The Philippine Airborne
by Les Hughes
© by author 1994
It was a homecoming of sorts when C. E. Walter arrived in the Philippines as a member of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. At age five, he had accompanied his mother to the Philippines to join his father, who was working there in the lumber business. Walter remained in the Philippines for nine years, before returning to the States to finish his schooling.
The war put Walter, and most American men his age, in a uniform. After receiving his commission at Fort Benning in March 1943, Walter volunteered for the airborne, and after the completion of jump and rigger schools, he was sent to Alabama as part of the original cadre of the 515 PIR.
In December 1943, Lt. Walter was notified, by the Resident Commissioner for the Philippines, that his father was fighting as a guerilla in the mountains of Mindanao. Using the offices of the Resident Commissioner, Lt. Walter volunteered for special intelligence duty. Shortly before he was to embark for the ETO, he was handed orders sending him to the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA).
The 5217th Reconnaissance Battalion (Provisional) was formed at Camp Tabragalba in Queensland, Australia, in October of 1943 . Comprising 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.
"We 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 the5217th 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, 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.
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.
Shortly after the mission, the 5317th, now the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, was sent to Manila, where Walter and his cadre were returned to the 503rd 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 rescue.
Besides providing the information and the photographs used in this article, LTC Walter provided the patch illustrated here. 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 qualified.
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.
The author wishes to thank Lt. Col. C. E. Walter, without whose generosity this article would not have been possible.
1. Capistrano, Robert, "5217th/1st Reconnaissance Battalion," in The Trading Post, January-March 1994.
2. C. E. Walter, personal communication.
3. National Geographic Magazine, December 1945. See also: Devlin, G. M., Silent Wings, St. Martin’s Press, 1985.