The Silent Years

Prologue

In the opening days of WWII my father’s B-17 bomber was strafed on the ground at Clark AFB in the Philippines. In the chaos that followed he and a few of his friends managed to get their hands on a Thompson submachine gun and a 45 cal. semi-automatic, and escape into the bush.

The abrupt transition from the corn fields of Iowa to the jungles of Mindanao almost killed him. But in the end, he survived to join up with a band of American guerillas under the command of Col. Fertig.

In the years after the war my father wrote a short story entitled, “The Silent Years” which was intended to be the precursor to a book. The short story was never published (Readers Digest came close) and unfortunately the full book was never written. Somehow it seemed appropriate that the short story finally see the light of day. I hope you find it interesting. Who knows, maybe one of your own parents, or grandparents, were also hiding in the jungle somewhere near my father.

THE SILENT YEARS

by Major Geo. O. Hall, USAF (Ret.)

The thunder rumbling in the hills made good its promise of rain, and coconuts loosened by the first gusts of wind thumped the turf. My khaki trousers, with the legs cut off above the knees to patch the seat and my khaki shirt with the sleeves shortened to reinforce the back were quickly soaked. Black mud squished up between my toes as I slithered along the carabao trail. My .45 automatic in its service holster slapped my right hip as if to spur me on.

And then I saw it. Perched on mahogany pilings was the radio station, capped with kugan grass thatch. The antenna feeder line lead from a shuttered window up to an antenna strung between fifty foot bamboo poles.

BOEING’S 17-E, FIRST MASS PRODUCED FORTRESS

 

This was January, 1943, nine long months after General Wainright’s surrender on The Rock. The jungle had swallowed the vestiges of our defeat on Bataan and the shattered aluminum bodies of B-17 Flying Fortresses lay dully among the debris of Clark Field.

For most American survivors there had been no alternative but enemy prison camps. A very few had been more fortunate. They had a choice.

Though much has been said about the heroic siege of Corregidor and equally heroic regaining of the Philippines, very little has been released concerning the long silent years in between. How did new Thompson submachine guns suddenly appear in these islands? How did American prisoners, last seen behind the barbed wire at Davao, suddenly appear in Australia more than two thousand miles to the south? How was enemy shipping so consistently torpedoed in Philippine waterways?

I was one of those who had a choice when our world collapsed about us, one of the fortunate few who could surrender or side-step into the jungle and fight on. Once committed to fighting on there was no turning back. To be caught meant cold steel in the guts. A guerilla is not out for medals, he has a will to win born of desperation.

The main might of the Nipponese military machine rumbled southward through Java, the Celebes, and into New Guinea. As evadees scattered throughout the Philippines, we were aware only of the happenings under our small saucer of sky. We were isolated.

As guerillas we were free, but ours was the freedom of the hunted. We had only the clothes we stood in and the guns that were in our hands when our flag fell. We needed supplies from friendly forces now remote by thousands of miles, if our freedom was to be more than that of foxes running before the hounds.

Food was scarce, a diet of sun dried fish, carabao jerky, coarse ground corn and sweet potato leaves was unfamiliar to Americans. Some became enured to this new existence. Others lost strength, contracted dysentery or malaria and died.

I was cured of deadly dysentery by drinking a concoction of herbs brewed by a Filipino friend. The jungle was old Zoilo’s drugstore. He cured the growing, gangrenous tropical ulcers on my feet without the synthetic miracle of wonder drugs.

After months of looking at great, red sausages for feet, I thought these extremities were wasting away, atrophying , when they dwindled to their normal size. What a pleasure it was to walk again.

During this convalescent period, I stayed with Zoilo and his sizable family in their remote hideout on the headwaters of the Bubunawan river far above Cagayan City on Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines. We trapped small, fresh water shrimp and eels in the river which seemed to have no fish. Camote leaves and “puko,” a tender jungle fern, were our vegetables.

Many Filipino families made it possible for Americans to live to fight again though they knew the price they might pay for harboring us was death.

When I could travel again, I located a battery powered radio receiver belonging to a school teacher of Cagayan. He now taught school under The Conqueror’s flag. The schools books were censored but this schoolteacher’s mind was not. “Who needs such books?” he said. On weekends this teacher retreated to his few hectares of land in the hills. Here he had buried his receiver in defiance of the edict that all radios be turned in.

A Syrian merchant operated a small rice mill in this area. It was powered by a single cylinder diesel that now ran quite well on coconut oil. The Syrian had surrendered his radio but had retained his generator and rectifier. “They just ask for radio,” he said with merchant cunning.

Now we had news of the war. I published news bulletins but it was difficult to make them sound encouraging. It had become obvious that the deliverance of the Philippines was to take years rather than months.

While tuning the receiver dial late in 1942, I chanced upon a faint, new station calling. “Australia, calling Australia. This is a group of Americans in the Philippines. We have valuable information for you. We need ammunition and medicine…”.

Intercepting this call gave me a thrilling surge of hope. I had long dreamed of what could be done with a transmitter.

I finally learned that the station I had heard might be at Col. Fertig’s headquarters near Misamis on the far side of Iligan Bay. I heard from a guerilla courier that Col. Fertig was creating an army of resistance from the debris of defeat.

Barefoot, I set out for Misamis. On Christmas eve I attended a torch lit midnight mass in an ancient Spanish cathedral in guerilla held coastal barrio of Aloran. From the church steps a guerilla sentry watched a Nipponese patrol launch chugging in the moonlight along the outer reef. It was low tide and an expanse of water, too shallow for the launch, lay between the reef and the beach. Father Theodore Daigler of New York intoned the mass in cadence, it seemed, with the chugging launch. He gave the Gospel in the local Visayan dialect.

The patrol launch cruised the coast line daily after Christmas but by New Year’s eve I had located a Filipino fisherman who would chance the eighty kilometer crossing of Iligan Bay in his small banca when the weather outlook was better. I was impatient. The weather looked fine to me so I taunted the fisherman with, “Ikao hadluk, tingali?” (You are afraid, perhaps?). It was an unfair accusation which I fortunately lived to regret. The skipper cast a sharp glance at his crew of two and brusquely motioned me into his slender craft.

The evening breeze filled our patched, triangular mainsail and jib and the narrow dugout hull knifed out into the darkening waters leaning first on one bamboo outrigger and then on the other. The sun quickly slipped below the wave scalloped horizon. Unseen clouds shrouded the moon and stars. It was dark.

Sudden winds blasting in from the Mindanao Sea whipped mere waves into black mountains. With only the small jib flying the banca scudded down steep, watery slopes, buried half its length in the boiling trough and staggered up to the next crest only to roller coaster sickeningly down again. It was useless to bail, only the all wood construction kept us afloat. I have never ridden in a faster bath tub.

Beyond the outriggers, the ebony sky merged indistinguishably with black water. The skipper, who never relaxed at the steering oar, could divine direction only by the wind on his cheek. My concern that I would never see new year’s day, 1943, slowly turned to conjecture on where we might land. Under what flag would the beach sentries be?

In early morning darkness we shot over the boiling phosphoresence of the far side reef and dragged the banca onto wave packed sand. Then we became uneasily aware of the silent, shadowy form squatting beside the bole of a coconut palm. In the darkness we sensed rather than saw the rifle leveled at us. Sea water was still draining from my holster. What a ridiculous situation.

“Mayon Gabii” (Good evening), I said and the gun barrel raised. It was a guerilla sentry.

Before saying good-bye to the skipper and his crew I offered them my last few pesos. They refused the wet money with a shrug. They would have refused gold. “Teniente, we fight for the same cause. No need to pay,” was the skipper’s reply.

I found Col. Fertig to be a “doer”. Under his guidance the unusual became the commonplace. However, his widespread and rapidly growing underground movement had to be coordinated within and had to have the cooperation of “outside forces” if this guerilla venture was to be fully effective. A radio net was needed.

After assigning me to his transmitter station some thirty kilometers distant, Col. Fertig’s parting words were, “We must get out to Australia on that radio.”

I remembered this final statement as I slithered barefooted in the rain up the muddy carabao trail to the station.

KZOM’s young crew gave me a warm welcome and dry clothes. We were all in our early twenties. There was Konko and Johnson formerly with Cmdr. Bulkely’s “They Were Expendable” Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron.

Konko and Johnson had crewed the speedy, little PT boats which slipped Gen. Mac Arthur from Corregidor through the Nipponese Fleet to Mindanao, from whence the General flew to assume his Pacific Command in Australia. There was Bob Ball an Air Corps radio operator like myself. Lt. Almendras was KZOM’s Chief Radio Technician. Almendras, working with electronic scrap and bamboo, accomplished weird, technical things that finally made our mission possible.

And there was Mr. Opendo who had been a Philippine Bureau of Postes radio operator in peacetime. Opendo ignored the Conqueror’s edict and buried his station’s equipment. Later he reported in to Col. Fertig and offered his radio and himself to the cause.

KZOM was now off the air. A transformer had burned out and Almendras was struggling to repair it with the junk on had.

I became engrossed in a old volume of “The Amateur’s Radio Handbook” and formed an operational plan to use should we ever get the old rat’s nest of wires, tubes and bamboo fired up again. The gang accepted the plan. Everything else had been tried so why not?

On our next attempt we would use Morse Code which carries further than voice transmission. We would use a directional, long wire antenna. We would answer a specific station on its receiving frequency.

I was particularly intrigued by KFS, San Francisco, which could be heard nightly calling, “CQ, answer on 36 or 48 meters”. We received KFS best on 36 meters so that would be the frequency of our replay. Of course, KFS was using powerful equipment in contrast with our puny gear.

By the latter part of January 1943, Almendras had the radio ready to go, I still had not found the wire I needed and my simple end fed antenna hung out the window like a clothesline.

“KFS, KFS,” the tubes winked at me as I tapped out the lengthy call and repeated our own call sign. Then we listened to our receiver, as we had so many times before, and heard nothing but crackles of static. Then came “_ZOM, KZOM!”. Our call! “KZOM DE KFS,” the signal repeated. We had been heard! Suddenly the light of distant Frisco illuminated our dingy hut. The refrain, “San Francisco, open your Golden Gates…” sang through my mind. We arranged for a schedule at the same time the following night.

News gets around by rattan vines as well as grape vines and a large coil of copper wire, with which the Moros like to decorate the handles of their bolos, mysteriously appeared the next day. An eager throng of volunteer guards helped set up my directional antenna.

That night we transmitted a coded message addressed boldly to the War Department. (This was in pre-Pentagon days.) Our message stated that we were a group of Americans holding out in the Philippines, that we had valuable information and that we wanted to establish a regular schedule and secure codes. We attempted to transmit a furtive hint regarding the simple code we were using.

We never knew if our code hint was recognized but within twenty four hours the War Department received our message, deciphered it, drafted an answer in the same code and sent it to KFS for relay to us.

Col. Fertig was exuberant when he read the War Department’s reply. Recognition and material support, without which our venture was doomed, was now forthcoming. Volumes of strategic data were transmitted. Our traffic was shifted to KAZ, Gen. Mac Arthur’s station in Australia.

A U.S. submarine sneaked through to us in February, ‘43, with a small cargo of clothing, medicine and essential equipment. Large freight subs later delivered more than one hundred tons of key material each trip. They did not return empty. Non-combatants, including women and children trapped abroad by the suddenness of war, were carried out to safety. Many Americans who escaped from enemy prison camps were evacuated. Two of these were Capt. Dyess, USAAF and Capt. S. M. Mellink, U.S. Army. Bill Dyess was saved only to perish later crash landing a fighter plane. Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, proudly bares his name. Brig. Gen. Mellink would later head Air Defense training at Ft. Bliss, Texas.

A submarine ambush destroyed a Nipponese convoy northbound out of Davao, there is no victory without sorrow. Unknown to us one unmarked transport carried an estimated eight hundred American prisoners below sealed hatches. The enemy, sticking by their sinking ships, machine gunned these prisoners in the water. Little more than seventy reached the beach. We moved these emaciated survivors to a sub rendezvous area and they were soon in stateside hospitals.

I took new radio equipment to enemy occupied Zamboanga City to cover the Basilan Straits shipping lanes. Our intelligence network mushroomed. Through the collective reporting of our coastal radios, hundreds of thousands of tons of enemy shipping was war materials went to the bottom instead of to the front lines in New Guinea.

When our navy hit Truk, the Nipponese naval strength in these areas fell back through Basilan Straits. Admiral Nimitz radioed back the Navy’s “Well Done” in answer to my detailed report.

Guerilla radios pin pointed prime targets to our bombers and provided advance information regarding the weather on-target.

Our intelligence data aided in the selection of Tacloban, Leyte for the initial Philippine beachhead. The landing began early on October 20th, 1944.

When an all out Nipponese Navy pincer action imperiled this landing, guerilla coastal units assisted in setting up, in Surigao Straits, one of naval history’s most famous and economical ambushes. Little U.S. PT boats had a field day torpedoing capital ships as they crossed the “T”.

The jaws of the pincer action were shattered, Tacloban was secured and island by island the flag of “The Land of The Morning” replaced “The Rising Sun.”

Ragged and gaunt Filamerican Guerillas had done their share in turning initial defeat into final victory. But it should never be forgotten that with the Filamerican Guerillas stood the equally ragged and gaunt Filipino civilians. Without their support we could never have been more than foxes running before the hounds.

THE END