“We Had To Bury Those Dead…”

OPERATION FLINTLOCK, D+3 to D+12
3 – 12 FEBRUARY 1944

 

“I did a lot of living in those two days, and a lot of thinking about it since.”
– Philip Emerson Wood, Jr.
A/1/24

Dawn on February 3 1944 found the Fourth Marine Division in complete control of northern Kwajalein.

Fires still flickered in bombed-out blockhouses. Smoke still poured from burning buildings. The hum of bullets was replaced by the buzz of huge green and purple flies. The breeze that stirred the little flag atop its ad-hoc pole brought the scent of diesel oil and human sweat, excrement, and rotting flesh. Thousands of living men awoke, shaved, and breakfasted in the company of thousands of dead men. Months of bombing, days of shelling, and thirty-six hours of ground fighting turned the twin islands of Roi and Namur into a blackened charnel house.

The remains of a Japanese machine gun team. Empty clips indicate that these men went down fighting.
The remains of a Japanese machine gun team. Empty clips indicate that these men went down fighting.

“Namur must once have been a lovely spot,” wrote First Lieutenant Philip E. Wood, Jr., but in the aftermath of the battle, “there is nothing tropical or lovely left. It looks as though someone with an imagination of his own had tried to make a Hollywood set for Journey’s End.” As he looked around, Wood saw “a dry, hot, fetid version of the worst section of No Man’s Land that France ever had to offer. No living green thing, blasted tree trunks, huge gaping shell holes, disemboweled trucks, heaps of concrete and lumber that were once fortifications.”[1]

31

Roi-Namur was a wasteland, but could not remain so. The objective of Operation Flintlock was more than the destruction of buildings and the slaughter of a garrison – it was the capture and rebuilding of an air base. Engineering units were already landing their equipment. The tanks that roared through Namur’s undergrowth were replaced by bulldozers clearing new roads. Surveying teams staked out the cratered runways on Roi, and naval Construction Battalions – the Seabees – hustled to build new heads and galleys.[2] So many support troops were coming ashore that battalions of assault troops moved to ships offshore to make room.[3] Within three days, the 15th Defense Battalion was emplacing heavy weapons in new positions; within ten days, a damaged bomber could land for repairs; within a month, Marine dive-bombers would roar overhead as the 95th Naval Construction Battalion leveled the last of the damaged Japanese structures and begin building the base that stands on Roi-Namur today.

But between destruction and construction lay a tremendous hurdle: “Bodies by the thousands. Parts of bodies so disfigured that they beggar description. Horrible.”[4]

Burial Parties

Dead men were scattered about the island – singly, with buddies in foxholes and dugouts, in clusters in trenches and craters. Some blockhouses were found to contain as many as forty or fifty heaped together. While PFC Harlan Jeffery and his friends walked about “admiring the dead Japs,” they also kept a careful eye out for the saddening sight of green dungarees. A correspondent noted one such scene, describing “that sad-faced kid of about 18 who stood beside the body of a marine killed by shrapnel and successfully fought back tears by saying to every passer-by, stranger of not, ‘He was my buddy…. He was my buddy…. He was my buddy….’”[5]

Somebody's buddy. Official USMC photo.
He was somebody’s buddy. Official USMC photo.

After the Division commander and his dignitaries presided over the mass commemoration on February 2, a steady stream of trucks bearing the bodies of dead Marines arrived at the little spit between Roi and Namur. The arrival of Graves Registration personnel on February 3 brought an additional degree of order to the chaos. When the sun went down, burial parties fired up floodlights and kept digging.[6] By the end of February 5, when the cemetery grew to two plots and contained the majority of the 172 Fourth Marine Division personnel killed in Operation Flintlock, the cemetery was declared complete.[7] Thirty-one of the graves – from Jimmie Dyess in Plot One, Grave Sixteen to Carroll Meyer in Plot Two, Grave 141 – were occupied by former members of the First Battalion, 24th Marines.

The resting place of PFC Giustino Parente, B/1/24. Still from USMC combat camera footage.
Grave #66, Row #3, Plot #2 belonged to PFC Giustino Parente, B/1/24. Still from USMC combat camera footage.
Frank Schur
Frank Schur

Out in the lagoon, more burials were taking place. A wounded man’s chances for survival improved dramatically if he lived long enough to reach a ship’s sick bay; the arrival of the hospital ship USS Solace saved many more lives. For a few men even the best medical help was too little, too late. PFC Frank Schur, a nineteen-year-old rifleman from B/1/24th Marines, was brought to the USS Doyen with gunshot wounds in his head and chest. When he died on February 3, all activity aboard the ship came to a halt. His body, covered in an American flag, was brought up to the fantail. A brief service was pronounced over him as sailors stood to attention, and a bugle may have played as his weighted shroud slid over the side. The Shadyside, Ohio Marine was the third from his battalion to be buried at sea; he was also their final fatality of the campaign.[8] At intervals over the next several days, crackling loudspeakers would announce “All hands stand by to bury the dead,” and the echo of a bugle would play out across the lagoon.

As the gravediggers smoothed pathways and straightened painted headboards, combat Marines came to visit the cemetery. They poked along the lines, helmets off and heads down, scanning the rows for certain names. They looked for squadmates, for hometown pals, for buddies who had been as close as family, and in at least two cases, for blood relatives.[9]

Several months later, Brigadier General Robert Denig traveled to Namur with an armful of flowers. He “stepped up to the grave, one of many in the Marine cemetery…. Quietly and carefully, the Marine general hung Hawaiian leis on the white cross. Through the flowery folds you could read the inscription: ‘Captain James L. Denig, USMC. Killed in action.’ The general, a veteran of the first war, cried. So would almost any American father who was visiting the grave of a son of whom he had been very fond and proud.”[10]

Brigadier General Robert Denig visits his son's grave on Namur. PFC Carmen Ramputi (D/1/24) is buried at top right.
Brigadier General Robert Denig visits his son’s grave on Namur. PFC Carmen Ramputi (D/1/24) is buried at top right.

Body Disposal

“Immediately after the assault phase the problem of sanitation became urgent.”
– Fourth Marine Division after action report[11]

namur_deathinatrench
Japanese defenders lie piled in one of Namur’s many trenches. Official USMC photo.

Much ink was spilled on the subject of “battlefield sanitation” on Roi and Namur. The lessons of Tarawa were not limited to amphibious assault doctrine, but extended to the aftermath of a battle and the stark reality of handling thousands of corpses in a very small space. “The largest sanitary problem confronting the victor is unquestionably the speedy and effective disposal of the dead,” opined the division surgeon. “Particularly enemy dead.”[12] To mitigate this problem, the invasion force organized a “body disposal group,” consisting of Marine epidemic control specialists, Navy men from ACORN 21, and a large number of volunteers. Equipped with knapsack sprayers and drums of disinfectant, they were to handle the removal of all enemy dead and prevent the spread of diseases.[13] The work was grisly, to say the least.

The men were grouped in teams of four, each ten teams being under the command of an officer. Using a hand sprayer, the first man of the team would spray the individual Japanese corpse, the second man would drag the body with a heavy iron rake onto a tarpaulin supported by iron rods on each side, and the number three and four men would carry the body away in the manner of stretcher bearers. Two large spray tanks on trucks were used to cover the walls of large buildings and for major spraying jobs. Each group of forty men and an officer were given a special area to clear, and were later assigned to “busy” areas after their sections had been inspected and found free of bodies or decaying food matter, which was treated in the same fashion as the enemy dead.[14]

The first of these men disembarked at 0800 on February 2; by the following day, eleven officers and 400 men were ashore. As the days went on, the odor of decaying bodies was replaced by the sterile scent of Klix mixed with sodium arsenite. It was eventually estimated that some 3,500 Japanese and Korean bodies were treated, transported, and buried in this manner.[15]

A body disposal team uses a disinfectant sprayer. Note rake held by Marine at left. Official USMC photo.
A body disposal team uses a disinfectant sprayer. Note rake held by Marine at left. Official USMC photo.

Of course, not everything went as planned. The knapsack sprayers were faulty and often leaked; the resultant arsenic burns and dermatitis were described as “minor” but had a worrying tendency to occur in the scrotal region.[16] Specialized equipment allocated to ACORN 21 was not delivered until late in the operation. Proper gloves could not be located; fifty pairs of cargo loading gloves were found and issued, but were deemed utterly inadequate. The volunteer nature of the unit meant that many men were unfamiliar with the duties at hand. For example, three officers and 150 men volunteered from a carrier aircraft service unit (CASU-20), and had no discernible qualifications aside from sheer enthusiasm.[17] They were “eager but untrained,” commented Colonel Jones of the 23rd Marines. “They established no readily contacted headquarters and in their haste to do everything at once were seldom available to notify when new bodies were discovered.” Jones’ own men stepped in and “gathered and stacked about 300 bodies.”[18] Heavy equipment operators complained of being shanghaied into digging burial trenches and bemoaned the lack of “command discipline” that delayed unloading.[19]

Progress was slow but sure. By February 4, C. W. Hussey of the SS Young America reported “three trenches each approximately 50 yards long, 15 feet wide, and 8 feet deep half filled with dead Japs, and two others that had been covered over with a sign ‘279 JAPS BURIED HERE.’ I saw one water-filled bomb crater and counted 15 Japs and 1 pig floating in the bloody water. I saw small fragments of dead bodies being swept from the floor of 1 blockhouse which the Navy was making ready for headquarters site.”[20] Although fewer bodies were found on Roi, the island’s much-needed runways and construction-ready terrain made it the first priority for the limited equipment and manpower. Cleaning up Namur, a monumental mess of scattered buildings, shattered trees, trenches, bunkers, and craters, posed a far greater challenge. And only one source of manpower was available to deal with the situation.

“We didn’t know that after we fought them that we would have to bury them.”
– Alva Perry
A/1/24

The controversial decision to use combat troops as cleanup crews was regarded as anything from a temporary inconvenience to a flagrant abuse of authority. At the division staff level, it was “regretted, but… considered to have been absolutely necessary under the circumstances.”[21] The division surgeon, without a trace of irony, thought it “a very grave problem” and took umbrage that “men who were combat troops… felt that this type of a job was somewhat of an imposition.”[22] Farther down the command chain, the regimental surgeon of the 24th Marines spoke up for the “officers, doctors, corpsmen, bandsmen and assault troops that had just completed two days arduous fighting” who were put at serious risk of infection, and commented that “this entire procedure was bad for morale.”[23] Battalion officers were even more direct. “Assault troops should not have to gather dead Japs after battle,” stated Major Maynard Schultz. His quartermaster, George Wheeland, added “The men who did the fighting… should not be required on working parties for unloading or beach work. And absolutely not in removing the dead.”[24]

Of course, the men who did the dirty work had the strongest reactions of all. When PFC Howard Kerr balked at the task, an officer quipped “You guys gotta stay here because the Army won’t come in unless you clean ‘em up.”[25] PFC Alva Perry was revolted by the sight of dead men “who had been allowed to lie in the hot sun for days. Their bodies were rotten. Purple flies covered their wounds and… would fly into our mouths if they were open. The smell was beyond comparison.” Perry put on a gas mask but the smell made him sick; after cleaning the vomit out of the mask, he determined to “just hold my breath as long as I could.”[26]

Searching for bodies on Namur. Note gas mask worn by Marine at right.
Searching for bodies on Namur. Note gas mask worn by Marine at right. Official USMC photo.

PFC John Pope and his buddies went about their work “with much bitching and retching,” he said. “Some of those enemy guys had been killed by naval shelling before we landed and had been laying there in the hot sun for several days. The odor and green flies and maggots made it a little hard to eat our rations.”[27] For every body lying obligingly in the open, there were three tucked into dark corners of pillboxes, wedged under trees, crushed by falling buildings or hidden in trenches. Danger was added to disgust: as many as 100 Japanese soldiers were still alive, working up the courage to commit suicide or waiting for the chance to open fire on an incautious Marine. But for the most part, the once feared enemy now “lay like broken wax dolls in shell holes, near ammunition dumps, and in the ruins of buildings,” waiting to be dragged out and disposed.

Combat troops clean up the battlefield. A shortage of tools and gloves led to improvisational measures.
Official USMC photographs by Sgt. W. Feen.


While the Marines buried their own dead with as much reverence as they could muster, the same treatment was not afforded to the Japanese. The mass graves on Roi were convenient for teams on that island, but no bulldozers could be spared to dig more on Namur. The damaged causeway created a traffic snarl that made truck transport impractical.[28] And nobody was prepared to walk the entire way carrying a stretcher. “We would roll one or more rotting bodies onto a poncho, drag them to the nearest shell hole and dump them in,” said Pope. “When the hole was full they were doused with diesel fuel and set on fire. The smell of human flesh burning is nauseating all by itself. They were then sprinkled with lime and covered over.”[29] Eventually, officers designated three large bomb craters as central burial points.

Kerr, Perry, and Pope all reported using Japanese trucks to speed up the process, but even this expedient was not without its horrors. Perry’s team tried tossing bodies up to the truck bed, but repeatedly lost their grip on the slimy flesh and hit the tailgate instead. Pope lit upon the idea of rolling bodies in ponchos “and on the count of three two guys would swing it sailing up onto the truck.” His friend, Jim Rainey, lost his breakfast at the “unbelievable” odor and was steadying himself against the truck when another corpse came slithering down the pile on the flatbed.

I yelled for him to look out – he instinctively held out both arms to ward it off and wound up with it cradled in his arms like a baby. As he tried to step back it slid down his front leaving some rotten flesh on his jacket. He really lost it then. He dropped it immediately and headed for the nearby beach. He waded out into the surf, took off all his clothes, and vowed to quit the war and go home.[30]

Perry and company climbed aboard, balancing atop the reeking pile as the truck shuddered and swayed across the island to the crater. A corpsman dragooned into the burial detail reached into his supply bag and doled out small bottles of peach brandy. By the end of the day, the group was “feeling no pain” and went splashing in the ocean “to get the goop off and reduce the stench.” Exhausted, they passed out on the beach. Body disposal teams crossed to Namur on February 4, but Perry recalled this detail as “my worst experience on the island, one I will never forget.”[31] At least one Marine was heard to quip that had he known he’d have to bury his enemies, he wouldn’t have killed so many.

After the battle of Namur, 1/24 was ordered to clean up its battlefield. "We found an old flatbed truck and managed to get it started. We got the bright idea to use it to haul bodies." Disgust is evident on every face, despite the blurred focus.
John Pope’s burial team in the bed of their captured truck.
The blurred focus cannot hide the disgust on their faces.

Help came from unexpected quarters. A group of 34 Marshall Islanders “reported and offered their services” on February 3.[32] These residents of Roi and Namur, displaced by Japanese occupation or American bombing, waited out the battle on the atoll’s tiny islands. Marines obligingly boated them from their refuges to temporary camps; the 25th Marines noted “the natives appeared most friendly and were apparently glad to see Americans in the Islands.”[33] They were understandably keen to clean up their devastated homes, and were put to work hauling bodies and rotting food from Japanese stores. The Marines saw to it that their helpers were compensated for their efforts – with American currency. Less enthusiastic assistance came from a handful of Japanese and Korean POWs, compelled to dispose of their dead friends and comrades. But even the most reluctant prisoner showed more initiative than the Marines’ own rear echelon troops who, it was claimed, “took little or no part in the cleaning up of the battle area.”[34] The sight of “gold-bricking” non-combatants “wandering over the area, collecting souvenirs and sight-seeing” was so obnoxious that Colonel Franklin Hart ordered them arrested and put to work.[35] Body disposal teams began to arrive from Roi late on February 4, but by that time the bulk of the dirty work was done, and an estimated 1,200 enemy dead were committed to their questionable rest in Namur’s craters.

Official USMC photographs by Sgt. Bob Cooke and Sgt. A. Zurick.

Any living thing discovered in hellscape became immediate centers of attention. Correspondent Alva Dopking was fascinated by a chicken “which seemed unconcerned…. It walked around serenely calm in the murderous crossfire.”[36] The Japanese garrison kept hogs, some of which survived the battle. An MP from New York, PFC Dominick Santomero, adopted a “web-footed raven” that he found “in a state of nervous collapse” and intended to nurse back to health.[37] The most intriguing find of all was a little English bulldog who adopted A/1/24. “He’s a perfect Marine mascot,” gushed Phil Wood. “Very friendly, loves to go on hikes…. He’s battle-wise too, naturally, and as soon as he hears firing he calmly crawls into a hole.” The pup, renamed “Tojo,” was summarily promoted to Private First Class “since he’d seen action.”[38]

Humans appeared from the rubble, too. An estimated 100 Japanese troops continued holding out after February 3, either waiting for a final shot at a Marine or stealing food by night until spotted and chased down. Few caused any serious damage (the 24th Marines blamed “promiscuous ‘trigger happy’ unintelligent firing” by their own rear echelon for one death and several wounds) and when cornered, military personnel suicide to capture.[39] “We found some evidence of hari-kari and a few tried to surrender – unsuccessfully – but on the whole they fought to the last, trying to attack whenever they could,” noted Phil Wood. After a few such “fanatical attacks,” the Marines were disinclined to distinguish between hardened rikusentai and the Korean laborers and civilians who earnestly wanted to surrender.[40] A few did find some clemency – R-2 reported taking 21 prisoners – but this was far below what might have been. “Funny about the surrendering business,” continued Wood. “They seldom try it because they’re afraid they will be tortured by us, and we’re fearful of their tricks and don’t like to take chances. So we don’t take any. Our Battalion didn’t take a one, though at least fifty offered themselves.”[41] Wood believed the Marines “aren’t bloodthirsty ­– just absolutely cold-blooded…. I imagine it’s simply because they don’t want to take unnecessary chances.”[42]

surrender2

One large blockhouse became the center of a drama spanning several days. It was first noticed on the afternoon of February 2. It was clearly occupied – the heavy iron doors were barred from the inside – but after the earth-shattering explosion of February 1, nobody wanted to breach the walls. Guards smoked cigarettes and watched the door as the R-2 men devised an infiltration plan that borrowed a page from the Japanese playbook. PFC Dwyer Duncan dropped his gear and, armed only with a pistol, wriggled through a tiny opening beneath the blockhouse and disappeared inside. A few shots were heard inside the structure – then all was quiet again.

Much to the relief of the waiting Marines, Duncan emerged unharmed and with pleasing news. There was nobody left alive in the blockhouse, he said. Every man – and woman – who took refuge within its walls was dead from self-inflicted grenade wounds. The only opposition came from a frightened hog, who was no match for Duncan’s .45. He produced an armful of Japanese documents, which interested the R-2 men, and a gore-splattered canteen, which did not.[43]

However, Duncan had missed something in the blockhouse. A muffled blast from within blew the heavy doors open and, amazingly, a loincloth-clad man emerged, his hands held high. Surprise kept the sentries from shooting immediately; as they moved to cover the man, they noticed a second man emerging from the rubble. The Marines moved quickly, and more prisoners were “either smoked out or persuaded to come out by an interpreter.” Soon seven dazed men were in captivity, mumbling to the interpreters while corpsmen checked over their injuries. (Six of the seven were wounded, and two of these would later die.) Further exploration uncovered more than fifty dead bodies – and five hundred tons of aerial bombs. Had the Marines gone in guns blazing – or had the Japanese succeeded in setting off the explosives, as they evidently tried to do – the blast would have rivaled the eruption of the torpedo stockpile on February 1. It took Marine truckers three days to remove all of the stored ordnance.[44]

Scenes from the demise of a blockhouse. These shots were taken by Cpl. John Fabian. Official USMC photos.

Dwyer Duncan recalled another blockhouse that did not go down as quietly. “The only American tank that I saw on Namur came in and fired point blank at the steel door,” he said. “The door broke and the tank filled the block house with a flamethrower. Burning men ran out and we mercifully shot them.”[45]

One encounter had a happy ending. A doughty pair of Marshall Islanders refused to flee Namur with their fellows, and instead weathered the storm in a deep foxhole. Marine suspicion turned to delight when they discovered that the old man shared their love of souvenirs. A fast friendship was sealed with the gift of a hat from his treasure trove.

Official USMC photographs by Sgt. A. Zurick.

Souvenir hunting reached epidemic proportions. Despite an official order prohibiting the practice, Marines and sailors developed a burning desire for flags, pistols, money, helmets and swords – anything of Japanese origin that would serve as a memento of their first battle, or could be traded to a Seabee or a coxswain for good food or whiskey. Bartering was commonplace, and at times Namur felt more like a flea market or swap meet than a debris-filled battlefield. Members of the 23rd Marines hacked Japanese planes with Ka-Bar knives, slicing off strips of aluminum to bend into bracelets. Photographers captured cocky teenaged Marines happily displaying the yosegaki hinomaru that failed to bring luck to their original owners. A few ghouls burrowed in the piles of dead, hunting for gold teeth. Officers were not immune to the collector’s call; Phil Wood picked up a flag, a handful of stamps, and a silk kimono.

Rear-echelon troops and transport sailors were particularly keen on souvenirs, and went to great lengths to get what the assault troops missed. A shore party from the USS Doyen went ashore to deliver hot breakfast and did not return until dark. “Their boat looked like a backyard junk pile,” commented a Doyen sailor. “Machine guns, swords, helmets, rifles, and shell casings littered the deck. Only its extreme size had prevented [them] from bringing aboard the wing section of a Zero.” Their modus operandi was described by Gunner’s Mate Ace Parker:

We noticed that most of the Jap bodies had had their pockets cut away. If they were lying on their faces, their rear pants pockets were gone. If they were on their backs, their shirt pockets were gone. We thought for a while we weren’t going to get anything. Then Crawford got a good idea. He took a stick and turned one of the bastards over. Sure enough, the Marines hadn’t taken the time to do a complete job.[46]

A Marine, possibly a member of a body disposal team (note gloves), checks a Japanese soldier's pockets. Official USMC photo.
A Marine, possibly a member of a body disposal team (note gloves), checks a Japanese soldier’s pockets. Official USMC photo.

There were logical reasons behind the ban on souvenirs. Any captured item might have intelligence implications that far outweighed its sentimental or monetary value. With the exception of a handful of interpreters and translators, Marines were entirely ignorant of the Japanese language, and one man’s conversation piece could be an intelligence specialist’s dream come true. Official procedure called for all souvenirs to be surrendered to the intelligence section for evaluation. If they had no value, they would be stamped and returned to the owners. However, this decision was made at the division level rather than the regimental one, and the D-2 men had less inclination to return captured prizes to strangers. Besides, they liked souvenirs as much as the next man, and several Marines lost their treasures to red tape and sticky-fingered staffers.[47] Body disposal teams were no better; souvenir hunting was rampant among these details, to the extent that it delayed the cleanup of the islands. Some officers and NCOs raged and shouted and put men on report, but a greater number turned a blind eye – or would have done, were they not busily searching for mementoes themselves.

Roi-Namur looked like “a city block the morning after a general alarm fire with generous portions of the city dump tossed in,” but that was about to change.[48] The new atoll commander, Rear Admiral Alva D. Bernhard, arrived on February 3; Naval luminaries including Secretary James Forrestal and Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance paid visits. Construction crews began clearing and repairing the first of Roi’s runways on February 4. Tents replaced foxholes, prefab heads replaced slit trenches, and distillers began turning out fresh water – though not enough to meet the demand. Engineers strengthened the bomb-damaged causeway linking Roi and Namur. Admiral Nimitz made an inspection tour on February 6, and three holdout snipers were flushed out of hiding and killed. Blackout conditions were enforced, garrison troops landed, and the advance echelon of Marine Air Group 31 arrived to observe their new base. And the last Japanese were buried in their mass graves. One estimate placed the total number of enemy dead at 2,879.[49]

"Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in front seat, and ADM R.A. Spruance (ComFifthFleet) on back seat with fatigue cap (others unidentified) ride in Jeep around Roi-Namur Islands...." Naval History & Heritage Command photo.
“Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in front seat, and ADM R.A. Spruance (ComFifthFleet) on back seat with fatigue cap (others unidentified) ride in Jeep around Roi-Namur Islands….” Naval History & Heritage Command photo.

As the garrison arrived, work slowed for the combat troops still stationed on Namur. Mail was received and V-Mail was written. Some enterprising newshounds started a newsletter titled The 24th Word. Transport galleys sent hot meals ashore. Those who tired of searching for souvenirs went to the beach instead, hunting for pretty shells along the shoreline. A few decided to seek out some natural beauty. Phil Wood was one of those who waded out to the relatively untouched islands that surrounded the “No Man’s Land” of Namur, and was struck by the beauty of what he saw:

The water is all shades – bright green, robin’s-egg blue, a deep, satisfying cobalt blue. You can walk, hip deep, from one island to another and I went to four or five and they were idyllic. Soft rich brown earth, mangoes, breadfruit and coconut crowding each other for a chance at the sunshine, forming glades of shade roofed over by the vivid green leaves. The steady breeze keeps it always cool – no mosquitoes – the only sound being the hissing of the surf.[50]

Swimming was popular as a way to stay clean, fit, and entertained. Marines were expected to qualify as swimmers before leaving the United States, but training in a pool did not prepare one for “that damn sea – beautiful but dangerous and treacherous.” As a rubber boat battalion, 1/24 had plenty of experience swimming in surf, but even they ran into trouble. After his trip to the adjoining islands, Phil Wood joined three buddies for a dip off Nadine Point:

It is waist to chest deep for a hundred yards out, until the point where the waves break on the big jagged sections of the coral reef, where it drops sharply off. We had no intention of going all the way out–were twenty five yards from the danger point, when suddenly all four of us were caught in a terrific undertow and carried out. A couple of the boys were really powerful swimmers, but they were as lost as I–we were sucked out to where the enormous waves rolled in and smashed onto the reef–thrown in and sucked out for what seemed to be an eternity–way over our head most of the time–gasping for air and getting only foam and water–thrashing and twisting in an infinity of dazzling white pure clean foam, tossed about like a chip by a vast impersonal malevolent force–finally too weak to fight any longer, just trying to breathe and thinking that it was all over, what a silly way to die, of home and you, but over and over again–what a silly, pointless way to die–and finally when the ocean was through with us, one enormous wave picked us up and vomited us into the shallow water, washed clean of any strength or thought or feeling–the four of us held on to each other and staggered in and collapsed on the sharp but dry coral rock–three of us passed out–it was a horrible experience, one which I will never forget.[51]

Wood and his friends were lucky. Several men did drown; one unfortunate PFC from the 25th Marines was swept out to sea and never seen again.

Time out for chow. Official USMC photo.
Time out for chow. Official USMC photo.

By February 10, the transition from battlefield to naval air station was nearly complete. Lt. Col. Austin Brunelli’s 3/24 gathered gear and souvenirs and filed down to the beach for embarkation on the SS Young America. As the last combat unit stationed on Namur, Major Schultz’s 1/24 had a ringside seat for the first major drama on Roi. A massive B-24 Liberator roared overhead, her inboard starboard engine dead and fuselage full of holes. She banked, settled, and dropped to the tarmac, rolling to a stop at the very end of the airstrip. The Marines cheered as mechanics and medics swarmed over the damaged bomber – the first American aircraft to land safely in the Marshall Islands.[52]

On D+11, as Major General Harry Schmidt, USMC, ceded command of Roi-Namur to Captain E. C. Ewen, USN, the men of 1/24 were picking up their belongings and preparing to leave the Marshall Islands for good. Platoon by platoon, they waded out to the waiting Higgins boats. The big doors winched shut, the coxswains gunned their engines, and the flat-nosed bows swung out towards the sea. They motored back through the fleet, passing other little craft en route to the beach, loaded down with more garrison troops, more supplies, more equipment. The boats stopped alongside the SS Robin Wentley and, squad by squad, 1/24 climbed the nets, swung over the rail, and disappeared to their quarters below decks.

They were spectators to the final act of violence on Roi-Namur. The Wentley sounded general quarters at 0209, awakening her crew and most of her passengers. As the sailors raced to their stations, some curious Marines wandered out onto the deck. Small boats zipped about laying smoke. Searchlights stabbed up from Roi, followed by the barking reports of antiaircraft fire from land and sea. Then the sky was lit by a tremendous explosion. Japanese bombers had found the brand-new fuel and ammo dump. The airfield was in flames. Supplies were burning. Men were dying. And 1/24 watched with a newfound sense of detachment. Two weeks ago, this spectacle would have horrified them. Now, the cataclysm reminded Phil Wood of watching the Boston fireworks from a boat along the sound.[53]

PFC Joe Parrish was watching the conflagration when a civilian sailor tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, what’s going on?”

“They’re bombing the island.”

“Oh, that’s good!” grinned the sailor. “That’s another $500 in my pocket.” He went on about his business as Parrish stared after him, thinking that’s a hell of a way to fight a war.[54]

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Philip E. Wood, Jr. to Margaretta and Gretchen Wood, 13 February 1944.
[2] Major General Harry Schmidt, Final Report on FLINTLOCK Operation (17 March 1944), 9. Hereafter “Division Commander’s Report.” These troops were mostly from the 20th Marines, an engineering regiment whose third battalion was composed entirely of Naval construction personnel.
[3] Division Commander’s Report, 8. The first two battalions to leave were the hard-hit 2/24 and 3/23 on 3 February; the remainder of the 23rd Marines and parts of the 14th embarked the following day.
[4] Wood, letter of 13 February.
[5] John R. Henry, “Life on Roi, Namur Islands Softens Up for Weary Yanks,” The Palladium-Item and Sun-Telegram (Richmond, IN: 18 February, 1944), 4.
[6] Colonel Louis Jones, “Report on CT 23 Participation In FLINTLOCK Operation” (4 March 1944), enclosure D to Division Commander’s Report, 78. This caused some confusion (and some concern) about blackout restrictions.
[7] Called “Aqua Pura Cemetery,” “Pauline Point Cemetery,” “Navy and Marine Cemetery,” or simply “Division Cemetery,” this location was primarily the resting place for those killed on the islands of Roi and Namur themselves. The few dozen men who died on the outlying islands were buried in auxiliary cemeteries. Later in the year, all remains were consolidated into the Ivan Island Cemetery.
[8] D. E. Hogan, “War Diary, USS Doyen” month of February, 1944, 2. Doyen also buried three POWs at sea that afternoon, presumably with less ceremony.
[9] Carl E. Cooper of D/1/24 was buried in Plot 2, Grave #21; his brother Howard survived the battle. PFC Jack Brown of I/3/24 stowed away to join the fight with his father, Corporal Earl Brown; Jack was killed early in the battle and was buried in Plot 1, Grave #8.
[10] Mac R. Johnson, “General Decorates Grave of Son,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Vol. 17, No. 262 (1 June 1944), 1.
[11] Division Commander’s Report, 9.
[12] Commander William C. Baty, “Division Surgeon’s Report – Flintlock Operation” (undated), enclosure I to Division Commander’s Report, 174.
[13] Captain E. C. Ewen, “War Diary, Roi and Namur Islands” (January – March 1944), 1.
[14] Ibid., 2.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Baty, “Division Surgeon’s Report,” 175.
[17] H. W. Fish, “History of Combat Aircraft Service Unit Twenty, From November 1 1943 to July 1 1945,” 3.
[18] Jones, “Report on CT 23,” 78.
[19] Author unknown, “Shore Party Report,” (undated), enclosure I to Division Commander’s Report, 141.
[20] C. W. Hussey, “Observations At Burlesque And Camouflage (Roi Island) Kwajalein Atoll, M. I., February 1944,” transcription by Alfred Samper, http://jasco295.tripod.com/
[21] Division Commander’s Report, 9.
[22] Baty, “Division Surgeon’s Report,” 176.
[23] “Medical Report,” enclosure (C) to Colonel Franklin A. Hart, “Combat Team Twenty-Four Report on FLINTLOCK Operation” (10 March 1944), in Schmidt, 118.
[24] 2Lt George P. Wheeland, enclosure (E) to Major Maynard C. Schultz, “Brief report of operations in Namur action” (8 February 1944), in Memorandum to D-3, Fourth Marine Division (10 February 1944), 2.
[25] Howard Matthew Kerr Collection (AFC/2001/001/65492), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Oral history interview.
[26] Alva R. Perry, Jr., “A Personal History of the Fourth Marine Division in WWII,” 2011.
[27] John C. Pope, Angel On My Shoulder, Kindle edition (2013), location 794.
[28] On Roi, “Bulldozers dug five trenches five hundred feet long, eight feet wide and six feet deep in the triangular area north of the intersection of runways Able and Charlie…. These trenches accommodated upwards of 400 bodies each. Large bomb craters were also used.” Ewen, “War Diary,” 2.
[29] Pope, location 804.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Alva Perry, “Personal History.”
[32] Baty, “Division Surgeon’s Report,” 176.
[33] Colonel Samuel C. Cumming, “Report on the Twenty-Fifth Marines (Reinforced) in the FLINTLOCK operation” (16 March 1944), in Schmidt, Final Report on FLINTLOCK Operation (17 March, 1944), 149.
[34] Colonel Franklin A. Hart, “Combat Team Twenty-Four Report on FLINTLOCK Operation” (10 March 1944), in Schmidt, Final Report on FLINTLOCK Operation (17 March, 1944), 97. Hereafter “RCT Commander’s Report.”
[35] Ibid., 98.
[36] Alva Dopking, “Former Miami Writer Describes Invasion,” The Miami Daily News-Record Vol. 41, No. 187 (3 February 1944), 1.
[37] Anonymous, “Web-Footed Raven Dies of Shellshock,” The Marine Corps Chevron Vol. 3, No. 11 (18 March 1944), 4. The bird, named “Namur,” died a few days after leaving her island. A heartbroken Santomero buried her at sea.
[38] Philip E. Wood, Jr. to Margaretta and Gretchen Wood, 5 April 1944.
[39] RCT Commander’s Report, 107.
[40] “Specific cases are known where our men were killed or wounded in this way.” “Intelligence Report,” enclosure (F) to Colonel Franklin A. Hart, “Combat Team Twenty-Four Report on FLINTLOCK Operation” (10 March 1944), in Schmidt, 132. Hereafter R-2 Report.
[41] Philip E. Wood, Jr. to Katherine Billings Wood, 30 March 1944
[42] In a later letter, Wood shows remorse for this action, feeling horror at Marine “cruelty, not in extinguishing a dangerous enemy, but in killing those who tried to surrender, nude with their hands up, because you had no time to handle prisoners.” On Saipan, he would take one such chance, and lose his life in an attempt to rescue surrendering civilians.
[43] Dwyer Duncan, “Military Career – Dwyer’s Memories.” Posted May 16, 2013; recorded 1995. The pig caught the usually unflappable Duncan by surprise; it was the first living thing he killed in combat.
[44] R-2 Report, 133.
[45] Dwyer’s Memories. While Dwyer’s recollections of sneaking underneath a blockhouse are backed up by the R-2 report (“the section concentrated its efforts on cleaning out the area under the concrete floor of the building”) his mention of the flamethrower tank suggest this may be a separate incident. According to the RCT-24 report, flamethrower tanks were used only once in the operation, and that was during the mop up. However, the blockhouse that appears in the R-2 photographs does not show the effects of a flamethrower, and the doors have been blown outwards rather than inwards.
[46] Lawrence A. Marsden, Attack Transport: The Story of the USS Doyen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1946), 74.
[47] The intelligence men, at least, recognized their role in this problem; the 24th Marines’ R-2 section complained “something must be done by higher authority to clarify the return of non-essential material to those who turn it in.” When preparing for the Saipan operation, the importance of returning souvenirs to retain the trust (and avoid the ire) of the front line Marines was heavily emphasized.
[48] Ewen, “War Diary,” 4.
[49] Ibid., 6.
[50] Wood, letter of 13 February.
[51] Ibid.
[52] This B-24, nicknamed “Sugar,” belonged to the 7th Air Force. She was damaged in a raid over Wotje; Japanese aircraft shot out her engine and hydraulics while wounding her tail gunner. CASU-21 mechanics had her back in the air within three days – a feat made more amazing by the fact that “Sugar” landed four days before the airstrip was supposed to be functional.
[53] Philip E. Wood, Jr. to Margaretta and Gretchen Wood, 2 April 1944.
[54] Gail Chatfield, “Sgt. Maj. Joe Parrish, USMC (Ret.)” in By Dammit, We’re Marines! (San Diego:Methvin, 2008), 206.