War Stories | Bourbon Man at Breakneck Ridge

By John C. Tramazzo
Spring 2019 • MHQ Magazine

In 1944 a 30-year-old tank commander from a well-known Kentucky whiskey family made a name for himself at the Battle of Leyte.

When Japanese forces invaded the Philippines in early 1942, General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of U.S. Army forces in the Far East, was ordered to leave. He escaped to Australia but famously vowed to return. By the time he fulfilled his pledge two and a half years later, the Japanese were prepared to defend the Philippines to the death. They dug in on the island of Leyte, prepared for a fight that would decide the fate of the Japanese Empire. At the center of MacArthur’s dramatic return in October 1944 was Captain Julian Proctor Van Winkle Jr., a 30-year-old tank commander from a well-known Kentucky whiskey family.

In 1932 Van Winkle had gone to work at the W. L. Weller & Sons Distilling Company in Louisville, Kentucky, which had been by founded by William Larue Weller, a veteran of the Mexican-American War. In 1915, five years before Prohibition, Van Winkle’s father, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, had bought Weller & Sons with a partner, after 19 years as a salesman for the company. By the time Julian Jr. joined the company, Weller & Sons was selling medicinal whiskey made by the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery and hoping for the end of Prohibition, which, as it turned out, was only a year off. Soon the six-foot-four teenager was rolling full 48-gallon barrels around the warehouses with the intention of bulking up to play football at Princeton University, which he would enter in 1933. Two years later, on Derby Day in 1935, Weller & Sons formally merged with the Stitzel concern to become the Stitzel-Weller Distilling Company.

Julian Jr. continued his summertime work rotations at the distillery until his graduation from Princeton in 1937. The following year, when he became the company’s treasurer, business was booming, thanks largely to the success of the Old Fitzgerald and W. L. Weller bourbon brands. But everything suddenly changed on December 7, 1941, for the nation and Stitzel-Weller, with the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Compelled by patriotism and a sense of duty common among his generation, Van Winkle volunteered for the U.S. Army.

On February 20, 1942, Van Winkle left his wife, Katie, for in-processing at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and then reported to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where he trained for several months. After he completed additional officers’ training in 1943, Van Winkle was placed in command of Company D, 44th Armored Regiment, a National Guard unit that had been attached to the 12th Armored Division “Hellcats” in preparation for combat. After Van Winkle led his men through basic training, the unit was transferred to Tennessee for a final exercise and reflagged the 44th Tank Battalion. Van Winkle was promoted to captain and assumed command of Company A.

In the winter of 1943, the 44th Tank Battalion moved to Camp Barkeley, Texas, for several months of grueling exercises, and in March 1944 it was transported by rail to Portland, Oregon. While the rest of the 12th Armored Division deployed to the Atlantic theater, the 44th was designated a “separate battalion,” placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Ross, and deployed to the Pacific theater. On March 22 it left for New Guinea aboard the U.S. Army Transport Kota Baroe, a 10,000-ton Dutch freighter that had been refitted as a troop carrier.

Fifty-one days later, the 44th Tank Battalion landed at Milne Bay in southeastern Papua New Guinea, becoming the first such unit outfit in the Southwest Pacific and the first in Lieutenant General Walter Krueger’s Sixth Army—the headquarters element in MacArthur’s amphibious assault force. Ross and his men adopted the nickname “Wolf Pack” after the “wolf calls” that had regularly blared from the Kota Baroe’s P.A. system, calling them to attention.

In the run-up to the Battle of Leyte, Julian Van Winkle Jr. (lower right) named his M4 Sherman after Old Fitzgerald, the flagship whiskey of his family’s Kentucky distillery. (Courtesy Sally Van Winkle Campbell)

As the 44th Tank Battalion came ashore in Dutch New Guinea, Indonesian nationalists were battling Japanese forces for control of the island. In a letter to his family, Van Winkle noted that the native islanders were “very, very efficient as scouts and soldiers,” “wonderful in the jungle,” “good pack carriers,” and “very smart.” All four companies in the battalion saw action on New Guinea and the many islands off the Filipino coast. As U.S. forces prepared for a large-scale invasion of Leyte Island, Van Winkle’s Company A was reorganized under the command of Colonel William J. Verbeck’s 21st Infantry Regiment.

As he and his men advanced from island to island, Van Winkle found time to write his father, making it a point to stay abreast of things at Stitzel-Weller. In one letter he told Pappy that he had spent hours going over one of the company’s monthly statements, which, he noted, “certainly looked good despite the vast decrease in some of the accounts.” He also asked about rising taxes, the distillery’s efforts to provide alcohol to the War Department, and whether Old Fitzgerald whiskey was “finally on sale in L.A.”

Throughout the summer and fall months of 1944, Van Winkle and his men were battered by torrential rains. Still he wrote, and he remained optimistic: “Dear Dad, we have a steady rain for three nights and two days. Sometimes so hard that it wakes you up. This is real adventure, dad, an A-1 high-class fiction material and I only wish I could tell you all the things I know about the projected plan. It is fascinating of course and an undertaking of the greatest magnitude. It has undoubtedly been in the works for months although I understand the schedule has been stepped up considerably. We are all totally sure that it will be another MacArthur success.”

The assault on Leyte finally began on October 17, 1944. The U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet engaged Japanese forces in an effort to secure a beachhead for Krueger’s Sixth Army. The four-day naval battle in Leyte Gulf was the largest of World War II. “People of the Philippines,” MacArthur announced as he waded ashore, “I have returned!” Behind him was an amphibious attack force consisting of four divisions, a ranger infantry battalion, and the Fifth Air Force—more than 320,000 men in all. Naval assets provided indirect fire support from Leyte Gulf.

On October 20 Van Winkle’s tank company landed on Leyte Island with orders to clear a path for Verbeck’s dismounted infantrymen. As Company A hit the beach on Leyte, ships offshore pounded enemy positions. From the first day it was grim, savage combat, often hand to hand, up and down slick, muddy ravines and rainswept valleys.

Despite a mid-November typhoon, Verbeck ordered a full-scale frontal assault on an area known as Breakneck Ridge for its ugly, rugged terrain. He relentlessly attacked enemy positions with mortars, tanks, and maneuvering infantrymen—all in the face of intense Japanese resistance, pounding rain, high winds, falling trees, and treacherous mudslides. For 10 days, Breakneck Ridge saw some of the campaign’s bitterest fighting. Van Winkle’s company destroyed at least 25 Japanese machine gun positions.

Verbeck directed Van Winkle and his men to punch through Japanese positions on the ridge to clear a way for his infantry battalions behind it, but the mud made maneuvering their tanks all but impossible. According to official reports, the tanks became bogged down on steep, slippery heights and even had trouble moving on more level terrain. Riflemen had to guard the vehicles on all sides to prevent Japanese soldiers from slapping magnetic mines on the tanks or hurling grenades or other explosive devices at their vulnerable tracks. At one point Van Winkle’s men had to fire a 75mm shell into a stalled tank they had abandoned so the Japanese couldn’t use it.

Van Winkle’s actions during the third week of this grim fighting would bring him a Purple Heart. According to a corporal who served under him, the gung-ho commander of Company A left the safety of his tank, nicknamed “Old Fitz” for Stitzel-Weller’s most popular whiskey, to personally direct the company’s operations under heavy fire. As he stood outside the tank, a sniper shot him; the bullet hit his right hand, which was resting on his hip, and went through his side and out his back. The tankers heard Van Winkle scream, “Damn, that stings!” but were unable to get to him right away because of the sniper. When they did, he was evacuated so that his wound could be treated.

The company, now without Van Winkle, fought on for six days until it finally cleared a way for Verbeck’s 1st Battalion. On November 18, 1944, the 44th Tank Battalion’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Ross, persuaded Van Winkle to move to a medical aid station in New Guinea. Van Winkle declined Ross’s offer to send him back to the United States. “The thought of the boys banging away without me running the show is unbearable,” Van Winkle wrote in his journal. “I have not made many regrettable mistakes in my life but getting shot was certainly one of them.”

In a letter to his father, Van Winkle wrote: “You asked why I was not in my tank. I can only say that there are times when reconnaissance must be made on foot before planning the next move. Tanks have some limitations in this respect when on questionable terrain. Naturally I try to do this work on foot only when necessary and that goes double in the future.”

Nine days after Van Winkle was wounded, his temporary replacement, Lieutenant Leo Frederick Reinartz Jr., became the first commissioned officer in the battalion to be killed in action when he left his tank to warn fellow tankers of a Japanese ambush (an act of bravery for which he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross). The Wolf Pack ultimately lost 32 men, including Ross, its commander, who was cut down by Japanese rifle fire in February 1945 on the island of Luzon.

On learning that Ross had been killed, Van Winkle managed to hop a flight from New Guinea to the Philippines, where he hitchhiked south on the island of Luzon, intent on rejoining his men. He arrived just in time for MacArthur’s main assault on Manila. He and his tankers were some of the first Americans to enter the capital city, where undersupplied but fanatical Japanese soldiers lay in wait among its civilian population.

On February 3, 1945, at 4 a.m., Van Winkle and his men were ordered to push into Manila and destroy any enemy fighting positions along the way. They reached the outskirts of the city, with other elements of the 44th Tank Battalion, just before dark, and proceeded to Bilibid Prison to free nearly 1,000 Allied prisoners of war.

The next morning the battalion reached the University of Santo Tomas in the heart of Manila, where several thousand civilians, most of them Americans, had been interned since 1942. Several miles west of the university, other American tank units liberated POWs who had survived the Bataan Death March.

“On one side there was still a fight going on,” Van Winkle wrote, “and in front of the main dormitory, people were singing and shouting and doing everything possible to express their joy at their deliverance.” Van Winkle noted that the POWs were emaciated and had been dying at the rate of six a day.

While Van Winkle’s men would go on to exchange potshots with some 50 Japanese soldiers holed up on the grounds of the university, on February 6 MacArthur was able to announce that Manila had fallen. Within a month or so U.S. forces on Luzon controlled all the island’s economically and strategically important locations. Japanese losses in the Philippines totaled 205,535 dead, compared with 8,310 Americans killed.

For his wounds and heroic actions, Van Winkle was awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star Medal. “Perhaps it is almost justice, dad, that we should have to go through war every so often to pay for the peace years—so filled with plenty and pleasure as compared with the other people on the earth,” Van Winkle reflected in a letter home. “That sounds harsh but it is true that war brings forth in people a certain vitality, spirit and a mettle that lies dormant in the serene years.”

In late 1945 Van Winkle returned home and rejoined Pappy at Stitzel-Weller as its vice president. With Julian Jr. in the Pacific, Pappy had brought Charles “King” McClure aboard to handle sales and marketing. Soon the three men would be known in the company as “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

One of Van Winkle’s first moves as vice president was to hire two of his army buddies: Robert E. “Bob” Lee, whom he spotted selling used cars in Tupelo, Mississippi, and Ivan Parks, who’d been his aide in the Philippines.

Business boomed in the postwar years. Stitzel-Weller expanded from 12 to 19 warehouses to accommodate increased production and sales of Old Fitzgerald, Belle of Bourbon, Cabin Still, Cascade, Old W. L. Weller, Old Elk, and Rebel Yell. While other distilleries diluted their products to 90 and 80 proof to meet escalating demand, the Van Winkles continued to market 100- and 107-proof bourbon. Pappy’s philosophy was to make a premium product and keep it in short supply. His mantra: “We make fine bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.”

Following Pappy’s retirement in 1964, Van Winkle became the president of the company his father had joined as a 19-year-old salesman, operating it, in the words of an old-timer at the company, “like he was still a tank commander.” Within a few years, however, bourbon’s popularity in the United States leveled off, and most distilleries saw expenses rise and sales decline.

In 1972, at the behest of other stockholders in the family, Stitzel-Weller Distilling Company was sold to the Norton Simon Company for $19.5 million and renamed Old Fitzgerald. But Van Winkle wasn’t finished. He formed a new company, J. P. Van Winkle and Son, and began selling bourbon in porcelain decanters. He created the Old Rip Van Winkle brand by contracting to buy Stitzel-Weller whiskey in barrels and bottling it himself. In 1977 his son, Julian Van Winkle III, joined him in the business (and ultimately would go on to develop the Pappy Van Winkle Reserve line), but their time together was limited.

Van Winkle died in 1981 after a short battle with cancer. He was 67 years old. His coffin was covered with a large American flag, a small recognition of his heroic service at Breakneck Ridge, an experience he rarely discussed. 

John C. Tramazzo, an active-duty army officer, is an American whiskey enthusiast, Kentucky Colonel, and the founder of the blog bourbonscout.com. He is the author of Bourbon & Bullets: True Stories of Whiskey, War, and Military Service (University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books, 2018), from which this article is adapted.

This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue (Vol. 31, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: War Stories | Bourbon Man at Breakneck Ridge

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