Commentary

Excerpt from ‘Rock Force’ on the retaking of Corregidor during World War II

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said this about soldiers:

“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”

Pvt. Lloyd McCarter was the one during the 1945 assault on Corregidor.

In this excerpt from Kevin Maurer’s 2020 book “Rock Force,” we meet McCarter as he and the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment prepare for the airborne assault in February 1945. During the mission, McCarter was awarded the Medal of Honor after he was wounded stopping a Japanese Banzai charge.

"Rock Force: The American Paratroopers Who Took Back Corregidor and Exacted MacArther's Revenge on Japan" by Kevin Maurer

Chapter 3 (abridged): To the Colors

The day before the jump, the stockade was emptied. Most of the paratroopers being held for various charges were shuttled off to help with the loading and unloading of transports. They’d do the work others didn’t want to do.

But not Pvt. Lloyd G. McCarter.

Lieutenant Calhoun went down himself to get McCarter, a former squad leader and scout in first platoon. Calhoun had handpicked him to be the platoon’s eyes and ears in New Guinea almost a year before, and despite the private’s current stay behind bars, Calhoun was not going into combat without him.

The two best riflemen in each squad were usually chosen as scouts, but Calhoun’s scouts rotated home soon after he took command of his platoon in New Guinea. He went searching for new candidates from a group of replacements who arrived in May 1944. Calhoun was looking through the replacement paratroopers’ records when he stumbled upon McCarter’s file.

McCarter was considered an old man in the platoon at the age of twenty-four. He was two years older than Calhoun. But his practical experience stood out. He had worked as a lumberjack in Idaho and Washington before joining the military. Calhoun needed someone familiar with working outdoors, but who was also dedicated to the job. It wasn’t easy being the guy in front. Not only was he facing down any potential ambush, but he also had the platoon’s life in his hands. Miss a sniper or booby trap, and one of his buddies could be wounded or, worse, killed. What stood out to Calhoun was McCarter’s sacrifices in order to join the paratroopers. McCarter had started in the artillery but gave up his sergeant stripes when he volunteered for airborne school.

Calhoun found McCarter in a tent with the other replacements. He was short — only about five feet six inches tall — but had a barrel chest and thick, muscular forearms. Calhoun pulled him aside and pitched him the scout job. McCarter was skeptical.

“I don’t have any infantry training, sir,” McCarter said.

That didn’t bother Calhoun. He knew he could teach him tactics, and besides, with no experience McCarter hadn’t developed any bad habits to overcome. But first he needed to know that McCarter could handle a different kind of weapon from what he’d fired in basic training. Scouts carried the Thompson submachine gun, a weapon unfamiliar to McCarter. Invented by John T. Thompson in 1918, the submachine gun was the weapon of choice for gangsters during the Prohibition era. During World War II, it was also popular with paratroopers, rangers, and commandos because of its large .45 caliber cartridge and fully automatic fire.

“I’ve never fired a Thompson,” McCarter told Calhoun when he asked about the submachine gun.

Calhoun called over one of the platoon’s sergeants and told him to get a Thompson and take McCarter into the jungle with several magazines to show him how to operate the weapon. Paratroopers were trained to fire it from the hip, but after missing the target with the first magazine, McCarter turned the submachine gun on its side with the buttstock lying flat on his muscular forearm. The platoon sergeant watched as he fired several deadly accurate bursts into the target. It was unorthodox, but it worked for him and he was lethal. An hour later, the sergeant came back to Calhoun’s tent with a smile. McCarter, he reported, was a natural.

Calhoun sent McCarter up to regiment. The 503rd was about to start jungle training, and regiment mustered all the scouts to run through a final test before the training course. The test was designed to check the scout’s ability to pick out enemy positions along a jungle trail. Once spotted, the scouts opened fire on steel targets set up nearby. As McCarter and his partner entered the course, General Krueger, the Sixth Army commander who would later order the 503rd to attack Corregidor, arrived with Colonel Jones. The general was on an inspection tour and wanted to follow McCarter on the test course.

McCarter moved out, skipping on the balls of his feet in a peculiar, easy lope. The first target, a machine-gun emplacement, was in the V of two streams. The stream banks were fifteen feet high. The gunner was sitting beside the machine gun with his feet in a foxhole waiting for the scouts to come up the path.

McCarter spotted the gunner first, and arriving faster than expected, opened fire, hitting the target silhouette near the gun. One of the slugs from the Thompson submachine gun just missed the gunner and struck the bolt handle on the machine gun. The startled gunner scrambled into the foxhole unharmed, but shaken. The exercise was paused and the instructors ordered the rest of the gunners into their foxholes. Only then was McCarter allowed to continue his easy lope, mowing down the targets one after another. When it was over, Krueger left impressed and Calhoun had his lead scout.

Calhoun’s confidence in McCarter soon paid off. The private was a natural. He demonstrated over and over again that if he couldn’t see the enemy, he heard them, and if he didn’t hear them, he smelled them. The guy had a bloodhound’s nose. When the paratroopers ran into Japanese soldiers on other patrols, McCarter often laughed and shouted insults as he attacked.

In the jungle of Noemfoor in July 1944, McCarter was leading a platoon down a trail surrounded by thick brush when a Japanese voice called out, challenging them. The platoon stopped in their tracks. McCarter, scanning the tangled jungle ahead, answered the Japanese call in a sharp “Ho.” The Japanese soldier challenged McCarter again. McCarter cocked his head and zeroed in on the sound. He skipped forward on the trail’s coral outcroppings like a ballet dancer as he charged ahead. Calhoun and the rest of the platoon picked up the pace just to keep up as McCarter heard another challenge from the Japanese sentry. He called back with the same sharp “Ho.” The Japanese answered with a burst from a machine gun. The rounds shot down the trail. McCarter opened fire with his Thompson and charged forward on the balls of his feet.

Calhoun was third in line. He heard the staccato bursts of gunfire as McCarter charged forward. When Calhoun got to the front of the platoon, he found four dead Japanese soldiers with a Nambu light machine gun in a fighting hole overlooking the trail. Even with the threat now neutralized, McCarter was still ramped up and excited. The fighting energized him. He seemed more alive, Calhoun thought.

Cool under fire and fearless, McCarter’s torment came during the downtime. He was more comfortable in the field than garrisoned in a camp. That was like being in a prison to him, which led to his fearsome reputation for being reckless and for brawling with anyone who challenged him when the regiment was in Australia and New Guinea.

After the Noemfoor operation, Calhoun named McCarter a squad leader, but the promotion only lasted a few days. As the paratroopers waited for their next mission, McCarter disappeared. Rumors spread that he had made it to New Guinea, where he was fighting alongside some Australian units. That was never confirmed. But when orders came down that the 503rd was to attack Corregidor, McCarter reemerged on Mindoro, turning himself in to the military police. He wanted to go on the mission to Corregidor.

When Calhoun arrived at the stockade, McCarter was all apologies.

“I’m sorry,” McCarter told Calhoun outside, after the military released him. “I’m sorry for the trouble I caused.”

Calhoun brushed off the apology.

“It’s no trouble,” Calhoun said.

When they got back to the platoon, Calhoun put McCarter in third squad and returned him to his scout role. With the pending operation, he knew McCarter would be present and ready.

Plus, there was no way he was going into combat without McCarter’s eyes and ears.

An aerial photograph of the rocky island of Corregidor, home to the underground headquarters of Fort Mills. This view from the east, taken Jan. 1, 1941, shows the narrow peninsula on which Japanese invasion forces landed. (Army)
An aerial photograph of the rocky island of Corregidor, home to the underground headquarters of Fort Mills. This view from the east, taken Jan. 1, 1941, shows the narrow peninsula on which Japanese invasion forces landed. (Army)

Scanning his men, Calhoun spotted George Mikel preparing his gear. Mikel, a former staff sergeant, had approached Calhoun a few days earlier with a peculiar request. Mikel was set to rotate back to the United States but refused because he wanted to stay in F Company. It was his home, he told Calhoun.

But Calhoun also knew Mikel had an unusual problem, because like every officer, Calhoun was forced to read and censor mail sent from his unit. Calhoun hated the job. But having read Mikel’s mail, he knew the paratrooper had gotten an Australian woman pregnant and married her in Gordonvale without permission of the Army commanding general.

The problem was the Army didn’t recognize Mikel’s wife as next of kin. In the eyes of the military, his next of kin was his sister, Rose Caya of Lynxville, Wisconsin. So, Mikel didn’t want to go home because he was doing whatever he could to send money back to his pregnant wife in Australia.

Keeping his jump pay was paramount.

“If I become a private, will you take me into your platoon?” he asked.

Calhoun didn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” he said.

Mikel was a talented mortarman and excellent soldier. Calhoun didn’t have an assistant platoon leader since Ball had left to take over the E Company’s mortar platoon, so adding Mikel would give him an extra leader, even if he was a private.

With Calhoun on board, Mikel went to Bailey and asked him to reduce his rank and assign him to first platoon. Bailey refused. He couldn’t do it without a reason. Undeterred, Mikel left camp for three days without authorization. When he returned and turned himself in, Calhoun approved his transfer to first platoon as a private. Calhoun made Mikel an extra runner, joining Pvt. Edward Thompson.

Calhoun had a high tolerance for men like McCarter and Mikel, who to most professional soldiers were troublemakers, because his path to the Army wasn’t much different from theirs. He was an officer, but he hadn’t graduated from West Point like Colonel Jones. Calhoun started at the bottom and worked his way into command, volunteering first for the Army and then for any job that put him in harm’s way.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, this gun crew, part of a parachute artillery unit which dropped on the fortress island of Corregidor, is firing point-blank at a cave which the Japanese took over, March 3, 1945. (U.S. Army Signal Corps via AP)
In this photo provided by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, this gun crew, part of a parachute artillery unit which dropped on the fortress island of Corregidor, is firing point-blank at a cave which the Japanese took over, March 3, 1945. (U.S. Army Signal Corps via AP)

Born in Columbia, Mississippi, in 1922, Calhoun was the oldest of four kids — one sister, two brothers — who often looked after his younger siblings as his family moved from Maryland to Texas with stops in between. Calhoun’s father, a Methodist preacher, used to run around on Calhoun’s mother. The family would get settled in a town, only to have his father’s extramarital affairs spoil everything.

They finally settled down long enough in Texas for Calhoun to graduate from De Leon High School in Waco in 1938. Right after high school, Calhoun joined the Texas National Guard and worked as a wildcatter, drilling for oil in Comanche County. In 1940, with no money or steady job, Calhoun marched into the recruiting office on Barksdale Field in Louisiana, and joined the Army Air Corps. He was eighteen years old.

Calhoun wanted to be a pilot, or at least a gunner. Like many other aspiring pilots, he discovered that his color vision wasn’t as good as he thought it was. So the Army sent him to aircraft armament school in Denver, Colorado, instead. When he got back to Barksdale Field, he was bored. There wasn’t much to do and he didn’t want to work on planes. He wanted to be in a combat squadron. He was coming off guard duty in December 1941 when he heard the news that Pearl Harbor was attacked. At dinner, he and his squadron mates listened to the radio reports about the aftermath. After dinner, they had a company formation. The commanders issued passes so the soldiers could go into town. Calhoun was told to wear his civilian clothes and have a good time, because it would be a long time before they’d wear them again.

The United States was at war.

But Calhoun didn’t intend to spend the war at a Gulf Coast training command post. He and four of his friends volunteered for everything until they saw a notice for the Airborne. The Army needed volunteers for parachute school at Fort Benning. Volunteering came with immediate orders and a fifty-dollar bonus. Jump pay was all the incentive most of the men needed.

Calhoun was a corporal, but when he transferred out of the Air Corps, his rank was reduced to private. After parachute school, he was assigned to Company B of the 502nd Parachute Infantry, part of the new 101st Airborne Division, before earning a commission at Fort Benning’s Officer Candidate School and getting assigned to the 503rd. The training was hard, and every one of his men volunteered for the dangerous duty. But by pinning on jump wings, Calhoun knew he’d be fighting alongside men as determined as he was. He was a paratrooper now, a cut above. He would never let his men down.

The day before the jump, fifty-six C-47s thundered above the 503rd’s camp as they arrived at Hill and Elmore Airstrips, both built by the Australian construction crews Calhoun and his men had protected when they arrived on Mindoro. Later that day, Colonel Jones assembled the whole 503rd on the parade field in the late afternoon for a final formation before the mission. The paratroopers, dressed in coveralls, web belts, and jump boots, came to attention.

“At ease,” Jones said, standing in front of the formation.

He took out a sheet of paper and read some brief comments sent from General MacArthur. It had been less than three years since MacArthur had escaped Corregidor under the cloak of darkness, then was whisked away to Australia, where he delivered his famous promise. “The President of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines and proceed from Corregidor to Australia for the purpose, as I understand it, of organizing the American offensive against Japan, a primary objective of which is the relief of the Philippines,” he said at the time. “I came through and I shall return.” In October 1944, he had indeed returned, wading ashore on the island of Leyte following the American invasion. But the job wasn’t done until he liberated every island and the capital city of Manila.

Standing in front of his men, Colonel Jones gave the order to retreat.

“To the Colors.”

All that was left to do was jump.

Most of the paratroopers slept outside that night. Calhoun sat on his cot, thinking about the small landing zone and the possibility of strong winds pushing his men into the sea. He’d studied the aerial photographs. The bombardments had made the drop zone treacherous. Spearlike steel reinforcing rods from the concrete rubble and broken tree trunks jutted into the sky, ready to impale an unlucky paratrooper. The tunnels underneath the island were packed with explosives and gunpowder for the coastal batteries, making the whole island a bomb.

That night, Calhoun didn’t pray for his safety. He prayed for his men, and for his own strength to lead them well. Somehow going into harm’s way was preferable to boredom. They’d traveled around the world, thousands of miles from home, and the only way back was to finish the job by taking Tokyo and defeating Japan.

Corregidor was the next step.

From “Rock Force: The American Paratroopers Who Took Back Corregidor and Exacted MacArthur’s Revenge on Japan” by Kevin Maurer, published by Dutton Caliber, an imprint of The Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Kevin Maurer.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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