Saipan. D+20. July 5, 1944

First Lieutenant Philip Emerson Wood, Jr. was awake by dawn on July 5, 1944.

Lieutenant Wood in his field gear, Camp Maui.
Lieutenant Wood in his field gear, Camp Maui.

He had been on Saipan for three weeks. Always thin—he barely tipped the scales at 160 pounds after two years of effort—the exertion, limited rations, and stress of the past twenty-one days would have made his six-foot-three frame look especially gaunt.[1] His dungarees, like everyone else’s, were filthy and stained, a fair beard covered his face, and red dirt matted his already dust-covered mustache. His friend Frank Shattuck loved to tease him about the mustache, but Frank was long gone, wounded in the attack of June 17.

As he performed his morning routine, Wood may have thought back to the time at Camp Maui when he had been offered—almost ordered—the position of transport quartermaster. Only vocal protests from Wood and his skipper, Captain Irving Schechter, prevented the transfer; the job went to Lieutenant Bill Carbeau. It wouldn’t have mattered; Carbeau was back with the battalion anyway, leading a rifle platoon in Company B. Besides, Wood liked his mortar section, “a damned good bunch of boys, known in the company for the ‘gung-ho’ spirit.”[2] His affection for his men was reciprocated; nearly all were “devoted” to their leader. “It was no hero-worship due to athletic prowess, etc. such as sometimes occurs in the men-officer relationship,” noted Lieutenant Fred Stott. “Rather it was a much deeper and the natural response of a group of intelligent men to a leader in whom they believed and to whom they were devoted as much as he was to them.”[3]

Phil Wood (standing) with some of his mortarmen, 1944.
Phil Wood (standing) with some of his mortarmen, 1944.

That gung-ho spirit (and Wood’s use of the term “gung ho”) was thanks to the tough, no-nonsense section sergeant, Arthur Ervin. The former Raider was one of the most highly decorated men in the company, and was up for another medal following his performance on a June 20 patrol. Strangely enough, although they were as different as day and night, Wood and Ervin were all but attached at the hip. “Ervin was pretty much an individualist, not given to affection, and on first impression, not a top-notch NCO,” remarked Fred Stott. “But the mutual admiration and respect which grew between the two was obvious, and they were a strongly attached pair who worked together as well as any and better than most.”[4]

July 5 promised to be just another day on Saipan—a general attack towards the next ridgeline. Wood and Ervin reported to Captain Schechter for further instructions. Schechter—helmetless as always; he refused to wear helmets in battle, even after one of the company flamethrowers was shot through the head by his side, saying he’d put it on “when things got bad”—sketched out the advance. The battalion would have to hot-foot around another unit to reach their assigned jump-off position, then advance at a 45° angle, with Company A holding the left flank of the division. If all went well, the Fourth Marine Division would complete their conquest of the four troublesome hills, and Company A would be assigned to another spell of rear-area patrolling and mopping up. The Japanese defenses were crumbling almost as fast as the Marines could advance; enemy disorganization was such that a pair of Japanese doctors wandered into the battalion CP before dawn.[5] Wood’s mortar section was to fire their 60mm rounds in support of the attack, and then as needed throughout the day.

The 165th Infantry showed up to relieve 1/24 at 1100 hours, and the Marines were forced to hike a “circuitous route” to get to their assigned positions.[6] For once they would be heading down a ridgeline instead of up; the terrain was the usual mixture of ridges, ravines, thick underbrush and the occasional clear patch. Numerous caves dotted the area, and 1/24 had learned the hard way to assume that each one was dangerous. The standard technique for eliminating a cave, called “blowtorch and corkscrew,” was brutally effective. While BAR gunners kept up covering fire, a flamethrower operator (or tank) would approach cave entrance and let go with a blast, incinerating or suffocating the occupants.

Then a demolitions man, maybe PFC Tierney or Corporal Williams, would run up with a satchel charge to blow the cave mouth shut. It was extremely dangerous work, especially when using a hand-carried flamethrower with limited effective range, and the Marines learned in short order to shoot first and investigate later. Untold numbers of civilians were accidentally killed in their hiding places by these demolition teams.

Shortly after noon on July 5, Lieutenant Phil Wood took up his customary position on the front line, binoculars in hand, to spot targets for his mortar section. Any number of his enlisted men could do the job just as well; his young runner, PFC Bill Imm, was showing a great deal of talent as a spotter. But spotting was a dangerous job, and Wood preferred to take the risk himself. He loved the mortar as a weapon; calculating its plunging fire appealed to his intellectual side and he knew how effective its 60mm bombs could be, softening up an objective for the boys in the rifle platoons. And today, he would be supporting his buddy Roy Wood in the attack.

The simple expedient of alphabetization landed Phil and Roy in the same class at Quantico’s OCS; pure chance and coincidence assigned them to the same regiment, the same company, and to sequential platoons. Roy in the Third, Phil in Fourth (Weapons). Though Phil initially complained (“I really thought I was rid of him this time!”) their experiences in training and in combat formed a friendship between the Lieutenants Wood, and the two fought well together. Roy appreciated Phil’s “cheerful and cool-headed” temperament that got them through countless close calls, including the time a near miss from an artillery shell bowled them over into a hole. As Roy checked for wounds, Phil bounced up laughing. “A miss is as good as a mile,” he called, bounding ahead with the characteristic loping stride that resembled nothing so much as an injured deer. Roy shook his head: that was just the way Phil was. Too brave for his own good.

Now the Woods were side by side again, looking over Roy’s avenue of advance. The battalion was struggling through Saipan’s rugged, hilly center and numerous caves and ravines were easily visible to the naked eye. Any one of these areas could hold a Japanese squad or machine gun; even a lone sniper could hold up an advance if he was troublesome enough. Better to shoot first and investigate later.

Firing a mortar was an intricate process. The spotter would identify the target, and call back the range, bearing, type of ammunition, and number of rounds he wanted to expend; the call was repeated by each of the three squad leaders, and then confirmed by each of the gunners as they dialed in their M4 sights to align the tube on target. The assistant gathered the requested rounds and broke off the powder increments on their base to match the desired range; ammo carriers stood by to fetch more rounds, or simply got out of the way. Finally, the assistant hung the round in the barrel; on the command to fire, he released the bomb down the tube and ducked away from the muzzle blast. The distinctive whang of Company A’s three 60mm mortars added to the din of artillery and rockets screaming overhead.

Phil Wood was focusing his fire on a ravine forward of the lines when he saw movement at its mouth. Small figures were tumbling out of a cave. Targets in the open were a mortarman’s dream–but as the lieutenant focused in on the ravine, he was horrified to see not Japanese soldiers, but civilians, women and children. Phil immediately ordered a cease fire; as he looked closer he could see that a number of the natives were bandaged and bleeding, obviously in need of help.

A straightforward fire mission quickly devolved into an ethical dilemma. No Marine wanted to hurt the innocent civilians–the horrors of accidentally gunning down women and children several nights ago haunted the battalion–but the hour of attack was quickly approaching. If 1/24 did not step off on schedule, they risked losing the cover of the bombardment, or worse, losing contact with their flank units. There were no illusions that Division HQ would allow further disruption to its already delayed timetable just so a handful of noncombatants could get out of the way. Furthermore, no civilian willingly left the cover of a cave during a shelling–which could only mean that taking a chance in the open was preferable to whatever lurked in the caves. Again, there were no illusions–the Japanese were there, waiting behind their human shield.

The decision was quickly made. Wood presented his plan to Captain Irving Schechter: a small combat patrol could be quickly organized and dispatched to bring the civilians to safety. He already had a handful of volunteers, reliable men like “MuMu” Ervin and the company’s acting First Sergeant, Arnold Richardson. If they left at once, they could be back with the civilians in time before the attack began. Buck gave his permission, and the patrol–seven Marines and a corpsman–headed out into the no man’s land between the lines. Lieutenant Wood proved as good as his word: by 1225, the civilians were safely on their way back to the battalion CP.

 

As corpsmen fussed over wounded children, battalion intelligence went to work questioning the less distraught Chamorros. The islanders were no friends of the Japanese and quickly told all they knew, reporting “more than 1000 Jap soldiers and marines ahead. Many without rifles. No guns. Also a lot of civilians gathered.”[7] They also confirmed the Marines’ suspicions: an unknown number of armed and hostile Japanese soldiers were in the caves ahead, still holding many hostages. The Chamorros knew well what would befall their captive friends and family when the Americans advanced, and pleaded with the Marines to rescue them, too.

There may well have been some debate when this news hit the front lines. Practicality and sense argued against it; the Japanese were out there, and although the Chamorro count was probably disputed, they were there in strength. That number of disorganized enemy troops was a perfect target for artillery, mortars, or an air strike. King Hour was rapidly approaching; if the Marines acted now they could coordinate the supporting strike. There was just question staring everyone in the face: were they prepared to potentially sacrifice the civilians as well?

Lieutenant Wood made a decision. An avowed pacifist until Pearl Harbor, the young officer still held onto the humanitarian values taught by his parents (a nurse and a veteran of the American Field Service) and reinforced with Quaker values at Swarthmore. Against better judgment, and knowing the Japanese would be waiting, he resolved to go back for the rest of the civilians. Once again, the patrol left the front lines. It was just after 1300.

To reach the civilians, the Marines would need to cross a cleared area, devoid of cover. There was no time for preparatory fire; the 4th Marine Division was beginning to roll forward and the sounds of firing were picking up to the right. In the true form of a Marine officer, Lieutenant Wood went first.

He was thirty yards from the cave when a Japanese Nambu machine gun barked. Philip Wood stumbled and fell, shot through the stomach. The firing stopped abruptly, the gunner waiting to see what happened next. Leaving a wounded man as bait for his friends was a favorite tactic of the Japanese; few Marines could stay put when a comrade was suffering in the open.

Sergeant Ervin snapped. He ran “like a lost calf after its mother” into the clearing, shrieking “Don’t worry, Phil! I’m coming for you!”[8] A corpsman–probably PhM3c Maurice Tellier, who had distinguished himself on a similar rescue mission the previous week–was hot on his heels, but as they reached the lieutenant, both men went down, the corpsman with a bullet through his shoulder, Ervin with a bullet through his head. T/Sgt. Richardson stood up to provide covering fire; the machine gun tore his chest apart. A furious fusillade erupted from the rest of the patrol. Panicked messages reached battalion headquarters at 1310: “All available corpsmen and 6 litters to ‘A’ Co.”[9] Lieutenants Harry Reynolds and Roy Wood mustered up a relief force, but it was too little too late; within seven minutes, it was all over.[10]

PFC Tommy Lynchard, a BARman from Roy Wood’s platoon, knew about the patrol to gather prisoners–his buddy Lawrence Knight, “a real good man,” was one of the volunteers. From their position on the line of departure, “Lynch” and his assistant heard the sudden flurry of gunfire; they would have realized the danger at once, as the sound of Japanese weapons quickly overwhelmed that of the Americans. When his squad got the order to saddle up and head for the firefight, Lynch was ready to go: he was worried about Knight.

The sight that met his eyes was horrifying. Corpsmen had managed to drag the wounded into a makeshift triage station, and were frantically trying to patch bullet holes and control bleeding. Serious cases, like PFC Frank Roscoe Hester, were rushed to the rear on stretchers; many were saved by prompt attention, though Roscoe died of his wounds. The dead and those about to die were placed to one side. T/Sgt. Richardson, if he was still breathing, was breathing his last through his ruined chest. Sergeant Ervin and PFC Davis V. Kruse, a BARman from Iowa, lay dead with bullets through their heads. Lynch found Lawrence Knight, also shot through the head, clinging to life. “He wasn’t quite dead, but you could tell he was gonna die,” Lynch recalled. “He was lyin’ there making a blubbering sound, and that was it.” And Phil Wood, reeling with pain, morphine, and shock, managed to mumble “Say hello to my mother and Aunt for me” before he, too, expired.[11]

Sporadic firing was still coming from some nearby woods and Lynch’s squad, fired up by the sight of mangled friends, did not need the terse “keep moving” order that came down from headquarters.[12] Lynchard and his assistant dove headlong into the undergrowth and right into the path of a Japanese grenadier. Lynch saw the movement as the man flipped a grenade from behind a boulder; he burned through a full 20-round magazine before hitting the deck, carefully turning his face away from the blast as he’d been taught. Shrapnel whirred uncomfortably overhead, and the thrower took off towards a small cabin that squatted in the woods. Lynch, trailed by his assistant, hooked left around the building and spotted the legs of a partially concealed Japanese soldier. This man had no boulder to hide behind, and Lynch’s aim was true. The two Marines continued through the woods, surprising an Imperial machine gunner. Lynchard noticed that the man’s field of fire covered the ambush site–had he been the one to spring the trap? They would never know: American spat and the Japanese collapsed dead over his Nambu.

As he loaded a third magazine into his BAR, Lynchard finally paused to think about where he was–thirty yards ahead of his company, separated from his squad, possibly surrounded by Japanese. He was “all shook up” from his adventure, low on ammo, and “feeling like I was gonna get shot in the back.” Then his blood ran cold. On a rocky hill before him, he saw the unnerving sight of multiple Japanese soldiers in the open. To the Mississippi sharecropper’s son, they looked as numerous “as flies on a dead mule.” Luckily, the Marines were concealed by the treeline, and they wisely decided to fall back to the company.

Buck Schechter was likely stunned by the disaster that befell his company; Phil Wood was not only his first officer fatality, but also a close friend. So when Lynchard appeared at the CP to report “Japs in the open,” the captain was ready to strike back. He ordered every weapon in the company trained on the hilltop, about one hundred and fifty yards away, and on his command Able Company vented all their pain and frustration in a blistering volley.

“When we fired, they began to tumble down that rock,” Lynchard recalled. “We was shooting at the ones on top, and about 15 fell all the way to the bottom. It was something to see.” [12.5] The surviving Japanese broke and ran. The ambush was over. A few minutes later, the attack was “progressing satisfactorily.”[13]

The deaths of Lieutenant Wood and Sergeant Ervin hit the company hard. Wood’s in particular shocked the other officers, many of whom had been with him since Officer Candidate School. “Phil was such a loveable person,” mourned Fred Stott.

We always called him ‘Eagle,’ shortened from ‘Legal Eagle,’ which title he gained after his successful defense of a sergeant against the unjust attacks of a bigoted Colonel back at Camp Pendleton. Harry Reynolds always used to say – “Isn’t the Eagle marvelous in the role he portrays?” Which is perhaps not easy to explain. But by the “role” we always meant his lovability, his air of British aristocracy, his lack of physical coordination, and his inherent good nature, all wrapped up together.[14]

“I had been Phil’s Company Commander for over a year and a half, and during that time had never seen an officer that was better liked by both men and officers,” wrote Captain Schechter. “Phil was a natural leader whose men would follow [him] anywhere. His death has shocked us all.”[15] Schechter later recommended the lieutenant for the Silver Star medal. The now leaderless mortar section spent the day in a state of shock; one teenaged Marine was so distraught he had to be evacuated.

For the rest of the long afternoon, Company A kept up their position on the left of the division line, gradually losing contact with the Army troops struggling through Paradise Valley. “This final day of our third week was also the first on which we established a clear lead in the ‘race’ for Marpi Point,” remarked Stott. “By nightfall we had a gap of a quarter of a mile between ourselves and the Army units to our left rear.” 1/24 finally reached the objective line, O8-A, at 1600 and called it quits for the day.

july5wardiary

The Battalion War Diary, July 5.

That night, 1/24 intercepted and annihilated a Japanese force from several hundred yards away. This was a far cry from the effective infiltration earlier in the battle, and Stott gave credit to the ready availability of flares. “Fear and dislike of the dark is natural, but at any critical moment we possessed the requisite illumination to turn night into day,” he said. “It must have been a deterrent and harmful to Jap morale on the attack, when any concentrated movement brought a deluge of brilliant light and a storm of bullets. It certainly was heartening to us.”[16] Quick-firing 37mm cannon helped keep the Japanese at bay, but a group of four enemy soldiers managed to find the battalion CP before being gunned down just before midnight.[17]

The graves of Lt. Philip Wood and PFC Frank Hester in the 4th Marine Division Cemetery.
Author’s collection / courtesy of Kaylin Hester

At the Fourth Marine Division Cemetery, Lieutenant Wood, T/Sgt. Richardson, PFC Hester, PFC Knight, and PFC Kruse were being readied for burial. Graves Registration puzzled over the body of a five-foot-seven Marine with black hair, hazel eyes, and a bullet hole in his head. He had no dog tags; front line staff had diligently removed his personal effects for return to his family, his gear salvaged, and his dungarees were unmarked. Dutifully, the GR men took his fingerprints, noted his tattoos, and did a dental chart before designating him Unknown X-64.

4MarDivCem

X-64 was buried beside Lieutenant Philip Wood the following day, and lay there for the next four years. When the cemetery was closed in 1948, Wood, Hester, and Knight were taken to the Punchbowl Cemetery for burial; Kruse and Richardson went home to family plots. Nobody claimed X-64. Fingerprints and tattoos were long gone, and his dental chart was inexplicably unmatchable. The remains were sent off to Manila for burial in the American military cemetery there.

Only in 2011 did Sergeant Arthur Ervin regain his identity.

There was one silver lining in the day of tragedy.

Able Company’s firefight drove off the Japanese on the high ground to the battalion’s left flank. Marines cautiously approached the ravine and its caves, expecting to find grimly determined holdouts, but those soldiers who hid in the caves evidently joined in the retreat. Instead, they found a crowd of civilians, just as the original group of natives reported. Tommy Lynchard estimated that no less than sixty civilians–mainly women and children, many of them wounded–passed through the company’s lines to safety on July 5 alone.

They were likely a mix of native Chamorro and transplanted Japanese, possibly residents of nearby mountain villages like Atchugau or Asumitok, or strangers from father south fleeing from the American advance. Their identities are not known; they were not mentioned in the battalion’s after action report, and doubtless to some Marines they were simply dirty-faced wretches whose future wasn’t worth the lives of six Americans. But for others, they represented the reason for fighting and risking everything–a tangible liberation. For them, it was worthwhile–and the descendants of those sixty civilians would surely agree.

The Fallen

Second Lieutenant Wood in his tailor-made uniform–with his a_richardson a_ervin a_hester a_knight

First Lieutenant
Philip E. Wood, Jr.
Age 23
Mortar Section, A Co.
Gunshot, abdomen

Technical Sergeant
Arnold R. Richardson
Age 24
Acting 1st Sergeant, A Co.
Gunshot, chest
Sergeant
Arthur Ervin
Age 22
Mortar Section, A Co.
Gunshot, head
Private First Class
Frank R. Hester
Age 19
Rifleman, A Co.
Gunshot, back

Private First Class
Lawrence E. Knight
Age 23
BARman, A Co.
Gunshot, head

  a_kruse  
Private First Class
Davis V. Kruse

Age 25
BARman, A Co.
Gunshot, head

WOUNDED

COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Headquarters PhM3c Maurice A. Tellier
HA1c Harry A. Schreiber
Cpl. Marion E. Lyon
Cpl. Jerald J. Priest
Corpsman
Corpsman
Squad Leader
Telephone Operator
Gunshot, shoulder
Gunshot, left elbow
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Able PlSgt. Parker S. McBride
Sgt Maynard Worthington
PFC G. David Burch
PFC Robert L. Conway
PFC James C. Fields
PFC Lawrence F. Pantlin
PFC John G. Rayley, Jr.
Platoon Sgt., 2nd Platoon
Squad Leader
Rifleman
BARman
Rifleman
Rifleman
Rifleman
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Not Evacuated
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Not Evacuated
Unknown
Unknown
Baker Cpl. Raymond S. Cable
PFC Leonard O. Fritze
PFC Donald M. Rothweiler
PFC Arnold F. Stanek
PFC Andrew Tomasko
Squad Leader
BARman
BARman
Rifleman
Fire Team Leader
Gunshot, right arm
Unknown
Gunshot, scalp
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown

NON-COMBAT EVACUATION

COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Able Cpl. Byron H. Marsh
PFC Ronald P. Bartels
PFC Gust A. Pappas
Squad Leader
Mortar Ammo Carrier
BARman
Sick
Sick
Sick

JOINED / ATTACHED / TRANSFERRED

Action Name From To Duty
Returned HA1c Elmer Hamilton Hospital HQ Corpsman

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Weight loss was a hallmark of a long campaign. Robert Tierney, no giant himself, estimated he lost 30 pounds in 25 days of combat on Saipan. Phil Wood had recently bragged that he reached 162 pounds, his personal best.
[2] Philip E. Wood, letter to Gretchen and Margaretta Wood, May 6, 1944.
[3] Frederic A. Stott, letter to Margaretta Wood, October 7, 1944.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Battalion War Diary. Neither of the doctors survived their mistake.
[6] Frederic A. Stott, “Saipan Under Fire” (Andover: Frederic Stott, 1945), 11.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Stott, letter to Margaretta Wood.
[9] Battalion War Diary.
[10] The exact number and composition of Phil Wood’s last patrol are not known. Fred Stott recorded that “A dozen men from Able Company were riddled,” and George Smith (who was not present) corroborated “They dropped all twelve.” “All but two” is Schechter’s estimation in a letter to Phil’s mother, and the battalion War Diary states “casualties were 2 officers and 7 men.”
[11] Phil’s last words appear in Captain Schechter’s condolence letter to Margaretta Wood. Phil’s uncle, after speaking to Schechter, Roy Wood and others from the company, reported them as “Tell my mother and sister.” While either could be a fabrication to comfort the grieving family, it does seem like Phil survived long enough to be brought back to friendly lines.
[12] Battalion War Diary.
[12.5] All Tommy Lynchard recollections from oral history interview conducted by the author, July 24 2015.
[13] Battalion War Diary.
[14] Stott, letter to Margaretta Wood.
[15] Irving Schechter, letter to Margaretta Wood, August 10, 1944.
[16] Stott, “Saipan Under Fire,” 12.
[17] Battalion War Diary.

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