Machine guns spat bullets from the jungle canopy; the trap had been sprung.
Members of the U.S. Army’s 475th Infantry were nearing the top of a hill in the Burmese jungle. Ray Mize, a rifleman, dove behind a bush, staying as low to the ground as he could so the gunners couldn’t spot him.
Japanese soldiers hid in the trees and at the top of the mountain. As the U.S. troops withdrew from the firefight in the rice paddy below, a mortar exploded behind Mize. Shrapnel strafed his shoulder.
“It got me, but I got out. Guys were dead laying all around me,” he said.
Story continues below gallery
Mize survived, emerging as the only one in his squad to make it out. In a ceremony in the field, he was presented with a Purple Heart. He has the photograph from that day on Feb. 21, 1945. Standing in his military uniform, holding his rifle, the medal is pinned to his chest.
A metal shortage at that point in the war meant that his unit only had one physical medal to present. The five soldiers who received one that day had to pass it down from man to man so they could get their photographs taken with it.
They were supposed to receive their medals once the war was over. But due to a paperwork error made by the doctor that treated him in Burma, Mize did not receive his. His official military record will never say that he was a Purple Heart recipient.
“I was presented it, so I thought I had it,” he said. “But they said it wasn’t official.”
Mize’s family has written letters to legislators and the Veterans Affairs office to get him his Purple Heart. But without the right paperwork, there’s nothing that can be done.
So in a symbolic gesture, his nephew, Rick Mize, purchased a Purple Heart from a military store in Fort Benning, Georgia.
“They’ve done everything they can to get the medal that he earned,” Rick Mize said. “He never got the Purple Heart, but he earned it. This was a chance for him to get it.”
In the one-story brick home in the Center Grove area where he lives with his wife, Anna, 92-year-old Mize brought out the mementos from his time in the war. Photographs of him in his Army uniform sat next to his medals and distinctions. He had received five bronze stars for heroic service during the war.
Mize, a Southport native, joined the Army in 1943 at the age of 21. He was one of four brothers who served in the war, with his siblings fighting in New Guinea and Europe.
During training, Mize thought he was going to be sent to the European front as well. But instead, he was one of 50 men who were chosen to join the 475th Infantry.
“I was supposed to go to Europe, but they sent me to the jungle,” he said. “I ‘volunteered’ through them. I learned one thing — don’t volunteer for anything.”
The brigade was part of a campaign to retake the Burma Road, a key supply route through Southeast Asia, from the Japanese. They flew into the country on gliders, assaulting a Japanese-held airstrip that proved to be the starting point of the operation.
With their machine guns, mortars and other artillery towed by 1,500 Missouri mules, the soldiers trekked up and down the steep, slippery mountain trails through the jungle.
“Mules — that was our mechanized infantry,” he said. “I held on to many a mule tail to get up those mountains.”
The unit was forced to cross the Irrawaddy River, which wound through the Burmese territory. Mize calculated they crossed the winding river 88 times while they marched.
The fighting was intense. Mize can recall numerous instances where by all rights he should have been killed.
One time, he was on watch in a field when Japanese soldiers snuck nearby and threw a grenade towards where he was standing. He dove into his nearby foxhole as it exploded; he emerged to find that the blast had torn his rifle to pieces.
Another time a sniper missed his head by a fraction of an inch, so close that Mize fell into his foxhole thinking he’d been hit. He narrowly avoided a shell fired from Japanese artillery that destroyed his squad’s command post.
After he was discharged on Dec. 24, 1946, Mize returned to Indiana and his wife, Anna. He continued farming his family’s land on the southside, and was a farmer for most of his life.
Ray and Anna Mize moved to their Center Grove area home 53 years ago, and have lived there ever since.
For many years, Ray Mize wouldn’t talk about his experience in Asia.
“Ray didn’t talk about the Army or anything that happened for many years,” Anna Mize said. “Then he started telling us things.”
But with enough time removed from the fighting, Ray Mize decided that the history of the men who fought in World War II needed to be told.
“You see a lot of awful stuff there,” Mize said. “I didn’t talk about it for years, but thought some people should know that it wasn’t any picnic.”
Home: Center Grove area
Service: U.S. Army rifleman with the 475th Infantry
When: 1943 to 1946
Service area: Burma and Southeast Asia
Accolades: Five bronze star awards for heroic action; earned the Purple Heart medal after being injured by shrapnel in the shoulder, but never received the official distinction due to a paperwork error.