Saipan. D+7. June 22, 1944.

The day began easily enough.

“Before daylight on the eighth morning the first grand scale artillery preparation commenced and covered all the lower slopes with bursting shells and a haze of smoke,” wrote Lieutenant Fred Stott. “It was an impressive demonstration, looked effective, and heightened spirits as we moved out. Scanning with field glasses showed that the defenders, if any, were invisible.”[1]

It all seemed too good to be true. The 0600 jump off met no resistance. The advance moved so quickly that Battalion HQ packed up and moved forward to a new position within an hour. Company B found a group of thirty Japanese laborers and two women who were summarily sent back to the rear, but this news was eclipsed by a report from Company A—they were only fifteen yards from the day’s objective, the O-4 line. It was 0841.[2]

Actually, it had been almost four days since we had encountered any sizable organized number of the enemy, and Lt. Tom Kerr, our whimsically scientific communications officer, half-seriously wagered that he could safely circle the northern part of the island in a jeep and check in with the 2nd Division. There were no volunteer drivers![3]

Lieutenant Stott was back to liaison work with the tankers; after delivering its prisoners to regiment, B Company moved down to the coast to meet the tankers and clear the beach. The reports kept flowing in, and the news kept getting better.

The morning of June 22, as recorded by the battalion's War Diary.
The morning of June 22, as recorded by the battalion’s War Diary.

Division staff had not counted on reaching the O-4 line so quickly; a secondary objective, dubbed O-4(A) was quickly assigned and reached by Able Company at 1025. By 1330, the battalion had consolidated its position and the sweating Marines were allowed a brief rest.

The next feature on First Battalion’s maps was an eminence called simply Hill 600. “With terrain made increasingly difficult by rising ground and dense patches of woods, and with too wide a frontage for three under strength rifle companies, we were soon compelled to commit all strength on the line,” said Stott. “And even then it was an impossibility to maintain good contact.” As they approached the hill, all three companies—from Company A on the left, to Company C in the center, to Company B on the beach—lost sight of their flanks.

Then the easy advance came to a violent end.

june22modern2
Google Maps topographic relief of Saipan, showing the area of 1/24’s advance. The steepness of the terrain can be seen.

The foremost platoon of Company A broke through the woods into a small clearing. They advanced cautiously; a Japanese position was clearly visible, but appeared to be abandoned. Why the Japanese allowed such a lapse in security is not known – the executive officer, 1Lt. Harry D. Reynolds, later thought “the Japs apparently had stepped out of their concealments to go for supplies.” The weather was stiflingly hot, and the deserted post provided cover from sun and shellfire alike. Gratefully, the Marines moved into their new accommodations, fervently hoping that their day was over.

Everyone suffered in the heat, but the men who worked on crew-serviced weapons had it worst of all. PFC Howard Kerr’s machine gun squad carried a “light” machine gun and tripod along with their own packs and personal weapons; Kerr’s responsibility was to tote upwards of 500 rounds of belted ammo for the gun. “We got to the top of the hill and we were exhausted,” he recalled. “We were dragging a lot of equipment, machine guns, mortars, and a couple straps of MG belts around our neck. We settled down in what looked like a real nice spot. Just all zonked out.”

PFC David Brunjes, a machine gunner with Company A, spent the day sweating under the weight of a Browning machine gun. The 21-year-old from Pilot Grove, Missouri was a veteran of the fighting on Namur, and the last week of his life was a tiring, frightening slog up hill and down dale on Saipan. When the word came down to take five, Brunjes sat down for a breather with his squad. Despite the heat of the day, the fast advance had the men in a good mood. Brunjes had his friends in stitches when suddenly he slumped over the gun. “We thought he was joking around,” said PFC Wally Duncan. “It took us a moment to realize he was dead. We never even heard the gunshot.”[4]

Fatigue and overconfidence caused Company A to drop their guard, and they were about to pay the price. In horror, Kerr realized that his group had “zonked out” in the fire lane of a Japanese machine gun. As the Marine gunners scattered and tried to return fire, Corporal Norman Reber noticed a second group of Japanese sneaking around the company’s exposed flank. Quickly shifting his gun to provide better covering fire, he hurried to report to the company commander, Captain Irving Schechter. The report would be his last words; as the corporal scrambled back to his buddies, a Japanese machine gunner dropped Reber with a quick burst. Shaken, “Buck” Schechter quickly maneuvered one of his platoons to protect the exposed flank.

Japanese artillery and mortars rained down on the scurrying Marines; snipers and machine guns added to the din. PFC Fred Davis, Jr. died with a bullet in his back; another bullet struck PFC Blaine Riley in the right side. PFC Laurent Palardy took a piece of shrapnel to the arm. Corporal Edward Horan collared enough men to hold the line, but the right flank was in serious trouble. Platoon Sergeant John Yaniga of Third Platoon dispatched a rifleman back down the hill to dig up some extra firepower.

PFC George Smith was fully recovered from the effects of his back-to-back concussions. He had discovered a soft side to Doc Zrimsek; the corpsman was liberal with doses of medicinal brandy, and Smith only had to mention his fragile nerves to cadge a free bottle or two. Smith’s naturally buoyant disposition made it easier to find humor in almost any situation, and on the afternoon of June 22 he was happily heckling a demolitions squad throwing demolition charges into a nearby cave. “We were up on a cliff above them, and the Japanese were below us. Every time that squad would make a move on the cave, we’d cheer them on just like a football game,” recalled Smith. “We were having a grand time, watching somebody else do the fighting.”[5]

Then the shooting started on top of the hill. Yaniga’s rifleman came tumbling down the slope, hollering for the gunners. Instantly, the holiday atmosphere disappeared. Corporal Tom Hurley’s squad took off after Yaniga, with Smith and PFC Charles Stafford following. The thick undergrowth hampered their movements, cutting visibility down to a few feet.

The first thing Smith saw as he crested the hill was the body of his friend Reber, bleeding from the face and neck, obviously dead. “Reber got it right off the bat,” recalled Smith. “He never had a chance. I remember seeing him just lying there, face down.”[6] They couldn’t see the Japanese, but that was to be expected; what startled Smith most was the apparent lack of friendly faces. As far as he could tell, his squad was alone on the hill.

Experience took over. “Gunga” Smith and “Cease” Stafford slid into position. Stafford, the assistant gunner set up the tripod; Smith was right behind him fitting the gun into the pintle. An ammo carrier pitched a box of 250 rounds to the gunners. With practiced skill, Smith opened the breach, seated the belt, slammed it shut, and squeezed the butterfly trigger.

The gun spat two rounds and jammed.

Smith swore. The problem was a maladjusted headspace; he knew the cause of the problem as surely as he knew which Marine was responsible.[7] As he raised the breach to clear the jam, he felt a sudden, sharp pain in his wrist. Beside him, Cease Stafford screamed as a bullet hit him in the arm. “Cease got hit between the elbow and the shoulder with an explosive bullet,” said Smith. “It literally took the bone out. The only thing holding his arm on was some skin on the inner side.” The entire episode, from warning to wounding, lasted less than ten minutes.[8]

As radiomen sent out frantic calls for a flamethrowing tanks, Companies A and C tried desperately to close the gap between their flanks. Only Charlie Company could move, so 1Lt. Tommy Cox led his Third Platoon into the breach. Sergeant Jack Aeby’s squad was in the van; they pushed west through the undergrowth until they found Corporal Horan’s little group. As Cox stretched the flank, executive officer Thomas Schultz took the initiative.  Quickly organizing the remaining two platoons, he led “a bold assault on strongly fortified hostile positions… annihilating approximately forty enemy troops” threatening Company C. Shouting for stretcher bearers, he then hurried off through “the torturous tangle of heavily wounded area occupied by scattered enemy troops” and personally oversaw the evacuation of twenty five wounded Marines. The seemingly unstoppable officer was on his way back for more wounded when an artillery shell ended his life.[9]

As Horan and Aeby’s riflemen held the line, the wounded George Smith found himself in command of a small group of men. “Cease” Stafford’s shattered arm hung limp at his side, PFC Prentis M. Parsons had a sucking chest wound, and PFC Raymond “Tiny” Jordan was blind. Arm in arm, the four gunners helped each other down the slope of Hill 600; Smith, bleeding from the wrist, became the de facto leader. “Tiny Jordan was a big guy from Florida,” he would recall in 2009. “I was leading him down the hill because he couldn’t see. He was the only guy I ever heard crying. I don’t mean to belittle him at all, I felt the same way about my eyes.”[10] Smith kept his good hand on Parsons’ wound; shrapnel or a bullet had hit the Marine’s lung, and every breath sucked air through the opening with a high-pitched whistling sound. The whistling was too much for Smith, and he began to giggle uncontrollably. It was then that they realized they were totally unarmed. Smith had his Ka-Bar knife; the rest had dropped their carbines or pistols when hit. The thought was sobering—four badly wounded men with nothing but a knife to defend against whatever might come. “A Japanese boy scout could have taken all of us,” Smith later admitted.

Wounded gunners: PFCs Smith, Stafford, Parsons, and Jordan.

In a stroke of good fortune, the foursome stumbled upon the battalion aid station. The surgeons and corpsmen were working overtime; Smith and company were at once relieved and worried to see friendly faces among the wounded. Medical personnel swarmed over them; Smith found himself face to face with Doc Zrimsek, who wanted to administer morphine. Smith refused—he didn’t like the syrettes—but pleaded, “I sure could use another brandy.” Zrimsek patched the wounded gunner up, and said, rather tartly, “Serves you right! You drank it all and now I don’t have any!” Someone was passing around a sake bottle, and many of the wounded took healthy swigs to speed on the effects of the painkillers.

A typical Marine aid station on Saipan. These men are members of 3/24.
A typical Marine aid station on Saipan. These men are members of 3/24.

To relieve pressure on the aid station, a convoy was organized to transport the wounded to the rear. Smith saw his company’s Jeep pull up, with his good friend Corporal Howard Smith astride the hood holding a BAR.[11] Corporal Virgil Cawood and PFC Jeff Jowers were in the front seat, staring aghast at the mass of wounded men. As George Smith walked past, Cawood and Jowers quietly passed him two bottles of wine. Smith chased one with the other and capped the whole cocktail with a shot of morphine, declaring “boy, I’m not feeling anything at all!”[12]

The front line fighting wasn’t over. Company A had no option but to fall back one hundred yards to a better defensive position. Sergeant Aeby’s squad held up the Japanese long enough to cover the retreat, but was soon forced to withdraw. Aeby insisted on being the last to leave the position; a sniper shot him down as he brought up the rear. Lieutenant Cox was carried away with a ruined knee; the Bronze Star he would receive was small consolation for a ruined baseball career, but at least he lived to wear his decoration. Lieutenant Schultz was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross, and  Sergeant Aebys widow received his posthumous Silver StarFirst Lieutenant Alexander Santilli and corpsman Samuel Murrell also received Silver Stars. [13] In Company A, a Silver Star went to Corporal Horan for his efforts to protect the flank.

In the three hours between losing contact and the final withdrawal, Able Company suffered its highest casualty rate of the battle. Finally and mercifully, the approach of night and the arrival of 2/24 meant the beleaguered company could come home to roost. “Consolidation fortunately resulted,” noted Stott, “for it had been a perilous and strength sapping day.”[14]

This topographic image from Google Maps shows Hill 600 as it is today. The large gap between Companies A and C was momentarily connected by Aeby and Horan, until Company A was forced to fall back. The left flank of Company C did not bend back to connect, and for several hours a gap of 600 yards existed within the battalion.
This topographic image from Google Maps shows Hill 600 as it is today. The large gap between Companies A and C was momentarily connected by squads under Horan and Aeby, until Company A was forced to fall back. The left flank of Company C did not bend back to connect, and for several hours a gap of 600 yards existed within the battalion. The ridge also illustrates the difficulty in connecting the companies; the distance to cover was only a few hundred yards, but the terrain was torturous. A battalion commander from the 23rd Marines commented “It was all you could do to climb it, let alone fight up it.”

Meanwhile, the battalion’s casualties began the long trek to the rear. The sheer number of wounded could not be handled by Jeeps alone, and a selection of ox carts—possibly from the battalion’s 81mm gunners—were loaded with wounded Marines who could no longer walk. Every turn of the ill-made wheels brought a chorus of pained howls and protests from within; this, in turn, set the high-strung Gunga to giggling once again. One unfortunate man became the subject of mirthful scrutiny. “Where are you hit?” solicitous doctors and teasing Marines would ask. “In the ass, damn it” came the reply. With every subsequent inquiry, the man became more and more incensed, and the laughter grew louder and louder.

The little caravan finally reached the beaches they had crossed just a week before. There, they joined a much larger group of wounded, all waiting to board landing craft for a ride to the hospital ships off shore. Smith, exhausted and loopy from pain, morphine, and alcohol, surrendered his treasured .45 -a gift from his girlfriend’s father–and found himself in a large wardroom aboard one such ship. Medical personnel went from man to man to determine the nature of each wound before deciding on treatment and priority.

Suddenly, there was a commotion in the middle of the room. One unfortunate corpsman asked the Marine with the wounded posterior where he was hit, and Marine finally reached his breaking point. “I’ve been shot in the ass,” he shrieked, pulling out at pistol he’d managed to conceal from the orderlies. “If I hear any goddamn laughing from you, I’ll clear this room right out.” Sailors and wounded Marines stampeded for the door, and within moments the room was deserted save for the incensed Marine and Smith—who was convulsing with laughter on the floor. The wine and morphine had finally caught up to him. Smith made it to the side of the ship before becoming “very, very ill,” and awoke the next day in a hospital cot, bound for a rest camp in Hawaii, leaving Saipan behind him forever.[15]

George Smith was wounded in action on Saipan and sent to a Naval hospital on Oahu. This picture was taken after his release in 1944. The psychological effects of battle on a nineteen year old are evident in his expression. He was sent to a rest camp to recover.This photo of George Smith was taken at a rest camp in Hawaii.
When compared with his photo above, the effects of battle are strikingly apparent.

The Fallen

a_reber a_brunjes a_fdavis c_schultz c_aeby
Corporal
Norman H. Reber

Age 21
Machine Gunner, A Co.
Multiple wounds, head
Private First Class
David W. Brunjes
Age 20
Machine Gunner, A Co.
Gunshot wounds
Private First Class
Fred Davis, Jr.
Age 24
Rifleman, A Co.
Gunshot wounds, back
First Lieutenant
Thomas A. Schultz
Age 26
Executive Officer, C Co.
Artillery shell
Sergeant
Jack W. Aeby
Age 30
Squad Leader, C Co.
Gunshot wounds
c_mccormick c_quadrozzi
Private First Class
John C. McCormick

Age 23
Rifleman, C Co.
Cause unknown
Private First Class
William J. Quadrozzi

Age 22
Rifleman, C Co.
Cause unknown

WOUNDED

COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Headquarters 1Lt. Kenneth Beehner
Cpl. Joseph Teliha
PFC Clarence E. Martin
PFC James L. McMullen
PFC Eugene J. Sullivan

PFC Walter E. Trusilo
Unknown
Message Center
Messenger
Messenger
Intelligence Man
Field Lineman
Fragment, ankle
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
USS J. Franklin Bell
Unknown
Unknown
Able 1Lt. Harry D. Reynolds, Jr.
PlSgt. John Yaniga
Sgt. Dallas M. Colburn
Sgt. Kermit Shaw
Cpl. William J. Davis
Cpl. Clifford J. DeVoy
Cpl. Vernon D. Rigdon
PFC John C. Adelmann

PFC Raymond L. Jordan
PFC Gerald D. Miller
PFC Laurent R. Palardy
PFC Gerald F. Patterson
PFC Prentis M. Parsons
PFC Blaine Riley
PFC George A. Smith
PFC David W. Spohn
PFC Charles L. Stafford
Pvt. Ernest T. Henderson
Company XO
Platoon Sgt., 3rd Platoon
Squad Leader
Squad Leader
Clerk
MG Squad Leader
Rifle Squad Leader
BAR Gunner
MG Ammo Carrier
BAR Gunner
Fire Team Leader
MG Squad Leader
Machine Gunner
BAR Gunner
Machine Gunner
Machine Gunner
MG Assistant
Rifleman
Gunshot wound, shoulder
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown (temp. blindness)
Unknown
Fragment, left arm
Unknown
Unknown (left lung)
Gunshot, right side (fatal)
Gunshot, left wrist
Fragments, both legs
Gunshot, left upper arm
Unknown
Not Evacuated
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
USS Relief
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Baker PFC Bruce A. White Rifleman Unknown Unknown
Charlie 1Lt. Thomas W. Cox
Cpl. Joe W. Browning
Cpl. Peter Gulla
PFC Charles E. Buckley
PFC Joey Chalifour
PFC Edward Dombrowski
PFC Thomas J. Enright
PFC Andrew Matulica
PFC Eugene L. Moore
PFC Stephen Rudyk
PFC Darrell P. Yawn

Pvt. Earl C. Bauknecht
Pvt. General H. J. McCaleb
Leader, 3rd Platoon
Squad Leader
Clerk
BAR Gunner
Machine Gunner
BAR Gunner
BAR Gunner
Fire Team Leader
BAR Gunner
BAR Gunner
BAR Gunner
Rifleman
Rifleman
Gunshot, knee
Unknown
Gunshot, hip
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
USS Fremont
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Not Evacuated
Unknown
Unknown

NON-COMBAT EVACUATION

COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Headquarters PhM2c William L. Baker Corpsman Sick Unknown
Baker Cpl. James R. Frazier
PFC Edmond S. Piche
Squad Leader
Machine Gunner
Sick
Sick
Unknown
Unknown
Charlie PFC James T. Pledge BAR Gunner Sick USS Fremont

JOINED / ATTACHED / TRANSFERRED

Action Name From To Duty
 Trans. 1Lt. Frederic A. Stott HQ/1/24 C/1/24 Replace XO KIA this date

PREVIOUS DAY | MAIN PAGE | NEXT DAY


FOOTNOTES

[1] Frederic A. Stott, “Saipan Under Fire” (Andover: Frederic Stott, 1945), 7.
[2] Battalion War Diary.
[3] Stott, 7.
[4] Wallace Duncan, interview with the author, 2009.
[5] This and all further narrative relating to George Smith is compiled from several interviews and personal correspondence collected between 2008 and 2013.
[6] George A. Smith, interview with the author, 2009.
[7] Weapons maintenance was essential for every Marine, but even more so for crewed support weapons like machine guns. If one failed at a critical moment, lives were jeopardized. Smith dismissed his guilty squadmate as “a real eight-ball” of whom such behavior was typical.
[8] Smith.
[9] Lieutenant Schultz was the second Charlie Company XO to be killed in the war; 1Lt. Theodore Johnson succumbed to wounds sustained in the battle of Namur.
[10] Smith. Jordan’s blindness turned out to be only temporary; he returned to Tampa after the war and became a fireman.
[11] The two Smiths were not related, but knew each other well. Corporal Howard Smith earned the Navy Cross on Namur for his skill with the BAR and his bravery in rescuing wounded tankers.
[12] Smith. Cawood and Jowers had been with the machine guns earlier in the war, and were friends and former squadmates of Smith’s.
[13] Citations for Santilli’s and Murrell’s medals are not available. Santilli was killed in action before receiving his medal;  Murrell was recommended for the Navy Cross but the award was reduced for reasons unknown.
[14] Stott, 7.
[15] Smith, personal interview with the author, 2011.  To this day,  Smith maintains he has never had the slightest desire to return to the island.

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