Unit History of Company D
85th Chemical Mortar Battalion
The History of a Company of Men
Author unknown (contributed by James M. McGraw with technical help from his son, Patrick)
On the 21st of July, 1944, the U.S. Army Transport SS President Johnson pushed westward through the choppy waves of San Francisco Bay, passing beneath the steel span of the Golden Gate Bridge at 1830. Formerly a luxury liner with a passenger quota of 250, she now carried upwards of 3,000 men and officers, most of whom were soberly viewing for the first time the rapidly diminishing shores of their native land. D Company of the 85th Chemical Battalion (Motorized) was on its way; "overseas" was no longer a lecture theme to be laughed at by skeptical trainees.
Many of the men expected an ocean voyage of daily storms and seasickness, but excepting a storm and rough water a few days out of Frisco, the sea was surprisingly calm and the weather usually pleasant. There was often rain, both day and night, which by contrast only made the warm days warmer and the sea bluer.
The days were nearly alike. The men read, played cards, slept, talked and argued, sunbathed, crowded the rails to watch the silver flying fish skipping from wave to wave, and sometimes the black porpoises which rose and fell as effortlessly as the ocean swells. And there was boat drill; each sunset and sunrise found the men crowded on deck bundled up in life jackets, quiet, on the alert.
The SS President Johnson reached the equator on the tenth day out (July 31) and all persons who were crossing 0° latitude, the international date line, for the first time were initiated into the "Trusty Order of Shellbacks" in the hilariously mad but traditional fashion of seafarers. Some heads were shaved, others were coated with grease all felt the sting of the paddle and all were liberally doused with sea water.
Soon the Johnson crossed the International Date Line, gaining one day, and then the round-topped, green hills of New Caledonia were sighted. The ship cautiously approached the outlying coral reefs of the port of Noumea, where the Minister to New Zealand and his wife debarked. The Johnson stopped next at Milne Bay and then at Oro Bay, both on the southeast coast of British New Guinea. On the 24th of August, D Company debarked at Finschhafen, New Guinea, one of the more important supply bases in the southwest Pacific. They set up a camp on a narrow coral peninsula, remained there five weeks, boarded a Liberty ship, the Marcus Daly, on the 3rd of October and headed north to a new destination.
On October 5th, D Company set foot on the shores of Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea, and spent two nights on the steep slopes of the hills overlooking the bay. There they were re-equipped and attached to the 24th infantry Division in support of the 34th Infantry Regiment. On the morning of the 8th, the company loaded into APA'S (Auxiliary Personnel Assault ships), their uniforms coated with the fine, red volcanic dust so typical of the hills above Hollandia. The convoy formed in the harbor and steamed out Friday, the 13th of October, for the Philippines. The sea alone was calm this morning, for the men knew that "this was it" D Company was in an invasion fleet. Early on the morning of October 20th, as the convoy approached Leyte Gulf and moved into pre-attack position, naval warships shelled the coasts and interior targets, while naval planes bombed and strafed shore installations and enemy positions. Most of the men of the company were gathered on deck shouting encouragement to the gun crews on the ships around them, which were all engaged in throwing up a protective screen of fire against a number of enemy planes.
At 0930, the infantry loaded into assault boats which circled into position and headed for the shore, landing at 1000. Elements of D Company, as first support troops, hit Red Beach at 1025. D Company moved in 200 yards, supporting the infantry on the drive toward Hill 522. The greatest difficulty encountered during the first few days, and for the entire campaign for that matter, was the lack of transportation. The severe rainstorms and deep mud halted nearly all movement on the roads. D Company moved forward by means of half-tracks, "ducks" and "alligators," following and supporting the 34th Infantry from Hill 522 through Palo, Santa Fe, Alangalang, Cavite, Jaro, and Tunga to Carigara, the division objective.
A new division objective was designated when Japanese reinforcements succeeded in landing at Ormoc, and the company moved through Capoocan, Pinamopoan and Colasion Point to "Death Curve," so-called because of the number of enemy killed by mortar fire on a road curve beneath a steep slope. At this time the 34th Regiment was relieved and D Company moved back (November 27th) to Capoocan, where mortars were set up for defense of the beaches. It was here that the men enjoyed their first cooked meal. Throughout this time the company was under light enemy artillery fire; however, no casualties were sustained. The company's vehicles were brought up during the week but served no use, for on December 7th the outfit prepared to leave Capoocan on an amphibious operation and landing at Calubian. The movement from shore to LCMs was difficult. Because of the low tide, it was necessary to transfer ammo and mortars from trucks to "ducks" and then from the "ducks" to the LCMs out in the bay, where heavy swells kept the latter two in constant motion.
The boats met at a rendezvous on Carigara Bay at 2100 and arrived at Calubian at 2400. They unloaded and moved inland 100 yards under cover of darkness without enemy opposition. On December 22nd, after having fired on scattered Jap ground forces during the week, the unit made a second amphibious landing, again in support of the 34th Regiment, on the town of Tuktuk, followed a few days later by a short bivouac on Gigantangan Island and a third landing at San Isidro to secure the northern peninsula of Leyte.
By New Year's eve, the company was in garrison at the battalion area near Tunga, after 72 days of combat during which they fired approximately 5,000 high explosive and white phosphorous shells, successfully completing over 25 missions. The battalion was then attached to the 1st Calvary division and D Company was redesignated B Company, and the battalion became the 85th Chemical Mortar Battalion.
The newly formed B Company was alerted after resting for two weeks and left Leyte on LSTs the 18th of January 1945. On the 29th they landed near the town of San Fabian on the Lingayen Gulf and moved into a bivouac area near the town of Santa Barbara. That night a long convoy headed toward Guimba. B Company was attached to the 5th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division and accompanied them in close support on the 200 mile spearhead drive to Manila. The unit left Guimba the 3rd of February, drove through Cabanatuan shortly after the freeing of the prisoners there by the 5th Rangers, on to Gapan, San Rafael and Quezon, reaching the outskirts of Manila on the 5th of February. That night, as the cavalry and armor rolled to the gates of Santo Tomas University where the interned were imprisoned, there were flames as high as fifty feet from the tops of the buildings burning in Manila. "The whole sky was on fire" and intermittent explosions shook the air throughout the night as Jap demolition squads did their work of destroying Manila as they were forced to retreat.
The next day, B Company moved into Manila and, for the first time in their experience, set up mortars on hard city streets. Because of the nature of the terrain, the company was forced to move to a new mortar position for each enemy target. During the next month they moved nine times, still within the city, and fired on the Wack Wack Country Club, Fort Mckinley, Neilson Field, Nichol's Field, Wallace Field, the dock area, the walled city of Intramuros, the National Agriculture Building and the Finance Building, all of which were increasingly untenable as enemy strong-holds. 3,844 rounds were fired in successfully completing 29 missions while operating under heavy enemy artillery and sniper fire and 20 mm firing at near-ground level.
The company left Manila March 6th, joining the 12th Cavalry Regiment in their drive on the Shimbu Line, where the unit encountered enemy rocket fire. The jap rocket positions were marked by WP bursts from the mortars, to be subsequently destroyed by demolition squads.
On the 15th of March they moved to Canlubang where the company was re-equipped and reorganized, receiving forty-five veteran replacements from the 82nd Chemical Mortar Battalion. Elements of the company left to support the 188th Parachute Glider Infantry on their drive to Termate, later swung south and rejoined the company to support the 187th Parachute Glider Infantry fighting west of Mt. Malepunyo, and then to Mt. Macolod the "Million Dollar Hill,' which fell April 21st. On April 25th, they returned to Mt. Malepunyo and were attached to the 511th Parachute Infantry until the neutralization of the enemy in that sector.
On May 5th, the company joined the battalion on the Agricultural College campus of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos and went into garrison in preparation for the oncoming rainy season.
On June 28th the company was recommitted to combat and drove to Bagabag, southwest of the Cagayan Valley, where the unit was attached to the 6th Infantry Division to support the 63rd Infantry in their drive on Kiangan.
It was there at Yamashita's last stronghold in Northern Luzon that the company was engaged when the official announcement of cessation of hostilities resounded up and down our lines. That day, August 15th, marked the 192nd day in combat for men of the outfit. All missions were completed and it became then the personal mission of each man to make again that trip under the Golden Gate Bridge. How this was accomplished can best be told by each man.
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