By Matthew Ilseman
When we think of paratroopers in World War II, we tend to think 101st Airborne in Europe. However, there were other airborne units including the 11th Airborne which fought in the Pacific. Angels against the Sun by James M. Fenelon is their story.
I first heard of the 11th Airborne in the Wikipedia article on Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. It was Serling’s unit. The episodes “The Purple Testament” and “Quality of Mercy” are based on his experience during war. He would leave the war with a wounded knee and mental scars that would trouble him for the rest of his life.
The 11th was the brain child of General Joseph Swing. It was set up as an elite unit. They went through intensive training. It had one parachute regiment and two glider regiments. The idea was for them to land behind enemy lines and cause havoc. As such they were to some degree a precursor to special operations units. However, they seemed to have been used mostly as normal troops.
After their training, which took some time, they were assigned to fight in the Philippines. The Philippines was a frontier realm that was taken from Spain by the US in the Spanish American War. There would later be an insurrection that we would, quite brutally, put down. Eventually, it became a conquest of Imperial Japan.
The troops would also have to deal with disease and primitive conditions. Dysentry and malaria were common. Some troops apparently expected a tropical paradise but what they found was a harsh jungle.
Since the 11th were not immediately sent into combat the troops at first often suffered boredom alongside other privations. This was alleviated by football games and boxing matches. Another pastime seems to have been bootlegging. Inventive troops came up with makeshift stills.
Any one has read my review of With the Old Breed, by Eugene Sledge knows that fighting in the Pacific was horrible even by the standards of war. The experience was no different for the 11th. The Japanese usually fought to the death. The American troops were happy to oblige them. Even those who did surrender were sometimes simply executed in retaliation to atrocities against the Americans and the Filipinos. The taking of teeth as souvenirs that was depicted in With the Old Breed was not unknown among the troops of the 11th.
The American forces worked with and sometimes supplemented by Filipino guerrillas. Often they fought alongside American forces. Ad hoc units that included paratroopers, guerrillas, and other members of the military were often used in operations. By most accounts, these guerrillas were brave and fierce fighters. They would help reinforce the 11th after the division suffered heavy casualties.
Interestingly, the Japanese had their own Filipino auxiliaries. They are dealt with only sparingly in the book. They seem to have aided in various massacres of their own country men. When captured by pro-American guerrillas they were often killed in horrible ways. Hanging was the least of them.
There was much similarity with other frontier conflicts since the Filipinos served as scouts. There were, of course, differences. Air power was used as often. Swing often used artillery to devastating effect. On the other side, the Japanese who modified anti-aircraft guns to use against land troops in the Battle for Manila.
One of the more notable operations was the rescue of the inhabitants of a Japanese prison camp. These were foreign civilians mostly who had made a living in the Philippines that had been caught up in the war. Quite often they were Christian missionaries. Fearing that, with the advance of American troops, they would be either evacuated to Japan or outright massacred Swing authorized a rescue mission.
The mission was a spectacular success except that because Filipinos assisted in the operation the Japanese retaliate with massacres of the local population.
Eventually, the Philippines were taken. The 11th expected to be used in the invasion of Japan. Obviously, that did not happen, though they would be station there after the war.
Angles against the Sun is not quite as gripping as With the Old Breed. This is because it is not a personal account like Sledge’s. That said it is no dry recital of facts either. Fenelon is a good writer and he makes clear what the men of the division went through. It also shines a spotlight on area of World War II often overlooked. I would highly recommend it.