As World War II continued in 1945, a new program was put in place: two men a month from each ground echelon of an air unit were permitted a 30-day leave to the States. It was a nice thought, but completely detached from the reality of an active combat unit like the 345th Bomb Group. More than 600 men in the 345th were eligible for leave. Many of them hadn’t had a proper break from the action in more than 20 months, and an alternative solution was needed. Majors Maury Eppstein and Everett E. Robertson, as well as two sergeants, set out for Manila by order of Col. Coltharp to rent the two largest houses in they city for leave centers.
It was a hot, dusty 90 mile trip on February 4, 1945 that kept the men on their guard as they watched for Japanese stragglers hiding near the roads. When they reached the city, they were stopped at a checkpoint and questioned by the Military Police. Manila itself was currently engulfed in a bloody and greatly destructive battle that would continue through March; troops had liberated 4000 American and Allied civilians from Santo Tomas University only one day before. The MPs were reluctant to let the members of the 345th into the war zone, but they eventually relented, giving them handwritten passes and directions to the university located two miles away.
Even on the relatively safe pathway they took, the men were shot at once on the way to the university. Shortly after they arrived, the very presence of the men drew a crowd of excited people. None of them had ever seen a jeep before. Nearly two weeks earlier, the Japanese cut off the food supply and the conditions at the school had been deteriorating. People had been surviving on whatever they had. Children often received a significant share of their parents’ rations, and there was a stark difference between the health of the children and adults. Seeing this, the members of the 345th gave the extra rations they brought to those in charge of doling out food to the civilians. Everyone was very grateful for their contributions.
For the next two days, the men searched for suitable houses within Allied-controlled territory. They encountered relieved civilians who had been hiding from the Japanese. The father of one family even dug up a bottle of brandy that he buried in the backyard to toast the Americans. Other neighborhoods were crossed off the map, still occupied by Japanese soldiers. Burning tanks, dead bodies and artillery pieces were scattered all along the route to the neighborhood they were going to look at. Once they found three or four acceptable houses, it was time to head back to San Marcelino.
After returning to their base and reporting on the conditions witnessed in Manila, the 345th decided to pack a 6×6 truck with food, water, medicine and other aid for those at Santo Tomas. They dropped off the supplies, and then returned to the two locations that were chosen for leave houses to negotiate a rental agreement with the owners. The first house, which was easily secured, was owned by an architect and won a design award six years earlier after it was built. Approximately 40 enlisted men would be able to stay there at a time. At the second house, the leasing process took an interesting turn, as the mansion belonged to the governor of one of the provinces. The lady looking after the house, Dorothia, couldn’t agree to anything without the governor’s permission, so the group spent the night at the house, then went back to San Marcelino the next day.
Again, members of the 345th returned to Manila. This time, it was a much smaller group consisting of Maj. Eppstein and Capt. Stephen N. Gilardi, the 500th Squadron’s Ordnance Officer, who was an attorney before the war. Eppstein wanted to be sure that renting the governor’s mansion was formalized legally and wouldn’t result in any issues for the governor or the 345th Bomb Group. They picked up Dorothia, who agreed to show them the way to the governor’s town. The Americans were greeted warmly and a rental agreement was soon finalized. The governor also threw a banquet for the men. Later on, they went back to Manila, where they dropped off Dorothia to get the house ready, then drove on to San Marcelino.
The houses were quickly prepared for the officers and enlisted men, and it wasn’t long before they were occupied by men on leave. They leased these houses until July, after the 345th moved to the Ryukyu Islands and it wasn’t feasible to fly all the way back to Manila. Colonel Coltharp’s idea provided an incredible boost to the morale of his unit.
Read the full story in Warpath Across the Pacific.