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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
1 Jul 2023

NextImg:Book Review: James Fenelon’s 'Angels Against the Sun'

In “The Bridges at Toko-ri,” the movie about the Korean War based on James Michener’s novel, Adm. George Tarrant watches as his pilots take off from the pitching deck of a carrier to attack the enemy and asks, “Where do we get such men? They leave this ship and they do their job. … Where do we get such men?”

Though our schools and colleges have neglected the teaching of military history these last 50 years or so, novels like Michael Shaara’s “Killer Angels,” the histories of World War II by Stephen Ambrose, and movies like “Saving Private Ryan” remain popular with the public. As we read these books or watch these films, we may be thinking, as did Admiral Tarrant, “Where do we get such men?”

For readers of “Angels Against the Sun: A WWII Saga of Grunts, Grit, and Brotherhood,” this question will likely arise a multitude of times. Here, James Fenelon, a historian who served 12 years in the military and is a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Airborne, Jumpmaster, and Pathfinder schools, tells the story of the 11th Airborne Division and the courageous role it played in the liberation of the Philippines. While fighting against the ferocious and determined soldiers of the Japanese army, these U.S. soldiers also battled swamps, rain and mud, jungles, and disease.

In the waist of a Marine bomber, 2nd Lt. Minoru Wada, a captured Japanese Army transport officer, helps an American bombing raid at Upian, Mindanao Island, Philippines, on Aug. 10, 1945. (Lt. David D. Duncan/FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Like Stephen Ambrose in his World War II saga “Band of Brothers,” Fenelon focuses our attention on the enlisted men as well as on their commanders.  We follow them as they join their newly formed division at North Carolina’s Camp Mackall, where officers like Gen. Joseph Swing, Col. Orin Haugen, and Maj. Edward “Slugger” Lahti work them hard, rigorous training designed to pound them into the best physical shape possible while also forging them into a cohesive, well-trained military unit.

We may forget at times how young so many of these recruits were. Later known as the creator and host of “The Twilight Zone,” Rod Serling was a member of the 11th Airborne. During the battle for Leyte Island, he was hit by shrapnel in the knee, a wound that plagued him for the rest of his life. He later wrote, “Shrapnel wounds and mangled, bullet ridden bodies are not the only casualties of war. There are casualties of the mind. Every war produces a backwash, a residue of pain and grief.”

He was 19 years old when he was wounded.

Paratroopers exit a C-47 in flight during a training jump. (Author’s Collection)

Their training at an end, the 11th traveled to San Francisco and departed in May 1944 to New Guinea. In November they joined the fighting, first on Leyte and then on Luzon, where they participated in the bloodbath that accompanied the liberation of Manila.

Throughout his book, Fenelon provides maps and commentary on the movements of these American forces as they slugged it out with the imperial army. He makes clear, for example, the importance of capturing certain airfields and the strategies intended to divide and conquer the more than 400,000 Japanese troops stationed in these islands. He also pauses in his narrative from time to time to go behind the scenes of the Japanese high command and give us some insight into their defensive strategies and tactics.

Yet Fenelon devotes most of the book to the Americans on the ground, the grunts of the airborne division. By means of his extensive research—the notes and bibliography are 80 pages long—and his talents as a writer, Fenelon recreates these men in their pride and heroism, their fears and anxieties.

Sergeant Don Singery and Corporal John D. Moore man a .30-caliber machinegun on Manarawat’s perimeter. (U.S. Army Archives)

In these battles, which often involved hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets, the courage these men frequently displayed inspires awe. On Luzon, for instance, 31-year-old private Elmer Fryar, an “old man” in his company, killed multiple enemy soldiers trying to overwhelm his platoon, then pulled a wounded man to safety and dressed his wounds. He was shot down saving the life of his platoon leader when a Japanese soldier burst out of the undergrowth. “Fryar sprung between the two men, taking the full burst in his chest and stomach. Slumping to the ground, Fryar’s final effort was pulling the pin of a grenade and killing his assassin.”

U.S. troops arriving on the beach at Ormoc during World War II, Leyte, Philippines, circa 1943. (European/FPG/Getty Images)

A radical difference in culture brought about the rule of no quarter practiced by both sides during this vicious fighting. For the Japanese, surrender was the ultimate disgrace. Indeed, for decades after the war had ended, a few Japanese holdouts still resisted surrender in the Philippines. This attitude along with the Japanese tactic of pretending to surrender while concealing a weapon, in turn hardened the American attitude toward taking prisoners of war. Young American males who only a couple of years earlier were playing high school football or working mundane jobs were driven to become hardened killers, often shooting down without a qualm surrendering Japanese for rightly fearing they carried a grenade to take out one last G.I.  As Fenelon writes, “The enemy’s atrocities and code of non-surrender broiled the Americans’ psyche into charred toast.”

A trooper watches Manila burn from Paranaque. (U.S. Army Archives)

The battle for Manila further inflamed the hatred of the men of the 11th Airborne for their enemy. At one Red Cross station, for instance, rampaging Japanese soldiers bayoneted women and children, including a 10-day-old infant. Fenelon cites 1st Lt. Kirkland’s description of one room of this aid station, “crammed with women of all ages,” where the atrocities beggared belief. As Kirkland later wrote, “The Japanese had simply gone berserk in the center city, raping and killing with a childish, mindless ferocity that forever blotted their absurd claim to be a superior race. We certainly treated them as vermin to be destroyed from then on.”

Yet even in this merciless arena of killing and hatred a human bond between these mortal enemies sometimes appeared. 19-year-old Calvin Lincoln came upon a dying Japanese soldier, who “asked me in perfect English if I could get a priest.” After the astonished Lincoln learned that the soldier had attended Catholic University, a medic administered last rites, and Lincoln gave the man a last cigarette before he died. “It put a human face on the enemy,” Lincoln later recalled. “You thought they were animals, and here he spoke perfect English and was more educated than I was.”

The Angels’ Lt. Bernard J. ‘Bud’ Stapleton raises the American flag atop the Nippon News building in Tokyo on Sept. 5, 1945. (U.S. Army Archives)

Today, far fewer Americans have come face-to-face with war. Less than 7 percent of us are veterans, and of these men and women only a fraction have experienced the rigors and terrors of combat.

Reading histories like “Angels Against the Sun” gives the rest of us at least a secondhand education in the comradery, brutality, and the suffering of war. Using eyewitness accounts, for example, Fenelon recreates how it felt to lie in a foxhole when the night was black as tar and the smallest noise might signal an enemy moving in for the kill. This book and others like it help us understand the toll that combat takes on the nerves and emotions, the steel-wire tension of rounding the corner of a jungle trail knowing a machine gun crew may be waiting to open fire.

U.S. Navy Signal Officer aboard the USS Princeton bringing in a Grumman Hellcat fighter plane during the Pacific Campaign of World War II, Philippines, October 1944. (U.S. Navy/Getty Images)

“Angels” also reminds us that weather, terrain, and logistics are huge and often incalculable factors in battle. These troopers endured monsoons that made sleep impossible and mud so thick that it added pounds to their boots and equipment. The jungle, hills, rice paddies, and urban fighting in Manila each brought unique challenges, often made worse by poor maps or lack of information. Resupply under these conditions often meant dropping weapons, food, and medical supplies from the air, sometimes without parachutes, which killed several troopers on the ground.

Finally, “Angels Against the Sun” helps us grasp the fierce friendships hammered together in the hell of combat. “When you’re engaged in a fight for your life,” Robert Marich told Fenelon, “you don’t think about mother, God, country, and the flag and all of that. …The only thing you’re worried about is getting killed, and your buddy next to you getting killed. You have a friend there that’s like a brother.”

Which brings us back to that question with which we started: Where do we get such men? We could search in a dozen different directions, from their Great Depression childhoods to the love of family and country that brought these troopers to enlist in the first place, without arriving at a satisfactory answer.

Odds are that we will always have need of such men. If that is the case, if that time comes round again, we must hope we have equally brave patriots who are fit and ready to serve their country.

‘Angels Against the Sun: A WWII Saga of Grunts, Grit, and Brotherhood” by James Fenelon tells the story of the United States 11th Airborne Division in the Philippines during the WWII. (Courtesy of James Fenelon)

‘Angels Against the Sun: A WWII Saga of Grunts, Grit, and Brotherhood’
By James Fenelon
Regnery History, April 18, 2023
Hardcover: 528 pages