Rest Base in the Pacific
April 2, 1944
I’ve been a Marine exactly two years today
I’ve been thinking [of sending] you the story of Namur for quite some time. I guess I didn’t because of censorship, and because a great deal of what I saw wasn’t nice and orderly and safe – that is, after all, the traditional view that one is supposed to impress on the loved ones at home. Of course they know it isn’t that way, just as well as you do, but they don’t want to sound as though they’re worrying themselves to death. Maybe it’s the realistic age we’re living in that makes the change – not blatantly so, as were the 20’s – but quietly, factually – simply accepting facts, though unpleasant, because of a desire to know rather than an attempt to seek a new thrill – a violent sensation – The Sun Also Rises – cut away another inhibition – lay bare a few more nerves.
I’m not writing because I want to shock or worry you, or because I’m proud of the dangers I’ve been through – it’s just that knowing and loving you, I think that you would prefer knowing what it was like and how I felt – and thus what it will be like next time. Known fears and worries are limited ones – unknown, they can become tremendous.
We knew where we going as soon as we had been out to sea a day or two. We had known for a month that we were to go directly into action, and when – we didn’t know where – we were issued many maps and photos, and reams of intelligence data, and operations orders – spent long hours every day teaching everything we knew to the men – memorizing, going over it, pounding it in. Hours of physical exercise out in the hot sun, the huge convoy stretched out to the horizon all around us, swelteringly hot below decks, increasingly tense feeling all over the ship, sleeping on the cool decks with the breeze, the constant boil of the phosphorescent sea under the prow, the constant darkness and quiet, and the ever-constant star that twinkled red and blue.
Singing every night, the old songs, the company accordionist playing up on deck. More work during the day, firing the weapons over the side, rifle inspection, final word on boat assignment tables, the last time you clean and oil your rifle, fuse your hand grenade and hang it on your belt – land – little low islands looking brilliantly green after weeks of blue sky and bluer water… the rumbling of guns, Roi and Namur marked by a thin trail of smoke threading across the sky – the Artillery and one outfit of Infantry lands on the nearby, lightly defended islands, and we hear the report on the radio; the Colonel announces all events over the P.A. and is cheered by the men – this is it – the last Officer’s meeting – the Colonel’s big red face, and bigger but unsteady grin under the only small light in the room, all the Officers tense and still, getting the final dope, the final meeting of The Agony Quartette, which is a Duet now, talking it over – this is it, you know, and deciding that we were excited but not afraid, and falling asleep with, strangely, no trouble at all.
Up before dawn, tight stomach but a ravenous appetite – forgot to wake up Ted [1st Lt. Theodore K. Johnson, C Company executive officer], and he almost missed the boat. The last time I saw him, he was mad as Hell and cussed me out for a knucklehead. Went down into the men’s compartment, and they were all excited but very gay – overnight the atmosphere had changed – the incessant pounding had been going on for 24 hours now, and we didn’t see how there could be anything left. They called us up topside by boat groups – mine was last – by about an hour, the motor conked out – when we finally went over the net there were only a couple of landing boats to be seen, circling aimlessly around, belonging to other outfits. I took off like a bat out of Hell for where I thought the Company was – several miles away in the lagoon – they tagged along and we made quite a sizeable group – it was raining, and cold and the water was rough – I wandered from one rendezvous area to another, almost deciding to go in with the assault wave of another regiment, and finally stumbled on “A” Co. shells screaming overhead – the smell of powder, the brilliantly blue lagoon, and shivering with cold – for now it could only be cold – the word seemed clear in all the outfits I talked to that there was nothing left – I don’t know how they thought they knew, but we believed it; and felt bitterly disappointed. All the work, preparation, and worry seemed to be for nothing – there was nothing to do but walk ashore – [1st Lt.] Harry [Reynolds] face when I finally found his boat was a study in dejection – “We won’t get our licks in now,” he yelled, but we formed up anyway.
Our Battalion was in reserve for the Regiment, and about 40 minutes after the first wave went in they called for us – we didn’t know why – probably to share to coconuts with them, but we started in. “A” Co. was to reinforce the Battalion assigned to the right half of Namur – we looked long and hard at the low island – the shelling had stopped now but a steady column of smoke went drifting over our heads – we could see the blasted palm trees, the tortured steel skeletons of the two hangers of Roi – we got down, just for form, because we had always done it, but inwardly terrifically let down – empty – the boat chugged in – suddenly when we were about 100 yards off shore a tremendous blast of air seemed to stop the boat, followed by a wave of sound that left everything throbbing – we involuntarily poked our heads up and looked – the whole right half of the island had heaved and coughed its flaming entrails up into the air – hundreds of feet above us – a Pillar of Fire in the daytime – the biggest munitions dump on the island had been mined and set off by the Japs a couple of hundred yards inland, concrete blocks rained into the water around us, every man muttered “Christ, this is it!” to himself, and a huge cloud of black ash drifted over the boat – so thick you couldn’t breathe or see the man next to you in the boat – the most terrifying moment I’ve ever spent – there seemed to be no more sound left in the world.
When it cleared, we were ten yards from the beach – the ash stuck to the green and brown camouflage paint, and we fought the battle in blackface – the grating jolt, the ramp went down and I pounded ashore through the shallow water to find thousands of men crouched on the beach in the shelter of a slight rise. They were as thick as flies – I said “Another Tarawa” to myself, and found a Lt. that I knew calmly trying to bandage a man who had half his face torn off by two machine gun bullets. He simply said, “Don’t go up there, Phil – it’s all mined – we had just knocked out the machine guns that were trained on the beach and started in and they blew it. It got Jim [Lt. James Heater] and every man in his platoon We’ve lost a lot.” I turned to go and stepped on a body burned black – Jap – so much foul meat – but I cussed it and was mad at it when I should, I suppose, have been revolted.
The Captain sensibly decided to go up through the blasted area – we could be sure no Japs were left there. We moved out, scurrying from one shell hole to another as we realized for the first time that a lot of rifle fire was coming our way.
The area covered by the bombardment, a 400 yard swathe cut along the length of the beach – stood for a simply incredible destruction. There had been many buildings, pillboxes, and men there – nothing was left but rubble – twisted iron, heaps of concrete, a few blasted palm stumps and shell-pocked earth – a super no-man’s land that you had read about so often, and here I was. This was the battle that I had pointed toward for so long – two years, almost. It all seemed unreal – I felt detached, but very tense.
We met nothing but a few snipers until we came to the northern half of the island. There some shells had landed, but there was a lot of shrubbery and treed area left – many dugouts, pillboxes, and blockhouses – and almost all the Japs left living on Roi and Namur by the bombardment. The first one I saw was half-naked – an Officer, brandishing a Samurai sword. I slowly sighted on him, but before I squeezed the trigger he was down – one of my machine gunners was standing over him, smashed out a gold front tooth and put it in his pocket – I yelled, “Why?” – he said because his dad had asked for one, I said I was glad it was for a sentimental reason.
We moved around the perimeter of the island, just off the beach, from where we landed up to the northernmost point. On our flanks we were the forward echelon of the Regiment – we picked up stragglers from the outfit that had been blasted, but the rest of them followed us.
I noticed Corporal Ervin – then my machine gun squad leader – now my mortar section leader, up ahead, waving us on. As long as he was in the action, he stayed at least 50 yards ahead of anybody else in the Company – I took a couple of the others and went up to help him. He had stumbled on a dugout containing 6 or 7 Japs, had fired at them standing on the edge – then thrown a grenade or two and come back for more – a couple of us went up with him – I went around behind the position, and while they finished off the ones that were there, I waited for any that might retreat – one did, and I shot him as he tried to sneak past me in the undergrowth. I was partly, very dimly conscious that I had killed, but more aware of the satisfying way my little carbine heaved in my hands and coughed up bullets.
I realized that the sound of my firing might attract snipers, so I moved off and sat quietly in the bush, waiting for the others to come up. When they did we moved forward, Roy [Lt. Roy Wood, Third Platoon] and I side by side. I do like fighting next to him – we know each other well enough.
A burst of machine gun fire came from a blockhouse we were approaching, we all dove for nearby trenches, and Steve Hopkins and I landed in a small one. On a small projection lay a Jap – I thought him dead, and passed by him up the trench. Hoppy kept an eye on him, though, and when the wounded Jap rolled over to throw the grenade he had in his hand, Hoppy shot him. The kid was white-faced and chattery – “Did you see, Mr. Wood? Did you see the grenade? Did you see what he was going to do?”
Over our heads all Hell broke loose. My machine guns behind me started a duel with those in the blockhouse – pound after pound of lead went over, then a Jap knee mortar started pounding away, probing for our trench, but luckily never got it. During a lull in the fire fighting my runner crawled up to me, and Cpl. Ervin slipped out of the trench and went forward again. He came on a Jap machine gun nest beside the blockhouse, killed two of the men manning it, but was driven off when an officer knocked off his helmet with a round from his pistol. Ervin’s face was sprayed with bits of lead – he backed off, came back, and told us the situation – what was up there – where they were – I hopped out and went back to assign the target to my mortars – when I got there I found that a couple of the men had been wounded by the Jap knee mortars – but by the time we had set up, the forward elements of the company had moved up too close to the position to let us fire safely.
That was my job – to find targets for the mortars, check and see that no friendly troops were too close, and then adjust their fire onto the target. The mortar fires from behind the lines, and they need someone to control their fire from the front. My machine gun squads were attached to the rifle platoon, but if they happened to be around and I spotted targets for them, I controlled their fire, too.
That was the biggest trouble I had, though – our boys, the riflemen, were too eager to attack. Several times I could have saved lives if they had only waited for a preparatory mortar barrage, but they couldn’t wait to close with the Japs. It made for a headlong, rushing attack that never gave the enemy a chance to reorganize. Every one of them is vividly conscious of the fact that he is a Marine.
We used bazookas on the blockhouse, and finally it was silenced; Harry, then Cpl. Ervin ran across the open and threw hand grenades into the firing ports – I picked up Ervin’s helmet to toss it to him, but it was knocked out of my hand by a sniper’s bullet. Ervin hopped up on top of the blockhouse, and stood there silhouetted against the sky – legs spread apart, hatless, with blood on his face and his coat flung open, firing his rifle from the hip into the dugout that lay in front of Sgt. [Frank A.] Tucker and myself – he killed some, but fire kept coming at him from the dugout, so he jumped down, ran to it, and was hit just as he got in front of me. Harry and I yelled to him – he said he didn’t want any help, and pulled himself out with his right arm – he was hit in the side – and Harry had to order him back to the hospital. Ervin claimed that he could still throw grenades with his one arm.
Sgt. Tucker was in a hole on my left – he and Harry and Roy and two or three from Roy’s platoon and I gave the dugout a barrage of grenades – at a range of ten yards – they were deafening – Tuck and Cpl. [Franklin] Robbins charged first, but were driven back by fire. Then five or six of us went over the edge of the embankment and shot everything that moved – a rifle came around a corner – I shot it out of the Jap’s hands and someone else drilled him – he had a big silk flag tied to his rifle which I cut off and stuffed into my pocket – it’s one of the few found on Namur.
I found my other runner, gave him directions as to the disposition of the mortar sections, and he went back to tell them where to go. When I turned, the rest of them had gone on – running, stopping to fire when they saw a fleeing Jap – following the beachline along the island. [PFC William] Imm, my other runner – 17 and, literally, has never been kissed – and I started after them, heard heavy firing, and stopped to reconnoiter. We were almost up to a wide, cleared area, just off a road running parallel to the beach. The “daring dozen” were across the clearing, and apparently having a hell of a fight in the scrubbed area 100 yards ahead of us. We crawled into a shell hole with a Lt. from D Company – he told us to stay down for Christ’s sake, the road and the clearing were machine gun lanes, and the Japs had been killing anyone who tried to go up.
Only four of us got out of that trap whole – that any did was Sgt. Tucker’s doing – seeing that they were being methodically slaughtered, he stood up and opened fire with his rifle. As each Jap arose out of the opposing trench to fire, Tucker carefully sighted in and shot him – often, as we found out later, right between the eyes. They think that he killed about 30 Japs that way – he put two enemy machine guns out of action, and gave the others a chance to pull the wounded into nearby shell holes – bullets creased his helmet, punctured his canteen, and cut off his rifle belt, but he didn’t get down until the rest of them were safely in position. Harry was hit in the leg, but Roy was alright.
I didn’t know any of this until later. I only saw one man run across the clearing, and he was cut down – that was enough. We stayed there – I lay on my back, looking up at a shell scarred fragment of a tree that stood over our hole, watching the beautiful serene white terns soar over the battlefield – and for the first time, I was really afraid. Afraid of my own motives for staying there. I knew damned well that it was foolish to think of going up, but that didn’t matter. I was still afraid, wasn’t I? Yes, I was afraid, but it was a justifiable fear of a certain death – still afraid, though – I thought of the mortars, but the other Lt. said that the Third Battalion had reached the beach a few hundred yards up the line, and this was the last pocket of resistance. I thought he was wrong, and he was, but I couldn’t take a chance, and in the growing dusk I sat and worried – still firing forward, what could I do – nothing, but they needed help. Imm is asleep, confident that anything I decide is correct – but I haven’t decided, there is no decision to make – were are too disorganized to effect a mass rush, the Company spread out from here back to the blockhouse. They need help. Yes, I am afraid, I’ll admit it, but what about it? A half-track passed over our hole on the way up the road, but it doesn’t get 25 yards in front of us before it is stopped by the sheer force of thousands of rounds from Jap heavy machine guns – it backs off, without even getting a chance to fire a round. I now admit that I’m afraid – even to myself, but am no longer ashamed of it. And the half-track gives me an idea.
When it became quite dark I woke him up, and explained what we were going to do. He almost knifed me when I shook him awake, but luckily I called him by name as I did it. The firing had quieted down, and we hopped out of the shell hole, and scurried off in the dark to where I thought the command post was, to try to arrange to have tanks brought up at dawn. Moving around in the rear, we were challenged many times – often incorrectly, thus causing my answer to be incorrect – the first time, without thinking, I bawled out – “You lugheaded sonofabitch, that’s no way to give the password!” – then realized that the more I did that, the safer I was – everybody was jittery and trigger happy that night, and the more I sounded like a tough ole gunnery sergeant, the more at home they would feel. We wandered around for a little while, but the command post was well hidden, for we never did find it – when we got to the lagoon beach where we landed, half a mile back, I found a phone and called up Battalion to tell them what was happening, and ask for tanks. [Battalion commander] Col. Dyess surprised me by saying that the Captain had just radioed in the same dope and the same request. So I woke Imm up – with a long stick – and we headed back. We went by way of the beach around the island, to avoid all the trigger-happy boys, and were even more worried by the fact that we didn’t hear any challenge at all. Walking up that silent beach – only sporadic firing inland now – with 60mm mortar parachute flares going off at regular intervals – during which we would freeze in whatever positions we happened to be in. Dead bodies everywhere – some lying in the shallow wash inside the coral reef – the island was beginning to smell already.
Back at the company – when we got there, we found that they had just moved reinforcements up, the Captain and “Fireball” Stott had placed half a dozen machine guns along our front line, which was about 50 yards from the Jap trenches and pillbox system. There wasn’t much action that night – some Japs tried to crawl through our lines, but didn’t get very far – Hoppy got it that night as he was helping to dig in his machine gun.
We crawled up to where the Captain was – in the front line – and it was a mistake – he thought we were infiltrating Japs, challenged us, but I was pretty deafened by the day’s firing and didn’t hear him – his runner almost plugged us before we were recognized. We exchanged “the word” – he had been on the left flank all day – the wounded had been evacuated, and we were expecting a counter-attack that night. It materialized, We had been told before we went in to expect it – that no matter how hopeless the situation, the Japs would always counter-attack, to save face and all that. They did it, but it hit our left, in B Company’s sector, before dawn with wild yelling and all the accoutrements – firecrackers, samurai waving officers who shouted commands in English – B Company was pushed back by the sheer violence of the attack, and they suffered pretty heavy casualties; but their 60mm mortars saved the day – they fired at a perilously close range, but succeeded in breaking up the charge. A damned good weapon – my favorite – if I had enough of them and enough men, I think I could pretty near win this war with them alone.
I crawled into the nearest hole when I had talked with the Captain, and after I had rolled the sleeping Imm into a trench, I curled up with the company’s First Sergeant. It started to rain – cold, steady, miserable rain – but in spite of the shivering and the flares and the fears of a counter-attack, I slept for a couple of hours – then the Top woke me up to stand watch for a couple of hours while he slept. He never realized that it was me until the next morning – thought I was some private, though he said that he should have recognized the bony knees and elbows – flares whistling weirdly and painting all things with a ghastly whitewash – occasional bursts of Jap machine gun fire over our heads – red tracer streaks against the sky – the sigh and wash of the sea at our side, and the distinctive, sickeningly sweet odor of Japs – something they eat makes them all smell the same.
At dawn the Captain called to me, and told me that he had checked all night, by radio, and found out that there were no Marines on the beach beyond us, only Japs, so it was safe to fire the mortars. We set a time, and I crawled back to the guns, and sat there with them, cleaned my carbine in the growing light, ate a couple of squares of chocolate – the first food I’d had in 24 hours, but I wasn’t hungry – drank a little water, the first I’d had in almost a day, and smoked my first cigarette with relish, as soon as it was light enough not to show. We fired about a hundred rounds, poured them into the dugouts and pillboxes that had given us so much trouble the day before. We heard screams and groans from where they fell, and it was all we could do to keep from cheering – our shelling brought return rifle fire from what was left of the Japs, and a couple of snipers started peppering our positions – but they were damned poor shots, and we finally cut them out of the trees. The tanks finally came up, Col. Dyess leading the way on foot – and he organized the attack – he was fearless to the point of being foolhardy, refused to take cover – even buck privates were yelling at him to get down, but he’d only wave his Tommy gun at them and say he was a lucky Irishman.
That attack broke the back of the resistance – from then on the Japs were disorganized and fleeing. When the mortars went out of action, I went up and helped a couple of my machine gun squads root them out of their dugouts. The mortars had made a slaughterhouse of the area, and then we chased the few remaining, there couldn’t have been more than 25 or 30, up the tank trap, an 8 foot trench that ran around the island just inside the beach.
We raced after them. It was like hunting rats then – they scurried and scrambled, hid among the bodies of their own dead – there were hundreds of dead, killed by the Naval bombing the day before, lying in the trench, horribly twisted and mangled – headless, bodies laid open to the backbone, small pieces of flesh splattered on the ground, and carcasses so thick that at times we had to walk on them to get by. I remember stepping over a Samurai sword, but was too tired to even pick it up. Didn’t care. Col. Dyess was killed halfway up by a machine gun that they had set up in ambush. Fired at me, I think, but I heard the click of the bolt and hit the deck, and the shots went over me.
Finally it was over – we met the other units coming around the island from the other side – the island was secured – well in hand, I suppose you’d call it, by one or two in the afternoon. We walked back down the beach – that picture that I sent you – and assembled in the center of the island – began to find out who was killed, and I realized that my face was taut and tired, and it was from pulling my lips tight into a set expression so that the sight of those piled bodies wouldn’t show on my face.
We started to clean up – mop up the wooded area for isolated snipers, and my platoon found a couple of cases of Jap beer – we all had a bottle or two – they forced five on me, and I promptly got tight – no food and almost no water.
And when the mopping up was over, and the terns were again beginning to show luminous white against the darkening sky, we returned to the spot on the beach where we had spent the night before, and fell exhausted on the ground. Never have I been so weary – so drained of feeling. I heard that Ted had been killed – I had been very close to him, and two boys in my platoon – they were merely facts to be noted, not to feel.
We slept, although it wasn’t sleep that we needed – just a chance to stretch out in the sun, alone, and do and think of nothing at all.
We had to bury those dead – those foul rotting bodies – dig in defenses, and remove all the duds from the area – and were lucky enough to have left the island before it was bombed by Jap planes – we watched that from the lagoon – it reminded me of the Fourth of July – that time we were on the Boston boat and watched the fireworks along the sound.
And we came back here, to this paradise, to rest, that we might fight as well again.
It’s taken several sittings to write all this, girls – I almost tore it up once, because it’s unconventional, because of the gory things, and because I say I was in the front lines and in danger. But you must know all that already. And it feels good to get it down on paper – somehow, that settles it – makes you feel it’s really over and done with. Not that it’s bothered me much, but you can’t help thinking of it at times.
All my love,