Marine Corps, Captain
From “Looking Back at War and Life: Fred Stott ’36,” by his son, Sandy Stott ’67
I have a scaffolding of facts, assuring me (and you, reader) that this is a true story. And I know the spirit of the man, know that he was proud of his Marine Corps service in World War II, believing also that it had helped shape him though not defined him. He was, he reflected to us a number of times, no hero in the archetypal sense, but throughout his life he was good at seeing what needed doing and good at doing that work. This story makes it clear that he discovered this talent early.
Near the end of his life, my father was talking with me and his wife, Susan, about two central moments in his Pacific service: the first landed him in the brig, where he awaited what he thought would be a court martial for insubordination; the second, a daring, prolonged action on the island of Saipan had preceded the first and, when recognized, would help spring him from that brig. It would, in fact, do more than spring him; it would win him a Navy Cross, the military’s second highest award (only the Congressional Medal of Honor is higher). He would be deemed a hero and the Marine Corps would retreat from the oddity of court-martialing a newly-fledged hero.
I’ll get to the facts and narrative of these two stories in a moment, but first, a thought or two about the times leading to them. I have some scrapbooks from my father’s years at Amherst College just before the war. His mother kept them, and they provide great detail about halcyon days.
In these scrapbooks I’ve also found a series of loose snapshots and newspaper articles from the war that followed the Amherst years closely. A few photos have sparse notations in my father’s scrawl, but most are unmarked, and their order is determined by the last hand that shuffled them. One 3 x 5 snapshot shows a small ruck of dead bodies; another limns the wispy hurry-up of two men running by a blurred palm tree; a third compresses what must be large, impressive trucks and tanks into a miniature beach scene. Others offer single portraits of soldiers, my father and men who must have been his friends; invariably, they are smiling, often looking a little full of themselves.
When I open these scrapbooks, I am struck by the closeness of college and war, by the way a baseball uniform gets exchanged for Marine Corps khaki, by the way a young man is asked to wade then run onto a beach in face of gun and mortar fire and then press toward a jungle where other men hide from and hope to kill him. What must it have been like, I ask myself, to be on the friendly quadrangles of Amherst and then, scant time later, in the bullet-streaked chaos of an island assault?
For 27 days in June and July 1944, my father, then a First Lieutenant, and his 4th Division, 1st Battalion comrades fought their way from the south end of Saipan to the north. A small, mountainous island in the Marianas chain, Saipan was part of the American island-hopping strategy that would press Japanese forces back toward their homeland and prepare for its assault. The island’s ground was a mix of jungle and sugar cane and rock, and it was pocked with caves; the Japanese had had ample time to dig in and create hard surprise in its volcanic crannies. Saipan’s prize was its airfields.
While the battle lasted a month, its turning point occurred early, on the second, third and fourth days. At this point, the American troops had established a thin beachhead on low ground, and they had taken significant losses in doing so. Exhausted and weakened, the Americans were vulnerable; the Japanese held the high ground. In “Saipan Under Fire,” a short narrative he wrote soon after, my father described his battalion’s situation this way: “…the physical condition of the men was poor. Despite shipboard exercise, the exertion, nervous tension, lack of sleep, food and water and the numerous casualties all combined to drain away strength. I do not believe that we sank lower at any time during the campaign…That night [the 2nd] was the enemy’s last real chance for turning us back into the ocean, and the land we held was scarcely more than a mile in depth anywhere on the front. We had been fighting uphill for more than 48 hours.”
A sort of battlefield stasis had developed, and, while “higher command continually ordered attacks,” they lacked coordination and amounted to little. Something needed doing.
Gradually, by performing exposed, forward reconnaissance, the officers of the 1st battalion devised a plan that would concentrate available tanks in a mile-and-a-half advance with infantry following in close support. Here, my father writes: “I climbed into Major Neiman’s tank to act as liaison between the armor and the foot troops, and we started forward in the early afternoon.” For the next 36 hours, my father “liased” from various tanks, providing the missing coordination, and, in doing so, offering himself as a target. “Once,” he writes, “when the troops on the top seemed to be lagging, I climbed out on top of the tank and semaphored to find out the cause for delay. After considerable wig-wagging we received an answer so I climbed back in and resumed firing. It wasn’t until we pulled back, the motors were cut and we could talk again that another tankman pointed out the three bullet marks on my gun shield, where a sniper had barely missed his target. From then on I semaphored less conspicuously.”
Later, on the next day, the tank in which he was now riding took a shell from Japanese artillery and was set ablaze and two of the tankmen were killed. “Given the word by the tank commander, we flipped open the hatches and leaped, all in one motion, and despite what seemed like a hail of machine gun bullets, we landed safely in a ditch. Weaponless all, we took turns running from cover to cover, and by these short dashes we eventually made our way to safety.”
That’s most of what there is about his actions in this section of the narrative. The citation he received for his Navy Cross offers a different perspective: “By his continued heroic efforts, his apparent disregard for his own safety, his intelligence, initiative and intrepidity, he was largely responsible for the organization and successful execution of two critical tank-infantry advances during the early stages of fighting for Saipan Island.
“On the third day of fighting on Saipan, not only did Lieutenant Stott organize a coordinated tank, amphibian tank and infantry attack by personally contacting the tank company commander, the amphibian tank commander and several infantry company commanders, which in order to do he had to go from one to the other on the front line, but he maintained excellent coordination between the infantry and tanks by riding in the tank company commander’s vehicle and frequently getting out of the tank under fire to talk with the various infantry officers, thereby allowing the infantry to direct the tanks to specific targets as well as to keep the tanks advancing at the proper speed and in the correct direction.
“On the following day Lt. Stott helped coordinate a similar attack, this time riding in an amphibian tank. However, during the course of the attack the amphibian tank was hit and set afire by a large caliber shell. Though two men in the tank were killed and he himself considerably shaken by the concussion, Lt. Stott climbed out of the burning tank and continued on foot to help coordinate the attack and bring it to successful conclusion. This continued attention to duty with utter disregard for his own safety was in keeping with the highest tradition on the U.S. Naval Service.”
Where was my father while writing these reflections and while others were collating theirs? A copy of his service record has him “on leave” from his post as company commander, an odd little lacuna of four days in September 1944. In truth, he was in the brig, having landed in its barred isolation for telling his commanding officer that he was not fit to lead his troops into battle. Here, I have no written record, only a fitfully retold family narrative. The Navy Cross that he would soon be awarded acted an official eraser, and his commanding officer was re-assigned, but for a few days while he composed “Saipan Under Fire,” my father must have been looking through the brig’s bleak windows at his future. Perhaps he wondered to himself about the ways in which standing up “under fire” could advance a cause or cripple it. Surely the action he had taken here behind the front was similar to the wild “semaphoring” he’d done at it. What he’d drawn upon was a strong current of loyalty to those with whom he served, to those who would join him in essential work. The writing then served as reminder of how people best work together. And of how they are best led.
Standing up, in full profile, became a lifelong habit for my father. He did it again in 1945 on Iwo Jima, where he won a Bronze Star for leading an attack across a field of fire. And, as he found his way in the postwar world, he found also the causes that would animate both his work and civic lives. As he noted to me a number of times, “I was not a number one, but I was a good number two,” and it takes only a little imagination to see him riding next to a commander he respected, getting out in fraught moments to coordinate among forces, gathering people to meet their missions.