“It Is A Sad Voyage Back…”

THE END OF FLINTLOCK
12 – 22 FEBRUARY 1944

Gunny Goller landed on Namur looking for a fight.

d_gollerVictor Goller

“He was a sight to behold,” recalled PFC John C. Pope. “I have never seen a man so armed for war as he was. He had a pistol, a carbine rifle, bandoleers of ammunition across his chest, a big knife, and several grenades hanging from his belt.” It was a day or two after the battle ended, but Goller was taking no chances.

To most junior enlisted Marines, a master gunnery sergeant exists on a plane of authority somewhere between the Commandant and God above. Victor Goller was “the character TV people try to create as a tough sergeant,” said Pope. “He was the real thing without even trying.” Rumors flew thick and fast: Goller had fought against Americans in the Great War; he had emigrated specifically to join the Marine Corps; he had been a corporal when Major General Schmidt was just a butter-bar second looie and the two were close personal friends; they didn’t make uniform sleeves long enough to wear all of his service hashmarks. The young Marines of D/1/24 loved and respected him, but were relieved when he was ordered to stay aboard the USS DuPage – they were worried for his safety.

Now, Pope was in the Higgins boat sent to collect Gunny Goller. The paunchy quadragenarian could not climb down a net; a gangplank was lowered and he stepped regally aboard, followed by a train of sailors carrying his other essential gear and a trunk of clean clothes. Nobody dared to laugh.

As soon as they cast off from the DuPage, Goller was asking questions about the battle, his distinctive Austrian accent still plainly discernible after more than twenty years in the Corps. How did the battle progress? Were the Japanese good fighters? And, most importantly, what had happened to so-and-so? The young Marines looked down at their boondockers or over the gunwhales. They knew he was fond of some of the men who had died. “We had to tell him,” said Pope. “I know he was shaken a little. He knew most of us by our last name.”

The boat grounded on the sand. Gunny Goller stepped ashore and was surrounded by friends shouting greetings and quarrelling over who would carry his gear. “You would think he had fought and won the battle all by himself,” said Pope. The consummate professional would not be distracted by personal grief; had too many living young men to care for.[1]

But John Pope remembered the look on the old Marine’s face when he heard the names of the dead.


Few, if any, profile shots of the SS Robin Wentley exist. This is the SS Robin Sherwood, a MARCOM Type C2-S freighter, of the same class. Photo linked from the 604th Engineer Camouflage Battalion.
Few, if any, profile shots of the SS Robin Wentley exist. This is the SS Robin Sherwood, a MARCOM Type C2-S freighter, of the same class. Photo linked from the 604th Engineer Camouflage Battalion.

The SS Robin Wentley departed Roi-Namur on the evening of February 12, 1944, carrying her cargo of combat veterans. Survivors of Operation Flintlock.

The voyage out had been marked by secrecy; on the way back, Pearl Harbor was openly discussed as the destination. PFC Harlan Jeffery pulled out his diary and scribbled “We got under way for the Hawaiian Islands to our advance base for rest and reorganization.”[2] The following day, 1Lt. Philip E. Wood, Jr. wrote “We left San Diego just a month ago and have not started back – not all the way, but to a rest camp. ‘Rest Camp’ isn’t exactly an accurate term – more like a prizefighter’s training camp where you go to put on weight, get back in trim.”[3] The thought of relaxing in the fabled Hawaiian Islands was a balm to exhausted minds and bodies. “All we want to do is get back to some safe spot and loaf in the sun,” confided Wood. “And see some green hills, and foamy cold beer, and a buxom open-faced country lass.”[4]

Thousands of miles separated Jeffery, Wood, and hundreds of their comrades from the objects of their desire. The Robin Wentley was no sluggish LST, but crossing this expanse of ocean was a nine-day journey. Instead of a tremendous and entertaining invasion fleet, their convoy was the SS Young America and a single antiquated destroyer, the USS Palmer.[5] In such limited company, the Pacific seemed enormous indeed. “Sea and clouds and sea and ships and sea!” wrote Wood. “A vast perimeter with nothing in it but the line that divides the sea and the sky…. No, I don’t like the sea. Its vast spaces only bore, they stultify the imagination.”[6]

Some efforts were made to keep the Marines occupied and entertained, but such opportunities were limited. Harlan Jeffery’s diary recorded a week of boredom interspersed with fleeting entertainments and educational opportunities:

Feb 13 1944
We are now well under way the chow is swell also the weather, I got a swell tan while on the island. 

Feb 14 1944
Had inspection and exercise this morning also some recordings of some popular songs.

 Feb 15 44
Had exercise and inspection this morning, had guard this afternoon and evening, had jam session at night.

 Feb 16 44
Had a lecture about the battle of Kwajalein Atoll by Col. Litzenburg went on guard at 1200 wrote letters at night in the mess hall.

 Feb 17 44
Had a lecture by Major McCormick, slept a little this afternoon. Got a little sun tan. Wrote letters at night. 

Feb 18 44
Didn’t do much today but get a sun tan, wrote letters at night, the weather is pretty warm.

Feb 19 44
Had an amateur show this afternoon aboard the SS Robin Wentley.

PFC Jeffery collected autographs aboard the Robin Wentley. Courtesy of Domenick Tutalo.
PFC Jeffery collected autographs aboard the Robin Wentley. Courtesy of Domenick Tutalo.

Those hungry for reading material eagerly grabbed up copies of The 24th Word, a regimental newsletter that started publication on Namur and continued through the voyage. The Word had “the good dope” on topics ranging from the war in Europe to the Robin Wentley’s progress across the Pacific. Some book lovers attempted to start a lending library, but the Word took borrowers to task for failing to sign out the books, and then failing to return same.

This copy of the February 15 “Word” belonged to Sgt. George M. Lowry of B/1/24. Courtesy of Dale Minter.

Other combat correspondents spent long hours at their typewriters, rattling off story after story for impatient editors. Some tried to tell the whole story of the operation, but most stuck to the “Joe Blow” stories of ordinary and extraordinary individuals. These were more than good copy – they boosted the morale of fighting men and home folks, too. Correspondents found Marines willing to tell stories about their exploits, and spun them into sound bytes for stateside newspapers. Sergeant Frank Tucker of A/1/24 was in high demand; the story of the “Okie salesman” with deadeye accuracy attracted correspondents Charles Vandegrift, Gil Bailey, Fred Welker, David Dempsey and probably several others. Stories about PFC Stephen Hopkins, the politician’s son who volunteered for frontline combat, were especially prized – but in the rush to score a scoop, correspondents sometimes failed to confirm the details, which resulted in numerous variations on the story.

Daily naval operations were still interesting to some Marines. John Pope watched the Palmer refuel from his transport; he was glad the “gutsy little protector” was patrolling for submarines and enemy aircraft.[7] Able Company played with their new pup “Tojo” until the bulldog’s jaw locked on a ship’s line. The poor dog was hoisted into the air before he could be rescued.[8] Others joined the long lines for “swell chow,” presenting their meal card three times a day.

mealticket
George Smith’s meal ticket, used aboard the Robin Wentley from February 12 to 21. Courtesy George Smith.

Between lectures, meals and exercise, the Marines had plenty of time to themselves. Without the prospect of battle to engage their minds, many turned to inward reflection. “It is a sad voyage back,” wrote Lieutenant Wood, “a long voyage home.”[9] Even those not accustomed to soul searching had to marvel at the change that combat wrought in them.

More than a few were elated by their new status as veterans. They had seen battle and they had scored an important victory – not just over the Japanese, but over any private doubts or lingering worries about their conduct under fire. Stories circulated about certain Marines who distinguished themselves – did ya hear about “Trigger Happy” Dubeck standing up to that lieutenant? Stacked up forty, maybe sixty right in front of his gun. How about “900 Rounds” Tierney? Kept that BAR up all night. Some were boastful, some were stolid. Tucker was stoic and self-deprecating: “I have quite a few Japs to my credit, I guess….” PFC John L. Manson was happy: “I had a great time. I’d like to do some more of it.” Many shared this feeling. “The boys want to go into it again,” wrote Philip Wood. “What they would like is a short rest, reorganize, and a chance to pitch one good liberty, then go at it again. And that’s probably what they’ll get.” For his own part, Wood was pleased to “find myself more collected than I had expected. I have seen, felt and done a lot and all I feel is more experienced. A little wiser, perhaps, than before.”[10]

The braggadocio had a somber undercurrent. They had committed acts their civilian selves considered immoral, that a civilized society considered illegal. Battle showed them another side of themselves. Phil Wood likely thought of his pre-battle “fighting spirit” which led to his admission “I do look forward to killing a Jap.”[11] Now, as he scrutinized his actions, he felt no joy in his actions.

We soon found that killing was practical and a necessity. I killed – yes, several times. I did not enjoy it. I had to force that single motion of my index finger up from my belly the first time, but then it became the natural reaction to a situation of danger.[12]

PFC George A. Smith couldn’t banish thoughts of his pal Steve Hopkins. Just a month before, he was teasing “Hoppy” over his dire predictions about dying in battle. Now Smith kept replaying that one fateful night. Digging in. Setting up the gun. Movement on the beach. Hoppy, cover that man! The bullet, the awful wait for a corpsman, the hours of uncertainty. And the final knowledge that his friend was dead, buried at sea, without even a grave marker to visit. The reality of war hit Smith hard. The next day we went on like nothing had happened.[13]

Captain Irving Schechter replayed his conversation with “Big Red” Dyess on the voyage over, of the battalion commander’s own premonition, Buck, I just feel in my bones that I’m going to get killed. He had helped Dyess make out his will. Schechter must have wondered when the colonel’s wife and daughter would take the news; he knew that all the medals in the world could not replace Jimmie in their hearts and minds.[14]

PFC Willie Turner missed Dyess, too. For months, he had served as runner, chauffeur, assistant, and – as far as the boundaries governing officers and enlisted men permitted – a confidant and friend to Big Red. He gladly followed his leader into the battlefield, and mournfully carried his body away from it. From time to time, Turner thought of the wooden box he’d helped Dyess pack in California and which was now stored with the dead man’s other belongings. It was chock full of whiskey. Dyess was no tippler; he had brought the box along for a reason. Willie, if anything happens to me, you open this box and have a party. Turner planned to carry out his commander’s final order as soon as they reached Hawaii.[15]

Group photos taken aboard the Wentley: Officers of A/1/24 and D/1/24, graduates of the 5th Reserve Officer’s Class, and the entire battalion’s officer contingent. 

Battalion record keepers faced a challenge on the return voyage: keeping tabs on the wounded. The problem began on the beaches; even the “comparatively light” casualties were difficult to track with any accuracy. It would take several weeks for all of 1/24’s wounded to be accurately counted, and even then, records conflicted with regards to date and nature of wound.

Between February 1 and February 3, the following men were treated for wounds.[16]

 

Name

Nature of Wound

Disposition

A 1Lt. Harry D. Reynolds, Jr.
1Lt. Roy I. Wood, Jr.
Sgt. Dallas M. Colburn
Sgt. Leo C. Mann
Cpl. Raymond E. Davis
Cpl. Arthur B. Ervin
PFC Winston M. Cabe
PFC John C. Card
PFC James E. Davis
PFC Burnett P. Fenger
PFC Frank B. Gosiewski
PFC Cecil F. Hendershot
PFC David C. Henderson
PFC Edward J. Horan
PFC Lawrence E. Knight
PFC Leon H. Roquet, Jr.
PFC George A. Smith
PFC William J. Quinn
PFC Philip Valley, Jr.
PFC Howard S. Voeltz
PFC Clyde O. Yates
PFC Dalton J. Young
Pvt. Clyde F. Mason, Jr.
Gunshot, lower left leg
Shrapnel, left knee
Not reported
Gunshot, lateral left ankle
Gunshot, abdomen
Gunshot, right chest
Gunshot (slight), right eye
Gunshot, right eye & face
Shrapnel, right shoulder
Not reported
Shrapnel, upper right leg
Wounds, unspecified, arm and shoulder
Gunshot, right hand
Gunshot, scalp
Gunshot, face
Gunshot, right leg
Laceration, leg
Foreign body, shoulder
Not reported
Not reported
Shrapnel, left buttocks
Gunshot, left shoulder
Not reported
To USS Doyen, USS Solace
Not evacuated
Not evacuated
Not evacuated
To USS Calvert
To USS Doyen, USS Solace
To USS Doyen
To USS Doyen
To USS Bolivar
Evacuated, vessel unknown
To USS Bolivar
Not evacuated
To USS Doyen
To USS Doyen
Evacuated, vessel unknown
To USS Calvert, USS Solace
Not evacuated
Evacuated, vessel unknown
Evacuated, vessel unknown
Not evacuated
Not evacuated
To USS Solace
Evacuated, vessel unknown
B 1Lt. H. Francis Shattuck, Jr.
PlSgt. Ray E. Janeway
Sgt. Anthony J. Giamanco
Sgt. John F. Gilroy
Sgt. Alex Haluchak
Sgt. Stanley T. Homewood
Sgt. Edwin T. Williams
Cpl. James F. Collins
Cpl. Roy E. Husner
Cpl. Robert Koch
PFC Otto H. Becker
PFC Frank C. Bruile
PFC Amelio R. Cassese
PFC George F. Claar
PFC Edward G. Eller
PFC James H. Faircloth
PFC Coolidge M. Graves
PFC Homer Hager, Jr.
PFC Elmer R. Hensley
PFC Stanley J. Koziol
PFC Herman R. Loper
PFC Joseph D. Meyers
PFC Harold R. Rediske
PFC Henry J. Rieker
PFC Anselm G. Saltarelli
PFC Robert P. Stanley
PFC Eugene M. Talty
PFC William A. Ultcht
PFC Frank H. Vargas
PFC Earl Whidby
PFC Peter Wilchinski
Pvt. Ralph M. Mauss
Pvt. William R. Swann
Pvt. Claude Tipton, Jr.
Pvt. George B. Watts
Gunshot, right buttocks
Shrapnel, legs & compound fracture, left fibula
Psychoneurosis, non-battle
Shrapnel, left forearm, elbow & body
Shrapnel, upper and lower left arm
Gunshot, lower ulna
Gunshot, chest
Gunshot, neck
Gunshot, buttocks & abdomen
Gunshot, left upper arm & left upper leg
Lacerations, right hand & behind right ear
Laceration, left foot
Not reported
Not reported
Gunshot, left arm
Gunshot, left chest
Gunshot, hip
Gunshot, right thigh
Gunshot, left eye
Gunshot, left shoulder
Gunshot, left shoulder
Gunshots, multiple, left chest
Wounds, unspecified, multiple
Gunshot, right chest
Traumatic amputation, toes, right foot
Laceration, scalp
Laceration, metacarpal, little finger
Laceration, scalp
Shrapnel wounds, multiple
Gunshot, chest & compound fracture, left humerus
Laceration, lips
Gunshot, left arm
Gunshot, left arm
Gunshot, chest
Gunshot, left arm and forearm
To USS Sheridan, USS Solace
To USS Bolivar
To USS Solace
To USS Bolivar, USS Solace
To USS Bolivar
To USS Bolivar, USS Solace
To USS Solace
To USS Doyen
To USS Sheridan
To USS LaSalle, USS Solace
To USS Bolivar, USS Solace
To USS Bolivar, USS Solace
To USS Solace
Evacuated, vessel unknown
To USS LaSalle, USS Solace
To USS LaSalle
Not evacuated
To USS Bolivar
To USS LaSalle, USS Solace
To USS LaSalle, USS Solace
To USS LaSalle, USS Solace
To USS LaSalle, USS Solace
To USS Sheridan
To USS LaSalle, USS Solace
To USS Doyen, USS Solace
To USS Doyen
To USS Bolivar
To USS LaSalle, USS Solace
To USS Bolivar, USS Solace
To USS Doyen, USS Solace
Evacuated, vessel unknown
To USS LaSalle
To USS Bolivar
To USS Bolivar, USS Solace
To USS LaSalle, USS Solace
C Sgt. Miller M. Blue
Cpl. Joe W. Browning
Cpl. Stanley Sander
PFC Horace F. Allen, Jr.
PFC Francis J. Casey
PFC Frank W. Celentano
PFC John R. Colgan
PFC Ernest J. Hayes
PFC William R. Hinkle
PFC Glen H. Knisley
Pvt. Charlie L. Stringer
Gunshot, right shoulder
Gunshot, right shoulder
Gunshot, right hand
Not reported
Compound fracture, lower left humerus
Traumatic amputation, hand
Gunshot wounds, multiple
Lacerations, toes, left foot
Gunshot wounds, right buttocks
Gunshot, left shoulder
Not reported
Evacuated, vessel unknown
Evacuated, vessel unknown
To USS Doyen
Not evacuated
To USS Bolivar, USS Solace
To USS Solace
To USS Doyen, USS Solace
To USS Bolivar, USS Solace
To USS Doyen, USS Solace
To USS Bolivar
Evacuated, vessel unknown
D Cpl. Franklin C. Robbins
PFC Timothy B. Colgan
PFC Howard Cooper, Jr.
PFC Virgil R. Davis
PFC Joseph A. Deaton
PFC Jacob F. Mohr
PFC Walter J. Parcheta
PFC Charles L. Pickett
PFC Patsy J. Renna
Pvt. Frank H. Mitchem
Gunshot, right cheek
Sword wounds, both hands; gunshot lower leg
Not reported
Wounds, unspecified, multiple
Gunshot, right upper chest
Not reported
Shrapnel, grenade, hip
Not reported
Psychoneurosis, hysteria
Wounds, unspecified, multiple
To USS Doyen
Evacuated, vessel unknown
Not evacuated
To USS Sheridan, USS Solace
To USS Doyen
Not evacuated
To USS Solace
Evacuated, vessel unknown
Evacuated, vessel unknown
To USS Calvert, USS Solace

The majority of these wounded men received early treatment aboard attack transports, and were transferred to the hospital ship USS Solace on February 3. Solace departed Roi-Namur the following afternoon, having received some 363 patients, and sped for Pearl Harbor, sailing alone to make the best possible time. She arrived on February 11 – the same day 1/24 boarded the Robin Wentley – and received Admiral Nimitz aboard before discharging her wounded men to hospitals at Aiea Heights and Oahu.[17] 

A gaggle of reporters and correspondents followed the Admiral as he visited the wounded. They swarmed the wards, photographers in tow, searching for scoops about the recent battle. A few refused to talk, or spoke haltingly of their experiences. “Nothing big happened to me. I can tell you the whole works in three sentences,” said a “disconsolate” PFC Peter Wilchinski. “During the night a Jap jumped into the shellhole with me. He jabbed at me with his bayonet, but I was so close that the barrel of his rifle knocked these two front teeth loose. I shot him.” The reporter pressed: did he kill his enemy? “Yes.” [18] PFC Francis J. Casey was relieved to get back. “I hope I’ll be going back into action soon,” he said, gesturing at his cast-clad leg. “I’ve got two things to settle – for myself and a buddy.”[19] PFC Walter Parcheta “looked a little grim” as he recounted his experiences: advancing up a trench, watching the colonel call in the tanks, and being blown literally off his feet. “I had two grenades in my hip pocket, a bullet got me in the hip and exploded the grenades…. The doc tells me my legs are going to be okay.”[20]

parcheta_WIA_press
Walter Parcheta in his cot aboard the USS Solace. Author’s collection.

Other Marines were more talkative. Sgt. John Gilroy was only too happy to talk about “how he and his buddies laughed and sang the Marine hymn as they stormed the beach.”[21] PFC Lawrence E. Knight had a bandage over a bullet wound in his mouth; this did not stop him from holding court with a bevy of correspondents. They took down his every word: “The first Jap I saw was an officer…. That corporal got his helmet shot off and that’s when he got mad…. Hoppy just whirled around and let the Jap have the bayonet in his ribs….” Both Gilroy and Knight participated in a correspondent’s panel session; theirs were among the first stories of the battle to reach mainland newspapers.

Photo from the St. Louis Dispatch, February 17, 1944.
Photo from the St. Louis Dispatch, February 17, 1944.

As the wounded Marines received laurels and treatment in Oahu, the Robin Wentley received orders diverting her from her anticipated port of call in Pearl Harbor. She arrived at Kahului just before dusk on February 21. The Marines of 1/24 gathered their gear one final time and walked down the gangplanks; a few were selected for a working party but the rest boarded a convoy of waiting trucks. After months in arid California, weeks aboard sterile ships, and days on a war-torn islet, they were awestruck by the sheer beauty of the place. “The long convoy of trucks that wound from the Kahului docks through Paia and Makawao passed under blossoming flame and shower tress, past hibiscus and wild roses, past green clapboard houses from which curious islanders peered,” wrote Sergeant David Dempsey. As the trucks downshifted and ground uphill towards Kokomo, a few men passed around juicy handfuls of pineapple, pilfered from crates bearing the trademark of J. D. Dole’s Hawaiian Pineapple Company. Beautiful scenery, delicious food, friendly locals and, they hoped, friendlier girls – it felt like heaven on earth.

Then the trucks stopped at a darkened field. The ground was a morass from recent rains, and the air threatened a deluge at any moment. There was a galley, but no barracks, hot showers, or electricity. The First Battalion splashed ankle-deep through red, gluey mud and threw their belongings into squad-sized tents, complaining that 2/24 had claimed all the best spots. The skies opened up, and it was “cold as hell” when the sun went down. This was home away from home.

Welcome to Camp Maui, they were told. All hands will be quarantined for one week.

 

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FOOTNOTES

[1] John C. Pope, Angel On My Shoulder, Kindle edition (2013), location, 816-829.
[2] Harlan Chester Jeffery, diary entries. Collection of Domenick Tutalo.
[3] Philip E. Wood, Jr. to Margaretta and Gretchen Wood, 13 February 1944.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Young America was transporting the Third Battalion, 24th Marines.
[6] Wood, letter of 13 Februrary.
[7] Pope, location 856. John Pope makes an interesting claim in his memoirs. “It developed that a bomb had scored a near miss off the stern of our ship the night before we boarded,” he writes. “Damage to the propeller did not become apparent until we were at sea for a couple of days.” Unable to keep up, it was “bon voyage, good luck, or whatever.” The Young America reported a bomb striking 1000 feet from her stern during the 12 February raid, but Pope should have been aboard the Robin Wentley with his battalion, and there is no indication in the Palmer’s war diary that the miniature convoy split up at any time.
[8] George A. Smith, interview by the author, September 2009. Tojo was rescued and given his own length of (unattached) rope, which he carried around at all times.
[9] Wood, letter of 13 February.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Philip E. Wood, Jr. to Margaretta and Gretchen Wood, 24 January 1944.
[12] Wood, letter of 13 February.
[13] George A. Smith interview.
[14] Dyess was originally recommended for the Navy Cross; later this was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
[15] Perry Smith, Courage, Compassion, Marine: The Unique Story of Jimmie Dyess (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2015), 109.
[16] List compiled from muster roll of First Battalion, 24th Marines (February 1944) and individual casualty cards. Dates frequently conflict, and thus have been omitted. Most are noted or belived to have occurred on February 1 or 2, with the exception of four Baker Company casualties on February 3 (Sgt. Giamanco, PFC Bruile, PFC Claar, and PFC Frank Schur, who died of wounds suffered on an unspecified date), and one Charlie Company casualty on February 5 (PFC Kinsley). Of interest is the number of Baker Company casualties whose evacuation took them from the LaSalle to the Solace; these men were likely wounded in the banzai attack of February 2. Note also the preponderance of wounds to the left side of the body, which suggests at least some of these men were in a firing position (left side forward) when hit.
[17] USS Solace, war diary for period February 1 to February 29, 1944. Only three men died of wounds after admission to the Solace: PFC Donald R. Olin (B/1/20) on February 4, Cpl. William T. Phillips (B/4th Tanks) on February 5, and PFC Walfred F. Moberg (G/2/24) on February 6. Olin was buried on Roi-Namur; Phillips and Moberg were returned to Hawaii.
[18] Author unknown, “Killed His Jap,” Wilkes-Barre Record (23 March 1944), 3.
[19] Sgt. David C. Stephenson, “Lincoln Man Is Hurt In Roi Raid,” Nebraska State Journal (18 February 1944), 4. Casey never got his wish; he spent the rest of the war in hospitals.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Author unknown, “They Sang A Song And Took Namur,” The Philadelphia Inquirer Vol. 230, No. 43 (14 February 1944), 3