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Robert Rundle

Robert Rundle

U.S. Army Sergeant Technician, 7th Division, 17th Infantry

as told to Mary Louis

I was born in Stockton, California to William and Pearl Rundle.  Two and a half years earlier my brother, William, had been born. I lived on Ophir Street in Stockton and had some very good buddies across the street. They were cousins to a certain girl, Ruth Nicholls, who lived in Soulsbyville, Tuolumne County but who visited her cousins frequently. We all grew up together. Even at an early age I hoped that Ruth would become my wife.

I graduated from Stockton High School. Back then there was only one high school there. After high school, I worked as a mechanic in my father’s garage.

You're in the Army Now

My plan was to join the Army, but Uncle Sam drafted me in February of 1941 before I had a chance to enlist. [The draft was initiated in October of 1940 by President Roosevelt.]1 My first stop was the Presidio in Monterey for paperwork processing and testing their Jeeps. I was assigned to the 7th Division, 17th Infantry, 2nd Battalion, Headquarters Company as a mechanic technician. Next I went to basic training in Fort Ord in Monterey County, California. Because of my work experience they had me working in their repair shop. I remember Lt. Hunt from Fort Ord because we worked closely together. There were several other men assigned to my same company that stayed with me throughout the war. I was closest to Quinto Spinelli and Sgt. Kenneth Gay.

There was such a need at the repair shop that I did not have to endure the 20-mile hikes for the other infantry soldiers.  But I did target practice, and I was an excellent marksman. This came from all the hunting and fishing I did as a kid. I knew which end of a gun was which before I entered the Army. I guess my early years hunting, fishing and working in my father’s garage served me well in the Army.

I had wanted to serve one year and then be discharged so Ruth and I could be married early in 1942. But my plans were quickly changed on December 7th, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I was still in basic training but was up in Soulsbyville on leave visiting Ruth and her family that day. Ruth and I were up in the mountains cutting a Christmas tree. When we returned to Ruth’s parents’ home, her mother told us the news. I high-tailed it back to Fort Ord.

From Fort Ord I was sent up the California coast to various coves and bays to Santa Rosa. My mission was to deliver trucks and supplies to those areas in case of attack on the U.S. mainland. From Fort Ord I was sent to San Luis Obispo for desert training, including a week in the Mojave Desert. We all thought we would be fighting in North Africa.

Since Ruth and I knew that I would soon be leaving for overseas fighting, we married on May 8, 1942 at her parents’ home in Soulsbyville. That was the best three-day pass of my Army career!

Attu

When my company received orders at San Luis Obispo, it was for Attu, Alaska. I wondered where Attu was. North Africa, I could figure out, but Attu? Later I discovered that Attu was the westernmost island in the Aleutian chain, about 1,100 miles from the Alaska mainland. We would be fighting on American soil. Our departure port was to be San Francisco. While we were in San Francisco and getting ready to ship out for Attu, Ruth went down to Burlingame to visit her sister. I hitchhiked down there for one last visit with my bride. Then I hitchhiked back up to the City to join my company. They were lined up, picking up their provisions. My buddy, Quinto Spinelli, was in line with my duffel bag, getting his stuff and some for my duffel also. I quickly joined him to receive the rest of my gear. I barely made it back before I would have missed the boat and been AWOL.

My lieutenant asked me where I had been and when I told him the truth, he could understand a young soldier wanting to see his bride before leaving. If I had been in a bar, I would have been in trouble.

We arrived in Attu in May of 1943. When we arrived in Attu we had climate shock. We had come from desert conditions to frozen tundra. Some of the guys lost toes. We had to be totally re-outfitted with cold weather gear: parkas, gloves, and boots.

[The 17th Infantry was poorly equipped for winter warfare. But they soldiered on and for this action they won a Distinguished Unit Citation.]2

I escaped death many times during the war, starting on Attu. We couldn’t see the Japanese due to fog in the mountains. Our troops were inland on a knoll. A bullet whizzed by my ear, while being shelled by enemy mortars. When the shelling stopped, I started looking around me. I saw another soldier sitting up in a trench with his eyes wide open. I thought he was looking at me with his mouth open. Then I discovered that the “mouth” was his slit throat. I marked him for recovery by standing his rifle in the ground with his helmet on it. Then the Japs started shooting at me with machine guns. I dove into a snow bank. They laid a pattern of gunfire around my feet. When they quit shooting, I got the heck out of there.

Another battle was when some of the enemy got drunk and passed through our front lines into our camp. They invaded our mess tent and killed our cooks. One of the cooks was in a foxhole and he managed to kill some Japanese but then the enemy lobbed a hand grenade into his foxhole and the cook was killed. I was out on the side of the mountain and heard the battle. Then I was assigned to a machine gun nest in a gully to guard our camp so no more enemy troops could reach it. My closest buddy, Quinto Spinelli, was shot dead-center through his helmet. He was lucky. The bullet grazed his scalp and went out the back of his helmet. It knocked him out so the Japanese thought he was dead and moved on. This friend was with me all through the war. He was a truck driver from Merced. We kept in contact after the war until his death a few years ago.

There was a U.S. battleship off our beachhead, shooting over our troops at the Japanese, who were inland. I saw two of our biplanes take off from the battleship. The biplanes were used on battleships because they didn’t need as much room for takeoff as bombers,  which required aircraft carriers with longer takeoff strips. One of the planes was hit by enemy gunfire but one of them landed. I went to check on the pilot. A Jap mortar shell whizzed by me and landed two feet in front of me. I got the hell out of there.

[The 7th Reconnaissance Troop went ashore first and established a beach position at “Red Beach” before the Japanese became aware of the U.S. troop arrival. The principle landings were carried out by elements of the 17th Infantry under the command of Colonel Edward P. Earle, who was killed in the battle. The fighting was fierce at Chichagof Harbor. There were other battles at Saran Valley-Massacre Valley Pass and Clevesy Pass on Cold Mountain. The Japanese had ensconced themselves in trenches blanketing all of those areas. Our troops had to scale mountains and a cliff to reach the enemy who was firing upon them the whole time.]3  [There were 3,929 U.S. casualties and 580 lives lost before the U.S. gained the victory and flushed out all of the enemy.]4

During my duties of “marking” our casualties I saw an Aleut house that the Japanese had torn up and looted. There was nothing left for the family to return to after their internment in a Japanese concentration camp.

At last Attu was secured. All the Japanese were killed. We took no prisoners. Our stay in Attu was one month.

The 17th Infantry left Attu and stopped off at Kiska, a nearby island in the Aleutians. Our Headquarters Company did not leave the ship. Other soldiers were dropped off on one side of the island while others were dropped off on the opposite side of Kiska. Both detachments proceeded up Kiska’s mountainsides, firing as they went. When they reached the top they realized the responding fire they had heard had been each other’s. Luckily no one was injured or killed by this “friendly” fire. There were no Japanese soldiers left on that island. Apparently they had been put onto a Japanese ship. U.S. bombers sank their ship in open waters as it headed back to Japan.

Hawaii and the Marshall Islands

After the intense battles on Attu, the Army was a little unsure what to do with us. They ended up shipping us to Hawaii for much needed rest and recovery, and to replenish our company to full strength after all the casualties we had incurred in Attu. We landed there in August 1943 and were housed in quarters where Japanese detainees had been kept. It lacked screens on the windows and doors so insects were a problem.

There was a new vehicle called the “Weasel” with which to familiarize myself. There was no training for it, but I became an expert. It was a jeep with one tank in front and one in the rear for flotation in the water. It used caterpillar tracks to move on land. I had to test it and figure out how to repair it if it broke down. During our first stay in Oahu, we took part in a weeklong dry-run amphibious training exercise on Maui.

[The Weasel was a Ford SPA-M29C. It had a Studebaker engine. It could carry a crew of four, had 11-inch ground clearance, could hold 72.35 gallons of gas, had three speeds and carried a communication radio. It had turning radius of 12 feet, could ford a ditch up to four feet wide, climb 24 inches over a vertical obstacle, drove five miles on a gallon of gas, and had a top speed of 36 mph.]5

We returned to Oahu briefly before heading off to our next beachhead. While there, I saw the Scofield barracks where our servicemen were housed when the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor almost two years earlier. It was all pockmarked from the enemy shelling. I saw all the damage enemy mortars had done to the hangars and supplies, and to the port. The first time we were in Hawaii for four to six months.

From Hawaii we were shipped to the Marshall Islands for about a month. I was on Carlson Island near Kwajalein, where intense fighting was underway. [General Corlett wanted Carlson so that artillery could fire from it in support of  the Kwajalein battle.]6

The 17th Infantry brought four cannons to shoot at the Japanese across the narrow span of water. The soldiers on Kwajalein were having difficulty making any progress in the battle. The enemy had ensconced themselves in covered foxholes behind enemy lines and would pop up and shoot our troops in the back. The cannons were able to shoot over our troops to bomb the catacomb of foxholes. My duty was to guard the shore of Carlson Island and protect our supplies. After a month, we had sufficiently helped the battle on Kwajalein with our cannon fire to secure the island. We were shipped back to Oahu.

Back in Hawaii we again replaced our casualties to bring our company up to full strength. I continued working on the Weasel, refining repair techniques. We were in Hawaii for the second time for another four months. We left Hawaii in July or August of 1944 for our next beachhead, Leyte in the Philippine Islands.

Philippine Islands

We arrived in the Philippines in October 1944 at Leyte Gulf. To unload the Weasel from the ship to an LCI (Landing Craft for Infantry) a winch had to be used to swing it over onto the LCI. I was transferred to the LCI in my Weasel. The rest of the 17th Infantry was allowed to go ashore. They were let off in a Filipino cemetery. I was told I had to wait until the next morning to disembark from the LCI with the Weasel. I set a bunch of life vests on the front of the Weasel to a make a bed for myself that night. There was only one Weasel for our company so I was glad to stay with it, as I had a proprietary interest. Early in the morning I left the LCI and also went through the Filipino cemetery, which had been busted up by the Japanese bombings. When I tried to drive the Weasel ashore, the life jackets fell off the front and became entangled with the wheels driving the track. I barely got it ashore and up a small rise when the idler shafts broke.

Our ship had no machine shop, so I had to take the Weasel parts and catch another LCI to a different ship in the gulf that had a machine shop. I had to climb their rope netting packing the parts. We had made a new idler shaft but still needed to make the second one when the Japs opened fire. The ship’s crew did not want to be responsible for me since I was not part of their company, so I had to take my parts and the one newly made shaft, and climb down their nets to yet another LCI.

The LCI scooted around the gulf to avoid taking fire. When the bombing stopped, the LCI took me to another ship that had a machine shop. I had to climb up their net with my one completed shaft and other parts. I was able to finish making the second shaft. To leave, of course meant climbing down the netting again onto another LCI, which took me back to the Filipino cemetery. I hiked back up the knoll to my Weasel and put it back together, then drove to find my company at the front lines. Needless to say, I had a lot of exercise that day.

[A resource called the bombing on Leyte Gulf when the 17th Infantry landed, “moderate resistance.” The goal of the Philippine campaign was to capture airstrips that the enemy was using for the fighter planes to bomb the US fleet. The landing in the Filipino cemetery was just south of the town of Dulag. After the Dulag airstrip was secured, the 7th Division headed for the San Pablo airstrip heading north along the Dulag-Burauen Road. It took two days to capture that airstrip, Burauen and Bayug. When we encountered the Buri airstrip, there was intense fighting. A different division was finally able to secure Buri.]7

We came to a big river, 100 feet wide and waist deep. There were more Weasels by that time. A Weasel belonging to a reconnaissance squad had tried to cross the river. The track came off and their Weasel became stuck in the mud. They tied a rope around my waist and I had to drag a cable out into the middle of the river and attach it to the mired vehicle, then wade back to shore. Using a winch we pulled it back onto shore, then tipped it onto its side with a specialized winch – a black spool knob winch – so I could work on it. I put the track back onto the wheels with the sprockets so that the track could be driven again. Once my repair job was complete, we set it upright and the recon unit proceeded another direction.

[The 7th Division headed for the town of Dagami and divided into its respective companies. The Headquarters Company was to follow Company E with the heavy weapons. After heavy fighting and casualties they headed for Shoestring Ridge.]8

Our company came across another reconnaissance squad whose Weasel had been driven up the side of a mountain and thrown its track. With winch in hand, I had to drive my Weasel up above them to their Weasel. The squad and I saw enemy aircraft swoop down to the valley below to bomb our troops, and we took cover. Chasing the enemy aircraft was a P-38 (a U.S. fighter with two engines and fuselages). The Japanese aircraft was hit, but the P-38 made it back out of the valley. One of the fuselages was on fire. The pilot was able to fly it to the ocean where he ditched the plane, parachuting to safety on land. With the battle over, I finished repairing the Weasel and returned to camp.

When we were driving on another elevated road toward Shoestring Ridge, Spinelli and I stopped for lunch. I left my ammo belt on the back of my Weasel. We took our lunches under a nipa hut (a Filipino home raised on stilts to avoid flooding from typhoons). The enemy began firing at us under the house. My buddy was shot in the butt, but I avoided being hit. He had me look at his injury to see if he needed to go see a medic. He had many little red marks. It looked like he had been hit by buckshot. He went off to see the medic while I climbed out to inspect my Weasel. The hand grenade in my ammo belt had been hit and had burned itself out. If I had been in the Weasel at the time, I would have been hit in the head (the driver’s head stuck up above the body of the Weasel). Leyte was “secured” by Christmas of 1944, but the 7th Division continued on mop-up battles, flushing out Japanese. We were in the Philippines about four months.

When we were leaving Leyte there were no docks or LCIs, so we drove the jeeps and trucks through the water to reach the crane on the ship to be boarded. We had a hose stuck in the exhaust that went out of the water into the air and another hose leading from the carburetor up to the air. Everything went more or less smoothly until we managed to get the Jeeps into the hold of the main ship. They would not start. We continued working on them in the hold of the ship to prepare them for service in Okinawa. Our sergeant, Kenneth Gay, became quite ill and passed out from all the exhaust fumes. We had to take him up on deck to revive him. We learned from this experience. Using hoses did not make the vehicles amphibious, because the hoses could not help the starters. And that engine repair should not be done in an enclosed space for prolonged periods. We darn near lost Sgt. Gay.

Okinawa

We were shipped out and arrived midway north from the southern tip of Okinawa on its  western coast in April of 1945. Again our assignment was to secure airstrips and a railroad track which ran the length of Okinawa. [The 7th Division moved three miles inland, quickly taking the Kadena airfield. Japanese resistance was light at dusk that first evening. The 7th Division cut across the remainder of the 14-mile midsection of Okinawa, cutting it in half. This effectively blocked the Japanese supply of arms from North to South. The 7th Division turned south to take the Pinnacle, which had a Japanese watchtower.]9

En route south we reached a schoolhouse, which we figured could be used for our housing. About two city blocks through the brush, we saw a Weasel that had apparently been commandeered by the Japanese and then abandoned. I went to look at it but was warned that it could have been booby-trapped. I didn’t see any obvious traps so I climbed in and tried to start it. It would not start. Upon inspection, I discovered that it had just run out of gas. I added gas and put it back into service. There was a trench under the school where we would hide to guard the school. Some jackass soldier up in the school threw a tin can out the window and it clanged against the rocks in the road. It scared those of us on guard duty.

[As the campaign progressed, the unit pushed ahead to take Tomb Hill and the town of Ouki and headed inland towards Kochi Ridge along the rail tracks.]10

Proceeding onward to reach our goal of taking the ridge, we discovered an old train depot. One hundred feet uphill from the depot we saw an enclosure in which to make camp. It must have been a nice house at one time. The house had been bombed out but the tiled roof porches were still standing. Around the house was an adobe-like, four-foot-high wall. That night while we were sleeping, the enemy began firing cannons over the enclosure into the road. We heard one round coming in short. It hit the top of the tiled roof. Shrapnel hit me in the right arm and lodged in my back. Other shrapnel hit and killed Sergeant Gay, who was sleeping behind me.

A soldier on guard duty had his half-track parked near the depot. The rear door of the vehicle was opened and he was lying on a bench in it. He was hit in the leg.

Walking Wounded

A buddy, Lowman, grabbed me and dragged me up to the depot so my wound could be dressed. There was a powder that we all carried that helped stop bleeding. Powder was poured into my wound and dressing was wrapped around my arm. A Jeep came along to pick up the wounded and we were driven to a field hospital half a mile away. The driver had to navigate around all the unexploded shells on the road. At the field hospital there were medical personnel (like the MASH unit in Korea, later featured in the TV program). By the time I arrived I was so dizzy that a medic slammed me into a chair and jammed my head between my legs. I was left sitting there for awhile until a truck took all of us injured soldiers down to an airport. The air-evac plane had its hull filled with cots, three bunks high. The bunks filled the cargo space. I was ambulatory so I could walk aboard and didn’t have to carried in on a litter. I left Okinawa after only three to four weeks in April of 1945.

The airplane flew us to Guam, where there was a larger hospital. I had surgery on my arm there. My wound was so wide that the surgeon said he could only sew it up halfway.  When I had recovered sufficiently, I was assigned KP duty. I rode along in a garbage truck to the edge of a cliff. We had to push the garbage off the cliff into the ocean. Looking over the cliff into the ocean scared me a little.

I was sent to Saipan in the Mariana Islands to recover. There was an outdoor theater, which I enjoyed when I was feeling better. While watching a movie one time, the movie stopped and the lights came on, followed by an announcement: The war was over. We cheered and then wept for all those who did not live to see the end of the war. I was in Saipan for three months, May through July of 1945.

Going Home

We were put into a “Liberty Ship,” and felt every wave that crashed against the hull as we bounced along across the ocean. One night the cook thought it would be a special treat to roast a goat for dinner. When we reported to the mess, it smelled awful. Some of the guys had to run up to the deck and vomit. I don’t think any of us ate it. We pulled into Oahu for fueling and left for San Francisco. We traveled in that tin can for a month.

Once in San Francisco, we went to an amphitheater. On stage, there were cooks and lots of food. We could have anything we wanted. I had a steak and milk. From San Francisco, we took a train to Sacramento to a really big hospital for a thorough physical. We could have anything treated that we wanted or needed. I told them I was fine. All I wanted to do was to go home. As soon as I received my discharge papers and $10, I hitchhiked out of there. Many drivers were willing to pick up hitchhiking soldiers in uniform to help them along. When I arrived in Stockton, Ruth was waiting for me there.

Post-War Recovery

When we arrived back in Soulsbyville, I went to work at Opera Hall Garage on Washington Street in Sonora. I noticed my right arm went numb. I was sent to a Navy hospital, Oak Knoll, in the Oakland hills. I lay on the examination table and the doctors began poking at my wound. It blew up and something hit the lights hanging from the ceiling. All kinds of infection poured out. After treatment, when I was released to go home, my arm felt much better so I returned to work.

One day five or six months later, while I was lying on a dolly under a car, I felt a lump in my back that bothered me. I went to my local doctor. He dug out the remaining shrapnel from my wartime injury.

Civilian Life

I worked at the Opera Hall Garage for 30 years. Then it was sold to a new owner, who hired a different shop foreman. I was invited to stay as a line mechanic, but I couldn’t do line work anymore because arthritis had started settling into my arm and shoulder from the war wounds. I went to Debco Auto Parts store for about six months. There was a recession at that time so I was laid off. I took unemployment benefits until my Social Security Disability started. In December 1982, I officially retired.

Ruth and I have three sons. Gary was born in April 1947, Jerald in February 1949, and Loren in January 1953. We have had a very full life, in our marriage of 69 years.

Since retirement, Ruth and I have enjoyed travelling. We even flew to Hawaii to see four different islands. I showed Ruth where my old housing was and the Scofield barracks. I’ve also done a lot of fishing in retirement. We quit traveling about 10 years ago because my mobility had declined. I’ve had several knee replacements but still rely on my motorized scooter to get around the house and outside.

We have gone to quite a few Attu reunions. They were held in places like Reno, Tahoe, Las Vegas, at our home (where Ruth served Cornish pasties) and the Spinelli’s house in Merced. I saw Lowman, Spinelli, Maurice Lebow, and Van Hoy at these reunions and of course Spinelli and I visited in each others’ homes. We all called each other by our last names, so some of their first names I do not remember.

There are no more Attu reunions. In fact, I may be the only one still alive.

Reflections

I was glad that Ruth and I could write each other during the war to stay in touch. Ruth later told me that some of the content in my letters had been cut out. At least she knew that I had written.

The food during the war varied. On Attu we had old “C-rations” that we swore were left over from WWI. When we reached Hawaii there were “K-rations,” which were a step up.  Rations were delivered in a large box for the cooks to prepare. We had an entire roast that came in a large can. Other fruits and vegetables were in smaller cans. The boxes were dropped wherever we were, even behind battle lines. There were cigarettes packed in the boxes too. The only time I smoked was while I was in the military. Most of the guys who had smoked before they went into the Army, quickly snapped up the more popular brands of cigarettes—Lucky Strike, Winstons, etc. I always took the cheaper brands because it didn’t make any difference to me. I mostly smoked Chelsey cigarettes or my pipe.

We were able to have some fresh food in Hawaii. We went to a pineapple plant and got glasses of juice from a wall spigot. Whenever we went into Honolulu, we went to a restaurant. I ordered what I wanted most, which was buttered toast. There was certainly no bread or butter on Attu. Even now I weep when I realize that such a simple, ordinary thing as buttered toast was considered a luxury back then and brought me such pleasure. We never did run out of food during the war.

I never kept a good luck charm during the war. I did have a picture of Ruth that I kept with me at all times. I guess she was all the motivation I needed. I never thought about dying and even though I had five near misses with death, I just always expected to be able to return home. Oh sure, I was scared a few times but that was only when I narrowly missed death.

There were some fun points during the war. Between beachhead battles, we had a little time for leisure and entertainment. In the evenings, we played cards, drank beer, smoked and swapped stories, especially in Oahu. Just before leaving Leyte, we were allowed to go to an island where there was a quonset hut filled with beer. We called it “beer island.” We were each allowed 15 beers. I could not drink that much so I gave some of my beer to the guys. When we all piled onto the ship to go back to our camp on the main island of Leyte, I fell down a flight of steps aboard ship. Imagine what would have happened to me if I had drunk all the beer that I was allowed!

On Guam, after I had recovered somewhat, a buddy and I went for a swim in one of the coves. On Saipan I bummed a ride in a cargo plane for sightseeing. The pilot banked the plane steeply, while my buddies and I clung to the upward side of the plane. I didn’t ask to go on any more sightseeing trips. We saw a few entertainers. I remember seeing Bob Hope in a USO show in Hawaii and then Ray Bolger performing for the troops in a secured war zone.

The last time I saw my Weasel was on Okinawa. I had to leave everything behind because of enemy fire. I even had to leave my boots, which were off because I was sleeping in my bedroll when the attack began. I wouldn’t want to own a Weasel, because the gas mileage is so poor, but I’d like to see one again just to play with it.

Overall, I think my personality has not changed from before the war. I am still the same man I always was.

My war experience can be summed up quickly by saying that I never had to fire a shot and I never met a Jap face-to-face. But I do realize when reminded that U.S. troops, supplies, and ammunition would never have arrived where they were needed if I had not kept all the wheels turning for the Army.

I do feel that war is necessary sometimes, but I think it should not be prolonged. We should go in, get the enemy, and then get out. If a war lingers on, I think it demonstrates a lack of determination to win.

The ideal would be to have no need for war, but that’s never going to happen.

Mr. Rundle, 92, was interviewed in 2011 by volunteer Mary Louis through the Tuolumne Veterans History Project, an all-volunteer effort to record Tuolumne County veterans’ memories of their wartime experiences. 

Resources

1     Wikipedia, WWII Draft Initiation.

2,3   “History of the 7th Infantry Division” on the following website:

www.carson.army.mil/UNITS/F7ID_Historylong.htm

4     Wikipedia, WWII Attu US battle casualties

5     “M29 Weasel” on the wikipedia.org website

6-10 “History of the 7th Infantry Division” above cited website for 1,2

Additional Helpful Sources

“Return to the Philippines,” by Steinberg, Rafael, Time-Life Books 1979

Information on the fighter plane, “Lockheed P38,” from the dreamstime.com/stock-

photos-vintage

“U.S. At War,” Headline Histories from the Los Angeles Examiner, December 8, 1941

through May 7, 1945.

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