Buck Schechter: The Lawyer Who Went To War

Captain Irving Schechter, commanding officer of Able Company, 24th Marines.
Captain Irving Schechter, commanding officer of Able Company, 24th Marines.

Irving “Buck” Schechter was the much-beloved leader of Company A, 24th Marines; although he was eventually promoted and succeeded by other officers, the original contingent of Company A considered him to be their one and only commanding officer. Stories of Buck’s bravery (he never wore a helmet under fire, saying he’d put it on “when things got really bad”) and dedication (stories of a formidable cliff at Camp Pendleton, nicknamed “Buck’s Shortcut,” abound) are matched only by stories of the dedication of his men (he was presented with a canvas folding chair – inadvertently stolen from General Clifton Cates).

The following interview was conducted by Henry Berry in 1982, and appears in his book Semper Fi, Mac!

Mr. Schechter is currently the president of the Bank of Smithtown on Long Island and is quite active in his own law firm in the same town. If one ever makes a wrong turn in Smithtown, Buck is a good man to know.

Buck serves as a model for all Marine Corps Reserve officers. He had never planned to be a military man. A graduate of the University of Iowa, he later received a law degree from New York University and was about to hang out his shingle when the threat of American involvement in World War II convinced him to enter the Marine Corps. He could have easily obtained a job in the Corps’s legal department, but that wasn’t why young Mr. Schechter joined the Corps. He would be the last one to brag about it, but Buck joined the Marines specifically to fight for his country. And he did.

Mr. Schechter retired from the United States Marine Corps Reserve a few years ago with the rank of colonel. But he still looks as though he could lead a company into combat.

Our interview started when I asked him if he ever wondered how he had survived all his arduous Pacific combat.

Here is his answer.

CAPTAIN IRVING (BUCK) SCHECHTER

A/1/24th Marines

“To lead is to serve.”

Yes, I have wondered why I’m still walking around after all the combat I went through. You would think the best I could have hoped for was a major disability, but I really can’t say that I am bothered physically by my Marine service.

The time I think about the most occurred on Saipan. I was leading my company through a wooded area. I had just climbed a small ridge when I heard a shot. I turned around and saw one of our flamethrowers lying on the ground. He was the man closest to me when the shot rang out. He had been hit in the head.

You see, it was very common for the Jap snipers to wait until we had walked by so they could pick out their target. They frequently would try to knock out the officers if possible. But above all, they wanted the special equipment men, especially the flamethrowers. My God, how they hated those men! If I had not had a flamethrower behind me, the sniper would have gone for the officer. It’s as simple as that.

Well, let’s go back to the fall of 1940. France had fallen and the Germans could do anything they wanted to do. I’d just got out of law school and had passed my bar exams. I was vitally interested in what was going on all over the world. The best way to keep abreast of events was through the radio.

Anyway, I was listening to a late news program. One of the advertisements on the program carried a message from the Marine Corps. It called for college graduates to send in an application to see if they could qualify for the Corps’s officers training program.

Well, my dad had immigrated from Austria before the turn of the century. He had worked hard and prospered. I figured the Schechter family was a vital part of the American success story and I also felt there was no way this country could stay out of war. So I wrote in for an application.

Now, you may think writing in like this – like sending in box covers for a free sample of something – doesn’t sound like the Marines, but remember the Corps was real small at the time. Due to Hitler’s war, they’d been authorized to expand and they were trying to do it fast. I should add they very quickly answered my application and told me to proceed to 90 Church Street in Manhattan for a physical. I did and much to my surprise I found out I had a weight problem.

I don’t mean I was overweight, just the opposite. I think the minimum was 133 pounds and I weighed in at 130. Believe me, it’s a lot easier to put on three pounds than it is to take it off. I returned to the recruiting office a week later well over the minimum. They told me to go home and wait for orders.

In the meantime, although I had passed my bars, I had not yet been admitted by the appellate court of New York State. I petitioned the court to hasten the procedure as I was about to leave for Marine OCS training at Quantico, Virginia. I had to have the court’s approval if I wanted to practice in New York State, and I did not want that hanging over me while I was on active duty. The minute they heard this I was whisked through the court. When I arrived at Quantico early in 1941, I was a bona fide New York State attorney at law.

The next six or seven months were spent in various forms of training all aimed at making me and my fellow OCS candidates Marine officers. I can’t recall any real difficulty here for myself or for most of the other candidates. By September ’41 most of us were in place as second lieutenants at the new Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. By now there had been quite a change in the international situation.

You see, when I first went into the Corps, I didn’t think about Japan at all. I am Jewish and my father still had relatives in Europe. It was Hitler I was concerned about. If the time came when the U.S. made an amphibious landing in Europe, I wanted to be there.

However, by the fall of ’41 you could not ignore Japan. The situation between Tokyo and Washington seemed to be deteriorating rapidly. The Corps had now begun the greatest expansion program in its history. All you had to do was look at a map of the Pacific and realize that the Marines’ specialty, the amphibious assault, would be in great demand if we went to war with Japan.

Well, on December 7, 1941 I, along with some other young officers, walked into a hotel lobby in Kingston, North Carolina. The radio was blasting away, giving us the word.

“ATTENTION! ATTENTION! ALL CAMP LEJEUNE MARINES REPORT BACK TO THEIR BARRACKS IMMEDIATELY!”

This was it. Then the radio started to broadcast news of what had happened to Pearl Harbor.

We returned immediately and found everything in a condition of chaos that was to continue for quite a while. The scuttlebutt ran wild. One of the stories that most people believed had German dirigibles bringing paratroopers across the Atlantic to be dropped at our camp. The fact that Germany had not as yet declared war on the U.S. had not impressed anyone but neither had the Japanese before Pearl Harbor.

Anyway, we started immediately digging trenches all over our camp. We were going to be ready for the Nazis when they came. In the meantime, the possibility of some kind of action against the Panama Canal seemed a lot more logical, especially after Germany declared war on us on December 11.

Later in December, twenty-two young second lieutenants were ordered to report to Norfolk, Virginia. I was included in this group. We ended up ant Newport News, near Norfolk, on December 31. Here we were quickly joined by some five hundred recruits from Parris Island. These new men had been in the Corps only a few weeks. They hadn’t even done their three weeks on the rifle range. Part of our orders were to set up a mini boot camp when we reached our next designation, Panama.

Well, sometime in January we boarded transports in Norfolk, We were to be part of a large convoy – I know the battleships Mississippi and Idaho were in the convoy – that was headed for the Pacific. Our group left this convoy at Panama.

Our job now was to reinforce the Marine garrison already there and to help them prepare the area for a possible attack. Our men were also to board all ships going from the Colon side of the Canal over to the Balboa side to act as a guard detachment. As we had to spend a good deal of time putting our men through the second part of their boot camp,we had our hands full. We also received the Marine detachment from the USS Erie when the Germans sunk her off South America. Those U-boats were having a field day throughout the entire area at the beginning of the war.

In the meantime, all of us second lieutenants who had left Norfolk became first lieutenants and in August of ’42 most of us were made captains. By this time we were all angling to get out of Panama. There was a big war going on, and we didn’t want to spend it nursemaiding ships through the Canal. Fortunately for us the Corps felt the same way; they had no intention of letting a crew of young, eager captains wither on the vine in Panama. We soon received orders to report back to New River.

Then came a slight problem. There were still plenty of German submarines cruising the Caribbean, and transport back to the States wasn’t that easy. We ended up aboard a PC Boat which was used for anti-U-boat work. It got us as far as Guantanamo Bay, or as the men called it, Gitmo, in Cuba. (1) From here we fended for ourselves, hitching plane rides to the States. One way or another we all got back to Camp Lejeune where I was able to get what most of us wanted, command of a rifle company. My task was basic – namely, give the men rugged infantry training.

After several weeks of this we were told to stand by for shipment to Camp Pendleton, California. All of the troops knew this was to be the last stop before the Pacific, and for the first time I became concerned about men going over the hill. I had about 230 men in my company and it was possible that some of them felt that combat against the Japanese might not be a piece of cake.

I called them together and gave them a pep talk about sunny California, with special emphasis on all the goodies they would find in Tijuana, on the Mexican border. I also informed them that we still had a lot of work to do before we shipped out to the islands.

Whatever I said, it must have worked. I didn’t lose a single man on the train ride across the country.

When we got to Camp Pendleton, we became Able Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines of the newly formed 4th Division. I’d guess this was around the early summer of ’43. It was to be several months before we went into action, but starting in February ’44, we fought on the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. All of the fighting happened during a little over a year’s time, which is about as concentrated as combat can get.

Captain Irving Schechter (at left) and Lieutenant Roy Wood (back to camera) watch Able Company line up for chow during exercises at Aliso Beach.
Buck Schechter (at left) and Lieutenant Roy Wood supervise chow at Aliso Beach, California

There is one incident that occurred while we were at Camp Pendleton that concerns the son of a famous man who insisted on going into combat as an enlisted man. He paid for this act with his life and I think he  should be remembered.

The story starts one night in the summer of ’43. I was over at the HQ when my first sergeant called me on the phone. (1)

“Captain,” he said, “I have a young PFC here whose orders say he is to report to A Company.”

“Okay, sergeant,” I answered, “process him and get him squared away in the morning.”

“But, captain, there is something screwy about the address of his next of kin.”

“Why’s that, sergeant?”

“It’s the White House, Washington D. C.”

As you might assume, I was a little taken aback.

“Oh,” I said, “well, what’s the name of his next of kin?”

“Harry Hopkins, sir.”

This did make things a little interesting. I decided to go to my office and have young Hopkins meet me there. His first name was Steve. (2)

He arrived at my office and gave me the proper salute. I asked him to sit down.

“Hopkins,” I said, “I see you have been in officers’ training and I’m somewhat puzzled as to why you should show up here. There is no mention of your flunking out of OCS.”

“No, sir,” he answered, “I did not flunk out; I just got damn sick and tired of getting the needle about my having some kind of an easy job because I was Harry Hopkins’ son. My dad has believed in this war since it    started and so have his sons. I’m anxious to go overseas and back up what my father stands for because I stand for the same things.”

“Okay, Hopkins,” I told him, “we’ll get you into machine guns in the morning.”

Well, when we finally left San Diego, we were stationed aboard our transports until we reached the Marshalls. We had a chance to go ashore some at Honolulu, but never overnight. And when you spend a long period of time aboard a transport, you have plenty of time to study the men you live with in such close proximity. This is what I did concerning Steve Hopkins. I wasn’t trying to be fatherly, mind you; he was only a few years younger than I. I just wanted to make sure he was for real. He was.

There he was, every day, field stripping that machine gun of his, cleaning the barrel, checking the ammunition, and above all, fitting right in with his fire team. He was gung-ho all right.

Well, we went into the Roi-Namur part of the Marshalls around the beginning of February. Our battalion went ashore on Namur, a small island right next to Roi – the two were practically twin islands. It seemed that there were many more Japs and pillboxes on Namur than on Roi. The Nips were dazed from the shelling, but they were fighting. And whenever you have to kill a few thousand Japanese, you always lose men yourself. One of the Marines we lost here was young Hopkins. He had kept his machine gun going right into the middle of a banzai charge until he took a bullet in his head. (3)

Another Marine we lost was our battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Aquilla (Red) Dyess. I think he was from Georgia. He was killed by a sniper right at the end of the campaign. And this brings up the old story of the death premonition, which would sometimes come true and sometimes would not.

You see, one day when we were aboard the transports, Colonel Dyess asked to see me in private. We went over to the fantail and he put a hand on my shoulder.

“Buck,” he said, “I know you’re a lawyer. I also know I’m going to be killed on this operation. I want you to help me make out my will.”

“Oh come on, Colonel,” I answered, “I’ll be glad to help on your will. My fee will be your picking up the check when we have dinner after the war back in the States. You’re not going to get killed.”

“Thank you, Buck, but I just feel in my bones that I am going to get killed.”

And, of course, he did. (4)

Anyway, we secured the area in a day or two. Our division suffered about seven or eight hundred casualties, which would later seem a rather inexpensive fight. Remember, this was our first combat. We had a lot to learn but we did pick up some very valuable experience there at the Marshalls. We now also had first-hand experience of something that was to cause us a lot of grief on islands to come. Meaning, the Japanese did not often surrender. you had to kill them. And that was costly.

After we did our job in the Marshalls we headed for Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. This was to be our staging area for the rest of the war. It was here that we trained for both the Marianas and Iwo Jima. And we would be on Maui when the Japanese surrendered.

Buck Schechter (center, with captain's insignia) watches a boxing match at Camp Maui in the spring of 1944.
Buck Schechter (center, with captain’s insignia) watches a boxing match at Camp Maui in the spring of 1944.

One of the first things we discovered when we reached Maui was that there had been a change in our landing craft. The Corps had figured that one of the worst problems the 2nd Division had experienced on Tarawa was getting their landing craft hung up on reefs. Now we had these new Alligators that were supposed to go over the reefs with no trouble. I can’t remember that they gave us any trouble when we finally did go to Saipan and Tinian.

I’m not trying to put myself up as an expert but it seems to me that the invasion of Saipan that we trained so hard for was a definite turning point in the war. I understand it was the reason for the Japanese government firing Tojo as prime minister. Since the capture of Saipan was quickly followed by the seizures of Guam and Tinian, surely the Japs knew their navy was no longer able to hinder our movements or reinforce the places we would invade. I’m sure informed people in Japan knew by September of ’44, before MacArthur’s men invaded the Philippines, that their war was lost.

We landed on Saipan on June 15, nine days after Allied armies had invaded Normandy half a world away. Naturally, the European landing grabbed all the headlines back home; but, believe me, those first two or three weeks were just about as bad as things could be. And incidentally, it was the first time the Corps sent two full divisions into combat at the same time. The 2nd Marine Division also landed at Saipan when our 4th Division went in.

So we landed and started to move in. I can’t recall that my battalion’s landing was rugged, but it didn’t take the Japanese artillery very long to open up. This meant that while we moved in, the beach area could be just as dangerous as the front lines. Sometime that first afternoon I received word that we had once again lost a battalion commander. His name was Lieutenant Colonel Maynard Schultz, but we called him Heinie. He was a big guy, from Detroit, I believe. He took a piece of shrapnel in his head. It was a small sliver so it had to hit him in just the right spot to kill him. (5)

You know, come to think of it, being a battalion commander in the 4th Division was a pretty risky job. We lost two of them, Dyess and Schultz, and our artillery regiment, the 14th Marines, lost Harry Zimmer on Tinian. I know the division lost at least two more battalion commanders on Iwo.

That first night we dug in. I don’t know how far we were from the beach, but we had made some progress. The sergeant in charge of my weapons platoon, a man named Tucker, crawled over to where I was lying to give me a report on our light machine guns and 60 millimeter mortars. The sergeant – he was from Oklahoma – had won the Navy Cross on Namur in February. (6)

The poor guy had just started to crawl back to his platoon when he caught a full machine gun blast in his stomach. My God, was he riddled! Even today I can see him, literally cut in half. I used to wonder what the people back home thought when they saw the name of someone they knew on a KIA list. Did they think the corpse looked like the one they’d seen in a funeral parlor back home? Because if they did, they were sadly mistaken.

After the death of Tucker, none of my men moved because our people were apt to fire if they heard even a snapping twig. Tucker had definitely been killed by Japanese fire, which meant that along with their shelling we could expect more small arms fire and probably infiltration. (7)

Well, after that first night we started to move north, and when you’re moving north you always faced danger from your own artillery no matter how good they were, and our 4th Division’s 14th Marines were good.

At any rate, we ran into this friendly fire one time on Saipan while going through some cane fields. I immediately had some green star cluster fire shot up in the air, which was supposed to be the signal to our artillery to let up. Then I got on the phone with our battery commander to give him the word.

“Hey,” I told them, “one of our own shells has almost taken a leg off one of my men. Will you please cease fire.”

“Are you sure they’re our shells?” the reply came back. “Maybe they’re coming from the Nips on Tinian.”

This did get to me. I had no time to get into a debate so I started to shout.

“No, no,” I said, “they’re ours all right. Please stop.”

Then to my utter amazement the voice on the other end of the line said, “What size are they?”

“What size?” I bellowed. “Circumcise, that’s what size!” Then I hung up.

I wonder what he expected me to do, go out and catch one?

Anyway, they stopped the shelling, but the Japanese didn’t. The rest of the campaign seemed to be one continuing drive during the day and waiting to see what the Japanese would do at night.

As this action was going on, my main concern was Company A. What I was doing was trying to keep the lid on. I’d told the men when they went in that they had to wear their helmets. But I wouldn’t put on my own helmet until I felt things were really bad. This way the men could look over me and see how things were.

Of course, I never did put my helmet on during combat. I remember one of my men asking me after we stopped the crazy banzai attack on Tinian what I meant by things being rough. I just smiled. Naturally I was as scared as any other Marine in Company A. I just tried not to show it.

At any rate the Marines’ job on Saipan was to hurt the Japanese to such an extent that they were no longer able to mount a serious counterattack. This way the Seabees could square away the airfield and our two Marine divisions could move over to Tinian. In anticipation of this move our regimental commander, Colonel [Franklin] Hart, called me into his tent.

“Schechter,” he said, “I like the way your company operates. I’d like to have Company A lead the assault on Tinian. How would you like to go in?”

“Well, Colonel,” I said, “I’d like to land with my entire company in one wave. This way I’ll have my riflemen, mortars and machine gunners all ashore at the same time.”

“Schechter, that sounds like a good idea. I think I’ll land the whole regiment in company waves.”

And I believe that’s the way we landed. It worked. (8)

Now, Tinian was a good indication of one thing that so many Marines were to see on Iwo Jima. We watched our Navy lay down a tremendous barrage, but when we landed, it didn’t seem as though our shelling had killed anybody, Several Japanese soldiers appeared out of nowhere to greet us with small arms fire. And, once again, that phrase called “pure luck” showed up for me.

As I waded in, I turned to give some orders to my radio operator only to see the poor guy floating in the surf. He had been hit in the head with a bullet. It was the same situation as the one I told you about earlier – you know, the flamethrower. The Japs would almost always go for the man with the visible equipment. That’s the way it was. (9)

Our main objective was, as always, the Jap airfield and we started to go after it shortly after we landed. As my company was the first one ashore, I was asked to give a priority for equipment. I expected a counterattack from the Nips so I asked for plenty of barbed wire, which turned out to be an excellent choice.

On our second night ashore we took the barbed wire and strung it up in front of the company. I also set up two 37 millimeter guns that could fire canisters when and if the Japs came at us. (10)

They came all right, maybe at about half past two that morning. My company was quite undersized by this time. We were protecting the left flank of the whole bridgehead with about one hundred men.

It was at this time that my barbed wire became invaluable. God, did we pile those Japs up on it!

The Japs would yell “banzai” and my men would yell it right back at them, along with some choice obscenities. The most remarkable thing to me was that every single one of my men stayed put. I don’t think one of them broke and ran. I was constantly circulating as best I could among these Marines, trying to keep a lid on things.

Then we did get a lucky break. The shells from those two 37 millimeters were devastating. I think the Japs came at us three different times and after the third charge, those 37s ran out of ammunition. I don’t know if we could have stopped another charge without those shells.

Well, when daylight came, I could take stock of the situation. We had suffered about thirty percent casualties, which is pretty bad for one early morning battle. However, we later counted some four hundred dead Japanese soldiers in front of our lines. Some of these Nips had actually been killed in the same holes occupied by our Marines.

[Schechter received the Navy Cross for that early morning work. Characteristically, he feels it was the men of Company A, not he, who earned it.]

Anyway, as you know, the Corps doesn’t give you much time to rest. The next day we started moving again and it’s here I should mention Colonel Otto Lessing, who was now our battalion commander. Lessing was not only a top officer but he also had an interesting background.

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.

At any rate, we had been on the go for seven days, always facing some resistance. We hadn’t had any food other than our regular combat rations. I should also point out that we had run into some heavy rain. In short, things were pretty miserable.

Then I received a call from headquarters. I don’t want to mention any names, but it was from a pretty high source who claimed he was interested in finding out how my men were.

“Just about done,” I told him. “Perhaps it’s time to pull them out.”

“Oh, we’re all shot,” he answered. “Why, I have a slight touch of dysentery myself.”

Oh, my God, I thought, he’s back there on the beach with hot rations, coffee, the whole works and he has a slight case of the runs. Tough.

“Schechter,” the ranking officer continued, “I have a bet with someone over in the 2nd Division that we will take Tinian before they do.”

Now I was thunderstruck. How the hell could anyone make a bet like that, playing with other people’s lives? But our orders were to keep going and we did.

I won’t go into details, but a little later I received orders to go into an area that meant certain disaster. I complained to Colonel Lessing, who sympathized with me, and even tried to get a hold put on the orders but was unsuccessful.

I started to execute these orders, but the first three Marines in line were immediately killed. That was enough for me. I had the three bodies put in ponchos and sent word back that I just didn’t have the clout to go any further.

Shortly after this Colonel Lessing showed up. He spotted the ponchos.

“Buck,” he said, “what’s this?”

“Colonel,” I answered, “that’s the bodies of the first three men who tried to move into the area I told you about. We just don’t have to end up putting what’s left of my company into ponchos because someone back on the beach is a nut.”

So Colonel Lessing picked up the phone and called back to the beach. He was obviously asked how things were going where we were.

“Not so good,” he said. “I’m staring at three Marines who are covered with ponchos because of that stupid order I tried to get changed. I hate waste.”

That was it. In the movies Colonel Lessing would be a big hero, as he was to me, but in the real world he was relieved of his command. I don’t know if he’s still alive, but if he is, I’d like him to know I salute him. (11)

Anyway, things like that happened. We had another great guy in our battalion, Captain [Milton] Cokin, who had B Company. I can’t think of one thing I did in the war that Cokin didn’t equal. Yet I got much more recognition than he did. So be it.

The survivors of Company A after securing Tinian. Buck Schechter is at center, wearing his utility blouse.
The survivors of Company A after securing Tinian. Buck Schechter is at center, wearing his utility blouse.

We finished up on Tinian and went back to Maui to get ready for our next assault. This turned out to be Iwo Jima, as horrible as any action in Marine Crops history.

At Maui we started to train, and I mean really train. Perhaps that is why we did end up taking the place. But you could train until doomsday for a place like Iwo and you would still suffer tremendous casualties before the end of that battle.

One of the reasons for these casualties was the Japanese commander, Lieutenant General Kuribayashi. I think he knew his cause was hopeless from the beginning, but he also knew the natural defenses on Iwo were extremely formidable. He had over twenty thousand men under his command, plenty of artillery, mortars, and strong firepower. His troops had several months to prepare for the attack and they had pre-registered every inch of that rock. I guess Kuribayashi figured that of his men could make the taking of Iwo bloody beyond belief, the Allies would think twice before invading Japan. This might give Japan a way out of the war without unconditional surrender. Who knows?

There is one thing that is definite, though. I don’t think it could have been possible to defend the island with any more tenacity than was shown by the Japanese.

By the time we assaulted Iwo, I had been made a major and was the 1st Battalion’s operational officer. The battalion’s commander was an Annapolis graduate named Major Paul Treitel. He was a career man and naturally resented the fact that he hadn’t been made lieutenant colonel, the rank his job called for. Regular officers were always more concerned about their rank than reserve officers. After all, they meant to wear the green uniforms when the rest of us became civilians.

We went in on February 19. We weren’t in the first wave, but if there was one island where that didn’t matter, it was Iwo. Once we went ashore, shells started to land all around us. One of our first men killed was a major who had always been in our rear echelon. He had reached a point where he couldn’t stand all his friends going into combat while he never got near the front lines. He actually begged for a combat command and finally got it. I don’t think he was on the beach five minutes before he was dead. I’ve never stopped thinking about that. He could have stayed aboard ship at Iwo, but he just couldn’t stand being out of things any longer. (12)

Well, we started to try and move north, while the 5th Division centered on the southern end of the island around Suribachi. After the 5th had secured that southern end, they started to move north on the west coast, with our division doing the same over on the east coast. Two regiments, the 9th and the 21st from the 3rd Division, also came ashore and moved north, or tried to. None of us was moving very fast. And every time we moved, you would have dead and wounded Marines. There was no escaping this.

My old Company A now had a commander who was a graduate of the citadel. I think he joined us on Maui just before we left for Iwo. If I’m not mistaken, he lasted two days in combat before he was killed. (13)

Another officer from Company A was a man named Steve, who had charge of the weapons platoon. He was the strongest man I’ve ever seen – he had been a wrestling champion somewhere. But he wasn’t strong enough to stop a shrapnel sliver from going into his brain. (14)

That’s the way it was. It really depended on the exact spot where you were located. There were so many shells coming in that if you were going to survive, you just had to be lucky, that’s all.

Anyway, you couldn’t possibly take the casualties our battalion was suffering without consolidating your troops. We did get some replacements but it seems to me they were getting hit at a faster clip than the original men.

A week or so after the landing we formed two companies out of what was left of the battalion. Even then these new companies were woefully under-strength. I then actively took over command of one of these two companies. I suppose it was called A, but what difference did that make?

Shortly after I took over A Company again, I had a chance to know for sure that I had saved another Marine’s life. Something like that didn’t happen often and I’ve always felt very good about coming through when the chance popped up. Of course I had to kill a Japanese to do it, but I guess that’s what we were there for.

At this time we were moving through this volcanic ash when all of a sudden a Jap jumped out of one of those spider traps. They actually had camouflaged holes with ladders going down into them that allowed the Japs to come up quickly, fire, and disappear.

I saw this Jap start to take a bead on a young Marine who was walking ahead of me. I fired my carbine without even taking proper aim and, thank goodness, I caught the Jap in the back. It all happened so fast that I didn’t realize what went on until it was all over. But I’ll never forget it. I think that young Marine the Nip was hoping to kill made it through the campaign, and that still gives me a good feeling.

That happened around March 8. As rugged as that terrain was we did start to really move right after my quick shot at the Jap. It was then that Lieutenant Colonel [Austin] Brunelli took over command of our battalion; he had been the regiment’s executive officer. I can’t remember if Paul Treitel was wounded or just used up. Treitel had been in command for sixteen days and very few battalion commanders lasted through the whole campaign. (15)

Well, things continued pretty much the same way up until we left Iwo, trying to move north, blasting their caves, eliminating their mortars and reducing those pillboxes one by one. It didn’t seem possible we could ever blast out all their mortars. I can hardly remember a day when those grotesque ashcans didn’t come at us.

Company A after Iwo Jima. Schechter is in the rear rank, seventh from right.
Company A after Iwo Jima. Schechter is in the rear rank, eighth from right.

The end officially came on March 16, but there still was plenty of mopping up to do – there always was. Our division pulled off Iwo before the end of March and headed back to Maui to regroup for our next invasion. There were very few of us left who had originally gone ashore in the Marshalls, even though our first combat had been a little over a year before Iwo.

We never did go into action again, and thank God for that. We were the first Marine division sent back to the States, where we were deactivated. I believe this was in October ’45. The years have gone by and the whole world has changed tremendously. I still frequently look back and hope I did my job as an officer. I think of the many things I did do, not on the spur of the moment but after calculated thought, that I thought would produce a good example for the men.

For instance, I never cussed a man, officer or enlisted. I know this policy was rare, but I just didn’t think you gained a man’s respect by calling him a “&!@*” when he had no recourse against you. You walk into a bar and call someone a bunch of vile names and he’ll probably knock your block off. So why should you curse him just because you are his military superior? That’s baloney.

Since then, the years have been good to me. I have had certain successes and honors, there’s no denying that. But if anyone from Company A of the 24th reads this and says to himself, “That Buck Schechter was one hell of a good officer,” well, it would make me feel pretty good.

_____
NOTES:
(1) This is the same “Gitmo” which in recent years has earned notoriety as a camp for prisoners of the War on Terror.
(2) Stephen Peter Hopkins, the son of Harry Hopkins (advisor to President Roosevelt) joined Company A on November 15, 1943. The company had no official first sergeant at the time; Schechter is probably referring to an acting NCO whose name has not been saved in available records.
(3) There are several different stories of Steve Hopkins’ death; the version Schechter gives here was the one most often repeated in newspapers. Other eyewitnesses claim that Hopkins was accidentally shot by another Marine from his platoon while attempting to move his gun after dark.
(4) Lt. Colonel Dyess was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for leading the final assault on Namur; he was shot down shortly before the island was secured. His medal was the only such decoration awarded to First Battalion during the war.
(5) Lt. Colonel Schultz (of Corvallis, Oregon) had been Dyess’ executive officer; he took command of the battalion in February, 1944. Schultz was killed by an artillery round while conducting a morning briefing of battalion officers, at which Schechter apparently was not present.
(6) Sgt. Frank Allen Tucker, 30, of Hugo, Oklahoma. Tucker had been the senior NCO of the weapons platoon until March, 1944, when the company was reorganized and Weapons platoon was disbanded into separate sections of machine guns and mortars. At this point, Tucker was acting platoon sergeant of the First (Rifle) Platoon under Second Lieutenant Paul Rossi, and officially had no business reporting on the condition of the crew controlled weapons – his motives for doing so aren’t known. He won the Navy Cross for shooting nearly forty Japanese soldiers on Namur in an impressive display of individual marksmanship.
(7) Other eyewitnesses state that Tucker was killed by friendly fire when he neglected to give the correct password. Ironically, Tucker had himself been sent to a rifle platoon following rumors that he had been involved in a friendly fire death several months ago; whether true or not remains unclear, but the belief was common enough to cause tension with his old comrades. Like Hopkins, Tucker’s death was widely reported with several variations ranging from leading a counterattack to a lurid hand-to-hand fight.
(8) Schechter’s plan was indeed executed, although in the actual landings the 24th’s Company E landed first, with Company A arriving about ten minutes later. The attack, carried out on beaches considered too small for amphibious landings, was a complete surprise and the start of what would be considered the textbook Pacific campaign.
(9) Probably PFC Walter S. Kildow, age 23. Kildow is the only battalion radioman listed as killed on July 24, 1944; he suffered “bullet wounds, head and chest.”
(10) Schechter is off by a day; the banzai attack he describes occurred not long after midnight on July 25, 1944 – the first night on the island.
(11) The event Schechter refers to occurred on August 1 or 2. Whether Lessing’s actions were the cause of his removal from command or not isn’t known for sure, but he was pulled from the field and spent the rest of the war at Fleet Marine Force HQ.
(12) The identity of this individual is not known, but he was not a member of 1/24.
(13) Major William Kirkland Stewart died of wounds on February 26, 1945. He was buried at sea.
(14) Second Lieutenant Steven Henry Opalenik was a mustang (former enlisted man) who was the battalion’s assistant mortar platoon leader. He was killed February 22, 1945. Opalenik was with battalion headquarters, rather than Company A.
(15) Paul Stanton Treitel was listed as “transferred to HQ Company, 4th Marine Division” on March 9, 1945 – there is no indication that he was wounded, and a transfer such as that in the middle of a battle is unusual. Treitel was a veteran of Roi-Namur (with HQ/3/23rd Marines) and led 3/23 through the campaigns for Saipan and Tinian – so he may have been “used up” as Schechter commented. He did eventually receive his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.

2 thoughts on “Buck Schechter: The Lawyer Who Went To War

  1. Buck tells the story as it was. I was “Little Doc” Diok as we made the assault. He mentioned “luck” and I would agree as a stray bullet killed a
    Marine right next to me in our open foixhole as we moved up the beach. Buck was the epitome of all that the word Marine and Hero stands for. Roichards Lyon MDi

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