World War Two - Striking Distance

In part seven of this unique landmark series of everyday life on the frontlines of World War 2, American forces storm the beaches of Leyte in the Philippines to liberate P.O.W's who have been stranded there. Parts 1-6 are listed at the end.

Bataan, Philippines - 1944

For the past 3 years nearly 65,000 American and Philippino prisoners of war have been at the mercy of their Japanese captors. They have been starved , tortured and they are barely surviving. Their ordeal began in 1942, led by general Douglas MacArthur, the Philippino and American troops were trying to defend the Philippines against an overwhelming Japanese invasion force.

With the fall of the islands inevitable, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to withdraw and abandone his remaining men. What happened next was an atrocity only made public many months later after two American officers pulled off a daring escape. Known as the 'Bataan Death March', the Japanese forced 75,000 prisoners to march 65 miles to an internment camp. Along the way, they brutalised them, subjecting them to unspeakable acts of violence. An estimated 10,000 men died on the march. Now, in the autumn of 1944, General MacArthur and the American military are ready to return to the Philippines, liberate the islands and rescue the survivors.

Free Stock Photos.
Free Stock Photos.

South Pacific - October 1944

The U.S. 7th Fleet are sailing as part of a 600 ship armada steaming towards the Philippine Islands with 250,000 men, the convoy is twenty miles wide and thirty five miles long.

The first objective is to recapture the island of Leyte, located on the outer eastern edge of the central Philippine archipeligo. Leyte will provide the U.S. military with an important staging area to support the invasion of Luzon and the liberation of the Philippine capital Manila.

As U.S. ships take up defensive positions off the island of Samar, 100 miles to the south-west, the U.S. 6th Army approaches Leyte's beaches.

October 20th, 1944 - Leyte

As the 6th Army land, they are met with bullets and mortar fire as they sprint across the beach to the thick dune grass at the edge of the beach. Japanese snipers open fire from the coconut trees overlooking the shore. Under covering fire, the men are able to pick off the snipers as re-inforcements come racing across the sand enabling the advance wave to withdraw to the shoreline.

After fighting off the snipers and returning to the secured beach, the men of the 6th Army witness the arrival of General MacArthur with the rest of the invasion force. Hours after he has landed, he addresses the people of the Philippines.

"People of the Philippines, I have returned, by the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil. Soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples. We have come dedicated and committed to the task of destroying every vestage of enemy control over your people. The hour of your redemption is here"

General Douglas MacArthur

While MacArthur marks his triumphant return to Philippine soil, the situation off-shore takes a dramatic turn, putting the entire invasion in jeopardy. The Navy's lightly armoured transport ships are moored just off the beaches carrying supplies and re-inforcements for the troops already on shore. But the heavily armed 3rd Fleet which had been protecting them and the men ashore, is suddenly gone.

After recieving word that the Japanese Imperial Navy's last four aircraft carriers are to the north, the 3rd Fleet has moved off in pursuit, with Leyte's beaches now vulnerable to attack, two powerful Japanese taskforces steam towards Leyte in a pincer movement. The first approaches from the south where it is stopped in it's tracks by a line of American battleships. The second, a heavily armed force of battleships, cruisers and destroyers approaches from the north. Their mission is to destroy the American transport force and halt the liberation of the Philippines. The only thing standing in their way is a handful of small outgunned American vessels.

Off Samar - October 25th, 1944

North of Leyte Island the small force of American ships are lying just off Samar. There original mission was to patrol for submarines and rescue downed pilots, but now they have learned that there is a powerful Japanese taskforce heading straight for them. Hoping to avoid almost certain destruction, the small force's escort carriers are ordered to fall back. Only seven destroyers now stand between the Japanese takforce and the American transport ships moored off Leyte. Although heavily outmatched by the massive firepower of the Japanese cruisers and battleships, their only option is to turn and attack.

One of their ships is soon sunk and the survivors of the U.S.S Samuel B. Roberts who have had to abandone ship, manage to reach a raft of floating debris, but now they have encountered another problem to contend with. They have suddenly found themselves in shark infested waters and are adrift in the Philippine Sea.

Philippine Sea - October 28th, 1944

Stranded in the Philippine Sea, the survivors of the sunken ship are running out of time. Although it is possible to survive for up to 5 weeks without food, most people can only survive without water for 3 to 5 days. Now some of the men are starting to halucinate. Thankfully in the distance is an American patrol ship who manage to pick up the exhausted sailors.

They lose four of the seven ships and 850 men that day, but their courageous stand against the Japanese succeeded. Mistaking the small group of ships for a much larger force than what was actually present, the Japanese fleet turned and retreated. The American invasion of Leyte is a success. American forces go on to linvade the main island of Luzon, they overwhelm the Japanese defences and liberate the island, saving the remaining P.O.W's.

Ramitelli, Italy

September 13th, 1944

The men of the 332nd Fighter Group, known as 'The Tuskagee Airmen' are escorting bombers as an ongoing strategy to bomb Nazi oil facilities. Their target is the Germans' massive oil refining complex in Blechammer, Poland. There, the Germans are using the areas' natural deposits of soft coal to produce synthetic oil which they use to fuel nearly all of their planes. Blechammer is among the most heavily defended targets in the Reich.

Over Blechammer, Poland - September 1944

Encountering heavy flak from anti-aircraft guns, once the B-17 bombers finish their drops and begin to turn back, German fighters close in. To protect the bombers, the 332nd Fighter Group are drawn into close-quarter air combat, running dogfights that drag the American pilots from 20,000 feet down to below 5,000 feet.

The dogfights only last minutes, the amount of time it takes for the bombers to empty the 1,200 rounds of 50 calibre ammunition in each plane. After eight hours in the air, the Tuskagee squadron are finally back in friendly skies. Once the bombers land, the fighters peel off and return to base at Ramitelli.

B-17 Bomber
B-17 Bomber

Bruyeres, France - October 1944

After proving their fighting abilities in an impressive campaign against the Germans in Northern Italy, the 442nd Infantry Unit of nationalised Japanese-Americans are now in combat along the mountaineous French - German border region of the Vosges Mountains. Here, Hitler's armies are stubbornly trying to hold off the Allied armies advancing into Germany. Because of the areas' steep cliffs and dense forests, American tanks, artillery and air power are virtually useless. It is the perfect terrain from where the Germans can make a stand with their backs against their homeland.

As the 442nd approach the hillside town of Bruyeres, they come under heavy shellfire. After three days of continual unrelenting fighting, Bruyeres finally falls to the Allies. However, they get no time to rest as they are ordered to evacuate the wounded troops of another battalion just beyond the other side of the mountain from Bruyeres.

After struggling through the dense, treacherous trails over the mountain, they come across the wounded men, a dozen in all. Seven of the men are on stretchers, they realise they cannot transport all the wounded men back with them, so they order thirty five German prisoners to act as stretcher-bearers.

When they are almost back at Bruyeres, the whole column suddenly stops, a twenty man German patrol is heading straight for them, realising that they have nowhere to hide and are outmanned and outgunned the men of the 442nd must reluctantly surrender.

The Tuskagee Airmen

Free Stock Photos.
Free Stock Photos.

Over Regensburg, Germany

October 24th, 1944

The 332nd Fighter Group, the 'Tuskagee Airmen' are escorting a group of B-24 bombers on a bombing run over Germany. They come under attack and two of their planes are shot down over the border of occupied Yugoslavia. Luckily for them they are picked up by the Yugoslavian resistance and avoid any encounters with German patrols.

Vosges Mountains, France

Only minutes before, the troops of the 442nd Infantry Unit were carrying wounded G.I's across the mountains. Now they are in the hands of a German patrol being marched into Germany as prisoners of war.

By December, the prisoners have arrived in a P.O.W. camp near Warsaw, Poland. They are held there until January 1945, with the Russian Army advancing, it forces the Germans to retreat with their prisoners. Nearly 1,400 of the prisoners are forced on a gruelling 380 mile march to another P.O.W. camp in Germany, where they remain until April of that year and their eventual liberation.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team earned the Presidential Unit Citation, it remains the most decorated regiment in U.S. militay history.

Yugoslavia - October 1944

Having survived a crash landing and thankfully being picked up by the Yugoslavian resistance, the Tuskagee airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group are being escorted back to their air base in Italy by their yugoslavian saviours. For the next month the men hide behind enemy lines and eventually make it to the port of Zara on the Adriatic Coast. From here they meet up with British commandos who are able to transport them back to their squadron in Italy. The men who were shot down go on to fly a further 29 missions before their tour of overseas duty is over.

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    Limited edition print of Steve McQueen and the Great Escape by Dave Harris Art
    Limited edition print of Steve McQueen and the Great Escape by Dave Harris Art

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