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74 years ago a chilly December rain fell in the mountains of Leyte, an island in the South Pacific that most of us would be hard-pressed to find on a map, but for the paratroopers of America's 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Leyte had become a place of hellish reality.
The year was 1944 and the world was full of a war that threatened the "peace on earth, goodwill towards men" of all mankind. The most basic freedoms of every man, woman and child, even the right to life, was on the line and the 511th had been formed to fight against the forces of oppression and darkness.
Most of the paratroopers were young, between 18-21. One "man" in my grandfather's D Company, was seventeen-year-old Pfc. Billy Pettit who lied about his age in order to enlist and serve his country. Nicknamed "Billy the Kid" by his comrades, Billy's face and eyes now held the same grim look of his brothers in arms who had shared in the horrors of fighting the Japanese in close quarters day after day for weeks on end.
Sitting on a hill overlooking Ormoc Bay on Leyte's west coast, D Company's CO Captain Stephen E. Cavanaugh (pictured right) surveyed his men, primarily those in 1st Platoon under 1st Lieutenant Andrew Carrico III.
The 32 men of 1st Platoon were tired. They had started hiking from Dulag into Leyte's interior on November 23 and fought their way straight up the mountains' 4,400-feet heights and then down the other side towards Ormoc Bay. Along the way they endured torrential rains every day, constant Bonzai attacks from the enemy at night and vicious battles in the jungles nearly every step of the way. Nicknamed "The Angels", the 511th's paratroopers were being asked to do what other regular Army units had attempted to do: eliminate the Japanese supply line that ran through the mountain ridges.
They were now on Day 38 of their successful-yet-costly mountain and jungle campaign. Many men in D Company were now suffering from malaria or dengue fever (or both) and the fevers and digestive problems only added their misery. Their once trim and fit bodies were covered in jungle ulcers and most had lost over twenty pounds or more due to their inability to resupply in the mountains. Just over two weeks earlier, after having nothing to eat for seven days, D Company had eaten a dog with a few camotes they had managed to dig up in a nearby field.
Nearby, Lieutenant Carrico (pictured right) was tending to 1st Platoon. The day before, Carrico, with Cavanaugh traveling behind, had led 1st Platoon in a final assault on a hill near where they now sat in a mango grove. Lieutenant Carrico's 31 men had charged up the hill and eliminated more than 300 of the enemy who had been stubbornly holding the entire 11th Airborne back from reaching Ormoc Bay. The Americans were sick, angry at losing so many friends to the enemy, and more than ready to end their time on this God-forsaken island.
As D Company's Pfc. William L. Dubes noted, "It was a nightmare."
Growing up in Oklahoma I was lucky to be exposed to both the histories and the teachings of the area's Native American/Indigenous People's cultures and beliefs. From a personal and a religious standpoint I have always found great insight in the stories and teachings that have been passed down through the centuries within both the tribes, the nations and the individual families of these groups. The symbolism found in the lessons taught through storytelling can be strengthening, guiding, comforting, encouraging, humbling and more.
One of my favorite stories that teaches us about maintaining proper perspective and attitude involves The Eagle and The Field Mouse.
The Field Mouse went throughout its day, running to and fro with rapid speed, always looking for a crumb here, a morsel there. The mouse strained with its ears to hear of any danger, its heart often racing with fear about all the bad things that could happen. He complained frequently about running into obstacles that had to be scurried around or burrowed under. Life, for the mouse, felt desperate, challenge-filled, a daily-struggle for basic sustenance and at the end of the day the poor mouse believed that the Creator had made him for suffering and strife.
The Eagle, on the other hand, spent his days soaring majestically through the clouds. His elevated height allowed him a greater perspective on his surroundings which provided him more opportunities to both progress and to avoid the problems that the field mouse so frequently cried against. When a sharp gust appeared out of nowhere The Eagle rode the drafts and used them to rise higher in the sky. His sharp eyes looked at all the Creator had made for him and he spent hours each day studying the beautiful mountains, the green trees, the brightly colored flowers, the flowing streams and lakes and the vast meadows.