- Historic Sites
A marine correspondent recalls the deadliest battle of the Pacific war
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
By the time I had rejoined the 21st, the regiment had been relieved by the 9th Marines, who were now up ahead, battling beyond the second airfield. The different units of the 21st, their strength seriously depleted, were in “the rear,” resting and trying to regroup, but I was soon to learn that there was no rear. I stayed that night in the pillbox with Dashiell and other friends, feeling strangely secure and out of the battle. Every so often we heard the dull whoomp of shells bursting nearby, but the thick walls and sand cover of the pillbox gave reassurance—as it had to its Japanese builders.
The next morning I set out to get some stories. Somewhere far behind me, near the beach, was division headquarters, where I would bring the articles for distribution to the civilian press. My radio-recording equipment also would be there, brought ashore in a jeep that I hoped I would soon be able to use in getting around to different outfits.
I headed for Able and Baker Companies of the 1st Battalion, whose stories I had not yet heard. On the way, I skirted revetments along the northern end of one of the strips of the first airfield, and at one of them came on the 1st Battalion’s aid station. Mortar shells had just landed on top of the revetment, their fragments wounding a number of men. Just as I arrived, a commotion started on top of another part of the revetment. Two Marines were standing up there, etched against the sky. The Navy corpsmen and doctors were yelling at them to get the hell down, they were drawing fire. The men didn’t move. Then several others appeared. One doctor angrily clawed his way up the wall to try to pull them down. He was too late. A huge blast, followed by another, sent up fountains of sand and smoke. When they settled, the doctor was at the bottom of the slope, and wounded men were hanging over the revetment.
Corpsmen grabbed first-aid pouches and struggled up the steep slope. At the top, one yelled, “There’s a whole bunch of guys been hit up here. Bring up stretchers!” We dragged litters to the top. Helmets, shovels, and torn, charred equipment cluttered the area. Twelve men lay on the ground, bleeding into the sand. Three were already dead.
The corpsmen worked on the wounded, tying on combat dressings and giving plasma. Then the wounded, writhing with pain, were lowered into the revetment. “What were you doing up there?” asked a doctor. “We told you to get down.”
“We were an artillery observation team,” said one of the wounded men. “How can you see the Japs on this damn island if you don’t stick your head up?”
As I was about to leave, a rumbling noise approached the revetment along the runway.
“Oh, no!” someone called.
A half-track with a 75-mm. gun was coming along the strip, trying to stay close to the shelter of the revetments. It was sure to draw fire. The next instant, however, there was an explosion beneath the half-track. The vehicle rose slowly and turned over, losing its tread. As we ducked, debris rained through the air. A doctor and two corpsmen raced to the smoking half-track and pulled five burned bodies from the wreckage. Only two of the crew were still alive. Again the corpsmen went to work with bandages and plasma.
“They must have hit something big,” said the doctor. “Probably a torpedo warhead.”
I finally left the aid station and headed for the rifle companies, crossing an open plain of large black sand dunes and torn banyan trees. This was part of the area taken by the 3rd Battalion during its charge, and the dunes covered rows of silent Japanese pillboxes. Dead Marines still lay in awkward positions where they had fallen during the charge, their faces purple and puffed, and their weapons full of sand. On a pile of rocks was the partly naked bottom half of a man. Halfway across the ghastly field, I heard the sharp sound of a Nambu machine gun. I had no idea where it was coming from, but I loped the rest of the way, zigzagging and keeping low.
The companies were dug into foxholes among the dunes and bushes across the field. Able Company had only one officer left—a captain. “We’re in reserve,” he said, “but we’re still losing men. Be careful. There are machine guns and snipers all around here. ”
I stayed there the rest of the day, hearing of the 1st and 2nd Battalions’ heavy losses in their attempts to break through to the second airfield. That night I joined an old friend, Sergeant Reid Chamberlain, in digging and sharing a two-man foxhole. Chamberlain was a Marine Corps hero. He had been with the 4th Marines on Bataan and Corregidor early in the war and had escaped in a small boat to Mindanao, where he had helped organize and lead Filipino guerrilla units on that Japanese-occupied island. He had received a U.S. Army commission and finally had been taken off Mindanao in a submarine. Back in the United States he had received the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism, and he could have stayed at home, making War Bond speeches for the rest of the war. Instead he had reenlisted, asking for overseas duty again, and had been sent to our division on Guam as a sergeant.