The unseen war is preserved in a series of shoebox-sized containers.
It’s easy to imagine them in storage at the National Archives & Records Administration facility in College Park, Maryland. One pictures gray cardboard filing boxes stacked to the ceiling in ordered rows, like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The researcher only sees them in segments – one record group at a time, please, delivered on a metal cart. Only one box at a time may be taken off the cart and, if you don’t want to miss anything, you’ll be sifting through each box one single photograph at a time.
They’re stacked front to back, several hundred in each box, pasted to old filing cards and organized according to a rough estimate of subject. RELIGIOUS ACTIVITIES or AMPHIBIOUS OPERATIONS or BUILDINGS, DAMAGED JAPANESE. Or EXPLOSIONS. Or DEAD MARINES. Or CEMETERIES AND BURIALS. They’re captioned, sometimes, in great detail, giving names and dates and locations. Sometimes just a month. Or an island. Or nothing at all, just a photographer’s last name and a freeze frame of something that caught the eye of Ragus, Hios, Garber, Fabian, Feen, Kauffman, or a score of their compatriots.
These are the photographic records of the Marine Corps, taken by its trained photographers and preserved in perpetuity in the still image room of “Archives II.” Some have been published before; some are quite famous. Most, however, languish in their boxes, to be taken out and examined by a neoprene-gloved researcher, then filed back into obscurity. To spend a few hours – and it will take you that long – leafing through a box or two can be a breathtaking, stomach-churning, eye-opening experience. Poorly framed or focused shots clearly taken under fire. Photographs that bear the proofing marks of editors, searching for the best crop. The notes of censors, demanding the removal of certain faces and insignia. And photographs that could never be passed for publication – too graphic for the public stomach, too mundane for the public interest – that are simply awaiting discovery.
Countless stories are housed in each box. And in one, I found a story I thought I knew all too well.
It is, once again, 1944. The fifth day of July. A parched, smoky island in the central Pacific. It is, more specifically, just about 1300 hours on the eastern slope of the central ridge. Shells are exploding outside the hamlet of Atchugau, Saipan. Terrified residents, some of them wounded, throw themselves on the mercy of the devilish Marines; to their surprise, they are allowed safe passage. Those same Marines organize a patrol to investigate the area. Within twenty minutes, six of them are dead or dying, and a further seven are badly wounded. Among the dead are my ancestor, 1Lt. Philip E. Wood Jr., and his senior NCO, Sergeant Arthur Ervin.
It’s not a new story. It has been told many times – in military reports, in letters, in private publications and interviews, in medal citations, in the files of deceased personnel. It has been interpreted time and again by my family over the years, and finally (and most frequently) on this website. Grid coordinates allow one to place the event on a map of Saipan; one can take a virtual tour with Google Earth.
The catastrophe of Company A is a minor event in the larger campaign for Saipan – not unreported, but of little interest or import to those not directly involved. However, it now seems that the ambush and its aftermath may have attracted the attention of three individuals, heretofore unknown. Their names were Garber, Gillespie, and Burns, and they were Marine Corps photographers.
I found Staff Sergeant Maurice Garber’s photograph first and almost passed it over, sandwiched as it was between heart-wrenching scenes of young children in an internment camp on Saipan. Time is always a factor at the Archives; the eight hours between first and last pull pass so quickly you don’t notice hunger or cramping legs. After finding a handful of photos that identified members of 1/24, I was scanning for photographers Marcus Kauffman and Nick Ragus, both attached to the 24th Marines. Garber was with the D-2 section of the Fourth Marine Division; his photographs might be of the 24th Marines, but might equally be of any other regiment in the Division.
Something about Garber’s caption caught my attention, however.
…Company A was preparing to move forward again by annihilating the enemy. Phil was firing his mortars in preparation. Suddenly a group of wounded native civilians (Chamorros) came out of some caves forward of our lines. As always, Phil and Sgt. Ervin, his section sergeant, asked if they could take a patrol forward and help the natives back of our lines. He soon returned with many wounded women and children.
I thought, of course, of Company A on July 5, but quickly reined in the idea. No names on the photo, no identifying marks, no specific location, and a conflicting date. This could be Company A, or it could be a similar incident elsewhere on Saipan. Although there were no Marines in Garber’s photograph, there clearly were some nearby, for he mentioned them in his caption. Perhaps this was one of a series. I scanned it anyway, re-filed the photo, and moved on to another box.
The first real shock was filed away in a section devoted to medical treatment and evacuation. I nearly dropped the photo.
I knew the details, but checked the muster roll again to make sure. PFC Lawrence Felix Pantlin of A/1/24 was wounded in action on 5 July 1944. Garber’s photograph captures a corpsman administering a shot of morphine as the young Marine lies inert on a stretcher. Blood from a wound in his face or neck is already soaking through the white gauze field dressing; he grips an unknown object tightly in his right hand. Other Marines or corpsmen gather around, looking with compassion at Pantlin, with hostility at Garber, or with apprehension at something happening out of frame. No unit markings are visible, and many faces are obscured by shadows. Were it not for the detailed caption, this photograph might have been passed over as well.
Instead, here was confirmation that Maurice Garber was present, camera in hand, on the day of the patrol – and that the dates on his photographs were not accurate. Suddenly, the picture of the Chamorros coming to Marine lines seemed much more significant. The photograph of Pantlin was, without doubt, a shot of the patrol’s aftermath. Could the first one be a picture of its preamble?
Staff Sergeant H. Neil Gillespie, a photographer with the PR section of the 4th Marine Division, captured a scene similar to Garber’s. Corpsmen hover over their wounded charge, applying pressure to a bandage over his chest. His pants are torn, another dressing has been applied to his leg, blood stains his right arm. Painful concern is visible on the faces of the men around him; they seem to be physically supporting one another.
The captions, again, provide the context. Ambush in the hills. Attempting to bring native civilians to safety. Again, I reminded myself, this could be any one of any number of similar events. No names, no unit markings, no nothing. Scan. File. Continue.
And Gillespie’s photos kept coming.
1225: A group of native prisoners brought in from “A” Co to CP and sent on to Regt. Group… states that there are more than 1000 Jap soldiers and marines ahead…. Also a lot of civilians gathered.
1310: All available corpsmen and six litters to “A” Co – machine gun opened up on them and casualties were 2 officers and 7 men.
– First Battalion, 24th Marines, Diary of Events, 5 July 1944.
Six dead on the patrol. Seven wounded. And in the battalion War Diary, reports of captured radio and radar equipment on 4 July, in a location called “Radar Hill” – possibly the weather station.
Once again, the pieces seemed to be adding up, and I wondered how many of Garber and Gillespie’s photographs I’d passed over in my initial search. Time was running out on my last day at Archives II; in a few hours I’d be heading home, concluding a week of research and Marine-related activities. I had, it later turned out, over 300 images scanned from the Saipan collection alone; I’d never expected to find one photo of the July 5 debacle, let alone an apparent handful from different photographers. Still, the thought of missing something – especially something that might confirm my suspicions – was too much. I backtracked to the CIVILIAN / JAPANESE POW section where I found the first Garber photo. If it was part of a series, as I thought, perhaps there were more.
This turned out to be a good decision.
The second Garber photograph depicts the same scenery as the first, and may have been taken earlier; the three male prisoners may have trampled the grass trail the family group is following. And there, of course, are the three Marines “ready to fire” – although two seem more prepared to reach out and help the struggling civilians. I go crosseyed staring at the tall one closest to the camera, request a magnifying glass, and finally spend fifteen precious minutes scanning the image at the highest resolution my little portable Epson can handle.
I can’t see his name, if indeed he’s bothered to stencil it on his gear or clothing. He’s carrying the usual baggage of a combat Marine. His carbine is slung, and he’s chosen to wear both canteens on one hip. There’s an extra bag or bundle that seems to be pulling his web belt down off his waist. His helmet cover appears to have an “X81” written on it – the meaning unclear, possibly an issue number for identification. The cover of his entrenching tool, though, has the clue I’m after. A faded semi-circle and a three-digit number. I can’t make out the final two, but the first is clearly a four. This is the 24th Marines bringing in wounded Chamorro civilians, while mortar and artillery fire clearly bursts a few dozen yards away. The ridge behind them closely matches the terrain where A Company was operating on 5 July. And the date may say June, but given the error with the Pantlin photograph, I’m no longer counting the date.
If this isn’t the start of Phil Wood’s patrol, this is something damn close to it.
I sit and stare at the photo for a good long while, mouth slightly agape. The guy sitting across from me gives me a look, but it seems this sort of fly-catching behavior is fairly recognizable among researchers. He gives me a little glad-you-found-whatever-that-is raise of the eyebrows.
I am intensely glad for the neoprene gloves, because my hands are sweating like mad. Is that Phil Wood in the photo? The tall one with the carbine? He had a carbine, I know that. How did he carry his gear? What’s in that extra bag? What’s up with the canteens, or with the X81 or whatever on the helmet. Holy shit, if that could be Phil, maybe that guy in the back is Ervin! He seems like an M1 guy. Whoa.
Down this path lies excited speculation – and the exact kind of thinking I need to avoid. I carefully put the photo back in its assigned place.
I don’t find any more Garber photos in my final pass through, but I do find two more by Gillespie, and they pack a powerful double punch about the patrol’s outcome. Either Gillespie was strongly affected by what he was seeing, or he was concerned about linking his photographs to the same event, because his captions keep repeating the same refrain.
I know from talking to Tommy Lynchard, an Able Company veteran who participated in the rescue of the trapped patrol, that as many as sixty civilians were eventually rescued from the caves and crevices that Phil Wood’s patrol went to investigate. A quick check of muster rolls turns up Hospital Apprentice 2nd Class Joseph A. Parisi, serving with Company E of the 20th Marines. Perhaps Parisi was one of the group who arrived with the ambulances, I reason; it later develops that Parisi’s company was attached to the 24th Marines effective 2 July 1944. The call for “all available corpsmen” must have reached regimental headquarters, at least.
1317: “A” Co ordered to keep moving.
– First Battalion, 24th Marines, Diary of Events, 5 July 1944.
Gillespie’s final photograph captures a pair of Marines at their breaking point. The man at the left sits slumped, staring into space. His carbine is slung from a tree branch nearby; he is, quite literally, hanging it up. The other stares inward, bent in half, unable to smoke the cigarette in his hand. He is a picture of misery on par with Stan Troutman’s famous shot of the weeping Marine on Peleliu. Able Company evacuated three men as “sick” on 5 July 1944. In the shorthand of muster rolls, “sick” could mean anything from exhaustion to dengue fever, but could also mean “combat fatigue” – a mental breakdown of varying severity. Perhaps these two men were among them.
With the exception Garber’s photo of Pantlin on the stretcher, convincing arguments could be made against assigning any one of these photos to a particular date, time, or unit. I’ve argued against popularly held beliefs about combat photography on this very blog, in pictures taken during this very battle; I am well aware of the blinding effect of seeing simply what one wants to see. If this is not the pictorial story of Lieutenant Wood and Sergeant Ervin, or Arnold Richardson, Lawrence Knight, Davis Kruse, Franklin Hester and the civilian lives they died to save – then it’s the story of an equally brave group of Marines.
A story worth telling on July 5.
 The photographs were also stamped sequentially by an archivist: “Photo 2” is number 85924, and “Photo 1” is 85925. However, this is not necessarily an indicator of the photographer’s original order – Gillespie’s two photos of the wounded Marine on the stretcher, clearly taken in sequence, are #88823 and #88837 – and are presumably from an archivist’s system. None of the photographs described in this post were stored in any sequence.