A couple of months after our son Jimmy died and a week or so before I got ‘the call’ from Emily Sue Buckberry, we were having dinner with our daughter, Brittany. She told Hilary and me that over the last year Jimmy had become very interested—actually, “obsessed” was the word she used—in finding out more about my father, his grandfather3. She said Jimmy spent a lot of time in our attic pouring through my mother’s scrapbooks we store for her looking for things about my dad. I couldn’t remember the last time I was up there. After Brittany went home, I went up to the attic and there on a small table, where Jimmy liked to write, was a large stack of photographs of my father and his family and over fifty letters he had written to his folks and my mother during World War II. I was stunned. Why had my son become so curious about a man he’d never met? Why hadn’t Jimmy asked me about my Dad? I knew the answer to that, of course. That was a topic I was very adept at avoiding. I left the piles on the table and came back downstairs.
A couple of months after I got The Letter, I returned to the attic and began to sift through the bits and pieces of information Jimmy had set aside. For me? In addition to the letters and photographs, I found three exquisite, pale blue, leather boxes which contained medals and the commendations which accompanied the Legion of Merit and two Bronze Stars awarded my father for heroic achievement and valor on the battlefield during World War II. From the commendations I was able to identify the battles my father and the Army’s 145th Infantry Division fought in the South Pacific and, through the Internet, was led to several enlightening books and articles describing in great detail the 145th’s campaigns.
As I plunged into my father’s formative years, I began to more fully understand some of the things he wrote about in The Letter. I discovered things about my father and his life I had never known. But then again it’s hard to learn anything when you run away from the truth. I learned that the 145th fought for two solid years in some of the most horrific battles of World War II’s Pacific Theatre. I learned my father was a hero and a natural leader of men. I learned he loved fighting. I learned that the things that happened to him, were done to him and that he did to others during the first 25 years of his life, and in particular his two years in the South Pacific, no one should have to experience.
I want to thank once again my mother, Barbara, who is 90, and her kid brother, Stan, only 82, for permitting me to subject them to countless hours of interviews to gather these insights into my father’s life and for going back and reliving the past—a lot of it good, some not. I also want to thank Patti Lambright Kluck from Athens, Texas, the keeper of all things known about the Gauntt clan, for assembling and sharing the family histories and photographs. I also want to acknowledge Rick Tischler, a fellow son of a soldier in the 145th whose father also received a Bronze Star for heroism on Mount Pacawagan in the Philippines, for compiling and sharing the histories of the 145th’s actions in the Pacific Theatre.
I am deeply grateful to my son, Jimmy, for beginning the search and showing me the path to my father. I am immensely proud of and honored to introduce you to Grover Cleveland Gauntt, Jr.–my father.
All love, Casey
Grover C. Gauntt, Jr.
By: Casey Gauntt
My father, Grover Cleveland Gauntt, Jr., was born September 22, 1919, in Fort Worth, Texas.
He was the only son of Grover Cleveland (“Bud”) Gauntt who was born August 12, 1888 in New York, Texas, which is about ten miles east of Athens in Henderson County and one hundred miles southeast of Fort Worth. Bud got a kick out of telling people he was born in New York and lived in Athens. Bud likewise was the only son of John Randolph (“Bob”) Gauntt and Nannie Zelda Curtis. Bob was slender and, for those days, a very tall six feet three inches. His nickname was “Daddy Grande.” We kids called his son Bud “Grand Daddy.” Bud had six sisters. The youngest, Lucy Jane, was born in 1905 and died of diphtheria in 1909.
Grand Daddy Bud moved to Fort Worth in 1904 when he was sixteen and went to work at the H. C. Meacham Department Store. He started at the wrapping counter and worked his way up to manager and part owner specializing in women’s ready-to-wear clothing. Bud married Frances Imogene Brooks in June of 1913. Bud’s and Frances’ two oldest daughters, Imogene (Didge) Brooks and Mary Jane, and their younger brother, my dad, were all born in Fort Worth.
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In 1923 Bud moved the family to Oklahoma City where he became a partner in another women’s ready-to-wear store. The store went out of business one year later and they moved west to Glendale, California where Bud went to work for Webb’s Department Store in the women’s apparel department. Their youngest child, Anna Louise, was born the following year in 1925.
“My thought process has been prejudiced by a depression in my youth
and insecurity, by a religious mother who I could not reason with…”
In 1933, Didge and Anna Louise were stricken with diphtheria, a highly contagious, and once very deadly, disease that strikes the upper respiratory system and leads to the progressive deterioration of the central nervous system. In the 1920s, about thirty thousand people died each year from the disease. Children were most at risk. By 1933 a vaccine had been developed, but Frances and Bud were practicing Christian Scientists and did not believe in doctors or medicines.
They finally relented and took Didge to a hospital where she received the vaccine and recovered, but unfortunately it was only after Anna Louise had died at home two days earlier. She was eight years old. The family was devastated. My father was fourteen and his relationship with his folks was never the same after her death. He was extremely close to Anna Louise and he could never understand why his parents did not take her to the hospital and get her the vaccine. His father lost his own youngest sister to the same disease—how could he have let this happen? Anna Louise’s passing was contemporaneous with the Great Depression which was tightening its grip upon this country and this family.
After Anna Louise’s death, Frances became obsessed with another religion that may have had something to do with the Twelve Tribes of Israel. She would attend services Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday twenty miles away in Inglewood. Frances didn’t drive so Bud had to take her. Frances wore no make-up and dressed plainly. Her new beliefs prohibited the display in their house of any photographs or pictures. She reputedly had some ability as a medium to communicate with those who had passed over. Others said she was strange and maybe not all there. She would go door to door in their neighborhood preaching her beliefs. The children were humiliated. Bud was travelling more on business including several trips each year to New York City to buy the latest women’s fashions for his store. Didge took over much of the role of mother to Mary Jane and Grover, Jr. This family was slowly being torn apart.
My father followed his sister Mary Jane to Glendale High School. She was a beautiful girl, a cheerleader, class officer and immensely popular. Didge, another beauty, was then a sophomore at UCLA where she became the school’s first homecoming queen. Perhaps this was a reason why so many of the upper classmen at Glendale High and UCLA befriended my dad. However, he didn’t have to piggy-back on his sisters for his popularity—he was an accomplished student, a good athlete, student body president his senior year and a very good looking guy. I guess it must be in the genes.
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Upon graduating high school in 1937, he joined Mary Jane at UCLA. Apparently, money was tight and Bud gave him $27 for college to cover a couple of quarters of tuition. That was it. From then on he was on his own. He joined the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and majored in geology and liberal arts. He worked all through college at a men’s clothing store near campus and delivered flowers and corsages to sorority girls before parties. He never worked in his father’s store selling women’s clothing. He also joined the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). Even though the United States was not yet in the war against the Germans and Japanese, most everyone thought it was only a matter of time before we were dragged in. My dad figured when America did get in the war it would be better to go in as an officer. ROTC also helped pay some of his college expenses.
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In the spring of his junior year at UCLA, a fraternity brother, Frank Gehri, woke him up late one Saturday night and shouted “G.G. get up! I went out with this great gal tonight. She’s downstairs in my car and I want to introduce you to her. She’s a Pi Phi at USC.” My dad got up, a little groggy and grumpy, threw on his robe and followed his slightly inebriated pal downstairs. As he approached the car a long legged, gorgeous redhead climbed out. “Grover, I’d like you to meet Barbara Case.” My mother loves to tell the story of that first meeting. “I was a little flustered. There was something about him. I told a joke and he didn’t laugh; he just looked at me with no expression on his face. I was embarrassed and figured, well, he must not think too much of me.”
A few weeks later, Frank took Barbara to a dinner club in Santa Monica and Grover was there with a date at a nearby table. “At some point in the evening I looked over to your Dad’s table. He smiled at me and let a pea fall out of his mouth. He called me up a few days later and that’s how the whole thing started.” Poor Frank. Grover and Barbara dated off and on during his senior year until they had a dust-up over something and broke it off. It would take awhile for their relationship to kick back into gear.
My father graduated UCLA in May of 1941 and immediately joined the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant. For the next two and a half years he was stationed at Ford Ord on the beautiful Monterey Bay a hundred miles south of San Francisco, and then Camp Roberts in nearby San Louis Obispo. The Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941. The United States immediately declared war on Japan and Germany, and the training became intense.
Barbara had not seen Grover, Jr. for over six months since he joined the Army, but she heard from his sister, Mary Jane, that the Gauntt family was planning to be in Willits to spend Christmas of 1941. Barbara’s dad, Vern Case, grew up in Willits, about one hundred miles north of Camp Roberts, and he had a bunch of family there. Barbara begged her parents who were living in Los Angeles and they all went to Willits for the holidays. Barbara and Grover “bumped in” to one another and that’s where it began to “click” for them. My mother says it was “love at first re-sight,” and they were a couple from then on.
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Grover Jr. was promoted to Captain and commander of the Cannon Company of the 145th Infantry Division in April of 1943, and his unit continued to train in San Louis Obispo. By this time, almost all of my father’s fraternity brothers and good friends were in the service and spread across the four corners of the world. It was very difficult for them to stay in touch. In his letters to Barbara and his folks he would often ask if there was any word on a particular friend or friends. He specifically asked of his good friend Jim Simmons who had been sent to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska with the 17th Infantry Division (the one my father was originally assigned to). He was concerned because he’d heard the Army had underreported the number of U.S. soldiers killed on one of the islands, Attu. He found out a month later his pal Jim was one them.
In the letters between my mother and father there was more than worry of the unknown. There was love—head over heels puppy dog love! In January of 1943 he wrote Barbara “I want to see you more than ever before. Just seeing you for such a short time my last trip home made something pop. You are the only one.” And one month later “I’m thinking of you constantly, in fact believe me, you get in my way mentally. I often catch myself not working—my mind is playing with you.” Oh, brother!
They were young, my dad twenty three and she twenty one, and in love! They would write each other of their worry about the war and their friends and, without actually saying it, each other, and in the next paragraph speak only of the joy and bliss of their future together. Their longing for each other was urgent. There was nothing more important and present for them than that very next time they would be together. Their romance was mostly one of long distance— letters and an occasional phone call when one could get through. My father’s intense training regimen made personal visits difficult, and in March of 1943, that became even harder when my mother, recently graduated from the University of Southern California, decided to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps aka The WACs. The WACs were assigned to the jobs in the Army that didn’t involve firing a gun—clerical, administrative, equipment maintenance etc. The point was every job a WAC took on meant one more man that could be freed up and sent to the front lines to fight.
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The only problem was she hadn’t discussed this in advance with Grover, Jr. and, judging by the letter he sent to her shortly after he found out, he was not happy. Pissed, is more like it. After basic and officer training in Arkansas, she was stationed in Des Moines, Iowa, and they now had almost no chance of seeing one another. Of greater concern to my father was she could be shipped overseas to a danger zone. Biting his tongue he wrote: “I’m taken by surprise. I hope you will be satisfied. And think of the problem, it seems very complex, and I won’t formulate any decision. I do hope, Barbara, that you will be happy, and that you find all of your expectations.”
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Barbara was exhibiting the strength and independence she inherited from her parents and for which she is so revered by my family and her friends. She told me many years later, with steel in her eyes, “Look, your dad was going to be shipped out any day. I was not going to wait around in my parents’ house and sit on my hands with nothing else to do but worry about him and whether he was going to come home. I needed to do something. I needed to get involved in this thing, too.”
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Those two and a half years until my father and his division were sent overseas I believe were some of the most exhilarating times in my parents’ lives. They were young and intoxicated with their attraction and yearning for each other. They were living and fully engaged in one of the most dramatic periods of our nation’s and this world’s history. A life lived fully in the moment, because they did not know how many more there would be. They were consumed with the enormity of the task and risk in front of them and so very grateful to have each other to share their cascades of emotions, tragedies, joys and fears. This was the first true love for both of them. And though the work was hard and exhausting, my father relished his early years in the Army. He loved being a soldier, leading men, and taking on responsibility, and receiving the recognition by his peers for his efforts evidenced by his rapid promotions up the ranks as an Army officer. He was reaping from the Army and Barbara a love, respect and recognition he had not received from his folks. He was thriving in his young manhood, discovering himself and finding people who loved him and respected him for being that man.
Captain Gauntt received his orders to ship out in December 1943. Grover Jr., and Barbara were both able to make it home to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with their families. A couple of days later, Barbara drove him to Camp Roberts where they said goodbye. My mother drove back to Los Angeles alone, listening to Ma Perkins and stories of the war on the radio, tears streaming down her cheeks most of the way. Unknown to them of course at the time, they would not see, talk or hold each other for two years. The 145th Infantry Division boarded several ships in San Francisco on December 30, 1943 and headed west across the Pacific Ocean. Their destination was the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, aka “Hell.”
“My thought process has been prejudiced…
by a war in which I was in the infantry, and so forth.”
Bougainville-1944. In late January of 1944, my father and the 145th landed on Bougainville, one of the larger islands making up the Solomon Islands and located a couple of hundred miles to the east of New Guinea at the intersection of the Solomon Sea and the South Pacific. At the outbreak of World War II the Japanese seized the Solomon Islands as well as most of Southeast Asia. The U.S. war plan was to move north up through the Solomon Islands chain, clear out Japanese defense and air support and then attack the Philippines and finally Japan. In 1942 the Marines wiped the Japanese out of the first Solomon Island, Guadalcanal, and in 1943 the Army’s 37th Infantry Division captured New Georgia with over fifteen thousand Japanese soldiers killed and major losses of American lives. Bougainville was the last Japanese stronghold in the Solomons. The 3rd Marine Division and the Army’s 37th invaded Bougainville in November, 1943, landing at Empress Augusta Bay. They took control of six of the 250 square miles comprising this island and built an airbase to provide security and supplies for the convoys that would be assembled to retake the Philippines. They gave no thought of pushing across the island to take on the twenty five thousand Japanese dug in the mountainous jungles.
The Japanese soon realized the Americans weren’t coming for them and, if they wanted to take out the Americans’ newly installed airfield, they would have to bring the fight to them. The perimeter of the U.S. base was a series of valleys and small hills in thick jungle, laced with rivers and dominated by a towering land mass rising above it all known as Hill 700. The Japanese began its assault on Hill 700 on March 8, 1944 shortly after midnight, and thus began a series of attacks and counter-attacks over a period of three weeks, much of which took place in torrential rains and during the cover of darkness. The 145th Infantry Division took the point for the defense of Hill 700.
I don’t know specifically what my father did or saw during this battle. The historic accounts of the fighting, the staggering number of casualties, and the means used to cause those casualties render it a certainty that the men of the 145th, as their baptism in combat, witnessed a horror and a gore they could not possibly have imagined even in their worst nightmares. One American soldier described it like this: “It was just a wet, cold, muddy jungle with everything bad about it that could be bad. It was air raids that sent you from hammock or cot into a slit trench five or six times a night. It was the constant rumble of guns. It was myriads of snapping ants and mosquitoes and centipedes whose sting was so bad they made a litter case out of more than one man. For the line companies it was all that and worse. It was patrols over mountains and icy rivers and dripping jungles. It was being constantly drenched by rain, rivers and sweat. At night it was sleeping in water-filled slit trenches with a shelter half around your head to discourage the mosquitoes. It was also getting over the fear complexes.
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It was learning that the Japanese were not so hot after all…It was learning that the Jap soldier is, as often as not, cocky and foolish and will walk into an ambush. It was sitting behind your own perimeter and letting the Japs come up and then blasting hell out of them with 5,000 rounds of 105 mm and 155 mm in a single night. It was counting over 1,000 Japanese dead in half the concentration area the next morning.” [Yank Magazine, Sgt. John McLeod, August 1945]
Captain Gauntt received his first Bronze Star medal for heroic achievement for his actions on Bougainville. His commanding officer wrote in the commendation: “He led his company ashore in Bougainville under an enemy bombing attack and quickly organized and occupied advantageous positions which made possible maximum support to the regimental sector. He courageously accompanied patrols deep into enemy territory and largely due to his foresight and tactical soundness, the Cannon company was instrumental in repulsing the subsequent fierce counterattack of the enemy against the beachhead [Hill 700].”
Over the course of the three week Battle for Hill 700 and related fronts, Japanese casualties were estimated at more than 5,500 killed and 3,000 wounded. Three weeks. [Bougainville (1943-1945), The Forgotten Campaign, Harry A. Gailey]
On April 25, 1944, shortly after the Battle for Hill 700, my father wrote his folks: “I’m beginning to become restless and dream of pushing on. I have a fancy for fighting that you would never be able to comprehend or I explain. Maybe I will get my fill too soon. By the way, I had returned today a letter [he had written] from Gehri. There’s another one gone. The price of this war to me surpasses all monetary value. God bless you all.” Frank Gehri, my father’s fraternity brother who introduced him to Barbara, had been shot down and killed somewhere over the Philippines.
A month later he wrote Barbara a letter from Bougainville. I suspect he was hung over. He had been up all night with his buddies the night before and had “put away a quart of Rye.” Throughout his letter tenderness and lightheartedness are interlaced with tragedy and dread. He wrote of his longing to be with her and closed with this: “I received a letter from Jack Fredricks day before yesterday [good buddy of his in college and best man in his wedding]. He too was quite broken up over Hugh Bardeen’s death. He [Jack] is still Adjunct of his outfit and they have just moved to another field [airfield] somewhere in England He has decided that he won’t be worth a damn after this war is over, so he wants me to help him do nothing about it for a couple of years. You don’t know what you are getting into. After all the people have hated so much and so long, and after enough brave soldiers have been killed so that they can end the war for reason, I am afraid that I will be the most unambitious and laziest civilian that ever earnestly made a temporary profession out of the art of relaxation. I’m miserable and it is only for my strong love for you that I am forcing myself on.”
I gleaned from the letters some hope the war in the Pacific may soon be over. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, the Allies invaded northern Europe and the news reported good progress in pushing the Germans out of France and elsewhere. But, if there was any hope for the men in the South Pacific, it was short-lived. The 145th had eighteen months of fighting ahead of them—the worst was yet to come.
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The Philippines (1945). While still on Bougainville, the 145th trained for four months from August through November of 1944 for the Philippines Campaign. The men had to prepare for a variety of engagements: beach landing, jungle fighting, urban warfare in Manila, mountain assaults and long marches. Before leaving Bougainville, my father was promoted to Major, making him the youngest Army officer in the Pacific Theatre to achieve that rank. They shipped out on December 11 and made their way northwest to Luzon by way of New Guinea (Indonesia), Manus Island and the Surigao Straits.
Luzon is the largest of the thousands of islands making up the Philippines. It is in the north sector of the country and is home to its capital and largest city, Manila. During the month-long voyage they were repeatedly attacked by Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers. They offloaded in the Lingayen Gulf on January 9, 1945, and began a 163-mile run south through the Luzon Valley. It truly was a “run,” with the troops making advances of sometimes twenty-five or thirty plus miles a day over very treacherous and sometimes virtually impassable terrain including fish ponds, rice paddies and flooded rivers. On foot! On the way they captured seven enemy airfields and inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese. On February 3, the 145th arrived at the doorstep of Manila.
Twenty thousand Japanese troops were embedded in Manila with hundreds of guns of all caliber and thousands of mines entangled within an elaborate system of concrete bunkers, pillboxes and building fortifications. Virtually every house, hotel room, church, office and basement in each building, down to the crypts at the cemeteries, had been converted into fortified bunkers manned with heavily armed Japanese. The Japanese were determined to hold Manila and make it a turning point for the Battle For Luzon and the war. What ensued were twenty days of non-stop fighting, with the U.S. forces going house by house, building by building, floor by floor, room by room, crypt by crypt in hand to hand fighting. Manila was turned into a rubble pile. Over four thousand Japanese were killed, thousands more wounded, and the rest either captured or routed out of the city into the surrounding countryside. American casualties exceeded four thousand killed or wounded and forty percent of the 145th were either killed or otherwise rendered unable to fight. Some thought the Division was washed up and would be out of action for months. Five weeks later the remaining units of the 145th were attached to the 6th Division and sent to Mount Pacawagan, fourteen miles east of Manila.
Click either picture to enlarge…Pacawagan photos: Courtesy of Rick Tischler. Pictures taken by Rick’s father, Raymond.
Pacawagan was the most dominant of the three mountains in this region: each one over 1,500 feet and steeply sloped, with precipitous canyons and shear vertical peaks. Pacawagan was heavily defended by four thousand soldiers of the Japanese Shimbu Line and riddled with a maze of bunkers, caves, tunnels and trenches. There was an unusually high number of machine guns and mortars and one of the heaviest concentrations of enemy artillery in the entire Philippines. Sgt. Frank J. Ward of the 145th told Yank Magazine Mt. Pacawagan was worse than New Georgia, Bougainville and Manila combined. “You never heard of Mt. Pacawagan, did you? I guess no one has. While we were up there the war in Europe ended. I imagine people at home were too busy celebrating that to read about places with names like Mt. Pacawagan.”
The 145th began its attack on April 21, 1945. A daylight approach was impossible because of the enemy’s superior firing positions and the difficult terrain: “ducks on a pond.” The troops assembled in the dark at the base of the mountain and at four a.m. the 145th launched an intense artillery barrage on the mountain. In the pitch black they began the arduous climb up the mountain, groping hand over hand up slopes approaching sixty degrees (90 degrees is straight up), grasping the leg of the man ahead to maintain contact. As dawn broke, the enemy opened up with a withering array of machine gun, artillery and mortar fire raining down upon the advancing 145th. Enemy fire erupted from the caves, bunkers, pillboxes and gullies embedded in the mountain sides. Much of the fighting was hand to hand with the Americans routing the enemy out of their bunkers, nests and caves with rifle fire, grenades, pole charges, flame throwers and mortars. The 145ths progress was measured in feet and both sides suffered heavy casualties. Four days into the battle, two thousand American soldiers were now spread over the mountain and resupplying them with ammo, food and water was of critical importance to their survival.
The following is from Colonel Loren G. Windom’s History of The 145th Infantry Regiment, Philippine Campaign: “One event of tremendous importance occurred on April 25— the bulldozer supply trail was, after heartbreaking reverses, pushed to the top of Hill 1521 [the southwest summit of Mt. Pacawagan]. The average grade of the trail was 50 degrees. All supplies had to be hauled by lightly loaded tractors with a round trip time of three hours. From supply dumps near Hill 1521 they were then hand carried to the troops by elements of the Service and Antitank Companies assisted by native labor. Shortly after daylight April 27 following an artillery barrage and supported by the M-7 cannon of the Cannon Company, which had been dragged up the precipitous supply trail by tractors, the 3d Battalion assaulted and, in bitter fighting, captured the southern and western slopes of the mountain. That evening in the growing darkness the mountain was most picturesque. It was as if Mount Pacawagan itself had suddenly turned into a huge volcano and erupted with a series of explosions. The sky was brilliant with a myriad of fingers of tracer bullets of all calibers, the blinding flashes of heavy shells and the spectacular display of flying white phosphorous. The din of battle was deafening. Identification of friend and foe was nearly impossible in the darkness.”
Major Gauntt was in charge of the construction of this supply trail, one of his many actions on Luzon and Bougainville for which he was awarded the prestigious Legion of Merit. In recommending Major Gauntt for this medal his commanding officer, Colonel Windom, wrote this:
“For heroic achievement in connection with military operations against the enemy at Mount Pacawagan, Luzon, Philippine Islands from 27 April to 18 May 1945. Major Grover C. Gauntt, Regimental Supply Officer, 145th Infantry successfully supplied the regiment despite seemingly impossible supply problems. Before the operation Major Gauntt made a personal reconnaissance of the area over which supplies were to travel. Although unable to reach the mountain he was able to formulate a plan for a route which subsequently proved the only route that could be traveled without drawing enemy fire. As the troops advanced up the mountain, Major Gauntt repeatedly made personal reconnaissance for the extension of the road, and in so doing was often exposed to enemy rifle, machine gun, and mortar fire. When the troops reached the peak of the mountain, Major Gauntt had his supply road ready behind them. At the same time Major Gauntt organized and properly supervised a group of 600 civilian laborers for carrying parties to the front line units. This in itself was a very tedious job and took him away from his other duties several hours each day. By his untiring devotion to duty, knowledge of supply problems, and his courageous and effective solution of the problem, Major Grover C. Gauntt contributed immeasurably to the success with which the 145th Infantry operated.”
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For the actions taken by Major Gauntt a few days earlier on April 23, 1945, he was awarded his second Bronze Star medal for heroic achievement. The commendation reads:
Twenty five days after commencing its attack, the 145th ultimately captured all three mountains and the town of Wawa. General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific Theatre, described the fighting as the “bitterest opposition in the Philippines.” The 145th suffered over seven hundred casualties during this battle and over three times that number of men had to be evacuated from the front lines either permanently or temporarily for noncombat injuries, sickness and psychoneurotic causes. The 145ths fighting strength had been reduced by fifty percent since they’d landed on Luzon. During this battle over 1,300 Japanese soldiers were killed by the 145th and hundreds of others annihilated by artillery and mortar fire.
From Pacawagan, the 145th joined up with other units of the 37th and with blazing speed cleared the enemy out of 225 miles of the Cagayan Valley over the next seventy five days. As chronicled by Sgt. McLeod in Yank Magazine, “Seeing the 37th move toward a new front was like seeing Joe Louis step into the ring after the preliminaries. It’s a big, tough, skilled division for a big, tough job. It’s a heavyweight.”
After receiving the order from President Harry S. Truman, two top secret bombs which had been prepared at the Los Alamos National Labs as the ultimate goal of the “Manhattan Project” – a huge secret project spread over 30 facilities in the US, Canada and the UK – were dispatched to the South Pacific’s Mariana Islands. The Manhattan Project, in the US, was a collaboration 130,000 Americans working on a top secret effort to potentially shorten the war -if successful. The “Little Boy” was sent by train from Los Alamos to San Francisco and loaded on the USS Indianapolis (made famous in the 1975 Movie “JAWS” Script Here) which transported this deadly package to Tinian Island where it had to be handled with great care.
The bomb was so unstable in the arming process that the entire island of Tinian, where 500 B-29’s were based, was at risk of annihilation if something went wrong. The Little Boy was fitted to the to the infamous B-29 known as the “Enola Gay.” On August 6, 1945 the Little Boy, a Uranium 235 atomic bomb, was dropped by the U.S. Air Force on Hiroshima, Japan. By the end of the day over 90,000 people in the city of Hiroshima and the surrounding area were killed. Three days later on August 9th, 1945 the “Fat Man,” a plutonium bomb named after Winston Churchill, was dropped over Nagasaki. On that first day in Nagasaki, over 70,000 people were killed. The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945 and all offensive action was stopped on Luzon. World War II was over.
During the previous seven months the 145th had taken part in three major campaigns—Manila, Mount Pacawagan and Cagayan Valley, and the human toll was staggering. Historians estimate the 145th killed over 7,400 and captured 510 of the enemy. Three hundred officers and enlisted men of the 145th were killed and over 1,400 wounded. Of the men from the 145th who landed on Luzon seven months earlier, over fifty seven percent were killed or wounded.
I was numbed by the statistics and tried to see beyond the cold numbers. I yearned to imagine what it must have been like for my father and his comrades. I perhaps gleaned a glimpse of this nightmare from the recent movies depicting the fighting on Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Our Fathers, and Tom Hanks’ and Steven Spielberg’s series The Pacific on HBO. But as hard as it was to watch those images on the screen, I was sitting on my rear end in the safe confines of the movie theatres and my home, and I realized there was simply no way I would ever truly understand what my father and those men went through.
I do know that during those two years on Bougainville and Luzon, my father saw more death than any human being should ever have to. He witnessed too many men doing things that defy the characterization that we are “human” or “civilized,” and he himself did those things. He and the others of the 145th must have learned too well of the precious few degrees of separation between savage animal and human being, and those evaporated in a heartbeat in places like Bougainville’s Hill 700, Manila and Pacawagan. And I think what may have disturbed my father the most, and became frightfully obvious to me, is that he liked it—”I find I have a fancy for fighting that you would never be able to comprehend or I explain.”
The “scorecards” of the battles—two thousand troops killed and wounded here one day, a couple more thousand dead, captured or wounded another—were suffocating. I tried to comprehend the compressed violent death of these tens of thousands of soldiers. All of these young men, many in their teens and most still living with their mothers and fathers, who would not return home. Most were buried where they lay—many would never be found. There were the young men who came home permanently disfigured with burns and lost limbs, eyes, or pieces of their heads, and as many, if not more, with wounds that could not be seen, that escaped diagnosis and were never treated—the kind my father came home with. My father, as did every American and Japanese soldier who fought in those times, had many close friends and family who were killed in the War—those special friends and friendships you make as a child, in high school, college and the service. Those friendships that can never be replaced or duplicated. The enormity of that loss, grief and collective blow to the human spirit and consciousness is unfathomable to me.
Even though 66 years have elapsed since these battles of the 145th, and all of the scenes and scars now rebuilt, overgrown or washed away, the written memory of it, and the one I know was embedded in my father’s mind and that he shared with me and the rest of our family, whether or not he realized he was doing it, through his letters, photographs and just by being him, are painful to me. As immensely proud I am of my father and his heroic achievements in the War, I am so much more remorsefully sorry for him. That this twenty four year old had to do and see all of the things he did. It was too much. I collapsed in the understanding that my father’s words “My thought process has been prejudiced by a war” was a complete and utter understatement.
The war against Japan ended August 15, 1945, but my father and what remained of the 145th would remain on Luzon for another four months. He and his men were bored and anxious to get home. My father contracted malaria, another gift from the islands, and something else to fight while he awaited his orders to ship home. He wrote Barbara on November 1, 1945 “Still at Camp La Croix and will be here another two weeks. There isn’t anything to do, and I’ll be damned if I’ll go out of my way. I spend most of my time hoping that I’ll be home for Xmas. I miss you darling, and want to see you—month is a long time—keep your fingers crossed.”
My dad… arrived at Long Beach harbor on December 13, 1945, two weeks shy of two years from when he left.
Interesting note: Virtually every adult in America suffered or contributed to the war effort as did most towns and cities in America which participated collectively as well. For example, Long Beach, where dad’s transport ship docked, was one of three local Southern California cities where Douglas Aircraft (in partnership with Lockheed) built 5,745 B-17’s – many of them sent to the South Pacific. Boeing, in Seattle, built 6,981 more of these formidable planes. Between 1942 and 1945, Douglas built 29,385 airplanes — about 16 percent of all the U.S. airplanes produced — and peak wartime employment at Douglas was recorded at 160,000 workers. The largest Douglas facility was in Long Beach, CA, with more than 1,422,350 square feet of covered workspace. The plant was camouflaged with paint, patterns, trees and shrubs; was a “blackout” facility with limited, light-proof access; and was the country’s first fully air-conditioned factory. During peak production, the Long Beach plant produced an airplane an hour. It was an “interesting and energetic” time in American history!
My mother… had been discharged from the WACs on November 6 and was staying with her folks who were still living in Coronado. When they got word that my father would be landing soon, Barbara and her mother, Henrietta, booked into a motel in West Los Angeles. There wouldn’t be a scene of hugs and kisses at the dock as the men disembarked. Visitors weren’t allowed at the port. My mother doesn’t remember exactly how she and my father figured out where she was when he landed, but they got together at the motel and had their embrace and kiss there, and then stayed out most of the night sitting in Henrietta’s car talking and, well, getting reacquainted. Barbara remembers the next day Henrietta was furious with her for keeping my dad awake most of the night when he was exhausted and still getting over malaria. My mother recalls not feeling too bad about it. Two weeks later, over Christmas, Grover proposed to his best girl and they were married in Los Angeles on March 5, 1946. They were getting on with their lives.
Postscript. Shortly after writing this story, I took my father’s medals out of the boxes in which they’d been buried and, together with some photographs of his time in the service and excerpts from the commendations, had them professionally framed and they are now prominently on display in my law office. Anyone who comes into my office for the first time is immediately drawn to it and always asks “Who is this?” I tell them “That is my father, Grover Gauntt. He was a World War II hero and one hell of a fine man.”
Some additional Gauntt Clan History. The Gaunt clan originated in Flanders, now part of Belgium, in the city of Gent or, en francaise, Gand or Gant. In the middle ages Gent was one of the biggest cities in Europe and renowned for its textile industry. Around the 11th century some of the clan emigrated, or were forced to come, to England and work as skilled craftsmen to build cathedrals, castles and whatever. Some genealogists claim the Gaunts descended from royalty, including John of Gaunt, the Duke (aka the Black Duke) of Lancaster in the late 14th century, whose son Henry IV became King of England. . The clan can definitively be traced to Gilbert de Gant, a Lieutenant to William the Conqueror during the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and was later rewarded with several lordships and estates including Lincolnshire. In 1637, Peter Gaunt and his wife Lydia left Lincolnshire and settled in Sandwich, Massachusetts. One of Peter’s grandsons, Israel Gauntt, was a Patriot in the American Revolution and it was he and his brothers who decided to add another “t” to their name. According to family lore this may have been precipitated by a family feud. In 1850, John Washington Gauntt, one of Israel’s grandsons and Bud’s grandfather, moved his family by covered wagon from South Carolina to Henderson County, Texas.