Volunteers with shovels turned out early on February 5, 1944. They faced a long day in the cemetery.
Most were eager to get to work, having learned much from two days of experience. Too many discomforts rose with the sun – the temperature, the smell, the buzzing of ten million flies. The only shade outside of their tents came from shattered tree stumps and ruined buildings. They might take a break in the shadow of a burned distillation plant while griping about the lack of drinkable water or joking about the irony of the name “Aqua Pura.”
The men they relieved had worked through the night under the glare of floodlights. This was in defiance of the blackout rules governing forward combat areas, but officers and MPs turned a blind eye. The sooner this job was complete, the better life would be.
As the shovels bit into the earth, two men went to find Bud.
Bud was just short of twenty two years old. After spending most of his life in Dayton, Ohio, he’d joined the Marine Corps. He’d seen training centers in the Carolinas and in California, taken in the sights of liberty towns like Jacksonville and “Dago,” and looked at the wrecks of Pearl Harbor over the rail of a navy transport. Then he landed on Roi-Namur. What he saw or thought or did in the last twenty four hours of his life died with him on February 2, 1944.
The stretcher bearers set the poncho-covered remains down beside a freshly dug grave. After three days in the Marshallese heat and humidity, he was all but unrecognizable. A Graves Registration technician checked his fingerprints and his dog tags. The militarily pertinent information – Moler, Allen W. / PFC USMC / 467318 – was scribbled onto a rough wooden board. In time, the marker would be properly shaped and neatly painted; for now, it was stuck into the ground near Bud’s head. Grave #102, Row 5, Plot 2 was filled with dirt. Bud’s war was over. The diggers moved on. They buried Drumright, Moss, Boggs, Fawthrop, Smith, Kennedy, Vaid, Morgan, Penninger, Stephenson, Meyer, Paul, and dozens more.
That night, the lights went out on Aqua Pura. The cemetery was complete, and blackout restrictions were in effect.
The graves at Aqua Pura – called by many names, but most commonly as “Pauline Point Cemetery” – were not a final resting place for the Marines and sailors who lost their lives in Operation Flintlock. As Roi-Namur was developed into a permanent base, a more secluded spot was found on little Mellu (Ivan) Island. Later in 1944, the remains were exhumed and boated over to Ivan Island for more permanent interment.
In the seventh grade, I attended an extracurricular program on the Civil War. I had to give up a Saturday morning, but since I was spending most Saturday mornings nose deep in history books anyway, this was seen as a good opportunity to expand my somewhat limited social circle. Naturally, I wound up at odds with the only other serious Civil War buff in the student body; when he derided my meticulously painted toy soldiers, I decided to give up on friendship and concentrate on history. (We later became best friends, and he guided me into the weird world of hardcore reenacting.)
Our instructor was a member of the local Civil War Round Table. I don’t remember if he had any particular academic background, but he was a pretty decent storyteller and backed up his anecdotes with facts and was good at placing climactic battles into the context of their campaigns. Once, he was asked why we spent more time discussing a series of skirmishes rather than a more historically important battle. After twenty years, I only recall part of his answer. Even the smallest engagements were important, he said. “Imagine you’re one of the handful of soldiers who were wounded in this fight,” he said. “Or the family of the one man who was killed. Wouldn’t this little skirmish seem like the biggest, most important day of the war to you?”
Roi-Namur has become something of a historical footnote. It was a short fight in a long war, one small part of a larger campaign, a flyspeck island among flyspeck islands. Not as grueling as Guadalcanal, as shocking as Tarawa, or iconic as Iwo Jima. When the veterans themselves looked back on the battle, it paled in comparison to Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo. Many of the memoirs and interviews I’ve read are dismissive: “not that rugged,” “over pretty quick,” “I guess we lost some people.” A few moments stick out: shared memories like the blockhouse explosion that shook the island, or private ones like shooting a human being for the first time. But they’re glossed over; the greater traumas occupy more of the popular imagination and the veteran’s mind.
That is unless you talk to someone whose shooting war ended on Burlesque or Camouflage – who spent years in the hospital, lived the rest of their lives partially blind, partially paralyzed, physically limping or emotionally shattered. There are only a handful of these men, and their personal accounts are rarer still. One of the remarkable aspects of Philip Wood’s letter about the battle, other than the fact that he managed to send it home at all, is that he didn’t live to record his impressions of another fight. The record of his impressions and trauma were still fresh and unaffected by further combat. He planned to write a similar tale of “the next one” but never got the chance. (This is one of the few instances where a lack of additional perspective is helpful to the historian.)
And, of course, a few hundred never got to share their experiences at all. The most important day of their war was also the last day of their lives. And so they, too, become historical footnotes.
This story, finally completed, is for them.
Read More: The Battle of Roi-Namur
Allen “Bud” Moler
March 12 1922 – February 2 1944