Not Afraid Of What Is Coming.

11 January 1944
US Naval Hospital, Camp Pendleton, California.

“Williams! Williams! Where the hell is Williams?”

Nineteen-year-old PFC Robert Leyshon Williams quickly scanned the ward. Surely there had to be another Williams somewhere at the Camp Pendleton hospital. He was recovering from a minor surgery, and wasn’t scheduled to return to duty for a while yet. A stay at the hospital was a welcome change from the breakneck pace of training; his battalion, regiment, and division were being put through an increasingly complex series of maneuvers. The most recent even involved heading out to sea aboard a cramped transport ship. Williams and his buddies believed they were headed for combat, and were tremendously let down when they “attacked” California’s San Clemente Island, conquering the local goats before returning to barracks. In the hospital, he had none of that frustration: instead, he was resting on a real bed, enjoying real chow, and stealing glances at real female nurses. It was a very satisfactory way to fight a war.

The voice grew louder, and a harassed-looking man appeared in the ward. “Williams! WILLIAMS.”

They were definitely looking for him. Bob Williams sighed. “What, what’s going on?”

“Come on with me. There’s a jeep waiting to take you back to your area.”

That was unusual. The hospital wasn’t terribly far from the barracks area; under normal circumstances, a marine would be expected to walk. Williams pondered the meaning of this unexpected windfall while collecting his gear. Sure enough, the company jeep was idling out front. The driver was a trustworthy buddy who would provide the straight dope. “What’s all the fuss?”

The driver was terse, perhaps nervous. “We’re shipping out.”

Williams sighed. Again?

PFC Robert L. Williams, A/1/24.
PFC Robert L. Williams, A/1/24.

Soon, Bob Williams was standing outside a large wooden structure surrounded by meticulously whitewashed stones. A sign hanging above the porch identified the home of Company A, First Battalion, 24th Marines. The barracks building was a hive of activity as nearly two hundred men stuffed gear into seabags, rolled ponchos, and made up field packs.

The South Carolina drawl of his platoon leader, First Lieutenant Roy I. Wood, Jr., rose above the ruckus. “Williams! You’ve got half an hour to pack your seabag. Make sure your rifle and gear are in good shape. We’re leaving.”

Within the hour, PFC Bob Williams was standing in the bed of a beat-up old cattle truck. After the mad scramble to depart, the long line of trucks was inexplicably halted along the side of the road. Just another SNAFU, as the guys were fond of saying. One uncomfortable man hopped off the truck and hustled behind a nearby billboard to answer the call of nature.

On the road with Motor T. This convoy has stopped conveniently outside an Esso gas station.A Fourth Motor Transport Battalion convoy pauses along a California highway, 1943.

As if on cue, the convoy started to move and Williams’ truck lurched forward. The freshly relieved Marine raced out from behind the billboard, yelling at the convoy to wait as he frantically buttoned his dungarees. A passing civilian in a pickup truck allowed him to climb aboard, then sped down the length of the convoy. Hands reached over the rough wooden sides of the cattle truck; with a carefully timed leap, the man scrambled back aboard to face a merciless teasing from his buddies. Why’d ya try so hard? We coulda just picked you up on the way back. Afraid you’re gonna miss the boat? [1]


In the weeks and months that followed, both Williams and his unnamed buddy would have ample opportunity to wish they had, in fact, missed their boat. The convoy carried the First Battalion, 24th Marines to Naval Base San Diego, where a gray transport ship loomed over Pier Number One. A major endeavor was underway. Rations, fuel, and cases of ammunition dangled from cranes or bent the backs of men on working parties. Sailors bustled about provisioning the ship – the galleys would be operating at nearly four times their normal capacity – and stowing ammunition until her lockers bulged at the seams. Similar scenes played out at dozens of other ships, and the entire yard was a hive of activity. PFC Robert Tierney pictured “hundreds of ships in the harbor,” each with creaking cranes, shouting quartermasters, and long lines of irritable infantrymen snaking their way up gangplanks and disappearing below decks.[2] The entire Fourth Marine Division – 17,086 men – was going to sea.[3]

Infantrymen themselves were “cargo; never supercargo,” and they knew it.[4] They had their place in the prescribed loading order and it was (naturally, they said) at the very bottom. Sensing an inevitable wait, one machine gun squad from Able Company sat down on a stack of railroad ties to settle a spirited debate – was this another training operation, or was it the real thing? PFC Stephen Hopkins, one of the youngest and most popular men in his platoon, declared “Well, I know I’m not coming back from this one.” His buddies busted a gut at his dramatics. “Hell, if I lived the life you did, I wouldn’t expect to come back either!” joked his buddy, PFC George Smith. Hopkins didn’t laugh.[5] Speculation continued as they contemplated the ship marked PA-41.

The USS DuPage, October 1943.
The USS DuPage, October 1943.

The USS DuPage was new in almost every respect. Laid down by Ingalls Shipbuilding and launched as the SS Sea Hound in November, 1942, she was commissioned in Brooklyn and finished along the lines of a Bayfield-class attack transport at Norfolk Navy Yard on 1 September 1943. DuPage was one of the new model transports designed to meet the demands of the Pacific conflict. Her troop compartments could hold over 1300 men with personal equipment; the upper decks could house nearly 100 officers with a reasonable degree of comfort. At full steam, her single screw would propel her into the war at a reasonable 18 knots.[6]  Captain George Wauchope’s men had only a few months of amphibious training and gunnery practice under their belts; they practiced their craft on the long voyage from Virginia to California. Although she was the flagship for her transport group, the DuPage and the majority of her 540-man crew had less time in the service than the green marines bound for their baptism of fire.

"'We're Shoving Right Off' - Their intensive training period in this country completed, these Marines, ready to fight their weight in wildcats or Japs, board a transport for parts unknown." Photo from the Fourth Marine Division "Red Book," 1945.
“‘We’re Shoving Right Off’ – Their intensive training period in this country completed, these Marines, ready to fight their weight in wildcats or Japs, board a transport for parts unknown.” Photo from the Fourth Marine Division “Red Book,” 1945.

As they stepped off the gangplank and shuffled belowdecks, the men of 1/24 “began a new and strange kind of life that [they were] to know too well before many months – life on a troop transport.”[6.5] They had some idea of the discomforts they could expect. Although the battalion itself was slightly under strength, they were not the only unit aboard: detachments from the First Joint Assault Signal Company (1st JASCO) and their own headquarters company competed for space in the crowded holds. “You would not believe how we were packed into those babies,” commented PFC John C. Pope of Dog Company. “We slept on what we called racks. That was canvas stretched between two pipes. Every time the guy beneath me turned over, he raised me up. They were seven high and you had to get horizontal and roll in. You might very well be assigned a rack way down in the bowels of the ship along with two hundred and fifty other men. You had two ladders to get up to the compartment above you where another two hundred men were billeted [and] another two ladders to get to the main deck and fresh air.”[7] Officers were quartered separately, but their accommodations were only slightly less Spartan. “The crowded life in a transport is no exaggeration,” wrote First Lieutenant Philip E. Wood, Jr. of Able Company. “The other night I figured out that sixteen other officers sleep within an arm’s length of my sack. Usually you have to sleep in just your scivvy drawers – not even a sheet. And the ventilating fans and blowers whir and whistle day and night. You can feel every step in the companionway overhead, and these lights are feeble and flickery.”[8]

Life aboard an APA was crowded, dark, and uncomfortable.
These pictures were taken in 1947, aboard a transport of the 
DuPage era. Author’s collection.

Combat loading a transport was a complicated undertaking. Each ship was loaded according to a carefully planned manifesto according to her size, layout, and the number and job of the troops she carried. The most important equipment was stowed last and unloaded first.[9] Space was at an absolute premium, and the troops were forbidden to bring any extraneous personal baggage. (The exception to the rule was Lieutenant Colonel Aquilla “Jimmie” Dyess, the battalion commander, who used the privilege of rank to bring aboard a sturdy wooden box that quickly disappeared into his quarters. Its contents were a mystery to all but Dyess and his trusted driver, PFC Willie Turner, who was told to reveal the secret only under a very strict set of circumstances.)[10] The task of loading the DuPage began on January 6 and was nearly complete by the time 1/24 came aboard on January 11; still, another full day of final provisioning took place before the ship was deemed ready for sea.

As the men settled into their racks to bicker and bargain for any space they could find, the company first sergeants struggled to tabulate accurate rosters. A significant part of the battalion would remain at Camp Pendleton; twenty of these, mostly clerks and administrators, were designated as the battalion’s rear echelon.[11] A further thirty men were deemed too ill to make the voyage. A rash of “absent over leave” infractions over the Christmas holidays was still being worked out, and while most of the men returned to take their punishment, a handful were still at large and in danger of missing their ship.[12] To further complicate matters, a new promotion list created twenty-four new NCOs, and some planned transfers had not yet taken place. Seven men were sent to other units and a handful of new PFCs joined to battalion after boarding the transport. The last man to join, seventeen-year-old PFC Herbert Newman, was added to Baker Company’s roster on sailing day, bringing the total strength of the battalion to 896.[13]

At 1000 on January 13, 1944, the USS DuPage cast off from the pier and headed out to sea to join up with the other ships of Task Force 53. Captain Wauchope rang up 13.5 knots and set a course for an unannounced rendezvous point. Marines lounging on the fantail or standing in the chow line could see the California coast disappearing behind them. One question was foremost in their minds: is this the real thing? Most hoped so. “We got so damn mad we wanted to go into battle,” said Corporal Mike Mervosh of Company C. “We felt we were being over trained. We’d been out many times making those amphibious landings on the west coast, thinking we were going into battle then we didn’t.”[14] Phil Wood was of the same mind: he almost believed “that they didn’t actually plan ever to use us,” and cited “the final straw” of the San Clemente operation as proof. [15] Hopeful marines searched for clues about their destination, but only the highest-ranking officers had the straight dope. And the regimental commander, Colonel Franklin Hart, had not yet passed “The Word.”

The swift establishment of a daily routine mitigated the tension. Colonel Dyess instituted a rigorous calisthenics program; “hours of physical exercise out in the hot sun” kept muscles active on a long journey.[16] Griping marines were mollified to see Dyess sweating through the exercises with them, although an old football injury caused him considerable pain.[17] A great deal of time and energy was devoted to chow. Three times a day, hundreds of men filed slowly through a winding mess line. “Our meals aboard ship weren’t bad, but they weren’t four-star either,” said Mervosh. “They served beans at every meal. The mess hall had bread that was baked every day, but a lot of food was dehydrated…. The eggs were always a greenish color and the milk tasted watered down.” A vegan gunnery sergeant – a rare bird in his time, place and profession – gave Mervosh extra meat off his plate. Company comedians could score an easy laugh by taking cracks at Navy food, Navy accommodations and, if they were daring enough, at the Navy itself. Despite this, “we got along pretty good with the Navy guys.” [18]

The mental adjustment to life at sea was one thing. The physical one was quite another. “A lot of guys got really sick at first,” said Mervosh. Although he quickly found his sea legs, others took longer to acclimatize. Some never did. George Smith recalled one chronically seasick man who took to his bunk and refused to move for the duration of the voyage. “He’d get seasick at the sight of water,” Smith commented. “He was really ashamed of it. He was so glad to get off the boat, he didn’t care where the hell he was – he’d be really dehydrated from throwing up.”[19] Fresh water was at a premium. Marines were allowed to fill canteens at the scuttlebutts twice a day – if they missed out, they had to wait – and freshwater showers were an unheard-of luxury. Sweat-drenched men washed once a day in cold salt water.

When the fourth day dawned and the convoy still sailed west, even the cynics had to admit that this voyage was something different. Tongues wagged, amateur strategists speculated, and the rumor mill spun faster every time the top brass released new details concerning the coming operation.[20] Junior officers received the word first; Lieutenant Wood and others of his grade “were issued many maps and photos, and reams of intelligence data and orders.”[21] News quickly trickled down to the men. “They let us know where we were headed, a place referred to in code: ‘Burlesque and Camouflage,’” said Mervosh. “We still had no idea where we were going, but we did know it was somewhere in the South Pacific, and that would put us into the war at last.”[22] Guarded enthusiasm made its way into letters home. “Dear girls,” wrote Lieutenant Wood. “We are under way at last… all of us, of course, are very thankful.” “Dear Toots,” wrote Corporal Robert Koch.”We’re off on a little trip. Don’t worry….”[23] Hundreds of maps were handed out; although they lacked clues as to name and location, the mimeographed sheets gave 1/24 their first glimpse of “two little islands with a little sandspit holding them together” – barely large enough to support an airstrip and a few clusters of buildings.[24]

These combination map and quiz sheets were distributed to every man participating in Operation Flintlock.
Author’s collection.

Koch and his buddies “listened to talks from their C.O., Captain M. G. Cokin; their platoon leader, First Lieutenant David Lownds, and their platoon sergeant, John Gilroy. They memorized little maps of their objectives and learned the code names of places and streets on the little island.”[25] The islands looked tiny – and in fact proved to be – but the marines knew “tiny” did not mean “easy.” The name of Tarawa was then a fresh addition to American vocabulary; the bloody assault of November 1943 proved that a flyspeck on the map could cost thousands of lives. As Koch and hundreds of others “worked over their weapons and made guesses as to where they were going,” the first tendrils of tension worked their way into conversations: would the coming assault be another Tarawa?[26]

Training plan for the Fourth Marine Division en route to Operation Flintlock.
Training plan for the Fourth Marine Division en route to Operation Flintlock.

The shadowy forms of islands appeared on the horizon at dawn on January 21. The DuPage crew manned the rails as their ship slid quietly through the channel and into the most infamous port in the Pacific.

Pearl Harbor. The very name they had seen in newsreels, read in the papers, heard on the radio countless times. A name they were exhorted to remember, as if any one of them could forget. It was, in a very real way, the reason why they were on their way to fight, and possibly die, in the far reaches of the Pacific. With few exceptions, it was their first time seeing Pearl with their own eyes. And what they saw left a terrible impression. “Pearl Harbor… was still strewn with the remains of our bombed out ships, surrounded by oil-covered water,” recalled John Pope.[27] Huge derricks loomed over the capsized USS Utah; the Oklahoma was stained and rusted; the blackened hulk of the Arizona, shorn of her superstructure, was barely recognizable.

The effect on the men was universal. “It was very emotional for everyone,” said Mike Mervosh. “A lot of men just cried as we sailed slowly past.”[28] John Pope remembered that the entire ship came to “an unannounced silence” as they passed the Arizona. Many men thought back to where they had been when they learned of the attack – and all that had happened in the two years since. For Andrew Chorzempa, Arthur Ervin, John Svoboda and Walter Prall, the emotion ran somewhat deeper: all four had been at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.[29]

The USS Oklahoma was among the ships being salvaged when 1/24 arrived in Pearl Harbor. Even after two years, the ship is still leaking a tremendous amount of oil.
The USS Oklahoma was among the ships under salvage when 1/24 stopped at Pearl Harbor. Even after two years, the ship is still leaking a tremendous amount of oil. This photo was taken about one month before the DuPage arrived.

Despite the sobering sights, many still hoped to get ashore and cut loose. Pearl Harbor was a notorious liberty port, and for all they knew, it might be their last. As the DuPage tied up for fueling and provisioning, the loudspeaker crackled to life: “Now hear this: there will be no liberty.” The announcement was met with howls of disappointment from marines and sailors alike. A lucky few were assigned to shore details, but work kept them too busy enjoy the sights and all were back aboard by evening. At 0853 on January 22, the DuPage cast off her moorings and headed back to sea.

As the marines took a last look at the remnants of Battleship Row, the sorrow and frustration of the previous day fermented into rage. “I vowed to kill every Jap I could,” said Mervosh, and he was not alone.[30] While contemplating his previous “pacifist arguments,” Lieutenant Wood found that “gradually, through sort of a process of osmosis, I have acquired a ‘fighting spirit.’ I do look forward to killing a Jap. I don’t know why exactly… mostly I guess that it is simply what I have been training for, for two years now, and I want to do it well now.”[31]

Officers of the 24th Marines inspect a relief map of Roi-Namur. Regimental commander Colonel Franklin Hart is at left; Jimmie Dyess is at far right. Beside him is the battalion executive officer, Major Maynard Schultz.
Officers of the 24th Marines inspect a relief map of Roi-Namur. Regimental commander Colonel Franklin Hart is at left; Jimmie Dyess is at far right. Beside him is the battalion executive officer, Major Maynard Schultz.

On January 24, 1944, the destination was finally revealed. “We are heading for the Japanese-Mandated Marshall Islands in one of the most powerful naval task forces ever assembled,” recorded the regimental War Diary with obvious pride. “We are part of a Northern Task Force which is to attack the northern end of Kwajalein Atoll, in the western chain of the Marshall Islands.”[32] The identities of “Burlesque and Camouflage” were revealed as Roi and Namur; the 24th Marines would assault and subjugate the latter island. The marines met the news with “a big cheer…we were really delighted to go and fight.”[33] More maps, mockups and overlays appeared. Officers “spent long hours every day teaching everything we knew to the men, memorizing, going over it, pounding it in.”[34] The attention to detail was not lost on the marines – Wood wrote of the “genuine admiration for the amazing thoroughness with which this whole operation has been planned” – and each company, platoon, squad and team learned exactly what it was supposed to do and when.[35] Every pillbox, blockhouse, trench and emplacement was marked on the highly detailed maps. Roi and Namur, while tiny, were obviously well defended.

namur_map_for_web

Naturally, the marines wanted to know about the men they would be facing. Mike Mervosh “was looking forward to going to battle with the finest soldiers of the Japanese Army, as well as the Imperial Marines…. I wanted to fight their best men, and would not be satisfied to engage inferior troops.”[36] The division intelligence section believed that between 2,700 and 3,100 Japanese troops garrisoned Roi-Namur, and hazarded that they might belong to the 6th Base Force, 61st Naval Guard Force, and the 122nd Regiment. Some civil engineers and Korean laborers would also be present.[37] Few details were known about these units, so the Marines relied on their imaginations to fill in the gaps. “Growing up, we all thought the Japanese had slitty eyes, horn-rimmed glasses, were short and bandy-legged,” recalled George Smith.[38] Surely such pathetic specimens were no match for American Marines, and Lieutenant Wood overheard several men make “fantastic boasts as to how many Japs they are going to skin alive.”[39] On the other hand, there were the stories of tough jungle warriors, of surprising marksmanship, of inhuman endurance, of fighting to annihilation, and an absolute and total disregard for the rules of civilized warfare. At Guadalcanal, the Marines dispelled the myth of the unbeatable Imperial soldier (and a few veterans of that battle were now aboard the DuPage), but if 1/24 did not believe the enemy was superhuman, the majority believed he was something other than human. John Pope heard the stories and braced himself to “go toe to toe with enemy soldiers who intend to fight to the death. Surrender in those days was, in the Japanese soldier’s mind, not an option.”[40]

“We were going up an enemy that was treacherous, resourceful, silent in their suffering, and deadly as a snake,” said Corporal Mervosh. “I told my men they needed to strengthen themselves mentally and physically to kill or be killed.”[41] Feeling the weight of his second stripe, he “continuously inspected the machine gun barrels, ammo belts, rifles and bayonets, canteens, Ka-Bars, helmets, battle dressings–you name it.”[42] The personal equipment issued to a gunner like John Pope included:

  • 160 rounds, in belt, if armed with the M1 rifle
  • 60 rounds, in belt, plus full 15 round magazine, if armed with the M1 carbine
  • 4 hand grenades (to be stored in an extra canteen cover)
  • One bandolier of extra ammunition.
  • One sandbag, empty
  • Personal equipment in field pack
  • Steel helmet

On top of this, Pope’s team had to bear the staggering burden of a .50 caliber machine gun, tripod, and ammunition. “I have no idea how much that weighed,” said Pope, but “if you fell in deep water, you were going to drown; there was no way you could shed all that weight in time to swim.”[43]

"Pinkie" - Melvin Pinkerton - and John Pope, festooned with ammunition for a .50 caliber machine gun.
Mel Pinkerton and John Pope illustrate an ammo carrier’s burden – this without personal weapons and gear.

With combat only days away, the fastidious cleaning and care of weapons became an obsession. All weapons, from pistols to machine guns were stripped, cleaned, oiled, and reassembled at least once a day. Gunners to special care to make sure their belted ammunition stayed dry and corrosion-free: one hung round could cause an irreparable jam at a crucial moment. Strangely, some received new weapons during the voyage. PFC Patsy Renna, an ammunition carrier in Company D, was told to turn in his regular M1 Garand rifle. In return, he was handed a brand new M1 carbine, a lighter weapon with a larger magazine. When his turn came to shoot a few rounds off the fantail, Renna was surprised at how well the carbine performed. “It was very accurate, dependable, and light. You could almost shoot it with one hand,” he said. “It was almost like a pistol. As fast as you pulled the trigger, it fired.”[44] The noise of the ad-hoc firing line was occasionally punctuated by heavier blasts as the DuPage crew practiced with their anti-aircraft guns.

The Navy gunnery and an increasing number of ship-related drills underscored the fact that they were now in unfriendly waters. “We were always preparing for the worst so we would be ready if something occurred,” recalled Mervosh.[45] Marines dreaded the General Quarters drills, which forced them into the cramped and humid interior of the ship. The prospect of being trapped below decks during an attack was hard to stomach. “It was rumored [the transports] were known to sink in four minutes,” remembered John Pope. “Not a very comforting thought. If a bomb hit your ship, you were going to die. No chance of getting out. If a torpedo comes through the bulkhead into your compartment, you will die in the explosion or drown.”[46] PFC Bob Williams agreed. “There was always a worriment of Japanese subs. We used to complain if we got stuck on what we called ‘torpedo junction,’ with all our beds in the hold right at the spot where torpedoes would come in. We used to say, gee, hope they don’t make it tonight!”[47] The sheer size of the convoy, the largest yet assembled in the Pacific, afforded some comfort. “As far as you could see, there were ships,” Williams recalled. “There were battlewagons, cruisers, and of course destroyers and aircraft carriers. We were constantly patrolled… felt quite safe. We had confidence in our Navy.”[48] Friendly aircraft practiced over the convoy as well, though their mock attacks involved an element of real danger. “Today we had about fifty US planes strafe us,” wrote PFC Harlan Jeffery. “One was diving at a Transport and failed to come out of it, it crashed in the ocean, the pilot was picked up a few minutes later.” [48.5]

Task Force 53 bound for the Marshall Islands.
Task Force 53 bound for the Marshall Islands.

Despite the increasingly busy schedule, the Marines found themselves with daily downtime. “It’s a funny feeling being cooped up on board here for days, weeks at a time,” wrote Lieutenant Wood. “The days pass without number almost, they are all alike – we see nothing but ourselves, the ship, and the sea – do the same things: calisthenics on the deck, a lot of reading, and a minimum of card playing because there is really very little money left.”[49] The spectator-to-player ratio changed dramatically as the card sharks cleaned house; Wood, a serious poker player himself, wrote that “the lucky few are cutting each other’s throats for the spoils; the rest of us stand around and watch.”[50] Mostly, cards were a way to kill time. Bob Williams and three buddies sat down to play a game of bridge the day they left California; they were still playing the night before the invasion. “It wasn’t water under the bridge, it was bridge over the water,” he quipped.[51] John Pope read through a stack of Ellery Queen whodunits; the greatest mystery aboard the DuPage was the identity of the wiseguy who carefully tore out the pages where Queen solved the crime. Other marines made rings by cutting the centers out of silver dimes. Galley spoons were the ideal tool for this activity, and “you never heard the like of tap tapping until the boatswain’s pipe sounded and ordered all Marines to return the spoons to the mess hall immediately.” The other chief activity was sleeping, “with a great big capital S, all hours of the day when there is nothing else to do,” said Wood. “Lie on your bunk in the nude, sweating and smelling. If it wasn’t so close, it might be bearable under the head of the languorous tropical heat, but we… decided we couldn’t stand it and decided to sleep on the deck, which we do every night.”[52]

The tension and boredom of the days was relieved somewhat by the long, contemplative nights. Those who could found space to lounge or even sleep on the deck; although they were forbidden to smoke after dark, the exterior spaces of the DuPage were crowded with Marines willing to trade the comfort of nicotine to escape the reeking, humid confines of the troop compartment. There was even some of the romantic quality they’d been led to expect from seafaring tales and movies. After evening chow, PFC Bob Williams and his buddies would gather at the rail to watch the fleet carriers turn into the wind to recover aircraft. Eventually Williams would break away and make his way to the bow. “One of the things I always enjoyed was to go up to the bow of the ship and just sit there and watch the water,” he recalled. He particularly loved the flying fish. “They were just magnificent. I used to try and imagine how far they flew­­…. it was terrific just to watch them.”[53]

“The Pacific becomes lovely in the evening,” wrote Lieutenant Wood, “with the cool, mild night breezes – long slow swells, the sound of the bos’un’s pipe, and the thrumming of the motors. There are stars out here of incredible brilliance and beauty – several that actually flash alternate red and blue lights, unbelievably enough – and when the rigging is threaded with these and the ship is dark and quiet, then the Pacific is beautiful indeed.”[54]

Most evenings, Wood and the “Agony Quartet” could be found holding down a section of the deck, working their way through a repertoire of “all the old and middle-aged songs. ‘Dear Old Girl,’ ‘I Wonder What’s Become Of Sally,’ lullabies and college songs…. I can at least carry a melody, and the other three do the variations on the theme.”[55] The dull voyage was a performer’s dream; anyone with a talent could take advantage of a captive audience. Musicians were in high demand. Men sang together or solo, whistled, hummed, tapped out rhythms with their fingers or feet, or gathered around an accordionist who somehow smuggled his instrument aboard. The ship’s company had personal radios and records. A few of the radiomen might have tuned into news broadcasts from the States, or tried to pick up “The Zero Hour” in time to catch “Orphan Ann.”[56] A little propaganda was a small price to pay for the latest tunes from home.

The "Agony Quartette" aboard the USS DuPage - Eagle, Ted, Big Harry and Fireball.
The “Agony Quartette” aboard the USS DuPage – Phil Wood, Fred Stott, Harry Reynolds, Ted Johnson.

Thoughts of home were foremost on many minds. “This is a peculiar time,” wrote Lieutenant Wood. “A lot of thinking, dreaming, and remembering – and all of us go into this with so many different things to remember.” He felt the extra burden of looking out for his men. “The boys are unusually eager, even more than I thought they would [be], which is saying something. They like our assignment, they want very much to get in – see how the outfit, and most of all themselves, react under fire – whether they will be calm and efficient,” he wrote. “Some have just been married, others leave a tangle of divorce, babies dependent on their family, but all of them have jobs and homes and someone they love. They are not afraid of what is coming, but they don’t want to miss all that Home means to them. They are not afraid of pain or death, only the lack of living – they have only begun to taste the joys of mature life.” He recorded snatches of their conversations and “sudden ethical questions.” 

“What should we do, Lootenant, if we find Japs lying in bed in the hospital?”
“Orders state that we take no prisoners.”

“Hope we find some sake.”
“I want to get a Samurai sword for my girl.”[57]

This bravado was not a universal reaction. PFC Edward Dubeck, a machine gunner with D Company, saw that even “guys from the street corners” could succumb to the human emotions of doubt, worry, and fear. “They told us that we’re the first American troops to leave the United States and go into combat. We’re going to meet the Japanese army who had never seen a white person. We’re going to meet their best Imperial Marines,” he recalled. “That shook everybody up. They started to write letters if they could, but they didn’t know what to write. They were trying, all crying and whatever. It was instinct. It wasn’t nice what they did, to tell us like that.” The common reaction was to go topside and forget about it, “exercise and whatever, so you didn’t worry.” [57.5]

Captain Irving Schechter, the skipper of Company A, was keeping an eye on PFC Steve Hopkins. The young man had caused a stir when he joined the outfit last November, partly because he had voluntarily left officer training to enlist, and partly because his mail came from the White House – his father, Harry Hopkins, was President Roosevelt’s right hand man. “I wasn’t being fatherly,” Schechter later said. “I just wanted to make sure he was for real. There he was, every day, field stripping that machine gun of his, cleaning the barrel, checking the ammunition, and above all, fitting right in with his fire team. He was gung-ho all right.”[58]

Fourth Marine Division troops display the "gung-ho" spirit en route to the Marshall Islands.
Fourth Marine Division troops display the “gung-ho” spirit en route to the Marshall Islands.

Hopkins never revealed his fatalistic premonitions to the captain, but another man did. Schechter knew his battalion commander well, so when “Big Red” asked for a private meeting, he expected some further instruction on the coming mission. The two officers strolled over to the fantail, where Dyess clapped a hand on the captain’s shoulder. “Buck, I know you’re a lawyer,” he began. “I also know I’m going to be killed on this operation. I want you to help me make out my will.”

Schechter was taken aback: Dyess was serious. “Oh, come on, Colonel,” he joked. “I’ll be glad to help on your will. My fee will be your picking up the check when we have dinner after the war back in the States. You’re not going to get killed.”

“Thank you, Buck,” replied Dyess, “but I just feel in my bones that I am going to get killed.”[59] The will was signed and sealed by the time they reached their destination.

Whatever Dyess’ private fears may have been, he evidently had no second thoughts about his role in the upcoming operation. He had pushed hard for a combat command; his enthusiasm was contagious, but also made him a target for practical jokes. Near the end of the voyage, a new set of sealed orders was issued to “Big Red.” His temper flared as he read the typewritten document: 1/24 would not participate in the attack on Roi-Namur. They would stay aboard the DuPage until the fighting was over, and go ashore to garrison the island while the rest of the Fourth Marine Division moved on to the next objective. It turned out to be an elaborate hoax, and the pranksters got a good laugh out of Dyess’ outraged protests before letting him in on the joke.[60]

On January 29, as the DuPage crossed the 180th Meridian and entered the Realm of the Golden Dragon, US Navy fliers systematically destroyed every one of the 83 Japanese aircraft stationed at Roi Island. The strikes continued the following day as the massive convoy snaked its way into Kwajalein lagoon.

Carrier bombers strike at Roi-Namur, 30 January 1944.

The Northern Attack Force split apart as transports and warships took up their assigned stations off the tiny islands that made up the tip of the atoll. And a few minutes before dawn on January 31, 1944, the opening salvos of Operation Flintlock cracked out of the main batteries of battleships and heavy cruisers. The Fourth Marine Division was entering the shooting war, and 1/24 had the next best thing to a ringside seat – so close that “the sound of naval gunfire and aerial bombing is faintly audible.”[61]

The battleship USS North Carolina scores a hit on an ammo dump on Roi. Picture linked from www.battleshipnc.com

From the deck, Lieutenant Phil Wood saw “little low islands looking brilliantly green after weeks of blue sky and bluer water… Roi and Namur, marked by a thin trail of smoke threading across the sky.” The 25th Marines rapidly secured a string of islands easier to conquer than pronounce: Enuebing, Mellu, Ennumennet, Ennubirr, Obella, Ennugarret.[62] Marine officers narrated the invasion over the ship’s loudspeaker and the men cheered each announcement, like baseball fans listening to lively commentators. Mike Mervosh was astounded at the size of the fleet laying waste to the atoll. “We had almost six hundred ships in the fleet…. Before the landing the Navy bombarded the islands with over two and one half tons of heavy shells. It didn’t seem like anything could survive the pummeling that took place.”[63] As the outlying islands fell, the artillerymen of the 14th Marines moved their heavy guns ashore and cleared fields of fire; their ranging shots added to the destruction raining down on Roi and Namur.

Late in the afternoon, as Marines from their sister battalions transferred from transports to smaller LSTs and moved into the lagoon to prepare for the next morning’s assault, the men of 1/24 realized with sudden certainty that everything they did was, potentially, being done for the final time. “The last time you clean and oil your rifle, fuse your hand grenade and hang it on your belt… the last Officer’s meeting, the Colonel’s big red face, and bigger but unsteady grin under the only small light in the room, all the Officers tense and still, getting the final dope, the final meeting of The Agony Quartet,” mused Lieutenant Wood. Weapons were sharpened, pensive letters written, nerves steeled. The smell of cooking steak wafted from the galley as cooks prepared a traditional pre-invasion breakfast. As night fell across the atoll, the silhouettes of shattered trees and blockhouses stood out against the glow of fires on the little low islands. Nothing seemed to stir on Roi or Namur. And four Marine lieutenants sang a last favorite song before “deciding we were excited but not afraid and falling asleep with, strangely, no trouble at all.”[64]

MAIN PAGETHE LANDING


FOOTNOTES

[1] Robert L. Williams, “In My Own Words,” interview conducted by Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, March 12, 2014.
[2] Robert E. Tierney, “My Marine Corps Experience.”
[3] 4th Marine Division Battle Staff Historical Detachment, History of the 4th Marine Division 1943 – 1996 (Washington, D.C: United States Marine Corps, 1997), 7.
[4] James Jones, The Thin Red Line (New York: Dell Publishing, 1998), 1. Jones, himself an Army veteran of Pacific combat, knew this fact all too well.
[5] George A. Smith, interview with the author, 2009.
[6] NavSource Online Amphibious Photo Archive: USS DuPage. Last updated 24 April 2015; accessed 3 February 2016.
[6.5] Carl W, Proehl, ed., The Fourth Marine Division in World War II (1946; repr. Nashville: The Battery Press, 1988), 17.
[7] John C. Pope, Angel On My Shoulder, Kindle edition, location 609. “Ladders” in Navy parlance are staircases. Pope and his buddies spent most of the voyage sleeping on the deck to escape the heat and claustrophobia belowdecks.
[8] Philip E. Wood, Jr. to Margaretta and Gretchen Wood, 30 December 1943.
[9] The system was still not perfect: a last-minute decision to increase the amount of ammunition brought aboard fouled up the loading for the entire Fourth Marine Division.
[10] Perry Smith, Courage, Compassion, Marine: The Unique Story of Jimmie Dyess, (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2015), 109.
[11] The rear echelon contingent was responsible for closing up shop at Camp Pendleton and preparing to move the base of operations to Camp Maui.
[12] “Missing ship” was a grave offense, usually resulting in a fine, reduction in rank, or transfer out of a unit.
[13] Tabulation based on Muster Roll, First Battalion, 24th Marines, Fourth Marine Division for month of January, 1944.
[14]Mike Mervosh, oral history interview, Part 1,” conducted by The National World War II Museum, June 7, 2009.
[15] Philip E. Wood, Jr. to Margaretta and Gretchen Wood, January 1944.
[16] Philip E. Wood, Jr. to Margaretta and Gretchen Wood, 2 April 1944.
[17] Smith, Courage, Compassion, Marine, 111.
[18] Gregg Stoner, Hardcore Iron Mike, Conqueror of Iwo Jima (Bloomington, iUniverse, 2015), 36.
[19] George Smith, 2009 interview.
[20] Keeping a destination secret until well clear of land was standard procedure for reasons of security. Veteran recollections differ as to when this information was revealed – between one to five days at sea, though most are clear that they had some idea of their ultimate destination before they reached the Hawaiian Islands. As an added security measure the real name of the objective, and the operation plan for taking it, were not revealed until the convoy proceeded on from Pearl Harbor.
[21] Wood, letter of 2 April 1944.
[22] Stoner, 35.
[23] Francis X. Tolbert, “The Ear-Banger on Namur,” Leatherneck Magazine vol. 27, no. 6 (May, 1944), 21.
[24] Williams, “In My Own Words.”
[25] Tolbert, 21.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Pope, Angel On My Shoulder.
[28] Stoner, 35.
[29] Chorzempa served aboard the battleship USS Tennessee, Svoboda aboard the cruiser USS Phoenix, and Prall with the Third Defense Battalion. Ervin, in the brig for theft, was turned loose to help fight with the barracks contingent of the Naval Air Station.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Philip E. Wood, Jr. to Margaretta and Gretchen Wood, January 24 1944.
[32] Colonel Franklin A. Hart, “War Diary, 24th Marines, for period 4 January to 27 March 1944,” (1 April 1944), 2.
[33] Mervosh interview, 2009.
[34] Wood, letter of 2 April 1944.
[35] Wood, letter of 24 January 1944.
[36] Stoner, 37.
[37] Robert D. Heinl, Jr. and John A. Crown, The Marshalls: Increasing the Tempo (Washington, DC: Historical Branch, U. S. Marine Corps, 1954), 32. These islands were codenamed: Jacob, Ivan, Albert, Allen, Andrew, and Abraham. The numbers proved to be accurate; most of the troops on Roi-Namur belonged to the 24th Air Flotilla (~1,500), the Sonoyama Unit of the 61st Naval Guard Force (~500) and assorted Naval Air Corps construction and service troops (~1,000).
[38] George Smith interview, 2009.
[39] Wood, letter of 24 January 1944.
[40] Pope, Angel On My Shoulder.
[41] Stoner, 37-38.
[42] Ibid., 38.
[43] Pope, Angel On My Shoulder.
[44] Gary Duchane, “M1 Carbine, Built In New Haven, Recognized For Its Role In Three Wars,” Hartford Courant, 27 August 1992. Why these weapons were not issued during stateside training remains a mystery.
[45] Stoner, 35.
[46] Pope, Angel On My Shoulder.
[47] Williams, “In My Own Words.”
[48] Ibid.
[48.5] Harlan Chester Jeffery, personal diary entry Jan 24 1944. Courtesy of Domenick Tutalo.
[49] Wood, letter January 1944.
[50] Ibid.
[51] Williams, “In My Own Words.” “Believe it or not, I haven’t played bridge since then,” Mr. Williams added. “I had my fill of bridge!”
[52] Wood, letter January 1944.
[53] Williams, “In My Own Words.”
[54] Wood, letter January 1944.
[55] Ibid. The “Agony Quartet” was composed of four lieutenants: Wood, Harry Reynolds, Ted Johnson, and Fred Stott.
[56] The Zero Hour was a propaganda program broadcast by Radio Tokyo. American-born Iva Toguri, who was arguably the most famous “voice” of the program, used the handle “Orphan Ann” – though her American audiences called her “Tokyo Rose.”
[57] Wood, letter January 1944.
[57.5] Edward Dubeck, oral history interview conducted by Shane Hickey for the Veteran’s History Project, January 31 2010.
[58] Irving Schechter, “The Lawyer Who Went to War,” Semper Fi, Mac, ed. Henry Berry (New York: Harper, 1982), 222.
[59] Ibid.
[60] Smith, Courage, Compassion, Marine, 112.
[61] Hart, “War Diary, 24th Marines,” 3.
[62] Heinl and Crown, 44. These islands were codenamed: Jacob, Ivan, Albert, Allen, Andrew, and Abraham.
[63] Stoner, 38. An estimated 2,655 tons of munitions were hurled at the two tiny islands.
[64] Wood, letter of 2 April 1944.