By Maria E. Garcia
Editor Note: This is part 2 of the 4 part series “Brother Martin: From Logan Heights to a Trappist Abbey”
Brother Martin remembers that Australia of 1943 looked like America of the 1920s. He was assigned to the 1st Calvary Division in a camp located near a suburb called Strapfine. He was an assistant to the “BAR Man.” (BAR stands for Browning Automatic Rifle, which was a big gun which fired 20-round clips with 30-caliber ammunition.) The BAR Man, Dick Chase, was an Episcopalian from Minnesota. He says they had some interesting discussions about their two faiths.
He celebrated his nineteenth birthday on an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) going from Australia to Oro Bay, New Guinea, on the way to a planned invasion of the Admiralty Islands. The Army had made the initial landing on Negros Island, and, after a few days of fighting, had a good hold on the island. His troop, the 12th Calvary Division, was to clear the remainder of the island.
On March 17, 1944, Brother Martin and the rest of the troop encountered the enemy. It was a shootout and Dick Chase, his BAR Man, was shot, so Brother Martin took over the BAR. Dick Chase was about 6’1” and weighed about 225. Brother Martin weighed about 145 pounds and had never fired the BAR before, but he quickly learned what he had to do.
After pulling Dick Chase’s body away from the gun, Brother Martin covered the retreat by firing the BAR over and over again. Several men were wounded in their first shootout with the Japanese. Later, Brother Martin would receive a Silver Star for this action. Even today he says he did not feel heroic. He says he had an advantage because he was short.
He would hold the gun over his head and shoot wildly while being protected by whatever barricade they had. He says he would shoot even without knowing where his target was. He adds that the tall guys would stand up and get shot because their heads were above the barricade. Sadly, Dick Chase died on a ship headed to the hospital in New Guinea.
During the retreat from the Japanese, he remembers a rifleman named Makalasian yelling, “We better get out of here.” They returned slowly to the beachhead and jumped in a foxhole. He was more than surprised to find that additional help had arrived while they were in action.
He describes the replacements as Fred Simon, a nineteen-year-old, skinny boy from Kansas and Rodney Smith, a 38-year-old from San Diego. Rodney became his assistant BAR Man for the rest of the Negros Island Campaign, which ended in late May, 1944.
After the Negros Island Campaign, Brother Martin became a scout. He was happy to get rid of the BAR, which he says should be carried by a bigger man. They had four months to prepare for an invasion of the Philippines. During that preparation, he had the opportunity to regain his love for sports. The Army had a softball tournament, in which his team lost. They also held an amateur boxing tournament, and he had been told by his first sergeant that he was to represent his troop.
Brother Martin had learned his boxing skills at Boy Scout meetings at Our Lady of Guadalupe, and he felt good about his chances. He had sparred with Eddie “Kid” Najera and had defeated Gabe Nava, among others, with K.O. punches. In the end, Brother Martin won the 145-pound championship.
The first and second place champions were promised a month leave in Australia, which had to be canceled because the invasion of the Philippines was so close. Instead, the twelve winners of their weight classes were placed on a Navy destroyer for two weeks. They assigned two boxers to each destroyer. Brother Martin was assigned to the U.S.S. Hutchins, which was part of the Seventh Fleet.
He says the sailors treated them like kings and there was “great food.” Those two weeks were spent looking for Japanese barges. The ship was blacked out at night and he said that “after those two weeks, he knew he was not cut out to be a sailor.” But he also described it as “quite an experience.”
During this period, he began to have many dreams of his “sweet Logan Heights.” These dreams contributed to his continuing homesickness. It got so bad that he did not want to dream at night.
In October they were loaded onto a Navy transport and were told they were going to an invasion. After several days at sea, the division was told that they would be landing on Leyte Island. They were shown maps of where they would land and were told that they would be the first wave. The night before they landed, Brother Martin’s thoughts were of San Diego, focused on family and friends. While walking up the stairs of the Navy transport, he says God sent him a gift. At the top of the stairs he spotted Ralph “Fachi” Castillo.
Ralph was considered one of the greatest basketball players at the Neighborhood House in his community of Logan Heights. For the next few hours they reminisced over a few cans of beer about their hometown. Ralph called Brother Martin “Red,” the nickname used by the people that knew him from the neighborhood. They sat and talked in Ralph’s sleeping quarters until they realized they needed to get some sleep.
Both men were “so hungry” and kept remembering the best food from their childhoods. Fred, a German American from Kansas, remembered a corn dish his mother used to make and Brother Martin kept thinking about his mother’s refried beans and tortillas.
Ralph was a coxswain, a skipper who talked to the many barges that were transporting the men to the beach. Ralph was scheduled to go back to San Diego on leave right after the invasion. Brother Martin gave Ralph a list of family and friends that he wanted Ralph to visit. One person he asked Ralph to look up was Alice, who Ralph had also gone to school with. The next morning, Brother Martin waved goodbye to Ralph from the barge heading for the beach.
The landing zone on Leyte Island was huge, probably several miles long to accommodate the number of barges trying to get onto the beach. They were greeted by some small arms fire, but the good part was that it resulted in very few casualties. The troops moved through the rice paddies, which was a very slow process in the heavy rain. Since this was before the regular use of helicopters, supplies had to come in via a Filipino supply train.
Word was that the supply train was coming with a turkey dinner to celebrate Thanksgiving, so American troops, including Brother Martin, went to meet it in order to offload. As the troops headed back to camp with the turkey dinner, they were met by a group of Japanese soldiers. Brother Martin says they did the only right thing: they dropped the turkeys and ran.
Part of the American invasion ended up cornered on a ridge and had to fight its way out. Supplies ran out and the only choice they had was to engage. Brother Martin found his former assistant BAR Man Fred Simon there, and they renewed their friendship. Both men were “so hungry” and kept remembering the best food from their childhoods. Fred, a German American from Kansas, remembered a corn dish his mother used to make and Brother Martin kept thinking about his mother’s refried beans and tortillas. They later referred to their location as “Starvation Ridge.”
Orders came from superiors to take Starvation Ridge at all costs, and after three different attempts, the Americans were successful. Three-men foxholes were standard at night; two men would sleep while one stood guard. Brother Martin says he remembers praying a lot, especially as he thought about the attack the morning would bring.
The hope was to catch the enemy in their own foxholes and catch them off guard, so American troops would have to slowly crawl along the ground to find each enemy emplacement. Once a foxhole was found, the Americans began firing at close range before the enemy could reach their machine guns. It was a slow process, but victory was achieved at Starvation Ridge.
The fighting continued and his regiment would move close to Manila. Brother Martin spent his twentieth birthday somewhere near the Manila Hotel. They had liberated prisoners of war who had been held in Santo Tomas Prison. It was here that Brother Martin had his closest call.
The captain informed him he would be receiving the Silver Star the following day. Brother Martin said there had been so much fighting and so many battles that he had forgotten his accomplishments from previous months.
The troop’s destination was the Pasig River. A few miles from the river, the unit was hit with an artillery shell. Several men were killed and many were wounded. The explosion was so close to Brother Martin that he says it felt like someone had picked him up and then slammed him down on the ground. It reminded him of his old wrestling days. He thinks he was in a slight state of shock as he looked around and saw some dead and other bodies bloody from their wounds. He was fortunate to only have a few scratches.
During our interview at the abbey, he spoke of receiving the Silver Star for his bravery in action. He said months had passed since he had taken over the BAR on Negros Island. One particular day, his captain told him, “You better dress up tomorrow,” and his response was “Why?” The captain informed him he would be receiving the Silver Star the following day. Brother Martin said there had been so much fighting and so many battles that he had forgotten his accomplishments from previous months.
The American troops continued fighting throughout the Philippines. He says at times the Japanese had hidden their artillery in caves which kept them safe from American artillery. At one point, Brother Martin’s unit came upon a celebration in a small Filipino province that made him remember Logan Heights. The Latino community there celebrated May devotions by having a procession including young girls bringing flowers to the Blessed Mother. His mind went back to his beloved church Our Lady of Guadalupe and the many processions he had witnessed there.
The division settled down in the town of Lucena, where they trained for an invasion of Japan. They prepared for what they believed would be the final battle of the Pacific war. Brother Martin was scheduled to be on the first wave carrying a flamethrower. Morale was low as they hoped for the best and feared the worst.
Brother Martin says that after seeing the innocent faces of the Japanese children, he knew he hated war. Like most Americans, he believed World War II was the war to end all wars.
Then, on August 15, 1945, he heard on the radio that the Japanese had surrendered. Brother Martin describes this as the happiest day of his life. Soon after, he was sent to Japan. The morning that General MacArthur was aboard the U.S.S. Missouri receiving the signed surrender papers, Brother Martin was present. There was an air show, and he says that even today he gets goose pimples remembering the many planes that he saw in the air.
When they unloaded in Yokohama, the American troops marched to the U.S. Embassy. On their march they saw Japanese soldiers lining both sides of the street. The soldiers carried swords and stood at parade rest, their eyes cast downward. He describes it as an awful moment filled with sorrow and joy. The sorrow came from the Japanese for their loss and the joy came from the Americans for their victory. Brother Martin says that after seeing the innocent faces of the Japanese children, he knew he hated war. Like most Americans, he believed World War II was the war to end all wars. Today he speaks of the sadness he feels when he sees all the fighting and wars all over the world.
After remaining in Japan for a month, he was fortunate enough to be part of the first group from the division to return home. Friends that had shared foxholes, meals, and victories with him were now going their separate ways. He and Fred Simons said goodbye in San Francisco. Neither of them knew it would be more than fifty years before they saw each other again. In 1998, Mr. Simon and his wife came to the abbey to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Editor note: Tomorrow, Part 3 of Brother Martin’s Journey: After the War, the War Within