Hero In Our Midst: PFC. Edwin Fraser
WESTFORD – On February 16, 1945, at 8:30 a.m.—three days before the Marines stormed ashore on Iwo Jima— PFC Edwin Fraser, Westford, Mass., a combat medic, was among the 503rd Airborne’s Regimental Combat Team (RCT) of 1,800 paratroopers who made a surprise assault on the island of Corregidor in the Philippines. The skies filled with fifty-one C-47 “Gooney Birds,” as the men jumped six to eight at a time. Landing zones were small. Winds high, up to 35 mph. Split-second timing was crucial—only a 6-second “window.”
This was one of the very few airborne assaults during WWII in the Southwest Pacific—and probably the most difficult. It was Ed’s third combat jump.
“We expected only a few hundred Japanese on Corregidor, most wiped out by the heavy naval and aerial bombard- ment. The island was a mass of rubble,” Fraser said. “Instead, more than 6,500 Japanese soldiers and elite Imperial Special Naval Landing Forces (Ma- rines) were waiting for us, hidden in the intricate underground network of caves and tunnels—caves also storing high- powered explosives. At Corregidor, we saw our most vicious combat action.”
Ed’s chute got caught on the side of a 500-ft cliff on Topside, the high ground of the tadpole-shaped island (Topside was also where the Imperial Japanese naval commander had his post, on the side of a cliff, for total surveillance.) “I looked up and saw a Jap directly above me, his gun aimed at me . . . He shot me in both legs, but I was able to join the others in cleaning out Topside. We carried a 110-lb load, including a heavy Thompson submachine gun strapped to the body, carbine and knife tied around the leg for hand-to-hand combat, and hand grenades.”
Corregidor. Gateway to Manila Bay. “The Fortress.” “The Rock.” Impreg- nable. Impenetrable. Or so the Japanese believed. Sheer cliffs rising 500 ft above sea level encircled the island. To surprise the Japanese, the first paratroopers had to land within a few hundred yards of the enemy’s command post, on landing ones measuring only 300-350 by 200- 250 yd.
The Americans succeeded! One group of 30 paratroopers overshot their target, landing instead on top of the Japanese commander’s post! They killed him within minutes. Already the heavy bombing had destroyed phone lines. Now their leader was dead too. Within one hour after the first paratrooper had landed, Americans had Topside under control.
Around 2:00 p.m. on February 16, 1945, the 503rd raised the American flag on a telegraph pole. Two weeks later they moved it to the parade ground for the official flag raising.
The 503rd Airborne had come to recapture “The Rock,” after its surrender to Japan on May 5, 1942. They helped General Douglas MacArthur fulfill his promise to the Philippines: “I shall return.”
A god falls—a rock shatters
The Japanese were “savage fighters,” Ed Fraser recalls, “vicious, with no concern for human life. They committed atrocities on our wounded and on civil- ians. We knew they were going to blow the island out of the water.”
As Time wrote in a cover story, “the U.S. came face to face with a startling fact—it was waging war against a god… to 70 million Japanese he [Emperor Hi- rohito] was divine.” To die for him was their greatest honor.
At midnight on February 17, the day after the airborne assault, the Japanese retaliated with a 50-man suicide charge or “banzai” attack. They were quickly wiped out. Two larger “banzai” attacks followed on February 18, at 3:00 a.m. and again at 6:00 a.m., when nearly 600 shrieking Japanese attacked the 503rd RCT on Topside, in heavy hand-to-hand combat. More than 500 enemies were killed; survivors
committed sui- cide rather than surrender. Still 2,000 Japanese remained in Malinta Tunnel, many sealed in by earlier bombings.
On February 21, Malinta Hill erupted like a volcano—split asunder by a series of detonations in quick succession. The Japanese, trapped inside, chose suicide and had
blown themselves up. Two nights later, on February 23, more suicide explosions ripped through Malinta Tunnel.
For days afterwards, Corregidor reverberated with underground explosions. By February 27, after two weeks of vicious fighting, the 503rd had secured Corregidor. More than 4,500 enemies had been killed, with thousands more buried in tunnels or cave-ins. Thirty POWs were taken.
A false god had fallen. “The rock” lay smashed. A fortress was no more.
On March 2, 1945, General MacAr- thur returned to Corregidor for the offi- cial surrender and flag raising ceremony.
Liberating the Philippines
During three years in the Southwest Pacific, Ed Fraser fought in several major offensives including:
• Markham Valley, New Guinea—Sep- tember 5, 1943. The first U.S. airborne operation in the Pacific Theater and Ed’s first combat jump. Its success led to future airborne operations. After two weeks of combat, they forced the Japanese to evacuate a major base at Lae.
• Noemfoor, off the Dutch New Guinea coast—July 3, 1944. On Ed’s second combat jump, they destroyed the enemy’s garrison and helped build airfields crucial to the Allies’ advance to the Philippines.
• Leyte, Philippines—November 18, 1944. Preparation for Corregidor. Ed was also assigned to a large hospital there, after the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23-26, the largest naval battle in history. The Gulf was strewn with sunken destroyers and battleships, some with “kamikaze” suicide planes (loaded with explosives) protruding from their bow.
• Mindoro, central Philippines—De- cember 15, 1944. Land-based “ka- mikaze” planes threatened the 503rd amphibious assault. “We came under intense air and naval attack here, at one point shelled for 25 minutes by an en- emy naval task force.” The RCT secured sites for airstrips for planes destined for Luzon.
• Negros, central Philippines—April 7–September 1945. Transported by landing craft to this island, the 503rd battled the Japanese alone for more than five months in the mountains. (The 40th Infantry Division had suddenly been re- directed to Mindanao.) The battles were fierce. Patrols never returned. “Bouncing Betty” grenades, shooting 6 ft in the air before exploding, sprayed a wide area and killed large numbers at one time.
When the Japanese government sur- rendered on August 15, 1945, the 503rd took 7,500 POWs, total, on Negros, including a high ranking general.
Ed was placed in charge of POWs. Among them were Japanese Marine officers, medically trained in the U.S. Grateful for the care they received, these officers presented Ed with four pen-and-pencil sketches they had made of him, autographed in both English and Japanese.
On September 2, 1945, Japan formally surrendered to Supreme Allied Com- mander General MacArthur.
Afflicted—but not crushed
Ed Fraser lived through “banzai” charges, “kamikaze” pilots, lack of water, a fortress that crumbled a typhoon’s 30-ft swells in the South China Sea.
During WWII, the U.S. government issued all the military a pocket New Testament with protective brass cover, which most carried in the pocket over their heart. In the inscription, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had written that as Commander-in-Chief he “com- mended the reading of the Bible…the Sacred Book…[with its] words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration … a fountain of strength…”
As those who fought on Corregidor can affirm, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my strength, in whom I will trust” (Psalm 18:2). For He has promised: “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you, no not ever” (Hebrews 13:5).