- Historic Sites
A marine correspondent recalls the deadliest battle of the Pacific war
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
My immediate aim was to find and rejoin the 21st—or what was left of it. After we landed, I climbed the slope past the foxholes of a unit of black Army duck drivers who had been on the island since D-day and moved northward along the edge of the first airfield, which Seabees were already blading and rolling. Battered Japanese planes had been bulldozed to the side of the field, and among them were signs that read, “Danger. Booby traps.” Near the northern side of the field I saw another sign pointing ahead with an arrow: “The Front.” Behind me, mortar shells started falling on the field, but the Seabees kept working.
A high bluff marked the northern end of the field, and there I found the command post of the 21st, with masses of men sitting and lying on the sand. I knew everyone, but they all looked unfamiliar—bearded, dirty, with matted hair, black, puffy lips, and eyes that were watery and distant. One man came over and took my hands but he stared through me and kept nodding. “We did it,” he said. “We broke through. ” He was a member of one of the rifle companies, and I wondered what he was doing back at the regimental command post. Then I noticed bandages on his wrist and under a slashed pants leg. “They want to evacuate me,” he said. “I got hit twice.”
Jerry Gruggen, a jeep ambulance driver, came over. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was shaking with anger. “Come on, damn it, ” he said to the rifleman. “You want to go down to the beach or don’t you?”
“I don’t,” the rifleman said.
Gruggen grabbed his arm and pulled him. “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Come on.” He hustled him over to the ambulance, which already held two stretcher cases. As he shoved him in, Gruggen noticed me. “They took us out of the lines,” he said. “It was about time. A little bit more, and there wouldn’t have been any of us left.”
I still didn’t know what had happened, but I didn’t want to ask anyone. At the top of the bluff, I found my own company dug in among a row of pillboxes. Everyone was dazed and grim, but they greeted me warmly, as if I were a messenger from the outside world. Some of them were living inside the pillboxes, and in one of them I found several close friends, including Dick Dashiell, a combat correspondent who had stayed with the 21st. He told me that Bill Middlebrooks, the correspondent who had taken my place with the unit, was dead. So were dozens of other men I had known. He listed the names like a roll call.
The pillbox was lined with bunks and had served as a Japanese sick bay. It had concrete and rock walls and roofing fourteen feet thick and was entirely covered by volcanic sand. To enter it, one squeezed through a small opening below the surface of the ground and pushed through a narrow tunnel. There was a lantern inside, and as we sat on the bunks, I caught up with what had happened. For two days after the 21st had gone into the lines, the 1st and 2nd Battalions had tried to seize the area between the first and second airfields. They had run into a deep belt of pillboxes, bunkers, and bombproofs like the one in which we were sitting and had been stopped both days with heavy casualties. Little ground had been won, tanks had been unable to open a path, and the men had been pinned down in the rocks and sand. Both battalions had lost almost 50 per cent of their men.
On the third day, the 3rd Battalion, which had been held in reserve, went into the lines with orders to get through the enemy defenses at all costs. Our entire cross-island line was being held up and taking heavy casualties. Behind supporting bombardment, I and K Companies led the new attack, creeping forward with fixed bayonets. As it had on the two previous days, Japanese machine-gun, mortar, and rifle fire picked up. Some men fell, but the rest kept going. Mortar shells dropped among them, the commanding officers of both companies were killed, and lieutenants and sergeants took over, rushing the squads and platoons forward, faster and faster.
It became a frenzied charge. Throwing grenades and refusing to let the intense Japanese fire pin them down, the men hurtled up and over the first line of pillboxes. Some of the Japanese came out, and the men killed them with their bayonets and went on, surging past mounds of bunkers and blockhouses and toward a slope leading to the second airfield.
In their rear, mortars hurled 60’s and 81’s ahead of the attacking men. Our tanks, long held up, began to move forward, blasting at the pillboxes. The Japanese replied with fire from their heavy guns hidden in positions north of the second airfield. Still, I and K Companies swept ahead, past more lines of pillboxes and through mine fields. In a burst they reached the second airfield and raced across an open runway to a high, rock-strewn ridge on the opposite side. K Company, now urged on by First Lieutenant Raoul Archambault, who had won medals for gallantry at Bougainville and Guam, was the first across and up the ridge. It was honeycombed with pillboxes connected by fire trenches, and the surprised Japanese swarmed out to fight, hand to hand. The struggle with bayonets, rifles, and grenades was bloody and brief. When it ended, the survivors of the two companies stood on top of the ridge eight hundred yards from where they had started. They had paid a shattering price in dead and wounded, but through the hole they had punched, tanks, flame throwers, demolition teams, mortars, and machine gunners now streamed, attacking the by passed strong points and knocking them out, one by one.