By Donald O. Dencker

Donald O. Dencker, historian for the 96th Infantry Division Association, was a gunner in the Mortar Section of Company L—Love Company, 382nd Infantry Regiment, 96th Infantry Division, during World War II. He received the Bronze Star for “meritorious achievement in connection with military operations against the enemy in Okinawa.”

After becoming a part of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), assigned to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Dencker was assigned to the 96th Infantry Division in March 1944, which had been reactivated in 1942 and by 1944 was composed largely of draftees—the so-called “citizen soldiers.” Dencker chose to serve in a mortar section—a place where he assumed to be “somewhat safer” than a rifle platoon. Little did he know that there were no safe places on Leyte and Okinawa, where he would soon be sent.

From Chapter 16: The Big Push

During the day of April 20th, Company I and Company L, aided by Company K in the afternoon, drove to the south end of Tombstone Ridge, with our 3rd Platoon attempting to take a small tree-covered knoll just east of the south tip of Tombstone. This little knoll, called Hill 7, became the focus of a furious battle during which the Platoon Leader, 2nd Lieutenant Lyle Shreffler, was killed. The 1st Platoon Leader, 2nd Lieutenant Emil Roemer, was also was also wounded and evacuated.
The Japanese counterattack put the 1st and 3rd platoons in a precarious position. Bill House, our communications Sergeant, went to those embattled platoons and used his SCR536 radio to maintain contact with our Company Commander, Lieutenant Young, as well as the 2nd Platoon. With the Platoon Leaders gone and most of the noncommissioned officers killed or wounded, Sergeant House took command of the platoons and succeeded in repulsing the fanatic Japanese attacks. For this gallantry in action, Sergeant House was awarded the Silver Star. After the Japs were repulsed, the balance of the company moved in to reinforce our hold on the knoll.

During this action, the 60mm Mortar Section provided fire from Tombstone Ridge. We then moved up to the north side of the knoll, set up our mortars, and started to dig individual foxholes. Ernie and I set up our mortar between our foxholes.

As soon as I had finished mine, I volunteered for a call to go back and bring up rations, water and additional ammunition. I went with a group to the center of Tombstone Ridge where the supplies were being dropped off by the battalion carrying party. There I ended up taking and lugging back to our company a five-gallon can of water.

When I returned to my foxhole, I set the water can down near my hole, but up on a slight slope. As I was waiting for instructions regarding the water, a Japanese Nambu light machine gun started to fire at Mortar Section men. The bullets missed me as I dived into the safety of my foxhole, but one of them went through the precious can of water I had brought up. As I lay prone in my foxhole wondering what to do next, water from the punctured can started to run into my hole. Damn ironic, I thought, but better than my blood! For some reason, perhaps due to the tension, I started to laugh at the sight of my hard-obtained water trickling over me. The Jap machine gun was located on the east face of Tombstone Ridge just below the upper part of the ridge occupied by men of companies I and K. Apparently these men heard the Nambu firing and were able to silence it or force the Japanese crew to retreat into a cave.