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"You couldn't keep them down. That's the funny thing - I can't understand it. They were fighting fools."

 

 

 

Battery Way was constructed on the "Topside" level of Corregidor Island in Manila Bay of the Philippines between 1904 and 1914. Four M1890 model 12" (305mm) mortars were emplaced. A few years before the start to World War II Battery Way was deactivated. In April 1942, Battery Way was reactivated for combat. This is that story, and the story of Captain William Massello, its commander.

 The war in the Pacific had been going on for four months. Bataan had fallen on April 9, 1942. Things looked bleak for the United States and its military personnel in the Philippines.

 

 Wednesday, April 15, 1942:

 

  Captain Bill Massello and "Erie" Battery, 60th Coast Artillery had been unemployed ever since their authorized transfer from Bataan to Corregidor. They lived in part of the regimental headquarters tunnel complex below Battery Wheeler

majmassello.jpg (28630 bytes)(Photo: Major William "Wild Bill" Massello)

 

    It was on a visit to Malinta tunnel that Massello walked in on a discussion, in the Coastal Artillery Command Headquarters lateral, on the feasibility of reactivating Battery Way. Battery Way’s 12 inch M1890 type mortars had been deactivated several years before due to a lack of trained artillery personnel and/or because whenever the mortars were fired the shockwave and overpressure damaged medical glassware in the hospital building. Mortars were the first guns Massello had ever fired as a newly commissioned West Point officer, and he immediately volunteered his battery to undertake the task. It meant coming under the command of the 59th Coast Artillery, and Massello know that his own CO (Commanding Officer), Colonel Chase, rigid and set in his ways as ever and twenty years out of date in his thinking, would never agree to such a move.1 So Massello and his great friend Captain John N. Harry Shank conspired to go over Chase’s head and appealed directly to Colonel Paul D. Bunker, who commanded the 59th Coast Artillery Regiment and to General George F. Moore, the Commander Philippine Coast Artillery Command and Harbor Defenses of Manila and Subic Bays. The ploy worked and with little grace Chase let his men go.

Massello's gunners and a host of volunteers who came forward moved in with Battery Geary to study the intricacies of the mortar. Battery Geary had the newer M1908 type of mortars, but the principles of operation were the same. Meanwhile the ordnance personnel set to work reactivating the monster weapons at Battery Way. Sources state the Captain Mussello had a key part in reactivating the Battery Way mortars themselves. Restoring the neglected guns to a firing condition was in itself a formidable and highly skilled task. It took Massello, his men, and the ordnance personnel about two weeks to reactivate the battery.2

(Photo: Btty. Way,1978)way2.jpg (120512 bytes)

When Massello and Shank examined the shells for the mortars, they found that antipersonnel rounds were in short supply. However, they figured that the armor-piercing shells, of which there was an ample supply, could be adapted against land targets if they cut the time delay on the fuses to produce instantaneous explosions.

 

The blueprints seemed to bear out the officer’s theory, but there was only one way to find out. Shank and a couple of artillerymen unscrewed the shell cone of an armor piercing shell, removed the delay in the fuse, and reassembled it ready for firing. It worked like a charm, and the word was spread to Battery Geary and the mortar batteries on Fort Drum and Hughes.3

Wednesday, April 29, 1942

 

It was Emperor Hirohito’s birthday, and the Japanese celebrated by firing the biggest barrage of the war so far; some 10,000 shells hit Corregidor. Despite this, the defense was still defiantly fighting back and indeed gained strength, for on this day Massello brought Battery Way into action. … Massello had a full crew of 16 men on each gun, and they fired 20 rounds apiece at the Japanese concentrations around Cabcaben.

jgrayway.jpg (91602 bytes)(Photo: Btty. Way #1& #3. The 'pillbox' at the rear is the top of a ventilation shaft.(J. Grey photo)

 It was a complicated affair firing these vintage breach-loading mortars. The layer [gunner] turned the elevation wheel frantically and lowered the barrel level to the ground, and then the breech was opened and sponged. At this pointfour men at a run pushed a trolley along the tracks that led from the magazine to the gun. Right on their heels were two men with the rammer staff to ram the projectile home and seat the rotating band of the shells in the mortar tube chamber. The gunners first loaded the 1,000 –pound shell, with the "Massello fuse," into the breach. The loaders then turned back to the trolley and lifted the separate powder charge, a 96-pound bag of black powder, closed the breach block and set the primer cartridge. The mortar then had to be elevated above 45 degrees to fire and site set by the gunner with a gunner’s quadrant.4 At this point, all but the gun captain retired while he, with the longest lanyard he could find (for nobody trusted this ancient piece or sensitive fuses), pulled hard and fired the mortar. The blast alone was enough to rip the clothes from a man’s back. A good crew could get a round off every two minutes, though this was academic since it was possible to fire only one mortar at a time. The concrete apron was so old and worn that Massello feared the concussions would shatter the foundations if all mortars fired at once in salvo.

Since Corregidor was an island with controlled access prior to the war the Japanese had little knowledge of exact battery locations so it took the Japanese about a day to locate Battery Way using counter-battery locating procedures. Once the Japanese had gotten over the shock of this new battery coming into the battle, they poured everything they could at Massello and his gunners. For a while it seemed as if they were the only targets on the island. Massello wisely withdrew his crew to the cover afforded by the reinforced concrete of the powder rooms and sweated it out. By the end of the day two mortars had been put out of action, and the weapon pit was full of masonry and debris. They worked through the night salvaging what they could and clearing the rubble in time to bring two mortars into action the next morning.5

 

 Evening Tuesday, May 5, 1942 –  2330 hours - H-Hour

Battery Way.jpg (47144 bytes) (Photo: By Artillery custom, the guns of Btty Way are numbered 1-4 from right front to rear left)

   Battery Way received word of the concentration of Japanese boats and landing barges, and the gunners ran to man the mortars. Massello broke out the antipersonnel shells. They were thin-walled shells weighing 670 pounds, practically all TNT. They had a fuse 6 inches long, a complicated affair that unwound a tape as it went. The slightest little touch could set these monsters off, but their blast had a lethal radius of 500 yards. Massello had been saving them for just this occasion. Rubble was swept from the tracks leading to the last two mortars, shell and powder bags rammed home, and the guns fired on the coordinates. At the same time the big guns on Fort Drum opened fire and at a range of 20,000 yards poured shell after shell on the water craft of the Japanese second wave with deadly effect. On Fort Hughes, the mortars manned by the men of the USS Mindanao joined in, and the Japanese were caught flat footed and exposed.

At about 3:00A.M, on orders from Lieutenant Colonel Norman Simmonds, the fire commander, Battery Way shifted its fire directly onto the Japanese beachhead at North Point. However, some of the 670-pound projectiles, fell very close to the marines and soldiers containing the Japanese at Water Tank Hill. Reluctantly, Colonel Bunker had to order Simmonds to cease fire.

way_plan.jpg (93891 bytes)

After this, for the remainder of the morning of 6 May, Way fired almost continuously at Bataan and on the landing barges, getting away a round approximately every five minutes. The Japanese replied with counter battery fire which Massello described at "terrific," causing steadily mounting casualties among the gunners. Yet as soon as one crew was knocked out by a direct hit in the pit, another crew would dash from the safety of the bombproof magazine to take its place. Corporal William A. Graham’s gunners fired for an hour before Japanese salvo wounded four of his men and put a piece of shrapnel through his lung. Graham said, "Well, boys, that’s my ticket but you guys keep on firing." He died shortly after. The next crew immediately took over. One the noncoms, Sergeant Walter A. Kulinski recalls with wonderment the bravery of the men. "I have never in my life seen men like that crew … they were wounded, but they wanted to fire those guns." One man continued servicing the piece although his stomach had been torn open. "You couldn’t keep them down. That’s the funny thing—I can’t understand it. They were fighting fools."6

 way46.jpg (71158 bytes)

(Photo: Btty. Way, 1945)

At 5:00A.M., the last officially designated "gun crew" was shot out. From then on cooks, motor sergeants, communications clerks, and other men kept the old mortar firing to the accompaniment of a constant stream of wisecracks from Private Arthur Davis, cook rammer, and morale-sustainer extraordinary. By this time the emplacement was literally coming to pieces; part of the front wall had collapsed, and concrete fragments lay piled two to three feet high on each side of the runway from the magazine to the mortar. A thick blanket of powder slivers covered the floor of the pit, catching fire with each Japanese salvo. The crews were forced to beat out each blaze with wet burlap. Recoil oil was running short, causing the trunnions to slam "with an awful wallop" against the rubber recoil buffers of the mortar with each round.

Massello remained with the men who manned the surviving gun; his example and courage were an inspiration to them all. The piston rods that cushioned the recoil had snapped under the strain, and the mortar jammed. Massello liberally poured oil out of a 10-gallon can over the mechanism, and they were back in business. The mortars had never been intended for such a long and sustained fire. The barrel was so hot it blistered hands, and burning slivers of metal came spewing out with each round fired. There was no water left in the battery to cool the barrel, so Massello used his initiative, and helped for a while. Chunks of concrete and rubble littered the pit and so intense was the Japanese fire that it was necessary to sweep the tracks clear each time the mortar was fired. Massello insisted on doing this himself.way45.jpg (57617 bytes)

"If they ever get me, what a hell of a way for a soldier to go, with a goddamn broom in my hand!" he yelled as he ran out from the powder magazine into a maelstrom of fire.

After a couple of hours of such use the recoil mechanism on the last remaining mortar was very shakey, and the chances of a misfire and premature discharge were considerable. Massello fired the gun himself rather than put his own men at risk. Casualties were mounting in any case. On each occasion the crew emerged to service the gun, men fell.7

In mid-morning Massello, who had remained in the mortar pit the whole time and whom Kulinski terms "a fighting man, a real Coast Artillery Officer," is reported to have ordered the telephones ripped from the wall of the battery. He did not, he said, want anyone to send him an order to surrender.8

 

H-Hour + 11 (1030 hours, May 6, 1942)

 

Massello came out of the magazine bunker, broom in hand, and started to sweep rocks and rubble once more from the tracks. There seemed to be no letup in the Japanese fire. As he turned to signal the track clear, he was caught by a hail of jagged-edged shrapnel. There were wounds in his legs, and one in his arm had severed the artery. Some gunners rushed out and dragged their battery commander back to the cover of the shell room. Massello had enough presence of mind to keep his thumb jammed hard against the artery while the men rendered first aid. For the rest of the morning he conducted the battle from a stretcher until the breechblock froze solid and they couldn’t open the gun.9 "The old mortar had finally quit on us," Massello recalls, "but it lasted long enough to be the last big gun on Corregidor to fire on the enemy."10

Way_45-1.jpg (97675 bytes)(Photo: Btty. Way, 1945)

By this time casualties had risen to well over 70 percent, with men hit by shrapnel or knocked unconscious by concussion and flying concrete. Kulinski was out, a victim of shrapnel and backwash concussion suffered while standing near the wall of the pit. The bravery of Private First Class James H. Farmer, Jr., saved many of the wounded. He helped load the casualties onto a truck and then made repeated trips through shell fire and bombing to the battalion aid station at Battery Wheeler.11

Battery Way had fired the last shell in its short but violent part in the campaign.12  

Starting at 2330 hours 5 May 1942 through 1100 hours 6 May 1942, Battery Way fired over 90 rounds at the Japanese forces on Bataan and Corregidor. With this amount of firing from Battery Way, it averaged one round fired at the enemy every seven minutes and 36 seconds, and this was done under constant heavy counter-battery fire from the Japanese. This is a true testament to the bravery and dedication of William Massello and the men of Battery E "Erie", 60th Coast Artillery Regiment.

At 1200 hours, May 6, 1942, Lieutenant General Wainwright, ordered Colonel Bunker to lower the colors, and Corregidor was at its end.

 

 

 

 

 

       -POSTSCRIPT-       

  

On 6 May, 2002 a memorial was dedicated in the memory of Major William Massello Jr.   

  

       -NOTES-       

 

NOTE:  For their actions in the Philippines from 8 December 1941 through 6 June 1942, three Presidential Unit Citations were awarded to all units participating in the Defense of the Philippines.

Captain William Massello received the Silver Star for his actions as Commander of E Battery, 60th Coast Artillery Regiment at Battery Way.

During the Philippines Campaign, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a legion of Merit, and Four Purple Hearts. This, George Munson believes, made him the most decorated soldier in the Philippines.

1:      Captain Massello’s Battery E, 60th Coast Artillery was probably attached to the 59th Coast Artillery. This allowed the unit to maintain its identity but it was under the control of the 59th Coast Artillery until the end. <back>

2:      There’s some confusion as to whether all four mortars of Battery Way were reactivated or just three mortars. General Moore in his report states all mortars were reactivated. Interviews by Morris and the Belote brothers with Massello indicate that only three of the mortars were reactivated. Mortar number 1 was the one not made combat ready. <back>

3:    Morris pp 433-434 <back>

4:    A gunner’s quadrant is a measuring device set on top of the mortar tube at the breech end that allows the gunner to measure how high the gun tube is from the horizontal position. Measurements are done in mils. (There are 6400 mils in a circle as apposed to 360 degrees in a circle <back>

5:    Morris, pp 445-446 <back>  

6:    Belote, pp 160 <back>

7:    Morris, pp 450-451 <back>

8:    Belote, pp 161 <back>

9:    Morris, pp 457 <back>

10:   Belote, pp 161 <back>

11:   Belote, pp 161 <back>

12:   Morris, pp 457 <back>

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eric Sprengle is a graduate of the US Army Command and General Staff College, spent eleven years active duty as a Field Artillery Officer, commanding two batteries and served a further 11 years in the reserves as a Medical Services Officer. He  retired as a Lt. Colonel, and remains active in VFW affairs. He is webmaster of a VFW website and is an awardee of this website's Corregidoros Award for outstanding assistance to the site by a webmaster.

       -SOURCES-       

Belote, James H. & William M. Belote., "Corregidor: The Saga of a Fortress," Harper & Row, Publ, NY, 1967. - Story of the fall of Corregidor and the retaking of Corregidor by the 503d Parachute Infantry Regiment. Out of print.

Bunker, Paul D., "Bunker's War," Ed by Col. Keith Barlow, Presidio Press, Novato, CA, 1996. Diary of Colonel Paul D. Bunker, Commander, 59th Coast Artillery Regiment on Corregidor. Out of print.

Morris, Eric, "Corregidor – End of the Line," Military Heritage Press, Marboro Books, Stein & Day/Publishers, NY, 1982. Story from before the start of the war through the Bataan and Corregidor battles. Story based upon interviews of the men and officers in the Army and Navy stationed in Luzon and Corregidor. One of the veterans interviewed – William Massello. Out of print.

Morton, Louis, "The Fall of the Philippines, The War in the Pacific - U.S.Army in World War II; Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, Government Printing Office, Reprint 1973, originally published in 1953. Out of print.

Nix, Asbury., "Corregidor Oasis of Hope," Palmer Publications, Inc., Amherst, WI., private printing by author. Story of SGT Nix on Corregidor in 1941-42, as a prisoner of war. Out of print.

Floor Plan of Btty Way via the Author

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