Author’s Note: This is the continuation of the discussion surrounding the identity of the man in one of the most iconic photographs of World War II. A few years ago, the name of Sergeant Angelo Klonis (US Army) was attached to this photograph. The goal of this article is to prove that the man in question is, in fact, PFC Thomas E. Underwood (USMC) as the photographers originally noted.
Once again: this is by no means intended to tarnish the name or record of Sergeant Klonis—just an attempt to set the historical record straight.
Note: Army/USMC personnel will be properly distinguished as “soldiers” and “Marines.” The man photographed will be referred to as “Warrior.”
Establishing The Service
Angelo Klonis was reportedly a U.S. Army sergeant, who may or may not have been involved with the OSS. Thomas Underwood was a typical Marine Corps PFC who, by the time this picture was taken, showed enough ability to lead a squad. The Warrior pictured here displays many of the characteristics of a Marine enlisted man. To begin, we’ll look simply at a man in uniform and try to determine if he is a soldier or a Marine.
The Helmet Cover
The Warror’s headgear is the standard M1 helmet, issued to American servicemen in every theater. Over 22 million were made between 1941 and 1945 and they were produced, with minor adjustments, until the 1980s. Anyone who has seen an American World War II movie will recognize the silhouette.
The very basic M1 “steel pot.” Author’s collection.
This alone is not enough to distinguish between a soldier and a Marine. What matters is the cover.
A Marine officer on Iwo Jima wears the distinctive USMC cloth helmet cover. Photo from www.ww2gyrene.com
In Grunt Gear: USMC Combat Infantry Equipment of World War II author and researcher Alec S. Tulkoff notes “One of the most well known camouflage items which is recognized as a symbol of the Marine Corps is the reversible camouflage helmet cover.” By May, 1942 the Marine Corps Equipment Board was hard at work on developing “camouflage helmet coverings” as a method of counteracting the metallic sheen of the bare metal M1 shell. Three patterns of the two-piece cover were developed that year; the Second and Third Pattern added buttonholes so the concealment-minded Marine could add extra foliage to his camouflage.
Close examination of the Warrior’s helmet suggests that he is wearing one of these two later patterns.
The Warrior’s helmet at left shows the distinctive “buttonholes” of the second or third USMC helmet cover. At right, a beautiful example of a combat-worn USMC M1 helmet with second pattern cover. Please visit this site for more.
Similar helmet covers were issued to the Navy (particularly the corpsmen attached to Marine combat units) but not, evidently, to the Army. Although Bruno Alberti and Laurent Pradier state that “at the same time, the Army was trying out similar helmet covers although more sophisticated,” such pieces of gear never really caught on with soldiers. A prototype was issued in small numbers early in the war, but was rejected for being overly complicated. By 1944, soldiers were overwhelmingly sporting the bare “steel pot” or added webbed netting into which they could place strips of burlap or foliage.
Several styles of Army headgear are evident in these photographs of the 27th Division on Saipan, taken in June and July, 1944–as can be seen, most soldiers who wanted the camouflage effect simply painted their helmets.
The variety of Army helmets is summed up nicely in this photo.
Brigadier General Redmond Kernan (commanding 27th Division artillery), Major General Ralph C. Smith (commanding 27th Division) and Colonel Stubbens (Smith’s chief of staff) head for the beach on Saipan.
Compare with photos of Marines taken on the same battlefield, and at the same time.
Thus, the specificity of this helmet cover is a strong indication that the Warrior is a Marine. He is used to wearing it, as between images he untucks the back flap to protect his neck from the sun. And he has taken the time to personalize his cover with his name or a unit designation marking.
Unfortunately, the angle of the helmet is too high for us to see the marking. We know it can’t be the Eagle Globe and Anchor, as those stencils did not appear until after the war. However, Marines were issued with stenciling kits and instructed to apply their names to every piece of gear that could conceivably walk away. Typically, this was first initials and last name, although in 1944 the Fourth Marine Division was also using the “Unit Numerical Identification System” (UNIS) markings.
Before we made that landing [Iwo Jima] we were issued a stencil with our name and outfit and told to put our name on each leg, each arm, once across our shoulder, and once across our butt just below the belt loops. That was to enable the burial party to gather up body parts and match them up to go into the proper body bag…. Guys with long names had a time trying to stencil their name anywhere. – John C. Pope, B/24th Marines
A closeup of the Warrior’s helmet reveal what appear to be letters on his helmet, and another possible piece of evidence for his identity—the letter T. Obviously, there is no “T. E. Underwood” on the helmet, but lacking space, he might have abbreviated to “TOM.”
Could the Warrior be a soldier who somehow acquired a Marine helmet?
Very unlikely. If the Warrior were a soldier, he would have been operating under the auspices of the 27th (Army) Division, not the 2nd or 4th Marine Divisions, and would have drawn his gear from Army supplies. The chances of an Army quartermaster on Saipan issuing a helmet with a camouflage cover are next to zero; they were in violation of Army uniform regulations. Furthermore, in almost every campaign, the Army’s supply stores far exceeded those of the Marines; it simply would have been easier to acquire the helmet from an Army source. He would have had to come by it some other way.
• Battlefield pickup or salvage
Unless the case was one of extremity, American servicemen were leery of taking gear from the dead. When a soldier or Marine was killed, any government equipment he possessed was claimed by special details from his organization’s quartermasters and reissued as needed.
This stockpile of USMC gear is awaiting repair and reassignment. Note pile of helmets (with covers attached) at left rear. Photo taken on Iwo Jima, but representative of any other island battle. Official USMC Photo.
Even in the most extreme cases, there was still a degree of organization. Chuck Tatum describes an unusual search for socks on Iwo Jima, as well as his feelings about taking equipment from the dead:
The dead man or casualty pile contained clothing, equipment, and weapons of dead or wounded Marines…. I felt uneasy and a bit guilty about the prospects of being a scavenger. But I had no choice. The demands and horrors of Iwo’s battlefield left no other ready solution to the problem of resupply. I hesitantly picked up a pack only to drop it instantly. There was a bullet hole straight through it.
Taking gear from a “dead man’s pile” had other consequences; Tatum later saw a comrade wearing a shirt with the name of Tatum’s hometown friend on it. The comrade had taken the shirt from the “dead man’s pile,” and it wasn’t until much later that the original owner was found alive. Wearing clothing with another man’s name could potentially lead to a misidentification of remains if the new owner was killed—and, of course, one ran the disquieting risk of running into the friends of the deceased.
Sgt. Carroll Conkrin (right) needs a new M1; S/Sgt. Henry Geiger is only too happy to oblige. US Army photograph by Rosecrans.
With the ready availability of Army gear on Saipan, I find it difficult to believe that a soldier would need to resort to scavenging a helmet unless he was in the last extremity of need. Even then, the possibility of him encountering discarded Marine gear is lower than Army gear; and even if all of those unlikely factors happened, he still would probably have discarded the cover because it would make him stick out among fellow soldiers who had painted steel.
• The Warrior added the cover for camouflage.
Even less likely than picking up a helmet. While the cover did serve a practical purpose, the Army alternatives previously illustrated would have been easier to implement. If the Warrior is a scout, sniper, or (as the Klonis argument goes) an OSS specialist, his training in the use of camouflage would surely have rendered a basic camo cover extraneous.
Finally, the Warrior is surrounded by other individuals wearing camouflaged helmet covers. For the reasons listed above, these must undoubtedly be Marine personnel–and if we in 2014 are flummoxed about the Warrior’s branch of service, the Marines of 1944 would not have been. Inter-service bickering reached a fever pitch on Saipan, as the Marines derided the 27th Division; the Marine general even overstepped his authority by relieving the Army general for lacking aggressiveness. Any “dogface” wearing Marine gear was asking for trouble; even more so if the “Gyrenes” believed he’d stolen from one of their own, living or dead.
It is extremely unlikely that the individual is a soldier wearing a Marine helmet.
The Warrior is wearing a set of HBT dungarees, the standard fatigue outfit for Marines and soldiers in the Pacific for the majority of the war. Rugged and lightweight, they were made of herringbone twill (hence the name HBTs) and were an essential part of the American fighting man’s battle dress. Marines were issued HBTs that had the Eagle, Globe and Anchor stenciled over the left breast pocket, directly under the letters USMC.
Even though equipment straps obscure the Warrior’s pocket in the Troutman photograph, there is enough additional evidence to identify his dungarees as Marine issue. The four-button front is unique to Marine equipment, as are the telltale “donut” buttons–Army HBTs featured a seven-button front, with a different button design.
At left, a USMC “donut” button on an HBT blouse belonging to the author. At right, The Warrior’s buttoned-up HBTs.
Compare with the 13-star buttons on the standard-issue US Army fatigue jacket.
A 27th Division soldier on Saipan during mop-up operations, August 1 1944. At right is a detail of his buttons, which are standard Army issue.
The purpose of the strap crossing the Warrior’s pocket isn’t known for sure. Veteran Marine and WW2 collector Eric Wisbith postulates that “the mystery strap is likely a standard issue gas mask bag, with the mask discarded, carrying chow, rifle cleaning gear, or whatever else. The width of the strap fits that analysis.”
Also worthy of note is the wear evident on the dungarees. Salt from the Warrior’s sweat has started to bleach out the front of his jacket—this has been worn for some time, and is not new issue.
Could the Warrior be a soldier who somehow acquired a Marine combat uniform?
This possibility is also very unlikely. A soldier would not be issued marked Marine dungarees. In previous campaigns, notably on Guadalcanal, Marines were issued (or stole) Army clothing and equipment because the USMC supply service was severely handicapped; by 1944, however, the majority of supply issues had been worked out. With the exception of web gear (USA and USMC gear were fairly interchangeable, save for minor differences in design and markings), there was no need to borrow from another branch, and in many cases an individual doing so would be censured for being out of uniform.
The 27th Division did experience some supply issues during the battle, and references are made to borrowing rations and ammunition from Marine stores. There is, however, no record that I can find for requisitioning for clothing of any kind. Indeed, this entry from the 27th’s S-4 (Supply) journal indicates that there was still plenty of extra Army clothing to go around on 7-8 July, which is when W. Eugene Smith recalled taking his famous photograph of the Warrior.
The “survivors” were victims of the last Japanese banzai charge on Saipan, which broke through the lines of the 105th Infantry. To escape the onslaught, hundreds of men fled into the ocean to the safety of coral reefs. They were rescued by amphibious vehicles the following day, July 7. (The date “08” above is a typographical error.)
Aside from a recommendation that Army infantry companies be allowed to carry an extra 10% replacement clothing, none of the extant records suggest that there was a shortage of Army combat uniforms on Saipan.
However, in the course of researching for this article, I did find a handful of soldiers wearing the Marine HBT blouse on Saipan, but after the battle was over.
Private Manuel Nogueria (at left) of Company B, 762nd Tank Battalion is shown here with his crew. While the rest of the crew is properly attired, Nogueria is out of uniform in the presence of his platoon leader, Lt. Dudley Williams (at right).
This unknown dogface from the 27th appears to have the four-button HBT. (Wisbith notes that this individual is wearing M1936 Army suspenders.)
And the man at right in this photograph is wearing a clearly marked USMC HBT blouse; to the left is the commander of the 105th Infantry, Colonel William S. Winn. (It is possible that the man in the EGAs is a Marine officer sent along on this patrol as a guide.)
Marines are fiercely proud of their Eagle, Globe, and Anchor; non-Marines who wear the emblem do so at their own risk. Similarly, the 27th Division was a proud National Guard unit with a legacy dating back to the Great War, and was proud of its own emblems and markings. Just as with the helmet cover, had Private Nogueria worn this blouse around Private Gyrene from the Second or Fourth Tank Battalion, he would have been asking for trouble. One item of note is that in all of these examples, few Marines were left on Saipan – most were busy fighting on Tinian, leaving the 27th Division to mop up the last remnants of Saipan’s Japanese garrison. We should also note that none of these individuals have adopted the Marine camouflage helmet cover. Perhaps wearing Marine HBTs was an affectation; certainly it was very uncommon.
The likelihood that this individual is a soldier wearing such a distinctively Marine uniform is very low, especially when combined with the helmet cover and the fact that the Warrior’s utilities have clearly been worn in the field for quite some time.
Aside from his captured sword, there is little that stands out about the Warrior’s armament.
The M1 carbine was made and issued in vast quantities to Marines and soldiers alike. Intended more as a defensive weapon, the carbine was issued primarily to those whose duties required more than firing a rifle. Officers, senior NCOs, mortar and machine gun crews, and many support personnel were given the light, short-range carbine to replace their larger M1 Garand rifles or their .45 caliber M1911 Colt pistols.
In the field, though, the carbine was not without its problems. The low muzzle velocity of the .30 caliber bullet meant that some enemies couldn’t be stopped by a single hit—or even two or three hits. Troops also noted the weapon had a disturbing tendency to rust and refuse to work. Soon, some front line troops were “losing” their carbines and turning up with non-regulation weaponry. Experienced commanders often turned a blind eye. The Warrior is in a very late phase of the battle of Saipan and still carries the underpowered carbine; this is not a borrowed weapon, as his web belt carries carbine ammo pouches. He has, however, learned a lesson about the carbine’s abilities. The piece of gear stamped US (not visible in every crop of the Troutman photo) is a pistol holster. Many Marines lusted after pistols, whether private purchase or issued, as a light and powerful way to augment their personal arsenal. PFC George A. Smith, a Marine with A/24, was issued a carbine in addition to his light machine gun, but made sure to keep his pistol. It would save his life on Saipan:
One day I had a guy running right for me. I put three [carbine] shots into him, and I could see where they were hitting. He was swinging a sword… I’d held on to my .45 somehow, and the sucker not only stopped but backed up when I hit him with that. That carbine was worthless. It’d rust up on you, and if you were on a gun it’d always be swinging around to get in your way.
PFC Glenn Buzzard, C/24, had a similar experience on Saipan when his company was attacked after dark. He was carrying a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver sent from home. “I had to get special permission to carry it,” he recalled. “You peart near had to be in combat because I couldn’t wear it with my uniform in any way, shape, or form.”
The first time I used it was in Saipan… a Japanese tripped over my machine gun. Needless to say, somebody killed him. I don’t know whether I did or not. I fired at him with that thirty-eight. I know I had it going at him because it was close quarters. I couldn’t get the machine gun on him, but whether I or somebody else did it, I kinda thought maybe I did it, but then it’s nothing to brag about, taking a man’s life. They was there just like we were, probably didn’t know any more than we did.
This habit may have been common to soldiers as well; in his semi-autobiographical works The Thin Red Line and The Pistol, Army veteran James Jones repeatedly references the lengths to which soldiers would go to secure such armament early in the war, suggesting this was a common trait.
The Warrior is utilizing a demonstrably Marine method of augmenting his firepower, but it is possible that any combat veteran could have picked up the same trick. Weapons alone are not enough to make a distinction.
There are no identifying marks on the Warrior’s gear. Soldiers were commonly issued web gear stamped with U.S. on their ammo pouches, canteen covers, and belts; while the USMC issued their own variants without the mark, the standardization of webbing meant that many Marines wound up with Army-stamped gear.
Example of UNIS marked Marine Corps gear.
However, close examination with an experienced eye picks out a key difference which readily identifies this equipment as Marine “782” gear.
The large rings on the Warrior’s straps are distinctively Marine issue. Eric Wisbith provided the following examples illustrating the differences between Marine and Army pack straps:
Photographs courtesy of Eric Wisbith.
This distinctive trait tells us that the Warrior is likely a Marine combat veteran who knows how to get by with the bare essentials (especially if the strap across his chest is, as Wisbith suggests, a modified bag for carrying supplies).
Visible distinguishing traits indicate that this is USMC issue equipment.
Short and sweet: The Warrior is carrying Marine 782 gear, wearing a Marine P41 HBT blouse, and a camouflaged helmet cover. It is statistically impossible that he belongs to ANY branch of the Army.
If the Warrior is not a Marine, then he has gone to great, unnecessary, and non-regulation lengths to disguise himself as one. The helmet, HBT blouse, and 782 issue gear are dead giveaways, and have obviously been well worn over the course of the battle–presumably since D-Day on June 15. If Angelo Klonis transferred from combat operations in the ETO to Saipan as the story goes, he would have certainly brought some of his own gear with him. Any replacement uniforms or equipment would have been issued by a quartermaster from the 27th Division, NOT from the Marine divisions. There was no such shortage of Army supplies on Saipan that would have required him to draw supplies from a Marine unit, nor would dressing in Marine gear have served any useful purpose. The only examples of soldiers appearing in USMC utilities happen during the mop-up phases of the operation, at which point one extra sergeant would have made no difference whatsoever.
Even in the astronomically remote chance that some sort of special operative was needed (the Klonis argument hints that he was an OSS agent), field work could have been done in Army gear. (The Japanese knew the difference between Army and Marine uniforms; given the hatred that existed between the Imperial forces and the USMC, wearing a Marine outfit would have probably done more harm than good.) The only reason to impersonate a Marine to this extent would be, in my mind, to infiltrate a Marine unit CID-style, which would be a laughably inefficient thing to do in the middle of a major campaign. The unfamiliar face, the minor differences in training, lack of Marine patois and (if coming from Europe) no acclimatization to the searing Pacific summer heat would have made Klonis stick out like a sore thumb.
While the Warrior’s personal gear doesn’t provide any essential clues, his choice of weaponry might. In his file, Thomas Underwood shot decently with the M1 rifle, but not well enough to qualify as a marksman, the lowest recognized level of aptitude in the Corps. He did, however, perform well with the M1 carbine. When he landed on Saipan in June of 1944, Underwood was still a PFC—but carried the MOS of a squad leader (653). He probably led a smaller fire team of four Marines (three such teams made up a squad), but even so would have been able to express a preference in weapons. There is a good chance that he traded a rifle for a carbine upon his promotion, as he shot better with the smaller weapon and 653s were allowed to carry carbines under the USMC F-Series Table of Organization. A personal preference for the carbine is reinforced by his Bronze Star citation, which claims he had one “shot from his hands” in action. Thomas Underwood, a four-campaign veteran at the time of his death, had plenty of front line experience in the shortcomings of the carbine, and plenty of chances to replace it, yet chose to carry it anyway. Where he got the pistol is not known; it likely wasn’t issued to Underwood and depending on the type may have been a private purchase civilian model or a “requisitioned” (read: stolen) M1911.
There is no doubt in my mind that the individual pictured here is a Marine. Even if it isn’t Underwood, this is a Marine, not a soldier.
(1) Alec S. Tulkoff, Grunt Gear: USMC Combat Infantry Equipment of World War II (San Jose: R. James Bender Publishing, 2003), 46.
(2) Ibid., 46-47.
(3) Bruno Alberti and Laurent Pradier, Marine Corps Uniforms and Equipment, 1941-45 trans. Lawrence Brown and Philippe Charbonnier (Paris: Histoire & Collections, 2007), 57.
(4) Tulkoff, Grunt Gear, 118.
(5) Alberti and Pradier, Uniforms and Equipment,124-125. UNIS markings were eventually adopted by all Marine combat units, as wearing unit insignia in the field was forbidden. The Fourth Marine Division was the first to adopt and use the marking stenciled on the back of HBT jackets, the right rear pocket of HBT trousers, on personal equipment (canteens, helmets, etc) and occasionally above the top front pocket of the HBT blouse. Underwood’s UNIS marking would have been 413 (for 24th Marines, 1st Battalion, 3rd (B) Company) inside a semicircle (4th Marine Division). Unfortunately, none are visible in this photograph.
(6) John C. Pope, Angel On My Shoulder (Kindle ed.) 2013.
(7) Chuck Tatum, Red Blood, Black Sand: Fighting Alongside John Basilone from Boot Camp to Iwo Jima (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2012), 206-207.
(8) Eric A. Wisbith, conversation with the author, May 3, 2014.