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Army vet fought in Philippine mountains during World War II

Jim Cundari, 99, of Sandusky, served with the 161st Infantry Regiment while fighting Japanese in the Philippine mountains in 1945. (cleveland.com/YouTube)

The last thing Jim Cundari had on his mind while fighting Japanese in the Philippine mountains during World War II was gathering a few battlefield souvenirs.

Combat, for soldiers of the 161st Infantry Regiment in 1945 was costly and fierce, and as Cundari, 99, recently recalled, “I would not pick up a souvenir on the battlefield because you had to lug it with you, and my life was more important than souvenirs.”

However, he would later obtain a little something that worked out quite well for his honeymoon.

The long road to that modest pay-off started when the New Jersey native was drafted in 1943. He had previously been turned down twice for military service because of his vision, but Cundari said the standards were later eased due to increasing needs for manpower.

He was more than ready to join the fight.

Getting drafted “was a relief, because there I was, an apparent very healthy young fellow, no apparent reason to be out of the service, all my friends were gone, and there I was in town walking around,” he said. “So I sort-of felt a tinge of remorse that I wasn’t in the service. So I was sort of happy to get in.”

Cundari was part of the Army’s invasion of the Philippines in late 1944 and early 1945, and his unit was thrown into 165 days of continuous combat.

He served on a machine-gun squad, advancing uphill into mountains where the Japanese had created defenses in caves and interconnecting tunnels.

“Our advance was slow, deadly and tedious,” he would later write in his book, “A Soldier’s Story.”

From the high ground, the Japanese could see every move the GIs made, and fired artillery from protected positions in caves. “Any time we were in position, if you made a move above the ground, a shell would come lobbing at you,” he said.

“You could hear the crack as the shell left the artillery piece and you knew a shell was coming,” Cundari wrote in his book. “The shell had a very distinctive sound, like a fluttering sound, as it came towards your position. Then, when the shell hit the ground, you heard the explosion.

“Needless to say, it was very unnerving to live under these conditions, knowing they could spot our positions all the time,” he added.

Cundari said one of the fiercest battles was an attack on the village of San Manuel, defended by more than 1,000 Japanese troops supported by 40 tanks.

“We thought it was going to be a quiet affair, but it turned out to be a four- to five-day engagement,” he remembered. “We lost our company commander. He got killed, and the entire regiment suffered about 25 percent casualties.

“The way the Japanese had done it, they had dug holes for the tanks [with] just the turret exposed,” he added. “So they waited until our rifle platoon got into the open field, and they practically wiped it out.”

Nights were just as bad, when GIs took turns sleeping while listening for sounds of Japanese infiltrators.

He remembered sharing a foxhole one night with a battle-hardened sergeant who asked Cundari to sneak a peek over a stone wall where they had taken shelter.

“I look out and see one of our, like an armored vehicle. I saw these three figures approaching it, and all of a sudden the vehicle blew up,” Cundari recalled.

“It was what was called a lunge mine — a mine on the end of stick — and they would go right up to the tank and plant it against it and blow it up.

“That’s what I described to him [the sergeant]. But I was shaking at the time . . . and so was the sergeant.”

Cundari noted, “Ammunition was in short supply because the war in Europe was still going on. We were told not to fire unless we definitely had a target.”

There were times when they hit a stalemate with the Japanese, so they waited a few days, accumulating all the bullets and shells they could, then concentrated their fire in an overwhelming barrage on a single position.

“We called it ‘giving the hill a close haircut,'” Cundari wrote in his book.

At one point 90mm antiaircraft guns were hauled up the hillsides so they could fire straight into Japanese caves.

As replacements took the place of mounting casualties, the new soldiers would ask what it was like being in combat.

“It is hard to describe, and unless you go through it, there is no description that will convey what actual combat and being under fire actually is,” Cundari wrote.

The strain was evident, however. “It was a case of, we recognized that any day might be our last day,” Cundari said.

Eventually you got numb to the horrors and losses, according to Cundari.

“In a way you did, yeah. I remember seeing, especially the rifle companies, they took the most beating. Their bodies being wrapped in body bags and stacked up like firewood, and then put on the back of a truck and they take them back down the mountain . . . You get used to it. Yeah. You just had to deal with it.”

The day came when they were pulled off the line and started training for an invasion of Japan that never happened.

After Japan surrendered, Cundari joined occupation forces in collecting the remaining Japanese armaments for disposal. He sent two swords back home; his first war souvenirs.

The GIs could see the devastation caused by widespread firebombing of Japanese cities and knew about the atomic bombs that had ended the war.

“We were very glad they dropped the atom bomb,” Cundari said. “The thought was when we heard of the protests of the people back home [objecting to use of the bombs], let them come over here and do the fighting. We’ll change places with them.”

In his spare time, Cundari took photos of his fellow GIs, selling them packets of 20 for $1 and shipping them to their families back home.

The 1940 graduate of Manhattan College, with a degree in business administration and accounting, also taught the GIs basic bookkeeping and accounting for possible use in a job back home.

When Cundari was shipped back to the U.S., heartbreak awaited.

“When I got home, I had been in a relationship with a girl, but something happened,” he said. “I could sense when I got home that things weren’t just right, and she broke off the engagement.

“I didn’t want to leave, go into the service, get wounded or killed and leave a widow or someone to take care of me, so we never got married,” he added. “It was sort-of very devastating to go home and find that everything I’d dreamed of was gone.”

But in 1950, Cundari married Johanna Amato, bringing another war souvenir into play.

He’d sent a silk parachute home from Japan and asked a cousin if she could re-make it into a negligee.

“Which she did, with a lot of beautiful lace trimming,” he said. “I gave it to my future wife, at that time, and she took it on her honeymoon.”

Together they raised four children and were married for 65 years before she died in 2015.

“After she passed away, we found it in the drawer, so I told my daughter to take it and save it for her daughter if she wants to use it later on when she gets married,” Cundari said.

After the war, Cundari worked as an accountant for General Motors and was transferred to Sandusky in 1965. He retired in 1982.

Cundari will be 100 years old this December 21, “if I make it,” he said with a chuckle.

In looking back on his military service, he concluded, “It was an experience I would not want to repeat, but I’m happy that I was in.

“I was one of, I guess 16 million service people, so I did nothing extraordinary,” he added. “I was just an average soldier.”

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© 2018 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

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