VICTOR J. IRELAND
Technical Sergeant | Infantry
The Hawaiian Islands felt very distant in the middle of the Pacific, but it was clear after December 7th that the 24th Division would be mobilized for war and destined for more remote locations. When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Schofield Barracks was over, eight Division men were dead. Men had rushed from their bunks grabbing weapons and equipment and many were still in their pajamas gaping in awe at the flights of Zeroes streaking over, five of which the 24th Division claimed from small arms fire. Revenge was still a long two years away as the Division trained on Hawaii and later in Australia, a frustrating period during which Sergeant Ireland wondered why they had not been committed to action yet. It became clear, however, just how valuable the training was – not just for fighting, but for survival in the brutal jungles on isolated islands in the South Pacific. Formerly a short order chef and bartender, Victor Ireland began working at Diamond Jim’s in New York and Hoffman’s Cafeteria in Miami after dropping out of high school. Volunteering for the Army in August 1941 ensured pay and opportunity and was one way of avoiding the draft, but it certainly was not the same lifestyle as working in the kitchen.
The flat-bottomed landing craft slapped against each wave, taking the chop very roughly making for a sickening approach to the assault beach. It seemed like the worst possible design for a boat, and many of Ireland’s E Company clutched at the hull while retching over the side as the wood bottom felt like it was going to snap against every bounce. The dense silhouette of New Guinea drew nearer and eventually they made it to Red Beach #2 at Tanahmera Bay. The beach was nothing like what intelligence predicted and unloading became a logistical nightmare. Thick jungle rose immediately behind the beach and within that lay a mangrove swamp, waist deep of stinking muck, that prohibited any movement of vehicles and supplies. Even more foreboding were the steep slopes of the Cyclops Range that separated the shore from the interior of the large island and the sheer faces into the jungle seemed impassable. Only thin valleys that cut inland were suitable for troops and tank passage and in constant rain and mist, these were soon thick with mud.
The duty of backpacking tons of supplies stockpiled on the beach was bestowed on the 2d Battalion, leaving many men eager for combat sour at the prospect of laboring outside of the action inland. As a squad leader, Ireland was finding it difficult to keep up moral in the first days on New Guinea. The battalion had already been held in reserve to land on D+1 and now reaching combat seemed even further away. Forward units continuing deeper into the jungle extended the supply line to a point that threatened the flow of critical items including rations. Even jeep traffic was inhibited by the muddy tracks and frequent landslides buried the so-called roads even further, so hand carrying continued.
It was miserable work and a chance at combat seemed like a welcome reprieve from the taxing labor, but within just four days the other battalions of the 19th Infantry along with the 21st had swept through the scattered Japanese opposition and claimed their objectives in the Hollandia area. The Division remained in the jungle to patrol and mop up and lingering Japanese resistance, which the 2d Battalion quickly found to be highly stressful – whether the enemy lay within the jungle or not it seemed as though he was always present in every dark shadow. During the humid days if it was not raining, the jungle canopy choked the sun to a thin green light and at night the jungle interior was thick and inky while a crescendo of insect and bird noises filled the dark hours. Parrots breaking twigs and branches frequently spooked the soldiers who nervously blasted each other with rifle fire. The Americans quickly understood the suffering of the Australians who had been fighting on New Guinea for a couple years – it was the worst place to fight a war and just as soon as they had arrived, Ireland and his men could not wait to leave the rotten jungle.
THE FAR SHORE
Predawn hours of October 20, 1944 were clear and calm for the journey from Hollandia to Leyte. A risky glance over the edge of the landing craft revealed the assault beaches smoldering from aerial and naval bombardment. The first five waves came under sniper fire from Japanese tied to coconut trees along the beachhead, but after the fifth wave came a murderous mortar attack that began to tear apart the regiment. Fire from 75mm pieces began threatening landing craft offshore, and E Company took one gun with a bazooka and captured two more.
After almost twenty days of fighting, the 19th Infantry had pushed inland and the 2d Battalion was fighting around the slopes of Hill 1525. The difficult terrain and constant rain and high winds prohibited resupply and on November 9th they ate the last of their rations for breakfast. The Colonel received orders to establish a roadblock through the mountains in order for American forces to break out to the south toward Ormoc. He requested natives and rations of which he welcomed three guides carrying enough food for slightly less than one ration per man. The battalion began a two-day journey in constant rain through terrain littered with fallen trees and sheer inclines and the short rations and demanding route was exhausting.
For five days they navigated through the Philippine jungle avoiding Japanese, only sporadically encountering small enemy forces but trying desperately to keep the battalion’s full strength a secret. Each day they longed for resupply from an air drop and each night rain saturated the men. Twenty-four-hour periods passed without nourishment and Ireland joined the others in stripping the hearts of palm for food. Medical supplies were dwindling and radio batteries draining. Dead Japanese were ransacked and their dehydrated food and rice looted and quickly consumed. When air drops did circle above, the battalion watched helplessly as supplies meant for them drifted far away into the jungle and into enemy hands.
On the fifteenth, the planned attack against Saddle Hill launched at eight in the morning with G Company leading through the jungle, dodging any trails until they reached the Ormoc Road where they caught the attention of the Japanese to allow E Company the opportunity to attack in the afternoon. Sergeant Ireland rushed against the dense slopes of the saddle against sniper and machine guns where he dug in after an hour. Evacuating wounded became a nightmare under fire in the rough terrain and night fell with a steady, heavy rain. Ireland drew his poncho around him and became slowly saturated in his muddy foxhole. Sporadic fighting continued for the next two days – casualties grew, rain continued, and few air drops yielded hardly any successful retrievals. The battalion suffered an antagonizing barrage from friendly artillery that took great effort to lift since the radio batteries were all dead.
The wounded lay about the battalion area with no means of evacuation until the morning of the nineteenth. Meager rations were distributed across the unit and Victor received enough to stretch across two days. Improvised litters made of saplings and salvaged parachute cloth from air drops carried wounded, some of whom had been in agony for ten days or operated on under flashlight beneath a poncho. Still they replied they were ‘okay’ when asked how they felt. Dysentery and jungle rot was rampant in their flooded foxholes. Clean drinking water was at the bottom of the hill they defended and could be carried only in helmets to avoid canteens banging together. Ireland, who was already sallow to begin with, was looking dreadfully thin. The next day an early morning order to withdraw to Hill 1525 began preparations to move out with the battalion’s casualties and by one in the afternoon, they hiked east to the Leyte River. The constant rains fed the river to a point to crossing simply by foot was impossible and the aggressive current would smash a man into the large rocks protruding from the raging surface. Improvisation in the jungle yielded hearty ropes made from bamboo vines and the battalion commander reached the other side to secure one end of the rope. For three hours the battalion waded across without losing a weapon or equipment. After a tired march, Ireland retired on the high ground near Hill 1525 and dug in for a quiet night.
The next two days of fighting man and jungle were excruciatingly difficult while the battalion tried to protect their wounded. The isolated unit was already fighting for survival and their struggle was compounded by their efforts to protect their casualties and break out to safety. Navigating the steep terrain was exhausting and dangerous especially when passing litters along a human chain up the hill to the crest. Against stiff resistance, the battalion pushed toward Pinamopoan, finally reaching the barangay on November 24th.
It was another mile march to a point where Japanese bullets could not touch the battalion. The wounded were immediately loaded on to waiting craft and evacuated away from the coast – 241 in all. For the first time in fourteen days, Sergeant Ireland ate a cooked mail of peas, carrots, bully beef and coffee – a wonderful Thanksgiving meal. With their brief nourishment filling their starving bellies, the battalion rejoined the rest of the 19th Infantry to prepare for the invasion of Mindoro Island, an operation that would last four months while the Americans cleared hills and caves of isolated Japanese who refused to surrender. Sergeant Ireland was spared much of the fighting when he left the war in the Pacific in mid-February to return to the United States. The high-pointer had been pushed to the limits of human survival and despite how valuable his experience was, he was no good if he could not recover from the unforgiving conditions in the Philippines and in the face of a fanatical enemy.