Category Archives: World War II History

WW2 history published in Lockhart and Luling newpapers

WILLIAM MCGREGOR ‘BILL’ TAYLOR – A CALDWELL COUNTY FARMER AND WARRIOR

A CALDWELL COUNTY FARMER AND WARRIOR

WILLIAM MCGREGOR “BILL” TAYLOR

1921-1997 

RECIPIENT OF TWO SILVER STARS, A BRONZE STAR, AND THREE PURPLE HEARTS

By Todd Blomerth

            In 1945, William McGregor “Bill” Taylor finally made it home from the war in Europe, but not in the way he had hoped. Severely wounded on December 9, 1944, he spent nine months in hospitals in France, England, and finally at Wm. C. Borden General Hospital in Chickasha, Oklahoma, recovering from shrapnel wounds. For the rest of his life, his body bore evidence of what he endured, including small bits of shrapnel that would occasionally come to the surface of his skin.

Bill Taylor died in 1997. His is a story of survival, almost from the day he was born. He was one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation.

Born in 1921, Bill was the eighth and last child of John Hugh Taylor and Emma (Williams) Taylor. His oldest sister, Ella, died in 1910. She was followed by Luke (1902-1946), Bauzzle Turner (1905-1959), Martha Ann (Dinges) (1907-1971), Pearl Ether (1909-1976), Myrtle Ollie (Mercer) (1913-1972), and Jess Willard (1913-1946).

The family farmed and ranched outside of McMahan. Tragedy struck early. When he was nine, Bill’s father died of a stroke. His mother died two years later. Now married, older sister Myrtle Mercer took him in to raise and for several years, Bill attended the tiny Oak Forest School, outside of Gonzales, Texas. He never finished high school. He returned to McMahan, but “got tired of milking cows,” so, at sixteen, he enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  Bill was assigned to a CCC company stationed at Glorieta, New Mexico. For a year, he and other young men worked on public works projects, and were required to send most of their pay home to help support their families.

Returning home to McMahan, he worked on the family farm. Perhaps encouraged by older brother Bauzzle, on September 10, 1940, he enlisted at Lockhart in the Texas National Guard’s Company F, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th “Texas” Infantry Division.

To say that the United States was unprepared for World War II is a huge understatement. The pre-war Guard units were poorly equipped and undermanned. That didn’t prevent the Texas Division’s men from feeling greatly honored to be a part of the historic military unit. In the years to come, the 36th Infantry Division’s combat record would more than justify its members’ pride.

Bill and older brother Bauzzle in 1940 Company F roster. Company F, 141st Infantry, drilled in Lockhart. Luke was also a member. Company I, 141st Infantry, drilled in Luling. Lockhart also was home to the Regimental Medical Detachment.

  

Realizing that the United States would soon be drawn into the world conflict that had begun in China in 1937 and in Poland in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt nationalized all National Guard units in late November, 1940. Bill had been in Company F for less than three months. Farmers and shopkeepers who were accustomed to weekend drills and two week summer camps found themselves in a full-time military force desperately in need of training, leadership and equipment. Early in 1941, the Division, with ranks swelling

Bill, a Texan in the harsh winter snow of Massachusetts – early 1943

with new enlistees and draftees, began training at Camp Bowie, outside of Brownwood, Texas. Bill and his buddies endured rather Spartan conditions at the unfinished post. Training accelerated, and the Division participated in pre-war maneuvers in Louisiana and the Carolinas. The Division moved to Camp Blanding, Florida, and then to Camp Edwards, Massachusetts. Finally, in late March and early April 1943, the Division loaded on ships. Bill Taylor arrived in North Africa on April 13, 1943.

The Texas boys were eager for action. What they got was more training, and occasionally, guarding thousands of Italian and German prisoners of war. The Allies invaded the island of Sicily in July 1943, but the 36th Division remained in North Africa.

Wading ashore at Salerno

On September 9, 1943, F Company, 141st Infantry Regiment, saw its first action. It was very nearly its last. The Italians had suddenly surrendered to the Allies, and some Allied commanders expected little opposition to the landings near Salerno, Italy. The American and British divisions were put onto beaches split by a river. There was insufficient pre-landing bombardment. Unknown to the Allies, German troops had quietly moved

into the surrendering Italians’ defensive positions. The 36th and 45th Divisions were nearly pushed off the beachheads by the well-entrenched enemy. Bill saw many men die that day. The 36th Infantry Division lost 250 mean killed in one day.

Destroyers and cruisers moved dangerously close to the shore and fired at almost pointblank range at the enemy. Overcoming the horrific enemy counterattacks, the 36th pushed ashore, and very slowly began the northward push toward Rome. The ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ turned out to be anything but. Mountains succeeded mountains and the Allies advanced against a well trained enemy. Rain, mud, cold, artillery barrages, snipers, and incomprehensible orders to take hills that hid German fortifications were the order of the day.  The results were predictable. Young men were wounded and killed. Somehow, Bill survived bloody battles that drained the Texas Division of many good men. San Pietro, Mt. Lungo, Cassino and the Rapido River became synonymous with often unnecessary suffering.

The battered 36th Division was pulled off the front line in March 1944 to reequip and replace men lost. Meanwhile, in a badly executed attempt at an end-run around the Germans, Americans landed a force on the beaches at Anzio, sixty miles from Rome. Again, the Germans were nearly successful in pushing this force into the sea. The 36th Division went back into action, shoring up the beachhead, on May 22, 1944. The men of the 36th were instrumental in the Anzio breakout. The 141st Infantry Regiment captured the town of Velletri. The German defenses began to crumble and Rome was captured on June 6, 1944.

The Bronze Star is awarded for acts of valor in combat. Somewhere during the fighting in Italy, Bill was awarded a Bronze Star. While his platoon was retreating under withering fire from enemy tanks, “Sgt. Taylor improvised a litter with poles and blankets and aided by a buddy ran through the fire to rescue their wounded lieutenant.”

The Silver Star is this country’s third highest combat decoration for gallantry in action. Only the Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor stand above it. Sergeant Bill Taylor earned two Silver Stars.

The first was during the break-out from Anzio toward Rome. The Gonzales, Texas newspaper later described what happened:

[Sgt. Taylor] attacked a tank which was holding up the movement of his company from a road junction…, and while the tank’s guns tore limbs from the trees over his head, he slammed a bazooka shell into the enemy vehicle and knocked it out. “We fired simultaneously,” recalled Sgt. Taylor. “I had to peer through the foliage of the broken tree limbs which were covering me to get a look at that smoking tank.” His squad arose and finished off the Nazis and took 18 prisoners and the company resumed their advance on Rome. Sgt. Taylor was decorated with the Silver Star for bravery and resourcefulness.

The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. military. Sergeant Bill Taylor was awarded three Purple Heart decorations.

The first Purple Heart came during combat somewhere north of Rome, Italy. On June 17, 1944 a mortar shell exploded in a tree burst, and shrapnel struck him under his left arm. Fortunately, the wound was not serious, and Bill remained with Company F, where he was now a platoon sergeant.

The exhausted 36th Infantry Division was again taken out of the front line in Italy to prepare for another beach attack. Troubled by the slow movement against the Germans in the tangle of hedgerows after the Normandy Invasion, Allied commanders landed it as part of a large military force in Southern France. Thankfully, this seaborne attack went smoothly. Soon, Bill and Company F were pushing northward as the Allies tried unsuccessfully to surround and capture the thousands of enemy soldiers retreating toward the mountainous regions near the German border.

The weather turned cold and wet. The enemy retreat slowed. The Allies’ supply lines stretched thin. I’m sure the ‘old hands’ who’d been in 141st Infantry Regiment wondered constantly whether the war would ever end, and whether they’d live to see that day. As the Allies closed on the Rhineland, the terrain became a huge factor.

Bill’s second Purple Heart resulted from more serious wounds. On October 4, 1944, he and his men were returning from a successful reconnaissance mission when an enemy shell landed nearby. Its shrapnel shredded the shoulder of Bill’s field jacket and some pierced his throat. He was patched up at an aid station, where he recruited his commanding officer’s help to avoid being evacuated to a hospital.

Reading combat reports and histories of late 1944, I was struck with the descriptions of the 36th Infantry Division as being “tired and undermanned.” Clearly, attrition had begun to affect the unit’s readiness. Needing an additional four thousand men, it never got them. The reality of American combat in Europe at this time was that there weren’t enough properly trained soldiers in the pipeline to replace the large number of those wounded or killed.

By late October, the Division was down to two-thirds its authorized strength, and part of a slow moving offensive in the gloomy Vosges Mountains. Nearing the German border, the enemy became more and more desperate. Hitler ordered his generals to strike back at the advancing Allies, in part to keep attention away from the thousands of soldiers massing in the Ardennes for what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The fighting was vicious, and often hand-to-hand.

Regimental after-action report 30 October – 1 November 1944

Near the French town of Saint Die-des-Vosges, near the German border, on November 1, 1944, Technical Sergeant Bill Taylor earned his second Silver Star. The citation speaks for itself:

William M. Taylor, technical sergeant, Company F, 141st Infantry Regiment, for gallantry in action on 1 November 1944 in France. During an attack against an enemy-held hill, Sgt. Taylor located the hostile machine gun which was delaying the advance of his platoon and immediately opened fire on the enemy weapon. After several anti-tank grenades had failed to dislodge it, he called for a friendly tank which was supporting the attack and directed it in knocking out the machine gun emplacement. Then, advancing directly in the face of heavy small arms fire, he led his platoon in an assault against the hostile force and with machine guns and tank fire, killed 12 of the enemy soldiers, captured 14 and completely routed the remainder of the hostile troops. By his personal courage and aggressive leadership, he enabled his unit to seize its objective. His gallant reflects great credit upon himself and the armed forces of the United States.

Bill’s modest version was that “swapping machine gun and small arms fire was getting us nowhere and looked like it would prove costly in the long run. So we had the tank blast their positions while we rushed up the hill and wiped them out. Thanks to the bravery of the men, it worked OK.”

Vicious action near Riquewihr

Bill’s luck ran out on December 9, 1944 near the town of Riquewihr.  Fanatical fighting erupted as the 141st took two small hills, and were then counter-attacked. The battle raged for hours, and Company F fought off a determined enemy in the Bois De Kientzheim. Severely wounded by mortar shrapnel, Bill was evacuated to a hospital in Paris. He later told his wife Jimmie that while in Paris, he stayed awake all night, quietly loosening bloody bandages. He knew they were to be changed the next morning, and the pain would be excruciating.

Portions of Company F after action reports of fighting in the Colmar region when Bill was seriously wounded – 9 December 44

Bill was moved to the 187th General Hospital in England, and finally to the United States. In all, he spent nearly nine months recovering from his wounds.

Technical Sergeant Bill Taylor’s discharge record with dates of wounds, and list of awards and decorations

Bill awarded his metals while recovering from wounds

Bill put the war’s miseries behind him. He farmed and ranched. In 1949, he married Jimmie Secrest in Uvalde, Texas. She comes from a ranching family with roots in Gillespie and Uvalde Counties. Jimmie recalls their wedding day laughingly. They almost didn’t make it to the Justice of the Peace. Rain began filling a low water crossing. Desperate to get to the judge’s office in Uvalde from her grandmother’s house on the Nueces River, before the water closed the road, the couple eased into the crossing, only to have their car stall in the rising water. Jimmie punched the starter button to jump the car ahead, while Bill got out and pushed. Finally out of the water, they looked back to see a relative frantically waving to get their attention. Bill had forgotten their wedding license. Back through the water he trudged. Despite the rocky start, the two had a wonderful marriage. They were blessed with two children; John Wayne, who is married to Diana Lynn, and Peggy June, who is married to Weston Voigt.  The family members were faithful members of McMahan Baptist Church.

Jimmie Taylor – a most delightful lady

Jimmie, along with her best friend, Bobbie Dan Gideon, retired from the Lockhart State Bank. Bill farmed and ranched all his life. He also raised watermelons. He suffered from heart disease, and also underwent two hip replacements. He suffered a series of heart attacks, and died at St. David’s Hospital in January 1997. He was seventy-six years old. He is buried in the Jeffrey Cemetery.

Did Bill suffer from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of what he endured? No doubt he did, but showed little outward sign of it. Jimmie’s only recollection along that line was of the time, when firecrackers went off on the Courthouse Square, Bill instinctively threw himself to the ground. He didn’t talk much about his ordeal. He was quiet, almost bashful at times. Jeffrey Van Horn remembers him fondly. Before Bill and Jimmie build their own house between Lockhart and McMahan, the couple lived for a dozen years on the Van Horn property near Tilmon. “You couldn’t ask for a nicer man,” recalls Jeff. “He and Jimmie were good friends with my mother and father.”

In 1983, there was a reunion of some of the men who served in Company F. Bill’s former company commander, Bill McFadden attended, and later wrote a letter to Bill. Nearly forty years later, McFadden remembered that “the only time that I ever cried in WWII was when I helped you on a stretcher at Riquewihr.”

Company F Reunion 1983 – Bill’s CO is on far left standing

Bill’s Company Commander’s letter in 1983

What praise! His words speak more clearly of Bill’s courage and leadership than any military commendation.

Grandson John Paul Taylor’s shadowbox for Bill’s decorations that he made for Jimmie

Various newpaper clippings from Lockhart and Gonzales regarding Bill

Bill’s headstone – Jeffrey Cemetery

THE ALEUTIAN CAMPAIGN

toddTHE ALEUTIAN CAMPAIGN

PART ONE

By Todd Blomerth

(These three articles were published in the Lockhart Post Register and the Luling Newsboy Signal in August/September 2011)

If you haven’t noticed, I love military history. And I have a great interest in World War II, what led up to it, and how we as Americans, with our Allies, were able to overcome two truly evil empires bent on world domination. D-Day, Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Bulge and Iwo Jima are familiar places or events in the lives of the Greatest Generation. I am about to tell the tale of one of the more obscure episodes in World War II, and one that is still not very well understood by many people – the series of sea and air actions, and island landings that happened on American soil in the Territory of Alaska. And believe it or not, this little known campaign in one of the most hostile climates in the world was decisive in the outcome of the United States’ war with the Japanese Empire.

In 1941, Alaska was about as remote a location as you could find. The US had acquired Alaska in 1867 from the Russian Empire for 7.2 million dollars, or about two cents an acre. Even so, Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the purchase, was publicly blasted by some for wasting taxpayers’ money on a chunk of frozen land. Apart from Inuit, Aleut, and other indigenous peoples, the only people living in this vast piece of real estate two and half times larger than Texas were a few Russian settlers, trappers, hunters, commercial fishermen, and loggers. Alaska was only ‘discovered’ by most Americans in 1896 when the Klondike Gold Rush brought hordes of gold seekers flocking to the southern end of the territory in search of riches.. When the gold played out, so did the interest in Alaska, and the territory once again reverted to a state of quiet isolation.

After the Japanese humiliated the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War a few years later, many American military planners realized that sooner or later, the United States might end up fighting a war with the militaristic Japanese Empire. With that in mind, Alaska’s strategic importance began to be seen by the US military. In 1935, General Billy Mitchell, the leading military aviation pioneer of his time, told Congress, “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.” To the Americans, the islands appeared as possible jumping off points for Japanese attacks on the American West Coast. Alaska was closer to Japan than New York. If the Japanese took Hawaii, its forces would still be 2,400 miles from the U.S. mainland. If Alaska was conquered, bombers could reach Seattle and its huge Boeing plant in three hours.

The Japanese were not unmindful of Alaska’s importance either. Stretching 1,200 miles from the western end of the Alaskan Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands represented potentially valuable real estate to Japan. It too was aware of the islands’ value as  bases to attack the heart of the United States. Likewise, the Empire knew that in the event of a war the Americans could use the islands as a staging point against their Kurile and home islands.

Both sides had a stake in controlling shipping and air lanes between American and Russian Asia as well. When America’s massive Lend Lease assistance to the Soviet Union required shipping of aircraft and other war supplies through Siberia, this would become even more apparent.

Supplying remote outposts was nothing new to the Japanese. The Japanese had been fighting in China and Manchuria since 1931. But once Japan ensured that the Soviet Union would not attack it or its conquered territory in Manchuria, it had turned most of its military attention southward, toward the oil and resource rich lands of Southern Asia. American planners were caught flat footed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, and the Philippines, and were scrambling to assemble its armed forces to respond to the seemingly invincible Japanese war machine. Lying between 51 degrees and 55 degrees in latitude, the thinly populated Aleutian chain would be very hard to defend. The islands’ distance from the Alaskan mainland was a serious challenge. There were no highways into the area. To get there from the US contiguous states, you either flew (a risky proposition) or took a steamship. In the late 1920s, President Herbert Hoover had ordered a study of the feasibility of constructing of a road from the Lower 48 States into Alaska, but the plan was shelved because of the high cost, and a route was never even surveyed (The famous Al Can Highway, built primarily by African American service troops, wasn’t completed until late in 1942).  And once ‘in’ Alaska, you were still perhaps a thousand miles or more from your ultimate destination on Attu or Kiska or one of the other islands. Attu, the further west of the island chain, was in the Eastern Hemisphere and five time zones back from the Alaska territory’s capital at Juneau! Imagine the distance from Atlanta to San Diego and you get some idea of the distances involved.

aleutmap

The 1,200 Miles of the Aleutian Island Chain Were Misery For The Troops Assigned There For Both Sides

            Weather conditions were also particularly harsh. The Japan Current moved up from the south where it slammed into dry, cold air from Siberia. It made for ice free oceans, but also for some of the worst weather in the world. 140 mile an hour gales were common. Fog was omnipresent. There were as few as 10 clear days in a year on many of the Aleutian Islands. Pilots dealt with ceilings that went from 500 feet to zero in a matter of minutes. Cold and wet weather was made worse by howling winds that blew down tents, flipped over airplanes, and made men go mad. An Air Force historian noted that, “oil becomes like jelly, hydraulic systems freeze, and rubber becomes brittle and fractures” under such conditions.

And there were more problems still. The frigid Alaskan soil could not sustain enough agriculture to support a large number of troops. Everything would have to be shipped from the Lower 48, but resupply ships only arrived intermittently. America was scrambling to build the infrastructure to fight a two front war, and supplying England and the Soviet Union with enough materiel aid to keep them from collapsing from the German onslaught. And those ships that did sail had few radio homing devices or radar to assist in navigation, and relied on highly inaccurate sea charts that the Russians had assembled in 1864. Aviators assigned to the territory had to use Rand McNally road maps. There were no highways of any consequence in the entirety of the Alaskan mainland – even between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the two largest ‘cities.’ Bush pilots landed on glaciers, ice or if equipped with floats, in rivers and lakes. Airfields were almost non-existent. There were none in the Aleutians.  There were no trees because winds prevented them from taking root. Beneath everything lay the muskeg – “a thin elastic crust of matted dead grasses something like celery, overlying a topsoil of dark volcanic ash which became quicksand whenever it was wet, which was to say all the time.”

buckner-photo

Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr.

 

In June of 1940, Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was assigned by Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall to command a newly created Alaskan Defense Command. The hard-bitten, plain speaking son of Confederate general, Buckner had graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1908. He was a flight instructor during World War I. In the 1930s he was an instructor at West Point, where he earned the reputation as a hard task master. Although controversial, his leadership would eventually assure the United States’ mastery of the region.

 

(Next – Creating something from nothing, interservice rivalry, and the bombing of Dutch Harbor).

PART TWO

“This Was Nobody’s Favorite War”

The attack on Pearl Harbor devastated the American Pacific Fleet. Other attacks against American military installations in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific severely limited the US’ ability to strike back at the Japanese Empire. A devastating first strike was a crucial element of Japan’s war strategy. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan’s foremost naval strategist, had travelled extensively in America in the 1920s. He knew America’s industrial and military potential and realized that war would wake a ‘slumbering giant’ that would eventually overwhelm Japan with its superior productive capacity. Yamamoto felt that Japan’s only route to victory lay through crushing America’s will to fight by completely destroying the US Pacific Fleet and then quickly negotiating a favorable peace. However, due to a stroke of luck, none of the fleet’s priceless aircraft carriers had been at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Realizing that an attack and occupation of at least some of the Aleutian chain would provoke an American response that would given Japan another opportunity to destroy America’s precious aircraft carriers, Yamamoto ordered landings on Attu and Kiska, two of the furthest western islands in the chain, as well as an air assault on bases in and around Dutch Harbor on Umnak and Unalaska. Dutch Harbor Naval Base and Fort Mears were the main fortified naval and army bases in the Aleutians, and also served a supply points for the remainder of American forces in the area. By mid-1942, and through sheer force of will, newly promoted Alaskan theater commander, General Simon Bolivar Buckner had substantially improved Alaska’s defenses. But this improvement was relative. There were still only 45,000 soldiers to defend all of Alaska, and almost all were on the mainland, with only around 13,000 personnel at Dutch Harbor and the newly constructed airfield at Fort Glenn on nearby Umnak Island. And many of these men were in construction rather than combat units. The only other military presence in the Aleutians was a few weather stations.

uss-louisville

USS Louisville – A Cruiser in the Small American Fleet

The US Navy was supposed to provide a defensive perimeter for Dutch Harbor to compensate for its light ground defenses, but the Navy was hampered by a lack of modern warships, which had to cover an enormous area – often without radar. A few older cruisers, destroyers, and obsolete S class submarines were assigned to the theater under Rear Admiral Robert Theobald, who was given the impossible task of establishing an airtight naval perimeter around the islands.

Further complicating matters, command authority in the North Pacific Area was divided and cumbersome. Upon reaching Alaska, Theobald became commander of the naval and air forces, while authority over the ground forces remained with Buckner.  The two were ordered to operate a joint command with “mutual cooperation,” but they answered to different bosses and did not get along with each other.

Under Theobald was General William Butler, the commander of the Eleventh Air Force.  His tiny air force consisted of a few obsolescent fighters and badly equipped B-17s and B-24s, as well as a number of PBY Catalina flying boats. One of the unit’s few bright spots was Colonel William O. “Eric” Eareckson, an incredible aviator and fearless maverick, who often became a one-man war against the Japanese. When not taking extraordinary chances with the enemy and weather, he instilled rigorous training and tactics. He was held in awe by his young aviators. His efforts also kept many of them alive in an environment where over two-thirds of aircraft losses were due to weather –not to the enemy.

 

To destroy the US will to fight in the Pacific, Yamamoto devised a complex strategy. Part of his forces would overrun several of the Aleutian Islands and attack the US base at Dutch Harbor. This would dilute American strength in and around Midway, and allow the Japanese, with their superior naval strength, to destroy America’s remaining carriers, and also occupy the strategically important island. The Alaskan portion of his plan was criticized by some as a dilution of the forces needed to win the all-important battle against the American fleet around Midway. The debate continued until Jimmy Doolittle and his squadron of B-25 bombers achieved a stunning surprise attack against Tokyo in early 1942 by launching off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet after sneaking to within striking distance of the Japanese capital. The attack caused little damage to Japan, but the psychological impact was huge. The Japanese did not know how the bombers got to Japan but many assumed that they may have come from secret airbases in the Aleutians. Fear of additional attacks against the Home Islands led to the quick approval of Yamamoto’s invasion plan. On May 5, 1942, the Japanese Navy Order Eighteen authorized an invasion and occupation of the Aleutians. The Aleutian operation would go forward, siphoning many ships north, including the aircraft carriers Junyo and Ryujo that might have otherwise later turned the tide at the Battle of Midway.

 

The first phase of the invasion involved a surprise air strike against the islands. However, the Japanese would find American air defenses to be stronger than they had anticipated for several reasons.

 

In late 1941, Buckner began to secretly use funds earmarked for other purposes to build airbases at Dutch Harbor and on other Aleutian Islands. Buckner hand picked engineers to build airfields in the awfulness of the muskeg and sent them construction supplies in crates labeled as “fishery equipment.” Construction was possible only using experimental Marston steel landing mats. Japanese intelligence had no way of discovering these airfields since Buckner’s superiors were equally in the dark. Reliance on long-range I class submarines for visual reconnaissance of the defenses was a poor substitute for good aerial reconnaissance and spies – and the Japanese had none of those resources in the area. Then, on May 15th, the Americans partially broke the Japanese naval code. Intercepts revealed the Japanese invasion plan and the timing of the first attack against Dutch Harbor. American aircraft patrols were stepped up as a result, and spotted the Japanese fleet far at sea. The Americans around Dutch Harbor were ready.  Anti-aircraft crews, largely made up of National Guard units from the lower 48 state, were well trained. At 0540 on June 3, 1942 radar picked up incoming aircraft launched from the Japanese aircraft carriers. A few minutes later, anti-aircraft guns opened up as Japanese fighters strafed the airfield and Japanese bombers released their lethal loads from 9000 feet. But the actual damage done was very small. Men were killed when a barracks was hit, but for the most part, the US forward facilities were left undamaged. The Japanese returned the following day, with much the same results. Some aircraft were caught on the ground, one ship badly damaged, fuel depots set afire, and a small number of soldiers killed. The weather proved to be an intractable foe–the Japanese could not see what they were bombing. Fog prevented American defenders from seeing incoming Japanese planes but also kept pilots from seeing their targets. Sometimes visibility was so poor that planes could not take off at all. The initial assault was postponed for several hours to allow for “better” weather, when pilots could at least see the end of the carrier deck. Cloud cover and fog made accuracy impossible. The second attack saw more breaks in cloud cover, but weather still played a huge factor.

Bad weather also hampered the American defenders. The US fleet trying to prevent the attack groped around in fog four hundred miles south of the enemy fleet, never making contact with the attackers. The weather allowed the Japanese fleet to escape undetected and unharmed. Airplanes were lost or damaged, but primarily as a result of howling winds and horrible visibility. As Brian Garfield noted in his book The Thousand Mile War, “It was not Japanese cleverness, and not American blundering, that kept the opposing forces from joining in battle; it was the power of Aleutian nature.”

 

There was one unexpected consequence of the attack. Pilot Tadayashi Koga shot down an American PBY patrol boat and in the process received damage to his A6M “Zero”, Japan’s nimble and fast fighter. He crash landed on nearby Akutan Island, and was killed. But his aircraft was virtually undamaged. It was found by American forces some weeks later, recovered, taken apart and studied. The knowledge learned about the aircraft proved invaluable in designing aircraft that would come to outperform the Zero.

 

defending-dutch

        

 

 

 

Defending Dutch Harbor                                                    

dutch-being-bombed

 

  Japanese Bombing of Dutch Harbor

 

 

.

 

The Occupation of Attu and Kiska

 

In the Central Pacific, the Japanese suffered a stunning defeat at Midway. Over 3000 Japanese sailors and aviators were killed and several of Japan’s most powerful aircraft carriers were sunk. Japan’s knock-out blow against the American fleet had backfired. It  was a bitter pill to swallow for the proud Yamamoto. With his defeat at Midway, Yamamoto felt that any further effort in the Aleutians was a waste of time. He was convinced otherwise by his staff, which urged him to continue with the occupation of at least some of the island chain  The American fleet was looking for the Japanese in the Bering Sea when a Japanese landing force hit the beaches on Kiska, and 350 miles further west, on Attu at 0120 hrs on June 7, 1942. The only defenders were ten men at a weather station who were captured fairly quickly. A few hours later, the Kiska landing occurred, again with no opposition.

 

Chichagof Harbor – Attu, Before the Attack

 

captured-weather-station

The Captured Weather Detachment on Kiska-The Men

Would Spend the Rest of the War in Japanese Prison Camps

 

Headquarters initially intended for the invaders to advance up the island chain, eventually attacking the Alaskan mainland. In the US, the Aleutian attacks and landings focused the attention of all branches of the military. Newly arrived aviators wanted to show that air power could effect Japanese submission; the Army wanted to show it had the combat skills to hurl the Japanese off American soil; the Navy was embarrassed because of its total failure to locate and destroy the Japanese fleet and prevent the invasions; and President Roosevelt was embarrassed by the occupation of American soil. Suddenly Alaska was on the minds of everyone in the command structure – and there was an immediate influx of men and materiel to counter the invasion.

The Japanese initially planned to evacuate Attu and Kiska in late 1942. It was later decided by the Japanese that they would stay indefinitely. “There is considerable conjecture [wrote one officer] about the Japanese need for such a God-forsaken hole. The general consensus seems to be that they need a submarine operating base…from which easy raids on our lend-lease shipping to the USSR can be carried out.”

It would take 10 months for the Americans to build enough strength to attempt ousting the invaders, and in that period, the number of men in the Alaskan theater grew to over 300,000. Increasing naval strength choked the flow of provisions to the invaders, making their lives increasingly unpleasant. In August of 1942, the American counterattack begin with an unopposed landing on Adak, 400 miles west of Dutch Harbor and within bombing range of Kiska and Attu Airbases continued to be built, in horrific conditions. The Japanese defenders received little additional support meanwhile due to the decline of Japanese military fortunes elsewhere. Bombing raids and reconnaissance missions over Attu and Kiska grew in size and accuracy. “For the next six months [writes Garfield] this was the strategy of the Aleutian Campaign: a nerve-racking, corrosive harassment of the enemy on Kiska.”

Believing Attu to be untenable, the Japanese commander evacuated the island’s defenders to Kiska in December of 1942. When an expected attack didn’t occur, the island was re-occupied by over 2500 men. Had the Americans been more alert, they could have occupied the island without firing a shot. Because of the lack of vigilance, horrific weather, and bad communications, as well as a change in the Japanese naval code that limited the code breakers’ best attempts, the Americans missed a huge opportunity. It would cost them dearly.

 

NEXT – The Retaking of Attu and Kiska, and a Postscript.  bombing-of-dutch-harbor 300px-mortar-attu-1943 attu-landing-massarcre-bay attu_battle_map_may_1943 attu-japanese-commander fox-hole-shot-of-jarmin-pass mass-suicidebuckner-photo uss-louisville tmb_battle_aleutians1 photo-of-attu-before-invasion   crashed-b-24  troops-loading-for-kiska-august-1942 sitka-midget-subs invasion-map mass-suicide fox-hole-shot-of-jarmin-pass attu-japanese-commander attu_battle_map_may_1943 attu-landing-massarcre-bay 300px-mortar-attu-1943 bombing-of-dutch-harbor

PART THREE

“The Theater of Military Frustration”

 

Famed naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison’s description of the Aleutian Campaign as “The theater of military frustration” is about as apt as any phrase can be. For both the Americans and Japanese, the remainder of 1942 and early 1943 was a period of feints and jabs, none with any knockout force, often totally missing the mark because of the horrific weather and unforgiving seas. The frustration engendered by protracted inactivity was demoralizing to both sides. American sailors and soldiers had cause to wonder why they were not fighting in a more active theater. For the Japanese, there was the inevitable sense of being left to their doom as higher-ups dealt with more pressing matters elsewhere.

The end of the Japanese occupation of American soil was slow in coming. In August 1942, an American force landed on Adak, four hundred miles west of any US base and 250 miles from Kiska. The Japanese were caught by surprise. In fact, American engineers and Seabees constructed an entire airfield with auxiliary buildings before the Japanese even knew they were there. Kiska started experiencing regular attacks from US bombers – and because of the limited number of pilots and the miserable weather, the Japanese couldn’t figure out how the Americans were able to step up their bombing campaign, which began causing greater damage and more deaths. By the time they finally found the new airbase, they had so few serviceable aircraft left that the Japanese could do nothing about it.

Because of setbacks elsewhere, Japan’s military resources and men were stretched thin – there would be little help for their forces in the Aleutians. Besides, the Japanese plan called for an evacuation during the winter anyway. Sensing the Americans would not occupy Attu, the Japanese evacuated its garrison to Sitka to concentrate their forces. The anticipated attack on Sitka never happened, but the Americans occupied several other smaller islands in the chain. After the Sitka evacuation, the Japanese high command re-assessed the strategic importance of the Aleutian Islands – perhaps the Americans could attack Japan from the north after all.  The Japanese quietly reoccupied Attu. Sitka’s fortifications were strengthened. Evacuation plans were scrubbed by October 1942 and instead decided to expand their presence in the islands by occupying more of the Aleutian chain. However, by this point further invasions were no longer possible because of American air superiority. In early December, a convoy of troops sent to make new landings was diverted to the relative safety of Kiska instead.

The tide was turning decisively against the Japanese – by the end of 1942, there were over 150,000 US troops in Alaska, and Dutch Harbor was handing nearly 400,000 tons of shipping a month. Alaskan oil and coal production boomed. And in November the 1671 mile wonder called the Al-Can Highway was completed. The Lend-Lease route to the Soviets through Siberia was opened for business. But pressing series of major campaigns being waged against the Axis powers elsewhere meant that plans to kick the Japanese out of the Aleutians took a back seat to operations in the South Pacific and in North Africa. As always, the weather discouraged offensive operations as well, and the winter of 1942-43 was another horrific reminder of the nightmare involved in trying to carry out any major operation. In Fairbanks, -67 degree weather meant that aircraft engines had to be thawed out with blow torches! Fighters landing in the fog at Adak crashed into parked B-24s. Boats capsized. Hospital and mess tents were destroyed.  The mostly Mexican-American Texans of the 176th Engineers– who had never even seen snow before – were continually blown off their feet by sudden winds called williwaws as they tried to complete the facilities at Adak.

General Buckner’s antipathy toward Admiral Theobald and his perceived reluctance to risk his few ships to the weather or Japanese finally came to a head. On January 4th, Buckner’s hostility contributed to Theobald’s replacement by Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. Kinkaid and Buckner were kindred spirits who shared an offensive mindset – the inter-service rivalries died, and morale improved. There was a sense that there was some purpose in living in the frozen hell of the Aleutians – to kill Japanese. Kinkaid’s arrival marked the start of a new aggressiveness. On January 5, 1943, Americans landed unopposed on Amchitka, a mere 40 miles from Sitka. By January 28th, a new airfield had been completed there.  Kiska became the object of sometimes hourly bombing raids.

 

General Hidichiro Higuchi, commander of Japan’s North Pacific ground forces, demanded additional reinforcements and naval cooperation to stop the American advances. The Japanese navy demurred, and instead of sinking American tonnage, used its submarines to bring supplies to other island outposts. With woefully inadequate equipment and suffering round-the-clock bombing, Higuchi’s men could never finish airfields on either Kiska or Attu. The Japanese defenders’ last hope for relief vanished on February 5, 1943 when Higuchi was instructed to ‘hold the western Aleutians at all costs’ with his available force.  Slim chance – he had 8000 troops on Kiska and 1000 on Attu, and none were first-line troops. He possessed no artillery other than mortars. He had no tanks.

Meanwhile, Kinkaid created an effective blockade intent on starving the Japanese garrisons. More and more, supply convoys were either sunk or driven back. By early March 1943, the American air forces had sunk over forty Japanese ships. The stranglehold by the Americans was tightening. In response, the Japanese tried a desperate gambit that led to what became known as the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. A convoy of troops and supplies escorted by eight cruisers attempted to run the American naval gauntlet.  If successful, the Japanese perhaps could hold Attu and Kiska and even mount and offensive against Kinkaid’s forces. In the ensuing battle, the blockading American fleet was outnumbered two to one. The flagship Salt Lake City, an older cruiser, was heavily damaged in a running daylight battle. Gutsy American destroyers, in an attempt to protect it, made a suicide charge with torpedoes against the Japanese cruisers – and the Japanese withdrew! Afraid that American aircraft would soon be approaching to assist, the last supply fleet turned back. “Admiral Kinkaid’s ridiculous little blockade [wrote Brian Garfield in The Thousand Mile War] had achieved complete success: [it] ended Japanese navy supremacy in the North Pacific and brought the end of the Aleutian Campaign in sight.”

Now it was time to bring combat troops for the invasion of the two islands. The first to be hit would be Attu. If Attu fell, Kiska would hopefully wither on the vine. Common sense would have suggested assembling a large unit trained in cold weather combat and amphibious landings, but common sense did not prevail. Ground troops under Buckner’s command were scattered all over Alaska. None were of division strength. Instead, the 7th Mechanized Infantry Division was transferred from scheduled service in the North Africa Theater. There was one small problem – it was training in southern California for desert warfare. With no training in cold weather warfare, and with little or no appropriate clothing or equipment, the division was sent north in April 1943.  Its men were predominantly Hispanics, Mormons, Indians, and cowboys from Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas. It had absolutely no amphibious training. The lunacy of the division’s selection was compounded by a timeline that gave it only three months to prepare until the landing on Attu.

American intelligence said there were only 500 Japanese troops on Attu (its forces had been reinforced actually numbered over 2500). The Alaskan command told the 7th Division’s commander, Major General Albert Brown, that a single regiment could take the island in three days. Brown responded that suggestion was nuts – the island’s terrain alone would require a full week just to cross it. His pessimism was dismissed.

Despite these obstacles, Brown tried to make the best of a bad situation, effecting two landings on May 11, 1943. The Northern Landing Force came ashore near Holtz Bay; the Southern Landing Force at Massacre Bay. A Scout Battalion, led by Captain William Willoughby, was offloaded from submarines on Beach Scarlet, to prevent the Japanese from moving west and prolonging the fight. There was to be a quick link-up of the forces. The plan was to force the Japanese back toward Chichagof Harbor, where they could be killed or captured. It was supposed to be over quickly.

The Northern Force’s landing started uneventfully, but surprise was lost when Japanese sentries spotted the forces through the fog. Artillery fire halted the American advance. At Massacre Bay, the Americans were able to move inland for about a mile before encountering fierce Japanese resistance. Japanese machine gunners, dug in on ridge lines and hidden by the ever-present fog, poured fired down on the advancing troops, killing many, including the Southern Force’s commander. The attack bogged down, with men freezing in the snow, or suffering frostbite, and equipment stuck in the muskeg. For five days, the green American troops at Massacre Bay got nowhere. Because tractors couldn’t move in the muck of snow and muskeg, a huge traffic jam grew at the water’s edge. Everything had to be hand carried. Artillery pieces would fire from the water’s edge, driving the gun into the muck – to be dug out after each shell was fired. Despite having warned of a difficult landing, General Brown was relieved of command.

The Northern Force had better luck, and was aided by a naval bombardment from the battleships Pennsylvania and Idaho and several cruisers. It was still very slow going, marked by extreme acts of bravery on the part of the advancing Americans. One example was Private Joe P. Martinez, of Taos, New Mexico. An automatic rifleman in Company K of the 32nd Infantry,  he singled-handedly walked into enemy fire armed only with a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), and killed five Japanese soldiers. He reached the crest of a contested ridge before he collapsed with a mortal wound.  His stalled company cleared the remaining Japanese off the ridgeline. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The scouts under Willoughby had better luck until they too found themselves bogged down on a wind-blown open ridge in a stand-off with Japanese infantry.

Finally, after four days, the Japanese force in front of the Northern attackers abandoned Holtz Bay, and soon after Willoughby’s scout force broke through. Of the 420 men he started with, only 165 were still able to fight – some had been killed, but most suffered from exhaustion, frostbite, and gangrene. Amputations became commonplace.

By day seven, the Americans had over 12,000 men on the island. They had suffered over 1100 casualties, of which 500 were from exposure. They were up against the remaining 2000 Japanese, who were skillfully withdrawing into more defensible positions. After holding off the Southern Force for eight days, the enemy made an orderly withdrawal toward heights protecting Chichagof Bay.

Even as they inflicted fearsome casualties, the Japanese were going through a hell of their own. Although better equipped for the weather, they were exhausted from the constant skirmishing, artillery bombardment, and lack of food.  An unknown Japanese NCO’s diary of May 20th reads, “The hours are long. Could do any type of hard work if I could only get two rice-balls a day. I haven’t slept for the past eight days. We received fierce naval gun fire.” Eventually the Japanese perimeter shrunk back toward Chichagof Bay. A last ditch attempt by the Japanese air forces flying from the Kurile Islands to assist their comrades proved disastrous when nine of sixteen bombers were shot down. It was the last outside assistance Japanese defenders received. Finally, on May 28, 1943, a key ridgeline called the Fish Hook fell. Rather than slaughter the remaining defenders, the Americans attempted to persuade them to surrender since Japanese were down to 800 able bodied soldiers, but Japan’s unbending Bushido warrior code, which equated surrender with cowardice, rendered this effort fruitless. The last desperate act by the Japanese was at hand. But first, the 400 wounded soldiers in the field hospital were killed by fellow Japanese, either by grenades or with morphine.

A diary from a medical officer, Nebu Tasuguchi records some of their horrific end. MAY 29, 1943        TODAY AT 2000 WE ASSEMBLED IN FRONT OF HQS. THE FIELD HOSPITAL TOOK PART TOO. THE LAST ASSAULT IS TO BE CARRIED OUT.  ALL THE PATIENTS IN THE HOSPITAL WERE TO COMMIT SUICIDE. ONLY 33 YEARS OF LIVING AND I AM TO DIE HERE. I HAVE NO REGRETS. BANZAI TO THE EM-PEROR…. AT 1800 TOOK CARE OF ALL THE PATIENTS WITH GRENADES.

 

The Japanese commander, Colonel Yatsuyo Yamasaki, led the remaining men, many without weapons, on a sneak attack on the American perimeter. The suicidal charge was totally unexpected. Crazed attackers overran a command post and charged into a medical clearing station, killing most of the patients. Grabbing cooks, litter bearers, road builders and anyone else who could fire an M-1, the Americans re-assembled. “The 50th Engineers [writes Brian Garfield] rushing forward to man the lines, met the charge head-on with bayonets and clubbed rifles.” The onslaught failed. Colonel Yamasaki died in a final futile charge. The next day, the surviving 500 Japanese committed mass suicide by exploding grenades against their chests. The agony of Attu was over.

 

What was supposed to be a three day walk-over had taken three weeks. Twenty eight Japanese were taken prisoner.  Well over 2500 Japanese were killed – the exact number is not known. The Americans suffered 549 combat deaths, and over 1000 wounded, or evacuated because of frostbite, exposure or combat fatigue. Garfield notes that “In proportion to the numbers of troops engaged, [Attu] would rank as the second most costly American battle in the Pacific Theater-second only to Iwo Jima.”

 

American commanders were shocked at the cost. If Attu was this pricey, what would Kiska be like?  The invasion planners reassessed the support the next invasion would require. The blockade of Kiska tightened until it became impenetrable. Bombers flew an average of five missions a day against the island’s defenses. Radar equipped PV-1 Ventura bombers were able to bomb through the clouds and fog.                                             

Round the clock bombing kept Japanese defenders in a labyrinth of sophisticated caves and tunnels, except when attempting to repair bomb damage. Food became even scarcer. Whenever stray American bombs detonated in the harbor, Japanese would rush to scoop up dead fish, which they called “Roosevelt rations.”

Increased radio traffic convinced the defenders that the assault on Kiska was imminent. The huge Japanese submarines based in the Kuriles, called I-boats, were ordered to evacuate the island, but the Americans quickly sunk three of the eight I-boats before they could escape.  In desperation, Admiral Shiro Kawase assembled a small flotilla of cruisers and destroyers, and made a run to save the defenders. The blockading American fleet involved itself in the folly later known as the “Battle of the Pips”, firing countless rounds into an open sea in response to false radar images, and then had to re-fuel.  On July 28th, 1943, Kiwase’s small flotilla slid into Kiska undetected and evacuated all 5183 men in less than an hour. “Kawase had brought off one of the war’s most imaginative and daring maneuvers [writes Garfield] without a single casualty.”

Amazingly, the Americans remained unaware of the evacuation. For three weeks the Americans kept pummeling Sitka. Pilots reported no anti-aircraft bursts, nor any repairs to recent bombings. Higher-ups took no chances, choosing to believe the Japanese had merely retreated further inland to caves and redoubts. On August 15th, 34,426 American and Canadian troops landed on Sitka – and were met by a few stray dogs. The only casualties were caused by friendly fire.  The Japanese had had the last laugh. They had tied up over 300,000 Allied soldiers and sailors, as well as a fleet of ships, to attack a deserted island. General Buckner wryly noted, “To attract maximum attention, it’s hard to find anything more effect that a great big, juicy, expensive mistake.”  But it was still a retreat, still a defeat of Imperial Japan’s ambitions. 439 days of warfare for a cold and miserable part of the United States was over. Bombing runs to Japan’s Kurile Islands began – more for harassment that anything else. General Buckner wanted to plan an invasion of Japan from the north – and while that idea was shelved, fear of its possibility kept over 40,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors and 500 aircraft defending those approaches as the war crept toward Japan’s main islands from the south.

 

(Much information for these articles was gleaned from The Thousand Mile War, by Brian Garfield, as well as naval and other histories)

 

 

ROBERT ‘BOB’ PEEBLES – A Peaceful man who has witnessed the horrors of war

Lt. Peebles USMC – Midway Island 1943

ROBERT “BOB” PEEBLES

A Peaceful Man Who Has Witnessed the Horrors of War

By Todd Blomerth

Col. Bob Peebles USMC (Ret.) 2016

Bob Peebles was born on January 19, 1922, in the small town of Alvin, Texas. His father worked for Gulf States Utilities, and the Peebles family lived and around the Alvin area all his early years. Bob was the youngest of three children. His brother Howard (now deceased) was ten years older. Marjorie (Wyatt), who now lives in Edna, was four years older. Bob attributes much of his success academically to Marjorie. “She became my ‘teacher,’” he tells me. “We would walk home from school.  Starting when I was in the first grade, Marjorie would then sit behind an apple crate on the screened porch, and make me learn reading, arithmetic and writing. She was relentless.” Bob’s grandfather had passed down many classics, so Marjorie used some as her primers. He still remembers with clarity certain portions of stories by Charles Dickens, because they were found on pages holding his grandmother’s pressed flowers, and “we were told to be very careful with those flowers.”

Bob attended Alvin High School, and was voted ‘most popular boy’ in 1938 and “Best All Around” student in 1939. He played baseball and basketball, but his favorite sport was football. He graduated in 1939 and then enrolled at the University of Texas taking pre-med courses and playing freshman football. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he rushed to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Although he “hadn’t been within five miles of an airplane,” he signed up for naval aviation training – and flunked the physical! He had varicose veins in and around his knees from playing football. Disheartened, he hunted down a physician to fix the supposed ‘disability,’ had minor surgery, and finally, on May 1, 1942, passed the physical. He was now officially a naval aviation cadet. For the next year, Bob moved through the various phases of aviation training starting in Luscombe single engine trainers, then graduating to PT-17 Stearman “Kaydets” (nicknamed “the Yellow Peril”), to Vultee “Vibrators,” and finally to the SNJ “Texans.” His class ranking allowed him the choice of Navy or Marine Corps aviation, so he chose the Corps. Part of Flight Class 9A (42-C), he received his aviator’s wings and commission as a 2nd lieutenant at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.  On the way to combat aircraft, he took a short detour, flying C-47 cargo aircraft. He credits his time in that beloved aircraft’s cockpit for allowing him to hone his navigation skills. Apart from occasional ‘radio ranges’ there were few electronic aids in those days; no GPS, FM radios, or omni-directional beacons. Dead reckoning was a skill that would prove invaluable in the Pacific theater.

During flight training, Bob met Lesley Valentine Strandtman, whose family lived outside of Lockhart, Texas. Strandtman was a Fightin’ Texas Aggie and member of the Aggie Band. The two put college rivalries aside and became good friends. Besides a life-long friendship, Valentine’s younger sister, Adeline (“Addie”) Marie would eventually become Bob’s wife in 1946.

Bob’s next duty station was Cherry Point, N.C.  After a short time there, he was ordered to El Toro Naval Air Station, California where he transitioned into the Grumman F4F Wildcat, one of the first modern fighters able to take on the more nimble Japanese fighters. It still had some primitive mechanisms, such as having to retract landing gear by 27 hand cranks!

Lieutenant Peebles was assigned to Marine Corps VMF 114, a fighter squadron that was equipped with one of the premier American fight aircraft of World War II – the Vought F4U Corsair. The Japanese would soon describe the aircraft as “Whistling Death.” The new squadron’s top three officers were veteran combat pilots; the rest of the pilots were newly minted. VMF 114 was shipped to Hawaii where it continued training. The U.S. Navy had turned back a Japanese invasion of Midway Island in June 1942. The island’s location in the Northern Pacific was of strategic importance. As a result, combat units continued to defend the tiny patch of land. In December 1943, VMF 114 was shipped to Midway Island for three months. Then it was back to Oahu to prepare for shipment to Espiritu Santo, a staging area for the Americans’ advances against the Japanese. After additional flight and survival training. VMF 114 moved into its first combat area. Flying from the Green Island group near Papua New Guinea, the squadron suffered its first losses. The Japanese had created a huge base at Rabaul on the island of New Britain. By 1943 there were over 100,000 enemy stationed there. Although Rabaul would be ‘bypassed,’ American air and naval forces kept up unremitting attacks on it and on another enemy base at Kavieng. The Americans did not dare allow an exceeding well trained and increasingly desperate enemy any opportunity at disrupting our advances elsewhere. Weather, combat and air accidents resulted in VMF 114’s loss of nine pilots. The reality of war was now sinking in.

Over many beers during R&R in Sydney, Australia, the men designed their squadron’s new “Death Dealers” logo.

VMF 114 then was thrown into the maelstrom of the American landings in the Palau Islands.

General Douglas MacArthur’s advance into the Philippine Islands in 1944 initially required that his eastern flank be protected. The Palau Islands, some 800 miles to the east had several islands that were heavily fortified, and a plan had been in place to attack and neutralize the Japanese there. However, the American landings in the Philippines were moving ahead of schedule. Certain U.S. commanders expressed extreme doubts as to the need to invade the Palau Islands insisting that, given the circumstances, they could be bypassed and isolated. However, invasion plans were already laid on, and the Marines’ 1st Division and Army regimental combat teams were tasked with taking the Palau group’s Peleliu Island. It would set in motion a horrific battle, which to this day is still cloaked with controversy. Echelons of VMF 114 began flying northward to provide close air support on 9 September 1944. Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Emirau, Pityiliu, and Owl Island were rest and refueling points enroute. After an inadequate pre-landing naval bombardment, young Americans hit Peleliu’s beaches on September 15, 1944. They immediately found themselves in a living hell.

How does one begin to describe the protracted hell of Peleliu? Consider this: Peleliu was defended by nearly 11,000 Japanese troops. The enemy had rethought how to confront Americans in island fighting, and no longer would expend its men on massive suicide attacks. The plan was to make the Americans pay for every inch taken. The Palaus had been in Japanese hands since the end of World War I. Peleliu’s six square miles held a defensive system where virtually every square yard was covered by interlocking fields of fire. The island’s mountain range, the Umurbrogol, contained over 500 natural and man-made caves, as well as the command center. All beaches were mined, with extensive anti-tank traps and obstacles. All caves were connected with tunnels, and heavy artillery was hidden behind sliding steel doors. Caves and defensive bunkers were virtually invisible, concealed behind rock and vegetation. The Japanese even had a miniature railroad to move some artillery from firing point to firing point.

The Marine’s commander predicted the island would be taken in four days. It would take two months, and decimate the 1st Marine Division.

The squadron landed on Peleliu on September 26 (D+9) as the land battle raged less than two miles away. As Bud Daniel writes in A Cowboy Down: A WWII Marine Fighter Pilot’s Story: “All 24 Corsairs arrived in good shape. The howitzers were firing their large shells toward the caves on Bloody Nose Ridge. Marine infantry was busy fighting the ten thousand Japanese that were holed up in these caves. Peleliu looked to us like it was on a planet in another universe. Almost all of the trees had been blown to shred or splintered into pieces. The surface, nothing but coral rock, was also blown apart. We had been warned of snipers and we could hear large shells blasting, creating massive holes and generating lots of smoke. In the distance stretcher-bearers were trying to bring dead and wounded Marines down the coral precipices. It was a horrible battle and we were on the perimeter 1500 yards from the action. What I’m describing was continuous round the clock horror.” El Paso’s Tom Lea, an artist with Life magazine, was a changed man after witnessing Peleliu’s carnage. “The Two thousand Yard Stare,” is one of his most famous paintings. It captures a young Marine’s mental state as he prepares to go back into battle, after seeing many of his compatriots die:

The Two Thousand Yard Stare, by Tom Lea

 

The squadron’s pilots would load up with bombs or napalm, take off, often not even retracting their Corsairs’ landing gear, as some targets were fifteen seconds away. They would return to the airfield, reload, and fly another mission. For the next six months, VMF 114 labored tirelessly to support Marines and soldiers trying to root out the well-hidden and ferocious enemy. When time and circumstances allowed, “barge runs” were made in and around neighboring islands. Other Palau islands were also well defended. The carnage on Peleliu caused the U.S. to re-think invading most of them. But the Japanese on Koror, Babelthuap, Ngesebus, and Anguar were bombed and strafed continuously, to ensure no reinforcements would slip into Peleliu, and no aircraft could lift off. It was dangerous work for Bob’s squadron. The grind of battle, tension of close air support and enemy anti-aircraft artillery, long combat air patrols providing ‘cover’ for the invasion fleet, and stifling heat and humidity (Peleliu lies just seven degrees north of the equator), took its toll. Occasional beer runs to rear areas like Hollandia helped some, but not much. VFM 114 also flew long-range bombing missions – some as far as Yap Island, another enemy stronghold.

All the pilots suffered ‘gray-outs’ from the g-forces of dive bombing. Low flying attacks attracted flak, and on several occasions, Bob’s aircraft was holed by anti-aircraft shrapnel. On one occasion, Bob got shot up on a barge run over Babelthuap. Suddenly, his cockpit filled with smoke. American DUMBO aircraft (sea rescue float planes) were staged under air routes and pilots knew that if captured by the Japanese, they would be tortured and killed. Bob unbuckled his safety harness, threw back the cockpit canopy, and turned for friendly waters. As he prepared to bail out, the smoke cleared. He sat back down, hoping to make it home, It was a long thirty minutes of flying back to Peleliu, with Bob wondering when the engine would seize up. It didn’t. It turned out that shrapnel had struck his radio equipment. When his canopy was opened, the fire went out.

Others were not so lucky. The squadron’s revered commander, Major Robert “Cowboy” Stout died on March 4, 1945 on a strafing and bombing run over Koror. His death devastated the squadron.

The squadron rotated back to the United States in late March of 1945. Captain Peebles was then placed at Page Field, where he taught new pilots gunnery and rocketry at Parris Island. The war ended in August, and Bob was given a choice of staying in the military. His response was affirmative. The Marine Corps told him to go home, and he would be called in six months. As six months rolled around, he still hadn’t received his call back, so he decided he had better do something else with his life, so he re-enrolled at the University of Texas, and signed up to play football. Within a week, the Marine Corps called to invite him back into the service. “I was so sore from football practice,” he told me, “that I was never so happy to get a call in my life.”

Bob’s military career ‘took off’ after World War II. He married Adeline in Lockhart, Texas at the First Christian Church. They would have five children, Robert Jr., Bonnie, Sarah, Jo Leslie, and Patty. Fortunately, Addie proved to be a wonderful military spouse, as the growing family would move with Bob to his various military assignments. In 1950, North Korea invaded the south.  Captain (and later Major) Bob Peebles was shipped to Japan, and then to South Korea, and became the Executive Officer of a radar squadron. Then he returned to Cherry Point, N.C. The next years were fulfilling. As a major, he was appointed to the Joint Landing Force Board at Camp Lejeune, where future amphibious operations were studied. Then it was back to Korea in 1954. Duty stations included Kaneohe Marine Air Station in Hawaii. In 1959, he became squadron commander of VMF 232, flying F8 Crusaders. In 1967, Colonel Peebles served in Viet Nam as air officer attached to amphibious operations.

Bob retired in 1969, and in 1973 he and Addie moved to Caldwell County. They settled on some of the Strandtman land outside of Lockhart, living there until Addie passed away in 1999. Bob now lives in Bastrop with youngest daughter Patty. He is proud of his service to his country, but not one to brag.

The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to someone who “distinguishes himself or herself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” He received that honor for airstrikes in the Rabaul, Kavieng, and Palau Islands areas during World War II. The Legion of Merit is awarded for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements.” He was honored with this award for service during the Vietnam conflict.  When asked about his Bronze Star with V device, which is only awarded for combat heroism or for someone “exposed to personal hazard during direct participation in combat operations,” he only laughs and says, “I guess I got that for bravery.” The reality is more vivid: He was the acting commanding officer of a Ground Control Intercept unit near the North Korean port of Hungnam in December 1950. The Americans were in a fighting retreat from the Chosin Reservoir area in the bitter winter, as hordes of communist Chinese tried to surround them. Those who survived the near-debacle were evacuated through Hungnam, along with tens of thousands of Korean refugees. Captain Peebles evacuated the over two hundred men in his squadron on an LST just before the port facilities were destroyed as the enemy entered the area.

Destruction of Hungnam Harbor

Colonel Bob Peebles typifies the best of the “Greatest Generation.” If you see him, be sure to tell him thanks for his service to our country.

 

 

 

 

CURTIS OWEN – A MEDIC FROM MCMAHAN AND THE “UTTER CHAOS” OF WAR

                                                                         1943  

                                                                         2016

CURTIS OWEN

A MEDIC FROM MCMAHAN AND THE “UTTER CHAOS OF WAR”

By Todd Blomerth

Imagine yourself as a visitor to Carlsbad Caverns National Park seventy-five years ago, on a tour requiring a long walk down into its vastness. Upon arriving in the Big Room, one of its largest galleries, imagine being seating at a huge formation dubbed the ‘Rock of Ages’ as Park Rangers extinguish all lights, and a recording of the hymn of that name is played. You realize what total darkness really is. Feel yourself blinking as the lights come on, expecting to laugh as you savor a new experience that will help your mile-long trek back to the surface as the tour ends. Then try to imagine your thoughts as a somber Park Ranger announces that he has just received the news that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Imagine the screams of a fellow tourist before she passes out – her son is stationed at the huge Navy base there. Imagine your world changing forever. Private Curtis Owen of McMahan, Texas experienced that on December 7, 1941.

Born in 1919, Curtis was the third of four boys born to Odus and Elizabeth (Handley) Owen.  He attended school in McMahan until the ninth grade. His last two years (high school went to the 11th grade in those days) were completed in Lockhart in 1938. Growing up in the Depression, the family kept food on the table farming cotton with mules and horses. Given the cost of horse feed, he often wondered “who was working for whom.”

By 1940, it was becoming obvious to many that America would end up in another war, in all likelihood against Germany. Young men were required to register for the draft in September of that year. As a farmer, Curtis could have claimed a deferment. He chose not to. Despite a farm accident in 1938 that caused the loss of a finger, he also obtained a waiver and, at the suggestion of his family physician, Dr. Joe Coopwood, enlisted in the National Guard’s 36th (“Texas”) Infantry Division’s 141st Infantry Regiment’s Medical Detachment, of Lockhart.

Almost immediately after enlisting, Private Owen became part of America’s belated awakening to our country’s dangers. Along with other National Guard units, the 36th Division was mobilized to national service, on November 25, 1940. It is hard to conceptualize today just how unprepared for war our country was. Worldwide, nations had been at war all through the 1930s. For years Americans refused to acknowledge the reality that, like it or not, ultimately our country would have to fight. Training facilities were non-existent. With obsolete equipment and a poor organizational setup, and the total unpreparedness of military officials everywhere, the Division’s attempt to mobilize quickly went FUBAR, or “fouled up beyond all recognition.” The Lockhart Medical Detachment and the Lockhart infantry unit, Company F, were first housed in tents on a drill field where Lockhart’s American Legion Hall is now located. The Medical Detachment’s commander, Major Abner Ross MD, recruited a local cook, and his men ate at their camp. Company F’s men were not so lucky, having to march to the Carter Hotel on the downtown square three times a day for their meals.

In March of 1942 the division’s many units, coming from armories from El Paso to Texarkana, were united at Camp Bowie, near Brownwood. Located in old cotton fields, the camp’s water and gas lines still lay exposed. Men were housed in 5-man tents. For the next six months “we played like we were at war,” said Curtis. Maneuvers in Louisiana showed how unprepared our military was. Trucks were painted white and designated as “tanks.” Bombing raids on the infantry were made with sacks of flour. In November of 1941, Curtis was selected to attend Surgical Technician schooling at Ft. Bliss’ Wm. Beaumont Army Hospital in El Paso. He learned about plasma, sulfa drugs, and emergency care for the wounded. During a weekend break, his class was bused to Carlsbad Caverns. It was on that tour that he found out his country was at war. On December 20, 1941, he graduated tied for first in his class.

The 36th Division trained at Camp Bowie, in the Louisiana Maneuvers, at Camp Blanding, Florida, in the Carolina Maneuvers, and finally at Camp Edwards, Massachusetts. Then its men and equipment were loaded onto ships at New York and sent to Oran, Algeria, in April 1943. Dr. Coopwood, now a major, was the141st’s regimental surgeon. More training ensued, some for amphibious landings, in the squalor and heat of North Africa. By 1943 Private Owen had become Staff Sergeant Owen, and was the senior NCO of the 141st’s 2nd Battalion medical aid station.   Thomas William Hazen, a subordinate who became a close friend described Curtis like this: ‘Sgt. Owen, the steady one, who tried to keep this motley group in order, was known as “Colonel.” His Texas drawl was so pronounced I think it sometimes made him laugh with the rest of us.’

The British and Americans invaded Sicily on July 9, 1943. The 36th stayed in Africa. Would the Texans ever get into the war? All too soon, they did. The 36th Infantry Division was bloodied – and badly – on September 9, 1943 in the Allied landings at Salerno, Italy. The Italians had just surrendered. However, the Germans were aware that it was going to happen, and took over defensive positions. They were waiting when the landing occurred. It was a near disaster, and a foretaste of the debacle called the Italian Campaign. After securing the beaches, bitter fighting continued until the Germans retreated into the mountains north of Naples. The 36th was pulled out of the line to rest and refit in October, and then put back in November, replacing a badly battered 3rd Infantry Division. It fought northward, was pulled off the front line again and then moved by ship to assist in the breakout from the disastrous Anzio beachhead. In July 1944, it was pulled out of the line again, and took part in the landings in Southern France the following month. It raced north in an attempt to cut off retreating Germans. In October 1944, the point system allowed Curtis to come back home for a thirty day leave, which only started once he got to the US. The leave kept him out of the war for nearly five months, because of the transportation difficulties in getting to and from the European Theater of Operations. During this interlude, he married. Curtis and his family were (and continue to be) members of Bethel Primitive Baptist church. At a church conference, he met his future wife, Edith Morrow. Born in Cuero, Edith was raised in the South Texas town of Sebastian, where her father farmed. Curtis and Edith dated until the war separated them. While on leave, Curtis traveled to Sebastian and asked for Edith’s hand in marriage on a Sunday. They were married three days later on December 13, 1944. Curtis’ parents did not attend the small wedding – he had borrowed the family’s only vehicle and wartime rationing made travel problematic. McMahan is a close-knit community, and many families are interwoven. He says jokingly, “I had to leave home to keep from marrying a cousin!”  He rejoined his unit in March of 1945 as it fought through the Siegfried Line. He was in the Brandenburg Alps, at Kufstein, Austria when Germany surrendered in May 1945.

Curtis looks back on his service in World War II with the eyes of a historian. He sees and interprets much of what he endured as part of the big picture. Nevertheless, I asked him of certain instances in his service remain seared in his memory. He paused, and then shared with me some of them.

The Allied landing at Salerno, Italy on September 9, 1943 – His medical detachment rode into the beach on a British landing boat. When the bow ramp dropped, he and everyone on the landing craft were near-casualties. A German machine gunner sprayed bullets at them. Fortunately, the enemy gunner was entrenched too low, and when he depressed his weapon, his rounds struck sand dunes at his front instead of young Americans. Curtis hit the ground, only to feel something kicking him in the side. Rolling over, he looked up at a British MP yelling at him, “Son, get up and off this beach. The bullets won’t kill you unless they hit you.” He got off the beach, but not far that day.

The “utter chaos” (Curtis used that term a lot in his discussions about the war) of Salerno, where the 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions were nearly pushed into the sea – US Navy destroyers cruised close to shore, depressing their guns to drive off the advancing German tanks. The aid station was set up at water’s edge because of the fierce resistance to the landing. The badly wounded were turned over to Navy corpsmen at the beach and evacuated to waiting ships, all the while under fire. Then it was up the ‘soft underbelly of Europe,’ where in Curtis’ words, “there was just one mountain after another.” Mignano, Altavilla, Mt. Rotundo, San Pietro, Sanmucro, and the Rapido River became bywords for misery and death.

The constant replacement of his men – “Each line company was assigned three medics,” he told me. “I lost many of them. Some were killed. Some were wounded.” Many times infantrymen were pulled out of companies and made stretcher-bearers. Toward the end of the war, personnel shortages were so critical that prisoners in army guardhouses were returned to the line, if they agreed to behave. The Medical Detachments got some of them too. They usually did a good job.

The necessity of finding a place for medical facilities –  “We were usually around one mile from the front lines,” he said, “which was well in range of artillery.” If lucky, they found suitable structure where medics and doctors could work in blackout conditions. But weren’t structures also artillery registration points – in other words, targets? “Well, yes, but that was a chance we had to take so we could work on the wounded.” Until prodded, Curtis said nothing of his Purple Heart – he took shrapnel in a hand in late 1943. The picture below, taken from Hazen’s book, “Medicos Up Front – With the 36th Texas Infantry Division,” shows the 2nd Battalion’s aid station in November and December 1943.

For 43 days, in mud, rain and snow, and with mortar barrages which missed (but barely) Sgt. Owen’s men struggled to save lives. Hazen describes their existence:

 

The Aid Station was located on a mountain trail impossible to reach by jeep and several hundred yards from a point where a jeep could get in. there is where we established our collecting point to be used sparingly during daylight. (light discipline was strict). At night a jeep would bring water and food to the collecting point and then take the dead in body bags (mattress sacks) back to Graves Registration for burial. In order to evacuate the severely wounded promptly in daytime, our drivers had to chance being observed. …One canteen of water was each one’s ration for the day and it was used for drinking and cleanliness. Our clothing could not be changed for 43 days.

The death of Lockhart’s Dr. Joe Coopwood – Major Coopwood was not required to visit aid stations, but he did, and regularly. He was at the 2nd battalion’s Aid Station the day before he died. His last words to Sergeant Owen as he left were, “I’ll see you day after tomorrow.” It didn’t happen. The 141st’s regimental surgeon was killed at regimental headquarters by long-range artillery the following day. “He was like a father to us. His death really affected me. I knew he was different from other doctors. Before going to medical school he had attended VMI. He was a soldier’s soldier.”

The horrific blunder of the Rapido River crossings of January 20 and 21, 1944 – The 36th’s commander, General Fred Walker, told higher authorities that attacking across a river into the main German defensive positions would be suicide. Despite this, he was ordered to move two of his regiments across the swift moving stream and then attack the entrenched enemy. The two attempts turned into a slaughter, as men and rubber boats were riddled with artillery and machinegun fire. Although a toehold was made, the survivors had to retreat. Of the 6000 men involved, over 2000 were wounded, killed or captured The Germans suffered less than 300 casualties. Three days later, a four-hour truce was called, so the Americans could recover their dead. Sergeant Owen was ordered to dispatch two medics with a white flag, where a truce had been arranged. “I recall the silence,” he said. Almost continuous artillery fire had, for a brief moment in time, ceased. “After four hours, the truce was over with, and things started back up again.” Curtis understates his own involvement. Hazen remembers that ‘[a]s might well be expected, Sgt. Owen told the captain that he could ask none of us to go unless he himself went also. [The detachment commander] said that he would not permit the sergeant to go for he felt that these two men might not come back. The captain could ill afford to lose the services of Sgt. Owen.” He would later receive a commendation for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” for his work evacuating the wounded the following month.

The horrors of Kaufering, one of the many Dachau sub-camps – Although Nazi extermination camps were in Poland and elsewhere, Germany was home to over 20,000 labor, transit, and concentration camps between 1933 and 1945. The camps in Germany used Jews, Gypsies, political and social undesirables, and Russian POWs, as forced labor. Hundreds of thousands vanished due to starvation, disease, and outright murder. Like other Allied units, the 36th came upon the horrors of unbelievable inhumanity. Beginning in 1943, Kaufering’s inmates – mostly Jews – were forced to excavate underground facilities for fighter aircraft production. As the Allies approached in late April 1945, the SS forcibly evacuated surviving inmates and murdered those too ill to move. Curtis and thousands of other GIs witnessed these horrors. Of his experience, Curtis says little, just shaking his head.

Starving displaced persons and freed inmates from concentration camps – After Dachau, the Division was on K rations. The GIs did not have spare food to distribute to the thousands of displaced persons and camp survivors that were, seemingly, everywhere. Sergeant Owen, the erstwhile farmer, knew something about places where these unfortunates might find some stored foods. He “suggested” to some that they look in Germans’ cellars. Many did, finding stores of potatoes, which they were able to boil and eat. They also discovered schnapps and wines, and some got quite drunk very quickly.

German autobahns filled with enemy soldiers marching to surrender in late April and early May – The average soldier knew their country was defeated. Only fanatical SS units thought otherwise. SS men hung or shot “defeatists.” Curtis recalls one group explaining that they had to kill several SS men so they could surrender.

The countenance of captured Nazi SS soldiers: “I only saw a few,” he tells me. “But the ones I did see had dead eyes.”

The emotional and psychological costs of war: War became unreal. “If you thought about it too much you would go stark raving mad,” he recalled. “You see so much suffering your mind goes blank.” But not perfectly. By the end of the war, if he saw someone badly wounded, “I had to get up and leave.” The war’s horrors stayed with him afterward. When asked, Curtis acknowledged quietly it took a toll on him. As we talked, Edith nodded.  Although not discussed, she too witnessed Curtis’ suffering in those years. He told me the hours spent alone as a farmer helped put the demons to rest. There is no doubt that a strong and loving wife and family, and a deep Christian faith helped as well.

After Germany’s surrender in May, 1945 hundreds of thousands of GIs spent months awaiting transportation home. Most finally went by ship. Tech Sergeant Curtis Owen (he had been promoted) got lucky and hopped a ride on a four engine bomber. With fueling stops at Marseilles, Casablanca, the Azores, St. John, and Presque Island, it reached Boston. Then it was by train to San Antonio. He arrived home on August 1, 1945. At last, his war was over.

Ed Horne, the local Farmall dealer, knew Curtis was a returning veteran, and put his name at the top of the list for a new two row tractor. He continued to farm for sixty years.

Curtis and Edith celebrated 71 years together recently. They have been blessed with three children (Diane Ross, Beverly Coates, and Tom Hazen Owen), seven grandchildren, and fifteen great grandchildren. Curtis and Edit h now reside at the Golden Age Home. Their warmth and kindness are infectious. They and their family have done much to enrich Caldwell County. Drop by some time.

Curtis and Edith Owen and Their Grandchildren and Great Grandchildren

ADDENDUM 11-15-17 

I wrote this story in February of 2016. I visited with Curtis today at a local nursing facility.  He recently fell and broke his pelvis. He was recovering nicely. His bride of 72 years had recently passed away. Curtis continued, at the age of 98, to be mentally sharp as a tack.  We discussed world affairs, and Curtis expanded a bit on the effects of the war on him. “There were a lot of funerals i didn’t attend [after the war]. I’d seen too much.”

IWO JIMA – PART THREE

THE BATTLE FOR IWO JIMA – PART THREE

 

Attrition and Its Consequences

 

Press coverage of the raging battle on Iwo Jima reached a crescendo with the raising of the flags on Mt. Suribachi. The Marines’ bravery despite a ferocious enemy and having suffered horrific casualties was first page, ‘above the fold’ news across the country. But unfortunately, many reporters saw the symbolism of the flag raising as a convenient end point to their narrative of the battle. The island’s conquest seemed assured. There were other stories to cover. Vanishing news coverage did a disservice to the sacrifices that thousands of unsung American heroes would make over the next month.

At the end of the first five days the US forces had pushed across Airfield One and toward Airfield Two. However, Japanese resistance had just begun.

Advance Toward the North and East

 

Historically, Japanese troops penned up would, rather than surrender, make banzai charges. If successful, the charges would overrun American positions, but if not it usually led to the wholesale slaughter of the Japanese attackers. Kuribayashi forbade these types of attacks, and instead ordered his troops to remain under cover and to sell their lives with the highest cost to the attackers. By waging night attacks on Marine foxholes, using the elaborate tunnel network to infiltrate behind the American lines to attack advancing Marines from behind, and employing well-sited machine gun, artillery, and mortar positions to unleash murder cross fire took thousands of Marines’ lives.

The Marines’ small arm fire proved ineffective against these positions and tactics. The attackers soon discovered that flamethrowers, satchel charges, gasoline, and grenades were the most effective ways to kill the hidden defenders. Marines with flamethrowers packed 68 pounds of highly flammable gasoline in pressurized backpacks, would shoot a stream of flame into suspected enemy areas.  These Marines had an even shorter life expectancy than the riflemen.

Marine artillery units quickly deployed and fired from presumably secured areas, with forward observers like Luling resident Alton Rodenberg stationed on the slopes of Mt. Suribachi. Naval artillery was called in from battleships and cruisers offshore. The Marines landed Sherman medium tanks fitted with flamethrowers. The “Ronson” or “Zippo” tanks (named after cigarette lighter brands), were particularly effective. Navy and Marine aviators, flying off aircraft carriers, unloaded rockets, and napalm that allowed a slow and painful advance toward the northern tip of the island, where Kuribayashi’s headquarters were presumed to be.

From the beginning, the war in the Pacific had been typified by its unprecedented brutality, but napalm and flamethrowers and white phosphorus grenades incinerating human flesh brought war’s inhumanity to a new level. But Marines who had seen their buddies slaughtered on landing beaches or blown up by mortars, or shot in the back by snipers saw these weapons as indispensable equalizers against a hidden and ruthless enemy.

 

USMC Photographer Douglas Page Shot of Flamethrower in Action                    Marine with Flamethrower

 

Japanese Cave Complex on the North End of the Island-Photo by Douglas Page

 

In the midst of the carnage, the Navy was on the receiving end of kamikaze attacks. The USS Saratoga was struck by two suicide dive bombers, putting it out of action for the rest of the war. The escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea was struck as well. It blew up, capsized and sank, taking hundreds of her crew to the bottom with her. It was a harbinger of what was to occur a month later during the invasion of Okinawa, where more kamikazes would kill thousands more sailors.

Kuribayashi’s war of attrition seemed to be working according to plan. Marine units were held up and drained of manpower. Companies were commanded by captains, then lieutenants, then sergeants –there seemed to be no end in sight as the slaughter continued.

Japanese defenders retreated into increasingly rugged terrain. Their lairs were often immune from heavy bombardments attempting to ‘soften up’ an area before infantry advances. When the bombardment stopped and Marines advanced, the Japanese returned through their tunnel network into their pillboxes and machine gun emplacements to unleash withering fire on the attackers. Although still under constant fire, a group of 14 small unarmed aircraft used the airfield as a staging ground for round-the-clock artillery spotting, which proved invaluable.

 USMC Photographer Douglas Page Photo of Fighting in the Rugged Terrain

 

Heat and Rugged Terrain Made a Horrible Combination – by Douglas Page USMC

 

The three invading American divisions pushed north across the island. The 4th Division fought a battle of attrition against Hill 382, ‘The Amphitheater’, ‘Turkey Knob’ and an area aptly dubbed ‘The Meatgrinder.’ The 5th Marine Division attacked the Nishi Ridge, Hills 362A and362B and ‘The Gorge’, and the Third Division attacked across the unfinished third airfield and into an eerie killing ground that became known as ‘Cushman’s Pocket’.

A retired Marine officer remembers: “At one point we had 60,000 men occupying less than three-and-a-half square miles of broken terrain.” It produced a schizophrenic scenario. A command post a kilometer from Japanese lines, artillery still firing in the area near the landing beaches, and Seabees using heavy equipment to repair the airfields for the arrival of the B-29s. And all the while, the men in combat had to keep going – until they were killed or wounded. As James Bradley puts it: “Their daily routine – impossibly dull and impossibly terrifying – was turning them into human robots. Each day was the same: a morning artillery bombardment, then a crawling, slow advance over exposed terrain, then an afternoon bombardment, then another advance. At dusk the boys scuttled into shell holes or ravines for shelter. The next morning, it all started over again.”

In the first nine days attacking north, the Marines advanced a total of 4000 yards – and suffered over 7000 casualties.  Medical attention for the Americans was as good as it got in the Pacific – with Marines taken to aid stations, hospitals, hospital ships, and the more seriously wounded on to Guam for  care from physicians like Lockhart resident Dr. Philip Wales. But the problem was getting the wounded out of the combat zone. The Japanese had no compunctions about killing corpsmen, stretcher bearers, or the wounded themselves. Twenty-three doctors and 827 corpsmen were wounded or lost their lives on the island.

By March 4th, thirteen days after the landing, the first crippled B-29 landed on the re-constructed Airfield Number 1 and a large portion of Kuribayashi’s defenses had been taken. But the cost was so staggering, and the need for replacements so desperate, that the next day, March 5th, a ‘stand down’ order was issued to give depleted front line units some time to catch their collective breaths – and receive badly needed reinforcements. Then the fighting continued. Finally, on March 11th, the Japanese forces were split in two, with Kuribayashi’s main force in the north backed against the sea at Kitano Point.

On March 14th, the island was declared “secured” by Admiral Chester Nimitz. “Who does the admiral think he is kidding?” scoffed one Marine. “We’re still getting killed.”  The fighting continued unabated in the center of the island, but on March 16th, the Japanese pocket on the eastern side of the island was finally wiped out. Further north the 5th Division fought toward Kuribayashi’s headquarters in what became as “Death Valley.” This was an exceptionally deadly labyrinth of caves, bluffs, cliffs, and sulfurous emissions from the volcanic rock.  The end was near for Kuribayashi, who radioed Tokyo, on March 22nd, “We are still fighting. The strength under my command is now about four hundred. Tanks are attacking us. The enemy suggested we surrender through a loudspeaker, but our officers and men just laughed and paid no attention.” On the night of March 25th, what appeared to be last of the organized resistance ended. But not quite. Three hundred of Kuribayashi’s men infiltrated American lines and attacked unsuspecting airmen and reserve troops near the airfield. The enemy’s last gasp took another 100 American lives before the Japanese were wiped out. Kuribayashi presumably took his own life. His body was never found.

 

Colonel Joseph Alexander USMC (Ret) states, “In its 36 days of combat on Iwo Jima, the V Amphibious Corps [the Marines fighting onshore and the Navy offshore] killed approximately 22,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors. The cost was staggering. The assault units of the corps—Marines and organic Navy personnel—sustained 24,053 casualties, by far the highest single-action losses in Marine Corps history. Of these, a total of 6,140 died. Roughly one Marine or corpsman became a casualty for every three who landed on Iwo Jima.” Twenty-seven men received the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima – half of them posthumously. Americans were shocked at the cost. There were more Marine casualties than Japanese.

But the Army Air Force got its emergency landing field. By war’s end, a total of 2,251 B-29s had made forced landings on the island. Those planes carried 24,761 crewmen, many of whom would have perished at sea without Iwo Jima as a safe haven. Said one B-29 pilot, “Whenever I land on this island I thank God for the men who fought for it.”

In the word of Admiral Chester Nimitz, on Iwo Jima, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” In its aftermath, many Marines have stated simply, “I know when I die I am going to heaven, because I’ve already been in hell.”

Iwo Jima taught the Japanese America’s resolve to take the war to the Japanese heartland. General Douglas MacArthur’s troops were retaking the Philippines, and the invasion of Okinawa was next. But the tenacious defense by the Japanese, and the very real fear that the American losses at Iwo Jima (and soon after on Okinawa) were a foretaste of what would lay in store in the event of an invasion of the main Japanese islands confirmed to many, including President Truman, that the atomic bomb, recently perfected and soon to be tested in the New Mexico desert, was the only way to force an end to the war.

Much information for this article has been gleaned from CLOSING IN: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander U.S. Marine Corps (Ret), and Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley.

 

 

IWO JIMA – PART TWO

THE BATTLE OF IWO JIMA

 

The First Flag Up – Photo by Lowery

 

D-Day and Desperation

 

The ‘softening up’ of Iwo Jima began in December of 1944 with high altitude bombings. The island was battered for 72 consecutive days. It did no good. Intelligence photos showed that the number of defenses actually grew during the massive air strikes. Then it was the Navy’s turn – and it didn’t do a very good job. Commanding the Marines was General Holland ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Smith. A veteran of amphibious landings, he demanded a ten day close-in naval bombardment – but many of the Navy’s big ships were too busy conducting somewhat useless – but good for newspaper headlines – coastal bombardments of the Japanese home islands. They were unavailable. The Marines would get parts of three days of shelling before hitting the beach. Smith would blame the Navy for many of the Marine deaths.

In the words of James Bradley, General Kuribayashi had “transformed Iwo Jima into one large blockhouse.” Steel doors, multiple entrances on gun positions, underground rooms, tunnels, hospitals, command posts, hidden artillery and mortar positions, sniper holes. The list goes on and on. And every inch of the island was covered by cross fire. Hell awaited the young men on February 19th.

30,000 men and boys of the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions hit Red, Yellow, Blue and Green beaches at 0900 hrs, with the 3rd Division in reserve. The volcanic sands were difficult to move in. Thus, men and equipment stacked up on the two mile wide landing area creating a confusion of landing craft, amphibious vehicles and personnel. Yet for an hour nothing happened. Were all the defenders dead? Then, as more and more Americans unloaded or were seasick in Higgins boats waiting their turn at the beach, all hell broke loose. Kuribayashi had refused to be drawn into a defense at the water’s edge. The Japanese defenders on and in Mt. Suribachi in the south, and in emplacements to the north interlaced the whole area with massive artillery, mortar, rifle and machine gun fire. The results were devastating. Desperate Marines trying to dig foxholes got nowhere in the volcanic ash. Tracked vehicles bogged down. Marines were killed as they left the landing craft. Landing vessels were blown out of the water and the Marines inside vaporized. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal landed with the 4th Division and ran for his life. He later said that “not getting hit was like running through rain and not getting wet.”

Somehow, the Marines took a toe hold. One by one, pillboxes fell. But time and time again, Marines would be shot down after taking Japanese fortifications. Underground tunnels allowed defenders the ability to re-enter what was presumed to be a secured area. In a suicidal charge, Company A, 28th Marines, charged across 700 yards of exposed ground and severed Mt. Suribachi from the rest of the island. By noon, there were 9000 Marines on Iwo Jima. Defensive tunnels from Suribachi to the rest of the Japanese defensive network had not been completed, but Kuribayashi had expected this, and Suribachi had been designated a semi-autonomous defensive area.

By noon on D Day, annihilation was no longer an issue. But the shock of the devastation and loss of life was profound. The American public would discover that more American lives had been lost in the first four days than in five months of fighting at Guadalcanal!

At Normandy, the Allies had pushed inland, and the landing zones became safe within a reasonably short time frame. Not so on Iwo. The landing zone would remain ‘hot’ for days. Correspondent Robert Sherrod came in at 1700 hrs on D Day. Another correspondent warned him, “I wouldn’t got there if I was you. There’s more hell in there than I’ve seen in the rest of the war put together.” Sherrod, who was no stranger to combat, was shocked by what he saw. He called the fighting on Iwo “a nightmare in hell.” Writing of the landing, he stated, “About the beach in the morning lay the dead…. They died with the greatest possible violence. Nowhere in the Pacific have I seen such badly mangled bodies. Many were cut squarely in half. Legs and arms lay fifty feet away from the body.”

 

The Landings and Advances by the Marines

 

Carnage on the Beaches

Yet somehow, as James Bradley states in Flags of Our Fathers, “the Marines kept advancing. Somehow, discipline held. Somehow, valor overcame terror. Somehow, scared young men under sheets of deadly fire kept on the doing the basic, gritty tasks necessary to keep the invasion going.”

Hundreds of Marines Never Got Off the Beach

You Couldn’t Dig in the Volcanic Sand

 

 

 

By D-Day Plus Two the tentacles of American persistence were reaching further from the beachhead. But it was a terrible thing to see. Recalling a doomed charge some 80 years before, “Howlin’ Mad” Smith later told a reporter, “Watching the Marines cross that island reminded me of the charge of Pickett at Gettysburg.”

The carnage would continue unabated. There wasn’t time or space to accommodate individual graves. Men were buried 50 at a time in bulldozed graves. Unsure of whether the dead Marines were Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, one chaplain, Gage Hotaling could only recite, “We commit you into the earth and the mercy of Almighty God.” He would do this for 1800 young men.

 

On February 23, 1945, D-Day Plus Four, Mt. Suribachi was finally surrounded. A patrol was told to try to climb to the top, and given a small American flag, told that IF they made it up, to hoist the flag. There was no guarantee they would get up or back alive as the area was still honeycombed with Japanese filled caves. At the top, a piece of pipe was found in the wreckage of a water catchment system, and Sgt. Lou Lowery took several pictures of the men involved. James Bradley says that as the flag became noticed, “Iwo Jima was transformed, for a few moments, into Times Square on New Year’s Eve….Here was the first invader’s flag every planted in four millennia on the territorial soil of Japan.” Lockhart resident Rev. George Goodman was a Coast Guard radio technician on an LST that had run equipment and men into the beach. He saw the flag go up and recalls, “We were thrilled. We knew the island was going to be ours – but taking it was going to be a long way off.”

It only lasted a minute, and all hell broke loose again. But for reasons unknown, the Japanese in caves immediately below the peak didn’t kill the interlopers, even though they outnumbered them in overwhelming numbers.

Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was with the invasion fleet. Seeing the flag raised on Suribachi, he decided he wanted it as a souvenir. This didn’t set well with Col. Chandler Johnson, the battalion commander of the 2nd Bn, 28th Marines. “To hell with that,” he said, ordering a larger and more easily seen flag to be brought up. He would secrete the first flag, and a much larger flag, the iconic one whose raising was shot by photographer Joe Rosenthal, was retrieved from a landing ship – tank (LST) at the beach. Fittingly, the flag had been recovered from a ship sunk by the Japanese at the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Marines again braved the hidden Japanese in caves and bunkers, with the new flag and instructions: “Colonel Johnson wants this big flag run up high so every son of a b____ on this whole cruddy island can see it!”

Rosenthal’s Iconic Shot

 

Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal accompanied the second flag up to the top of Suribachi. Rosenthal nearly didn’t get perhaps the most famous photo in history, as he stumbled as the first flag went down and the second one went up. He snapped the picture without looking through the viewfinder, and had no idea whether he’d even caught the raising of the flag. He took several other “gung ho” shots of the Marines surrounding the newly raised flag, and then headed back to the beach to turn in his developed film to be sent stateside. The image of Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, Mike Strank, Rene Gagnon, and John Bradley – five Marines and a Navy Corpsman, shoving a flag on a pole into the rocks of an insignificant dot in the ocean would prove symbolic.

It was and is the singular memory many of us have of Iwo Jima. But battle had hardly begun. It would rage for another month, and thousands more Marines, including three of the flag raisers in Rosenthal’s shot, would not leave the island alive.

 

Next: A Battle of Attrition and Its Consequences

 

Much information for this article comes from Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley

 

 

IWO JIMA PART ONE

THE BATTLE FOR IWO JIMA

 

By Todd Blomerth

 

 

On February 19, 1945, American fighting men invaded one of the Empire of Japan’s ‘Home Islands’ for the first time when the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions landed on the volcanic ash beaches of a tiny island called Iwo Jima. This eight square mile patch of desolation in the North Pacific became the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War.

 

This is an account of that battle.

 

Run-up to the Battle

 

By late 1944, it was painfully obvious to the Japanese that the American military juggernaut could not be prevented from striking the heart of Japan’s Empire. Initially hamstrung by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Allies’ “Germany First” policy, and the inevitable delay in ramping up production and enlistments, the United States unleashed its full military potential against the Japanese offensive. In May of 1942, the US dealt Japan its first setback by turning back a fleet aiming to launch an invasion of New Guinea in preparation for the conquest of Australia.. Then, that August, ill-equipped, and poorly supported Marines landed and held onto an obscure island called Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Bloody and protracted fighting over several months resulted in the first land defeat for Japan. Coupled with the brilliant American defeat of Japanese carrier forces at the Battle of Midway, the US (with the help of Australian and New Zealand) was turning the tide against the Japanese offensive wave.

The Allies adopted a two-pronged plan to roll back Japan’s gains in the Pacific. General Douglas MacArthur’s command in the western Pacific would by-pass and isolate as many fortified areas as possible by cutting their supply lines. This proved successful against Japanese bases in New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands and ultimately the Philippines. There were many bloody battles to be sure, but the ability to avoid massive Japanese bases such as Rabaul saved thousands of American lives.

Admiral Chester Nimitz’ area of command in the vast expanses of the eastern Pacific didn’t have as many options, as island stepping stones were small and far apart. “Island hopping,” or advancing from one chain of islands to another, was an unavoidable necessity. This meant having to make bloody amphibious assaults on island bastions like Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, Guam, and Saipan and Tinian in the Mariana Islands. American advances caused the Japanese military to begin heavily fortifying islands closer to the heart of the empire. One of the outposts deemed crucial to stopping further American advances was Iwo Jima.

With the Marianas in US hands in 1944, new American B-29 bombers now had bases from which to attack the Japanese homeland.  A massive bombing campaign began to take the war to Japan’s cities and industrial centers.

Iwo Jima was important to the Japanese because it lay athwart the air route from the Marianas to Tokyo, and served both as an early warning site, and an interceptor location for fighter aircraft. To the Americans, Iwo Jima’s location only 650 nautical miles from Tokyo meant it was ideally located to recover disabled or damaged B-29s returning from bombing runs over Japan. It was also close enough to allow P-51 fighters to escort the B-29s all the way to Japan.

 

An invasion of Japan – something inconceivable only two years earlier – now loomed as a real threat to the Japanese high command. . The concept of surrender was abhorrent in Japanese society. This was one of the reasons why most Japanese soldiers, almost to the end of the war, fought to the death. And it was one of the many reasons Allied prisoners of war were seen as ‘cowards’ and horribly mistreated and tortured.  The Japanese leadership felt that beyond the military threat, it meant the demise of the Japanese concept of “self.” The very idea of an invasion of the homeland, governed by a divine emperor, raised fears about the continuation of the Japanese as a race. The loss of their way of life and system of government, in their view, would result in cultural, if not physical genocide. And the Japanese military, which had controlled virtually all aspects of political life since the early 1930s, would not longer be in power

 

As the Allies closed in, the Japanese military made sure that its attackers would known the cost of an attempt to subjugate the empire.

 

On May 27, 1944, Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo selected General Tadamichi Kuribayashi to assume the defense of Iwo Jima. Kuribayashi was a decorated veteran and proved to be an expert at waging defensive warfare. He took his 5000 troops then on the island and set them to work honeycombing Iwo Jima with over 11 miles of tunnels and over 5000 caves and pillboxes. Kuribayashi was also a pragmatist. Shortly after he arrived, what was left of the Japanese naval air forces was destroyed in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in a disastrous rout the Americans called “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”. American submarines, surface ships and airpower had already decimated most of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Iwo Jima would receive more defenders and supplies until the Americans arrived, but Kuribayashi knew that he would get no further support once the invasion began. Kuribayashi realized that without help he and his men were ultimately doomed, so he aimed to make the American invaders pay as high a price as possible for victory.

 

Aerial View of Iwo Jima

Before World War II, Iwo Jima was a backwater island with a civilian population of around 1000, administered as a prefecture of the capital city of Tokyo. The islanders survived by fishing, growing sugar cane, or mining sulfur. There was no fresh water source on the island and those living there had to rely on rainwater cisterns. Rice and other supplies were brought in every month or so on inter-island freighters. There was one policeman, one Shinto shrine, and one primary school. Shaped like an ice cream cone, its one dominant physical feature was Mt. Suribachi at the southernmost tip of the island. This dormant volcano loomed 530 feet over the rest of the island.

            

At first glance, Iwo Jima appeared to be a difficult place to defend. But the Japanese had proved masters of island fighting. The bloodbaths at Tarawa and Peleliu had taught the Americans that.

Intelligence figures estimated that at best the Japanese held the ‘dry wasteland of volcanic ash that stinks of sulfur’ (as James Bradley described it in Flags of Our Fathers) with only 12,000 troops. Hardly a small number, but 70,000 Marines seemed to be more than enough to overcome the defenders. American intelligence estimates conservatively stated that one week was all the time needed to secure Iwo Jima and its three airfields. But those intelligence estimates were wrong, and badly so. The actual number of defenders had grown to 23,000 before the island was blockaded. By the time it ended, the Battle for Iwo Jima had raged for five weeks. And even after the invasion commanders proclaimed the island ‘secured’, on March 26th, hundreds of Japanese stragglers remained concealed in tunnels, occasionally ambushing US troops. The last holdouts would not surrender until 4 years after the end of World War II.

 

NEXT: D Day and Desperation