James Cecil Russ

James Cecil Russ, my wife’s grandfather, was born May 31st, 1923 in North Carolina and he died February 13th, 1945 as his unit retook Bataan from the Japanese in World War II at the Battle of Zig Zag Pass.  Similar to my research on Epaphras Sage, our ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, I’ve combined our personal family history with a few books on the subject.  I post this today, in honor of Memorial Day.

Pre-World War II

The root causes of most wars are traced back to the outcome of the previous war.  World War II in the Pacific with Japan is not much different.  It started with the outcome of the Sino-Japanese War and the restrictions put on Japan by Western Societies.  When President Theodore Roosevelt left office in 1909 the United States’ continued dominance in the Far East depended on maintaining our fleet but an isolationist congress didn’t appropriate the funds. “The lack of the ‘Big Stick’ of military power to back up their diplomatic posturing was to prove a factor that would lead to Pearl Harbor.” (Costello)

When James Cecil Russ was born in 1923 it could be argued that the seeds of WWII were already growing in the Pacific.  The United States was backing China while attempting to restrict Japan through diplomacy.  In addition to the political side of things, the economic side kicked to further complicate things with the Stock Market crash of 1929. “The value of the yen plummeted, driving Japan off the gold standard.  The market for silk, the country’s main export, vanished; ruining millions of small farmers who depended on the silkworms for their livelihood….National discontent grew.” (Costello)

“When the Tripartite Pact [aka the Axis Pact] was signed on September 27 [1940] in Berlin, the biggest Tokyo paper, Asahi Shimbun, predicted; ‘It seems inevitable that a collision should occur between Japan, determined to establish a sphere of influence in East Asia, including the Southwest Pacific, and the United States, which is determined to meddle in the affairs on the other side of a vast ocean by every means short of war.’” (Costello)

Five days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, James Cecil Russ was getting his North Carolina Operator’s License. He lists his address at 509 Pungo St, Belhaven N.C.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor they were, “gambling that a lightning takeover of Southeast Asia, the seizing of the oil and natural resources along with a defensive perimeter of Pacific Island bases, could secure for Japan an ‘invincible position,’ thereby enabling her diplomats ‘to influence the trend of affairs and bring the war to an end.’” (Costello)  Unfortunately for the Japanese, this is not at all what the United States had in mind. 

The First Years of the War and the Battle for Bataan

Throughout the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942 the Japanese continued their advance.  One of their key objectives was seizing the Philippines from General Douglas MacArthur.   

MacArthur’s forces withdrew from Manila and throughout January, February, and March they fought a retreating action down the Bataan Peninsula as shown on the map above from Costello’s The Pacific War.  Finally on April 9th, 1942 the United States and Filipino forces surrendered.  This led to the infamous “Bataan Death March.” 

“April 9, 1942, marked the greatest defeat ever suffered by a U.S. force in the field. ‘No army has done so much with so little, and nothing became it more than its last hours of trial and agony,’ was the ringing epitaph General MacArthur delivered to a press conference.  But for most of those American and Filipino soldiers who surrendered, the trial and agony were only beginning…General Homma’s headquarters had estimated to the prisoner of war camps being prepared on Luzon.  Faced with three times that number, Japanese logistics broke down.  Not only were the truck and rail transports totally in-adequate to cope with such a vast number of captives, but they had assumed that the prisoners would have their own rations.  The appalling result was that already starving, ill, and exhausted men now faced the nightmare trek up the jungle trails of Bataan with little or no food to sustain them.  Herded like driven cattle under the bayonets of guards, the 65 miles that the survivors completed on foot was truly to deserve its awful place in history as the ‘Bataan Death March.’  Some Japanese did show sympathy for the plight of their ragged columns of starving captives, to the extent of sharing their own meager rations, but most obeyed the callous dictates of Bushido.  Stragglers would be mercilessly clubbed, those dying from disease and malnutrition were left by the wayside, and men who appeared to be succumbing were buried alive by their comrades at gunpoint.” (Costello)

The loss of the Philippines and the inhumane treatment of his forces made MacArthur vow to one day return.  However, it would take a few years until he was in a position to do so.  Throughout 1942 the United States cranked up its industrial might by making ships, planes, tanks, weapons.  If it was needed by the Allied Powers, United States factories made it.  U.S. forces also had a key naval victory at Midway in June of 1942 that helped to stop the Japanese advance.  By the end of 1942 the Marines were on Guadalcanal and the Army was moving north from Port Moresby on Papua.

Enlistment, Training, and Deployment: 1943 & 1944

It was January 1943 when James Cecil Russ married Elva Boyd, and soon thereafter, on February 16th 1943, he enlisted in the United States Army at Ft. Bragg N.C.  One of the first things he did was send a letter to Elva letting her know he was OK and telling her not to write because he’d only be there a few days. 

By March of 1943 he had been assigned to Company A, 53rd Medical Training Battalion and was conducting training at the Medical Replacement Training Center (MRTC), Camp Barkeley, TX.  While there he signed Elva up to receive an allotment for War Savings Bonds at Rt #1, Box 141, Pinetown N.C.

By October of 1943 he had been assigned to his unit, Medical Detachment, 152nd Infantry Regiment, 38th Infantry Division and was conducting training at Camp Livingston, LA.  While there he requested a change of status for the birth of his son, James Cecil Russ Jr. (better known to us at Pop)!

In 1944 he was assigned to K Company and his unit sailed to New Guinea via Hawaii.  While in route he crossed the equator becoming “A Trusty Shellback.”

While in New Guinea in August of 1944 he sent Elva my favorite piece of mail in the collection.  I’m not sure if he drew it himself but I like to imagine that he did and if so he was a great artist.


In November of 1944 James’ unit moved from New Guinea to Leyte as the Army gained ground northward.  By early 1945 they were in position to secure the Philippines as shown on the map below from Costello’s The Pacific War.

Retaking the Philippines: 1945

MacArthur was anxious to accelerate the Luzon campaign, “On January 29, the 38th Division landed at San Antonio north of Bataan with orders to secure the peninsula where, almost three years before, the American forces had begun their bitter retreat toward Corregidor.” (Costello)

James’ unit was K Company, 3rd Battalion, 152nd Infantry Regiment, 38th Infantry Division, Eighth Army, XI Corps, and all the way up the levels of command the units had a storied history.  XI Corps dated back, “to the Civil War.  Under command of Major General Oliver O. Howard, the corps fought at Chancellorsville, where it received Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack, and at Gettysburg, where, on the first day, it was also roughly handled; and at Chattanooga where it redeemed itself.” (Mann) 

On a very interesting note to me personally, James’ unit was commanded by “General Hall, Class of 1911 USMA....His service in World War I added luster to a reputation already gained as a serious, thorough, hard-working infantryman in the Western United States and as mathematics instructor at West Point.  Rising to the temporary rank of Lieutenant Colonel as Adjutant of the 3rd Brigade 2nd Division [this is the unit I served with in Iraq in 2003-2004] during World War I he received the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism at Vierzy, France, two Silver Stars, the French Croix de Guerre and the Purple Heart. (Mann)

“The National Guard 38th Infantry Division was commanded by Major General Henry L. C. Jones.  Two of its infantry regiments, the 151st and 152nd, were from Indiana and one, the 149th, from Kentucky.  The “CY” in its shield-shaped division patch stood for a cyclone that descended on the division while it was encamped at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, during World War I.  (Mann)

January 29th 1945 – Landing on Luzon

The plan for landing day had James’ unit following the leading unit in order to mop up any bypassed pockets of resistance.  It would then take the lead at Olongapo and attack eastward to Dinalupihan.  This would require moving along Highway 7, the primary East-West route across the peninsula.  Highway 7 also consisted of Zig Zag Pass which Eighty Army inaccurately thought would be lightly defended.  The first day went well with no real opposition.

The Japanese had chosen Zig Zag Pass as their main defensive position and had “tunneled into the hillsides to obtain maximum protection against artillery fire.  Japanese soldiers were adept at cutting lanes for firing machine guns through jungle growth and covering their tracks so it was almost impossible to see the cuts.  They covered individual holes with dirt and logs and connected to positions with camouflaged trenches.  To confuse the Americans and disperse their superior firepower, Ogawa ordered many false positions constructed, some even near the real positions….The fortifications in ZigZag Pass were so extensive and formidable that the Americans assumed the enemy had constructed the works during most of the three years of Japanese occupation.” (Mann)

The map below from Mann’s Avenging Bataan, gives an overview of Zig Zag Pass and what James’ unit was up against.


January 31st 1945 – The 152nd Infantry takes the lead

The 152nd had encamped along Highway 7, and then attempted to take the lead from the 149th.  With both regiments’ vehicles in a log jam on the road, the Japanese used mortar and artillery fire on the lead unit.  This caused the Regimental Commander, Colonel Stillwell, to order the 3rd Battalion Commander, Major Harold B. Mangold, to leave the road and move north to envelop the right flank of enemy positions on Mount Koko, holding up the 1st Battalion.” (Mann) L Company led the way and brought up their machine guns to combat the Japanese positions which were providing heavy resistance.  This was as far as they got on January 31st so they had to dig in for the night.

February 1st 1945 – Flanking the Japanese Positions

Due to the heavy resistance they encountered by attacking directly up the mountain, the 3rd Battalion was ordered to make a much wider flanking movement and spend the day “hacking and chopping to cut a path through thick bamboo.  At 1800, the battalion started digging in for the night about 300 yards north of the road with not much to show for its day’s work.” (Mann) 

That night Company M used its mortar and heavy machine guns to discourage the Japanese from attacking.  Unfortunately this allowed the Japanese to locate the American positions and they used their own mortars.  Some of the Japanese mortars landed directly on the K Company command post.  The casualties included, “K Company, Captain Thomas Yasm; his executive officer, 1st Lieutenant Vincent Kimberlin; the battalion S-3, 1st Lieutenant James Cunningham; and the heavy weapons company commander, Captain James West.” (Mann)  I can only imagine what James had to go through that night with all of his officers needing medical attention.  The set-up of a unit may have been different in WWII than it is now but normally the unit medics are close to the command post instead of out on the main line so they can monitor the radio and react to where the action takes place.  If this was the scenario then James would have been in very close proximity to where the enemy mortars landed and he would definitely have been there to offer aid to those injured in the attacks.

February 2nd 1945 – Continuing the Attack

“It had been impossible to move the wounded during the night….The night’s casualties included two company commanders and, added to the 5 KIA and 17 WIA during the day of 1 February, raised the total to 14 KIA, 43 WIA and 1 MIA in the past 24 hours.” (Mann)  Due to the previous night’s attacks 3rd Battalion was slow to move out.  To add to the agony their breakfast did not arrive that morning.  Additionally, the Regimental Commander, Colonel Stillwell, was held accountable for the slowed advance and he was relieved of duty.

Having made very little headway, 3rd Battalion brought up tanks to aid in the attack.  “Company K attacked up a steep slope to reduce a bunker covered by strong interlocking machine gun fire.  Major Mangold brought up two tanks, which moved a short distance along the road in front of the position.  The tanks did not go far.  According to Jones, ‘about ten machine guns opened up on them.’  Supporting infantrymen creeping along the road beside the tanks did not give adequate protection.  When the lead tank passed a small clearing, a dare-devil Japanese soldier rushed out of the jungle with a pole charge to disable the tank.  He was cut down by small-arms fire just before he reached the tank.  General Jones concluded that, ‘obviously tanks could not be used [in ZigZag Pass] except to assist in reconnaissance.’”

February 3rd - 5th 1945 – The 38th Division gives up the Lead

On February 3rd the 34th passed through the 38th and took the lead.  However, the casualties kept coming in and “Medical personnel at all levels worked ceaselessly, selflessly, gallantly to succor the never-ending stream of casualties.  Chest and fracture cases swamped the 18th PSH (Portable Surgical Hospital), located in the dry rice paddies north of Olongapo.  The 18th was soon sending is overflow to the 1st PSH and the 36th Evacuation Hospital in the city.” (Mann)  I’m not sure if James would have been detached from his company to assist at the hospital but it is likely.  Medical training is hard to come by and medics in general take their jobs very seriously, so it would not surprise me if James worked on casualties at the hospital or at a nearby aid station while his company rested.

February 6th 1945 – The 38th moves back to the Front

The 34th had not fared much better than the 38th so the command decided to soften up the Japanese by bombing their positions with 500-pound bombs and napalm.  As the 3rd Battalion advanced through positions left by 1st Battalion they “found several bodies of 1st Battalion men left where they had fallen.  The company suddenly received fire from all sides as it moved up to occupy a low ridge.  Men began falling from machine gun and rifle fire.  Major Mangold ordered K Company forward with stretchers to evacuate the wounded.  There were so many casualties that K Company had to leave the dead and remove only the wounded.” (Mann)  Once again, when moving back into the lead, James would have been fully engaged treating wounded and getting them off the battlefield.  The day was considered a success though and by the time they dug in for the night they occupied a section of the Japanese’s Main Line of Resistance (MLR).

February 7th 1945 – The Attack Continues

The plan for the attack on February 7th called from the 1st and 2nd Battalions to attack on line north of the road with 3rd Battalion attacking directly along the road.  To assist, they stepped up their artillery and blasted the ridgeline, concentrating on where the Japanese artillery positions were.  The units also used their 81-mm mortars like bombs by shooting them straight up and letting them fall close-by into the enemy bunkers they encountered.  “At 1500, following an air strike and heavy artillery and mortar preparatory fire, Companies K and L assaulted the northern tip of Mount Ege (Ichinose Heights)….By late afternoon, K and L Companies had overrun two strong Japanese positions, one each on Ichinose Heights and Mount Minami….It was the first time the GIs had forced their way into Major Ogawa’s main line and slugged it out hand-to-hand with the foe. The 3rd Battalion finished the day’s battle firmly ensconced between Minami and Ichinose, two of the most strongly held Japanese positions.”  (Mann)

The Japanese were not happy that they were losing the high ground and “Near sundown, Japanese mortars and artillery gave a terrific pounding to the Americans trying to consolidate their newly won positions in the Ichinose-Minami area….The 3rd Battalion aid station came under heavy Japanese mortar fire.  The battalion surgeon was killed and his assistant wounded.  Nearly half of the aid station personnel were killed or wounded…Many wounded from both the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were strewn along the sides of the road where they had been carried on litters from the firefight on the ridge.  A few soldiers in the aid station awaiting treatment were wounded a second time.  Under the intense mortar fire, some men, taking over as best they could, helped the walking wounded move stretcher cases off the road into sheltered places.” (Mann)  Again I’m not sure if James would have been with his company, at the aid station, or in route somewhere in between treating the wounded.  Either way there was absolutely no rest that night after a very difficult day of fighting.

“Next morning, the 152nd Infantry counted 17 KIA, 110 WIA, and 2 MIA lost on 7 February.  The 129 total casualties were the most suffered by one regiment in one day during the ZigZag battle, except for the 178 of the 34th Infantry on 4 February.  Little wonder that the 152nd called the Japanese MLR ‘Bloody Ridge.’” (Mann)

February 8th – 10th 1945 – Moving back to act as the Reserve

The success of February 7th and the heavy casualties that evening caused the Division Commander, General Easley to issue General Order #4, “The mission of this division is to recapture BATAAN and avenge the stigma of the 1942 defeat.  I want all units to MOVE IN AND KILL JAPS. LET’S GO!”  Luckily for James unit after several days in the lead they would be able to fall back and act as the reserve unit.  I’m not sure if he got much rest thought because that day the division artillery bombardment was “by far the largest to precede any attack during the battle….During what turned into a three-hour concentration, Division Artillery’s 6 battalions (72 guns) plastered the front line positions on the Japanese MLR and rear areas with 16,919 rounds, roughly one-third the total expended during the entire battle.  Artillery observers and front line commanders saturated with metal every known or suspected enemy machine gun, mortar or artillery position, ammunition dump and headquarters area.” (Mann)

The artillery and the gains made by James unit allowed the unit taking the lead to take more important terrain from the Japanese.

February 11th 1945 – Once Again Taking the Lead

Playing leap frog once again James’ unit took the lead and filled in the positions left by the 151st regiment.  “By the end of the day, Major Mangold’s 3rd Battalion 152nd had occupied the ridge northwest of the hairpin curve in the highway.  Companies K and L joined perimeters on a hill next to the road while I Company dug in on a hill 150 yards to the north.  Colonel McIntosh moved his own 1st Battalion into the space vacated by 1st Battalion 151st.  During the night, the men of Company K tossed hand grenades down the slope into a group of chattering and shouting Japanese perhaps preparing for a counterattack.

February 12th 1945 – The Beginning of the End of the Battle

“Sensing the Japanese were cracking, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 152nd Infantry moved with purpose against Fujimoto’s makeshift defense….The companies then advanced along the road 400 yards south of the hairpin, but were stopped by mortar fire.  The enemy could still interdict much of the road between the hairpin and the bridge with 120-mm mortars firing from the East Pass.  By 1400, most of the enemy positions west of the river had been silences….The three battalions had accomplished an enormous amount of work during the day.  At a price of 16 KIA and 90 WIA, the 152nd reported killing 110 Japanese, still appearing to be well fed and well equipped with both personal and military items.  The regiment destroyed nine ammunition dumps in abandoned caves, finding 20,000 rounds of .30 caliber, 400 cases of 75-mm artillery ammunition, several hundred hand grenades and a knee (50-mm) and 90-mm mortar ammunition cache so heavily booby-trapped as to preclude inventory.” (Mann)

At noon on the 12th Major Ogawa ordered a retreat for the Japanese units that were still able to receive communications.  However, like all of the battles in the Pacific campaign, the Japanese units that either did not receive the order to retreat or which were not in a position to retreat were determined to fight to the death as they had been trained.

February 13th 1945 – The Main Effort in the Conclusion of the Battle

The battalion bombarded their objective with high explosive and white phosphorus 81-mm mortar fire in order to cross the river while the enemy was pinned down and blinded by smoke.  Company L on the left and K on the right had no trouble crossing the river, but were slowed by the steep climb to the objective – East Pass.  K and L Companies halted frequently while patrols fanned out to silence sporadic rifle fire.  Finally, L Company had to halt to contain the Japanese in the Bandi-zan area. K Company moved on to the objective at the next hairpin turn of Highway 7 about 500 yards east of the Santa Rita River….After their steep climbs late in the afternoon, the men of K Company were completely exhausted.  While they were digging their positions for the night, two Japanese machine gun squads surprised the unaware company and swept the area from a position just outside the perimeter.  With his men now digging furiously, Lieutenant Kimberlin, the company commander, fully recovered from wounds received earlier in the battle grabbed a BAR and slipped into the thick undergrowth.  A sergeant armed with an automatic carbine joined him.  They succeeded in outflanking the machine guns and in killing all 12 members of the two crews.” (Mann)

Based on the letter shown below from James’ Company Commander, the same Kimberlin detailed in Mann’s book, I have to believe that this machine gun counter attack is what ended James’ life.  It is good to know that Lt. Kimberlin and a fellow sergeant avenged James’ death.


For three more days the isolated Japanese survivors continued to snipe at the Americans.  But by February 16th, “for the first time in three years, American traffic could move freely along Highway 7 from Olongapo to Dinalupihan.” (Mann)

After the Battle

After the battle the 38th Division cleaned up the remaining islands guarding Manila Bay after the Corregidor operation and fought on the slopes of Mount Pinatubo.  The division concluded its combat east of Manila, helping to subdue the Shibu Group in the Wawa Dam area.

Following James’ death he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. 

Elva also received condolence letters from many friends, family, politicians and military commanders, including General Douglas MacArthur.



The Pacific War: 1941-1945 by John Costello

Avenging Bataan: The Battle of ZigZag Pass by B. David Mann