This is an extract from my forthcoming book, HEROES.
April 1, 1945 – April Fool’s Day, Easter Sunday, and, as it happened, D-Day for the invasion of Okinawa.â€¢ In the deep blue waters around the island were over 1,457 ships and landing craft, crammed with more than half a million men, and including a joint US Army and Marine Corps landing force of around 182,000 troops.
As a beautiful, clear, spring morning broke over the massive invasion fleet, twenty year-old Bill Pierce, aboard the troopship APA General Clymer, was readying himself for his first ever taste of combat action. From Queens Village, New York, Bill was a Marine, and proud of it too. Part of the US 6th Marine Division, he had waited nearly two years for this moment; two years of training, first in the United States, and then, for the past ten months, on the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. And he felt ready – if not a little apprehensive – for the task ahead.
One of a five-man 37mm gun crew, Bill was in the Weapons Company of the 29th Marine Regiment, and as such was not to be in the first wave of landings. Even so, he and his comrades were up early, roused from their bunks by the bugler shortly after six in the morning. In the mess hall, the men were given a good breakfast of steak and eggs – what for many could be their last cooked meal. Some were too nervous to eat, but not Bill, who wolfed his down then went up on deck to attend Mass. Coming from a catholic family, Bill had always gone to church every Sunday as a boy. Now, on this day of days, praying to God gave him comfort. Despite the vast armada surrounding him, the sea looked calm, and twinkled in the early morning sunlight as he received Holy Communion.
The service over, Bill went back down to his bunk to put on his kit and to wait for the call to board their landing craft. He and his comrades did not have long to wait. Over the speaker his Weapons Company was called to get ready to board their landing craft. Bill put on his helmet with its distinct Marines’ camouflage, heaved his 60-pound pack onto his back and slung his M1 rifle over his shoulder. No-one spoke much. The jokes and normal banter had dried up. â€˜My throat was already dry,’ Bill noted later, â€˜and all of us looked at each other with wide eyes.’ Up on deck, there was a mass of activity. Cranes were hoisting up trucks, guns, tanks and jeeps from the lower decks. Bill and his gun crew watched their 37mm appear from the depths of the ship and then swing over the rail and down into the waiting landing craft below. Then it was the turn of the men themselves, who clambered awkwardly down the ropes, rifles clunking and their heavy packs slipping, and then jumped into the boat as it bobbed gently on the surface.
The noise and smell of the diesel engines was overpowering, and although Bill was never seasick, the stench of fumes made him feel nauseous as they circled round and round waiting for the order to head to the shore. It got to the point where no matter what horrors awaited them on the beaches, he just wanted to get off the landing craft and get onto dry land. By mid-morning, however, they were at last heading inland. Bill could not really tell what was going on. Overhead, naval shells whistled through the sky. He and his buddies stood up on the side of the boat, their arms on the railings so they could see where they were heading. The shoreline itself was shrouded in smoke from exploding shells, but along the landing beaches it seemed calmer, with hundreds of landing craft already moored at the water’s edge. None of them had much idea what to expect, however. All Bill knew about Okinawa was what they’d been told in the briefing: that it was an island some sixty miles long, and that because of its relative proximity to mainland Japan itself, would be an important staging post for the ongoing aerial assault of the last of the Axis powers.
Okinawa was, in fact, the largest of Ryuku Islands that made up the long, curling, tail south of Kyushu. The Island lay 320 miles south of mainland Japan, and although home to nearly 450,000 native Okinawans, the Island was also heaving with Japanese Imperial Army troops. Part of Japan’s home territories, it was unthinkable for the Land of the Rising Sun to concede such a jewel. The Americans might have assembled a task force of astonishing fire-power – the largest of the entire war – but they would need it. On every island onto which the Americans had stepped during the Pacific War, the Japanese had shown what tenacious and determined troops they were: Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima; these had become bywords for the savagery with which every one of these pinprick islands had to be prised from the Japanese forces that held them. No-one expected Okinawa to be any different, least of all Bill – he’d heard the stories from the combat veterans amongst them; he’d even seen evidence of the fighting during his time on Guadalcanal. US Army and Navy planners reckoned it could take as much as a month to complete operations on Okinawa.
Their landing craft came to a halt some hundred yards from the shore, and the ramp lowered. Bill and his crew heaved their gun off the boat, but it immediately dropped several feet into the water – unbeknown to the coxswain, they had become grounded on a coral bar. Cursing, Bill and his crew hailed a Marine alligator, a kind of tracked beach craft, which came to their rescue. Even so, cursing furiously and soaking wet, they had to heave the gun up the alligator’s ramp themselves.
There seemed to be a fair amount of confusion on the beaches, but there was little sign of the enemy. Small-arms fire was only sporadic and so Bill and his crew were ordered to dig in for the night. â€˜No-one was hit, killed, or wounded whatsoever in the area we were in,’ noted Bill. â€˜The units assigned to take the airfield at Yontan took it in a matter of hours.’ As dusk began to fall, so the sky was lit up with tracers fired without let-up from the vast naval armada sitting off shore. Shells screamed over, aeroplanes rumbled through the night air, and the men now ashore looked up and watched a fireworks display more spectacular than any 4th July celebration. At the end of Day 1, the invasion was ahead of schedule.
But the attackers were to be cruelly deceived. The Japanese had chosen not to contest the beaches, believing they would have suffered unsustainable casualties defending the beaches against overwhelming American fire-power. As the sea lapped gently against the shore on that warm, spring evening, few could have guessed what lay in store, yet for the next eighty-one days, Okinawa was to witness the biggest single land-air-sea battle of all time, a brutal campaign whose savagery and brutality surpassed anything that had come before in the Pacific War. At sea, naval casualties were higher than at any point in the war, with Japan unleashing almost its entire kamikaze effort against the joint American and British task force around the Islands. On land, the scale of killing was even worse. Okinawa was to witness a blood bath of barbaric savagery, where American and Japanese regarded each other with both contempt and hatred, and in which more than a quarter of a million people were killed. Okinawa was to be the last, and most costly, battle of the Second Word War.
Before I met up with Bill at his home near Charleston, South Carolina, I spoke to him on the phone and even in that brief conversation he was unusually frank about his experiences. â€˜I tell you, Jim,’ he said, â€˜we went in with thirty-five hundred men and after eighty-two days of combat, more than twenty-eight hundred were gone. We had casualties of more than eighty percent.’ On Sugar Loaf Hill, he told me, the 29th Marines lost 500 men killed in a week of bitter and bloody battle. No Marine regiment in the history of the Corps has ever suffered such high casualties in a single battle as the 29th Marines did on Okinawa. He also freely admitted that at the time he hated the Japanese with a vengeance. â€˜They were animals. They’d cut off guys’ penises and stuff them in their mouths. They’d behead people, cut off arms, gouge eyes out. Put it this way,’ he said, â€˜we didn’t take many prisoners.’
When I suggested I’d like to visit him in Charleston, he assured me he would be happy to talk to me about it as much I liked. Every third Wednesday in the month, he said, they had a 6th Marine Division Association reunion in Charleston – a small, informal lunch for members living in the area. I’d be more than welcome to come along and meet some of the other guys too. And if I needed a bed for the night, he and his wife, Marie, would be only too pleased to put me up. He sounded charming, good humoured, and friendly; and I was immediately struck by the contrast between the man inviting me into his home and the young Marine he was describing from sixty years before.
When we finally met up at his home some months later, he quickly confirmed my earlier impressions. The hospitality of he and his wife was extraordinary. Both were tremendously good company – kindness itself – so that by the time Bill and I finally got round to talking about his wartime on a Wednesday morning in November, I felt I’d known both of them for years rather than just one day.
One of the interesting aspects of talking to veterans of the Second World War is hearing about their backgrounds and childhood, and realising that most lived perfectly normal ordinary lives before they had to head off to fight against people they knew little about in far-flung corners of the globe. Bill’s childhood was refreshingly happy and carefree, and as we sat in his back porch, sun streaming through the glass roof and windows, he told me about growing up in the outer limits of New York City. In those days, he told me, Queens was quite countrified. â€˜There were huge potato fields and farmland galore,’ he recalled. â€˜We had all the space we needed to play baseball and so on.’ A keen sportsman, he loved baseball, basketball, football – anything with a ball. He was very keen on running and track as well. His physical fitness and the fact that he never smoked, he told me, made his life a lot easier when it came to his military training.
His parents were loving and kind and he adored them, while he also got on well with his siblings – an older brother, younger sister and much younger brother. His father ran a motor garage, and although Bill was never mechanically minded himself, he used to spend as much time as possible outdoors. He’s still a fast eater, he said, stemming from when he was a boy: he’d eat as quickly as he could so he could go out and play ball with the other kids. â€˜I’d eat four mouthfuls,’ he said, â€˜and I’d be out of there.’ In the summer the whole family would head up to the mountains where they had a house by a lake. â€˜We swam like you can’t imagine,’ he grinned.
He knew something about the war from what he heard on the radio or saw on the newsreels when he went to see the movies, but admitted that as a teenager, â€˜it wasn’t predominant in your mind.’ There were other more important things to think about: â€˜I was fifteen, sixteen, and still sporty and athletic, and I’d just found out what a girl was.’ When he heard on the radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, he confessed that he’d had to get out his atlas and find out where Pearl Harbor was.
Even so, despite – or perhaps because of – this happy, sheltered, upbringing, he and a few of his buddies bunked off school and went downtown into New York City to enlist into the Army. They queued most of the day before being told that all enlistments were being closed. Figuring it was too much hassle to bunk off school again, they decided to postpone their enrolment into the services.
In any case, Bill soon decided he wanted to be a Marine rather than join the Army. His cousin had turned up at their house one day in his Marine uniform which impressed Bill greatly. â€˜He looked so neat,’ said Bill. â€˜He had been in the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal and so as soon as I was out of school I went right to the Marine Corps enlistment.’ Once again, he was told that enlistments were closed, but was sent home armed with a letter confirming that he had tried to volunteer for the Marines. â€˜So when I turned eighteen and was drafted, I had that letter.’ He presented this to the Marines recruitment office, and it seemed to do the trick. Although initially told they had already signed up enough recruits for one day, he was not turned away, and after passing his medical, signed on the dotted line and was told he would soon be called up for duty. Two weeks later he was on a train heading south to Paris Island in South Carolina for boot camp and his induction into the United States Marine Corps.
His mother and father were naturally worried about him – Bill’s older brother was already in the Army. â€˜But they were fantastically accepting,’ said Bill. â€˜The patriotism ran so marvellously high that they accepted their sons had to serve.’ Nor was Bill put off when on his arrival at Paris Island other Marines yelled, â€œYou’ll be sorry, at the busload of recruits. Rather, he found his initial training rewarding: the parade ground drill, stripping down and reassembling a rifle, the spit and polish, and the route marches and assault courses. â€˜I enjoyed that stuff,’ he confessed.
After his initial training, he spent a further seven months in the US on guard duty at a naval ammunition depot before finally being transferred to Fort Lejune, a Marine training base, prior to being shipped overseas. It was at Lejune that Bill was assigned to a 37mm gun crew in a weapons company. â€˜I didn’t care where they put me,’ said Bill. â€˜I was just happy I was a Marine.’
Like so many before him, when Bill was shipped to the Pacific, it was his first time at sea. â€˜We had no idea where we going,’ he said. â€˜We were loaded on a ship with 4,000 other guys, I guess, then eventually we learned we were heading to Saipan because the battle was still going on there.’ But before they reached Saipan, the Island was secured, so instead they were sent to Guadalcanal, from where they would carry out further training and acclimatise. â€˜There was nothing when we got there,’ Bill told me. â€˜Not a tent up, not a road – nothing.’ There were, however, plenty of remains from the fighting two years earlier. â€˜We found dead bodies all over the place,’ said Bill. â€˜I was walking in a field one time and we thought they were coconuts and I looked down and I said, â€œJesus, do you see what we’re walking on? These are skulls.’
It was about this point in our conversation that Bill’s friend Dick Whitaker turned up. Dick’s wife had dropped him at the door, and he was going to catch a ride with Bill to the monthly 6th Marine Division Association lunch. Like Bill, he had fought throughout the Okinawa battle and had also been in the 29th Marine Regiment, although in a machine gun team in Fox Company. Dick was one of the lucky ones to survive the assault on Sugar Loaf Hill, despite getting a bullet through his hand for his trouble. Also like Bill, Dick was amusing, affable, and only too happy to talk about his experiences.
Sitting back down again, Bill began telling me about his gun crew. All were new to combat when they arrived on Okinawa, he said, but they all trusted one another and their abilities implicitly. â€˜There were five of us and one extra,’ Bill explained. â€˜You all had to be adept at every role, so that if one was shot dead, the others could keep firing.’ Weighing 900lbs, the 37mm had been originally designed as an anti-tank gun, but had proved ineffective in the European theatre, where it lacked the velocity to pierce armour plating. It was, however, ideal for the kind of close-range fighting experienced in the Pacific. â€˜I never saw a Jap tank once on Okinawa,’ said Bill. â€˜At 500 yards the 37mm could put a round through a porthole – it was very accurate.’ They would use different types of shells – mostly high explosive, (â€˜HE’), but also canister, which were full of ball-bearings.
â€˜Were they size of marbles or something?’ Dick asked.
â€˜No, much smaller,’ said Bill. â€˜A little heavier than buckshot, like a small pea.’ Bill then told me about his first action. The invasion force had landed roughly in the middle of the Island on the west coast. From there, the Army units had headed south, while the Marines had been sent into the more mountainous north. They eventually ran into some Japanese dug in at the foot of the steep, rocky, and wooded slopes of a series of hills known as Yae Take on the Motobu Peninsula. But after taking some hits from sniper fire, the Marines spread out across the valley beneath the hills, their 37mm guns spaced out in a line. In front they also set up a number of trip flares. Sure enough, that night the flares were triggered, hissing into the night and lighting up the valley with an eerie phosphorescence. â€˜We could see about a hundred people advancing,’ Bill recalled, â€˜so we asked what we should do. â€œMow them down, came the reply. So we let go with the canister, and in the morning there were eighty women and children lying there and just a few Japs. The Japanese pushed the civilians out in front of them. They used them to try and get away.’
Dick said, â€˜It was the same with us,’ and explained how the machine gun teams would set up trip wires with telephone cable, and attach tin cans to them. â€˜At night,’ he said, â€˜as soon as you heard those cans tinkle, you’d swing the gun back and forth. You couldn’t afford to wait to properly identify what or who it was because otherwise you could have been dead. The next morning you’d have pigs, goats, people.’
â€˜It was unfortunate,’ Bill added, and then explained that later in the battle, in the south of the island where the Japanese became boxed in, a lot of Okinawans would take cover in the numerous caves there. â€˜If a baby cried, a Jap soldier would say, â€œTake that baby outside and don’t come back with it, because they didn’t want the baby to give the position away. But outside the cave the woman was exposed to artillery and mortars and she soon be dead too. A day didn’t go pass when Dick and I didn’t see a dead civilian, just lying there. A hundred and fifty thousand – Jesus.’ At least that number of Okinawans was killed during the battle, more than a third of the indigenous population. It is a truly appalling figure and one that exceeds the deaths caused by either of the atomic bombs that were to follow. As is so often the case in war, innocent civilians suffered the most. The battle brought a holocaust sweeping over Okinawa, a formerly peaceful island only absorbed into Japanese political control in 1867. Okinawa had been a beautiful island, a green and wooded place Bill likened to Connecticut. But in the south, especially, where most of the fighting took place, the landscape soon became more akin to the desolate and poisoned battlefields of the Western Front in the First World War.
Presumably, I suggested to Bill and Dick, they became hardened to seeing so much death and loss of innocent lives. â€˜Oh, absolutely,’ said Dick. â€˜There’s more agony that comes from reflection later, than at the moment.’
â€˜We could be sitting there eating a C ration can or a Hershey bar,’ added Bill, â€˜and right there where Quincy’s lying, there’s a dead Jap, with an arm sticking up or a mangled leg. It didn’t mean a thing. We’d become completely immune to it. You became hardened to it immediately.’ To illustrate the point, Bill mentioned a time early on in the battle when the Marines were still clearing the north of the Island. One night, Bill was huddled in a fox hole with a buddy of his, â€˜Big Ed’ Graham. They too used to lay telephone wires with cans attached ahead of their positions, and suddenly he felt Big Ed’s arm move and saw him aim his carbine. â€˜I looked down the carbine and there’s a Jap crawling towards us on his hands and knees,’ said Bill, â€˜and Big Ed shot with one hand. My buddy shot him and he dropped but he was still moaning.’ Bill fired his carbine too. â€˜I must have fired that thing seven, eight or maybe nine timesSome kind of fear takes over. It was adrenalin racing.’ The unfortunate Japanese soldier was still moaning, however, so Big Ed took out his pistol and shot him again. â€˜He said, â€œHe won’t moan now, and in the morning we saw that half this Jap’s head was blown off.’
â€˜We made no distinctions between civilians and Japanese soldiers,’ continued Dick, â€˜because the Jap soldiers made no distinction. They demanded the Okinawan population retreated with them. They had nurses, and Korean labour – everybody retreated together. They would use those people for deception at night. They would dress up as civilians so you never knew who you were shooting at.’ He paused, then said, â€˜You got to be killing somebody to win.’
Operations in the North of the Island had been wrapped up by the third week of April, 1945, and the 6th Marine Division were left to carry out mopping-up patrols and to pick up a few souvenirs of their twenty-day battle, silk kimonos being a favourite. But while operations had gone to plan in the North, the same could not be said of the fighting in the South. When the landings had not been contested, the American commanders had wondered where all the Japanese were, and as the Army units pushed south, they soon found out. The majority of the 100,000-strong Japanese 32nd Army were dug in along a series of defensive lines that crossed the south end of the Island and which were linked in typical Japanese fashion by sixty miles of tunnels and carefully hidden gun and mortar positions. There were also a large number of caves in the south, ancient tombs that made effective dug-outs.
Although US Army units breached the outer Japanese lines of defence, they soon become bogged down in a highly costly battle of attrition, and so on 4th May, the 6th Marines were sent south, taking the place of the embattled and much-depleted 27th Army Division, along what had become known as the Shuri Line.
â€˜We had actually been packing up to leave to go to Guam,’ said Bill. â€˜Next thing we knew, the 27th Division were being pulled out of the line because they’d performed terribly and we were put there instead. They passed us on the road and we threw cans and pebbles at them.’
In command of the land campaign was General Simon Bolivar Bucknor Jnr, and even during the battle, debate was raging as to why he didn’t try a further landing in the south behind the Japanese positions. â€˜Bucknor’s approach sucked,’ Bill told me. â€˜The 2nd Marine Division was sitting on Saipan, fully trained, fully equipped and ready to go, but Bucknor wouldn’t do it.’
Instead, the 6th Marine Division was thrown against Sugar Loaf Hill, the main western anchorage of the Shuri Line. While in Europe, and far across the Pacific in the United States, victory in the war against Germany was being celebrated by the Allied nations, on Okinawa the Marines were fighting just about the bloodiest battle of the entire war. Sugar Loaf was a tiny, insignificant landmark – three hundred yards long and no more than sixty feet high. â€˜You could run up it in no time at all,’ Bill told me. Yet whole Companies of the 22nd Marines and then the 29th – Bill and Dick’s regiment – were decimated as they repeatedly assaulted the feature.
With the Americans unable to bring their advantage in naval and air fire-power to bear on Sugar Loaf, it became a battle of guns, mortars, and small arms – machine guns, grenades, carbines, and rifles, what Time Magazine called, â€˜the old-fashioned, inescapable way, one foot at a time against the kind of savage, rat-in-a-hole defence that only the Japanese can offer.’ The Japanese, Bill pointed out, had very good, rapid-fire machine guns. â€˜The bullet was smaller than ours. They’d be so rapid, a guy would get hit two, three, four, times and survive. With ours, they had a slower rate of fire, but one hit would kill you.’ It was, he suggested, a crucial difference, and then told me about his friend Dominic Spitelli, who was shot through the temple by a Japanese machine gun bullet and lived to tell the tale. â€˜It went through his head and out the other side – no lasting damage at all. He was in hospital over a year. Didn’t know who he was then one day he said, â€œI know who I am! I’m Dominic Spitelli and I’m a Marine!’
The Japanese were also very skilled in the use of mortars. â€˜They killed a lot of marines,’ said Bill. â€˜If a mortar shell landed beside you, the guy was blown to bits and his body was nothing but a black hulk. His pants would go black instead of green from the scorching he took.’ Bill was once ten yards away from a Marine who was blown up by a mortar. â€˜You look at it but you keep going,’ he said. â€˜You don’t stop because he’s dead.’ On the other hand, the wounded were always attended to, and extraordinary, often fatal, attempts were made to rescue them. â€˜You don’t leave anyone behind,’ said Dick, â€˜that’s the rule.’
Adding to the misery was the rain, which fell annually on Okinawa throughout May, and usually in the form of a deluge of as much as ten inches a day. May 1945, however, was worse than usual, and combined with the massive amount of shell and mortar fire, soon turned the battlefield into a thick quagmire. â€˜Jeeps would sink up to the top of their wheels,’ said Dick. â€˜They had to pull them out with tanks.’
â€˜We were wet all the time,’ added Bill. â€˜You never dried off. We landed with what we were wearing and one extra set of clothing, and if they were wet or worn out, it was tough shit. We were filthy.’ They were also riddled with lice and fleas, irritants they were powerless to do anything about.
Dick then told me about the time he tried to put on new socks. They’d been relieved from the front line and had been given a helmet-full of water each with which to clean. â€˜I cleaned my feet and put on my last pair of socks, but slipped and fell down in the mud. Jesus, that was a bad moment.’
The rain and the close nature of the fighting meant that no fires could be lit at the front. There was no hot water for coffee, and no hot food. Bill told me he ate mainly C rations, tins of pre-cooked food, usually bully beef. â€˜C rations with an â€˜A’ at the end meant they were from Australia and were much better than the others,’ he said. â€˜Jesus, there were empty cans of C ration tins with â€˜A’s on them everywhere.’
â€˜For about thirty days I existed on D bars,’ added Dick, â€˜hard chocolate bars. It was the only thing I could handle.’ They shed large amounts of weight. â€˜I lost fifteen pounds, easy,’ said Bill. â€˜We all had diarrhoea. We all had the shits.’
Dick nodded. â€˜If I laid on my back, I’d shit my pants,’ he told me. â€˜If I laid on my stomach, I’d throw up. The only thing I could do was get out of my foxhole, walk with a tight arse to the nearest corpsman a get a shot of [something to block me up NB couldn’t quite hear what you said here].
â€˜Loads of people shat in their pants, believe me,’ added Bill, â€˜even if you didn’t have diarrhoea.’
â€˜Fright alone could cause you to shit or piss your pants.’
The stench that pervaded the battlefield was also overpowering. â€˜The whole Island stank,’ said Bill. â€˜The stench of death was all over. It stank no matter where you were. Horrible, horrible.’ Bodies would be left where they had fallen. Dick had to walk over them as he attacked the hill yet again. There were also millions of flies and maggots, feeding on ever-mounting numbers of corpses strewn across the battlefield. Eating became a hazardous and difficult operation. â€˜When you ate, you opened a can and the flies would be all over it in seconds,’ said Bill. â€˜You had to try and cover the can up.’
Unsurprisingly, in such conditions many soldiers went round the bend. Over 26,000 casualties were caused by battle fatigue, illness and non-battlefield injuries. One of Dick’s pals went â€˜bonkers’ after becoming isolated from the rest of the platoon. â€˜I knew him so well,’ said Dick. â€˜He was a nice guy and I helped him back. He didn’t say a word. He walked like an old man, bent over. He was just destroyed.’
â€˜I’ve seen guys sitting there sobbing,’ Bill told me. â€˜Others refused to go up the line.’
â€˜The atmosphere become surrealistic,’ said Dick. â€˜People start doing strange things. One guy’s cutting off Jap ears and putting them on a string, another guy’s picking up Jap teeth. One guy in our company – GP Lindsay – found a phonograph and cranked it up and began playing a Japanese record and singing along. Another guy, Jack McCrary, was trying to sleep and told him to knock it off, but Lindsay kept right on going.’ Eventually Jack McCrary got up, marched over and without saying a word, put a bullet into the machine.
Neither Dick nor Bill suffered combat fatigue themselves, but they were certainly exhausted. â€˜You know what it feels like when two nights in a row you don’t get good sleep?’ Bill said. â€˜Put a hundred and one days of that back-to-back, and during that time you’re sleeping in a hole every night and anything you do could get you killed, including absolutely nothing. That’s what it felt like.’
We had been talking most of the morning and it was now time to go the Association lunch. Bill drove us in to Charleston, to the Citadel, the Military Collage of South Caroline. A number of Marine Cadet Officers are schooled there and at the lunch there were not only veteran Marines but also cadets and those still on active service, many who had only recently returned from Iraq. On our table was a young, anxious-looking cadet from Connecticut. It was impossible not to be struck by how young he looked. It was boys like him that had been pitched into the carnage on Okinawa. Boys like Bill and Dick.
After the lunch, Dick had to head home – another of the members was giving him a lift – but later, back at the house, Bill told me about the day Mort Cooper was killed, a death that seemed to affect the men of the Weapons Company profoundly. Older than most, Mort was married and from Georgia. He was also one of the Weapons Company truck drivers, and would bring up their ammunition, driving as close as he could to their gun positions. The gun crew would then carry the shells up to wherever their gun was dug in – and with a special kind of sack each man could carry forty-two 37mm shells at one time. One day, towards the end of the battle, Mort delivered the ammunition as normal, then backed up the truck so he could turn around – but as he did so, he drove over a mine. Bill and his gun crew were only forty-odd yards away, where their gun was positioned on the top of a hill, and they heard the explosion and turned to see the truck turning over and over and Mort’s body flying into the air. They ran over and Bill reached him first. â€˜There wasn’t a scratch on him,’ said Bill. â€˜He was lying on his back but still moving, and I said, â€œMort! Mort! You all right? The corpsman next to me said, â€œHe’s dead, Bill. That’s concussion making his body shake. We all broke down crying. It really hit us; we loved the guy. We really broke down over his loss.’
Incredibly, Bill’s gun survived the entire battle. The protective apron was badly dented from shrapnel marks, but it never received a direct hit. Their technique was to fire a number of rounds then as soon as the Japanese began to get their range with their mortars, Bill and his crew would clear out for half an hour or so. One time, the Japanese fired a field gun horizontally against an oncoming tank. The shell bounced off the armour-plating and ricocheted straight towards Bill and his crew. â€˜We dived into our foxholes as quick as we could and looked up just as it came over,’ said Bill. â€˜It landed behind us and killed two marines.’
But like the vast majority of those on Okinawa, Bill did not survive the battle unscathed. Sugar Loaf and the nearby Shuri Castle had finally been captured and the Americans were pressing south into the largest of the island’s towns, the port of Naha. A reconnaissance team were going to the waterfront to reconnoitre the island in the middle of the harbour and wanted two 37mm guns to accompany them in case they ran into any Japanese. The city had been largely destroyed. It was, Bill remembered, â€˜a shambles.’ The island in the harbour, they soon discovered, was still full of Japanese, so the Marines took cover in a disused building while they directed shell-fire onto the island.
â€˜They shelled the shit out of that island,’ Bill told me, but he and the two reconnaissance party were still camped out in the building the following morning when they saw Japanese troops trying to get off the island across a badly damaged bridge. Bill had a BAR light machine gun with him and firing from a window, let off a number of rounds. â€˜The adrenalin was pumping, but I should never have done it,’ he admitted. â€˜I’d been in enough action to know better.’ Suddenly, the BAR jammed, and just as he turned to try and clear the breech, he felt something smack his neck as though he had been belted with a baseball bat. â€˜I just dropped to the floor,’ he said. â€˜There was a lot of blood and a couple of the guys were sitting there and I’ll never forget the look on their faces – they looked kind of wild and horrified.’ Bullets were pinging all across the building and Bill saw a corpsman trying to reach him. â€œNo, stay there, Bill told him, as he tried to pull a bandage from his own first aid kit. â€œI’m all right.
Three other men were wounded, but all four were still able to walk and after managing to get out the back of the building. They were then driven back to an aid station, but found themselves under attack again, this time from a US Navy fighter plane that had mistaken them for Japanese and opened fire on them. After being bandaged at the aid station, Bill was put in a truck and taken to the hospital. â€˜It was bad in that hospital,’ Bill recalled. â€˜One guy had his back all torn apart. Another guy was holding his helmet. A bullet had gone through it and he had a scar right through the middle of his forehead. He looked dazed, with glazed eyeballs.’ The bullet that hit Bill had missed his spinal chord by an inch – a lucky escape indeed. Had he not moved to check his machine gun at that precise moment, he would almost certainly have been killed. Despite the pain and a stiff neck, after a couple of days, he simply walked out and went back to his gun crew.
By the end of June, the battle was, at long last, drawing to an end. â€˜We knew it was over,’ said Bill, â€˜but guys were still getting killed.’ Only 7,000 Japanese troops ever surrendered. The rest were killed or hid in caves. Bill was foolish enough – as he freely admits – to go into one of these caves along with three other men, hoping to get some souvenirs to sell to the â€˜Navy boys.’ â€˜It was four levels deep,’ he said, â€˜and on the second level we found some dead Japs. They’d killed themselves by lying on grenades. When we turned them over, their lungs sprung out of their chests. Oh God, it was horrible.’ Further down, in the depths of cave, they could see small flashes of light in the distance. The remaining Japanese troops down there were killing themselves.
On 23rd June, the American flag was raised on the southern-most tip and ten days later, it was announced that the entire Island was secure. For the exhausted survivors there was to be no immediate return home but with the war finally over, the remnants of the 29th Regiment were posted not to Japan, as they had been expecting, but to Tsingtao in China. There they spent six months doing very light duties and gradually recovering their strength. A few went off the rails – Bill’s pal, Big Ed Graham for one – but most found that drink and a bit of time with some Chinese girls was as good a therapy as any. I
They were shipped back to the USA in February 1946, and after a few days at Camp Pendleton, were sent to discharge centres and then home. Bill considered staying in the service, but his mother, relieved to finally have him back safe and sound, talked him out of it. Even so, he was, and remains to this day, extremely proud of his time in the US Marine Corps. Friends he made during those years are friends still to this day. â€˜One cannot describe â€˜brotherhood’ as the Marines use the word,’ he wrote later. â€˜You have to be a Marine to know it.’ Like so many others in the Second World War, it was the camaraderie, above all else, that helped Bill through those darkest of days on Okinawa.
Afterwards, he was a little wild for a while. â€˜I thought, â€œI’m twenty-one, I’m a Marine, and I want a bike,’ he told me, and so bought an Indian Harley. â€˜I rode around the country, went to motorcycle races. Picked up girls. I enjoyed it. It was wind-down time. A guy needs that.’ He was, he admits, a completely different person from the teenager who’d sailed off to war, but realised that he couldn’t bum around on his bike forever. Making the most of the GI Bill, he went to college. Two years later, he met and married his wife, Marie, and then settled down to get on with the rest of his life. Together they had five children, and prospered well. Bill spent most of his professional life working for a trucking company, before ending his career as Vice President of a large shipping company.
Bill was on Okinawa for all eighty-two days of the battle. Eighty-two days in a life of almost as many years, and yet it was clear from his study full of books and memorabilia, his connections to the 6th Division Association, and from the typed memoir of his wartime experiences, that the Battle of Okinawa was the defining experience in his life, one that has had a profound and lasting effect on him. And understandably so. He’s even been back to Okinawa – twice – and was instrumental in helping to set up a museum to the battle on the Island.
I wondered, though, whether the many terrible things he went through and witnessed in that most bitter of battles had ever come back to haunt him. â€˜Not now,’ he told me. â€˜When I first got home I’d dream about combat, but it went away. My job became more important, and my family.’ He has, however, always talked about his experiences, even to his parents and younger brother when he got back home. â€˜I’ve always been open about what I went through,’ he told me. â€˜Those guys that bottle it all up are the ones who struggle later.’ He was, he admits, very lucky to have survived Okinawa, but has made the most of the experience and has lived a full and happy life. Bill is one man at peace with the legacy of the war; despite all that happened, there are no ghosts haunting him from the past. Fiercely proud of the part he played for his country, he nonetheless insists that he is no hero. â€˜The real heroes,’ he noted on the sixtieth anniversary of the landings, â€˜died on that battlefield of hell called Okinawa.’