The 5217th Reconnaissance Battalion (Provisional) was formed at Camp
Tabragalba in Queensland, Australia, in October of 1943
Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, the mission of the 5217th was
intelligence and commando operations on the Philippine Islands. The brass
decided that airborne training would augment the ability of the 5217th to
conduct its intelligence work, and to Walter was given the job of seeing
that such training was provided. With that mandate in hand, Walter, with
the assistance of four enlisted men from the 503d PIR, proceeded to
establish a jump school, known simply as Camp X, near Brisbane, Australia.
The school’s 3-week program included all aspects of Ft. Benning’s
Parachute School program except the 250-foot towers.
found out very quickly that the average Filipino was too light for a
28-foot main chute," Walter recalls
. "Luckily, we didn’t lose anyone,
but some of them stayed up an awfully long time. I can recall hearing them
call out, ‘Lt. Walter, will I come down?’"
Camp X graduated two classes,
jump qualifying a total of 66 men. The Filipinos – who had volunteered to
serve in the Reconnaissance Battalion and then volunteered for jump school
- greatly impressed Walter. Not a single trainee who passed through
Walter’s jump school refused to jump.
The Japanese retreat in the Philippines was faster than anticipated, and
the paratroopers of the 5217th were never employed in an airborne role in
forward combat areas. But an opportunity to put their jump training to use
arose in May 1945 when an American aircraft crash-landed in the
mountainous jungle of central New Guinea, a region much of which bore the
disquieting notation Unknown on the maps that were then available.
A few weeks before the crash, Walter, now a captain, had lunched with his former biology teacher from Black Foxe
Military Institute, who was now the Chemical Warfare Officer of the Far
East Air Service Command (FEASC). Later, this officer informed the
Commander of FEASC that Walter had trained paratroopers under his command.
With all other airborne units in SWPA then committed to combat, FEASC knew
to whom to turn when the plane went down.
When Walter asked for volunteers to effect a rescue of the crash
survivors, to a man the paratroopers stepped forward. On the following
day, Walter and eight enlisted men parachuted into a large valley some
10-15 miles from the crash site to set up a base camp to begin hacking out
a landing strip for the gliders, in which they were to be picked up and
evacuated. The survivors of the crash were brought to the base camp to
recuperate from their injuries and regain their strength, while the
paratroopers put the finishing touches to the landing strip. Then, they
all sat back to await the gliders.
The natives the party encountered proved to be primitive but friendly. As
friendly as the natives were, however, their practice of never bathing and
coating their bodies with a mixture of pig grease and charcoal
necessitated barring them from the paratroopers’ camp. Even so, upon the
paratroopers’ return to base camp after completion of the mission, their
first act was to burn their web gear, the odor of which was all too
reminiscent of the hosts they had left behind.
Crash Survivor Cpl. Margaret Hastings at "Shangri-La"
On July 2, 1945, after having spent 42 days in the valley, the
party was extracted in three glider pick-ups. One cannot help wondering
how the natives – who probably never before had encountered anyone from
the outside world – viewed the strange arrival and departure of their
visitors. Religions have been founded on events less mystical than those
must have seemed.
The mission did not go unnoticed by the press, which dubbed it "Rescue
from Shangri-La" . Indeed, when the press covering the rescue insisted
on one of their number parachuting into the valley to cover the mission
‘up close and personal’, the brass acquiesced. Alex McCann, then a
journalist with the Netherlands Indies Government Information Service,
drew the assignment. His confidence buoyed by a crash course in
parachuting and by a fifth of Boodles gin, McCann parachuted into the
valley to document the rescue.
Airborne Section, 5217th Reconnaissance Bn.
Shortly after the mission, the 5217th, now the 1st Reconnaissance
Battalion, was sent to Manila, where Walter and his cadre were returned to
the 503d PRCT. Shortly thereafter, in August of 1945, the 1st
Reconnaissance Battalion was disbanded and the men reassigned.
Few friendships are as enduring as those that derive from acts of bravery
or shared hardships. And so it was that in April of 1995, Walter and one
of the medics who parachuted with him into "Shangri-La" gathered with the
two remaining survivors of the plane crash on the 50th anniversary of the
Besides providing the information and the photographs used in this
article, LTC Walter provided the patch (top). Of the patch, Walter wrote:
"…I am enclosing the chest patch, which we designed in Hollandia for wear
by members of the 1st Rcn. Bn. who were qualified jumpers. We petitioned
GHQ [for approval] and our request was denied, due to the fact only a
small segment of the Battalion was airborne.
I am particularly proud of the chest patch, as it brings back some very
fond memories of many officers and men who not only were excellent
soldiers and fighting men, but who became outstanding jumpers. It might be
of interest to note that there was never one refusal to jump out of the
total of close to 90 people who started training and the 66 who ultimately
I have always been very proud to have been associated with the 5217th/1st
Recon. I will always remember the very fine officers and men whom I
trained and worked with.. It was a most memorable time of my life
Walter’s "chest patch" depicts a parachute as well as elements symbolizing
the 5217th/1st Reconnaissance Battalion: the stars of the Southern Cross,
the head of a carabao, and the unit’s motto, Bahala Na, meaning "come
what will." Authentic examples of the sleeve patch of the 5217th are
very rare. (A close-but-no-cigar effort to reproduce this patch occurred
in the ‘50s. The copies feature an olive drab border, a rounded-shield
shape, and, erroneously, the Big Dipper rather than the Southern Cross.)
The "chest patch" is even rarer - the author is unaware of any in
collections other than his own.