The Memoirs of Armand Charest Part III

Chapter 18

Armand Goes to the Philippines…

In the meanwhile other Charest family members were participating, foremost among them being Louis George. Even though he was severely handicapped, he joined the Merchant Marine that was responsible for bringing supplies and men to all theaters of war. Without the help of the brave civilian sailors who sailed through waters dominated by German and Japanese submarines, we could never have won the war. Here’s a salute to all of them.

Adrian Paquin joined me in New Guinea; Leo Forand landed in Europe; John Danese landed in North Africa; Lionel Hurteau went to North Africa.

The first island we hit was the large island of Mindoro, in the Central Philippines. Then we moved on to invade Mindanao and capture the city called Zamboanga, the second largest in the islands. It was my first and only taste of house-to-house fighting, the cruelest kind of war activity. Then followed a series of landings throughout the Southern islands: Basilan, Palawan, the Jolo archipelago are places that I remember most vividly. There occurred an incident on Palawan, the westernmost island that typified the cruelty of war.

Word reached headquarters of the 186th Regiment that the Japanese were holding a group of American and Filipino prisoners of war. The men hastily embarked on whatever ships were available. Even after a quick journey, the men were too late. Upon hearing of the impending rescue, the enemy high command ordered the prisoners to their barracks, whereupon the doors were locked and the buildings set on fire. Anyone who tried to escape was shot dead. There was no trial after the war to punish the guilty. Why, who knows?

We crossed the Bay and moved into the central part of the large island, in those days still largely uninhabited. I remember exploring the rivers as passengers on Amphibious Engineer boats and feeling that I was back in time. Most of the military actions concerned hills, climbing them while chasing away enemy soldiers. One particular hill has remained in my memory. It was somewhere on the Zamboanga peninsula. The Air corps (again) said it needed the area air base. All air bases were important, especially those the Air Corps boys and pilots did not attack on the ground.

We hit this particular hill overlooking the base at sun-up. The first and second platoons went up side by side with the third platoon in reserve. I was a machine gunner by then, so my main job was to give covering fire. It meant that I would fire live ammunition a few feet above the troops’ heads that had the hoped— for effect of keeping the enemy soldiers from hitting our own. Every time I received a certain signal I would then raise my sights, thus keeping my fire ahead of the attacking troops. At one point, perhaps because I was inattentive, the company commander screamed at me; “Frenchy, (as I was affectionately known) raise those blankety sights, you blankety dummy. You are in danger of hitting your own men.”

Eventually, the men reached the top, dislodging the enemy soldiers. I then moved my gun to the hilltop where I concentrated on protecting the boys. In some cases the Japanese would retire to the reverse side of the hill and would continue the attack by using hand grenades and mortars. It is now time to talk about that.

The Japanese hand grenade was shaped differently than ours. It had a pineapple shape, like ours but with a long neck. American grenades were stable unless the soldier pulled a pin that activated the powder train. When that occurred, the grenade exploded 4.5 seconds after the soldier threw it. On the other hand the Japanese grenade had a long neck and it was necessary for the soldier to hit the tip of the neck against a solid object like a rock or his helmet. We were awake to that sound. When we heard it, someone would yell: “grenade”. We would take appropriate action to avoid it as it came hurtling toward us.

Due to the Japanese method of training, Japanese military personnel were told not to surrender because the American soldiers were under orders to kill prisoners and civilians. That belief forced thousands of Japanese women to throw their babies and themselves over cliffs into the ocean. That happened on the islands of Saipan and Okinawa. In our situation sometimes when we heard the knocking noise we would see bits of belt buckles, shoes or helmets fly into the air as Japanese soldiers, who felt themselves trapped, would commit suicide by holding their grenades against their bodies.

We spent several months on Mindanao Island sometimes chasing, sometimes coming under fire, sometimes bringing back prisoners and American casualties and sometimes running into problems with Muslim guerrillas also called the Moros, the same people causing agonies to the present Filipino government. A funny incident happened that needs retelling. The Filipinos were crazy about American cigarettes. Since I did not smoke I exchanged my smokes for chickens.

One time I had a dozen chickens in my possession. I did not know how to hold them. So, I hit on the brilliant idea of tying them to the machine gun tripod. All night long the animals chipped and chirped, thus keeping the whole company on full alert. At daybreak came the fateful order from the company commander for that blankety-blank Frenchy to get rid of the blankety-blank chickens or else. We had fried chickens for several days!!!

Along with the local liquor concoction called Tuba, a vile smelling drink imbibed through a long bamboo pole. In the month of July, we got word to return to Zamboanga. We were not told the reason but we knew there was only one target left to hit: Japan itself.

We were right in our assumptions. That’s exactly what we were told. So once again we went into training with new recruits, new weapons and new techniques. There was one major difference. We would train and maneuver with other large bodies of men. To us that meant a major offensive somewhere on open land and no more jungle warfare.

At this time there had been some deep changes in the company roster, all the original National Guardsmen had gone home. It saddened me as well as delighted me that the old boys had survived and were going home for a well- deserved discharge. In the month of August there occurred two events of great importance: I became twenty-one; we dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The end of the war was in sight. We were relieved that we possibly would not invade Japan in an unfriendly way. On August 14th, the Japanese high command threw in the towel: the war was over.

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