The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Remembering Our Heroes

September 8, 2011

Surviving in World War II: ‘Just too mean and too tough to die’

FAIRVIEW — More than 400,000 Americans laid down their lives to defeat the Axis Powers in World War II.

Frank Koehn of Fair-view came about as close as a man can come to joining that number and still live to tell the tale. Shot twice, cut and bayoneted repeatedly by his Japanese foes, Koehn said he survived because of one simple fact: he was “just too mean and too tough to die.”

Koehn grew up in rural Major County just outside of Isabella. His life on the farm continued while the Second World War raged until he received notice at age 19 he had been drafted into the Army.

Koehn was assigned to the 145th Infantry Regiment and later the 172nd Infantry Regiment. Both units fell under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur during his campaign to recapture the Philippines.

Koehn landed in a beach landing craft assault on Luzon, the last island in the Philippines campaign, on Jan. 9, 1945.

He got his first and last taste of combat when the 172nd was detailed to recapture the Ipo Dam, 25 miles northeast of Manila. American forces had captured Manila on Feb. 28, but their position in the city remained insecure as long the Japanese held the reservoirs that provided the city’s water supply.

By May 1945, MacArthur had concluded Ipo Dam was a strategic priority, and he dispatched the 43rd Infantry Division, including Koehn in the 172nd Infantry Regiment, to retake the reservoir.

“They got us out there to take that sucker back,” Koehn said, remembering his march on the Japanese high ground surrounding the dam. Koehn and his fellow soldiers dug in around the Japanese, who launched sporadic attacks in attempts to drive the Americans from the rocky terrain below the reservoir.

Koehn dug his foxhole in the mud below the reservoir late one night, setting the scene for a pitched battle that would leave him barely clinging to life by sunrise.

The Japanese began probing the American lines in the darkness, and they were looking for Koehn’s foxhole in particular.

“I carried a B.A.R. (Browning Automatic Rifle),” Koehn said, “and they had found out where I was at and they were coming after that gun.”

What they didn’t know was Koehn had turned the automatic rifle over to a man in another foxhole for the night. Koehn settled in to wait for daylight, and shortly after 4 a.m. he turned the lookout duties over to his foxhole buddy.

His slumber did not last long. He was awakened to find his buddy had abandoned the foxhole — and him — and the Japanese were overrunning his position.

A Japanese officer struck Koehn with a sword across his back, leaving a scar that still bothers him today. Koehn said the sword “must have caught the edge of that foxhole, or else he would have cut me in half.” The officer who struck Koehn with the sword continued on, leaving Koehn for dead.

It did not take Koehn long to recover from the initial assault and begin to fight for his life.

“I came up out of that foxhole fighting like a tiger,” Koehn said.

He said he never knew how many Japanese soldiers were facing him when he emerged from the foxhole, but he was up against overwhelming odds. When he came out of the foxhole he faced a Japanese soldier who attempted to run him through with a rifle-mounted bayonet.

“I just grabbed hold of that bayonet to stay alive,” Koehn said, rubbing a deep scar that still runs across his palm and two fingers. “I held onto that bayonet and pushed, and he fell backward and I was able to get hold of my gun again.”

Koehn began shooting back at the enemy, muzzle flashes providing the only light. He doesn’t remember specifics of the battle, but it left him with wounds that would have killed most men.

Shot twice, through the right shoulder and his chest, and cut with bayonets on both shoulders, Koehn still was on his feet, fighting for his life. His platoon mate with the B.A.R. was able to lay down covering fire with the automatic rifle, breaking up the attack long enough for Koehn to withdraw.

Koehn moved to another foxhole, where the platoon medic, a man Koehn credits with saving his life, was. But, he added, there was a higher power leading him to that particular foxhole.

“I had guidance,” he said. “I had no idea where the medic was dug in at, but the good Lord was with me and by God he stayed right by my side.”

The sun rose that morning to reveal a grisly scene around Koehn’s foxhole, where the Japanese attack was halted.

“There were eight of them dead, laying around that foxhole the next morning,” Koehn said, “they didn’t make it past my foxhole.”

His smile faded as he remembered the first time he took a human life in combat. After a long pause he said simply, “I’ll guarantee it’s a hard thing to do, and it stays with you.”

Koehn eventually was taken to an aid station, a large tent just behind the lines, where wounded men were stabilized so they could be evacuated. Misinformation can travel fast, and word soon reached Koehn’s platoon mates he didn’t survive the trip to the aid station.

“They heard I had died on the way in,” Koehn said with a laugh. Of course he still was alive, and facing a long recovery period and several surgeries.

“I laid there long enough I got bed sores,” Koehn said. After a while, he can’t remember how long, gangrene took hold in the sword wound on his back.

“They cut me open and took all my intestines out to get at the gangrene that had set in around my spine, where that officer hit me with the saber,” Koehn said. He had a negative reaction to the anesthesia and nearly died during the surgery.

He was transported by Jeep to Luzon, where he continued to heal and wait for orders to return home.

“One day this corporal came running in, and he said,‘If you can pack your barracks bag, there’s a cargo ship leaving that can take you back to the U. S.”

He still was recuperating after two months in the hospital and not entirely healed from his wounds. He carried his own gear down to the ship, stopping repeatedly to lay on top of the bag and recover his strength. But, he made it to the ship and back home.

He described his homecoming at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, as “really funny.”

“When I came back the doctors got to examining me and they asked me, ‘How’d you get into this man’s Army anyway?’”

It turned out Koehn’s ribs were out of line, and by Army standards he never should have been enlisted.

“I said, ‘They just took me,’” Koehn recalled with a laugh. “I guess they thought I was a pretty good hand.”

Koehn said his survival in the Philippines gave him the strength to “survive anything else in life,” but he wouldn’t want anyone else to go through the same experience.

“I wouldn’t take any amount of money for what I went through,” he said, “but there’s nothing you could give me to get me to do it again.”

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Remembering Our Heroes