:: Stephen Cavanaugh

Stephen Cavanaugh
Colonel, U.S. Army


Interviewed on February 23, 2007 at Air Force Village West in Riverside, California

This is an interview with Colonel Stephen Cavanaugh. My name is Bob Fitch and today is February 23, 2007. This interview is taking place at Air Force Village West located in Riverside, California, as part of the Riverside Veterans' History Project in partnership with the Library of Congress.

Fitch: Good morning Col. Cavanaugh. Could you begin by giving us your full name?

Cavanaugh: Yes. I am Stephen E. Cavanaugh.

Fitch: And where were you born and raised?

Cavanaugh: I was born in San Diego, California in 1921 and shortly thereafter the family moved to Tampico, Mexico and I lived there for seven or eight years with the family. Dad was employed in an oil company in that area.

Fitch: Down in Mexico. How did you find growing up in Mexico?

Cavanaugh: I have very few recollections of Mexico. Therefore, when I look back on those days I find that basically I remember only the house we were in and we were living in kind of an oil colony. And the weather extremes were great. I noticed that. We were next to the Panico River which used to flood during the monsoon period. I remember going out after the flood subsided and walking around ... crabs all over the place ... and those kinds of things register on your mind.

Fitch: Did you attend any school there?

Cavanaugh: Yes, we had a one-room schoolhouse with probably about five grades and each row was a separate grade. We had one teacher that went from row to row. I remember that quite well.

Fitch: It reminds me of my rural school back in Nebraska ... a one-roomer. All right. At what age did you leave Tampico?

Cavanaugh: I left there probably in about 1929 when the Mexican government nationalized the oil fields and most of the American companies moved out of that area. Dad had been a pilot in World War I and had been an attorney before the war, therefore when he went to work with the oil company, he worked as an attorney for them. We moved from Mexico back to San Diego and then moved to Los Angeles, where I was raised.

Fitch: Okay. Did your mother work outside the home?

Cavanaugh: No. She did not work outside the home.

Fitch: Do you have siblings?

Cavanaugh: No I did not. I was an only child.

Fitch: Then you graduated from high school in Los Angeles?

Cavanaugh: I graduated from Los Angeles High School and went to UCLA and was in the engineering program there. My education was interrupted when I was commissioned in May 1942 as a Second Lieutenant from the ROTC Program in UCLA. I was in an artillery program at the University. Because I was an engineer, or taking engineering, I was commissioned in Ordnance and was ordered to active duty as an Ordnance Officer. I did not want to spend my life loading ammunition onto trucks so I volunteered for the parachute troops in 1942. I went to parachute school and graduated in November 1942 and ended up assigned to a newly activated Parachute Regiment in Fort Benning, Georgia. The 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment which became the parachute regiment of the 11th Airborne Division. We subsequently moved to Taccoa, Georgia for training, then Camp Mackall for training ... and then I went overseas to the Pacific Theatre.

Fitch: Back up a little bit. What year did you enter the service?

Cavanaugh: 1942.

Fitch: And what did your parents feel about your going into service at that time?

Cavanaugh: My mother was not very happy and my Dad was ... those were war years ... and he was very proud of me.

Fitch: Sure. How was your parachute training? Was it pretty rough?

Cavanaugh: Well, yes. I think as a young person this is what you expected going into parachute troops. It was rough but we were an all-volunteer unit and that's basically what I think we expected. In September of '43 I took a short leave to be married to a lovely girl who I had been dating during my years at UCLA. We now have been married 65 years.

Fitch: All right. And what was your next duty?

Cavanaugh: We went from the Continental United States to New Guinea. I was a Company Commander of D Company of the 511th and remained with the company through the Campaigns in the Philippines.

Fitch: What kind of action did you see?

Cavanaugh: A lot of it. We were committed into Leyte amphibiously I should say ... and spent 35 days back up into the mountains of Leyte, went across the island and linked up with the 7th Division, I guess it was, in Ormac on the western side of Leyte. During those some odd 30 days up in the mountains we'd been cut off from re-supply and sustained rather heavy casualties, not only from enemy action but from disease and things of that kind. We had to carry our own wounded with us and came out on the other side of the island a pretty well decimated regiment.

Fitch: Were you wounded?

Cavanaugh: I was wounded in subsequent operations in Luzon.

Fitch: Okay. What year did you go into Luzon?

Cavanaugh: We went from Leyte to the Island of Mindoro which had been previously secured, to stage a parachute operation into Luzon on the 3rd of February of 1945. We jumped onto Tagatay Ridge which was about 30 miles south of Manila and then attacked Manila from the south. I was a Company Commander at the time and we had a series of combat operations getting into Manila which, again were rather strenuous and we sustained a lot of casualties including our Regimental Commander, Col. Orin D. Haugen, who later died from his wounds.

Fitch: How many jumps did you make throughout your career there?

Cavanaugh: Throughout my whole career?

Fitch: Well, all right, let's stick with the Philippines. Thank you.

Cavanaugh: I made a total of two combat jumps in the Philippines. One, the one I had mentioned on the 3rd of February and a subsequent jump on the 22nd of June of 1945 in the northern end of Luzon at a place called Appari. Our mission was to drive south to link up with a U.S. Division coming up from the north. We linked up and that was the end of that operation.

Fitch: From which airplane did you jump?

Cavanaugh: We jumped from the old C-47s in our operation on the 3rd of February and I'm hesitating on the one in Appari. I think we jumped C-47s there also. That was the first operation where we actually had gliders in tow and we dropped the gliders directly on top of our unit after we had jumped. Our battalion suffered a great number of jump injuries due to the nature of the terrain.

Fitch: What was your most memorable experience in the Philippines?

Cavanaugh: I think the one that I remember the most is the day I was wounded on the 13th of March of '45. My company was directed to seize a hill mass occupied by Japanese, that was Mount Bijang, an insignificant mountain rangae south east of Maniala. We attacked that mountain and spent all day fighting to get on top. We were engaged with the enemy who counter attacked our position. My radio operator who was laying down to the right of me was hit through the mouth so I lost my radio operator. My executive officer came up to find out what was going on and he hadn't been up there two minutes before he was hit. I was then subsequently hit with a small wound on the right shoulder and then was hit in the head with a bullet going in the helmet and coming out the back, it did nothing but graze me.

Fitch: Oh, that was fortunate!

Cavanaugh: I was fortunate, yeah.

Fitch: Indeed. Was this hand-to-hand combat?

Cavanaugh: No, I was firing my M1 rifle, we had a firing line established with machine guns and rifles and I shouldn't have been doing what I was doing but I was there and the counter attack was strong and every available rifle was needed. I eventually had to withdraw the Company.

Fitch: At what rank were you at this time?

Cavanaugh: I was a Captain at that time. And that was the last real engagement we were involved with that Company. I was decorated twice with Silver Stars and a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

Fitch: Well, congratulations! Now, what was your next duty?

Cavanaugh: My next duty?

Fitch: From the Philippines.

Cavanaugh: We went from the Philippines to Occupied Japan. We were the first troops into Japan and I rotated home in probably October of '45. Got out of the service, went back to UCLA to get a degree and about that time they announced a regular Army Integration Program, which I applied for. After a series of three or four days of testing and an appearance before a Selection Board, I returned to UCLA to await the results. Subsequently in about August of '45 I got a regular commission and returned to active duty.

Fitch: Good. Back to the surrender. Where were you when you heard about the surrender and was there a great deal of celebration?

Cavanaugh: Yes. A great deal. We were in a rest area in Lipa in the Philippines not too far from Manila and when we heard that the first bomb had been dropped we didn't pay too much attention to it, but when the second bomb was dropped and we heard that the Japanese had surrendered, there was a lot of celebration.

Fitch: Okay. Now you're in the regular Army and where was your first station?

Cavanaugh: I went back as an instructor in the parachute school and spent three years there.

Fitch: Was this at Fort Benning?

Cavanaugh: Fort Benning, Georgia. Then I got an overseas assignment. I was assigned to Berlin, Germany which at that time was isolated from the rest of the western zone and sector. Blanche, my wife, and I spent three years in Berlin. I was the staff secretary to Gen. Maxwell Taylor. After Berlin I returned to the states to attend the infantry school ... the advanced course. At the end of that one year school, I went back to UCLA as a member of the military staff on ROTC and completed my degree while there. From there I went to the Command General Staff College.

Fitch: I've forgotten where that's located.

Cavanaugh: Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. After Command General Staff College I was assigned to Taiwan to the Matsu Defense Command as the team chief of the American team on the Island of Matsu. I spent six months there as an advisor with a military team to a Chinese division which was located and stationed on the Island of Matsu, actually a series of five islands, making it the Matsu complex. After six months there I returned to Taiwan. My family joined me there and we spent two more years in Taiwan. Then I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky and became the Deputy Battle Group Commander of 187th Parachute Regiment.

Fitch: And at what rank are you now?

Cavanaugh: I was a Lt. Colonel at that time. After about a year-and-a-half at Fort Campbell I got orders to attend the Army War College. I attended the War College from 1960-61 and then received orders to Vietnam and went to Vietnam on the staff of the Military Assistance Command as the Chief of the training branch.

Fitch: Where in Vietnam? What part of Vietnam?

Cavanaugh: I was in Saigon at that time and my responsibilities were basically for the various training schools and camps that we had set up for the Vietnamese Army.

Fitch: When was this?

Cavanaugh: This was in the '61/'62 period. After seventeen months in Vietnam I returned to the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina as a full Colonel, having been selected and promoted from below the line as they called it that time. I was a Commanding Officer of the Combat Developments Command, Special Warfare Agency which was an agency designed to develop material for Special Forces and to write Special Forces field manuals and doctrine. I spent three years as the Commanding Officer of that Special Warfare Agency and then was ordered to take over the Tenth Special Forces Group in Bad Tolz, Germany. That's in the foothills of the Alps. After eighteen months, as the CO of the Tenth, I was assigned as the Chief of Staff of the 8th Infantry Division in Bad Kreuznach, Germany where I finished up my three year tour. While finishing up the tour in the Bad Kreuznach as the Chief of Staff of the Division I received a phone call from Vietnam from an old friend who I'd gone to UCLA with, Col. Jack Singlaub, indicating that I had been selected to replace him in Vietnam as the Chief of the Study and Observation Group which was really the Special Operations Group in Vietnam, running Special Operations into Cambodia and Laos. I was not overly enthused about going back overseas to Vietnam after three years in Germany, but those were the orders.

Fitch: And did that involve some actual fieldwork or whatever you call it?

Cavanaugh: No, not for me. The operation involved covert operations by Special Forces Units and Indigenous Units operating from Forward Operating Bases which I had throughout in Vietnam. They were operating against the Ho Chi Min Trail trying to determine the scope of the enemy activity coming down from North Vietnam into South Vietnam. The Studies and Observations Group which was a cover name for which was actually, in essence, a Special Operations Unit operating out of country into Cambodia and into Laos. I had a ground operation against the Ho Chi Min Trail, naval operations against the coast of North Vietnam for which I had seven PT-type boats doing reconnaissance and covert operations and an Air Wing which was designed to support my operations into Cambodia and to Laos and also support indigenous teams which had been dropped into North Vietnam in previous years. My tour was an interesting one and very demanding but made a bit easier by the fact that due to the duration of my tour, two years, I was able to move my family to Clark AF Base in the Philippines and could visit them once in a while.

Fitch: I'm very, very impressed with the assignment.

Cavanaugh: I spent two years there and subsequently returned to the States to Fort Ord in California and retired from Fort Ord in 1972.

Fitch: Okay. That adds up to how many years?

Cavanaugh: Thirty years.

Fitch: Thirty years ... great. Outstanding career!

Cavanaugh: Yes.

Fitch: I'm most impressed. I'd like to go back to Berlin for just a moment. It was a most prestigious assignment you had with General Taylor there and during the time that Berlin was isolated. What were some of the particular problems that that isolation presented?

Cavanaugh: Well, there were four sectors in Berlin. The Soviet Sector, British, French and the U.S., and the Soviets were constantly a problem. The four heads of those sectors met at the Kommandatora in Berlin approximately once a month, and the Soviets finally walked out and therefore their sector of Berlin became, in a sense, off limits to us but we continued to show the flag by moving our people in and out of that sector, showing that it was still a part of an International Agreement that the city should be jointly controlled and jointly open to all four nations. We had a constant problem with the Soviets. We also were concerned that the Soviets were eventually going to take military action against the French, British and U.S. sectors, so we attempted to organize some sort of a adequate defense ... inadequate though it would have been ... against any Soviet attempt. In that period we were trying to bring in additional military units into our sector. And, of course, to get them into Berlin they had to pass through the Soviet Zone and this was a constant problem. For example, we had no armor of any kind initially. No artillery of any kind. We had a U.S. Infantry Battalion there, a small constabulary unit, and the British and French had an equal number of lightly armed troops. We finally were able to bring in a company of tanks which the Soviets vigorously objected to. But that company of tanks was really designed to show the flag and to show that we had a capability to reinforce our position.

Fitch: How does this fit in with the timeline of the Air Lift?

Cavanaugh: This was shortly after the Air Lift. The Air Lift had shown the Soviets that we could sustain that city with sufficient coal to keep people warm and to feed the population. The Air Lift had just terminated when I arrived. We found the city completely leveled still ... this was 1949. I know I got my car into Berlin and it was one of the few automobiles that was around and many of the streets were still covered with rubble. I couldn't get the car serviced because there was nobody to service it. It was an interesting tour.

Fitch: Where was your family at that time?

Cavanaugh: The family was with me. We had German housing which had been part of the agreement when the Armistice was signed ... the Germans would furnish housing so we lived first in an apartment and then subsequently into a separate house. We lived very comfortably there, we had no shortage of anything and we had a great social life, it was a very closely knit group of people that were assigned to duty in Berlin.

Fitch: Before going a little bit to your family, let me go back to your most impressive medals. Obviously you received your two Silver Stars and Battle Star during some kind of a campaign in the Philippines.

Cavanaugh: Yes.

Fitch: What were the particular incidents?

Cavanaugh: In Leyte near the end of our operation, about the 20th of December of '45, we had been cut off from anything in terms of supply and we were coming down out of the mountains on the western side of Leyte hoping to link up in Ormac with another Division. The Regiment was attacking down a ridgeline and had been subsequently held up by enemy resistance and my Company was directed to launch a night attack against this Japanese position along this ridgeline. We caught the Japanese by surprise, overran them that night which became what we called 'the Rat's Ass Charge' and in a sense "bonzaied" the Japanese. I think my Company killed better than a hundred Japanese that day and I only lost one man. That operation really opened the door for the regiment as we destroyed the Japanese that were blocking us from the contact with the 7th Division at Ormac. The regiment broke out on the 24th of December ... the day before Christmas. I put in Silver Stars for my squad leaders, platoon leaders that had led that attack. I subsequently ended up with a Bronze Star.

In Luzon ... again, after our jump on the 3rd of February we had attacked through Pasay and Paranaque towards Manila, where we encountered what was called the Japanese Genko Line ... it was a Japanese defensive line south of Manila. F Company of our regiment had run into stiff resistance on the main highway going into Manila, which was the center of our main attack. I was directed to pass through F Company and try to overcome the resistance that they had met. I elected not to make a frontal assault but to try to go down around the left flank of the enemy and I moved my Company around to the right. The Pasig River was our right boundary as we advanced. We encountered a heavy barbed wire entanglement which I figured would be covered by machine gun fire, but in order to encircle the enemy position we had to get through it. I directed a number of my people to grab some pieces of lumber which were laying next to an abandoned house and myself and three other people threw this lumber across this barbed wire to try and make a bridge across the wire. We met no opposition whatsoever and went across the barbed wire and around a number of Philippine houses, crept around those houses and found we were on the left flank of the enemy defensive position. We ended up destroying seven Japanese pillboxes without losing one man.

Fitch: Most commendable! Most commendable.

Cavanaugh: That opened the door to the Genko Line and we drove from there into Manila. I was awarded a Silver Star for that operation.

Fitch: Excellent ... excellent.

Cavanaugh: I previously mentioned the attack on Mount Beijiang where I was wounded. I was awarded a Silver Star for that operation.

Fitch: Great. Well, let's talk about your family. You met your wife where?

Cavanaugh: As I mentioned before, I met my wife Blanche when I was in UCLA and we dated when I was still a student, before the war. When I went into the Parachute Troops I was assigned to the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment while training at Camp Mackall, North Carolina wrote her and told her I'd like to marry her. I flew back to Los Angeles and we were married in 1943 on September the 5th and she was with me from then on, except when I went overseas during World War II. She made most of my subsequent moves with me. She was not with me on my first tour in Vietnam but as I have mentioned she was with me and stayed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines when I was on my last two year tour in Vietnam. We have one child, Jim, who is currently a police officer in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Fitch: Good.

Cavanaugh: He's been on the Force there for sixteen years.

Fitch: And when you retired from the Army, did you go into some kind of employment to keep you busy?

Cavanaugh: Yes. I taught Management in two of the local community colleges for ten years.

Fitch: Okay.

Cavanaugh: And I did that more of an 'avocation' than anything else. It was interesting and I enjoyed doing it.

Fitch: And then you moved to Air Force Village West two or three years ago?

Cavanaugh: We moved to Air Force Village West in 2003. We had a large home in San Diego, it was a two story house ... too big for us. When our son left we moved to Air Force Village West because it had, you know, military attachments. We had a couple of friends here and it's kind of a military atmosphere.

Fitch: And you're enjoying your stay here?

Cavanaugh: We are, very much.

Fitch: Good. Are you involved in any of the many activities here in the Village?

Cavanaugh: Yes. I am a member of two committees and have been actively involved in a group of fund-raising to build a chapel here at Air Force Village West. We have succeeded in getting enough money and donations so that we hope to turn the ground for the chapel this year ... 2007.

Fitch: Great. I'm somewhat aware of that having interviewed General Goldsworthy. He's very much involved. What do you feel about your military service? Was it a positive influence on your life?

Cavanaugh: Yes, but I have to preface that by saying that's the only thing I ever wanted to do. Dad, having been in the military for a short time and I kind of grew up with the idea that's the only thing I ever wanted to do, so there was no sacrifice on my part when I went in. It was the best thing in the world that could have ever happened to me.

Fitch: Have you made contact with some of those with whom you served, other than here in the Village?

Cavanaugh: The Company that I commanded during World War II ... we have a reunion every year ... those that of us that are left ... and I'm not sure that we will have one next year. But I've maintained contact with them.

Fitch: And what is that Company designation?

Cavanaugh: It's D Company of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment. And we have met every year for about the last seventeen.... eighteen years. But our numbers are down.

Fitch: Well, is there anything else that you would like to include in this interview that we haven't talked about?

Cavanaugh: I think not. I think that's just about it.

Fitch: Well, Colonel, thank you very much for participating in this important project and for sharing your outstanding military experiences with us. Your interview will be reviewed and you will receive your own personal copy. Copies of today's interview will be placed in the Riverside Central Library in the Local History Section, and will be indexed as well in the Library of Congress in the Archives of the National Veterans History Project. This concludes the interview. Thank you very much.

Cavanaugh: Thank you, Bob.



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