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September 23, 1999

Thomas E. Atkins Dies at78
Lone and Lowly G.I. Who Repelled a Japanese Attack  

By Richard Goldstein

 
        Thomas E. Atkins, who as an Army private in World War II received the Medal of Honor for repelling a Japanese attack on his infantry platoon in the Philippines while he was severely wounded, died on Sept. 15 at his home in Inman, S.C. He was 78.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Bobby said.

Private Atkins killed at least 14 enemy soldiers in the battle for a Japanese mountaintop stronghold in March 1945.

After American forces recaptured Manila, the Japanese commander in the Philippines, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, retreated with 140,000 soldiers to the Central Cordillera and Caraballo mountain ranges of northern Luzon island, where he hoped to tie up United States forces needed for invasions nearer the Japanese home islands. General Yamashita's troops dug in at mountain passes guarding the Cagayan Valley, where crops could feed them for months.

The 32d Infantry Division, which was among three American Army divisions assigned to dislodge the Japanese, moved up to the mountain passes along the Villa Verde Trail, a twisting footpath. The terrain was heavily forested, but there were enough open areas to give Japanese defenders, many hidden in caves, clear fields of fire at almost every turn.

''This was combined mountain and tropical warfare at its worst,'' the 32d Division's official report said.

Pfc. Thomas Eugene Atkins of Company A, 127th Infantry Regiment, 32d Division, was in a foxhole on a ridge outside his platoon's perimeter defense in the early hours of March 10 when two companies of Japanese attacked with rifle and machine-gun fire, grenades and TNT charges. Private Atkins was wounded in the hip, leg and back, and the two soldiers alongside him were killed.

Despite pain from deep wounds, Private Atkins returned heavy fire and repulsed the first attack, and then, instead of retreating to the rear lines for medical aid, remained in his position. An enemy machine gun, set up within 20 yards of his foxhole, blazed away as the Japanese continued their assault.

Private Atkins held them off, firing 400 rounds from his own rifle and those of the two dead soldiers beside him. At 7 A.M., four hours after the firefight began, 13 Japanese soldiers lay dead in front of his position.

By then, all three of Private Atkins's rifles had jammed, so during a lull he withdrew to get another rifle and more ammunition. He was persuaded to remain for medical treatment, but when he spotted a Japanese soldier within the platoon's lines, he grabbed a rifle and killed him. A few minutes later, while lying on a litter, Private Atkins saw a group of enemy soldiers moving up behind the platoon's lines. He sat up and delivered heavy rifle fire, which forced the Japanese to withdraw.

As a result of Private Atkins's action, the platoon was able to hold its lines although outnumbered. The 32d Infantry Division produced four Medal of Honor winners in its six-week ascent over the 20 miles of the Villa Verde Trail, but it took American troops until the end of June to seize the Cagayan Valley and its food supplies.

On Oct. 12, 1945, having been promoted to corporal, he was among 14 servicemen who received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman at a White House ceremony.

Mr. Atkins, a native of Campobello, S.C., left military service soon afterward and became a farmer. He is survived by his wife, Vivian; four sons, Bobby, Ansel and Allen, of Inman, and Doug, of Campobello; a daughter, Frances Crocker of Inman; two brothers, Clyde, of Chesnee, S.C., and Hollis, of Oakbridge, Ga.; two sisters, Lula Guffey of Duncan, S.C., and Pauline Mills of Inman; eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

 

1999, by The New York Times
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