The Heroes of Hacksaw Ridge

Desmond Doss, subject of the motion picture “Hacksaw Ridge,” was a member of the 77th Division during World War II. Find out how this group of soldiers earned multiple Medals of Honor.

Gis listening to the radio
Members of the 77th, in Okinawa, learn of the Allied victory in Europe. Japan’s surrender was still four months away.

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In the January 11, 1947, edition of the Post, Lt. Col. Max Myers (ret.) cites several acts of heroism and sacrifice by soldiers of the 77th Division during the Pacific campaign of World War II. One of the soldiers Myers mentions is Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served as a medic in the 77th. During the battle for Okinawa, Doss earned the Medal of Honor for rescuing wounded men from the battlefield, treating their injuries, and then lowering them down an escarpment to safety. The article claimed that Doss had saved at least 50 lives during the battle. The official count was closer to 75.

Myers’ account of Doss’ service takes up just one paragraph of the story — after all, the medic was just one of many men who had served with distinction. Myers’ article also tells how Pvt. George Benjamin, weighed down by a radio and carrying only a pistol, led an attack under fire on an enemy-held hill. And how Pfc. Richard Hammond and three other privates held back 200 enemy soldiers until they were relieved at dawn. And how Company E, surrounded by Japanese soldiers, held their ground for two days, losing all but 48 of their 204 men. Myers also reminded readers that the intense fighting on Okinawa claimed the life of famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was accompanying the 77th.

Given the scale of sacrifice and courage shown by soldiers of the 77th, it’s not surprising the story of Corporal Doss received such a brief write-up. But now, his story is the subject of the motion picture Hacksaw Ridge. The film tells the remarkable story a man dedicated to serving his country and his comrades in battle while refusing to carry a weapon.

It would be difficult for any motion picture to do justice to Doss’ service. The citation for his Medal of Honor reads like a ridiculously implausible action movie:

Desmond Doss receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman.
Desmond Doss receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman. (Library of Congress)

Private First Class Doss was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machine gun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands.

On May 2, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within eight yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.

On May 5, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire.

On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese, and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet, while being carried off the field by a comrade, this time suffering a compound fracture of one arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station.

Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.

To be fair to the other soldiers of the 77th, however, you should read Myers’ article, “Lookit Those Old Buzzards Go!” It will give you a sense of the incredible service given by the entire 77th Division.

Lookit Those Old Buzzards Go!

By Lt. Col. Max Myers

Originally published on January 11, 1947

You could get this story much better at the 77th Division Club in Manhattan. The 77th was a big-city outfit, and its heart is still in New York. There lawyers and clerks and taxi drivers who used to be its privates and captains and sergeants get together and talk. They talk about Guam and Leyte and Okinawa in the personal, sometimes unprintable language of men who were there. There may also be some mention of Baccarat and the Argonne Forest, but this comes from old grads of World War I’s 77th Infantry Division, in which Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson rose to major.

Even the World War II alumni are not very young. By normal standards, many of them were too old for infantry combat. But circumstances were not normal in March 1942, when the 77th Division was activated. The Army had to make fighting men, and quickly, out of whatever Selective Service turned up. For the 77th, it happened to turn up mostly older, settled men, averaging 32 years of age, with wives back in Brooklyn or Manhattan or Jersey City.

They came because they had been sent for, but nobody had to drag them. Those who survived are proud to have belonged to the 77th Division, although they hated almost every minute of it while they did belong. What these military ancients lacked in youthful zip they made up in perseverance and tenacity. In the Pacific, a beardless marine veteran early pinned a label on them which stuck. Watching them swarm onto the beaches at Guam, he exclaimed, approximately, “Lookit those old buzzards go!”

There were 13,000 of the “old buzzards” when the division began to form at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, three months after Pearl Harbor. Along with the New York area, the Pennsylvania coal region, among others, was well represented. There were a few volunteers, some of them more than 50, with memories of the AEF. Then there was a scattering of regulars, a handful of reserve officers, a few hundred half-trained Southern cadre sergeants. From this unprepossessing material Maj. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger had orders to create a fighting division right away or sooner.

The critical question at this gloomy hour in the war, and one on which there were grave doubts in high quarters, was whether masses of American civilians could and would convert quickly into combat soldiers. The 77th and its littermates, the 82nd Airborne and 90th Motorized divisions, were test cases. Under extreme pressure, the officers and men of the 77th worked overlong and overhard, studied beyond their capacity to absorb, made hasty and sometimes erroneous decisions. They griped and they lost their tempers, but somehow they kept learning their trade.

After less than two months’ training, the 77th marched in a corps-strength review before Lord Louis Mountbatten and performed so well that he wrote to Brig. Gen. Roscoe B. Woodruff, then division commander: “I feel I must write and tell you once more that of all the many interesting and encouraging things I have come across during my visit to the United States, none has made me feel more certain of our victory than the efficiency which your division displayed at the end of only eight weeks’ training.”

Winston Churchill and Gen. George C. Marshall, United States Chief of Staff, expressed similar cheer. The 77th Division went on to Louisiana maneuvers in early 1943, then made ready to go overseas. Instead they found themselves in the desert at Hyder, Arizona, for six months of learning to get along on less of everything. Maj. Gen. A.D. Bruce, a rangy, aggressive Texan, and Brig. Gen. Edwin H. Randle, the command team that was to lead the division through combat, joined the 77th during this period.

These were not happy months. Many of the brothers at the 77th Division Club today will tell you that the desert training, with its heat and thirst and live-ammunition problems, was worse than combat. They lost some men at Hyder — a few actual casualties, and others who could not meet the physical strain. But the men could still laugh, with the wry humor soldiers have, directed mostly at themselves. In this spirit they conceived the Hyder Campaign Ribbon, a mock decoration consisting of a broken thermometer mounted on a strip of sandpaper, symbolizing the infernal heat and the quality of the desert terrain.

The division came away from the desert leaner, tougher, a little bitter, and ready to cause trouble for somebody, as the Japanese would learn. Their fighting edge stayed sharp through winter mountain training in West Virginia and raw, cold, amphibious landings in Chesapeake Bay. Furloughs scattered men with the Statue of Liberty shoulder patch along the East Coast. Then, early in 1944, they rolled west to San Francisco and boarded transports for Hawaii, their last stop before the shooting war.

Here there was jungle-fighting instruction on Army time, and special reconnaissance at Honolulu and Waikiki Beach on their own. But not for long. On July 21, 1944, in support of some veteran marine outfits, they hit the water off Guam. Guam presented a difficult terrain, a friendly Chamorro population, and some 20,000 decidedly hostile Japanese troops.

Fortunately, the untested Liberty Division was not required to undertake a costly assault landing or fight large battles its first time out. But the individual soldier was just as busy, just as miserable, and in just as much danger most of the time as he was to be later in more important campaigns. His troubles began at the reef 600 yards offshore, where he disembarked into water which was too shallow for boats, but too deep for walking. Encumbered with gear, he plunged, slid, stumbled, and swam to the beach. There he found no haven, but only confusion, debris and falling mortar shells.

The 77th went in immediately after Marine assault waves. The landings were not perfect — real ones never are. Part of the 77th’s lead regiment, the 305th, got ashore in daylight, but two battalions, delayed by snarled naval communications, lack of boats, and an air alarm, waded to the beach in darkness. The Marines were critical at the time, but soon they were to reverse their judgment on the 77th.

The old buzzards of the 77th expanded the small beachhead, supported a marine attack on the Orote Peninsula, and reconnoitered Southern Guam. Then, cutting loose from roads and supplies, they pushed across the island, turned north to capture supply routes, and pursued and eliminated the Japanese forces. It wasn’t easy. The Liberty Division men killed more than 2,700 Japanese, took 36 prisoners, and had 1,143 casualties themselves.

At Barrigada the division’s 307th Regiment, fighting for a vital water supply, struck a determined enemy defense, and during a long, costly day tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the hidden force. But the next morning the Japanese were gone; they had had enough. At Yigo the 306th and 307th regiments and the 706th Tank Battalion, with plenty of artillery support, tore apart the last Japanese positions and turned the campaign into a hunt.

But these organized fights were exceptions. Most of the time it was squad or platoon against a few enemy in dark jungle where you could step on a Jap before you saw him.

The division command post and the medical clearing station were almost on line with the infantry. No one was clean, comfortable, or safe. Col. Douglas McNair, likable and respected chief of staff of the division, was killed by a hidden Japanese while selecting a site for a command post.

At the 77th Division Club today, no conversation about Guam is likely to omit the rainy season at the hilly trail known as Harmon Canal. Even water buffalo bogged down at times, and all rations had to be backpacked by men for two or three miles. Men who had not made the acquaintance of diarrhea and dengue fever in combat soon did so here.

The 77th pulled out of Guam in November for New Caledonia, but never reached that promised rest area. On Thanksgiving Day, the Liberty Division was thrust into the stalemated, month-old battle for Leyte. Japanese General Yamashita was making Leyte, as he had promised, the decisive battleground of the Philippines. With help from mountains and mud, he had almost stopped the American divisions driving west, north, and south. He held all of Northwestern Leyte, including the fertile Ormoc Valley, Valencia airfield, and ports at Ormoc and Palompon. He had nearly as many troops as the Americans, and he was getting reinforcements at least as rapidly, though at a terrible cost.

General MacArthur and his shrewd, battle-wise 6th Army commander, Gen. Walter Krueger, decided to forward-pass the 77th Division to a landing in Ormoc behind the enemy. It was a typically bold undertaking which could break the stalemate or become a division-sized Dunkirk. The Liberty Division, which had spent its first days on Leyte in messy mopping-up and service operations, had practically no time to prepare for this amphibious jump. Back at Guam, however, General Bruce had looked thoughtfully at a map of Leyte and said, “That fight will probably be decided in the Ormoc Valley. Someone may have to land there, and it could be us. We’ll make an alternate plan for that.” Now the alternate plan came out of the files, and after three days of feverish preparation, the 77th Division assault forces went aboard a tin-can fleet for an overnight run.

They were to land in the early hours of December 7, the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, behind the lines of an enemy force that would outnumber them at least three to one. The American convoy would remain only two hours, and there would be no supply or reinforcement for two days. There would be little or no American air support.

The old buzzards were old soldiers now. At General Bruce’s insistence, they jumped off onto the beaches about four miles south of Ormoc rather than into the defended streets of the town itself. It was a swift, smooth assault landing, hastened by the sight of planes with red spots on them. A few enemy service troops were caught entirely by surprise. Division headquarters was ashore 35 minutes after the first rifleman.

The American force was insufficient to man the beachhead and attack simultaneously. Yet they must attack before the Japanese recovered from surprise and concentrated their superior forces. So the 77th operated as a rolling beachhead. It attacked north toward Ormoc and abandoned ground behind. There were skirmishes all the way, and a desperate fight when Col. “Steamboat” Hamilton’s 307th Combat Team took an old military post at Camp Downes. By the 10th of December, backed by everything the division could bring into play, the 307th had fought its way house to house through the burning ruins of Ormoc. General Bruce sent a brief, characteristic message to the commanders of the 7th Division, fighting its way up from the south, and the 11th Airborne Division, struggling across the mountains from the east: “Have rolled two sevens in Ormoc. Come seven, come eleven. Bruce.”

When Maj. Gen. A. D. Bruce sent his classic message to the 7th Infantry and 11th Airborne divisions: “Have rolled two sevens in Ormoc. Come seven, come eleven. Bruce.” (Signal Corps photo)

Ormoc was only the beginning. The soldiers of the Japanese 12th Regiment dug in for a fight to the death at a large concrete building at Cogon, just north of the port city. Their graves are there. Col. Vincent J. Tanzola’s 305th Combat Team annihilated the defenders in a four-day assault of unsurpassed ferocity. At times the American soldiers called artillery air bursts to within 25 yards of their own front lines to stave off desperate Japanese charges. Most of the enemy were in covered foxholes, some with armored lids. It was necessary to blast the building almost to dust and then to dig out the individual enemy. An armored bulldozer aided mightily. As its blade uncovered foxholes, Capt. James F. Carruth, of the 302nd Engineer Battalion, leaned from the cab and shot the occupants.

Lt. Col. Edward Chalgren got part of his third battalion of the 305th onto a knife-edge ridge on the flank of this Cogon position. A reinforced Jap battalion was on the opposite side of the crest. Company K took five savage counterattacks in one afternoon. No one, Jap or American, could live on that ridge crest. Soldiers collapsed in the jungle heat, were carried back, splashed with cold water, rested a few minutes, and then hurried forward to join the grenade fights. Capt. Louis Hinson spotted Japs in a gully slightly to the rear and called down all the battalion’s fire; an enemy counterattack disintegrated into 350 torn dead.

While the 305th took Cogon and then drove north up a frantically defended road, the two other regiments of the 77th Division initiated spectacular movements. They had the alternative of striking to the east of the Ormoc-Valencia road, against mountains and ridges heavily manned by Japs, or to the west, through miles of low, swampy ricelands considered impassable for troops, and therefore virtually undefended. They preferred an “impassable” area to a pitched battle any day. Patrols went out to find routes through the swamps, and did.

So the 306th Infantry in the center and the 307th on the left set out in wide enveloping movements. The plan called for the 306th to cut the main road some miles north of Ormoc, and for the 307th to take Valencia and cut the road even farther north. The 305th was to drive up the road and make contact with the two other regiments.

In two slashing days the steady oldsters of the 77th made the difficult two-pronged envelopment, and came back together holding the road from Ormoc to Valencia and the Valencia airfield. The Japs could have staved off a frontal attack for many days. The American cost in sweat and fatigue was terrific, but in blood it was negligible, except at Cogon.

The division pushed north from Valencia, with the 306th and 307th regiments driving to take the Libongao road junction and to effect a juncture with other American forces coming south. The way was barred by part of the Japs’ 1st Division and by their 5th Combat Team, just arrived from Luzon. These were elite troops, the best the 77th came up against anywhere during the war. There were about 4,500 of them, and they died there. The Liberty Division’s 307th Regiment, with General Randle and Colonel Hamilton unintentionally serving as a pistol-packing spearhead, seized the junction; Col. Aubrey Smith led his 306th Regiment in taking the Tagbong River bridge, and also linked up with southbound troops of the 1st Cavalry Division. The Ormoc Valley was opened.

On a nameless hill just across the Tagbong River, Pvt. George Benjamin, a radio operator of Company A, 306th Infantry, won the first of the division’s seven Congressional Medals of Honor. In an attack on this hill, a rifle platoon supporting a light tank hesitated. Benjamin ran across open, bullet-whipped terrain to the tank, waving and shouting for the platoon to follow. Burdened with his radio and armed only with a pistol, he advanced to the enemy positions, killed one Jap in a foxhole, moved on to wipe out a machine-gun crew, and went on over the hill. His followers captured it. Fatally wounded, Benjamin insisted, before he died, on reporting to the battalion operations officer the enemy positions he had seen.

The 77th pushed on. An improvised armored column of tank destroyers, tanks, and miscellaneous vehicles, originally intended to force the mountain trail to Palompon, was converted into an amphibious force. The reinforced 1st Battalion of the 305th Regiment, under Lt. Col. James E. Landrum, undertook a daring 44-mile voyage around the corner of the island to Palompon. Their transports were amtracs, normally used only for short trips to the beach. Their naval fire support consisted of two PT boats, and their air cover was one Cub plane carrying a pilot and General Bruce.

It was another successful forward pass. On Christmas morning, the force went ashore near Palompon and  wheeled to take the village. Another battalion was sent around by landing craft. Under attack from both east and west, the Japs defending the Palompon road soon gave way.

Now, according to GHQ, the Leyte campaign was officially over. But the GHQ announcement failed to impress several thousand remaining enemy. The 77th kept busy in Northwestern Leyte into February. At insignificant villages like Villaba and Abijao, and on out-of-the-way mountain ridges, forces up to battalion strength ran into many a stiff fight. Then there were thousands of Filipino civilians to be rescued from remote prison villages. There were continuing contacts with the woods-wise loyal guerrillas of the 96th Filipino Infantry. Enemy munition dumps were found daily. Capt. George C. Sarauw and his 92nd Bomb Disposal Squad noisily disposed of the explosives in 200-ton daily “blowings.”

Both American and Japanese observers have called the Ormoc Valley campaign a “divisional epic.” Certainly it was the decisive blow in Leyte, which, in turn, was the decisive operation in the Philippines. The 77th Division in this one slashing advance killed 19,456 enemy, took 124 prisoners, and destroyed immense amounts of supplies, at a cost of 543 killed and 1,469 wounded.

Even before the full results of their Leyte drive were apparent, the 77th was preparing to move on. There was another big job to be done at a place called Okinawa, and the military oldsters of the 77th Division — now liberally salted with replacements of every age — were to have another lonely, risky assignment.

Their mission was to hit the Okinawa area a week ahead of the main invasion to clean up some outlying islands and to establish an advance naval base. G-2 warned that there would be numerous enemy air bases within range and hundreds of suicide pilots.

On the Kerama Retto — a cluster of wooded, rocky islets about seventeen miles west of Okinawa — several squadrons of tiny Jap suicide boats had been carefully rehearsed for an attack against an American fleet off Okinawa. But the unpredictable 77th hit the Kerama Retto first, and the boats were captured or destroyed on shore. All together, the Liberty Division struck in six separate amphibious assault landings and followed up with nine more to capture the islets and secure the protected anchorage.

There were about a thousand Jap troops to be fought and killed on the Kerama Retto. A few of the men at the 77th Division Club today can tell of a hand-to-hand night action on Zamami in which one machine-gun post changed hands six times, but, on the whole, it was a well-executed, easy campaign. However, hundreds of the simple village folks, believing what the Jap soldiers had told them about the brutality of Americans, killed their children and themselves rather than be captured.

For two weeks, while other divisions invaded Okinawa, the 77th floated around and attempted to dodge Kamikazes. Several ships were hit, and on one died almost the entire headquarters of the 305th Regiment, including its popular commander, Col. Vincent J. Tanzola.

There was little time for regret. Ie Shima, a nearby island, had to be taken for its air base as soon as the tide was right. Lt. Col. J.B. Coolidge and a new staff took over the 305th. The artillerymen sneaked their guns ashore on tiny Minna Shima, two miles from flat-topped Ie. The Navy brought up shooting ships and carriers for the bombardment.

Ie Shima had some deceptively easy beaches immediately in front of Ie town, and one towering hill called Iegusugu Yama. The 77th characteristically chose to land instead on difficult approaches at the other end. Two-thirds of the island, including the air base, fell at once with little resistance. However, there were enemy on the island. The division spent seven terrible days digging them out of the town and the steep peak, both honeycombed with fortifications. Almost 5,000 Japanese were killed and 140 prisoners were taken. Japanese soldiers and civilians, men and women, fought to the end. There was no practical method of telling them apart during the many desperate night banzai attacks and raids. One night charge on Company G, of the 307th, ended with 280 dead Japanese inside the company position. Another time Lt. Col. Elbert Tuttle, commander of the 304th Field Artillery, awoke in his slit trench to find two Japs beating at him with bamboo poles. These weapons proved inferior to his American pistol. Maj. John Kriegsman, division air officer, was attacked in daylight by two stone-throwing enemy.

During the final push on Iegusugu Yama, there were skillfully coordinated attacks, like one made by the 307th Regiment, which could be backed only by mortars because the infantrymen were at too close quarters for regular artillery support. Lt. Col. Claude Barton’s first battalion, 306th Regiment, was singled out for a unit citation because its assault was notably courageous even for brave and seasoned infantrymen. A War Department observer commented, “Why, I saw troops go through enemy mortar concentrations and machine-gun fire that should have pinned them down. But instead they poured across the field and took the mountain against really tough opposition without even slowing down.”

Communiques written elsewhere described the fighting as moderate. Actually it cost the division more than 1,100 men killed or wounded. Among those killed was a quiet little man, a writer who wanted no higher title than that of infantryman. The 77th put up an inscription at the place of his death: “On this spot the 77th Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle.”

Only three days after Ie was captured, the men of the 307th Combat Team moved to Okinawa proper to relieve the 96th Division on the center of the front. Subsequently the 306th took up positions on the left of the 307th. The 307th was assaulting an almost vertical ridge which never had any name but The Escarpment. It called for scaling ladders and cargo nets, flame throwers and burning gasoline. Colonel Hamilton’s veterans were driven off the narrow plateau several times before they held, and then needed bloody days to clear the reverse slope. From mazes of tunnels and shafts, time after time, there poured desperate charges of several hundred Japanese.

At The Escarpment, Pfc. Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who went to war as a medical-aid man, won the Congressional Medal of Honor he had many times earned. Three times his company was driven off the top, but he stayed alone to rescue, treat, and lower to safety the wounded. On this one occasion he saved at least 50 lives.

Just as the 307th finished clearing out The Escarpment, the Japanese launched a grand counteroffensive intended to push the Americans into the sea. Supported by the greatest Japanese artillery concentrations of the Pacific war, it achieved tactical surprise along the three-division front. The main blow struck and stopped at the 77th Division’s 306th Regiment position in the center of the line. The enemy tried and died by the thousands, but the American forces held.

Many small units of the Liberty Division had to beat back the attacks of superior forces. Five men from the intelligence section of the 306th’s third battalion volunteered to spend a night in an observation post high on a hill between American units. The team’s mission was only to locate and report Japanese gun flashes, but at four o’clock in the morning Pfc. Richard Hammond ordered his little group to open fire on an enemy company that he spotted advancing into American territory.

The odds were about 40 to 1. Hammond and the four other privates were dug in at the base of an outjutting ledge of rock. In the first screaming enemy rush, Pfc. Joseph Zanfini was killed. In the second, the four survivors were all wounded. Then Japs from atop the ledge began to drop grenades into the position. The Americans kept tossing them back. When one grenade could not be reached in time, Pfc. John P. Kenny swung his legs over it and took the full explosion, blowing one of his legs to shreds. With a pistol in each hand, Pfc. Raymond Higginbotham climbed out and blasted the offending Japs off the ledge. Hammond, Kenny, Higginbotham, and Dunmire held their little fort until dawn. They were still there shooting when a second-battalion patrol came to the hill. There were more than 100 dead enemy around the position.

Okinawa was dirty work all the way. The 77th Division’s zone of advance was roughly half a mile wide and two miles long, extending south to the hill town of Shuri, key to the entire Japanese defense. It took the Liberty Division men 32 days to get there, and en route they killed about 14,000 Japanese. But 4,000 men of the 77th gave their lives or blood in exchange. Meanwhile the other American divisions were inching ahead in the same fashion.

During this costly push, the 77th initiated night advances which attained almost complete surprise, because the enemy firmly believed that Americans never attacked at night. The morning after such an advance, bewildered Japs would emerge from caves in which they had spent the night to find themselves in the midst of efficient American killing units.

On one of these night advances Company E, of the 307th, seized a portion of a key ridge in the Shuri defenses. At daybreak, as surprised Japs came out from holes and tunnels in the company position, Lt. Theodore S. Bell and his 204 men — including a platoon from Company C — mowed them down with bayonets and grenades. But the unit was surrounded by enemy on higher ground. Japanese fire swept the area from all directions. Medical supplies ran out. Both of their light machine guns and five of their six radios were destroyed. At night, the decimated platoons were assembled for a final stand.

The second day brought the radioed order to hold on at all costs. Although the division could not reach its isolated company with men, it laid around it an almost continuous curtain of explosives. The second night a litter-bearing party got through to take out the wounded and leave a little water. During the second and third days, the surrounded men played hide-and-seek with the Jap mortar shells. Sooner or later, men lost in this game. The only hope of the few surviving Americans lay in the knowledge that supporting units were definitely coming up. The relief did come. Company E’s mission had been accomplished, but there were only 48 men to go back.

Every outfit on the Okinawa front experienced fights as bitter, although not so isolated and prolonged, as that of E Company. At the end, when the Jap remnants fell back to Southern Okinawa, there lay across this green island a five-mile red-clay scar on which no living thing grew.

The big objective of Shuri fell, now a worthless mass of rubble, and the fight moved south beyond the 77th Division’s zone. One last position of three fortified hills was reduced late in June by Col. Gordon Kimbrell and his 305th Combat Team. This was the final Liberty Division chore before Japan.

While resting and refitting under the palm trees at Cebu for the assault on Kyushu, the 77th learned of the end of the war. There was no riotous celebration. These battle veterans took the news quietly. They were thankful, and more than a little dazed. They were assigned to accept the surrender of some 5,400 armed Japanese from the hills of Central Cebu. Detachments from the 306th Infantry gathered them in without incident, except for restraining the Filipinos’ understandable inclination to throw things at their once-proud conquerors.

In October, the Liberty Division went to occupy Hokkaido in Japan. It went combat-loaded, just in case. It took over the island’s 3,000,000 people and 100,000 Jap troops smoothly. There were no lootings, no major black markets, no American-soldier protest meetings in Hokkaido. Most of the combat veterans went home before Christmas. Their places were taken by younger men from all over the nation. Occupation duties went on. The Americans made the best of the cold winter in a strange land.

In March 1946, four years old and half a world from home, the 77th Infantry Division was inactivated. Recently it was reactivated as a reserve division. During almost a year of combat, it killed about 44,000 Japanese and took 488 prisoners. More than 2,000 of the division’s men would never get home. Another 7,000 had received battle wounds.

Now, back at the 77th’s own club in Manhattan, the surviving old buzzards do not argue about whether their division or some other was “best.” They learned that in war it is futile to pass judgment on men or units. It is enough that theirs was an outfit that did its work well. They talk freely of themselves and their own platoons, in the way wives and parents never hear. But now and again a small group grows momentarily silent, as someone mentions a name that hasn’t been used recently — not since Cogon or The Escarpment.

Featured image: U.S. National Archives via World War II Database

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  1. I saw the intense movie “Hacksaw Ridge” and was just amazed at the “Escarpment” cargo netting that was draped over approx. 400 foot of its vertical face. Can’t help but wonder how such a massive rope ladder was ever installed during this battle? even to recreate the scene. Can anyone answer that?

  2. Many thanks to the Authors of this article about th 77th. My oldest brother, 1st Lt. Herbert D. Schaefer, was with them from the beginning and made it through to the end. He had a Heavy Weapons Platoon in the 306th Inf. Regiment. ( Can’t
    remember the Company). He passed away in Apr. 2014 at age 95. (He may have considered one of the “old buzzards).


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