Harvesting the memories of World War II servicemen before death or memory lapse has become a cottage industry in the 21st century. The war ended 64 years ago and a good many of my Army buddies from those days have already met their Maker. Recalling the wartime occurrences of a coin-collecting soldier is even more difficult because few of us were confirmed coin addicts during that historic time.
It was thus that your editor, Dave Harper, convinced me to set down my recollections of the war and the occupation of Japan in one of our lunchtime chats at Iola’s favorite eatery, the Crystal Café. Readers will know of my lengthy relationship with the numismatic hobby as editor and author so they need no retelling here.
Basics first: My coin collecting days started in the summer of 1939 on a turkey ranch near San Diego, Calif., and it was ingrained more deeply when war broke out in Europe on Sept. 1 that year.
I graduated high school in Milwaukee, Wis., in Jan. 1944 and joined the Army that year. Trained as an infantry scout (MOS 761 for you military historians) in East Texas, I found myself on a troopship to Luzon early in 1945. Most of my training platoon was assigned to the famed 11th Airborne Division but some of our young men went to Wisconsin’s own 32nd Infantry Division. Combat was lessening on Luzon then but still a factor to be reckoned with.
My assignment was to the I&R (Intelligence and Reconnaissance) platoon of Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 187th Paraglider Regiment. It was with the 187th that I served on Luzon, Okinawa, Honshu and Hokkaido.
On Luzon I had some very interesting experiences. When Manila had been secured, our guys were trucked up to bombed-out Rizal Stadium where an Army-Navy Independence Day football game was scheduled. The Filipino rains were thunderous on July 1, 1945, and the muddy field led to a 0-0 conclusion as we in the audience got soaked. Only one section of the stadium had adequate roof cover and that was reserved for Army and Navy nurses and Army WAC’s.
On another trip to Manila I observed soldiers burning huge piles of Japanese occupation currency and I asked the sergeant in charge if I could have some. He looked as though I might be out of it, but told me to help myself.
I filled my green cargo pack with the stuff, but had to sacrifice one pair of socks and a roll of toilet tissue to fit.
I carried that stuff to Japan where I learned its value was very little; I never knew another coin collector in the years 1944-1947, but there were plenty of souvenir hunters. On that same Manila trip I visited a newly opened curio shop and bought some Filipino silver and bronze coins, paying for them with the newly printed Victory pesos (the ratio then was 2 pesos per U.S. dollar.)
Buck privates (as I was then) were paid in Victory pesos and freshly minted (at San Francisco) silver and bronze centavos. We stood in line at the pay table on payday and an officer counted out our pay. For those interested, a private’s pay was $50 per month, plus another $50 for jump pay, or $25 for glider pay, and $20 for overseas service.
Not having much opportunity for spending, it was then that I started sending money home.
Did I get drunk? Once, gloriously, on Aug. 10, 1945, my buddy Art Plunkett and I walked from our encampment at Lipa to a nearby village and soaked up too much native brew. The evening of Aug. 6 we’d been watching a really awful movie titled, “It’s In The Bag” with Jack Benny and Fred Allen, shown on a two-bedsheet screen in the jungle. There we heard about the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the cry went up, “The war’s over!” It really was, but it took until Aug. 10 for the Japanese to accept that fact. We burned our encampment and military goods we couldn’t carry starting Aug. 11 so the stuff couldn’t fall into the hands of the Communist Hukbalahap guerillas.
Two regiments of our division, 187th and 511th, were trucked to Nichols Field, then flown to Clark Field at Angeles, and by Aug. 13 we bivouacked near Naha on Okinawa to await Gen. MacArthur’s orders.
On Oki our division was reassigned from the 8th to the 10th Army and we learned (much later) that MacArthur had wanted the 11th Airborne to be his strategic reserve in the planned invasion of Kyushu, and, more immediately, his protection in the air landing at Atsugi Field south of Tokyo. Thus our combat regiments began landing in late evening of Aug. 29th (some historians say dark morning Aug. 30th) at Atsugi and about 100 of us were selected to be in MacArthur’s arrival honor guard – men about 6 feet tall, blue eyed and blond or sandy-haired. As a Norwegian-American I made the list, as did blue-eyed Irishman Plunkett. We all got fresh green fatigue uniforms and new combat boots for the occasion.
Looking back on it, I feel that teenage Russ Rulau had his first life highlight that day. As we were airborne in C-54 cargo planes from Oki to Atsugi, our officers told us to be armed for anything on arrival, though nothing was expected since Emperor Hirohito had ordered his people to surrender peacefully. The landings were indeed free of any hint of resistance.
About 2 p.m. Aug. 30 Gen. MacArthur stepped from his plane, with sunglasses, corncob pipe and crushed cap – what a superb showman and soldier he was!
He returned our salute and received a Japanese lieutenant general and civilian in diplomat garb but refused the general’s offer of his samurai sword, gesturing to an aide to accept it.
Our regiments were given time off to travel to Tokyo to witness Japan’s surrender Sept. 1 aboard the battleship Missouri. All we really got to see was a parade down the Ginza by the 1st Cavalry Division and lines of MP’s blocking us from the dock area where “Big Mo” was tied up. Infantrymen just count for much less in time of peace ….
After that we bunked down in a naval barracks that was riddled with fleas, and we had our first experience burning our uniforms, underwear, Japanese straw mattresses and, nude, getting showered with delousing powder. But then things got better as we entrained north to our new division headquarters in Sendai. On Oct. 10, having a sufficient IQ, I was reassigned from the 187th to division HQ where I became a money order and registry clerk at Army Post Office (APO) 468. In January 1946 I became a T/5 (tech corporal) and spent six weeks living in a railway, car which was our railway mail service and barracks combined.
Money I began to handle in huge amounts. The black market in cigarettes, chocolate bars and canned fruit meant soldiers could send home their whole pay but not their illicit gains as Japanese currency and the “B” military scrip we were now paid were not exchangeable. The first Japanese currency I encountered was wartime notes and shortly afterward pre-war notes with adhesive revalidation stamps affixed.
All these soon gave way to notes of new designs. A 511th lieutenant colonel brought to our car on one day some $90,000 in “B” scrip for money orders for his officers and men.
All my time with APO 468 (about 14 months) I never saw U.S. bank notes, which were forbidden to own. Life went on and I started buying all the silver yen and copper sen I could find in shops – paying of course with black-market Japanese notes as the price of cigarettes zoomed to $20 a pack at the apex of such trading.
Then in January 1947, I was transferred back to the 187th, this time to C (Charlie) Company in the 1st Battalion. I had re-enlisted and noncoms were short on Hokkaido. They promoted me to full corporal, a line NCO, and I became an assistant to the platoon commander for a batch of new recruits. Sgt. Patton, Cpl. Hendrix and myself occupied NCO rooms in the wooden barracks, and we had our hands full with raw volunteers, a flu epidemic and a food shortage all at once.
NCO’s were forbidden to gamble with privates, so on one 1947 Sunday Patton, Hendrix and I played some games of stud poker. It was my day. I cleaned their clocks for 52,000 yen and bought a diamond ring with it.
Pushups and other rigorous athletics were daily fare for recruits and NCO’s had to lead by example. At age 21 I was in good shape.
I went home by troopship to Fort Lawton, Wash., and took my discharge in July, 1947. Years later, in November 1981, I revisited Japan as editor of World Coin News, sister publication to Numismatic News.
I found that already the “Atsugi landing soldiers” had become legendary and I was honored even by Bank of Japan officials. We had been the first U.S. combat troops to land in Japan, beating the Marines and 1st Cav by half a day.
For the record, 11th Airborne soldiers were called “Angels” and 187th Regimental Combat Team men were dubbed “Rakkasans” (sky men). I belong to both veteran organizations; the 11th was demobilized in Germany in 1955, but the 187th is now an integral part of the 101st Air Assault division in the Middle East.
Comments may be directed to Russ Rulau, P.O. Box 153, Iola, Wis. 54945; E-mail: email@example.com.