Invasion of Leyte Island: Wounded First Wave

Left: Ken Halligan, longtime Rapid City resident, in 1943.  From his combat memoir "War As I Knew It"

The battle for Leyte Island was on. This was one of the greatest sea and air battles. Our big battleships and carriers were chasing a decoy up north. This part of the battle is history, but it left the ground forces with no air cover. I was part of the ground force. We were bombed and strafed around the clock. We camped close to an ammunition dump one night. A Jap plane followed our planes in. We could hear him as their motors sound like a washing machine. It dropped a bomb that hit the ammunition dump with a terrible explosion that lasted all night. The concussion was so great that many of us suffer aftereffects still today.

Japan kept reinforcing Leyte from the other islands. A crack artillery division from China was sent in to reinforce the Japs. Then the Kamikaze suicide planes that dove into their targets came next. I saw the first on coming down the beach at water level. We had a 50- caliber machine gun on the beach. I ran to it and was going to shoot down this plane when an officer gave the order not to shoot. He thought it was one of our planes. The plane flew into the side of a troop ship that was unloading. I regret very much I did not defy orders and shoot down the Kamikaze. It would have warned the ship and they could have used their antiaircraft guns. From that time on the Japs used the Kamikaze in all battles. They almost won Okinawa with their suicide tactics.

We were stringing wire through a banana forest. A jeep could knock those trees over and leave a trail. A bunch of native Filipinos came running out of the jungle and told us a Jap tank was coming down the swamp. We had a Bazooka on the wire carrier of the Jeep. The only time we had fired it, the rocket went astray because of bent fins. We had a little conference and decided we did not want to be the first wire team to shoot down a Jap tank! So we called the anti-tank weapon company. They made short work of the tank with their 37mm cannon. The wire company lived to fight another day!

Once when we were stringing field wire in the jungle we came upon a very large tree. I think they were called "Monkey Pod" trees. They grew to heights of 70 to 80 feet and had a trunk that looked like roots. This particular one had boards nailed on the trunk and up about 50 feet was a platform that looked like a sniper's position. We decided it had to be checked out and I drew the short straw. I climbed up about 40 feet, almost level with the platform when my hair stood up as in an electrical storm. I looked around in the foliage for a sniper. I could finally see the outline of a python snake curled around in the tree. It was about 20 feet long and 8-10 inches thick. I came down in about three steps! The sniper was gone but we never knew if the snake had beaten us to him!

In early December, the llth Division took Ormoc, on the west side of the Leyte Island. This stopped the reinforcing of the Japanese troops but it forced the remaining forces we were facing against us. December and January were very active times for the 7th Division.

A unit was sent to Cebu Island which is where the University of the Philippines is located. The US forces were going to invade after the Japs had taken the University personal hostage and were going to kill them. Our unit rescued a teacher and eight children just as the Japs were coming in to kill them. They were tied up with piano wire. This group was very intelligent and talked excellent English. The teacher wrote a letter to us explaining war as she saw it. She had been a teacher when the Japs invaded and saw all the cruelty of the invading army. She also witnessed the power of the US when the Philippines were retaken. She could describe the dogfights in the sky in a way I had never heard. The great bravery and performances of the planes when pushed over their limit was amazing to her. But the fighting GI was her idol. She thought a GI could whip any number of Japs, which is not true. She started on a personal mission to have the American soldiers that rescued her and the children transferred to the Philippine Army that was protecting exiled President Osmena. She could describe the artillery duels and flares at night. Modern warfare makes a 4th of July fireworks look like play!

She could also describe the terrible suffering and cruelty war can bring on a conquered people. War brings out the best in some people and the worst in some. It's the same with our machines and arms. It is the final test and some measure up while others fail.

The 7th Division had three battle stars with Leyte. I had two from Kawagelin and Leyte. Okinawa was yet to come. After two years of combat, some of the men began to crackup. Most can stand two years but that is about the limit.

The thing that haunts me is the early morning when it is misting or raining. That is when the Jap sniper started shooting. Sometimes they were in the very tree you slept under. I don't know why they put a premium on "lineman". Sometimes they would wait a couple of days to shoot at a lineman on a pole or in a tree. Sometimes, we hung our telephone wire in the trees. One time I climbed a 30-foot pole and was just putting on my belt when the wood splinters hit me in the face. I came down that pole in three steps and dove in a ditch!

We had a new "weasel", an amphibious tracked vehicle. I took it back to the base camp to get some supplies. I didn't think it was working right so I went to the motor pool. Two mechanics and I were looking at it when a sniper bullet passed within inches of our face. It sounded like a mad bee. We dove under the machine, which had room enough for two. It seems funny now but it wasn't then. The sniper would shoot at the one that couldn't get under! One would dive under and push the other two and the one on the end would be exposed and get shot at. Finally a trucking company zeroed in on a tree and shot him out. I suppose he thought that weasel and the driver was a secret weapon. This happened miles from the front line.

Finally the P38 Fighter planes came in. We just had a grass landing field. Mayor Bong, the ace from New Guinea, was with them. The first air alert that came up, he went up and shot down four zeros before he had to gas up. This plane so out classed the Japs that it was really a pleasure to watch the dogfights. One time a P38 took after two Zero's. One dove into a cloud and we could see him from the ground. Just as the P38 closed in on the first zero and shot the zero into flames the zero in the sky shot the P38. The P38 turned on all the speed it had and shot down the second zero. While the P38 was burning, the pilot headed it toward the ocean. He turned it over on its' back as that is the only way you can eject from a P38. His parachute opened and he came down close to us. We picked him up. He apologized for abandoning his plane. He said, "They are expensive, you know."

My luck ran out in January of 1945 while the battle of Leyte and Ormoc were plenty hot. I was on a pole as usual. We were trying to get the wires off the ground and in the air so tanks and artillery could come up when I heard a mortar round. I don't know for sure what happened. I have read several reports. I was impaled on a guy stake and then I went into shock. I remember the medico giving me morphine and finally getting to an aid station. The doctor wore rubber boots, as the mud was pretty deep in the tent! He was a great surgeon. He put my arm back together. Of course, I had told him in my delirium I would shoot him if he cut it off and I guess he believed it!

We were loaded on landing boats and taken up to Tacloban, which had a temporary landing field. A C54 plane was setting there. That night the Japs tried to bomb the C54 but didn't hit it. They did crater the landing mats. The patients were loaded on the C54 on stretchers. I had a blanket and shaving kit, which was all the property, I had when I left the Philippines. Unfortunately, the letter from the rescued college teacher was lost when I was evacuated.

We flew to Siapan and it was under air attack by the Japs so we had to circle around while the dogfights went on until we could land. They moved us out of the equator country, as wounds won't heal properly in that climate. We were there a few days and they flew us to Honolulu, Hawaii. What a sight! All the lights were burning and the sight of civilization for the first time in over a year was simply amazing. I spent the rest of my hospital stay there until I was ordered to rejoin my outfit that was invading Okinawa. That will be another chapter.

I must include in this chapter the story of the best soldier and coolest man under fire I ever encountered. His name was Patterson and we called him Pat. He was a small blond kid from Tennessee. I doubt if he had ever worn shoes before he joined the Army. Pat was a B.A.R. man, which was an automatic rifle, fed with a belt of clips. They were very heavy. Why the Army would make a 130-pound man a B.A.R. and a 200-pound man a ward boy, I will never know. We saw all kinds of men during our service. One big bully that was always in a fight before we started seeing real action stands out in my mind. He was 'punch drunk' and sure hard to take down. But when the real bullets started flying, we never saw him again. He might still be running!

In jungle fighting everyone digs in at night in a perimeter and no one gets out of a foxhole. Anything that moves was shot. Most foxholes are two or three men so it makes a lot of firepower. The Japs used suicide attacks called Banzai. They used whistles, horns and try to over run the US Forces in a final charge. They hit Pat's corner. I am sure the reason they hit it so hard was to knock out the B.A.R. We could hear the full automatic most of the night. We thought his ammunition man must have been feeding the gun. Just at daylight we got reinforcements to his foxhole. We could see him standing with head and shoulders out of the hole. We said, "Where is your helper?" "He is down in the hole. I'm standing on him." he replied. "You'll hurt him !" "No, he's dead." Pat said.

Pat had held off the charge by himself with no one to feed his rifle! Pat never received a medal that I know of and was a P.F.C. I ran into him in Korea after the war was over. The 7th Division was doing MP duty and I saw him confront a group of Koreans who were trying to kill a Jap policeman. He coolly threw the bolt on his B.A.R. and the mob backed off. I had a short visit with him. He had made corporal. He should have had the military highest honors. He never liked violence. When a barracks quarrel started, he always asked the guys not to fight because there must be a better way. He always wanted to go on pass when I did. I guess he thought I needed a guardian.

Ken Halligan, 92, died Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. On August 15, 1942, Ken entered the U.S. Army to become a Signal Corp lineman with the 101st Signal Battalion. He was attached to the 7th Infantry Division as “Special Forces.” Ken received several awards and citations, including the Purple Heart, and had achieved the rank of 1st Sgt. by the time he was honorably discharged. obit