US Marines at Cape Gloucester are dive bombed

Marines hit three feet of rough water as they leave their LST to take the beach at Cape Gloucester, New Britain. Taken by Sgt.Robert M. Howard, December 26, 1943
Marines hit three feet of rough water as they leave their LST to take the beach at Cape Gloucester, New Britain. Taken by Sgt.Robert M. Howard, December 26, 1943

On New Britain the Marines had landed on the 26th December at Cape Gloucester. It was the second amphibious landing for the 1st Marines, veterans of Guadalcanal. Now the aim was to take the nearby Japanese airfield, with the ultimate objective of taking the main Japanese base at Rabaul.

Milton Royko was an artilleryman with the Marines. Shortly after they arrived they saw a solitary U.S. B-17 bomber over their positions, unusual in itself since they usually went in force direct to their targets. From the way it was weaving about it was eventually discovered that it was a captured plane, being used by the Japanese to photograph their positions. The next time it appeared it was shot down. However it was not the end of the episode:

As a result of this on January 2nd, probably close to midnight we had a devastating dive-bomber attack on our positions and it was quite an experience.

Navar and I had been a little way from the gun position when we got the condition: “RED”. Our radar had picked up some incoming dive-bombers. You could always tell the Japanese bombers as they had a different sound to their engines and we ran over to our gun section. Everyone was in the slit trench and Navar and I couldn’t get in for lack of space. The bombs were starting to fall very close. Navar dove into a small shallow foxhole about the size of a coffin and eight or nine inches deep and I went into the one next to it. One of the bombs fell precisely on the fire control center hitting a large tree killing four of our guys and injuring two of the others.

[Paul Stigall was one of the men hit. Part of his skull ripped off he now has a steel plate in his head as a result of that attack. Jim Moore, had a huge chest wound. We met them at a reunion in California. They healed well and were OK so we had a lot to remember and talk about.]

There were a couple of others wounded and during that little episode our Corpsman ran around treating these people and exposing himself to a considerable amount of danger. He was later evacuated because he had been a Corpsman on Guadalcanal and it was discovered that he was a morphine addict because he had been wounded and since he had access to the morphine he was taking it during the entire campaign until they discovered it and sent him home.

The dive-bombing attack continued for about an hour and we were being hit pretty hard in front of us and around us. Number two gun got a bomb hit into a tree directly next to the gun. Fortunately, no one was hit but the tree was pretty well shattered. That was about as close as you could get and then Navar and I had just dived into the fox holes when a Daisy Cutter hit into the kunai patch area to the side of us, probably twenty five or thirty yards away. The sound was just tremendous causing great pain in the ears. I could feel the fragments from the bomb passing over us hitting trees. The air was full of the acrid smell of powder burning and tree branches falling down on top of us. After that one hit there was a deadly silence. For a moment I had thoughts that I had been hit and was dead. Lying there just a few seconds I finally yelled to Navar and he yelled back that he was OK!

The dive-bombing continued but then they were starting to drop bottles, which they had tied together and as they came down they made a shrieking noise like a bomb so we had a night full of excitement. The accuracy of their attack made it plain that that B17 that had been circling overhead had been taking aerial photographs and had our gun positions pin pointed pretty well.

The sound of the attacks were violent in addition to the exploding bombs around us, there was the high pitched sound of the dive bombers coming down and pulling out and then the bombs dropping. They always sounded like they were going to hit you dead center. You wondered if that was where it was going to land. In addition to all of that, there was the sound of our anti aircraft guns just blazing away throughout the attack. I don’t think that they got any of our planes. I guess it’s hard to hit a dive-bomber especially at night.

When we awakened in the morning at first light we were dazed and exhausted and a little bit demoralized because we could see the damage around us. I walked over to Number Two gun with someone else and talked to some of our guys there. A tree was exactly next to the gun and it was a miracle that no one was hurt. The tree was really splintered. The bomb must have hit right into the tree and most of the fragments probably went up or else the guys were just in a positions where they weren’t hit and either was the gun. The biggest demoralization of that night was the fact that they had hit the fire control center and killed some of our people and wounded several others.

The experiences of Milton Royko as a United States Marine Corps artilleryman were originally available at http://www.firemission42.com – Fire Mission ’42. It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

Marine mortar in action. Supporting the attack on Cape Gloucester, Marine mortarmen behind their riflemen buddies, form a bucket brigade line to pass the ammunition as they fire into Japanese positions with their 81mm mortar.
Marine mortar in action. Supporting the attack on Cape Gloucester, Marine mortarmen behind their riflemen buddies, form a bucket brigade line to pass the ammunition as they fire into Japanese positions with their 81mm mortar.

The smell of death in the paradise of Bougainville

ROUTE STEP…MUD – Marines moving up to the Bougainville front lines ran afoul of General Mud.  Here some of the Marines demonstrate carious forms of footwork for muddy going.  The leader (right) is recovering his balance after a misstep, the third Marine from the end lifts his feet high, while the other Leathernecks just plow right through.
ROUTE STEP…MUD – Marines moving up to the Bougainville front lines ran afoul of General Mud. Here some of the Marines demonstrate carious forms of footwork for muddy going. The leader (right) is recovering his balance after a misstep, the third Marine from the end lifts his feet high, while the other Leathernecks just plow right through.
Members of the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines, coming out of the jungle from the front lines.  They were the first to hit the beach at Torokino Point where the strongest opposition was met.  Captain Frank H. Vogel, is in command of Company “C,” 1st Battalion, 3d Marines.
Members of the 1st Battalion, 3d Marines, coming out of the jungle from the front lines. They were the first to hit the beach at Torokino Point where the strongest opposition was met. Captain Frank H. Vogel, is in command of Company “C,” 1st Battalion, 3d Marines.

On the otherwise idyllic island of Bougainville the US Marines had now secured their beachhead in the centre of the island and were able to consolidate. The last assault had been just before Christmas when they took ‘Hellzapoppin Ridge’ and the immediate Japanese threat in their vicinity had been overcome.

The campaign on Bougainville was destined to become a long drawn out affair which would be taken over by other troops. For the moment it was the US Marines that held the Allied positions and they had to accustom themselves to some uncomfortable living conditions. Amongst their number was Chester Nez, a Navajo code talker who, along with his colleagues talking in their native language, was providing secure radio communications for the Marines:

As long as we had good cover, Francis and I felt fairly secure. Now that we had taken Hellzapoppin Ridge, the fighting on Bougainville: had pretty much stopped – temporarily. Everyone worried about air attacks, but even those had abated.

Star shells occasionally floated down at night on small parachutes. The light attached to them lit the landscape in eerie white and cast shadows that moved with the movement of the parachutes. Our riflemen would try to shoot them, causing them to burst above us and preventing them from hitting the ground near the troops and exploding.

The island – like most ofthe tropical islands we fought on – was covered with beautiful flowers, with red and white blossoms as big as the tops of barrels. These bloomed at sunrise, and they smelled wonderful. We occasionally used petals plucked from them for underarm deodorant! The way we smelled after a prolonged battle was in sharp contrast to those fabulous flowers.

We could smell ourselves and everyone else. I remember dirty sweat rolling down my back, arms, and legs, collecting wherever my uniform made contact with my body. During heavy fighting, when we had no access to showers, I looked forward to rain so I could rinse off a bit.

Still, our smell couldn’t begin to compete with the stench of dead bodies. In the heat, bodies began to decompose within a couple of hours, and despite liberal sprayings of DDT, the flies and maggots had a field day. Of course, the flies and maggots didn’t limit themselves to dead bodies. They’d attack the dead skin around a wound, too.

The tropical birds were noisy and brilliantly colored, with dazzling yellow and red feathers. The palm trees were lovely, like a travel poster, and the whole tree—trunk and fronds swayed in the breezes. Unfortunately, many trees were bomb—blasted, and we had to slash our way into the jungles with machetes, cutting vines and flowers.

I always hated the feeling that we were destroying something really beautiful. Sometimes, when I was resting, I’d see monkeys come down from the trees. We men would feed them. During quiet periods, I often thought about those wonderful animals and flowers and wondered how they were going to survive the war. As a Navajo, I’d been taught to respect the earth, and the devastation made me feel sick.

We found we couldn’t really trust this period of relative quiet. That was one of the toughest things about war; you could never really relax, not even for a few moments. Even after an island was secured, there was always the possibility of the Japanese trying to win it back. And Bougainville wasn’t yet secured.

See Chester Nez: Code Talker.

Through the Bougainville mud and muck, a Marine artillery unit carries food to the forward gun positions.  At times sinking into mud up to their hips, the Marines worked from sunrise to sunset.  Because it was almost impossible for vehicles to plow through the mud, most of the work was done by hand.
Through the Bougainville mud and muck, a Marine artillery unit carries food to the forward gun positions. At times sinking into mud up to their hips, the Marines worked from sunrise to sunset. Because it was almost impossible for vehicles to plow through the mud, most of the work was done by hand.
U.S. Marines haul ammunition to the front lines at Bougainville, through a sea of mud.  Tropical rains and heavy equipment make short work of temporary roads and caterpillar tractors are the only vehicles equal to the task of getting through.
U.S. Marines haul ammunition to the front lines at Bougainville, through a sea of mud. Tropical rains and heavy equipment make short work of temporary roads and caterpillar tractors are the only vehicles equal to the task of getting through.

Tarawa – the fight for ‘Bonnyman’s Hill’

Lt Bonnyman has been indicated by an arrow, right of centre, as he leads his men in another assault.
Lt Bonnyman has been indicated by an arrow, right of centre, as he leads his men in another assault.
Marines still on the beach taking cover from snipers as they watch their fighter bombers come in to blast Japanese positions.
Marines still on the beach taking cover from snipers as they watch their fighter bombers come in to blast Japanese positions.

During the first day the Marines had spent time shooting snipers out of the trees only to see more creep back overnight and threaten them the second day. The Japanese also occupied broken down U.S. vehicles on the beach and in the water, using these as sniping positions until they got blasted out. Against such suicidal tactics casualties steadily mounted but the Marines gradually enlarged their bridgehead and began to prevail.

The third day saw the breakthrough they wanted. The Marines were able to bring in reserves and more heavy weapons arrived. Robert Sherrod was to witness the Japanese collapse:

This was the day the Japs fell apart. There were many factors in this rout.

Another company of light tanks and a few thirty-two ton tanks had a field day with the Japs, who cowered in their pillboxes and waited for death. Armored half tracks, mounting 75-mm guns, paraded up and down Betio all day, pouring high explosives into pillboxes, carrying Marine riflemen who killed Japs whenever they dared stick their heads up. The men with the flamethrowers killed many hundreds in their fortifications, or outside their fortifications.

Our line across the island had held during the night, preventing any fresh Japs from filtering towards the scenes of the toughest fighting. On the third day the question was not, ‘How long will it take to kill them all?’ but, ‘How few men can we expect to lose before killing the rest of the Japs?’

See Robert Sherrod: Tarawa

It was by no means a one sided massacre and many Marines died in this final fight. In many cases it was still the actions of individual men who turned the situation. Nowhere was this more true than in the fight for a Japanese strongpoint that subsequently became known as ‘Bonnyman’s Hill’.

First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., awarded posthumous Medal of Honor
First Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., awarded posthumous Medal of Honor.

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of the 2d Battalion Shore Party, 18th Marines, 2d Marine Division, during the assault against enemy Japanese-held Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, 20-22 November 1943.

Acting on his own initiative when assault troops were pinned down at the far end of Betio Pier by the overwhelming fire of Japanese shore batteries, 1st Lt. Bonnyman repeatedly defied the blasting fury of the enemy bombardment to organize and lead the besieged men over the long, open pier to the beach and then, voluntarily obtaining flame throwers and demolitions, organized his pioneer shore party into assault demolitionists and directed the blowing of several hostile installations before the close of D-day.

Determined to effect an opening in the enemy’s strongly organized defense line the following day, he voluntarily crawled approximately 40 yards forward of our lines and placed demolitions in the entrance of a large Japanese emplacement as the initial move in his planned attack against the heavily garrisoned, bombproof installation which was stubbornly resisting despite the destruction early in the action of a large number of Japanese who had been inflicting heavy casualties on our forces and holding up our advance.

Withdrawing only to replenish his ammunition, he led his men in a renewed assault, fearlessly exposing himself to the merciless slash of hostile fire as he stormed the formidable bastion, directed the placement of demolition charges in both entrances and seized the top of the bombproof position, flushing more than 100 of the enemy who were instantly cut down, and effecting the annihilation of approximately 150 troops inside the emplacement.

Assailed by additional Japanese after he had gained his objective, he made a heroic stand on the edge of the structure, defending his strategic position with indomitable determination in the face of the desperate charge and killing 3 of the enemy before he fell, mortally wounded.

By his dauntless fighting spirit, unrelenting aggressiveness and forceful leadership throughout 3 days of unremitting, violent battle, 1st Lt. Bonnyman had inspired his men to heroic effort, enabling them to beat off the counterattack and break the back of hostile resistance in that sector for an immediate gain of 400 yards with no further casualties to our forces in this zone. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

For more background on the action and Lt. Bonnyman see U.S.M.C.

The scene on Red Beach 2 on Betio island as the Marines consolidate their position.
The scene on Red Beach 2 on Betio island as the Marines consolidate their position.

The second desperate day on Tarawa

Sprawled bodies on beach of Tarawa, testifying to ferocity of the struggle for this stretch of sand.  November 1943.
Sprawled bodies on beach of Tarawa, testifying to ferocity of the struggle for this stretch of sand. November 1943.
Taking the slim protection that a blasted three affords, this Marine picks-off the Japs in a pill box.  A Jap in a pill box must be shot through the small opening he uses to sight through, but that didn't bother this Marine on Tarawa.  November 1943.
Taking the slim protection that a blasted three affords, this Marine picks-off the Japs in a pill box. A Jap in a pill box must be shot through the small opening he uses to sight through, but that didn’t bother this Marine on Tarawa. November 1943.

Journalist Robert Sherrod had arrived on the island the first day, in the fifth wave. It had been expected that the beaches would have been secured by then and that it would be relatively safe. Instead he found himself wading ashore under fire like every other Marine. By the end of the day the beach had still not been secured – and he spent the night on the beach in a slit trench next to four dead Japanese.

The second day started no better than the first, the Japanese were still firing on men trying men to come ashore. He was to witness to the incredible fight that just managed to turn the tide on the second day. He managed to produce an hour by hour account of that day’s battle:

0530: The coral flats in front of us present a sad sight at low tide. A half dozen Marines lie exposed, now that the water has receded. They are hunched over, rifles in hand, just as they fell. They are already one-quarter covered by sand that the high tide left. Further out on the flats and to the left I can see at least fifty other bodies. I had thought yesterday, however, that low tide would reveal many more than that. The smell of death, that sweetly sick odor of decaying human flesh, is already oppressive.

Now that it is light, the wounded go walking by, on the beach. Some are supported by corpsmen; others, like this one coming now, walk alone, limping badly, their faces contorted with pain. Some have bloodless faces, some bloody faces, others only pieces of faces. Two corpsmen pass, carrying a Marine on a stretcher who is lying face down. He has a great hole in his side, another smaller hole in his shoulder. This scene, set against the background of the dead on the coral flats, is horrible. It is war. I wish it could be seen by the silken-voiced, radio-announcing pollyannas back home who, by their very inflections, nightly lull the people into a false sense of all-is-well.

0600: One of the fresh battalions is coming in. Its Higgins boats are being hit before they pass the old hulk of a freighter seven hundred yards from shore. One boat blows up, then another. The survivors start swimming for shore, but machine-gun bullets dot the water all around them. Back of us the Marines have started an offensive to clean out the jap machine guns which are now firing at our men in the water.They evidently do not have much success, because there is no diminution of the fire that rips into the two dozen or more Higgins boats.

The ratatatatatat of the machine guns increases, and the high pi-i-ing of the jap sniper bullet sings overhead incessantly. The Japs still have some mortars, too, and at least one 40 or 77-mm. gun. Our destroyers begin booming their five-inch shells on the Jap positions near the end of the airfield back of us.

Some of the fresh troops get within two hundred yards of shore, while others from later waves are unloading further out. One man falls, writhing in the water. He is the first man I have seen actually hit, though many thousands of bullets cut into the water. Now some reach the shore, maybe only a dozen at first. They are calm, even disdainful of death. Having come this far, slowly, through the water, they show no disposition to hurry. They collect in pairs and walk up the beach, with snipers still shooting at them.

Now one of our mortars discovers one of the machine guns that has been shooting at the Marines. It is not back of us, but is a couple of hundred yards west, out in one of the wooden privies the dysentery-fearing japs built out over the water. The mortar gets the range, smashes the privy, and there is no more firing from there.

But the machine guns continue to tear into the oncoming Marines. Within five minutes I see six men killed. But the others keep coming. One rifleman walks slowly ashore, his left arm a bloody mess from the shoulder down. The casualties become heavier. Within a few minutes more I can count at last a hundred Marines lying on the flats.

0730: The Marines continue unloading from the Higgins boats, but fewer of them are making the shore now. Many lie down-behind the pyramidal concrete barriers the Japs had erected to stop tanks. Others make it as far as the disabled tanks and amphtracks, then lie behind them to size up the chances of making the last hundred yards to shore. There are at least two hundred bodies which do not move at all on the dry flats, or in the shallow water partially covering them. This is worse, far worse than it was yesterday.

See Robert Sherrod: Tarawa

"Pilots pleased over their victory during the Marshall Islands attack, grin across the tail of an F6F Hellcat on board the USS Lexington, after shooting down 17 out of 20 Japanese planes heading for Tarawa."
“Pilots pleased over their victory during the Marshall Islands attack, grin across the tail of an F6F Hellcat on board the USS Lexington, after shooting down 17 out of 20 Japanese planes heading for Tarawa.”

The U.S. Marines begin their assault on ‘Bloody Tarawa’

Crash landing of F6F-3, Number 30 of Fighting Squadron Two (VF-2), USS Enterprise, into the carrier's port side 20mm gun gallery, 10 November 1943. Lieutenant Walter L. Chewning, Jr., USNR, the Catapult Officer, is climbing up the plane's side to assist the pilot from the burning aircraft. The pilot, Ensign Byron M. Johnson, escaped without significant injury. Enterprise was then en route to support the Gilberts Operation. Note the plane's ruptured belly fuel tank.
Crash landing of F6F-3, Number 30 of Fighting Squadron Two (VF-2), USS Enterprise, into the carrier’s port side 20mm gun gallery, 10 November 1943. Lieutenant Walter L. Chewning, Jr., USNR, the Catapult Officer, is climbing up the plane’s side to assist the pilot from the burning aircraft. The pilot, Ensign Byron M. Johnson, escaped without significant injury. Enterprise was then en route to support the Gilberts Operation. Note the plane’s ruptured belly fuel tank.
Aerial view of Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll before invasion of the island by U.S. Marines, 18 September 1943. The image was shot by an aircraft from Composite Squadron (VC) 24.
Aerial view of Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll before invasion of the island by U.S. Marines, 18 September 1943. The image was shot by an aircraft from Composite Squadron (VC) 24.
F6F Hellcat fighter of US Navy VF-5 preparing to launch off Yorktown (Essex-class) to attack a target in the Marshall Islands, 20 Nov 1943
F6F Hellcat fighter of US Navy VF-5 preparing to launch off Yorktown (Essex-class) to attack a target in the Marshall Islands, 20 Nov 1943

The Pacific war now moved into a new stage, as the United States began its ‘island hopping’ campaign across the central Pacific. Some islands could be sidestepped but there were a sequence of islands that needed to be occupied so that the United States could get within striking distance of Japan itself.

First on the list were the Gilbert and Marshall islands. Prime amongst these was Betio island, part of Tarawa atoll at the end of the Gilbert islands. The airstrip here was of crucial importance – and the Japanese had spent the past year fortifying the two mile long island with gun emplacements and over 500 pillboxes and strongpoints. They were to claim that ‘a million men could not take it in a hundred years’. The Marines were to prove them wrong, but at considerable cost.

Carl Jonas was one of the Marines who went in on the first day. Many of the Higgins boats – the assault Landing Craft – were grounded 700 yards or more offshore. A neap tide meant that the depth of water was far below normal at high tide. The Marines were forced to wade the remaining distance, all the way under fire:

The shore line curved like a longshoremen’s hook, and the flat part to my right was the handle of it. From the other side, near the point of the hook, a Jap machine gun kept up a steady fire across our line of advance. Another machine gun was able to spit out almost directly at us, so that the two of them made a cross fire.

Also, from some point I couldn’t see, a mortar was dropping bursts ahead of us and slightly to our right. I saw no Marines on the beach, only blasted boats where they had stopped. Two of them were on fire. Beyond, a stout coconut-log barricade ran like a fence parallel to the whole shore. Then I got down as low as I could, with only my helmet showing, and began to crawl and duck-walk through the water, which was hardly three feet deep, even though we were almost a half mile out. I was heading for the right-hand flank, but just why, I couldn’t say myself… .

I passed two or three dead Marines. My legs were very tired, and I couldn’t keep my rifle out of the water. Finally, I used it to push myself along with, and forgot about keeping it dry. I saw a boat coming in toward me, and I worked away from it; for, although this brought me nearer the guns, I knew the boat would draw heavy fire, and wouldn’t pick me up anyway.

I kept down and pushed ahead, not very fast but steadily. Finally I came to what I thought was the beach, but as I inched up onto it I saw it was a sand bar with another fifty yards of water on the other side. At the top were fifteen or twenty dead or wounded Marines. A man who had been in our boat crawled up beside me.

“Where are the other guys ?” I asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. “As soon as I find out, I’m going on in.” I didn’t want to go over the sand bar very much, so I worked to the left, which again brought me closer to the fire, but gave me the cover provided by the water.

I wondered if I was doing the right or the wrong thing. I decided it was more dangerous to stay still and think it out than to keep moving, so I just went on in. Then, just as I saw some Marines lying between the bar and the shore, a current caught me and carried me along with no bottom under my feet. I swam a few strokes and felt bottom again. My pack was heavy with water, so I slipped it off and, dragging it behind, scrambled up into the lee of the shore. It seemed like the sweetest earth this side of paradise, and I wanted to lie there forever without moving a muscle.

This account first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, 1943.

Staff Sergeant William J. Bordelon, U.S.M.C. - Medal of Honor recipient.
Staff Sergeant William J. Bordelon, U.S.M.C. – Medal of Honor recipient.

Once ashore the truly desperate battle began. Just some understanding of this can be gained from the citation for the Medal of Honor awarded to William J. Bordelon.

For valorous and gallant conduct above and beyond the call of duty as a member of an Assault Engineer Platoon of the First Battalion, Eighteenth Marines, tactically attached to the Second Marines, Second Marine Division, in action against the Japanese-held Atoll of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands on November 20, 1943.

Landing in the assault waves under withering enemy fire which killed all but four of the men in his tractor, Staff Sergeant Bordelon hurriedly made demolition charges and personally put two pill boxes out of action. Hit by enemy machine-gun fire just as a charge exploded in his hand while assaulting a third position, he courageously remained in action and, although out of demolition, provided himself with a rifle and furnished fire coverage for a group of men scaling the seawall.

Disregarding his own serious condition, he unhesitatingly went to the aid of one of his demolition men, wounded and calling for help in the water, rescuing this man and another who had been hit by enemy fire while attempting to make the rescue. Still refusing first aid for himself, he again made up demolition charges and single-handedly assaulted a fourth Japanese machine-gun position but was instantly killed when caught in a final burst of fire from the enemy.

Staff Sergeant Bordelon’s great personal valor during a critical phase of securing the limited beachhead was a contributing factor in the ultimate occupation of the island and his heroic determination reflects the highest credit upon the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Marines take cover behind a sea wall on Red Beach #3, Tarawa.   November 1943.  (Marine Corps)
Marines take cover behind a sea wall on Red Beach #3, Tarawa. November 1943. (Marine Corps)
Troops of 2nd Battalion, US 165th Infantry at Yellow Beach Two, Butaritari, Makin Atoll, Gilbert Islands, 20 Nov 1943
Troops of 2nd Battalion, US 165th Infantry at Yellow Beach Two, Butaritari, Makin Atoll, Gilbert Islands, 20 Nov 1943

Okinawa – mounting U.S. casualties on Kunishi Ridge

Men of the 1st Marine Division on Wana Ridge with Browning Automatic Rifle.
Men of the 1st Marine Division on Wana Ridge with Browning Automatic Rifle.

On Okinawa the bloody struggle continued as intensively as ever. On the 11th June a combined attack by US Marines and US Army forces had begun the final assault on the last major Japanese holdout. The struggle for the Kunishi Ridge was to be as costly as any of the Okinawa battles.

Between 11th and 18th June 1945 the 1st Marine Division alone would suffer 1,150 casualties. Amongst the men of K (King) Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (K/3/5) was E.B. Sledge, who would later write one of the classic memoirs of the Pacific war. He describes the perilous situation that they found on the Ridge, and the predicament they encountered when trying to evacuate the wounded:

With daylight I got a good look at our surroundings. Only then could I appreciate fully what a desperate, bitter battle the fight for Kunishi Ridge had been—and was continuing to be. The ridge was coral rock, painfully similar to Peleliu’s ridges. But Kunishi was not so high nor were the coral formations so jagged and angular as those on Peleliu. Our immediate area was littered with the usual debris of battle including about thirty poncho-covered dead Marines on stretchers.

Some of our riflemen moved eastward along the ridge, while others moved up the slopes. We still didn’t set up our mortars: it was strictly a riflemen’s fight. We mortarmen stood by to act as stretcher bearers or riflemen.

Snipers were all over the ridge and almost impossible to locate. Men began getting shot one right after another, and the stretcher teams kept on the run. We brought the casualties down to the base of the ridge, to a point where tanks could back in out of the view of snipers on the ridge crest.

We tied the wounded onto the stretchers and then tied the stretchers onto the rear deck of the tanks. Walking wounded went inside. Then the tanks took off in a cloud of dust along a coral road to the aid station. As many men as possible fired along the ridge to pin down the snipers, so they couldn’t shoot the wounded on the tanks.

Shortly before the company reached the east end of the ridge, we watched a stretcher team make its way up to bring down a casualty.Suddenly four or five mortar shells exploded in quick succession near the team, wounding slightly three of the four bearers. They helped each other back clown the ridge, and another stretcher team, of which I was a member, started up to get the casualty. To avoid the enemy mortar observer, we moved up by a slightly different route.

We got up the ridge and found the casualty lying above a sheer coral ledge about five feet high. The Marine, Leonard E. Vargo, told us he couldn‘t move much because he had been shot in both feet. Thus he couldn’t lower himself down off the ledge. “You guys be careful. The Nip that shot me twice is still hiding right over there in those rocks.” He motioned toward a jumble of boulders not more than twenty yards away.

We reasoned that if the sniper had been able to shoot Vargo in both feet, immobilizing him, he was probably waiting to snipe at anyone who came to the rescue. That meant that anyone who climbed up to help Vargo down would get shot instantly.

We stood against the coral rock with our heads about level with Vargo, but out of the line of fire of the sniper, and looked at each other. I found the silence embarrassing. Vargo lay patiently, confident of our aid. “Somebody’s got to get up there and hand him down,” I said. My three buddies nodded solemnly and made quiet comments in agreement.

I thought to myself that if we fooled around much longer, the sniper might shoot and kill the already painfully wounded and helpless Marine. Then we heard the crash of another 105mm short round farther along the ridge – then another. I was seized with a grim fatalism – it was either be shot by the sniper or have all of us get blown to bits by our own artillery. Feeling ashamed for hesitating so long, I scrambled up beside Vargo.

For unknown reason, even as Sledge looked directly into the sniper’s cave, he was not shot. See E. B. Sledge: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Eugene B. Sledge in 1946. He would later become a University Professor . Years later he would say  "There is no 'mellowing' for me - that would be to forgive all the atrocities the Japanese committed against millions of Asians and thousands of Americans. To 'mellow' is to forget."
Eugene B. Sledge in 1946. He would later become a University Professor.
Years later he would say
“There is no ‘mellowing’ for me – that would be to forgive all the atrocities the Japanese committed against millions of Asians and thousands of Americans. To ‘mellow’ is to forget.”
Private Warren D. Fuhlrodt (1925- ) of Blair, Nebraska, attached to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, is lift out of an M4 tank of the 1st Tank Battalion after being wounded during the Battle of Kunishi Ridge.
Private Warren D. Fuhlrodt (1925- ) of Blair, Nebraska, attached to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, is lift out of an M4 tank of the 1st Tank Battalion after being wounded during the Battle of Kunishi Ridge.

Okinawa – Medal of Honor for Conscientious Objector

GIs from the 77th Infantry Division man a machine gun nest on the island of Shima, May 3, 1945. The M1919 machine gun was the standard issue for the US Army.
GIs from the 77th Infantry Division man a machine gun nest on the island of Shima, May 3, 1945. The M1919 machine gun was the standard issue for the US Army.

The intense fighting on Okinawa saw many acts of heroism. Conditions were so fierce and so sustained that it must have taken great courage just to stay on the battlefield and remain in combat. In amongst the mayhem some individual acts stood out and were subsequently recognised, there were a total of 24 Medal of Honor recipients during the three months of battle.

Desmond Doss, Medal of Honor recipient
Desmond Doss, Medal of Honor recipient

One award was unusual because it went to a non combatant. Sergeant Desmond Doss was a Seventh-Day Adventist who served with the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. His citation gives a series of examples of his heroism each illustrating the nature of conditions on Okinawa:

He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet (120 m) high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying all 75 casualties one-by-one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands.

On May 2, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards (180 m) forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards (7.3 m) of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety.

On May 5, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet (7.6 m) from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards (91 m) to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire.

On May 21, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover.

The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, by a sniper bullet while being carried off the field by a comrade, this time suffering a compound fracture of 1 arm.

With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards (270 m) over rough terrain to the aid station.

Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.

The capacity of some individuals to shrug off really serious injuries during the heat of battle is amazing. The following audio, courtesy of audioburst.com, is the account of another Medic present at Okinawa, describing in graphic detail how he fixed up a man who had stepped on a Land Mine.

6th Div  Marines Okinawa
Marines move through and over “CEMETERY RIDGE.” They are shown pinned down behind gravestones by enemy sniper fire.

Okinawa: the bloody occupation of Ishimmi Ridge

Marines pass through a small village where Japanese soldiers lay dead.  Okinawa, April 1945.
Marines pass through a small village where Japanese soldiers lay dead. Okinawa, April 1945.
A demolition crew from the 6th Marine Division watch dynamite charges explode and destroy a Japanese cave.  Okinawa, May 1945.
A demolition crew from the 6th Marine Division watch dynamite charges explode and destroy a Japanese cave. Okinawa, May 1945.

The grinding battle for Okinawa continued unabated. The Japanese were making full use of their huge network of underground tunnels and caves from which they conducted a suicidal defence. U.S. casualties had been heavy. Company E, 307th Infantry, 77th Division, were in reserve in the five days before the 17th. They received many replacements during this time, bringing them up to strength – although most of these men had no combat experience at all, and there was little opportunity fro these men to become properly integrated.

Then Company E were selected to lead an audacious assault deep into the main Japanese defence line, an attempt to disrupt the line and turn the battle.

Lieutenant Robert F. Meiser, a platoon commander with Company E, described the action in his duty report submitted shortly after they were withdrawn on the 20th May. To begin the night assault they had to move up over 450 yards of ground pockmarked with shell-holes, and then penetrate through Japanese lines for a further 800 yards, moving almost all of the way in single file. To maintain the element of surprise they would only use bayonets if they encountered the enemy. At 0415 on the 17th they left their Line of Departure with their objective, Ishimmi Ridge just visible where ‘three or four limbless trees’ were lit by flares:

Dawn began to break as we came upon our objective. About 50 yards from it, the 3rd platoon echeloned to the left of the 2nd and nearly on line, forming the left front and flank. The 2nd continued straight forward to occupy the center ar1d foremost position, while the platoon from Company C held the right front and flank. Our rear was protected by a well formed semi-circle of the 1st platoon.

We now found that the 125 yard part of the objective we were able to occupy was a very prominent, table top ridge. It was quite flat and made up of rock and coral where digging was very difficult, and in some places impossible.

The top center of Ishimmi Ridge was very narrow, being only about seven or eight yards wide, and then fanning out to either flank in a leaf-like pattern. Directly to the rear of the narrow section of the ridge was a pocket, 20 yards in diameter, in which the company Command Post was located, and this, ultimately, was the location of the company’s final stand.

To our right rear, 250 yards distant, were two grassy mounds of earth, each about 30 feet high and affording perfect observation into our positions. Likewise, to the center rear was a finger ridge extension which afforded the enemy an excellent OP as well as machine gun positions.

At 0505 we were on our objective, and as daylight was coming we hastened to dig in. The enemy on the ridge was completely surprised and was not aware of our presence for nearly 20 minutes. While initially caught napping, they soon made up for lost time and all hell broke loose at 0530. Mortar shells, heavy and light, began falling on our area in such fury and volume that one would believe the place had been zeroed in for just such an eventuality. Machine gun and rifle fire began pouring in from all directions and within a short time even enemy artillery began shelling us.

As daylight came, we finally realized that we were in a spot and that the enemy controlled the position from every direction, including the rear. The [3rd] Platoon on the left was receiving murderous fire, especially from both flanks and the high Shuri Ridge across the valley to our front.

Foxholes were only partly completed and to raise one’s head meant death on that fire-swept plateau. Mortar shells very often dropped directly in the foxhole, usually taking at least one man’s life or badly wounding several. The same action was taking place [with the Company C platoon] on the right flank as that area was almost identical to the one on the left.

In the rear, the 1st Platoon was faring no better and was taking a terrific pounding from all types of fire. However, they maintained continuous and effective fire on the enemy, especially to the right and left rear, greatly reducing his advantages there. Our light mortars were in this area and though only partially dug in, the mortar crews fired as long as the mortars were serviceable.

By 1000 the first day, enemy action had knocked out all but one of the mortars and killed or wounded nearly all the crewmen.

The 2nd Platoon had gone over the center of the ridge and dropped into a long Jap communication trench which was about six feet deep. Small dug-outs in this trench contained about 10 or 12 sleeping enemy who were quickly disposed of by bayonet or rifle fire. However, tunnels from inside the ridge led into either end of the trench and the enemy soon attempted to force their way upward. At first, surprise was so complete that a japanese officer and his aide, laughing and talking, came toward us in the trench, walked completely past one of our men and were killed without realizing what hit them.

By making use of the tunnels the Nips were soon able to set up knee mortars about 100 yards to either flank and fire systematically from one end of the trench to the other. Each position had two mortars which were firing simultaneously, doing great damage to the earthworks of our line as well as producing heavy casualties in our ranks. Riflemen were blown to bits by these mortars and many were struck in the head by machine gun fire. The blood from the wounded was everywhere; on the weapons, on the living, and splattered all around. The dead lay where they fell, in pools of their own blood. Though the platoon medic was wounded early in the morning, he took care of the injured as fast as possible, but was unable to keep up and soon his supplies were exhausted.

By 0700 both of our light machine guns had been knocked out, one being completely buried. The few remaining crewmen became riflemen and stayed right there throughout the day. During the morning a few Japanese had managed to crawl up from the deep ravine to a line just slightly beneath our position and began hurling grenades upwards at us. Grenades were tossed back and soon the infiltrators were killed or driven backward, but we had suffered too.

The battle continued furiously all morning and by noon the 2nd Platoon had suffered heavily, about 50 percent being killed or wounded. The number of Japs killed had mounted steadily, but they were still able to reinforce almost at will and attempted numerous frontal and flanking counterattacks.

Meanwhile the 3rd Platoon [on the left] had had a steady grenade battle and had repulsed three fixed bayonet attacks by the enemy coming from their left flank. However, the men of this platoon had very little cover and were being whittled down man by man until more than half of them were out of action, including their platoon leader. Dead men were pushed hurriedly from the all too small holes in order to make more room for the living. In some cases the firing was so heavy as to even prevent this, and the living and bloody, mangled dead were as one in their foxholes. By 1800 the first day there were only a handful of men left alive in this platoon and they were clinging tenaciously to the few remaining positions of their own right flank.

See Wayne C. MacGregor: Through These Portals: A Pacific War Saga

A U.S. Marine from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines on Wana Ridge provides covering fire with his Thompson submachine gun, 18 May 1945.
A U.S. Marine from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines on Wana Ridge provides covering fire with his Thompson submachine gun, 18 May 1945.

Okinawa – grim reality in Japanese underground hospital

Tank-borne infantry moving up to take the town of Ghuta before the Japanese can occupy it. The men are members of Colonel Victor Bleasdale’s 29th Marines.
Tank-borne infantry moving up to take the town of Ghuta before the Japanese can occupy it. The men are members of Colonel Victor Bleasdale’s 29th Marines.

On Okinawa it did not take long before the fighting erupted following the suspiciously quiet landings. The Japanese had already started to suffer casualties from the intense US naval and aerial bombardment.

Miyagi Kikuko was a 16 year old schoolgirl in the High School on Okinawa. Three days before the US invaded they held their graduation ceremony and all the 15 to 19 year old girls formally joined the Lily Student Corps. The boys joined the Blood and Iron Student Corps.

The following day the building was blasted apart by the US bombardment, but by then they were underground, preparing to assist in the military hospital, located, like most of the Japanese positions, in caves. Very soon after the invasion the casualties began to come in, and within days there were too many to cope with:

In no time at all, wounded soldiers were being carried into the caves in large numbers. They petrified us all. Some didn’t have faces, some didn’t have limbs. Young men in their twenties and thirties screaming like babies. Thousands of them.

At first, one of my friends saw a man with his toes missing and swooned. She actually sank to her knees, but soldiers and medics began screaming at her, “You idiot! You think you can act like that on the battlefield?”

Every day, we were yelled at: “Fools! Idiots! Dummies!” We were so naive and unrealistic. We had expected that somewhere far in the rear, we’d raise the red cross and then wrap men with bandages, rub on medicine, and give them shots as we had been trained. In a tender voice we’d tell the wounded, “Don’t give up, please.”

Now, they were being carried in one after another until the dugouts and caves were filled to overflowing, and still they came pouring in. Soon we were laying them out in empty fields, then on cultivated land. Some hemorrhaged to death and others were hit again out there by showers of bombs. So many died so quickly.

Those who had gotten into the caves weren’t so lucky either. Their turn to have their dressings changed came only once every week or two. So pus would squirt in our faces, and they’d be infested with maggots. Removing those was our job. We didn’t even have enough time to remove them one by one. Gas gangrene, tetanus, and brain fever were common.

Those with brain fever were no longer human beings. They’d tear their clothes off because of their pain, tear off their dressings. They were tied to the pillars, their hands behind their backs, and treatment stopped. At first, we were so scared watching them suffering and writhing that we wept. Soon we stopped. We were kept running from morning to night.

“Do this! Do that!” Yet, as underclassmen we had fewer wounded soldiers to take care of. The senior girls slept standing up. “Miss Student, I have to piss,” they’d cry. Taking care of their excrement was our work. Senior students were assigned to the operating rooms. There, hands and legs were chopped off without anesthesia. They used a saw. Holding down their limbs was a student job.

Outside was a rain of bullets from morning to night. In the evening, it quieted down a little. It was then that we carried out limbs and corpses. There were so many shell craters — it sounds funny to say it, but we considered that fortunate: holes already dug for us. “One, two, three!” we’d chant, and all together we’d heave the dead body into a hole, before crawling back to the cave. There was no time for sobbing or lamentation.

In that hail of bullets, we also went outside to get food rations and water. Two of us carried a wooden half-bushel barrel to the well. When a shell fell, we’d throw ourselves into the mud, but always supporting the barrel because the water was everybody’s water of life. Our rice balls shrank until they were the size of Ping-Pong balls. The only way to endure was to guzzle water. There was no extra water, not even to wash our faces, which were caked in mud.

We were ordered to engage in “nursing,” but in reality, we did odd jobs. We were in the cave for sixty days, until we withdrew to Ihara. Twelve people in our group – two teachers and ten students – perished. Some were buried alive, some had their legs blown off, five died from gas .

This account appears in Haruko Taya Cook(ed): Japan at War: An Oral History.

MOVING UP – Marine riflemen moving up behind flame-throwing tank on Okinawa.
MOVING UP – Marine riflemen moving up behind flame-throwing tank on Okinawa.
Marines assault a ridge supported by bazookas.  The action took place two miles north of Naha.
Marines assault a ridge supported by bazookas. The action took place two miles north of Naha.

The last amphibious assault in the Pacific – Okinawa

USS Idaho (BB-42), a New Mexico-class battleship shells Okinawa on 1 April 1945, easily distinguished by her tower foremast & 5”-38 Mk 30 single turrets (visible between the barrels of the forward main turrets). Idaho was the only battleship with this configuration.
USS Idaho (BB-42), a New Mexico-class battleship shells Okinawa on 1 April 1945, easily distinguished by her tower foremast & 5”-38 Mk 30 single turrets (visible between the barrels of the forward main turrets). Idaho was the only battleship with this configuration.
THE CHARGE – Armored amphibious tractors of a Marine battalion form into line as the first waves of the Leatherneck invaders commence the charge for the beach at Okinawa.
THE CHARGE – Armored amphibious tractors of a Marine battalion form into line as the first waves of the Leatherneck invaders commence the charge for the beach at Okinawa.

Okinawa, although an island with distinct culture and people, is also a prefecture of Japan. In landing on Japanese soil the US forces expected an even more ferocious defence than they had met on their previous island hopping across the Pacific. This was the final stepping stone, 340 miles (550 km) away from mainland Japan. Very heavy casualties had been predicted for those landing in the first waves on the beaches.

The Japanese anticipated that it would be used as a base to launch both aerial and then amphibious assaults on the mainland. They had been preparing for battle for almost a year. The island was to be defended like Iwo Jima, with extensive use of bunkers and caves designed to extend the battle for as long as possible. The intention was to buy time for the preparation of defences of the Japanese mainland and to inflict maximum casualties on the Americans.

Tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians remained on the island, many forced to serve the Japanese military. Japanese propaganda had led many, if not most, to believe that they could only expect monstrous treatment at the hands of the Americans, treatment so bad that suicide would be preferable. This belief was to significantly contribute to the appalling bloodshed on the island in the coming weeks.

But April Fools Day 1945 had a surprise in store first. Eugene B. Sledge was a Marine veteran who had survived the slaughter and carnage of Peleleiu, as they set off for the beaches he was full of trepidation:

“The landing is unopposed!”

We looked with amazement at the Marine on the amtrac with which our Higgins boat had just hooked up.

“The hell you say,” one of my buddies shot back.

“It’s straight dope. I ain’t seen no casualties. Most of the Nips musta hauled ass. I just saw a couple of mortar shells fallin’ in the water; that’s all. The guys went in standin’ up. It beats anything I ever saw.” –

Images of the maelstrom at Peleliu had been flashing through my mind, but on Okinawa there was practically no opposition to the landing. When we overcame our astonishment, everybody started laughing and joking. The release of tension was unforgettable. We sat on the edge of the amtrac’s troop compartment singing and commenting on the vast fleet surrounding us. No need to crouch low to avoid the deadly shrapnel and bullets. It was – and still is – the most pleasant surprise of the war.

It suddenly dawned on me, though, that it wasn’t at all like the Japanese to let us walk ashore unopposed on an island only 350 miles from their homeland. They were obviously pulling some trick, and I began to wonder what they were up to.

“Hey, Sledgehammer, what’s the matter? Why don’t you sing like everybody else?”

I grinned and took up a chorus of the “Little Brown Jug.”

“That’s more like it!”

As our wave moved closer to the island, we got a good view of the hundreds of landing‘ boats and amtracs approaching the beach.

Marines of the 2d Battalion, 22d Regiment, land at Green Beach One.
Marines of the 2d Battalion, 22d Regiment, land at Green Beach One.

Directly ahead of us, we could see the men of our regiment moving about in dispersed combat formations like tiny toy soldiers on the rising landscape. They appeared unhurried and nonchalant, as if on maneuvers. There were no enemy shells bursting among them.

The island sloped up gently from the beach, and the many small garden and fami plots of the Okinawans gave it the appearance of a patchwork quilt. It was beautiful, except where the ground cover and vegetation had been blasted by shells. I was overcome with the contrast to D day on Peleliu.

When our wave was about fifty yards from the beach, I saw two enemy mortar shells explode a considerable distance to our left. They spewed up small geysers of water but caused no damage to the amtracs in that area. That was the only enemy fire I saw during the landing on Okinawa.

It made the April Fool’s Day aspect even more sinister, because all those thousands of first-rate Japanese troops on that island had to be somewhere spoiling for a fight.

We continued to look at the panorama around our amtrac with no thought of immediate danger as we came up out of the water. The tailgate banged down. We calmly picked up our gear and walked onto the beach.

A short distance down the beach on our right, the mouth of Bishi Gawa emptied into the sea. This small river formed the boundary between the army divisions of the XXIV Corps, to the south, and the III Amphibious Corps, to the north of the river. On our side of the mouth of the river, on a promontory jutting out into the sea, I saw the remains of the emplacement containing the big Japanese gun that had concerned us in our briefings. The seawall in our area had been blasted down into a terracelike rise a few feet high over which we moved with ease.

We advanced inland, and I neither heard nor saw any Japanese fire directed against us. As we moved across the small fields and gardens onto higher elevations, I could see troops of the 6th Marine Division heading toward the big Yontan Airfield on our let. Jubilation over the lack of opposition to the landing prevailed, particularly among the Peleliu veterans. Our new replacements began making remarks about amphibious landings being easy.

See E. B. Sledge: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Marines wade through surf over coral reef to the Okinawa beach.
Marines wade through surf over coral reef to the Okinawa beach.
Supported from the air, Marines move inland from the Okinawa beach.
Supported from the air, Marines move inland from the Okinawa beach.