As I mentioned, Uncle Bill fought with the Marines on Okinawa.
The first time I met him was when the family all got together on the farm in Iowa to celebrate the 50′th wedding anniversary of Bill and Doris. A lot of his Marine buddy’s showed up for the big event. And I got to do a speech. I will tell you more about the speech in a later post, but I did a lot of research into the fighting on Okinawa. I also wanted some first-hand stories from Bill.
Like a lot of the men from that generation, he never talked about the war. In fact, it turned out that he had never told anyone these stories. But I was so earnest and so interested, and I do study military history. And I had to do the speech. In the end, for whatever reason, he opened up to me and told what it was really like.
I won’t go into all of it, but he had two of the squads he was in wiped out. One was just destroyed in a single day of fighting. The other all lost their lives in one horrible instance when they were huddled around a small fire well behind the front lines and Japanese infiltrators threw a grenade into the group. Bill only lived because he was relieving himself behind a tree. These are just the worst losses his units suffered in the shortest time. They lost men almost every day, would get replacements and then those men would die or be wounded in an endless cycle.
Bill said he loved his Thompson submachine gun, but his favorite weapon was the grenade, because he could toss them without poking his head out of cover.
Twice during the fighting on this blood-soaked island, Bill carried wounded men to shelter under fire and in the middle of fierce fighting. Both of them swore they were going to recommend him for a medal. And one of them was a Lieutenant, so it might have come about. But both times these wounded men were later killed at the aid station that was not that close to the front line. That is how dangerous this whole battle was. There was no place that was safe from the shelling or the infiltrators.
His stories of the war came to and end with perhaps the most frightful tale I have ever heard. He was put on guard duty one night with two new men in a small trench on the front line. He was also given one of the new Garand M1 rifles. He put one of the replacements on the first watch duty and went to sleep. In the middle of the night something woke him up. Both the other men were asleep. It was pitch black dark.
He heard a small sound in front of the trench, and he took one shot at it, and then the rifle jammed. He explained to me that that stuff you see in movies about yelling out ‘who goes there?’ was just a load of crap. If you heard a sound on the front lines, you tossed a grenade or shot at it with no warning. The other two men woke up, as did all the Marines in the area, but no more sounds were heard.
In the morning, lying just a few yards from the trench, was one dead Imperial Japanese Marine, with a bullet hole right through the anchor emblem on the front of his helmet. There may have been more, we will never know. But Bill never used one of the new rifles again. He stuck with his Tommy gun.
Uncle Bill was not the kind of man to exaggerate. In fact, his Marine buddies who came to the anniversary each told me that if anything Bill was playing his part down. But I got proof of these stories in a rather more graphic way. It seems that just before he had to show up at Marine boot camp, Bill married his childhood sweetheart, Aunt Doris. She waited back on the farm for him to return from the war. One day, in the middle of a very hot Iowa summer, she got a large cardboard box sent by Bill from the South Pacific. The box was giving off a horrible smell. When she opened it, there was that Imperial Marine helmet with the bullet hole in the front. Bill hadn’t been able to clean all the brains out of it before he shipped it. That is what the smell was.
In the box were some other bits of Japanese equipment, but the most moving part was the soldier’s wallet with a picture of his kids and his wife in kimonos. Uncle Bill showed me that box and that helmet and those photos. He still had them, but no one had looked at them for 50 years.
The thing about that story is that if Bill hadn’t woken up, that Japanese Marine might have tossed a grenade in that trench. Instead of us looking at those photos, there might have been some Japanese survivor of the war showing pictures of Uncle Bill’s wife to someone in his family, telling the story about the three Americans he had found fast asleep.