His eyes closed, James Underwood  took a deep breath.



“I’ll never forget Feb. 11, 1945,” he said.


His eyes closed, James Underwood  took a deep breath.

“I’ll never forget Feb. 11, 1945,” he said.

Underwood, 91, sat in the kitchen of his rural Metamora home recalling his tour in World War II that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross.

The memories and his words were vivid. The emotions those memories evoked were strong, and visible on his face.

Yet, Underwood relived them to draw attention to the meaning of Memorial Day.

Hate
Underwood was 21 when his life took a turn on Dec. 7, 1941.

When word of the attack on Pearl Harbor hit Underwood’s ears he said he felt one thing — hatred.

“I wanted to serve my country. I had hate in my heart caused by Pearl Harbor,” Underwood said.

Underwood had dreams of being in the Army Air Corps flying in the war. He was turned down by the Air Corps three times. Then he was told if he enlisted in the infantry he could then transfer to the Air Corps.

“I got in the Army and landed in California at Fort Roberts. When I asked about a transfer they laughed at me. I walked the war, instead of flying it,” Underwood said.

After basic training Underwood was under way to the Fiji Islands which the U.S. was fortifying in case of a Japanese invasion.

His stop there was short-lived. After three months Underwood was headed to the Solomon Islands, and then the island of New Georgia. He saw action there against the Japanese helping in the capture of Munda Airport.
 
Quick promotion
It was on the island of New Georgia where something extraordinary happened to Private Underwood.

“My commanding officer was killed by a sniper. He was standing 6 feet away from me. That first day on New Georgia we suffered seven casualties. After the first day we had one officer left. We had started with six,” Underwood said.

That first night on the island, the sole remaining officer Lt. Ray Pawlak, lined the men up.

“He went down the line and told us what our future duties would be. When he came to me he said, ‘Jim, you are promoted to First Sergeant.’ I went from the bottom to the top in one day,” Underwood said.

“It was unheard of. It shocked me. I had no training in leading men. It was frightening.”

Underwood was suddenly responsible for 187 men, and the war was about to become much more intense. Not long after his promotion Underwood and his men invaded Bougianville Island and captured it without a massive amount of resistance.

But, it was a different story as the troops landed at Luzon in the Phillipines.

“We landed in a huge invasion with very little opposition. Our objective was Manila,” Underwood said. “We captured an airfield then entered the area near Manila.”

Because the Japanese had blown up bridges to slow the American advance, Underwood and his troops had to slog across river, streams and bogs. The American company approached the Dampalit River.

“It was late in the evening and Capt. Edwin Duncan ordered us to dig in on the riverbank. The next morning the captain ordered a platoon leader to observe the Japanese on the opposite side of the river,” Underwood said.

The natives told the Americans there were at least 500 Japanese troops on the opposite side.

“The lieutenant who led the patrol had little combat experience. I guess he wanted to make a name for himself,” Underwood said. “He reported, ‘We can take them.’”

The lieutenant and his 40 men crossed the river.

“The Japanese waited until they got across and opened up on them,” Underwood said.

The troops took sniper fire, mortars, grenades and machine gun fire. The remainder of the troops on the other side of the river were ordered to retreat.

“We were to leave 29 men there, 10 dead and 19 wounded,” Underwood said.

That did not sit well with Underwood.

He gathered up three volunteers and decided to mount a rescue and recovery mission.  
 
Valor
“The big question was how we would get them back,” Underwood said.

“I had seen two dugouts (native boats). I told the captain we’d go get those boys and bring them back.”

The citation with his award tells the rest of the story.

Underwood’s citation said he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy,” while serving with Company E, 145th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces near Malabon, Luzon, Philippine Islands, on Feb. 11 1945.

“Using native dugouts and litters, (Underwood) and his men made repeated trips under constant, intense fire from the enemy positions, wading through mud and water to load the wounded and dead on the dugouts, and then dragged and pushed them across the river through the deadly fire to safety.

“Working over a period of two-and-one-half hours, First Sergeant Underwood eight times crossed the treacherous river and, by his complete disregard for safety and heroic determination in the face of grave danger, saved many lives and furnished a shining example of high courage.

“His intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 37th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.”

Asked why he undertook such a dangerous task working just 50 yards from the enemy, Underwood said,
“My brothers were over there.”

Memorial Day
Underwood said for him Memorial Day is a solemn day.

“I’m reminded of all the buddies who didn’t come home. I had a total of 39 of my men killed in action. I never forget them,” Underwood said.

Underwood said the military ceremonies held in the area are wonderful and the appropriate way to observe Memorial Day.

Underwood said he is bothered by those who treat it as just a day off.

“I’ll never forget Feb. 11, 1945. They were my brothers. I know how it feels to lose a brother. We lived in holes in the ground together,” Underwood said.

“My good memories are when we liberated Manila right after this battle. I just hang on to the good memories.”

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