The first week of
was busy for the pilots of Air Group 15, flying
from the USS Essex. At 0630 on the morning of November 6th, twenty-six F6F
Hellcat fighters, nine SB2C Helldiver dive-bombers, and five TBM Avenger
torpedo-bombers left the deck of the USS Essex to join air groups from other
carriers in the task force under the command of Admiral W.F. Bull Halsey
in the first wave of strikes against the Japanese forces at Clark Field,
as well was enemy ships in Manila and Salanguin Harbors.
Seated in the cockpit of one of the SB2C Helldivers
was pilot, Navy Lieutenant William S. Bill Rising . Behind him was his
radioman/gunner, ARM2/c John Montgomery. One week earlier John had celebrated
his 21st birthday. Now he carefully scanned the heavens for signs of the
enemy in hopes of eventually celebrating his 22nd.
As the aircraft neared the target on a dock
area near Manila, ground fire began to burst around the American planes.
Lieutenant Rising looked below and found a choice target, a Japanese destroyer.
He put his dauntless into a vertical dive, screaming in on the enemy ship
at almost a 90 degree angle to lay his bombs on its deck. Around the rapidly
falling airplane burst the deadly rounds of enemy anti-aircraft fire. Manning
the gun behind his pilot, John Montgomery did his best to ignore it and
concentrate on the mission at hand. Though young, he had already completed
38 such missions, and was becoming an "old hand".
Suddenly the sound of the diving Helldiver's
engine changed. Enemy fire had struck home, Lieutenant Rising's airplane
was crippled. Quickly the pilot pulled out of his dive, struggling to level
his aircraft. Both men removed their safety belts and climbed out on a wing
to bail out. Then, as the Helldiver began to level more, Lieutenant Rising
yelled across to Montgomery, "I think I can still control 'er. Let's see
if we can make it out past Manila Bay." Both men climbed back into the falling
Helldiver, buckled up, and headed out to sea and away from the bay that was
filled with enemy ships.
The airplane would definitely not be returning
to the Essex, but any distance the two men could put between themselves and
the enemy controlled bay would decrease their chances of capture. As they
moved further from Manila Bay, they continued to also drop closer to the
swells of the sea. Montgomery took the life raft from its storage tube and
put it across his cockpit, bracing his head against it as a cushion. Lieutenant
Rising struggled against the controls, bouncing the Helldiver over a couple
of waves before it nosed into the sea with great force.
In the brief moments before the airplane slipped
to the ocean floor, Bill Rising climbed out onto the wing and Montgomery
threw him the raft. The contents of two 30 caliber ammunition boxes had spilled
on the gunner during the crash landing, and as the cockpit filled with water
Montgomery struggled to free himself. Then, to his horror, the young man
from Kentucky realized that in the adrenaline charged moment of danger, he
had forgotten to unbuckle his safety belt. Working feverishly against both
the weight of the ammo and the restraint of his harness, he lost precious
seconds. Water washed over him as the plane sank beneath the waves. Somehow,
miraculously, he worked his way free and actuated his life vest. Only one
side inflated, and John Montgomery popped to the surface coughing up the
briny water, and tilted at an awkward angle. But at least he was alive.
The salty water stung the open wounds of
Montgomery's ankles where enemy flak had punctured flesh, and Lieutenant
Rising tried to shake off the fuzziness caused by a wound to his head when
the airplane slammed into the sea. On impact, the cans containing fresh water
had popped open and filled with marking dye, making it useless to the men.
So quickly had the Helldiver sank, none of the emergency rations could be
saved. They were two men with no supplies, no fresh water, and only a small
raft...adrift in the South Pacific.
At least they were not alone. Other fighters
circled overhead for a time, keeping pace with the downed airmen. One dropped
a lifejacket and canteen of water. Another dropped a life raft. Then, low
on fuel, the other planes of the task force returned to their carriers. Less
than 3 hours after the strike force had taken off, the Deck Log Entry on
the USS Essex reported, "6 Nov 44, 0952 Landed planes of Strike No. 1 and
Sweep No. 1, less VF SB2C piloted by LT(jg) W.S. RISING, USNR and crewman
MONTGOMERY, J.W., ARM2/c USNR. Failed to return from strike No. 1 and believed
to have made water landing 26 miles near Sampolec Point, Subic Bay area."
The two airmen didn't feel abandoned. They knew,
as did their fellow pilots, that an American submarine was in the area. Before
the other pilots had left to refuel, they had received radio information
that the sub was 21 minutes away from their comrades, and would pick them
up. As the morning wore on into the afternoon, however, Rising and Montgomery
saw no sign of rescue. Soon, rather than scanning the surface for the rescue
sub, they scanned for Japanese gunboats and watched the skies for enemy planes.
As the day wore on, survival turned into a plan
for escape and evasion. The men knew they were at the mercy of the enemy,
floating alone on the surface of the sea. Already they had been spotted by
a Japanese sea plane that had strafed their raft, pitting it with bullet
holes. (Fortunately neither man was hit.) Scanning the horizon for a safe
landing place, the two survivors knew that if they made their way to the
nearest side of Luzon, they would be putting to shore in an area heavily
controlled by the enemy. They elected, instead, to row southward to the smaller
Fortune Island. The small strip of land only half-mile long and 150 yards
wide doesn't even show on most maps. Working through the evening and into
the night, they finally made the shoreline shortly before dawn.
Exhausted, the men hid their raft and then used
the daylight hours to get some much needed sleep. In the darkness of their
second night they patched the bullet holes in their raft, then began rowing
to the far side of Luzon Island. During their second night of escape and
evasion, they were suddenly startled when a flying fish landed in their raft.
Surprise turned to thanksgiving as they cut it up in chunks and shared its
meat for nourishment.
As they neared the island, they could see the
lights of Nasugbu, but they steered past it to avoid any signs of the enemy.
Eventually they found a small cove, beached their raft and made their way
several hundred yards into the jungle to rest until daylight. The crowing
of a rooster signaled dawn, and also the presence of a home nearby. Cautiously
making their way towards civilization, they found the home belonged to Leon
Lagos, who identified himself as a member of the Fil-American Guerrillas.
While food was prepared for the two men, Lagos sent men back to the cove
to insure that the American's life raft would not be discovered. His son,
Andres, spoke English and operated as interpreter for the soldiers of different
tongues. He explained that the following day, the guerrillas would attempt
moving the downed airmen to a hideout in the hills.
In the weeks that followed, the two Americans
literally placed their lives in the hands of the people that inhabited the
rural farms in the Japanese controlled Philippine Islands. The poor farmers
had little, and what they had was often brutally taken from them by enemy
patrols. Still, they were quick to share their meager supplies with the two
downed airmen. The wounds in Montgomery's legs were untreated and, in the
tropical climate, quickly became infected. Montgomery himself struggled against
the pain and fought for survival. Eventually someone found some sulfa, and
the infection began to disappear.
Not only did the local civilians share their
meager supplies to sustain the Americans, they also shared their danger.
Theirs was the same brutal enemy that had conducted the infamous Bataan Death
March, that had raped at will, and killed for sheer pleasure. Any trace of
the American's presence, or any hint that the civilian populace had rendered
assistance to them, would be met with quick and brutal violence. Likewise,
the guerrillas that moved with the two men, shared danger on an almost daily
basis. Occasionally, they encountered enemy patrols. Always, they moved with
great caution...crawling through rice paddies, hiding in hills, and slipping
quietly into occasional huts for sleep. One night they bedded down in a small
hut along the coast, only to awake to the sound of Japanese voices. Not far
away, neatly camouflaged with tree branches, an enemy destroyer had tied
to the bank.
On December 11, 1944 Mrs. Sarah Katherine Montgomery
received a Western Union telegram at her home in Shelbyville, notifying her
that "The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son...is
missing following action while in he service of his country." Meanwhile,
John Montgomery and Bill Rising had made their way to the Natipuan mountain
garrison where the guerrilla's were commanded by ROTC cadets from the Philippine
Military Academy and some former Philippine Scouts. Many of these had lived...and
fought...in the jungles for three years. All were determined to do all things
necessary to rid their homeland of the invading Japanese.
From the Natipuan camp, the two airmen were
moved deeper into the hills to join a Guerrilla force commanded by Colonel
Terry Magtongol. There, they learned, that stories of the valiant efforts
of the Filipino people to rescue and nurture downed airmen and prisoners,
were not at all uncommon. For the first time in weeks they saw other American
faces, Lieutenant(jg) Donald Dondero, USN, CPO Burt C. Fuller and Sergeant
Raymond Humphreys. The two latter men had escaped a Japanese prison camp
where they had been held since the early days of the invasion of the Philippine
Islands. A short time later, the Guerrillas began the dangerous trek south
through enemy lines to the southern coast of Luzon, moving the five Americans
towards what they hoped would be rescue.
The trip took several days, dangerous days when
friendly civilians hid the escaping Americans in their homes and shared their
meager supplies to sustain them. From Luzon, the men were placed on small
boats under the cover of darkness for a night voyage from Balayan Bay to
the northern coast of Mindoro. There they met up with yet another Guerrilla
force, this one under the leadership of Commander George Rowe, US Navy.
While waiting for rescue, John Montgomery developed
a high fever that lingered for four days. Then, the plan for their rescue
was delivered by radio to Commander Rowe. The men were to sit offshore in
a small rowboat and fly an American flag. Feeling somewhat conspicuous, for
eleven days the Americans followed the procedure, attracting only the attention
of Japanese airplanes. Finally, the plan was abandoned. When at last American
forces invaded Mindoro, the men were picked up by PT-222 and PT-220 from
the MTB Squadron. The rescued Americans spent the night with the invasion
forces, enduring the Japanese efforts to thwart the invasion by dropping
phosphorus bombs. They spent Christmas Eve with the American Forces on Leyte
beachhead, and then Christmas dinner aboard the USS Curratuck. As a Christmas
gift, Montgomery received a bar of soap, writing paper, and a broken pencil
from the Red Cross. But, of course, no Christmas present could equal his
new sense of freedom.
From Leyte Rising and Montgomery were flown
to Manus, then on to Hawaii. The following day, Lieutenant Rising flew back
to the United States. His wife, with the couple's young baby, drove from
Brooklyn to meet him on the West Coast. During their brief reunion, Lieutenant
Rising who would eventually receive the Navy Cross, signed up for another
tour. He returned to finish the war flying "single-seater" aircraft.
John Montgomery joined many other returning
Americans in Operation Magic Carpet, returning to Alameda, California on
an escort carrier. In January he arrived, still wearing Marine greens and
the oversize army boots that had been issued to him at the beachhead in southern
Mindoro. After returning home for a 30 day leave, he reported to the Naval
Air Training Center in Memphis, then refresher training at gunnery school,
and finally on to a PB4Y squadron in Jacksonville, Florida. On September
13, 1945, just eleven days after the signing of the surrender documents that
ended World War II, John Montgomery finished his military service and was
discharged. Among his many awards was the Distinguished Flying Cross (for
action on October 25, 1944...12 days before he was shot down), Air Medal,
Purple Heart, and numerous campaign and service ribbons.
Returning to his native Shelbyville, Kentucky
home, John Montgomery went to work the for US Postal Service, from which
he later retired. On Veterans Day, 1997, John Montgomery was selected among
50 former members of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, for induction
into the Enlisted Combat Aircrew Roll of Honor aboard the USS Yorktown in
Patriots Point, South Carolina. Unable to personally attend, John told a
local newspaper, "My legs don't work like they did. I haven't even been able
to put my flag out." In his place, his son attended the impressive ceremony.
He is also a member of the U.S. Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue in our
Nation's Capitol where a plaque and his photo hang in honor of his service.
This year John's grandson Robert joined the
United States Marine Corps, inspired by the example of his grandfather. In
the years that followed the war, John maintained contact with his former
comrades of AG-15 and the USS Essex. He has never forgotten the brave Filipino
civilians, or the courageous Fil-American Guerrillas to whom he owes his
freedom, if not his life. Years later he says:
"I cannot find enough words of praise to describe
the manner in which the friendly Fil-American guerrillas took care of me
and the other American fliers who were in the same helpless condition. The
Philippine people made great sacrifices to feed us when they didn't have
enough food for themselves. They sheltered us and kept us hidden from the
Japs at great risk to themselves and their families. Our survival would have
been impossible without the aid of the Fil-Americans. Some of these wonderful
people are Leon Lagos, Andres Lagos, L.A. Desacola, Pedro Rinosa, Crisogon
Bayani, Ernesto Villamarin, Jose Samaniego, Hilario Angeles, Julian Teserero,
Venancio Gondenara, Ramon Lisboa, Emelie Baryon and Florentine Selano. There
were many more, too numerous to recall their names, who aided us greatly."
John Montgomery also remembers his friend and
pilot with whom he shared the dangers of combat missions in the Pacific,
being shot down over Manila Bay, six weeks of harrowing escape and evasion
in the hills of the Philippines, and a daring rescue. Lieutenant Rising was
unable to counter-sign John's 1958 letter in support of the brave Fil-American
Guerrillas. Returning home in 1945 from his second combat tour, Rising's
wife and daughter again made the drive from Brooklyn to the West Coast to
meet him. On their return trip to New York, Lieutenant William Rising and
his young wife were killed in an automobile accident. Only his infant daughter
survived the horrible crash.