Operation Forager: No One Thought Of Failure

May 8: Embarkation

The trucks rumbled out of the hills, through the town of Kahului, and halted at the harbor.

Loading at Kahului Harbor, 1944.

Tailgates dropped and men emerged, stretching their legs and brushing off the red Maui dust that settled in their clothing and hair, making them look perpetually rusty. Arm-waving NCOs, many of them exercising brand-new rank, hustled their charges into a prescribed order. Long lines of green-clad forms, weighed down by weapons and full combat packs, moved slowly from the trucks to the piers where the ships lay waiting. One by one, they struggled up the gangways and disappeared into the dark passageways leading below. The crowded harbor bustled with troop transports, mostly the familiar “APA” type, but also the occasional Landing Ship, Dock (LSD) for shipping tanks, vehicles, and crated aircraft. Day after day, ships filled past capacity slipped away under cover of darkness; in the morning, new ships were loading in their place. The entire 4th Marine Division was streaming down from Camp Maui and heading to sea.[1]

The USS Calvert (APA-32) approached Kahului on the afternoon of 8 May 1944 and moored port side to Pier #1. She was a seasoned veteran of eighteen months service; her holds had carried soldiers to invasions in North Africa, Sicily, and Makin Island; she had borne Marines to Roi in the Kwajalein atoll. Her experienced crew made quick work of combat loading the 660 short tons of cargo and supplies, and on 10 May, Calvert began boarding troops. Hydrographic and air liaison units came aboard, followed by hundreds of Marines. Combat engineers from the 20th Marines, support troops from the 4th Service Battalion, truckers from the 4th Motor Transport Battalion – even the assistant division commander, Brigadier General Samuel B. Cumming, and his staff were on the Calvert’s sailing roster. The bulk of her human cargo, though, would be the reinforced First Battalion, 24th Marines – known for the operation as Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1-24

PFC Robert D. Price watched the procession pass by. Ordinarily, he would be in that mass of Marines heading slowly towards the ships, grousing about the inevitable hurry-up-and-wait and speculating about the destination with his assistant gunner Roger Trimble and his squad leader, Bill Linkins. Rumors were rife. Some thought this was another training exercise, albeit on a larger scale than those they’d undertaken at the Maui Amphibious Training Center.[2] Most of Price’s Company A, 24th Marines (A/1/24) remembered the “false starts” at Camp Pendleton, getting keyed up for combat only to stage another mock landing and return to barracks. However, the scale of the operation – not to mention a recent announcement, issued by the general and read by their company commanders – were strong hints that this might be the real deal, a fact not lost on those combat veterans of Roi-Namur.

Another telling clue was the divisional MP company asking for extra manpower at Kahului. Price was one of the reinforcements ordered to keep an eye out for any trouble on the way to the docks. The worst of the malingerers and malcontents were given make-work assignments with rear echelon units. Still, every Marine possessed the innate ability to cause mischief of one sort or another. In the days leading up to embarking, a handful of new charges – ranging from absent over leave to assaulting a civilian – were leveled against enlisted men of the 24th Marines. They would have to answer for their crimes when and if they returned from the next operation. Some of the chronic leave-takers were looking for an opportunity to disappear and “accidentally” miss their ship, willing to endure harsh punishments to ensure their survival. Even the seemingly innocent transgression of fraternizing with civilians or girlfriends was strictly forbidden. There were spies on Maui, and a rumor went around that two Japanese agents equipped with binoculars and a radio transmitter were caught in a nearby factory.[3]

However, the embarkation progressed without incident, and by the evening of 10 May the entire battalion – from Lt. Colonel Maynard C. Schultzthe “Old Man” himself, down to a quartet of young corpsmen who reported for duty just two days earlier – joined the troops already aboard the Calvert.


May 11: Leaving Maui

At 0710 the following morning, the Calvert weighed anchor and pulled out of Kahului. After an uneventful day’s steaming, she moored at Pier 4 at Sand Island. The former detention facility had little to offer the restive Marines, but it was within sight of downtown Honolulu. On their voyage to Roi-Namur in January, they’d dreamed of adventuring through one of the world’s most infamous liberty ports. They had no luck at that time: only a handful of officers with official business ashore were allowed to leave the ship. Cynically, the Marines predicted another disappointment – but to their surprise, all hands were allowed ashore under strict orders to return by evening. After the limited offerings near Camp Maui, Honolulu was truly paradise. “Everyone was going to pieces, they were so happy to get liberty,” recalled PFC Chester L. McCoy of Company B.

There was a lot to do on the Big Island. I was with a friend whose father was in the Marine Corps, and he was stationed on that island. He had grown up in some of the islands, and he knew his way around. We’d take off and visit different places. We had a gorgeous day. Our sergeant told us, “Remember now, you’re on the way to combat. Stay out of trouble; stay away from the cathouses!” Everyone just really enjoyed that day.[4]

During the daylight hours over the next two days, the men of First Battalion could enjoy whatever temptations they chose, from beaches to bars to ballgames at Honolulu Stadium. Some, perhaps, ignored their NCO’s warnings and ventured to explore Honolulu’s notorious Hotel Street. Others hit the tattoo parlors. PFC Robert F. Fleischauer wanted to wear his Marine pride on his sleeve but needed a little liquid courage before going under the needle. In the sober light of morning, he noticed the artist had rendered an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor as requested, but inscribed “SEMPER FIDLES” below. He took no end of teasing from his buddies.[5] All told, 1/24 was on its best behavior – or, at least, committed no serious breaches of discipline. Nobody wanted to jeopardize their good fortune.

The USS Calvert (APA-32) in August, 1943.

On 14 May, Calvert departed Honolulu for landing exercises off Lahaina Roads, Maui. Over the next two days, troops learned the routes to their debarkation stations, sailors lowered LCVPs, and boat crews beetled about from designated rendezvous areas to simulated lines of departure. Tracked amphibious landing craft were available, and assault units practiced transferring from boats to LVTs at sea. The exercises culminated in a massive, multi-division landing at Maalea Bay. Battalions of the 23rd and 25th Marines rumbled ashore in LVTs, moving inland to “capture” their objectives with the 24th Marines following in support. Aircraft swooped overhead, and Navy gunners responded to simulated fire requests just as they would in the upcoming operation. The infantry set up their bivouacs and posted security against “infiltrators.” The following morning, they practiced a pass-through of friendly lines, simulating the relief of an exhausted unit and supporting an armored attack.[6] All hands returned to their transports and, after another day in the boats, returned to Pearl Harbor. The scale of the exercise and the fact that they were not back at Camp Maui stirred a few more men into believing that there was a legitimate operation underway.

Civilians watch training exercises at Ma’alea Bay, Maui.

The shore liberty schedule was reinstated. Twenty percent of the men were allowed into town each day, while the remainder of the men were allowed to wander within the confines of the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard for supervised recreation and games. “We have been having quite a good time lately,” wrote First Lieutenant Philip E. Wood, Jr. of A/1/24. “Quite a bit of liberty in the Big Town and most of the time athletics, recreation, and fights.” The food improved, at least for officers. “I’m almost ashamed to say that we have had fresh, rare, delicious roast beef twice this week, steak once, chicken, lamb chops, etc.” Wood continued. “We have always had two full meat meals a day – all the eggs, etc. that we want for breakfast.”[7] For the enlisted men, the recreational facilities of the Navy Yard left something to be desired – PFC George A. Smith, also of A/1/24, summed it up as “playing grabass over at Hickam Field” – but at least they were off the overcrowded Calvert. At night, troops gathered to watch movies on the deck or watched USO shows presented on the docks.[8]


May 21: A Second Pearl Harbor

Smith and his buddies were “grabassing” on 21 May when a massive explosion shook the ground, and a pall of black smoke started rising into the western sky over a marshaling area called West Loch. Sirens began to wail. Some men thought the Japanese were attacking; they searched the skies for aircraft and the sea for signs of miniature submarines. More explosions, a thousand-foot-high pillar of fire – whatever was happening at West Loch had all the markings of a second Pearl Harbor.[9]

Burning LSTs at West Loch, 21 May 1944. US Navy photo.

The attack rumors proved to be false, but the reality of the situation was terrible enough. Nearly three dozen LSTs crowded into the West Loch channel, embarking cargo for the upcoming operation. The versatile ships were heavily laden with ammunition, gasoline, and combat troops of the 6th and 23rd Marines; ranks of DUKWs and tracked landing vehicles stood in rows at a nearby park, waiting for their turn to board. Some of the LSTs even had smaller vessels – Landing Craft, Tank (LCTs) – stowed on their main decks. One of these, LCT-963 aboard LST #353, had been converted to a mortar support boat, but on the morning of 21 May, the project was scrapped. Troops from the 29th Chemical Decontamination Company – a segregated African American unit – came aboard to unload more than a thousand crates of mortar ammunition. The exact cause of the conflagration is not known: theories range from improper handling of ammunition to welding sparks to a careless smoker flicking a butt in the wrong direction.[10] LST-353 erupted in a massive fireball, which quickly spread to ships moored on either side. Soldiers, sailors, and Marines were hurled into the air, torn apart by flying metal, or simply disappeared. Those who jumped overboard faced a terrifying ordeal as spilled fuel oil ignited, creating a sea of fire. The final death toll stood at 163 – many of whom were never identified – and 396 wounded.[11] The West Loch story was quietly buried in the press while the dead were quietly buried in Hawaii.

Under any normal circumstances, a catastrophe of this magnitude would result in significant delays at the very least. By this point, however, too many pieces were in motion. Surviving troops drew new gear, replacements were hastily pulled into the ranks, and officers cut new transport orders.[12] So quickly was the situation addressed that just five days later, Admiral Nimitz presided over a medal ceremony for the 4th Marine Division. The evening’s entertainment – the “Nimitz Bowl” – featured a boxing program. Pugilists from the 24th Marines bested the 6th Marines in seven out of ten contests, and a wrestling exhibition came to a raucous end when Sergeant Steve “Brody” Opalenik (L/3/24) tossed Sergeant John R. “Wild Bill” Miedecke (HQ/2/6) out of the ring and swatted the referee.[13]

Officers of the 24th Marines watch a prizefight in Hawaii. At center is Captain Irving Schechter of A/1/24; the lieutenant at far left is Charles W. “Bill” Carbeau, B/1/24, killed in action on Saipan. Photo by Harold Rediske.

May 29: TransDiv30

While the 24th Marines enjoyed their last few days in Honolulu, a transport group of LSTs quietly slipped out of Honolulu and disappeared over the western horizon. Five days later, at 0816 on 29 May 1944, the Calvert departed from Honolulu in company with the Fuller, Knox, John Land, and Bellatrix. The five ships of Transport Division 30 embarked all of RCT-24. They joined with other ships carrying the rest of the 4th Marine Division, then the 2nd Marine Division. Escort vessels appeared in the distance, screening the vulnerable transports from submarines. The usual banter about potential destinations was put to rest after just a few hours at sea. “Troops were officially informed that they were heading for an amphibious assault on Japanese-mandated Saipan, a principal enemy island in the southern Marianas, approximately 1,500 miles south of Tokyo,” noted the War Diary. “Long days on shipboard were devoted to instructions in plans for the assault.”[14]

Copies of Operation Order Number 2-24, drawn up by Major Robert N. Fricke by the direction of Lt. Colonel Schultz, were distributed to company officers. Boat assignments were posted. Photographs and charts of the island appeared in the wardroom, on bulletin boards, and plastered to bulkheads throughout the ship. Navy and Marine officers attended detailed briefings and then disseminated the information to their men.[15] “Once we knew the objective, we were thoroughly briefed on what to expect and what to do,” commented Sergeant Mike Mervosh. “We also continued with our physical exercise regimens, test firing our weapons… [and] sharpened our knives and bayonets.”[16] PFC David C. McEwen cared less about the name of his destination than “all the dangers” he might find there. “How bad the oceans were, and the crabs that bite your leg and hold you under the sea, and that there’s only one way to go and that’s forward. Anybody would be scared to go into the ocean. I knew we were going into a serious thing, and that’s it.”[17] One lecturer, reportedly a medical officer of the 14th Marines, hit all the highlights in one impassioned speech. “In the surf,” he said, “beware of sharks, barracuda, sea snakes, anemones, razor-sharp coral, polluted waters, poison fish, and giant clams that shut on a man like a bear trap. Ashore, there is leprosy, typhus, filariasis, yaws, typhoid, dengue fever, dysentery, saber grass, insects, snakes, and giant lizards. Eat nothing growing on the island, don’t drink its waters, and don’t approach the inhabitants.” One dismayed private asked the obvious question: “Sir, why don’t we let the Japs keep the island?”[18] Men practiced pronouncing the unfamiliar name: many, like PFC Norman M. Lucas of C/1/24 landed on “Sigh-a-pan,” and the misnomer “Siapan” appeared in countless letters and official dispatches.

Front and back of a briefing document issued to PFC Bernard C. Elissagaray (A/1/24) en route to Saipan.
The completed documents were not to be taken ashore for fear of capture by the enemy.

Briefings took place daily as officers outlined their plans for any number of scenarios. Corporal Robert L. Williams described one particular plan that caused a great deal of concern. His Company A was the “rubber boat” company for the battalion, and he remembered training with the bulky craft in the cold waters off Aliso Beach in California. “Some of the night maneuvers were a little shaky when we were in the States,” he said, and his stomach dropped when he saw what the planners had in mind.

When we got aboard ship, after we were there for a little while, they told us the western coast of Saipan was the one everybody hit. On the other side of the island, there was a little bay. As the rubber boat company, we were supposed to go in the night before to this cove that was close to the airfield. We were supposed to go in there and disrupt things.[19]

Williams was a demolition expert in a designated assault squad. “We had Bangalore torpedoes, beehives, TNT, that’s what we played around with,” he said. “I carried around a satchel, half of my knapsack, with 20 quarter-pound blocks of TNT in it, and in my hip pocket, I had ten blasting caps.” If the Magicienne Bay landing took place, his team would coordinate with bazooka men and flamethrowers to take out the toughest Japanese defenses. Fortunately, the plan never came to fruition. Later, Williams saw the Purple Beach defenses abandoned along the coastline. “The entire place was crisscrossed by machine-gun fire,” he remarked. “We felt that if they had gone through with it, we never would have stood a chance.”[20] Regimental Combat Team 24 – with no exceptions – was designated as the reserve unit for V Amphibious Corps, scheduled to land on the afternoon of 15 June 1944.[21]

Mike Mervosh heard the date with some surprise – it was the day after his twenty-first birthday. “I took a lot of joking about getting killed on the same day I was born,” he commented. “But I wasn’t concerned because I honestly didn’t believe I was going to get killed. I felt my training had prepared me to survive. I was a squad leader by this time, and I knew I had to lead my men.”[22] For “Iron Mike’s” fellow Pennsylvanian, PFC Raymond C. Motovidlak, the date was most unwelcome – 15 June was his birthday, one he shared with Corporal Corpus A. Gallegos (HQ/1/24) and PFCs DeWitt L. Dietrich and John M. Donnelly (A/1/24). Whether they shared Mervosh’s confidence is not known.[23]

With a fixed date to focus on, the Marines settled in for a long voyage. There was less of the uncertainty and trepidation that marked their voyage to Roi-Namur earlier in the year. We had been aboard ship too often previously for the routine to seem unusual or different,” commented First Lieutenant Frederic A. Stott, a liaison officer attached to HQ/1/24. “Our schooling for the operation was fully as complete as it had been six months earlier when we first saw action in the Kwajalein campaign. We possessed the new advantage of having already faced combat, and therefore a knowledge of how each of us reacted personally…. No one thought of failure.”[24] Instead, they worried about their comfort. The Calvert was sailing about five percent over capacity; more than 1300 men jostled and bickered for space in troop compartments filled to bursting..[25] “Junior officers [sleep] 18 to the stateroom,” commented Second Lieutenant Jim G. Lucas, “the kind of staterooms which would not countenance double beds in civilian days.”[26] The atmosphere within the ship quickly grew sour and stifling. “The heat becomes more and more oppressive, shirts are always wet and soggy, and you actually steam when you go below decks,” complained 1Lt. Philip E. Wood, Jr., a mortar officer in A/1/24. “Wish we were doing this in winter, as we did last time.”[27]

Wood and his buddies commandeered space in the landing craft lashed to the Calvert’s deck, turning the boats into private clubhouses for their officer’s cabal. The occasional soaking rain shower was not enough to drive them back to their stifling quarters below decks; it was cooler and more comfortable to sleep under the stars. “[We] used to talk long into the night about everything from God to women’s clothes,” remembered First Lieutenant Howard “Fran” Shattuck, Jr. “In consequence, we generally overslept and missed breakfast each morning.”[28] Discussions between Shattuck and First Lieutenant Joseph D. Swoyer, Jr. sometimes turned into debates to be settled by the “judiciary mind” of Phil Wood, the “Legal Eagle” of Company A – as long as he was awake. “The late-sleeping Eagle all curled up and sound asleep” invariably provoked a remark from First Lieutenant Harry D. Reynolds, Jr.: “Isn’t the Eagle marvelous in the role he portrays?”[29]

Enlisted men hoping to escape the heat also slept on deck, under whatever shelter they could find. The fresh air was a godsend to those who couldn’t find their sea legs. “I look at a ship, I get sick,” admitted PFC David McEwen. “I had to sleep on deck under the boats. Oh! All the going back and forth, I got as sick as can be.”[30] Overcrowding played a role, too. “So crowded has this ship been that many marines have been below deck only to eat,” commented Lieutenant Lucas, the Division’s public relations officer, “and [they] have lived and slept on deck, with no protection at all from the elements.”[31] Vital business was conducted in the open, too. “Up forward, a headquarters unit has set up its stand beneath one of the invasion barges, which straddles the ship from rail to rail,” continued Lucas. “Decks, cots, files, and personal gear have been arranged in neat order, and the area has been roped in. A large pencil sign ‘Headquarters Personnel Only’ bars the way to intruders and sets it aside as a military reservation.”[32]

“The days and waves slide by, alike as peas in a pod,” wrote Phil Wood. “Having to make a positive effort to have time pass by – and yet, not exactly anxious that we should reach our objective.” Usually a prolific writer of letters, Wood passed most of his time reading James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson and wished for “War & Peace, Lee’s Lieutenants or a few of that genre. This is the time and place to tackle those boys.”[33] However, he also found it “funny how much time you can waste, just in the daily business of living – showers, sleep, eating – only an hour or two of real work in the day, and yet somehow the rest of it passes.” A few Monopoly sets appeared, and for several days the game was “quite the rage.” The eternal card games continued. Bridge was perennially popular, and those who cared – and could afford the stakes – were welcome at any number of poker games.[34] “We’d play cards all day, or sit around and talk,” summed up Chester McCoy.[35]

Some of the Calvert’s crew were fond of shooting dice, and one afternoon PFC George “Gunga” Smith and Corporal Thomas F. McCay happened by a craps game. McCay, a “wise guy” from New Jersey, wanted in on the action and hit Smith up for a loan. The sailors welcomed the new shooter – until he won three consecutive throws right out of the gate. Grumbling sailors handed over bills and coins until one sore loser accused McCay of using loaded dice. The muttering turned ugly, and the two Marines turned and fled with their winnings. “We were lucky not to get thrown into the sea,” commented Smith. Once safely surrounded by their fellow Marines on deck, McCay counted out his winnings, paid back Smith’s loan with interest, and threw his pile of loose change over the side, laughing “What are we going to do with coins where we’re going, anyway?” Smith was startled but quickly realized his buddy was right. Another handful of change was commended to the Pacific, and the two friends swaggered off in search of some more trouble.[36]

Battalion officers made efforts to organize some more wholesome forms of entertainment. Lieutenant Lucas, a former combat correspondent, wrote of the many ways Marines found to kill time with a reporter’s eye for detail:

Under the direction of Major Robert N. Fricke, formerly with the Williamsburg restoration, daily entertainment has been provided for the men, usually at “jam session” with an eight-piece orchestra from a marine band on the promenade deck. At one such gathering, Marine Private First Class John Poggiolli, New Rochelle, NY, introduced his own composition, “Moonlight Rendezvous,” to hundreds of his wildly cheering mates. Marine Poggioli also gave us his interpretation of the Ink Spots, singing “Do I Worry?” Marine First Lieutenant James Donovan, formerly a reporter from Peoria, Ill., organized a talent show which played to full houses several nights deep in Japanese waters….[37]

This Calvert song sheet was given to PFC George A. Smith (A/1/24) while en route to Saipan.

Lucas also circulated among the troops with notebook in hand, searching out good stories for his PR dispatches. He was pleased to find Sergeant Frank A. Tucker in a talkative mood one day. “Hike” Tucker, the acting platoon sergeant of Able Company’s 1st Platoon, was a unit celebrity for his sharpshooting heroism in the battle of Roi-Namur. “Tucker came down and talked about the folks from home,” reported Lucas. “He showed the picture of his 10-year-old son, who weighs 135 pounds and is all muscle, and said the kid was dead set on becoming a Marine.” The thirty-year-old hero of Namur said he wasn’t worried about getting hurt, that he’d be safe once he hit the beach, and “there wasn’t a Jap alive who could get him.” Tucker read some proffered clippings about his recent Navy Cross award with interest, and although grumbling “don’t know what I’ll do with them,” carefully tucked them into his pack for safekeeping.[38]

A selection of articles about “Hike” Tucker’s exploits.
Lucas might have had a copy of the Honolulu Advertiser piece aboard the Calvert.

Of course, there was plenty of time – occasionally too much time – to be alone with one’s thoughts. Countless V-Mail missives, like the one penned by PFC Joseph M. Hines, were scribbled out in a tentative attempt to reassure the home folks, while also gently preparing them for the possibility of the worst.

Dear Family, 

I am writing this to explain why I haven’t been writing. We are going into combat again and I haven’t been able to write. This will be the last letter till this engagement is over, so when you hear from me next the situation will be well in hand. There isn’t much I can say except that I’m fine and please don’t worry cause I’ll be ok. Tell “Buddy” why I didn’t answer his letter, and also Buck Licliter.
Well till I hear from you all my love to you all.
Joe[39]

On 6 June 1944, news of the Normandy invasion was passed to all hands. “Cheering hadn’t died down before I suddenly got a flash realization that this war may be over ‘in our time,’” mused Lt. Phil Wood.

For so long now it has seemed that the war would last indefinitely – just couldn’t see the end of it, stretching on for a couple of years at least. But now, with luck, it is possible at last that I might be home by a year from now, with no more than a couple more campaigns under my belt. Seems impossible of course, but it could happen. God knows I’ve never wanted anything so much in my life.[40]

June 8: Last Mail

As he always did, Wood wrote down his feelings, addressed them to his “Dear Girls” – his mother and sister in Manhattan – and handed the envelope to a mail clerk. The letter was mailed on 8 June 1944, when the convoy arrived at Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. For three days, final preparations and arrangements were made as the rest of the massive convoy arrived. The combined operation to seize the Mariana Islands – Saipan, Tinian, and Guam – involved two Army divisions, three Marine divisions and a provisional brigade, and numerous supporting units of all branches: “a grand total of 165,672 troops… the largest body of American troops to be engaged in the Pacific up to that time, and the greatest number of troops ever to fight under Marine command.”[41] No fewer than 800 ships made up the massive armada, which dwarfed the force sent to invade Normandy. Men gathered at the rails and looked agog at the tremendous military might assembled at Eniwetok.

John C. Heidler, Jr.

John Clifford Heidler had never seen anything like it in his eighteen years. A 1943 graduate of Dupont Manual Training High School in Louisville, Kentucky, he’d spent the last nine months of his life in hospital corps school. Heidler was one of the four junior corpsmen assigned to 1/24 the day they boarded the Calvert, and his knowledge of combat operations and the men he would fight alongside was limited to just this one voyage. In his final hours at Eniwetok, Heidler wrote a letter to his family in Louisville. He was bound for a battle which “may not seem as big to you as the invasion of Europe, but it is equally important.” Like countless other young men, he closed with “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”[42]

Heidler’s letter was dated 10 June 1944. The following day, the fleet sailed for Saipan.

“Ships of the Fifth Fleet at a Marshalls Anchorage, shortly before departure for the Marianas, as seen from USS GAMBIER BAY (CVE-73), 10 June 1944.” US Navy photo

As they entered Japanese waters, shipboard discipline grew stricter. “The speed had to be the speed of the slowest ship,” remarked PFC Robert E. Tierney of Company A. “The whole fleet would zig and zag at the same time. This is in absolutely pitch dark – if anybody on deck lit a cigarette, man, we would be court-martialed.”[43] The ship’s officers were not kidding about this rule, as PFC Chester McCoy discovered after waking from an afternoon nap and absentmindedly lighting up. “I didn’t know they had darkened the ship,” he admitted. The MPs descended, and the teenaged Georgian found himself standing tall before his company commander, Captain Milton G. Cokin, and Lieutenant Commander Edward J. Sweeney of the Calvert. McCoy pleaded his ignorance of the time, but Sweeney was unmoved. “Son, for the rest of the trip, you will spend your time in the brig from darken ship until light.” Cokin didn’t like the punishment but had no say in the matter. “McCoy, just take all your stuff to the brig with you,” he said. McCoy obeyed – and reported to the brig fully equipped and armed for action. He didn’t mind his new quarters. “In the brig, you’re the safest person on the ship,” he explained. “If something goes wrong, you’re the first one to go topside. They take care of you. You didn’t have to worry about anything.”[44]

Final Preparations

Over a thousand miles away, Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher’s Task Force 58 was unleashing hell on the Marianas. An aerial armada of 900 planes, launched from sixteen carriers, darkened the skies; an early strike destroyed 150 Japanese aircraft on the ground and secured air supremacy on the first day of operations. On 13 June, the surface fleet – seven fast battleships, 13 cruisers, and 58 destroyers – arrived and began flinging shells into the western coast of Saipan and Tinian. The larger ships hit specific targets during daylight hours; at night, the destroyers kept up harassing fire, depriving the defenders of the chance to rest or repair the damage.[45] To the Japanese, it seemed that “a large city had suddenly appeared offshore” and opened fire, leaving the earth “pitted like the craters of the moon.”[46] Specially-trained Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) swam the reefs off the invasion beaches on D-minus-1, searching for hidden obstacles. UDT #7 scouted the Yellow and Blue Beaches near Charan Kanoa, and even reached the waterline on Blue One. They returned with favorable reports: the reef and beaches could be crossed without extensive demolition work, and detailed sketches of defensive positions were quickly copied and forwarded up the chain of command.

Underwater Demolition Teams at work off the coast of Saipan, 14 June 1944. The swimmers appear so nonchalant, it’s hard to remember that they’re operating in enemy waters – and under fire. Official US Navy photos.

However, UDT #7 also reported two men killed and eight wounded by mortars and machine guns emplaced ashore. A full reconnaissance of Yellow Two was impossible due to heavy, accurate Japanese fire.[47] Unwilling to risk any capital ships to shore batteries or mines, Mitscher kept his forces at least 10,000 yards offshore. The crews of the new fast battleships were trained to fight other surface vessels, not small shore targets; their aerial spotters kept calling fire down on conspicuous (and innocuous) installations. Area saturation was emphasized over pinpointing small, vital areas.[48] Saipan was no speck in the ocean; even this massive American fleet could not cover every foot of ground, as had been attempted on Tarawa and Roi-Namur. The Japanese were taking a pasting, but they were still there – as were many of their bunkers, artillery pieces, and fortifications. As always, the pre-invasion bombardment was a help, but not a solution. The assault troops would have to find out firsthand how hard the Japanese would fight to keep their claim on Saipan. “Keep coming, Marines; they’re going to run away,” cried the Navy. But, as then-Captain Carl W. Hoffman of G/2/8 would later write, “on an island only fourteen and one-fifth miles long and six and one-half miles wide, there isn’t much room to run ­– if, indeed, one wished to run.”[49]

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NOTES

[1] Franklin A. Hart, “Fourth Marine Division Operations Report, Saipan, 15 June to 9 July 1944,” (3 October 1944), 11. Hereafter “4MarDiv Ops Report.” Most of the troops who went through Kahului embarked on APA type transports or LSDs, a process which lasted from 6 May to 13 May 1944. Those units slated to make the assault landings boarded LVTs at Mā`alaea Bay; amphibious units embarked from their bases at Pearl Harbor.
[2] Carl W. Hoffman, Saipan: The Beginning of the End (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Historical Division US Marine Corps, 1950), 31. Because it was slated to land in reserve on Saipan, the 24th Marines conducted “several preliminary boat exercises” rather than the full-scale amphibious trials attempted by the assault regiments.
[3] Robert D. Price, oral history interview conducted by Thomas Swope, Robert D. Price Collection (AFC/2001/001/49660), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Price recounted this tale in 2006 and believed it had occurred prior to shipping out for Saipan. He may have confused the anecdote with an oft-repeated story from A/1/24 about Japanese military observers in the sugar factory in Charan Kanoa, on Saipan itself.
[4] Chester L. McCoy, oral history interview conducted by Charles Lanier, Chester L. McCoy Collection (AFC/2001/001/87486), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
[5] R. R. Keene, “Because Marines Never Forget, Part II: Tinian,” Leatherneck Magazine (November 2011), 34-35.
[6] 4MarDiv Ops Report, Annex I, “Report of RCT 24” (28 August 1944), 9. Hereafter RCT 24 Final Report.
[7] Philip E. Wood, Jr., letter to Margretta & Gretchen Wood, 22 May 1944. Author’s collection.
[8] RCT 24 Final Report, 11.
[9] George A. Smith, interview with the author, 2009.
[10] The West Loch disaster was so abrupt and so devastating that eyewitness reports differ as to the time of the explosion and the ship that blew up first. For an excellent examination of these points and more see Gene Eric Salecker, The Second Pearl Harbor: The West Loch Disaster, May 21 1944 (Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 2014).
[11] This is the generally accepted tally as calculated by historian Samuel Eliot Morison after the war. Pearl Harbor veteran and researcher Ray Emory contested the total of dead as too high, while survivors of the event claim the total is higher. Salecker, The Second Pearl Harbor, 212.
[12] 4MarDiv Ops Report, 11. The Division lost five LSTs (three assigned to RCT-23; two to RCT-25), and the damaged transport USS Alchiba was replaced by the USS Thuban. This same report claims 112 personnel casualties had to be replaced along with “all supplies and equipment previously loaded in the five LSTs.” All of these replacements were made within four days, delaying departure by less than twenty-four hours.
[13] Walter I. Jordan, “24th Marines War Diary, 1 April 1944 – 30 September 1944,” (14 October 1944), 5. Hereafter 24th Marines War Diary.
[14] Ibid.
[15] LtCdr. Edward J. Sweeney, “USS Calvert, Report of Saipan Operation,” (3 July 1944), 2.
[16] Gregg Stoner, Hardcore Iron Mike, Conqueror of Iwo Jima (Bloomington, iUniverse, 2015), 41.
[17] David C. McEwen, oral history interview conducted by Timothy McEwen, David Clark McEwen Collection (AFC/2001/001/05256), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
[18] Carl W, Proehl, ed., The Fourth Marine Division in World War II (1946; repr. Nashville: The Battery Press, 1988), 58-59.
[19] Robert L. Williams, “In My Own Words,” interview conducted by Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, March 12, 2014. Williams is referring to the “Purple Beaches” at Magicienne Bay on Saipan’s east coast. This plan was not covered in operations orders for 1/24, and may have been a rumor that went around the Calvert.
[20] Ibid. Evidently, the Purple Beaches were also considered as a possible landing site for the 27th Infantry Division. This option, which James Hallas rightly describes as “harebrained,” was also abandoned prior to D-Day.
[21] 24th Marines War Diary, 5.
[22] Stoner, Hardcore Iron Mike, 42.
[23] Only Donnelly would come through the Saipan campaign unscathed. Mervosh and Gallegos would be wounded, and Dietrich and Motovidlak were killed. Motovidlak, in fact, died on 15 June 1944 – his 21st birthday.
[24] Frederic A. Stott, “Saipan Under Fire” (Andover: Frederic Stott, 1945), 13.
[25] Sweeney, “Calvert Report,” 1.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Philip E. Wood, Jr., letter to Margretta and Gretchen Wood, 5 June 1944. Author’s collection.
[28] H. F. Shattuck, Jr., letter to Margretta Wood, 26 July 1944. Author’s collection.
[29] Frederic A. Stott, letter to Margretta Wood, 7 October 1944. Author’s collection. Reynolds, Stott, Captain Gene Mundy and Captain Irving Schechter shared the landing craft above the Shattuck-Swoyer-Wood collective. “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,” explained Stott.
[30] David C. McEwen interview.
[31] Jim G. Lucas, “Williamsburg Officer Leads Daily Entertainment Aboard Big Convoy En Route To Saipan,” The Daily Press (Newport News, VA) 2 July 1944.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Philip E. Wood, Jr., letter to Margretta Wood, 7 June 1944. Author’s collection.
[34] Philip E. Wood, Jr., letter to Margretta Wood, 8 June 1944. Author’s collection.
[35] Chester L. McCoy interview.
[36] George A. Smith, conversation with the author, 2009.
[37] Jim G. Lucas, “Williamsburg Officer.”
[38] Jim G. Lucas, “Namur Hero Killed On Namur Few Hours After Saying No ‘Jap Alive’ Could Get Him,” The Austin American-Statesman, 10 July 1944.
[39] Joseph Martin Hines, personal letter dated 6 June 1944, Joseph M. Hines Collection, Truban Archives, Shenandoah County Library, Edinburg, Virginia.
[40] Philip E. Wood, Jr., letter to Margretta Wood, 8 June 1944. Author’s collection.
[41] Proehl, The Fourth Marine Division, 58.
[42] “LaGrange Man and 2 Louisvillians Among 9 Kentuckians Killed In Action,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), 8 August 1944.
[43] Robert E. Tierney, “My Marine Corps Experience.”
[44] Chester L. McCoy interview.
[45] Hoffman, Saipan, 35-36.
[46] Victor Brooks, Hell Is Upon Us: D-Day in the Pacific, June–August 1944. (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2005), 122. Quoted is Sgt. Takeo Yamauchi, 43rd Division.
[47] J. T. Koehler, “Underwater Demolition Team 7, Reports of Saipan and Tinian Operations,” (22 August 1944), 3.
[48] Hoffman, Saipan, 36-37.
[49] Ibid., 44.

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