Sergeant Louis S. Placzek
BAR Gunner, Squad Leader
K Company, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division
Louis Stanley Placzek was born within the small New Jersey borough of Bound Brook in 1922. His parents, both Polish immigrants, met in New York shortly after his mother immigrated at age 20 and married, having Louis less than two years after. The couple moved away from the inner city to Bound Brook when Louis’ father got a job with the United States Postal Service. Over the next few years, he grew up alongside his three younger siblings, graduating from Bound Brook High School in 1940 where he worked in their commerce club and picked up the hobby of carpentry. Following graduation Louis began his first full time job working with the Calco Chemical Company plant just outside Bound Brook, an oil refinery plant. The plant was a rugged place to work but Louis found plenty of outside activities to separate the hard work, spending lots of his time working with his local Parish (he was a devout Catholic) and continuing his hobby of carpentry.
Once the Japanese Empire attacked the United States, however, everything changed. Although not enlisting outright, Louis decided to volunteer for the draft in November of 1942, joining the army by the end of the month. The next several months were spent in basic training where Louis qualified as an automatic rifleman using the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). At some point between 1942 and 1943, he was attached to what became his primary combat unit, K Company, 307th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division. A former New York National Guard division, the 77th was famed for its exploits in the first world war and as of March 1942, began preparations for service in the new global conflict. Two years after their call to service, and after a year of heavy jungle combat training, Louis and the 77th officially set off for their combat tour. Arriving in Hawaii in March 1944, the division trained in further amphibious and jungle combat until July when they were routed for their first combat action retaking the island of Guam.
Captured by Japanese forces early in the war, Guam proved a crucial island in preparing for further campaigns in the Philippines and the Japanese home islands, leading the armed forces to send two divisions, the 77th and 3rd Marine, as well as the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, to assault a Japanese occupying force roughly ⅓ their size. Although initially in reserve, Louis and the 77th had their baptism of fire on July 24 after landing at the southern highlands of the island to press the remaining Japanese forces. Fighting right alongside the marines, Louis and the 77th learned quickly the ferocity of their Japanese foes as they slowly pushed northward, spending much time assaulting Barrigada and the large mountain dominating the isle. The battle ended on 8 August, roughly two weeks after it began, but the fresh GIs had proved themselves both to the army and their marine counterparts. Two months of reserve duty on the island followed before they left for a more permanent station on New Caledonia. That station was not meant to be, though, as the journey was interrupted by an immediate reroute for the men of the “Liberty Division” to support the mass of forces invading the Philippines on Leyte.
Leyte was first hit by US troops in late October and, over the course of the first month of fighting, gradually intensified as the Japanese forces decided to focus their Philippine defense on the hilly, forested lump. Almost 300,000 troops were fighting on the almost 3,000 square-mile island and after two months of brutal jungle fighting and one of the largest naval battles in all history, the battle for Leyte Gulf, the XXIV Corps deployed the 77th Infantry Division onto the line to assist the final push against the northwestern Ormoc Valley, the site of the final Japanese resistors. Louis and the division landed behind enemy lines on 7 December and within a few days were able to capture Ormoc City, the commanding hub of the Japanese defensive line, before pushing on for several more weeks breaking up the last remaining Japanese units into an ever-shrinking northern line. The month of December saw lots of jungle fighting as the division drove onward but by 25 December the island was declared finally secure from organized resistance.
Unfortunately, the battle was still far from over. Although most primary Japanese units had collapsed by the start of the new year, scattered pockets of resistance remained across the Philippines. As one of the least expended divisions of the campaign, the 77th was selected to assist in the heaviest of mop-up duties throughout the month of January 1945. It was here that then Private First Class Louis Placzek performed the first action that would lead to his decoration of the nation’s third-highest medal for military valor.
On 5 January Louis was out on patrol in the northeastern sector of the Ormoc Valley near a series of hot springs and rice paddies that perforated the sweeping jungle. Combat patrols were one of the primary methods used by the 77th for cleaning up the island as small combat teams were able to maneuver throughout the dense jungle in search of the generally small bands of remaining Japanese. While on one of these patrols, plowing through dense growth and muddy paddies, Louis, acting as the BAR man for his K Company fireteam, spotted a large group of 70 Japanese soldiers armed with rifles and heavy machine guns. The small band of GIs had little time to react before the Japanese spotted them and a firefight ensued. Outnumbered and outgunned, Louis’ comrades were quickly halted and unable to overcome the surprisingly large Japanese force. Rather than attempt to continue to provide supporting fire from their disadvantaged position, Louis decided to act. “With complete disregard for his own safety,” Louis picked up his gun and ran across the brush completely exposed and under heavy enemy fire. Crossing a large swath of terrain he was able to maneuver himself into a perfect flanking position that gave him the opportunity to meaningfully retaliate against the enemy. Opening up with his automatic rifle, Louis began spraying the exposed Japanese soldiers, likely going through several magazines of ammunition in the process. While the rest of his team was pinned, his fire proved devastating to the surprised Japanese and before long a whopping 53 Japanese soldiers lay dead. The remaining survivors were quickly rounded up and after neutralizing the larger weapons the team returned back to the 77th Division’s headquarters with a batch of fresh prisoners and a new hero in their midst.
While not as many patrols proved as surprisingly successful as Louis’, clean-up on Leyte went on for several more weeks before the 77th was relieved in early February. The now well-seasoned fighters of the division were rewarded with a few weeks of rest until late March when they were told to prepare for the bloodiest fight yet: Okinawa.
Located only a few hundred miles from the Japanese mainland, Okinawa and the smaller islands making up the Ryuku chain became key objectives to begin prep for an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Located within the home islands and with so many of their other conquered territories taken, the Japanese were prepared to turn Okinawa into a bloodbath in order to hold up the US forces heading for their homes. Louis and the 77th played one of the first major roles for ground forces in the campaign as they landed in late March at the Kerama Islands, a set of smaller islets about 15 miles away from Okinawa itself. Although resistance was fairly easily overcome, the determination of these first resisters was noted and signaled what would become a long and bloody campaign.
While the Marine forces and other army divisions landed on Okinawa in the first days of April, the 77th was still placed in a peripheral role, tasked with taking the island of Ie Shima. Right beside the big island, Ie Shima held an important airfield that was desired for the prolonged campaign on Okinawa proper. Landing on 17 April with the rest of the 3rd Battalion, 307th Infantry, Louis and his comrades took over the eastern side of the island and kicked off a large advance through the town of Ie with the intent to reach the final Japanese stronghold of “bloody ridge.” The fighting on Ie Shima was brutal as 77th GIs fought not only against determined soldiers but numerous suicide bombers and even armed local militants. The town found Louis and his battalion engaged in particularly intense urban combat as they fought house to house through barbed wire and minefields to try and push through the line. Many casualties were had and most Japanese soldiers fought to the death trying to stand their ground. After 6 days of fighting and a hand-to-hand fight on Bloody Ridge, however, the small island was finally won, but at a high price.
On 29 April 1945, the division was finally moved to the main island to join the 10th Army fighting along the Shuri Line, the primary Japanese defensive position. Replacing the 96th Infantry Division, Louis and the 307th was tasked with their toughest challenge yet: Hacksaw Ridge. Known then as the Maeda Escarpment, Hacksaw ridge stood as a 30-70 foot-tall rocky plateau dominated by cliffs, crags, sniper nests, concrete bunkers, and countless Japanese soldiers of the 32nd Regiment heavily embedded under the earth. The 307th was the regiment tasked with taking the ridge, specifically the 1st and 3rd Battalions, acting side by side. On the 29th both the battalions, with K and L companies for the 3rd, ascended the cliff using net ropes and ladders. After a few minutes’ advance across the cragged plateau, the Japanese opened up with quivering artillery and machine-gun fire, ripping across Louis’ company and quickly forcing them back down the cliff. Both companies tried again the next day but were met with similar fire and once again pushed down not long after their assault began. On 1 May the battalion decided to try a different strategy, working their way down to the 27th Infantry Division lines and moving through to begin a horizontal flanking push up the ridge from the side. K and L Companies once again led this maneuver and after a two-day advance, initiated a regiment-wide pincer move to wipe the Japanese off the ridge once and for all. Fighting was still horrific with artillery and small arms grinding most of the combat companies to less than ¼ strength. Men like Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss, a combat medic in the battalion next to Louis, were essential in saving countless lives throughout the weeklong attack on the ridge. By 6 May the ridge was mostly in allied hands as the Japanese 32nd Regiment evaporated amidst the fighting. Sometime during this fight, it is believed that Louis received his first combat wound from enemy shrapnel hitting his hand.
With Hacksaw finally secured the 77th began its push deeper into the Shuri Line, fighting off heavy Japanese counterattacks, tanks, and ambushes. The fighting happened from ridge to ridge, shell hole to shell hole, rocky outcropping to rocky outcropping, as the Japanese fought with suicidal intensity to keep the Americans at bay and cause as many casualties as possible. Louis’ battalion was given no rest, in particular, instead leading an attack in a rocky valley near Urasoe Mura Ridge to get the division closer to their next objectives. Afterward, they were thankfully given a few days’ rest but on 15 May went straight back into the thick of it.
While the 307th Infantry was resting the rest of the 77th Division initiated a large 11 May offensive which, although successful in driving the enemy, caused mass casualties amongst the other two infantry regiments of the division, leaving many companies less than a quarter of their former strength. At 0900 on the 15th Louis’ battalion began attacking their objective, Hill 150, a small hill near the larger “Chocolate Drop” hill. The initial advance proved smooth but the final attack became fierce as grenades, satchel charges, flamethrowers, and tanks became the standard for defeating the heavily entrenched Japanese forces. At its peak, the hill was described simply as a “large grenade battle” as Louis’ battalion battered away at the enemy until it was finally taken in the evening. As Louis and K Company rested that evening, they likely had no idea that he would once again demonstrate extreme gallantry the very next morning.
On the morning of the 16th, K Company was tasked with taking Hill 140, known as “Flat Top Hill” for its long and level peak, which was heavily defended by a Japanese company. Kicking off at 0800, Louis and his platoon were sent to initiate the assault when all of the sudden his squad leader was hit, becoming a casualty and leaving the fireteam without a leader. Jumping into action, Louis rallied his comrades, reorganizing the squad, and led their attack up the hill, meeting withering Japanese artillery and small arms fire all the way. Although able to briefly take the hill, it became a game of back-and-forth as over the next few hours Louis led his platoon mates up the hill a total of three times against numerically superior and well-supported enemy forces. On the third and final assault, Louis’ charge managed to break the enemy lines, penetrating their position and initiating hand-to-hand combat with the remaining Japanese troops on the hill. As the fight began to turn in their favor, finally taking the ridge, Louis was unfortunately struck in his shoulder by a large chunk of artillery shrapnel, immobilizing him and leading to his evacuation down the mountain. The wound proved serious enough to put him out of the war, but it was earned amidst a tremendous act of courage that allowed his company to secure their objective against overwhelming odds.
Twice wounded in the course of his duties, the shrapnel to his shoulder put the bold combat leader out of action for good, leading him to be evacuated to Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco where he spent a few weeks recovering, going home to New Jersey in July 1945. Although officially decorated with the Combat Infantry Badge, two Purple Hearts, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Pacific Campaign Medal with three battle stars, it was not until after his discharge from service in October 1945 that the papers for his medals came through. In fact, it was an entire month after his separation from the army that the 77th Infantry Division approved his receipt of the Silver Star Medal for his actions on the Leyte patrol and charges up Flat Top Hill. According to the citation “the courage and determination which characterized Sergeant Placzek’s performance of duty” was “in keeping with the best traditions of the military service,” leading to his award of our nation’s third-highest medal for gallantry on 8 November 1945. Given he was out of the service already, however, Louis was unable to receive his full medals, instead only getting a Silver Star ribbon before putting his uniform up for good.
Upon his return to civilian life, Louis reintegrated right back into his community, beginning his work with his Parish once again by hosting a “welcome home” dance for returning servicemen, volunteering as a firefighter with his local engine company in 1946, and starting his long-term career as a carpenter for the American Cyanamid Company. Louis married in 1949, had two daughters, and became heavily involved in veteran’s organizations such as the VFW, Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, and even started his own local chapter of Catholic War Veterans, for whom he served as treasurer for 30 years. In 1987 Louis, now 65, decided to write to the army requesting those medals he never officially received 44 years prior. To his surprise only a few weeks later a Silver Star Medal and Purple Heart finally arrived on his doorstep. When asked about the medals he expressed great joy in receiving them but claimed that his injuries were nothing, that they only“take it out, and you go back again,” and that he simply had a “job to do” when asked about the actions leading to his Silver Star Medal. He was heavily impacted by what he saw in combat, describing that although the medals brought back some memories, he tended to “just forget” the experiences he faced in the Pacific, trying to black out as much of the war as possible.
Upon retirement Louis had served 50 years as a volunteer firefighter and 45 years as a professional carpenter, spending his latter days with grandchildren and enjoying his hobbies of hunting and fishing. He passed away amongst loved ones in Bound Brook in 2006 at the ripe age of 84.