Letter from General Joe Swing

On Christmas Eve, 1944 General Joseph M. Swing composed a letter to his father-in-law, General Peyton C. March to sum up the actions of the 11th Airborne Division on Leyte. Random House has granted me permission to reprint this letter originally published in “THE ANGELS: A History of the 11th Airborne Division,” by E.M. Flanagan Jr. (received from Mrs. Mary Anne Fullilove, nee Swing) and published by Presidio Press. I thank you.

General Joseph M. Swing, on the reverse side of the photo, dad wrote: My General

General Joseph M. Swing, on the reverse side of the photo, dad wrote: My General

Dear General,
Am just back from a few days in the mountains, as a matter of fact I’ve walked clean across this d____ island and it wasn’t the most pleasant jaunt I ever took. Wish you could see these young men of mine fight. It would do your heart good to see the calm joyful manner in which they kill the rats. I really believe this is the first time the Japs have run against American troops that never stop coming. It has been the custom in this so called jungle warfare for troops to start “holing up” an hour or more before sundown and form their so-called perimeter from which they never venture forth until after cooking individual breakfast at daylight – taking an hour to do so. As a result, the Japs bivouac at their ease, have scouts watch the formation of the perimeter and then heckle our troops all night. We changed that – made my troops keep going until dark, then dig in so the Japs don’t know where we are located and finally got them to the point where they would start out just before the crack of dawn without breakfast. As a result, we’ve killed about twice as many Japs in proportion to our own casualties as had any other division. The last day, the 22d, when we busted out of the hills to where the 7th Division was sitting on the beach – the dawn attack caught 300 Japs sleeping outside their foxholes and we slaughtered them there with bayonet, knife and hand grenades. From then on it was a field day – had four battalions in column. As fast as one showed the least sign of tiring, sent the next one thru and by noon, we had done 4,000 yards – took a break for breakfast and at 1430, we were on the beach and the 7th Division bivouac. Counted approximately 750 dead Japs and didn’t go down the cliffs where many of them rolled off – captured two mountain howitzers, 1000 rounds of ammunition, 16 light machine guns, seven heavies, and the Japs left engineer, signal and medical supplies and many split-toed shoes along the trail. Have told the Corps commander if he wants to walk from Burauen air fields to Ormoc beach all he has to do is put a clothes pin on his nose and let a man with a strong stomach guide him.

General Peyton C. March

General Peyton C. March

Our identification shows that we cleaned out the 16th and 26th Division completely. The two had consolidated in the Mt. Mahonag region and initiated the attack on the airfields in conjunction with the paratrooper attack of Dec. 6th. Have killed the Chief of Staff of the 16th Division and most of the staff of both divisions but unable to locate the two commanding generals. Prisoners of war say they were replaced by new commanders but believe they were evacuated by air. Of course the devils bury their officers and booby trap their bodies so we’ll never know.

Am taking a week to evacuate to the beach and reequip for an airborne operation, but as I told you some time ago the staff is a pain in the neck to me so far as having little imagination. Afraid they can’t supply us once we’re in and we have practically supplied ourselves with cub planes for over a month in the mountains. Come under Eichelberger’s command on the 26th. He has already sent word he wants to see me about an airborne operation, so maybe we’ll have a chance to do our stuff. You probably surmised the orthodox manner in which they will attack Luzon. Have a spot picked out south of Manila that would give the so and so’s fits if I can convince the powers to land me there. Xmas greetings,
Sincerely,
Joe

Everett "Smitty" Smith at Camp MacKall, N.C.

Everett “Smitty” Smith at Camp MacKall, N.C.

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General Peyton C. March (12/27/1864 – 4/13/1955) is known to World War I enthusiasts as the commander of the United States First Army. Also, then as Army Chief of Staff, he created additional branches, one being the U.S. Army Air Corps.
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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on March 14, 2013, in Letters home, Uncategorized, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 44 Comments.

  1. Another reminder that war is hell. I agree with Pierre that those men must have had many nightmares but I knew a number of them who came home and went back to work without a backward look. The seemed to fare much better than those today who are being (rehabilitated) by so-called counselors.

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  2. I can’t begin to comprehend what soldiers had to endure not only during the war but for their lifetime. A heavy burden to carry. God bless them.

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  3. This description says so much “put a clothes pin on his nose, and let a man with a strong stomach guide him. It really knocks all the senses and conveys the outcomes of battle. Really an historic document that you were able to share with us.

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  4. I wonder what the reaction to a similar letter would be these days?

    Although, I’ve heard recordings and read things from the current conflict in the Middle East, and while not from commanding officers, it seems to echo the tone and attitude of the above letter.

    I imagine if one is put in a situation where one is expected to shoot the enemy, it helps to think of them in those terms to begin with.

    Powerful stuff. Thanks.

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    • We all know what the reaction would be. Let’s not kid ourselves, today’s Army (since Viet Nam) have had to tread lightly and be politically correct.

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    • More to the point is that if you know someone is looking for an opportunity to kill you, you are quite naturally going to dislike them quite intensely. When you are in a situation of kill or be killed you are going to feel impelled to kill.

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      • That is surely how My reactions would go.

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      • I am reasonably certain I could do it rather dispassionately.

        This does not seem like it. From my readings, this was in part due to the obvious (they are trying to kill us, so we kill them), but also the common practice of depicting enemies as less than human; little more than animals. Speaking to some WW II vets, that mistrust, that core belief never quite went away.

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        • Many people, soldiers, police officers, etc. need to disassociate themselves from someone they need to kill – if for no other reason than to keep their sanity. Just as in – everyone handles death differently, so does the killing. A person has to do whatever gets him thru the day (and especially the nights).

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          • Yes and no . . . what would your reaction be to reading about Japanese soldiers catching 300 American soldiers napping outside their foxholes, and slaughtering them with knives and bayonets?

            Let me make it clear I am not passing judgment, but I have to believe at least a few of the 300 Japanese, caught by surprise, tried to surrender. I did not read of any prisoners. And why knives and bayonets? Doesn’t that put soldiers at risk?

            Again, I will repeat that I am not judging, but I can’t help think, by the casual tone of it, that it was not something out of the ordinary.

            I know the argument will be “Yeah, but the Japs did the same and worse” but we condemned them for it, and called them inhumane monsters.

            Anyway, I don’t mean to detract from the letter itself. It was war. War, by definition, is brutal, and whether people are killed by bombs, guns, or knives, they are still dead.

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            • I am merely reporting on what occurred, not cheering or condemning the events. I do not pass judgement on either side. Actually sometimes I find I am very sympathetic to the Japanese, but then have to put myself in check there as well. The Nisei translators worked very hard at getting what info they could from what prisoners they had, but the Japanese, in the majority, would rather commit suicide or die a warrior’s death than surrender. As far as why they were down to using their bayonets, I can not say, except I suppose it was necessary.

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              • Pierre Lagacé

                The use of knives and bayonets was probably to avoid the noise of firearms and to awake the Japanese soldiers.
                That’s my explanation.

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                • And you are probably correct. Thanks for jumping in.

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                • I think the hand grenades might have waken them. The unsettling thing to consider is that the knives and bayonets might have been “finishing” tools.

                  I’ll stress one more time I am not looking to condemn anyone’s actions in times of war; merely pointing out a particular mind-frame, and how it might look to us if the roles were reversed, as indeed similar actions by the Japanese are always described as atrocities.

                  As mind-frames go, they are difficult to comprehend unless one is in the midst of the action.

                  Probably the same mind-frame that helped make the decision to drop two atom bombs on civilian populations. One does not consider women and children if one does not see them as persons to begin with.

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                  • It will be very interesting to hear your comments after tomorrow’s post, hang on to your blood pressure.

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                    • You might be misunderstanding my emotional involvement in all this.

                      Other than historical curiosity, there’s nothing about what happened 70 years ago that would cause me to get emotionally invested, let alone raise my blood pressure.

                      History holds lessons, but I don’t think it’s meant to be relived, and certainly not judged. Indeed, we are essentially incapable of understanding even our contemporaries whose experiences differ from our own.

                      Just look at the current political climate in the US, and how where one lives ends up shaping one’s political views. Go back 70 years, and we might as well be talking about aliens. Even the people who lived through it are no longer the same people.

                      So, I look forward to tomorrow’s post as informative and interesting, and as a glimpse at a time and people that went through what many would agree indirectly shaped our own lives.

                      I’ll probably refrain from commenting, as it uses up a fair amount of time on just attempting to clarify misconceptions.

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                    • I apologize if I misunderstood your remarks. I certainly do not wish to alienate any of my readers. Frankly, I do not even like politics, but it is part of the story. I happen to feel that all history directly affects the lives of each generation after.

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                    • No apology necessary, and I don’t feel alienated.

                      The comment about commenting is more a reflection of my personality. I tend to get involved in discussions, and before I know it I spent too much time on them.

                      As for politics, not sure what it has to do with the events described in the letter. I only mentioned politics as an example of the inability we have, as humans, to see things in a light different than what we are familiar with.

                      Not having lived through it, we can no more understand the actions of individuals in WW II, than we can of individuals during the Civil War, or any historical conflict, and that includes both justifying or condemning said actions.

                      Looking forward to your posts.

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                    • Very true, looking forward to future posts of yours and comments here.

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        • Pierre Lagacé

          I posted this about a television series.

          http://athabaskang07.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/love-hate-and-propaganda/

          Six episodes that explained how propaganda worked.

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  5. What an incredible “FIND”. You’re attention to detail and your research may have caught their attention. Nicely done.

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  6. Pierre Lagacé

    I can only imagine the recuring nightmares soldiers had after the war reliving these horrible scenes. General Swing’s ways with words can only illustrate how the soldiers came to hate the Japanese. This is why veterans don’t talk much about the war they were in like my wife’s uncle even though he never fought in close combat.

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    • Being as they knew nothing of what caused Japan to attack Pearl Harbor, I suppose it would be natural for them to utterly despise the enemy. I was very proud of what my father said on New Guinea when he walked thru the Japanese cemetery. “What a waste.”

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  7. Pierre Lagacé

    A reblogué ceci sur Lest We Forget and commented:
    Letter from General Joe Swing to his father-in-law

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  8. Pierre Lagacé

    Quite a letter… The language used brings us back to the atmosphere of that period.

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  9. Wow! Not many of us get to write a dear Dad letter like that. Thanks for getting permission to publish this extraordinary letter.

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