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The Rat's Ass Charge - 3: The Charge

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CPL Wilbur Wilcox noted, "In the dim light, the Japanese were caught sleeping and were slaughtered. As the morning got lighter, we sped up the attack. (Later) as the trail spread out into the bivouac area, the entire Company became involved. The Japanese were not expecting an early morning attack and were surprised."

1LT Andrew Carrico 511th Parachute InfantryHearing those initial shots off to his right, 1LT Andrew Carrico bellowed D Company’s catchphrase, “Rat’s ass!”, which signaled 1st Squad to throw grenades and hit the dirt (PFC David Vaughn had declared once back during stateside training, “I don’t give a rat’s ass!” and the phrase stuck). Explosions soon shattered the morning air as 1st Squad engaged the startled Japanese on the left with CPT Stephen Cavanaugh staying just behind my grandfather, 1LT Carrico.

2nd Squad, now fully engaged with the Japanese after PVT Sepulveda's action, hurled their own grenades then began to rush towards the enemy's first line of defenses. PFC John Bittorie of Brooklyn, NY hurled phosphorous grenades on the run to burn enemy positions on the right of the platoon line and in all the excitement, the 6’ 2” machine gunner ran into a tree branch which smashed his nose and sent his helmet tumbling (John had already lost his front teeth in a North Carolina bar fight). Eyes blurry from the pain, Bittorie failed to notice the Japanese soldier six feet away drawing a bead on his head. Luckily PVT Augustus Wilder did and promptly dropped the enemy.

With the entire platoon now committed, PFC Bittorie’s ammo carrier PFC Russell Kilcollins and Assistant Gunner PVT Stewart Stevenson ran to the dazed machine gunner, still on his back, who muttered to himself, “Sunnuvabitch, right between the eyes.” Realizing that the Brooklynite believed he had been hit by enemy fire, Kilcollins pointed to Bittorie’s "enemy" and yelled, "You’re the dumb sunnuvabitch! Get up, you ran into that tree limb!"

Pressing up the hillside, the firefight grew in intensity and as 1st Platoon's push momentarily stalled due to enemy sniper and machine gun fire, 1LT Carrico and CPT Cavanaugh realized that besides the expected Main Line of Resistance (MLR) 1st Platoon’s thirty-five Angels had stumbled onto a Japanese column of around 150 Japanese on a trail 10-15 feet wide.

"It was a machine gunner’s dream," Grandpa/1LT Carrico recalled.

Full of adrenaline from his "encounter" with the tree branch, off to the platoon's right PFC John Bittorie shook off the stinging pain from his damaged nose and asked for a full belt for his .30 machine gun which PVT Stevenson helped load as bullets zipped overhead. Fully expecting that their gun would be needed, Kilcollins and Bittorie had spent the previous evening cutting belts into smaller, easier-to-carry lengths.

John then slung his 30-pound 1919A4 Browning light machine gun on webbing over his shoulder. Grabbing the barrel with an asbestos mitt, Bittorie rose to his feet, then bellowed challenges to the Japanese defenders, shouting: “Banzai, rat’s ass! Who’s with me?!”

1st Platoon watched the exposed “Bad Soldier” roar at the top of his lungs and fire a burst from the hip at 400-550 rounds per minute before John charged towards the enemy lines. With decaying jump boots and rotting uniform exposing bleeding jungle ulcers on his legs and body, Bittorie’s charge galvanized 1st Platoon into performing a Banzai charge of their own.

"Bittorie was a soldier that was a great soldier in combat, but he wasn’t worth a damn in the every day,” Grandpa/1LT Carrico chuckled. “He was always in trouble, stuff like that."

"He was an excellent soldier," remembered PFC Billy Pettit. "But he was a brawler. He was always fighting someone."

"John Bittorie was kind of a black sheep," noted PVT Charles L. Jones. "And quite mean."

"He really showed his mettle (on Hacksaw Ridge)," Grandpa added. "He came through."

John Bittorie 511th Parachute InfantryInspired by Bittorie’s charge, 1st Squad on the left led by 1LT Carrico and SGT George Taylor and 2nd Squad on the right led by Grandpa’s friend S/SGT George “Reb” Cushwa and PFC William Dubes began a trotting marching fire line up the hill that decimated the discovered Japanese column and defensive positions on the ridge. Cushwa had helped evacuate the wounded to the rear then hurried back to lead 2nd Squad and for his daring leadership, Grandpa recommended the Staff Sergeant from Roxboro, NC for the Bronze Star, saying, “he was a helluva nice guy.”

Many in 1st Platoon felt that John Bittorie deserved the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. The "screw-up" from Brooklyn, who would retire a Command Master Sergeant with over 30 years of jump status, said decades later, "There are two kinds of military reputations. One is official and on paper in Washington, DC. The other is the one that goes from bar to bar from the mouths of those who served with you there. That is the only reputation I ever really cared about."

After the Rat's Ass Charge, John's reputation flew from the mouths of those he served with there, though he modestly said that their success was only due to the leadership of CPT Cavanaugh and my grandfather 1LT Carrico. Bittorie explained that "to get so close to the Japanese position undetected and the fast reaction of the assault while catching the Japanese withdrawing was the key to success."

Inspired by John’s charge, the Angels rushed forward with shouts of “Rat’s Ass!”, “Banzai!”, “Habba, habba!” and their old chant of “48, 49, 50!”. PFC Charlie Jones of 1st Squad remembered watching panicked Japanese soldiers diving off the ridge, saying it was like shooting rabbits in heavy brush.

CPT Cavanaugh noted, "This forward surge by the company continued for two to three hours with the enemy running in desperation, but losing the race."

Lest we picture a group of fresh, healthy paratroopers making the assault, the truth is that most of 1st Platoon was sick with one debilitating jungle malady or another (or several) and all were suffering from malnourishment. SGT Royalle Streck, for example, was so feverish that he had to be guided down the hill after the fight as he could not even walk straight.

No, 1st Platoon’s assault was affected by a small band of brothers who refused to quit or let each other down. As Marine aviator, astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn explained, "You train people to have more loyalty to their unit than they have to themselves, to the point where people will go out and do things that defy all instincts of self-preservation."

Like make a Rat’s Ass Charge against ten-to-one odds.

"I think the frustration and pent up anger of many days of hardships and siege (in the mountains) set off this charge on the enemy position. (We) shot everything in sight," PFC Bill Dubes added.

A note in the regimental journal simply says, "1st Platoon of D Co pulled a ‘rats ass’ charge on the Japanaese at dawn… The Japanese haven’t stopped running."