Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bob's War of the Pacific

My father-in-law Bob received a letter a while back from a television production company. They wanted to interview him on camera for an HBO mini-series about the War of the Pacific. They knew Bob had been a young officer in the 1st Marine Division and had fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war: Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu and Okinawa.

They were too late. Bob was dead, having lost his final battle to cancer two years earlier.

He would have had a lot to say to those television producers. For 60 years Bob seldom spoke of the War; seemed reluctant to revisit the horror of it. But shortly before he died he was ready--even eager--to share his memories of his experience in the Pacific. Over dinner one evening, with his son and grandson listening intently, Bob shared the following...

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was a senior in college. He left to join the Marines because he could be an officer faster than if he joined the army or navy.

Sure enough, he received just 90 days of training, was commissioned a lieutenant, and shipped off to the Pacific.

On August 7, 1942, when he landed on Guadalcanal, he and most of his fellow marines had no comprehension of the fierce and indefatigable enemy they were about to face. Nor did they realize they would also have to fight disease and hunger.

Two days after the marines came ashore, their supporting fleet of naval transport and supply ships fled in the face of an oncoming Japanese convoy. The few ships which remained were attacked and sunk. The marines were abandoned and woefully under-supplied.

Bob said that to keep from starving, they were forced to steal rations off dead Japanese. After a couple months he grew thoroughly sick of rice and sake.

The Japanese preferred to attack at nights--with lethal bombings, grenade raids and bayonnet charges. The morning light revealed the newly dead--so many bodies, so much blood.

But daylight held danger as well.

He recalled once when he was using the “latrine” (a long narrow ditch) he noticed something glimmer in the trees. As an officer, he was allowed to carry a pistol. He fired it—killing the sniper who had been aiming at him. The jungle was infested with snipers.

Bob survived Guadalcanal—1600 marines did not.

The battle of Cape Gloucester was fought in thick jungles, mud, swamps and endless monsoonal rain. Physically, these were his most grueling months. He was constantly wet. The rain rotted clothes, disintegrated letters from loved ones, caused foot fungus, reduced K-rations to slop, and brought even more malaria and dysentery.

But this didn't prepare him for what came next--the horror that was the Battle of Peleliu. The Division Commander, General Rupertus, said it would only take four days to secure this rocky, black coral island. He was wrong. Dead wrong. It took two excruciating months to eradicate the enemy, who was well-entrenched in caves and unwilling to surrender alive.

To Bob, this was hell on earth.

Peleliu had the highest casualty rate of any battle in the Pacific War. There were 6500 casualites—one third of the entire 1st Marine Division!

The sad truth is that Peleliu turned out to be strategically unnecessary. Admiral Halsey had campaigned against it but was overruled by Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur. Bob felt deep hatred for Nimitz and MacArthur for the rest of his life.

At Okinawa--Bob caught a break. For the first time, his battalion wasn't among the first on the ground. But he arrived in time to see plenty of death from suicidal Japanese men and women. This battle was the easiest for him, because he knew the war would soon be over; and after three long years he would be heading home—all he had to do was stay alive a bit longer.

Bob never saw himself as a hero, just a lucky bastard who survived and strived to take care of his men. He knew that to some of his commanding officers (and he named names) the men were just fodder. Although that wasn't the case with General Vandergrift, his Division Commander at Guadalcanal--a man whom he deeply respected.

Below is a photo of Bob with his men in Guadalcanal. (He's in the front row, second from the left.)

He brought the following things home from the War:

  • The rank of Major.
  • The ability to make a quick decision and never second guess it.
  • The Navy & Marine Corps Medal for heroism, as well as a Bronze Star.
    After witnessing a plane crash upon landing, he ran into the burning wreckage and removed the injured crew just before the plane exploded.(He said jokingly that he would never have done it if he’d know the damn thing would blow.)

  • A loathing for war.

  • However, the most precious "souvenir" was a tattered, blood-stained Japanese flag. It had fallen out of the helmet of the Japanese sniper he had killed on Guadalcanal. It’s framed and hangs on the wall of my son’s bedroom.

    This flag is important to my family because it represents that split second in time when the very existence of my dear husband and our children hung on the fate of a single bullet.

    We have been watching Tom Hanks' and Steven Spielberg's HBO mini-series "The Pacific" and wonder what old Bob would have thought about it.

    A young Bob driving his "limo"

    1 comment:

    1. I need to pick my Daddy's brain more about the Korean "Conflict" he was involved in. I know well a couple of the stories, such as how he received his purple heart and how his truck got blowed up by a mortar after he went home on the hospital ship.

      Bravo to you for sharing this wonderful memory with the world.

      Keep up the good work.