Sixty -one years ago this month, the men of the Sixth Infantry Division, U.S. Army, were in their fifth month of fighting the Japanese Imperial Army on the island of Luzon, the Philippines. They had just cracked the Shimbu line after a two-month battle in which the division’s three regiments were thrown into a battle against 14,000 Japanese soldiers waiting in bunkers, pillboxes, trenches and caves. During the Shimbu line battles, every attack was met with a counterattack from the Japanese, who favored night actions and the banzai charge. Many of the Sixth’s soldiers were ill with diseases like malaria from fighting in the jungles of New Guinea the prior year against elite Imperial Marines.
At that time, in late May 1945, plans were being drawn up for Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu, Japan, which was to begin on March 1, 1946. Operation Coronet was to follow Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu, which was scheduled for November 9, 1945. How many American dead and wounded were expected from these two invasions is disputed, but this much is known for sure — the Army manufactured 500,000 Purple Hearts in anticipation of the battle for Japan, a stockpile it has yet to exhaust in all the years since. The Order of Battle for Operation Coronet included the landing of eight armored and infantry divisions west of Tokyo Bay. These divisions were then to fight their way north and take the city in conjunction with other U.S. forces. Among those divisions was the Sixth. Among the three regiments of the sixth was the 63rd Infantry Regiment, and among the 63rd’s 12 companies was Company C. Among the soldiers of Company C that would have fought their way toward Tokyo, presuming they had not already been killed in their landing transports before they hit the beaches by one of the 10,000 kamikaze planes assembled to oppose the landings, was a young staff sergeant named Fred Rossmiller, my dad. In addition to the perhaps 400,000 American dead expected in the battle, it was thought 5 million to 10 million Japanese soldiers and civilians would die.
As we now know, Operation Coronet never happened, because the war ended in September 1945. If it hadn’t, my dad might never have made it back to Wildrose, North Dakota, where years later, he delivered me, the fifth of five children, one October morning on our farm. My dad never said much to me about the war. I asked him once if he had killed in battle. He said he didn’t know: he fired at the enemy and they fired at him. If he had killed someone, he had not personally seen it. He then told me a different story, about how when he was fighting in Luzon, he and his unit came upon some members of the Filipino Army, who had captured a Japanese soldier, tied him to a tree and were beating him. My dad stopped them, but his unit was involved in a battle, and had to move on. They couldn’t take the prisoner with them. After his unit moved out, my dad said, he didn’t know what happened.
The mutual enmity between the Japanese and American armies in World War II was extremely high. Yet my dad had tried to protect this enemy soldier, and apparently thought this a more appropriate lesson for his child than his other combat experiences, because he never talked to me about them in the same kind of detail. Mostly, what I know of the Sixth and its battles I have read in the official division history and elsewhere.
In the abstract, it may sound like a cliche to talk about honoring those who have served and sacrificed for our nation. But that abstract concept of service and sacrifice is made up of millions of individual real acts by real people who did things like carry a 70-pound machine gun on their backs through dense, mountainous jungle, and sleep with their boots on both to keep snakes and bugs out and to be ready for an enemy suicide attack. People like my dad, who fought in 306 days of combat, the last 219 of them consecutive, and then went home and farmed, didn’t complain, and didn’t talk much about what he had done. There is a word for people like that, people like my dad: heroes. And they have Memorial Day lest we forget.