UNFORGETTABLE IS THE WORD FOR HIM
By Maj. Gen. Aubrey S. Newman
On 14 October 1974, I boarded a Northwest Orient plane in Tampa for Chicago-Anchorage-Tokyo-Manila, thence to Tacloban on Leyte in the central Philippine Islands.
*Initial Objective: As a member of the World War II 24th Infantry Division (Div Hq, 34th Inf) to join Bill Sanderson (19th Inf.) and Ed Henry, Ken Ross and Gerry Stevenson (all Div. Hq.) in Manila on 17 October.
*Assembly Point: The bar in the Manila Hotel at 6:00 p.m.
*Mission: To proceed to Tacloban and participate in ceremonies on 20 Oct. at the new Philippine National Memorial near Palo.
*The Occasion: The 30th anniversary of the day General MacArthur landed on D-Day on Red Beach in our 24th Division area to keep his famous "I shall return" promise to liberate the Philippines.
As I changed planes in Chicago, there was J. "Spike" O’Donnell (21st Inf) at the gate. We always meet in the bar at our annual 24th Division Reunion, even once in a distillery (ARMY, June 1973). So what do you know? There was just time for a quick one between planes, and a bar was right opposite my arrival and departure gate in the terminal. How Spike arranged for my planes to dock at the bar was not made clear. However, he was not only a combat infantryman in World War II; he was Sergeant Spike O'Donnell of the 21st Infantry - and, as I've said before, sergeants know how to get things done.
Unfortunately, his doctor ruled him out of going on the trip, so Spike deputized me to represent the 21st Infantry at the Manila Hotel and on Leyte.
But two hours out of Anchorage, Alaska - where my plane refueled - the Fates that govern what happens to young soldiers in war and old soldiers on the way to reunions and anniversaries, caught up with me. Suddenly, there was trouble breathing, my face beaded with sweat, and the nice efficient stewardess lost no time in producing an oxygen tank and mask.
This was an old enemy, a type of ticker trouble that had been controlled by medication for years. But here it called for a decision - whether to go on, or return at the Anchorage fueling stop.
With an hour and a half to decide, I remembered my basic rule as a regimental commander on Leyte: To do what I thought was right, no matter what. But there I eventually pushed my luck past good judgment, and ended up a needless casualty thus a burden for others to take care of.
Now, when I had to go back to oxygen, I resolved not to risk a repeat of my last visit to Leyte - thus end up again as a burden for friends to take care of. That is why, after an overnight sleep in Anchorage, I write this on the plane -headed home - with the hope that my baggage will find its way back from Tokyo.
My thoughts and heart are with friends now en route to the Manila Hotel, and will accompany them-to Leyte at Palo, Jaro and elsewhere as they follow memory's trail of where and what happened there just thirty years ago. So I sit, and remember, and it all comes back.
From the violence of war, in a place I had never seen before, it is the people who come back in Technicolor pictures from the past. Some succeeded magnificently, like the gallant commander of Company I, First Lieutenant Barrow, who fell on Red Beach as he led his company in the assault. A few failed, and the broken bodies of so many who did not fail were, all too often, names I never knew. But among them all, one name comes back again and again, and unforgettable is the word for him.
Soon after I assumed command of the 34th Infantry in New Guinea, the adjutant came in with a problem. We were preparing for the assault on Leyte so, in accordance with normal procedure, soldiers in the guardhouse were returned to us. The adjutant's problem was that the company commander of Private Harold Moon did not want him back.
"All right," I said. "At the company commanders meeting after lunch, see if any other company wants him. If not, his company must keep him."
Later, I learned that the commander of Company G had said, "O.K., I'll take him. He sounds like a man looking for trouble, and where we are going, there will be more trouble than he can handle."
That first night on Red Beach, there was hell to pay when the Japanese counterattacked our beachhead, on the far side of the swamp, at Pawing. So at first light, I got hold of an Alligator—that wonderful hybrid of an amphibious tank and a deep bed truck, with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted topside.
This was ideal transportation to get across the swamp, and see what the situation was after all that shooting in the night.
But first I arranged for an air strike by Navy planes. Then, standing deep in the Alligator as we crossed the swamp, I witnessed the planes diving on visually-located remnants of the Japanese attackers - bombing, rocketing and strafing with .50 calibers.
On our left flank, Japanese bodies literally carpeted the roadway and along the shoulders of that raised road, in front of the position held by Company G. The attacking Japanese had approached incautiously down the road before splitting into attack formations, and the alert battalion commander correctly decided that the nebulous moving mass in the darkness could only be enemy. So machine guns blazed a deadly fire that mowed them down. But the fanatical enemy continued to attack in the darkness, and all but overran Company G before daylight, though at terrible cost to themselves.
Then the air attack at daylight put the finishing touches on the Japanese, for the remaining enemy were hidden in the high grass, invisible to ground observation - but were sitting ducks from above.
As I write this, the great jet liner plows through the air at high speed and great height over Canada, taking me home, but memory of that scene thirty years ago flashes and reflashes through my mind. And the name of Private Harold Moon, that truly unforgettable soldier, is remembered again and again with respect, awe and admiration.
When I arrived in Pawing that day and saw the tremendous havoc our fire had visited on the attacking enemy, I did not think of Private Moon. Nor was there jubilation among the officers and men there. The reason was plain to see, for a long row of our own silent dead were lined up neatly where all could see them.
However, this was no time for us as soldiers to stand and grieve for lost buddies, some of whose names I did not know, others whom I knew so well. It was a time for action, a time to attack and gain the high ground to our front, thus exploit the opportunity brave men had paid with their lives to give us, before the disorganized enemy survivors could organize the high ground for defense.
So I turned to the battalion executive officer, indicated the silent row on the ground and said, "Get them out of here, to the rear, immediately."
"But, Colonel," he replied, "we have no transportation."
"Use the Alligator I came in, because I am not going back."
"Sir," he replied, looking at the line of dead but thinking only of the floor space in the Alligator and not its depth, "the Alligator is not enough."
"They are dead, aren't they?" I said. "Take them back - now!" And I started toward the battalion commander to insure that an attack for the high ground was launched at once.
At that moment thirty years ago, it did not enter my mind that Private Harold Moon might be in the line of dead forms (for I had never seen him), or that his tremendous battle performance that night would bring him our nation's highest accolade, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
But now, as I pause to use the oxygen mask again, I know and remember.
Six months after that day on Leyte, and following recuperation from a taste of Japanese steel myself, I rejoined our Division in the southern Philippines. There I read the magnificent citation for the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to Private Moon.
Nearly 200 dead Japanese were found within 100 yards of Moon's foxhole. In a signed affidavit, Staff Sergeant Verdum C. Myers said, "By 0545, Private Moon was running out of ammunition. His position had been the focal point of the enemy attack for over four hours. They were determined to take it; he was determined to hold it. The Japanese had worked men around on all sides of Private Moon's position.
"At dawn an entire platoon of the enemy arose and rushed the position in a desperate bayonet assault. Private Moon calmly steadied his tommy gun between his knees, and calling to the Japanese to come and get him, he emptied the entire magazine into them, killing eighteen (18) before they overwhelmed and killed him."
As other men in nearby positions were killed or wounded, (the record shows) Private Harold Moon not only held fast but inspired all within hearing distance as he simultaneously carried on a running battle of oral insults with the enemy across the raised road, especially with an English speaking officer - whom he eventually killed. For more details of his almost incredible battle actions, you will have to read the record.
As my plane drones on its way, this and many other memories from thirty years ago, crowd forward. As always, Private Harold Moon is there – unforgettable.
And always, too, there is the unanswerable question: Where was he in the Alligator... in the bottom layer?...in the top layer?.. when he and others with him should have gone back in state, with a guard of honor and a band of clashing cymbals and proud trumpets.
While Private Harold Moon and those with him would understand, and want it that way under the circumstances, still I can not forget - and never want to forget.
Every combat veteran has memories of the realities of battle, and there is no limit to the variations. This is one of the things that forges a special bond that others who "were not there, Charlie" can never understand.
In peace and in war, in every rank at all levels, the one great principle that overrides all others is: Do what you think is right, no matter what - and you will seldom be wrong. The problem then is reduced to what you decide is right, not what you want to do.
An officer is not worthy of the rank he holds unless he honors and respects his subordinates - especially soldiers in ranks. Without them, he is an empty futile figurehead - and nowhere is this more true than in command in battle.
Command on the battlefield of the 34th Infantry on Leyte was the high point of my life. No one can ever understand—except another combat soldier—the depth of my disappointment in turning back from my pilgrimage, for that is what it was. Now I will never be able to stand on the same ground again, thirty years later, to pay my respect and homage to Private Harold Moon, Lieutenant Barrow and the others who made the success of our regiment possible. But, like all who have exercised authority in battle from corporals to generals - I'll continue to pay them homage in my heart until I hear that Last Bugle Call.
The Taro Leaf, Vol 28(2) 1974-75..