Saipan. D+19. July 4, 1944.

The fireworks on Saipan were spectacular.

“To celebrate the 4th of July we rested on this vantage point [Radar Hill] as all types of supporting weapons ranged in on enemy observation below and before us, while other elements of the division pressed northward,” wrote Lieutenant Stott. “As the excellence of this observation post became more widely known, the number of observers increased, until by mid-afternoon a well-rounded collection of brass was on hand. The size and importance of the crowd gathered in plain view in the open clearly indicated the contempt and disdain felt for the remaining Japanese and their weapons.”[1]

Marine officers spotting targets from high ground on Saipan, possibly Radar Hill.

While dozens officers gathered on Radar Hill to watch the artillery and air strikes, two headed for the rear. The first was the battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Austin Brunelli. Brunelli led 1/24 through some of the toughest fighting of the campaign, but orders from Colonel Franklin Hart summoned him back to his regular duties as regimental executive officer.

Taking his place was Lt. Colonel Otto Lessing, a forty-year-old veteran officer. Born in Munich, Germany in 1904, Lessing immigrated to the United States at a young age, attended the University of Wisconsin, and received his Marine Corps reserve commission in 1924. Much of his experience in the war against Japan had come as a battalion commander in the 20th Marines. Lessing took the place of Lt. Colonel Archer Vandegrift, Jr. (3/24) when that officer was wounded in action on Saipan; Vandegrift’s return released Lessing to take over First Battalion.

hq_lessing

Lieutenant Colonel Lessing, 1943.

As always, the arrival of a new commanding officer caused a bit of a stir. Brunelli had quickly earned the respect of the battalion officers, and they were not keen to lose him with so much of the battle still to be fought. However, the German-born officer soon won over many of his men. “Lessing was not only a top officer, but he also had an interesting background,” wrote Captain Irving Schechter of Company A. “His parents had separated when he was a kid. His mother was an American and his father was a German and an ardent Nazi. As a matter of fact, the senior Lessing was one of Hitler’s top censors in Berlin. Maybe this was why Otto tried to be such an outstanding Marine.”[2]

The other Marine to depart was Captain Horace Parks of Company C, whose dengue fever finally became unmanageable. With his evacuation, the job of running the company fell to the acting executive officer, Lieutenant Stott.


Fourth Marine Division troops advancing on the hills, July 4, 1944.

With 2/24 and 3/24 taking care of the assault, 1/24 was tasked with exploring the emplacements on the hill. A captured POW informed them that the Japanese were evacuating military and civilians to the north, and there were further indications that the Japanese were withdrawing. “Considerable equipment and writing has been collected in buildings and a cave in this area, including radio and radar equipment,” noted the battalion war diary. Souvenirs were available for all who cared to take them; anything thought valuable was sent back for evaluation by regimental intelligence.

A few Japanese still had fight left in them, as two Marines from Company A discovered.

On the fourth of July 1944, I was told to take one of my men and clean out a couple of shack-like buildings. I took a fellow with me and we threw hand grenades in the building. Somebody didn’t like that, so they started shooting at us. We both hit the deck at the same time. Doug [PFC Douglas Footit] was on the right, I was on the left, and this guy is shooting right between us. He was using what we called dum-dum bullets. There are two kinds, they’re both illegal. One, you file a notch in the top of the metal so when it hits it splinters, and some countries had exploding bullets. [3] The bullet exploded, Doug got hit in the left hand, and I got hit in the right hand. They sent Doug back to the battalion aid station to get patched up. The corpsman who patched me up said “Okay, you have to go back.” I said, “What for? I’m not going back, I’m staying here.” He says, if you don’t go back you won’t get your Purple Heart, and I said, “I’ll tell you what you can do with your Purple Heart.” He said, “It wouldn’t fit.” He bandaged me up and I stayed there.[4]

A demolitions team in action on Saipan.
A demolitions team in action on Saipan.
The same demolitions team, caught on film.

Bob Williams had already had an encounter with his platoon corpsman. Earlier in the battle, as the corporal and a buddy dug their evening foxhole, they spotted the “doc” wandering along the lines. “Didn’t you dig your foxhole?” Williams asked. The sailor shrugged. “I don’t know who to dig in with,” he admitted. The Marines widened their foxhole to accommodate the corpsman and make room for a small fire for evening coffee. The instant coffee tasted terrible, but it was all they had—until the corpsman came to the rescue. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Let’s have some real coffee.” He dipped into his bag, and game up smiling with a bottle of brandy.[5] “That’s where I learned to drink coffee with brandy, and I still like it to this day,” laughed Williams in 2013. “I learned some terrible things from some of those corpsmen.”[6]

If 1/24 got off easy on July 4, the same was not true for the rest of the regiment. PFC Dwyer Duncan ran into an old friend, PFC Lawrence Erburu. The two had served together in L/3/24 before Duncan’s transfer to First Battalion.

My best buddy, Lawrence M. Erburu, and I had spent a night in a foxhole during rain that left only our heads out of water in the foxhole.  He was still in L Co., 3rd Battalion, but he told me that he was ill and had been sent back to a command post to rest. I was a perimeter guard on the 1st Battalion command post when I saw Larry coming.  I talked to him and asked him to share my foxhole.  Only two were supposed to be in a foxhole to split watches all night. I got medicine from sickbay because Larry led me to believe that he had dysentery.  We read each other’s mail before dark. I knew his family from spending weekends in Ojai, CA, with them, and I even went there without Larry after I was transferred. Larry and I were fraternity brothers, and I went to his USC frat house a couple of times. We were in boot camp together and served mess duty together.  He always slept on my arm as a pillow in foxholes during training and combat.

After the rainy night I gave dry, clean clothing to Larry, and he went back to L Co. Only enough time passed that Larry could rejoin his unit when our own artillery fell short to drop square in L Co. I volunteered for a liaison mission with Corp. M. E. Logan of Charlotte, NC, so I could check on L Co. causalities.  Scattered letters with Mrs. Erburu’s return address sticker told me a lot.  Larry had his letters in a front pocket of his dungaree jacket, and each letter had a jagged hole.  I gathered the letters and they were lost with some of my other effects when I wounded on Iwo Jima.  Larry died instantly.  All the bodies were covered with shelter halves or ponchos and I found Larry under the second.  I wept and then cursed while Logan waited for me to get it out of my system.  That night I couldn’t sleep, fortunately, and killed some Japanese who were trying to infiltrate.[7]

Lawrence Erburu. Photo from Ancestry.com
Lawrence Erburu. Photo from Ancestry.com
WOUNDED
COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Able Cpl. Robert L. Williams
PFC Douglas Footit
Demolitions NCO
Rifleman
Gunshot, right hand
Gunshot, left hand
Not Evacuated
Unknown
Baker Sgt. Henry Pileckas Squad Leader Unknown Unknown
Charlie PFC Robert G. Twernbold Rifleman Unknown USS Solace
NON-COMBAT EVACUATION
COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Charlie Capt. Horace Parks
Pvt. Roy H. Bishop
Company CO
Rifleman
Sick (Dengue)
Sick
Unknown
Unknown
JOINED / ATTACHED / TRANSFERRED
Action Name From To Duty
Joined Lt. Col. Otto Lessing 3/24 HQ Relieve Battalion Commander
Transferred Lt. Col. Austin R. Brunelli HQ HQ/24 Released as Battalion Commander
Returned PFC Thomas Underwood Hospital B Fire Team Leader

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Frederic A. Stott, “Saipan Under Fire” (Andover: Frederic Stott, 1945), 11.
[2] Irving Schechter, “The Lawyer Who Went to War,” Semper Fi, Mac, ed. Henry Berry (New York: Harper, 1982), 224.
[3] Robert L. Williams, “In My Own Words,” interview conducted by Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, March 12, 2014. Japanese explosive bullets were mentioned by George Smith, whose friend Cease Stafford nearly lost an arm to one. PFC Bob Tierney also maintained that some Japanese used wooden bullets.
[4] Ibid. On the battalion muster rolls, Williams and Footit are listed as being wounded on July 5. However, Williams is adamant that July 4 is correct, and the activities described in the War Diary support his claim.
[5] Corpsmen in Company A appear to have been fairly liberal with administering their medicinal brandy.
[6] Williams.
[7] Dwyer Duncan, “Dwyer’s Memories,” recorded 2013. Elsewhere in his memoirs, Duncan insists that short rounds from an Army artillery unit killed Erburu and several others from Company L on July 4, 1944.

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