The Hotel Tacloban

The Hotel Tacloban

by Douglas Valentine


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504032896
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 06/14/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 196
Sales rank: 701,543
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Douglas Valentine is the author of four books of historical non-fiction, one novella, and one book of poems.

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The Hotel Tacloban

By Douglas Valentine

Lawrence Hill & Co., Inc.

Copyright © 2001 Douglas Valentine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3276-6


New Guinea. The first time I heard of it, I was on a troopship three weeks into the Pacific Ocean. I didn't know where it was, or what it was, or anything else about it, and neither did anyone else.

We had just crossed the equator when the announcement came over the PA system informing us that our destination was New Guinea, second largest island in the world after Greenland, as they so blandly described it. What they neglected to say, however, was that it was an abomination; a rotten stinking hellhole of incessant rains and horrendous temperatures consistently pushing 120 degrees; a pressure cooker where everything lived and died at an accelerated rate of speed; a Stone Age world populated by cannibals armed with blowguns and poison darts; a nightmare land of six inch spiders, fifteen pound rats, and unimaginable disease.

New Guinea. It even looked evil on the map circulating from hold to hold, like a gigantic dragon flying west in between northern Australia and the equator. The dragon's enormous jaws (seen on the map as MacCleur Gulf) appeared wide open, as if the beast were preparing to swallow whole the numerous Molucca Islands of Indonesia. And protruding from the dragon's jagged spine, the Owen Stanley Mountain Range formed a lethal, razorbacked tail extending into the Coral Sea. Those treacherous hills would be the scene of our first combat with elements of Japan's elite corps of jungle fighters, the vaunted South Seas Detachment.

Beginning in late July, 1942, the first of about 10,000 of those veteran troops were put ashore halfway down the dragon's tail at the tiny coastal village of Buna. Setting out in a southwesterly direction, the Japanese vanguard immediately began its trek across the grueling Kokoda Trail, an endeavor considered impossible by the Allied military braintrust in Brisbane, Australia. On the other side of the Owen Stanleys, 100 miles away topographically but ten times as far in reality, sat Tokyo's primary objective in the South Pacific — Port Moresby.

Why ransacked, rundown port Moresby? Because Moresby had an excellent deep-water harbor capable of accommodating an entire convoy, plus which it was ringed by seven airdromes Tokyo had every intention of using as launching pads for its planned invasion of Australia. The Aussies, who governed Northeast New Guinea and the Territory of Papua and who were legally responsible for administering the campaign, were aware of this of course, but their professional soldiers were all off in North Africa, the Mideast or Malaya, fighting, as usual, England's war. They had been recalled, but they had yet to arrive, and by early August the veteran Japanese had fought their way up the north face of the Owen Stanleys to Kokoda Village; they were halfway to Moresby and meeting only minimal resistance from an out-numbered and ill-equipped Australian force composed of Home Guard militiamen.

That's when we appeared on the scene. Ours was a provisional unit (a hastily assembled cadre of combat-engineers organized by the discombobulated Army Ground Forces and assigned to the 32nd Division) which was heading to Australia to hook-up with the 32nd for further training in amphibious operations (our basic training so far had consisted of two passes through the gashouse — once with a mask, once without — 48 hours in a bivouac area, and five shots on the rifle range) when it was unexpectedly diverted to New Guinea to serve as a temporary plug in the faltering Australian lines. Basically, we were a good-will gesture from General Douglas MacArthur to the beleaguered Aussies, who had been perfectly willing to give that worthless piece of real estate to the Japanese for free — until MacArthur in his wisdom persuaded them to do otherwise.

He would be delighted to help them, sure, but only on the condition that our presence in New Guinea remained top secret. To protect himself just in case the Owen Stanley Campaign turned into another catastrophe like the one at Bataan, Dougout Doug, when issuing official communiques, made no mention of the fact that American ground forces were fighting and dying in New Guinea. Things would change dramatically once the Japanese tide had been turned, but until then his lips were sealed.

Of course, I shouldn't place all the blame on General MacArthur; censorship is an absolute must at the start of any war, if only to ensure that the necessary flow of volunteers back home continues uninterrupted.

In accordance with its designation as combat-engineer, my unit was divided into two more or less equal parts, the first half consisting of a boat battalion (Higgins boat operators and such) for transporting combat elements from ship to shore during amphibious operations. The second half was composed of a shore battalion with its GHQ situated on the beach (where our commanders could congregate in comparative safety and comfort), one near-shore company for handling supplies and equipment on the beach (as well as for maintaining a lucrative black market), and four far-shore companies (mine being one of these) for defending said beach. Immediately upon our arrival in Paleolithic New Guinea, those of us in the far-shore companies hiked 25 murderous miles inland to form a defensive perimeter on Imita Ridge, in the vicinity of the Goldie River. A combined company command post, consisting of a table in a tent for our officers to eat at while they discussed strategy and commiserated with one another, was established. The enlisted men pitched their two-man pup tents in a circle around the officers' tent and took turns on sentry duty. There were reports of scattered Japanese patrols in the area and everyone was very uptight.

Our immediate orders were to stop the Japanese from slipping into Moresby through the jungles west of Imita Ridge, and, if the need should arise, to participate in amphibious landings up and down the coast. The situation was this: the Japanese 144th Regiment was cascading over the Owen Stanleys and fanning out to our north and west. In most places they were swarming over the badly outnumbered Aussies sent to stop them. Where we were, they were already within thirty miles of their objective. By fighting in the aggressive style for which they are world famous, by plunging into the forest and outflanking the Aussies, who stuck to the trails, the Japanese had succeeded in pushing the 39th and 53rd Battalions (Australian Home Guard) out of Ioribaiwa Village and they were massing there, less than five miles from our perimeter.

For the next month we were locked in a stalemate with the Japanese. From our position on the crest of Imita Ridge we watched in the panoramic distance as Japanese light bombers, which we called Charleys, dropped food and equipment to their forward supply dump at Nauro Creek — about five miles behind Ioribaiwa. While our Fifth Air Force B-17 and A-20 bombers hammered Nauro Creek, our heavy artillery (105mm and 155mm howitzers, and 25 pounders) kept up a protracted bombardment of the Japanese infantry entrenchments across the Ua-ale Valley. At the same time our own transport planes were zooming in over base camp at tree top level, kicking out bundles of supplies and equipment, half of which were irretrievably lost in the impenetrable jungle maze. Native carriers from Moresby (some dressed only in leaves, some stark naked, some with thin slivers of bone shoved through their nostrils, others with dried blood smeared on their ebony chests) continued to carry up more and more cases of ammunition and medicine, and there was an inordinate flurry of activity around forward HDQs, all of which prompted our old-time sergeants to speculate that an offensive move was in the offing. As usual, they were right.

Then a week passed in mid-September in which there was very little contact with forward Japanese patrols, as well as diminishing traces of their main force (once numbering about 5,000 men) at Ioribaiwa. These were precisely the signs our commanders had been looking for and, consequently, they decided that the time was right to launch an offensive of their own. According to Intelligence reports gleaned from aerial photography (useless in the jungle) and native reports (notoriously unreliable), the South Seas Detachment had, in its haste to reach and conquer Moresby, badly overextended itself and was now completely cut-off from supply and communication lines. We were told that New Guinea was working its wicked magic on our enemy — that sick and starving Japanese soldiers were scrounging through the jungle, and that the little bastards were finished as a fighting force.

What we weren't told, and what our Intelligence officers didn't know, was that Tokyo had ordered the South Seas Detachment to withdraw back to Buna for transfer to Guadalcanal, where US Marines were slowly but surely winning the battle for that strategically more important island. In any event, the veteran Australian 7th Division, looking rakish in slouch hats and shorts, had finally arrived from Libya, plus which the 32nd Division had arrived from Brisbane and was waiting in the wings. Thus, sometime in late September, we began our own trek over the monstrous Owen Stanleys. Incidentally, our forward move marked an historically significant turning point in World War II; from the morning of our advance, right up to VJ-day, the Japanese would steadily lose ground, straight back to mainland Japan and defeat. They would never get any closer to Australia than Ioribaiwa.

When the South Seas Department realized they'd been abandoned by their high command, they cut their losses and retreated northeast, back the way they'd come two months before. In the wake of their retreat my unit forged ahead, systematically gaining ground measured in yards, digging in, calling up mortar crews, artillery and air power to blast into smithereens whatever opposition lay ahead. Spearheading the assault was the infantry, our depleted companies continually reforming and consolidating until, after two weeks of uninterrupted advancing, the four original companies had been reduced to two. Replacements never materialized and those of us who remained began to think and act like professional soldiers. The gradual disintegration of our unit, coupled with the loss of our comrades and the insanity of our surroundings, had a profound numbing effect on each and every one of us. The change had occurred a fraction at a time, without our knowing it, but we could now face the most horrible and bizarre sights without batting an eye.

We didn't know what to expect anymore. There was no semblance of order, only a sense of flux. In the course of a "normal" day we encountered groups of men sitting around in mournful silence, or we were passed by groups of men hustling frantically from one place to another. We saw men wandering aimlessly in a trance, mute, unable to mutter above a whisper, or men so badly shell-shocked that their hands had to be pried from their rifles. Men simply disappeared. And what with Japanese snipers penetrating within our perimeter, either sneaking in under cover of darkness or hiding underground or up in trees as we moved ever-onward, death could surface anytime, anywhere. There was so much madness going on, such a feeling of distance from everyone and everything, that we stopped making judgments about anyone's behavior. Surviving became our one and only concern.

During this numbing period on the line I experienced my first malaria attack. I was sitting in my foxhole feeling flushed, and sweat was pouring out of me, but I ignored those early warning signs, attributing them to the constant physical exertion, to the extreme heat and humidity. Before too long, however, I was having icy chills, dizziness and shakes, then the trees began to spin and the shrubs began to dance around me and I was gone. I became so useless to my comrades that they called for the medics and had me carried to a field hospital tent in a rear area where I ranted and raved deliriously for the next three days.

At the time I contracted malaria, I was totally unaware of the ramifications, although it would prove to be the bane of my existence for the next few years. I had no idea that cerebral malaria — which is found only in the fetid lowland swamps of New Guinea — kills one third of its victims outright and wreaks ungodly havoc on the minds and bodies of the others. Desensitized by my insane surroundings, I couldn't admit to myself that I had a disease, or that it could do me harm. The medics warned me to wait, to give things a chance to calm down, but my mental processes had been derailed by the disease and to my distorted way of thinking, malaria in itself was not a valid reason for abandoning my friends.

I know that sounds ridiculous, but no one set me straight. The Army was unwilling to admit that malaria, which was putting over fifty percent of our men out of action, was a serious problem; because it was a disease, not a combat wound, and because it required the services of able-bodied soldiers who might otherwise be on the line, any man down with malaria was treated like an unnecessary burden. There was a terrible stigma attached to it, almost as if anyone who had contracted it was malingering. Between the adverse mental effects of the disease, and the negative way it was viewed, I just did not know what to do. So the moment the fever and chills subsided, I returned to the line and took up my position beside my comrades.

Once I started having malaria attacks — attacks which occurred regularly every few weeks — I was never again as strong as I had been before. Devoid of stamina, I found it increasingly hard to function, mentally as well as physically. One part of me wanted very much to call it quits, to spare myself the pain and misery, and my friends urged me to have myself shipped back to an area where I could receive adequate medical attention, but I refused. After all that we had been through together, I just couldn't leave them alone. Meanwhile our unit moved relentlessly ahead, chasing the Japanese further and further into the hills, and with each passing day I grew more and more exhausted. I kept praying that we'd stop, or get relieved, but more than anything else I wished that the goddamned war would go away.

The US Army had other plans. Once the momentum had swung in our favor, we were little more than flotsam swept along on the tide of the forward movement. All of our time was spent tramping through the twilight gloom of bamboo forests, or through mangrove swamps thick with wide buttressed banyan trees, or across sun-drenched fields of kunai grass. We skirted pools of deadly quicksand and we trudged through the stinking, greyish-brown peat bogs which were a common feature of the water-logged terrain. Some were as large as football fields, some were the size of swimming pools, all had rotten logs and decaying branches jutting out of their foul, porridge-like mass. Swarms of mosquitoes floated above the algae-covered surface, but we walked right through. The silt seeped into our pants and boots, making us feel like we were being dragged under by the weight, and the slimy layer of mud on the bottom made it hard to keep your footing, but we kept right on going.

We crossed frothing streams on slippery, moss-coated logs and we tramped endlessly through ankle-deep mud. Mud. Mud. Mud. Huge black clouds engulfed the towering mountain tops; awesome thunderstorms shook the earth and we were drenched in endless torrential rains. Yet nowhere in that stinking swamp was fresh water to be found — native carriers had to lug our precious, purified drinking water from base camps on the beach. There was never any place to bathe, never an opportunity to engage in the luxury of personal hygiene, and under such conditions it became impossible to properly care for ourselves. All manner of odious vermin were constantly preying on our bodies, causing us profound discomfort. Our skin was covered with jungle rot, bloodsucking leeches, and infected insect bites. We never had a change of clothes; we had one pair of pants, one shirt, and one tattered poncho which we tore into long strips and wrapped around our rifles in an effort to keep them dry. It didn't help, but we did it anyway.

Thirsty and sweaty, filthy and soaking wet, sick to our stomachs from dysentery and burning up with fever, we pushed through the lush Ua-ale Valley to the steep green cliffs and rocky precipices that signaled the start of the Owen Stanleys. Clinging to heaving, bucking paths where no jeep could even dream of going — some pitched at violent 60 degree angles — we said goodbye to the foothills and clawed our way into the mountains.


Excerpted from The Hotel Tacloban by Douglas Valentine. Copyright © 2001 Douglas Valentine. Excerpted by permission of Lawrence Hill & Co., Inc..
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