division its “First to Fight” designation.
The men left Oahu for Australia in September 1943 to train for the upcoming invasion of New Guinea. There Mantini’s toughness was noticed by Army officials, and he soon made staff sergeant.
Mantini (left) displays a captured Japanese Regimental flag with an unidentified member of “A” Company near Hollandia, New Guinea in 1944.
“It was rough training in Australia,” he says, “cross-country and mountain training. We went on a hundred-mile hike one time. Only three of us made it to the end of the trail; just me and two other guys.”
Forming the largest amphibious operation attempted in the South Pacific up to that time, the Hollandia attack force, consisting of more than 200 vessels, left its assembly area off Goodenough Island and put its men ashore 500 miles to the west during the early daylight hours of April 22, 1944. The 41st landed near Hollandia in Humboldt Bay, and the 24th assaulted the beaches in Tanahmerah Bay, 22 miles to the west.
Not only did poor planning and miscommunication among Japanese commanders leave their troops too widely scattered to offer invading forces much resistance, but support from U.S. carrier planes weakened any defensive effort they could muster. Attacks by American submarines on Japanese troop transports coming from China prevented many reinforcements from ever reaching New Guinea. When Mantini went ashore he saw abandoned teapots boiling over fires and unfinished breakfast bowls of rice still on the beach, all left behind in the enemy’s haste to retreat inland when the assaults began. Securing the Hollandia area took just four days at a cost of 171 men to the two divisions. Japanese losses were estimated at 4,000.
With the Hollandia area in Allied hands, the initial U.S. offensive in the Philippines began on Friday, October 13, 1944, when half the invasion force (the other half originated in Hawaii) boarded transport ships in Humboldt Bay and headed for Leyte. The trip was a lonely and mostly seasick time for the GIs, but it provided them an opportunity to ponder their fate, read, or write letters home. For Mantini, it gave him a chance to play cards and throw dice with other soldiers.
The Philippine ground campaign started on October 20, 1944, when four U.S. infantry divisions landed abreast along an 18-mile front on Leyte’s northeastern coast. The 24th Division was assigned the beach area near the town of Palo, where two of its regiments were to land 3,000 yards apart, the 19th on the southern side of the invasion site, and the 34th to its north. Their primary objective of the day was Hill 522, a steep, circular-based, volcanic outgrowth that towered over the coastal terrain about a mile inland. It was one of several hills that guarded the entrance to the Leyte Valley, and the Japanese intended to use it as the key to their defense of the Palo beaches. Months prior to the invasion, much of the male population of Palo had been forced to transform the hill into a labyrinth of machine-gun nests, bunkers, communication trenches, and tunnels.
“We were told to hit the hill, get to the top of it, and wipe out whatever was in front of us,” Mantini says.
That was the situation the Americans faced in the predawn hours of October 20, when the invasion force, accompanied by warships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, was poised just off Leyte and ready to strike.
An amateur boxer prior to the war, Mantini is shown (walking, far left) giving boxing instructions to two natives on New Guinea in 1943. “When some of the natives realized we wanted to put boxing gloves on them, they ran into the jungle,” he says. “They had never seen them before.” All photos courtesy of Mr. Beranty.
For everyone connected with the invasion, being “scared as hell,” as Mantini puts it, was a natural state of mind, and for good reason. Never before had they seen such a frightening yet awesome sight. Hundreds of rockets screamed inland while carrier planes and warships bombarded the menacing jungles that loomed in the distance, now burning and smoking from all the attention. After seeing such firepower being unleashed on the enemy’s positions, Mantini wondered to himself how any Japanese could survive the bombardment, and that maybe the invasion would not be too difficult. From what he could tell, the earlier landing craft were making it safely to shore. But Mantini was in a later wave. Still about a thousand yards from Red Beach, some of the boats around him began to take direct hits from Japanese artillery.
For what seemed to him like an eternity, Mantini’s landing craft slowly crept toward the Leyte shoreline. Finally, the Navy coxswain steering it screamed instructions that no one could hear over the din of battle. As Mantini tightened the strap on his helmet and slipped the safety off his Thompson, the boat came to a stop, the men inside jerked backward, and the ramp clattered down. Pushing their legs through hip-deep water at first, they raced across the narrow beach searching for cover.
Mantini flopped belly down and hugged the ground, trying as best he could to hide from the indiscriminate mortar and artillery shells exploding around him. The dead Americans lying nearby were grim testament to the accuracy of Japanese machine guns spewing bullets from concealed positions and the fire of snipers hidden in trees.
“Landing on a beach with the enemy firing at us was the worst part of the war,” he says.
By the end of October the 24th Division’s fighting along Leyte’s coast had ended at a cost of 638 Americans dead, wounded, or missing. Its next target was the 35-mile-long, 10-mile-wide Leyte Valley, a peaceful place during the dry season, criss-crossed with slow-moving streams and home to numerous plantations that grew rice, bananas, coconuts, and papayas.
When the company rejoined its regiment nine days after starting the mission, only 120 men were fit for duty. The others had been killed, or were wounded or sick from the physical strain and exposure to the elements.
Leyte was cleared of Japanese troops by Christmas 1944. The enemy’s last area of defense was on the island’s northwest peninsula where, in a final show of defiance and willingness to die, a horde of Japanese soldiers armed only with bayonets fixed to bamboo poles attacked strong American positions occupied by the 34th Regiment. Since the Division’s landing on Red Beach 66 days earlier, an estimated 7,300 Japanese had died in battle; casualties for the 24th Division were 2,000 killed, wounded, or missing.
While the 34th was left behind to secure Leyte, the Division’s other two regiments were picked to invade Mindoro, which was needed for airstrips from which planes could menace Japanese shipping in the sea lanes through the Philippines and provide air cover for the coming landings on Luzon.
Although Mindoro was not manned by a large number of the enemy, U.S. troops still had a tough time of it, particularly on the beaches where they were bombed and strafed by Japanese planes on a daily basis. All of this attention caused concern that a Japanese counteroffensive was imminent, so the order was given to dig in and erect machine-gun emplacements. The men on the beach spent Christmas Day under such conditions.
“It was the worst Christmas of my life,” Mantini says. “Guys beside me were being blown up from the shelling.
We were anticipating an invasion from the sea, but it never happened.”
It took four months of grueling effort for the Americans to clear Mindoro of enemy troops who were separated in the hills and were never able to organize themselves into a single fighting unit. Instead, they crawled into the mountains and became one-man terrors.
American frustration on Mindoro ended when Japanese opposition ended. Enemy losses were estimated at 600 killed, and in a rare occurrence 73 taken prisoner, two of whom Mantini captured himself.
“There are so many damn islands over there,” Mantini says. “The Philippines have more than 7,000. And that’s all it seemed we kept doing, hitting these damn beaches. When we went in on Verde, it was dark, darker than hell. We had to hold on to the guy in front to stay close to him. That’s how dark it was. We were supposed to see a light when we landed, a beacon, but it wasn’t there. I said to my buddy, ‘I think this is it. The damn light ain’t there.’ But after a little while it did come on, and we moved toward it.”
Mantini’s final combat experience of the war took place on Mindanao, where the largest and last enemy stronghold in the Philippines, some 50,000 soldiers, was located after the fall of Manila. Leaving San Jose harbor on Friday, April 13, two regiments of the 24th (later reinforced by the U.S. 31st Division) went ashore four days later at the town of Parang on the shore of Moro Gulf on the island’s western coast. The choice of that invasion site completely fooled the enemy defenders, who expected any assault to come on the eastern side of the island where the bulk of the Japanese garrison was located.
Facing no opposition, the Americans gained a 35-mile length of coastline and easily progressed five miles inland by the end of the first day. High mountains, deep valleys, and about 50 streams and rivers separated the men from their ultimate goal, the city of Davao, 150 miles to the east. To reach it, 24th Division troops mainly followed the National Highway, a mostly one-lane road defended at various places by small but lethal Japanese outposts. Night ambushes were a common occurrence, and numerous types of booby traps hampered their march. The most devastating of these were the 500-pound aerial bombs, left over from the destroyed Japanese air force. The enemy buried these along the trail, and they were detonated with wires strung into the jungle.
Despite these hidden dangers, Mindanao was cut in half in less than two weeks. The force reached Digos on the island’s eastern coast on April 28 and found abandoned guns and pill-boxes pointing seaward, indicating the Japanese had planned a strong defensive effort against any would-be invader.
The division now began its 40-mile drive north to Davao, where an estimated 10,000 Japanese were to perish in the coming months.
After five island landings, months of tough jungle fighting, and never receiving a wound in battle, Mantini’s luck was stretched to the limit. It ran out on June 24 in his company’s last fight of the war, when he was injured under both arms by shrapnel from an exploding Japanese grenade.
“I was in action, shooting, when three grenades landed beside me. I was able to drop my gun and throw two back, but one landed to my right and I knew I couldn’t get to it before it exploded because you only have about four or five seconds. I was turning to get away from it when the explosion caught me under my arms and ripped open my shoes and my pack. It caught me real good up under my arms. I made every drive the company made during the war, and that was the last one.”
Mantini received the Purple Heart while in an Army hospital on Leyte, where he remained until the end of the war. “When I got out of the hospital and went back to my company’s headquarters, everybody there was new, even the company commander. He called me up and said, ‘We’re going to Japan for occupation duty. Do you want to go with us?’ I told him the only place I wanted to go was home.”
Mantini was discharged from the Army at Fort Knox, Ky., on December 14.
During four years of active duty, Mantini had somehow escaped the symptoms of malaria until he arrived home.
“I got it after the war. My first Christmas back home I had it. First you’re sweating, and then you’re freezing so bad that you can’t stack the blankets high enough. Then you’re sweating again. But I never had it over there. And it’s funny that I didn’t because they supplied us with pills [atabrine, a form of quinine] that made our skin yellow. That’s why I never took them. I didn’t want yellow skin. And as a platoon sergeant in combat, I was supposed to take the pill, stand in front of the men in the morning and be the first one to take it. But I would fake it. I got really good at it. I would hold the pill in my hand and throw it toward my mouth. I didn’t take it, but I had to make sure that everybody else in my platoon did.”
Nearly 60 years after the war, Mantini assessed his role with fondness for his comrades, similar to that felt by most veterans who have experienced the horrors of modern warfare.
“In combat, I think you’re better off in the infantry than in any other outfit.”
“Guys would go like this,” he says, holding his hand above his head with his index finger pointed skyward. “I’d say, ‘What the hell are you trying to do?’ They’d say, ‘I want the Purple Heart to get out of combat.’ But then they’d laugh. They just did it for fun.
Times like that made being in the infantry special. You’re in danger when you’re fighting, but I think it’s a better unit than any other.”
Angelo J. “Red” Mantini, 87, of 704 Fourth Ave., Ford City, PA, died Sunday, Aug. 10, 2003 at his residence. He served during World War II as an Army staff sergeant with the 24th Infantry “Victory” Division (19th “Rock of Chickamauga” Regiment) in New Guinea and the Philippines, where he earned the Purple Heart, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, with three bronze stars, and the Philippine Liberation Medal, with two bronze stars. His wartime experiences were featured in the July 2003 issue of World War II History magazine. Survivors include his wife, Genevieve (Kocak) Mantini whom be married Sept. 17, 1948; and six sons . #####
The Taro Leaf, Vol 62(2) Spring 2008, pp. 34-38.