Marine Corps, Private First Class
The Last Battle
The skies of the South Pacific are so clear that you can read a book by the light of the moon. The waters are equally transparent. Around the island of Guadalcanal, they are so pristine that the ocean bottom is clearly visible. The view should have been beautiful. But, the ocean sands were covered with old ships. Some were turned upside down, others lay grotesquely on their sides, all piled atop one another. They were landing craft and supply ships that had never quite made it to the land during the 1943 battle for Guadalcanal. We called that part of the ocean, “Iron Bottom Bay”. It was ghostly.
Our LST (Landing Ship Tank) was packed with marines from the battle-weary 5th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division. The faces were very, very young. Almost all of us were silent as we clung to the railings and looked, in a unison of awe, at the surrealism in the waters beneath our ship. Was it a harbinger of things to come?
We had conducted a training exercise on Guadalcanal and the time had come for us to return briefly to our home base on the nearby island of Pavuvu. After replenishing our supplies there, we again boarded the LST and headed for our target. Our backpacks contained everything we owned. We were going to take a long trip and invade an island. We didn’t know where, we just knew the code name of our objective: Yellow Beach Two. We knew that it would be a bit different this time. As usual, our first objective was to seize the airport so that our planes could control the sky. But this time there would be no long sandy beach. We were to land at the base of a cliff that we would have to scale in order to take that critical piece of land called the Yonton Airstrip.
As we sailed to the northwest, crossing meridian after meridian, and then into the sea of the Rising Sun, we were entertained by the dulcet voice of Tokyo Rose, broadcast from Japan on the ship’s radio. She was damned good. She called us “The Butchers of Guadalcanal.” She told us that the name of the island we were going to hit was, “Okinawa,” and that we’d probably take the island. But she also predicted that the 1st Marine Division would be wiped out in the process and what was left of the Division after the conclusion of the battle “….would be so few that we could all be sent back to the United States in a “Higgins Boat” (an early, small wooden landing boat) and be mustered in a telephone booth in San Francisco.”
Interspersed with her dialogue, Tokyo Rose played all the hit songs that were being offered on radios across America. We spent our days playing cards on deck as the ship’s radio played everything that Tokyo Rose offered. She was our conduit to the life we had left behind. I’ll always remember one late afternoon when she played, “Sentimental Journey.” The orange sun was sinking into the endless ocean and it seemed there was a far away look in the eye of almost every face.
Later that night, one of the eternal riddles of war was indelibly upon us. A marine was murdered as he slept. The next night, another marine met the same destiny. On the third night we caught the killer, a strange former boxer from New Jersey. War does such weird things to people.
I can’t remember the date we crossed the Equator, but I will forever remember the first land we saw. It was a coral atoll called Ulithi, and it has the world’s most beautiful natural harbor—a humongous coral reef with an opening at the apex of a perfect coral circle that assured the easy detection of any submarine that might attempt to enter the harbor. The waters within that circle were packed with ships, seemingly from every nation in the free world. Together, these ships comprised the largest armada the world has ever known, even surpassing that of the “D-Day” invasion at Normandy. Every one of us now knew the might of the force of which we were a part.
Ulithi also provided an opportunity for all ships to trade their movies with other ships. Whether it was at sea or on a home base island, nothing nourished the morale of the American fighting man more than an American movie.
From Ulithi, the enormous armada sailed as a unit. With our radios still tuned to Tokyo Rose we learned more about where we were going and what we could expect. Okinawa, according to our Japanese informer, was about 100 miles south of the Japanese mainland. Tokyo Rose concluded that particular broadcast with a special message to the men of the 1st Marine Division. She reiterated that our code name for the beach upon which we would land was, “Yellow Beach Two,” and that none of us would leave it alive.
A couple of evenings later, we were assembled one platoon at a time in an area under the main deck. President Franklin Roosevelt had recorded a message for, the men of the 1st Marine Division. He told us that once again our country was calling upon us and that our destination, Okinawa, was very close to the Japanese homeland. He assured us that everyone in America was praying for us. His words and the sound of his voice were a mighty morale boost.
Meanwhile, there was a new order from Division Command. Once on land, if we should see or be bitten by a snake, we were to kill it and bring it back so that the medics could find an antidote for the venom. Very little was known about indigenous snakes, so they became one more enemy to fear when we were digging in.
For several weeks, I had been receiving treatment for a fungus infection on my hands that was called jungle rot. That final evening before the battle, the bandages on my hands were removed. There had been no improvement. The hands were then covered with a new ointment and re-bandaged.
In the morning it would be our D-Day. But for the first time, it wouldn’t be called D-Day. It would be called Love Day. It was April 1, 1945—April Fool’s Day and also Easter Sunday.
It was very early in the morning when we boarded the steel landing craft that spewed out of the belly of our LST. One of our guys had written a parody of Cole Porter’s current Broadway hit “Don’t Fence Me In” and we were singing it as we headed for our objective. “Oh let me ride with the tide about 40 miles outside. Don’t send me in. Let me land in the sand with the nurses and the band. Don’t send me in.” But, then the conversations got serious. Somebody said, “Look at us. I bet there’s nobody in this boat that’s more than 19 years old.” Another guy responded, “Yeah, nobody else would be dumb enough to do this.” And then someone said, “Nuts, we’re all in this for the same reason—money! How could you beat $50 bucks a month.”
In other landings the Japs, knowing we would be coming, had practiced long hours dropping mortar shells on places in the water where they knew we would have to pass. This time, no mortars were fired at us.
Eleven waves of Marines landed before us. It was weird—Tokyo Rose had been wrong. It was an easy, almost unopposed landing. We got to the top of that cliff in a hurry. Not a single shot was fired. We were safely on the beach near the village of Hagushi and nobody was shooting at us. We couldn’t figure it out. The only one for whom it was not a mystery was Japanese General Mitsuru Ushijima, who from the highland to the west was watching the landing through a powerful telescope. It had been his idea to let us make our landing unopposed because even though our casualties would be substantial, the casualties among his defenders would be worse—probably the loss of every man. He much preferred saving those lives for the ambushes his troops could perpetrate on us later from well-protected surprise traps of his choosing. His plan was a good one.
The Japanese soldiers and their leaders were a breed quite apart from their countrymen. They had lied to the native populations of the islands that they had seized. In gory detail, the Japs had dramatized to the islanders the inhuman torture that Americans routinely performed on natives. In the Japanese version, we took all their belongings, raped the women, and then tortured and murdered all civilians. Concurrent with our invasion of Okinawa, newsreel cameras were capturing terrible images from Saipan of masses of women and mothers with their children jumping off the cliffs to their deaths rather than face the torture of American invaders.
Now, on that Yonton airstrip, tragedy was to play itself out again. As night darkened the land, the Japanese gathered at gunpoint hoards of native families and interspersed them throughout their artillery positions. Then, they pulled their troops back and fired their artillery at us. Their artillery men then joined the retreat. Our return fire, unbeknownst to us, decimated the unprotected natives exactly the way the Japanese had planned it. On that battlefield in the early morning light we saw devastation beyond comprehension. None of us have ever been able to erase from memory the look in the eyes of bleeding little children standing beside their dead or half alive, blood-soaked and dismembered mothers and fathers.
As my regiment moved out in pursuit of the Japanese, I was one of those who was left behind to find and protect the natives. A civilian safe house was immediately assembled, presumably by Seabees, whose work and valor under fire had always been incredible. I immediately became part of a detail put together to get as many civilians as possible into the safety and care of those in the stockade who would provide the medical aid, the food, the lodging, and the caring that was so vitally needed. By the end of the second day, many of the natives no longer feared us, but there was still trouble all around.
While the main body of our regiment pursued the “Nips” to the west across the island, those of us who were left behind worked night and day to locate, win over and provide for every civilian. Meanwhile, kamikazes were arriving regularly in the evening. They chose the last shimmering of the day’s light to find the best ship for their death dives. On land, we did our damndest to intercept them. In the evenings, we gathered on a cliff, pointed our rifles to the sky and fired at the pilots as they passed over the relative safety of the island. Because their planes were so old we called them, “Washing Machine Charlies.” When they made a turn we could see the pilot’s faces very clearly. They were so young. What we dreaded to see and hear was the arrival of a whole squadron of kamikazes, followed by the flames and explosions that came from our support ships clustered in the harbor and our fighting ships farther out to sea. As the fires from exploding ships and airplanes lit up the night, the men who manned those ships had no way to protect themselves, no place to hide.
Damaged allied ships numbered 324, and 28 more would be sunk. During the battle, 4,907 sailors would be killed and 4,874 would be wounded. In the air, American losses would be 768 planes, while the Japanese would lose 7,830 planes during the same period.
With our armada taking a beating, for the first time we could understand why so many of the aircraft carriers for the Okinawa invasion were from Great Britain. American carriers had wooden decks. The British had steel decks and were impervious to the fires caused by the kamikazes. The large number of carriers was necessitated by the need to have a safe place to garage our combat planes at night. In the initial stages, there was no place anywhere to land a plane on the island and expect to get airborne again. On April 7 the Navy would have a chance to fight back by sinking the Yamato—the world’s largest battleship, four destroyers, and a light cruiser that had all just left Japan. They were destroyed by a fleet of 300 naval aircraft.
Every morning I would lead a detail that would go searching for civilians who were hiding fearfully in the myriad of caves that had been chiseled into the island to provide protection for Japanese soldiers during the massive air strikes and naval bombardments that had preceded our landing. After our landing, the caves had been abandoned by the Japanese and immediately repopulated by frightened native Okinawans. Soon we were receiving tremendous assistance from our stockade full of new friends. In particular, I was guided by information given to us by five former Geisha girls who had been deported to the islands because they were too old. They had tattoos on their hands, good heads on their shoulders, hatred in their hearts for the soldiers of Japan and an ability to communicate via my short form Japanese-American dictionary.
Each day, we were joined by several natives who would go out with us and lead us to new caves. One morning, one of those natives was a very young and very pretty girl. We had liberated a lot of people from their caves that morning and were headed back to the stockade when my girl guide pulled on my arm and pointed to a hill on our left. She didn’t convey how deep into the hills she wanted to go and the rain was getting harder. I said no. She cried. I said yes. About 10 minutes into the hills, there was an opening to yet another cave. She ran to it and I—always fearful that there was a ‘Nip’ inside—stopped short with my rifle at the ready. Almost immediately my guide came out with a bundle in her arms. There was a baby in the bundle. I could barely see. There were too many tears in my eyes. The young mother walked right beside me all the way back with her baby in her arms and a smile that never left her face. When we returned to the stockade with the baby we were greeted with cheers and I got a hug from all five of the geishas before we went out for our next search. The word spread. I could now move easily among the natives with lots of help. The stockade was a happy place. They knew we were friends, not executioners.
Two weeks later, the time came for me to rejoin my regiment. Rejoining your outfit on a moving battlefield is no simple matter. Seldom are there any roads and there are never any signs. Your best guide is the sound of explosions ahead of you and the only companions you can be sure of are animals. It breaks your heart to see horses, cows and dogs on a battlefield, but they have no choice. They seem to cling to you as a last hope because they have lost all of their human friends. Their homes have been destroyed, and the land has been altered and dirtied with the objects of war. The birds have moved out and you can’t help any of them. There are tears in your eyes and you are glad there is no one there to see you. I went through the war without really crying, except once. It was when I got a letter from my mother telling me that my dog had died.
The magazine on my rifle was filled with bullets, but there was no shell in the chamber. I had been reading about a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox named, Monte Stratton, who, during the off-season, had lost part of his leg by shooting himself in a hunting accident. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me. It figured to be a long hike.
About three hours into my walk I saw a rare sight—an old farm building that was still standing. I walked up to it, put my hand briefly on the doorknob and then stopped, thinking that was not the way John Wayne would do it. So, I kicked the door in and got the visual shock of my life. Sitting on the floor with his back against the wall was a middle-aged civilian wearing very old clothes. He was slowly reaching for a rifle that was propped on the wall beside him, as though he didn’t want to disturb me. I did the only thing I could think of. I said, “Hello,” closed the door and ran away, wondering how I could ever explain this to my fellow marines.
An hour later I caught up with my outfit. We had been lucky so far. Casualties had been light. We had swung to the west and pretty well cleaned out our targets, but we were also getting close to a monster—a stone fortress called Shuri Castle. It had innumerable deeply recessed twenty-foot high gates that led upward in concentric circles of huge high-walled courtyards to the top of a steep hill that for centuries had cradled the home of the King of the Ryukyu Islands. It had survived the incursions of the Ming Dynasty, the Shoguns, and the Samurai. This stronghold was indeed formidable—even the tombs had been booby-trapped. Meanwhile, the weather was getting very cold and we weren’t dressed for it. Worst of all, a monsoon was heading our way.
Early that night, as we re-grouped in a good defensive position, a lone Japanese soldier ran right into our encampment. I only heard two shots, which was extraordinary on our part, as the intruder’s purpose was to get a lot of us shooting at each other.
The next night, our corpsman called me aside. He removed one of the bandages from my hand. He didn’t like what he saw. He pointed me to a trail that led to a field hospital that was about half a mile away. The hospital was a rectangle approximately twenty feet wide and forty feet long and it was dug about ten feet into the earth. One entered via a dirt staircase.
The roof of the hospital was a huge piece of canvas with a large red cross painted on it. I arrived at the hospital almost concurrently with an artillery shell. It landed so close to me that I was in the concussion area, where the blast goes up before it spreads out. My right eardrum was blown out. Every time I got up I fell down. I had no equilibrium. It didn’t feel as though I was falling down. It felt as though the ground was coming up and hitting me. I had to re-learn how to stand up. Those of us on the ground had to get the nurses, doctors, and patients out from under the collapsed canvas. I don’t know how many we got out, but it was a lot. I remember a marine who was lying on the ground in agony. Napalm from one of the shells was burning into his heel. Days later I learned that all I had to do to alleviate his pain was to pick up a handful of dirt, mix it with some water from my canteen and slap the mud on his foot. But, I didn’t know that at the time. That burning foot and the sight of a wounded nurse who wouldn’t cry were the last things I could remember. We were still under one hell of a barrage.
I have no memory of being evacuated or leaving Okinawa, but a couple of days later I woke up about 1,500 miles away in Fleet Hospital, #103, on the island of Guam, in the Marianas, wrapped in a lot of bandages. Waking up was a very difficult experience. You don’t know anyone around you. You don’t know how you got there and you don’t know where “there” is. You look for your legs. They are there, but you don’t have the strength to move them and then everything goes blank and you dream about the hospital scene in Gone With the Wind, where they don’t have any morphine, and you think about Walt Whitman’s poem, “Oh come lovely and soothing death, undulate ‘round the world, serenely arriving, arriving, in the day, in the night, to all, to each, sooner or later, delicate death.”
But you are one of the lucky ones. You will have a tomorrow. My news would now be coming from wounded marines who were being flown in from the battlefield.
They came to the hospital with every wound imaginable. My strongest memory is of seven sailors from one of the navy ships that had been taking a pounding from the kamikazes. They had tried to make the whole thing go away by getting a little drunk, but they didn’t choose their drink well. They tried the only thing they had access to—torpedo juice. Now all seven of them were walking the hospital corridors every morning in a perfect line with the arm of the trailing man on the shoulder of the sailor immediately in front. They were all blind, and I would never know if their sight was ever restored.
General Ushijima’s plan was working very well. Japanese machine guns were on every ridge of what was called the Machinato Line. Hidden behind the machine guns were deadly mortar batteries on the reverse slope, well hidden from view.
Admiral Chester Nimitz was so concerned by the slow progress that he came ashore and told General Buckner, “I’m losing a ship and a half each day. So, if this line isn’t moving within five days, we’ll get someone in here to move it so we can all get out from under those stupid air attacks.”
In late April, the Machinato Line, was finally split open and we reached Ushijima’s last line of defense—the Shuri Line. Two army divisions were assigned to the eastern side of the line and the 1st and 5th Marine divisions were assigned to the western side. In the foulest weather conditions one could imagine—ice cold monsoon winds of 40 mph and mud so thick it would pull off your boot. Toward the end of May, Ushijima—by now very short of men, food, and supplies—was preparing a last stand at the heart of the Shuri Line, Shuri Castle. It was Japan’s last and most formidable defensive stand.
On the 26th of May, the USS Mississippi sailed around the southern tip of Okinawa and into the South China Sea. It then headed north until it had Shuri Castle squarely in its gun sights. For three days, the mighty Mississippi pounded the ancient stronghold with everything it had.
On May 29th, Company A of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Division was ordered to take Shuri Castle, even though the monsoon was blowing with winds so strong you could hardly stand up. But before nightfall, our flag was flying over Shuri Castle, and the powerful Shuri Line was nothing but a memory. The soldiers of Japan and the citizens of Okinawa were devastated by the loss of their spiritual home. Today, there are a lot of Americans who are deservedly proud of our country for rebuilding every stone and feature of that castle exactly as it had been for nine centuries.
The Japanese retreat to the north with 30,000 men was a remarkable accomplishment. In the black of night with monsoon winds of 40 mph, Japan was able to move 30,000 men into the last defensive line on the Kiyan Peninsula, but now they also knew they could not save the island. By the end of May, everything had fallen apart for Ushijima and he fled to a cave by the sea.
On June 13, 4,000 Japanese sailors—including Admiral Minoru Oto—would commit suicide in the tunnels they had dug by hand before our landing. The admiral killed himself by plunging a knife into his abdomen. The enlisted men all killed themselves by pulling the pin on a hand grenade as they cradled it on their stomachs, and buried themselves forever in the grave of their own making.
On June 18, 1945, our commanding general, Simon Buckner, was killed by Japanese artillery fire. On June 19, Brigadier General Claudius Easley was killed by machine gun fire. On June 20, elements of the Army’s 7th infantry division reached Ushijima’s cave. The Japanese Commander spread a white sheet on a ledge overlooking the sea and knelt on it. He plunged a knife into his belly while an aide bared his sword and cut off the head of his leader. Other Japanese soldiers and commanders were committing suicide by the thousands.
On the 21st of June, the Japanese surrendered Okinawa. It had been by far the bloodiest battle of the Pacific and is considered by many to be one of the bloodiest battles ever fought.
The complete surrender of Japan was called for in the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945 and was ignored by the Japanese. In response, President Truman ordered that the nuclear weapon, “Little Boy,” be dropped on Hiroshima on Monday, August 6. When Japan still refused to surrender, a second bomb, “Fat Man,” was detonated over Nagasaki on August 9.
This time, three of Emperor Hirohito’s advisors still wanted to continue fighting and three wanted to surrender. In an unprecedented step, the Emperor was asked his opinion. He said he wanted peace. Japan officially surrendered on August 15. The signing of the surrender would occur on the battleship USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, formally ending World War II. In surrender, with General Douglas MacArthur in command, the Japanese people would make the greatest and smoothest transition to peace that the world had ever seen.
Just prior to the official surrender, several of us were moved from the fleet hospital [in Guam] to a hospital ship called the Comfort. On the dock, before we sailed, we were serenaded by a group of very young school children. These are the words of the song they were singing, “Sam, Sam, my dear old Uncle Sam, won’t you please come back to Guam.” It made us feel so good about America, for we knew how badly the people of Guam had been treated by the Japanese when their island had been overrun right after Pearl Harbor. We sailed directly to San Francisco and I was immediately transferred to the Naval Hospital in Klammath Falls, Oregon, where it was hoped that newer treatments and colder weather would help in my recovery.
By late November, I was a lot better, but still not cured. The doctors felt that the much colder winter climate of my home state of Connecticut would be my quickest cure. They would be right. Even my fingernails would grow back. On the day of my discharge, November 30, 1945, the doctors told me that with all the other problems, they had inadvertently neglected to fix my blown-out eardrum. They said that they could fix it, but it would delay my discharge for two days. I couldn’t wait that long. Foolishly, I declined their offer and headed for home.
Four months later I found myself in a college dorm at Yale University with three roommates—all from Andover Class of 1943. Their names were Sy Brockway, Dick Finnegan, and Nelson Taintor. My three pals had served in the Army. Sy was the only one who had made it through the war unscathed. Dick, a paratrooper, had been shot in the buttocks shortly after he bailed out over Holland. Nick, whose outfit had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge, had nearly starved to death in the freezing cold of a German prison camp. His stomach would bother him the rest of his life.
In our senior year, the Veteran’s Administration would run a routine check on our injuries. Dick Finnegan kind of spoke for all of us when he answered the question, “What does your injury prevent you from doing that you were able to do before?” Dick’s reply was, “It makes it very difficult for me to sit through a double-feature.” And so it was that we were beginning to leave the war to the history books.
Today, I spend a lot of time watching baseball and football games on television. Every time they play our national anthem or “God Bless America” and the singer rewrites the melody and even some of the words, it bothers me. But, every once in a while, they don’t have a special guest and they play Kate Smith’s old recording of “God Bless America,” and everything seems okay again. I think about Andover then and the young student, Samuel Francis Smith, who, in February of 1833, rewrote the lyrics to “God Save the King,” and came up with, “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
I think of our campus war memorial, the sound of those beautiful new bells, and the young men and women who hear them today. I also think of an older generation of Andover guys, some of whom have their names on that tower, who must have a pretty good feeling when they hear those eternal bells ringing again, and I remember with a smile of the heart a time when, on occasion, one of us would acknowledge the ringing of the bells by pointing to the sky and announcing that “Quasimoto is back in his tower.”
There is also another tower that I think about. On the southern shores of Okinawa, very near, “Yellow Beach II,” the government of Okinawa has built a memorial tower and named it “The Cornerstone of Peace.” Chiseled into the marble of that tower are one quarter million of the known names, military and civilian, of those who died in the last battle of World War II.