Okinawa: Fourteen Days in May by Benno Levi
I should note that it is fascinating to be able to match up Uncle Arthur's written accounts with Benno's and with the history books. It gives me a better perspective of what actually took place.
In the spring of '45, on the island of Okinawa, the last of the most vicious battles of World War II were fought. Infantry units were decimated. Some came back with only a few survivors. From the 41 members of our platoon only eleven returned after a fourteen-day engagement. This is the story of those two weeks in May.
I crawled out of the mud of Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi, into sunny Virginia on a cold day in February of 1944 – one of a hundred freshly minted infantrymen to fill the empty slots in the roster of New York’s 77th Liberty Division at Camp Pickett. My assignment: the 3rd platoon of Company A of the 305th Infantry Regiment. There are four platoons in a company, four companies in a battalion, four battalions in a regiment and three regiments in a Division. All of these organizations have headquarters, service, heavy weapons, and medical units attached. In addition there were tank, artillery, medical, and ordinance battalions and regiments raising the total complement of the 77th Division to over 20,000.
I was happy. We were on the East Coast; Europe must be our destination. Since the beginning of the war in '39 I had dreamed of fighting the Nazis and marching victoriously back to my birthplace, Alsfeld, Germany. No dice. The 77th was getting ready for action against the Japa-nese. Another fantasy gone to hell.
Assigned as runner for the 3rd Platoon, I was to relay messages by foot, on my 536 walkie-talkie, or, occasionally, on a field phone to keep in touch with the rest of the company. My position required being with the platoon leader at all times.
We had our first taste of combat on July 21, 1944 on Guam, the most southerly of a chain of islands leading north to Japan and the only U. S. possession ever to fall to an enemy. A week later my out-fit, Company A, captured Mt. Tenjo, the island's highest mountain. The next day, sitting on a mountaintop, I watched through a pair of binoculars as the Marines raised the Stars & Stripes over the remains of Guam's U. S. Naval Air Station, captured by the Japanese in December 1941. I felt, "My God, I'm watching history," as the sweet sounds of a bugle drifted faintly up from that awesome scene by the ocean, a couple of miles away. Another two weeks of fierce fighting and the island was ours once again.
Guam was in the midst of a transformation from a sleepy tropical island into a mighty Air and Naval base when we left on Saturday, November 3, seventy-five days after our initial landing. Our commanding general, Andrew D. Bruce, announced with regret that we were bound for R & R (Rest and Rehabilitation). We were happy and relaxed as we headed south, averting the battle raging in the Philippines where Mac Arthur had landed on October 20th. Our destination was New Caledonia. We never got there. Mac Arthur needed help as the battle was stalemated and enemy resistance was stiffening. Just after we crossed the Equator, on November 11, General Bruce got another chance to flaunt his martial prowess. We turned around to join the struggle for the island of Leyte, the focus for the liberation of the Philippines.
On December 6, 1944, we boarded the USS Ward, a converted World War I Destroyer. This was the ship that fired the first shot of World War II for the United States when it sank a Japanese midget sub at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Sneaking an end run around the southern part of Leyte under cover of darkness, our convoy headed for Ormoc Bay, where early the next morning we stormed ashore behind enemy lines. It was 7:07 am, December 7, 1944; the commanding general of the 77th liked 7s.
It was its third and last Pearl Harbor Day anniversary for the USS Ward. Enemy planes dominating the sky during our landing sent it down to its watery grave. Thank God, we already had debarked.
A couple of days later, we captured Ormoc, the enemy’s most vital supply port, ending the stalemate. Fighting was tough as we swept up the Ormoc Road to Valencia. On Christmas day, another landing far behind the Japanese lines took us (1st Battalion of the 305th Inf. Reg.) to Polompom. Our capture of this, the last enemy harbor on Leyte, allowed MacArthur to declare the island secure, his holiday present to the American people. We continued to mop up with lots of casualties until the end of January '45. Two of my closest friends, Robert Sherman and Frank Faudem, were killed after the island was declared secured.
In March '45, the 77th Division was included in the greatest invasion armada of the Pacific War heading north toward Japan. The objective: Okinawa, the largest and most strategic island in the Ryukyu chain. Its capture would give us the key to the inner ring of Japanese defenses, within easy striking range of the industrial heart of the enemy. On March 26, six days before the assault on the beaches of Okinawa, our battalion landed about fifteen miles to the west, on Zamami Shima, the largest of the Kerama Islands. The conquest was completed in three days. Luck was with us – just a few casualties for Company A. For the vast fleet of warships taking part in the operation there now was a safe anchorage and, for the artillery, a strategic site to support the landings on D-day, if necessary.
Back aboard our Landing Ship Tank (LST), we watched anxiously from the rail as four divisions assaulted the western beaches of Okinawa. Paradoxically, it was Easter Sunday and April Fool’s day. We fooled ourselves into believing this would be a pushover. Opposition was light and, incredibly, by the end of the third day our troops had advanced across the island to the eastern shore.
Our fleet of L S T’s, troop carriers, and protective warships, with most of the 77th Division aboard and now in reserve status, began to circle the islands waiting for our next assignment.
On Okinawa, while the Marines were sweeping north to mop up two-thirds of the island, the army divisions headed south where most of the population lived, and toward Naha, the capital of the Ryukyus. In the north, the Leathernecks encountered only moderate opposition, but the Army’s rapid advance southward abruptly became a crawl as they approached the main Japanese defense lines. Having left behind the flat expanse where they had landed, they now faced a series of rugged hills broken by terraces, steep natural escarpments, and ravines. Caves, blockhouses, and pillboxes were built into this rough terrain. Elaborate underground tunnels, some going down two or three levels, all skillfully camouflaged connected these positions. Many of the burial caves that covered the Okinawa countryside also were used as fortified positions and linked to the complex underground defenses. Artillery and mortars were placed in caves, dragged out for quick salvos, and then returned to their shelters. Some of the guns were so large they had to be maneuvered on rails. By the middle of the month, as the fighting became more brutal, advances in the south were no longer measured in miles but yards.
The Japanese strategists had laid an elaborate trap. First, they would attempt to weaken our forces by drawing them into bloody battles in a series of formidable defense lines set up on the approaches to Naha and Shuri. Then, a large Japanese fleet led by the super battleship Yamato, the mightiest in the world, would make its way to Okinawa and blast away at our shipping and troops. The operation would be supported by more than a thousand Kamikaze planes, which already had successfully waged deadly attacks on our shipping in the area. This strike, coupled with a major offensive by the Japanese ground forces, likely would scuttle our attempt to capture Okinawa. Had the plan succeeded, we would have been wiped out.
Fortunately, they didn’t have enough planes and their bold mission fell apart when our Task Force 58 sank the Yamato shortly after it set off for the Ryukyu Islands, before it had a chance to fire its gigantic guns.
On April 16, the 77th Division made its next move against the southern beaches of Ie Shima, five miles west of Okinawa’s Motobu Peninsula. Two days later, the famous war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, was killed while visiting our Battalion. Then we stormed to the crest of Iegusugu, the pinnacle that dominated the island. My pal, Charles Peterson was in front of me when a grenade exploded. A piece of shrapnel cut his jugular vein. A second grenade landed next to my left foot. I picked it up and threw it down the mountainside. Was someone watching over me? Peterson died on the way to the aid station. At the end of one week of bitter fighting the island was ours. We mopped up, but there was to be no rest; we were needed on Okinawa.
Our platoon leader was 23-year-old John D. Franklin, 1st Lt., and regular army. He came from Indi-ana and had won his bars in a field commission just before he replaced Lt. Scullen, who was hit on Guam. Second in command was T/Sgt. Walter Gibbs, a tall, blond and slim New Englander, most of the time very serious, a no-nonsense type who always knew what was up. S/Sgt. Vincent Quinn was one of three squad leaders in the platoon. He had a wife and two children at home in Elizabeth, N. J. His assistant, Sgt. Werner Bereswil, was a little on the quiet side. His fiancé, Violet, wrote him almost daily and he was always composing a reply.
We had something in common since we were both born in Germany. He came from the Ruhr, near France in the 1920s, and I from Hessen in 1935. Homer Quintern was from a little town in New York. Our bond was that he and I were more dedicated to our religious observances than the others in our platoon. He was Lutheran and I was Jewish.
Sgt. Leonard Marucci, assistant squad leader, was regular army, dark and handsome, a killer with the girls. I first met him on KP when I joined the company. He and another fellow came into the mess hall with a guard, a large “P” stenciled on their fatigues. He had been bored with routine training and went AWOL. When he heard that the outfit was heading overseas, he rushed back. His punishment at the court-martial was three months hard labor. In the last battle on Okinawa, as we charged across Hill #79, he took over as platoon leader when Lt. Brady was hit. A couple of minutes later he was taken out by shrapnel that pierced his shoulder. After the war he worked as a coal-miner, and I heard he was killed in an accident.
James Herbert was the best 1st Sergeant in the whole Division and a great friend. (My wife and I visited him on our honeymoon many years later in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where he was the chief of police.) T/Sgt. Pete Garilli, one of my favorite persons, in charge of the heavy weapons platoon, was a native of Brooklyn. Together we always analyzed the battles in Europe and the Pacific. Each success brought us closer to going back to Brooklyn and Detroit. He had a great sense of humor and often punctuated his remarks with a Yiddish phrase he had picked up from his neighbors in New York. John Darcy was our medic, who bandaged us up from the time he joined us on Guam until he was reassigned to another company in the middle of the Okinawa campaign. During the bitter fighting when we were at times safely behind a rock or in a hole, he was on the go, jumping from one place to the next as the call for “Medic” echoed all around us. He, Gibbs and I shared foxholes during most of the heavy fighting on Okinawa.
There were so many others, stripped down to basics on the battlefield -- no false fronts, no cover-ups, each unique, all never to be forgotten. It’s amazing, they are still standing in front of me sharp and clear, the 42 original members of the 3rd platoon, the replacements for those wounded and killed, as well as most of the other members of Company A. It' s as if we had never parted from that long trek that led us from Camp Pickett, Virginia, to Asahigawa, Japan, more than sixty years ago.
Our participation in the battle for Okinawa begins with my diary entries of early Monday morning, May 7, 1945, as we were about to set sail from Ie Shima for the bloody battle raging twenty miles south.
Monday, May 7, 1945 IE SHIMA:
It was about 4 am as our trucks pulled up the giant doors of our LST. A bright moon had just started its path across the sky. In combat, I had become a moon worshipper. Its presence lessened the terror that lurked in the black night. At dusk, when we settled down under a sky that cast no light, the fear of the dark was suffocating. What a difference when the battle field was lit up with silvery light. For the next ten days the inky darkness would not dissipate until 3 or 4 am.
Our gear piled on deck; Homer Quintern and I found a spot in what had been an operating room. The ship had been an emergency hospital and now transformed once more into a troop carrier. With my life belt as a pillow, I fell asleep right away. I woke a few hours later and went up on deck.
We were under way. The rising sun peeked through a thin layer of hazy clouds on a pleasant spring morning in May. Ie Shima faded away behind us.
Leaning on the rail, I watched as once more we were off the coast of Okinawa where we had been just prior to our attack on Ie Shima, three weeks earlier. The place was still filled with ships of every type. An outer protective perimeter of destroyers and cruisers stood guard.
We approached a pontoon dock jutting out from the beach when the public address system suddenly blared, “Now hear this! Now hear this! All hands, set condition 1-A, man your battle-stations!” Another air raid. The rumble of the engines eased off to a whisper as the ship stopped dead in the water, just a couple of hundred yards off shore. Small white puffs of anti-aircraft fire from the warships on the outer-perimeter indicated that the intruders were in the air, but none were able to penetrate to the massed offshore armada.
I searched the horizon for signs of the bitter fight raging farther south near Shuri. In the distance I saw explosions —just engineers blasting rocks to make roads and runways on the airfield. The beach was a mess; supplies were scattered all over the place, and construction projects were going at full speed all along the shoreline.
At about 10 am, we followed our vehicles out of the open mouth of our LST. My bulging duffel bag, added to the combat gear strapped around me, was just too much for this 114- pound weakling, and I fell behind as we made our way along the beach road to an assembly area. Trucks arrived immediately to take us to the front. What a disappointment. We expected to go to a rear area for a day or two before being committed.
At our immediate destination, in front of an artillery unit, a tent waited. We dropped off our duffel bags. The well-camouflaged artillery pieces were noticed only after one suddenly startled us by firing a salvo.
We waited for further orders on a small hill in front of the big guns. I took in the scene all about me. Foxholes, trenches and caves covered the area. There were scattered remnants of equipment and clothing – some ours and a lot Japanese. These were all that remained of men who wore them into battle only yesterday? My imagination ignited the fear that always was present in combat, death – around the corner. I shook it off and allowed my thoughts to wander to more acceptable topics.
At 14:00 the signal came and we move out in two columns, one on each side of the road with plenty of space between men. A constant flow of vehicles, many Jeep ambulances, headed back. If I get hit, I prayed, let it be a million-dollar wound, one that isn’t too bad but will get me home alive.
Off the road, in single file, on a path leading upward. This was the Madera Escarpment where cargo nets and 50-foot ladders had been used by the 307th Regiment to scale the cliffs and capture this heavily fortified stronghold. The battle had taken place over the last three or four days, and casualties were heavy. Shell holes, trenches and caves blackened by explosions and flame-throwers covered the hillside. Again the scattered remnants of a bitter contest were strewn about. Was this our lot tomorrow -- maybe tonight?
Slowly we made our way along the narrowing trail leading to the top. Artillery shells had been whistling overhead ever since we left the beach; now their explosions were loud and close. A constant hammering of machine guns and the steady crack of rifle fire came from our immediate front.
A battery of 60 and 80-mm mortars was set up in a series of trenches. As we made our way along the crest, we heard a chain of hissing noises, indicating that a mortar barrage was on its way. Its goal was the Japanese fortifications on the hills fewer than a hundred yards away.
A short rest and then on again. Nervously, we ducked as we heard single shots every few seconds—sniper fire, we thought—directed at us. A Marine put us wise. No need to duck, he said. These were Marine snipers shooting at the Japanese.
The weather was in sync with our mood, which was sinking rapidly as we got closer to the front. The early morning had been partly sunny and pleasant. When we had started our march, it was just a drizzle; now it had turned into steady rain adding to our discomfort.
Descending from the escarpment, another break, at the foot of a string of sandy hills. On our left stood the ruins of a Japanese barracks that looked like a school building. To our right were a series of small hills. Lt. Franklin and I intermittently walked and ran along a path leading to the Company A command post on top of the highest hill where our Commanding Officer, Captain Barron, was waiting. We jumped into the trench to receive our orders.
Looking over the parapet, I saw a scene, bathed in the gray light of a dreary, rainy day. It reminded me more of World War I than the battlefields of the South Pacific. Low, dark clouds hung like a curtain of doom above us. As far as I could see there were hills—small, bare, sandy, desolate. The constant shelling and bombings had denuded the landscape of all greenery. Every square foot of ground seemed covered with craters that looked like gaping wounds on the body of the land. Bro-ken, twisted limbs hung grotesquely from the skeletons of a few trees that stood without a single leaf. Not a living thing was out there.
The Captain pointed to a hill, a gray stump jutting out in front of us to the right. It was open to enemy attack on three sides. The 3rd platoon was to hold it. Lt. Franklin wasn’t happy, and neither was I. The terror of spending the night out on a limb in no-man’s land sent shivers of anxiety through me. I went back, gathered platoon Sgt. Gibbs and the squad leaders, Quinn, Traphagen and Bertrami, and brought them to Lt. Franklin, who showed them the outpost that was to be our home for the night. Their expressions mirrored my feelings.
We dashed down into a small valley and up toward our objective. Fire was directed at us from enemy positions on higher ground to our front. Several newly killed Japanese were lying off the path. Normally we would have searched them for much-coveted souvenirs – a sword, a pistol, a watch. Today we hurried on.
The squads were quickly assigned to their areas for the night. Franklin, Sees, Darcy, Gibbs and I had a place on the side of the hill in front of a burial cave. The group adjacent to us was one man short, so Gibbs joined them.
We threw a grenade into the cave behind us and blocked the entrance with a mound of earth, just in case. Franklin, Sees, Darcy and I started to prepare three sleeping slit trenches and one sitting fox-hole. The latter, on the edge of our little terrace overlooking the valley below, served as our observation post. We would rotate through it for two hours of guard duty while the other three men slept behind in their trenches.
It was about 1700, when we finished digging our holes on this hill bulging into no-man’s land. Dog-tired, we ate our cold K-rations. It was miserable, the sandy soil was rapidly turning into mud; daylight was fading fast, long before it should have, and the drizzle was getting worse. Sitting in my slit trench, I was cold, wet, and resigned to the engulfing terror. Fifty years later, concentrating on that scene, I can still feel the proximity of death and the sweeping waves of anxiety sweeping through me.
One last check with the company command post, my poncho over my head, I pressed the on switch and whispered; “Abbie Able 1, this is Abbie Able 3 -over.” Klaus Schiebler responded. No new orders. I was about to close out when he excitedly shouted, “Levi hold on, we just got the word, the war in Europe is over -- Germany has surrendered!” I was stunned. I had been anticipating the end; a million times I had fantasized about this moment, now it was real, like a dream come true. I covered my walkie-talkie and placed it next to me as I tried to digest the news. It was over in Europe, not here; six days later my friend Schiebler, bearer of these great tidings met his end on a hill on our way towards Shuri.
That nightmare was over. A sigh of relief and a scream of frustration raged through me. The killing has stopped; those of my relatives and friends still alive in Europe will live. Oh God, why am I here in the mud of Okinawa when I belong with the troops in Alsfeld where it all began. In my mind I pictured the good citizens of my town. I could see them clearly, the ones who stood by us and the Nazis who tormented us: the schoolmates that were my friends and those who chose to hate us when Hitler came to power. My yearning to be there was beyond belief.
A scene came back. It was January 29, 1933 and I saw my older cousin Hermann enter the living room excitedly holding up a newspaper with a grin of disbelief. "They made Hitler the new chancellor!" A political joke, he had no majority and the Communist and Socialists would unite to kick him out in a matter of a couple of months. It was no joke – a couple of months turned into over twelve years.
At least I was alive to see the end in Europe. The full emphasis of the war was about to shift to the Pacific. Russia may very likely enter the final battle. Surely even the diehards in Japan will now accept this reality and give up their quest for their “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere?”
Darkness came, with it an eerie quiet descended. Suddenly a crash, like the clash of a thousand giant cymbals, startled us. Artillery fire in the field right below. More shells came screaming. The salvos echoed and re-echoed from hill to hill. Total quiet, then the swift rustle of our shells heading over us toward the enemy. Dull barks far to our front as they hit their targets. Deathly quiet again. We spoke only in whispers. Guard duty was arranged for the night. Darcy took the first shift. I lay down in my slit trench with my poncho wrapped around me. Condensation formed under the poncho and the mud seeped in, but I slept.
Sees woke me at 10 pm. I took my turn sitting in the hole, behind the mound of earth at the edge of our terrace. The Japs had poured through the valley below during a counter attack that had begun the previous Friday. It was successfully repulsed. Would they try again? A rifle in my hand, a knife and grenades within easy reach, I sat staring down from my rampart. I was wet and shivering. The flash of exploding artillery and mortar shells suddenly shattered the bitter darkness as the Japs began to pound our area. Mother Nature decided then and there to make her contribution to the bedlam: A thunderstorm rolled in. Which was nature’s wrath and which was the wrath of Japan? I was unable to distinguish.
The storm abated, the barrage ended. I concentrated on the flares that descended from the sky every three or four minutes to illuminate the landscape. They came from our warships off shore and from our mortar batteries behind us. All were identifiable by their strange noises -- hollow whistle followed by a flash of light, and then a pop as the shell released its flare. Squeaking and creaking like a playground swing on a summer afternoon, a fiery white light on a parachute floated down. Like in a movie theater, subdued lights slowly illuminated the battlefield; eerie shadows, spooky lights, then vanished behind a hill. Like a ghost, in a long kimono she drifted through the mist and swaying light; a woman walking through a sea of mud. I did not fire but someone else did. As the light of the flare faded, she vanished. I hope she made it.
I continued my watch, focusing to my front, to the right, to the left, and up the steep, unassailable slope from the valley below. I scanned my file of pleasant thoughts for guard duty: Final victory over Germany, where it all began for me. I was born and raised in Alsfeld, in a house that stood on the corner where three streets met: Alicestrasse, the main street of our town; Martin Lutherstrasse, where our magnificent synagogue stood just two doors from my home; and Bahnhofstrasse, which angled up to the railroad station. I woke up one morning in 1933 when I was nine years old and suddenly found that I was now living on the corner of Adolf Hitlerstrasse, Hermann Goeringstrasse and Martin Lutherstrasse.
I learned to read and write in the Volk Schule (public school). My teacher, Lehrer Eichenhauer, straight as a ramrod – veteran of the Hindenburg Line, full of stories of the great war – no talk about having lost. We sang "Siegreich haben wir Frankreich erschlagen," "victoriously we smote France," despite the fact that Germany had not won World War I. Hitler came to power and we were informed why we lost -- the Jews. In school they now sang "Wenn das Judenblut from Messer spritzt, dann gehts nochmal so gut" ("When the Jewish blood from the knife squirts, then things will be twice as good.") In December 1934, my father sent my brother, Ernst, my sister, Ruth, and me to America.
It was time now, as I continued to sit in the observation post, to wander into fantasies. Usually it was visions of final victory or that far-off, joyful reunion at home that occupied my thoughts. To-night it was Germany's surrender. I was there, found my relatives, and celebrated their freedom. A genuine fantasy, for I knew the likelihood of that was nil. (True, none survived; all were executed for their crime—being born Jews.) I imagined marching into Alsfeld, warmly greeting those of our neighbors who stood by us and confronting those who were so cruel. On it went until my shift was up. I woke Lt. Franklin to take over and I went back to sleep.
Tuesday, May 8, 1945
The rain never stopped. I was drenched when I awoke. I gulped down the cheese, crackers and chocolate out of my breakfast (K-ration) unit. A cup of hot coffee would have hit the spot. I watched Lt. Franklin and some of the others light up their cigarettes and felt that I was missing one way of getting warm. The weather was so shitty that we decided to open the cave behind us. Sees, Darcy and I began shoveling the sand away from the entrance. There was a musty odor, boxes and suitcases filled with kimonos, tablecloths, and other silks. We used some to clean our equipment; beautiful silks for our weapons. Further investigation revealed a number of urns filled with bones. I remembered reading that this is the way family members are buried. One year after death, a young virgin enters the cave, cleans the bones, and places them for eternal rest into a large urn.
Lt. Franklin came back from a platoon leaders' meeting confirming Germany's surrender yesterday. Today was V-E Day. The thousand-year Reich kaput after 12 years, 3 months and one week. At around noon, all the guns on Okinawa began firing. Banzai charge? No, a salute to the end of the war in Europe.
The word came from Lt. Franklin; we might attack today or remain put until tomorrow. We waited, consolidated our hold on the cave, made it into a warm, comfortable abode, relaxed and had an on-going bull session. It rained outside and most of the 3rd platoon streamed through our cozy little cave for companionship and the latest rumors. Our major concern was how quickly the end of the war in Europe would benefit us. The latest had it that the troops that were on their way to Europe or designated to go there would be diverted immediately to the Pacific. Quinn suggested that maybe we could just sit here and wait for their arrival. Alaimo proposed that it's time for the Russians to declare war. That surely would finish the Japs.
Late afternoon our rations and reinforcements arrived. Two were green replacements, Basil Bird and Phillip Schouten. The other four, Elwood Schwartz, Dominick Whool, Khaki (Henry) Kaylor and Norbert Paul, were rejoining the 3rd platoon. The first two had been wounded on Leyte, while Khaki and Paul were returning from the LST that had brought us from Ie Shima. They had been assigned to help with the unloading.
The “seasoned warriors” proceeded to tell the newcomers how tough it was here. I could see the stress climb sky high among them. Every time someone made a remark that he didn’t fully grasp, Khaki asked with impatient anxiety, “What did you say?” I tried to play down our situation, but without success.
Schwartz had been in a rest area. He said he had the “liver fluke,” whatever that means, but volunteered to rejoin us. Hard to understand why anyone would do that.
Six of us were in our cave when we retired—Franklin, Sees, Darcy, Paul, Khaki and I. Arrange-ments with our adjacent foxholes allowed us to limit guard duty to one shift for every one in our group. We made a “canned heat” fire to warm our improved dinner C-rations. No more hash from WW I. Now it was chicken and vegetables, chicken and rice, frankfurters and beans, and even spaghetti with meatballs—almost as good as the A-rations (fresh food) we got in Hawaii. Even the breakfast units -- cereal that required only water—were better.
After coffee, I settled down for the night on the soft, dry ground covered by my poncho. Compared to last night’s miserable sleeping quarters, our little cave was the height of luxury. Our spirits were up, but only while we banished thoughts of tomorrow. Resting my head on my field pack, I went to sleep.
Wednesday, May 9, 1945.
I was the last to go on guard duty at around 4 am. The sky was beginning to clear as the moon peered out from behind thin clouds. Flares continued to float down all night and the artillery never let up. Several salvoes from the enemy lines landed at the foot of our hill; there was ma-chine-gun fire on the adjacent hills, but little shooting from us. The sun rose on a beautiful morning. Sees opened up a Canned Heat unit for our coffee and another one of the new C-rations. Lt. Franklin went up to the Command Post and came back with word that there was to be an attack by B and C Companies on a nearby hill. If they were successful, we would replace them and hold the new positions (nice work if you can get it). In the meantime, we’d be blowing up caves.
When we packed up and moved out at 10 am, the sun had dried all of our drenched belongings. We didn’t get far, just along the bottom of our hill, before we sat down to wait. We watched as a column of civilians pass by; guided by a couple of Gis, they were heading for safety in the rear. Women, older men, and children, their faces were veiled in anxiety. We gave the children some hard candy, they bowed, very stiffly, I could feel the raging fear.
At about 1 pm we started blowing up possible hiding places to prevent infiltrating enemy soldiers from using them. Mostly burial caves, became a target for our satchel charges. Scattered, ineffective sniper and mortar fire came our way as we carried out our task. A penetrating foul odor signaled the presence of dead enemy soldiers killed by a heavy artillery barrage. Still squeamish, my eyes moved fleetingly away from the mangled bodies as I obliterated the bloody scene from memory.
B & C Companies, in the face of heavy casualties from machine-gun fire, were unable to achieve their objective. We settled back in our cave where we had our hot C-rations –chicken and vegetable with coffee.
Roll Call -- 5/ 9/45
Platoon H Q 1st Squad 2nd Squad 3rd Squad
1st Lt. Franklin S. Sgt. Quinn S. Sgt. Bertrami Sgt. Traphagen
M. Sgt. Gibbs Sgt. Bereswill Sgt. Marucci Alaimo
S. Sgt. Sees Quintern Clark Bales
Levi Jastrzebaki Bird (new) Bloechil
Darcy Stott Pannel (Mississip) Bessone
Gosizk Crevier (Woody) Chambers
Wilson Sanders Barrera
Gifford Ruuth Domhoski
Keay Wool Kaylor (Khaki)
Layton Clark Paul
Schouten (new) Schwartz Leibowitz
Unknown Unknown Unknown
Thursday, May 10, 1945.
The moon shone brightly as the night faded away and ushered in another pleasant spring day in May. After a leisurely breakfast, orders came from the CO that we were to be ready to move on a moment’s notice. We had been ready for six hours when we finally pulled out at 3 pm. The platoon was assigned to B Company to take over one of their existing positions.
We passed more dead enemy soldiers as well as a line of our own wounded on their way to the aid station. Some were walking, but most were carried on stretchers. All had bloody bandages. “Kahki” Kaylor, walking next to me pleadingly asked; “it’s not always this bad?”
We reached our objective, the base of a hill where B Company had left trenches ready for us. Just as we settled down for the night, a message came over their field phone, right next to my hole. We were to be ready for a dawn attack; too late to pass the “good” news to the squads. Artillery fire was heavy all night. It was so severe that I thought we were being softened for a Banzai.
Friday, May 11, 1945
"Time to get up!" 5:30 am, dawn was breaking, as someone from B Company prodded me. I woke up Lt. Franklin and made my way from hole to hole to pass the word of the impending attack. “We move out in 15 minutes.”
Full daylight came quickly—hazy but a hint of a pleasant, sunny day. Getting ready to move out, I overheard Franklin talking to the B Co. man with the field phone. “We need a litter, “Someone wounded?” “We have a dead man.” The Lieutenant replied. That was the first I heard of it.
I was afraid to ask Franklin who it was. He looked grim. Finally it came out softly —“Who?” Bereswill is all he said. Stunned, moments ago when I alerted the 1st squad, I had yelled “hey, Bereswill, get ready to move in ten minutes.” Someone had stirred. I assumed it was Werner and went on. I asked Gibbs what had happened. “Artillery fire from the night’s heavy barrage -- concussion.” We continued to make preparations to move out. No one said a word, no eye contact. One of our closest buddies was suddenly gone.
Tomorrow it could be us.
Quinn, Quintern, Gosizk and Stott, Bereswill’s closest friends in the 1st squad, brought the body in a poncho over to the platoon Command Post. Each carried a corner. They passed by in silence; I walked behind until they laid him down. Later the body would be taken for burial in the rear.
Six am - “OK, lock and load, let’s move.” Gibbs’ voice was lauder than usual as if to drown out thoughts of Bereswell and the terror that lay ahead as we headed towards our objective, a hill about 300 yards in front of us. Off the path, a short distance from our holes, we passed a pile of about ten Okinawan civilians lying close together, limbs entwined. They had been killed, either by last night’s Japanese artillery barrage or mowed down, mistaken for enemy soldiers, as they ran through the night. The only sound from this pitiful heap was the wail of an infant. I heard the child’s cries but could hardly see him sitting somewhere among the bodies. I could do nothing. We were indoctrinated: In an attack, even if your closest buddy is hit, you move on. There were other units to do the job. I was confident that the child would end up with proper care in the civilian camps that had been set up in the rear. Still, I felt guilty.
We made our way along the narrow path between the small hills toward the sounds of a softening-up barrage of exploding artillery and mortar shells. Our first casualty, Khaki Kaylor had a bullet in his foot. We halted until the heavy barrage ended. Then the 3rd platoon, in reserve, followed the rest of the company in single file coiling up towards the crest of the hills. As we reached the top an incessant, deafening racket surrounded us.
The hammering of machine-guns, the crack of rifle fire and the cutting blast of mortars vibrated through my body, a colossal, lunatic orchestra. Added to it all was the deadly stink of combat -- the acrid smell of gunpowder, the putrid odor of rotting flesh and dead vegetation, all served up in a cloud of dust. Cautiously, we advanced in squad columns through the remains of a small village in shattered ruins, even the trees. Only the crumbling building foundations gave proof that this was once a thriving little town.
The crash of angry shells and the steady buzz of bullets and shrapnel did not let up. Above us the sun attempted to pierce the thick pall hovering over our advance. We now inched forward, firing at every potential target. As more and more fire thundered into our midst, we were forced to disperse and seek shelter in the ruins of buildings or in deeper shell holes. Suddenly Lt. Franklin, next to me, grabbed his arm and went down. Darcy bandaged the wound after we crawled into a large crater. Someone led the lieutenant down the hill to the aid station. Darcy responded to another call for a medic -- I was alone.
Now our advance came to a halt. The platoon was dispersed and I lost contact. Stumbling from one cover to the next, I searched for the others. Every now and then I would see someone from the 3rd just a few yards away, but a moment later he was gone. I picked up nothing on my 536 (radio). A couple of tanks were with us, firing their heavy machine guns and cannons. When mortar rounds landed too close, they scurried off the skyline.
As the roar of battle momentarily subsided, cries of “medic!” came from all directions. Then the merciless rain of mortars started again. A sudden lull allowed me to crawl a few more yards along the crest of the hill where I saw Quinn, Gosizk and Quintern; I joined them. A little later, word was passed that the Company, having suffered heavy losses, was reorganizing. Staff/Sgt. Walter Gibbs, now in charge, ordered us to “dig in.” So here we were, on top of the hill, our objective won, consolidating our costly gains.
Lt. Franklin was all right; his wound looked like a one-way ticket home. The injured around us needed litter bearers. I volunteered with Domehowski to carry Staff/Sgt. Sees. He was hit in the upper arm. John Darcy, our medic had bandaged his wounds and he was ready to go. Up with the stretcher and down about a hundred yards to the aid station tent nestled between two of hills. Sees was happy, the damage not life threatening, a “million-dollar wound,” a one-way ticket out of this hell, home -- alive.
A row of wounded, some sitting others lying on stretchers, waited in front of the tent for trans-portation to the rear. Their injuries were hidden under heavy bandages. I looked away; I had no desire to see too much.
We dropped the stretcher and Sees was immediately absorbed into the stream of patients being processed. A doctor came over as we rested for a moment and asked how we felt. Domehowski said he didn’t feel so good and was told to stay. I envied the bastard, as I was tempted to join in with a similar response. No way, I had no intention of bringing down the slur of “little Jew coward” on me.
I had left my rifle with Quintern, mistakenly believing that Domehowski’s was enough for both of us. Now, weaponless as I made my way back alone, I was scared.
I had been gone for less than half an hour when I returned to our decimated platoon. We were holding an area near the crest of the hill, huddled behind the remains of a wall and in shell holes. The fighting had subsided and the battalion was consolidating its gains. I joined Gibbs and Marucci in a large crater. Darcy, our medic, having patched up the wounded all around us, jumped in a few minutes later. A short distance away Quinn, Quintern and Gosizk had found protection behind a wall. The others were close by and we relaxed as we waited for direction. This was a good opportunity to get the lay of the land.
I cautiously made my way to the crest of the hill facing south. From my vantage point behind a large rock formation I had an excellent view of what, in a nutshell, was the 77th Division’s objective. Just beyond me was a sharp drop into a broad valley with a series of low, rocky ridges leading up to the hills in front of the town of Shuri. It extended from the middle of the island, on my left, to the hills in front of Naha, on my right. We were northeast of Naha and directly north of Shuri Castle. There were lots of ruins. Which was the castle?
An army was deeply entrenched in this area. The battles up to this point had been tough, but until we smashed past Naha and Shuri the going would be just as ferocious, if not more so. On the hills in front of us was a line of telephone poles and several high radio towers. Seeing them gave me a feeling of comfort. I was back in civilization. Was my mind still in the jungle, or were these the symbols that reminded me of home? A road cut through the valley below. All seemed quiet down there with no activity. The strategic value of the little summit we had just taken was now obvious.
Late in the afternoon, we reorganized again and moved a little to the north. Still on top of the hill, we dug in deep. Gibbs, Darcy, and I made up the platoon headquarters. As we shoveled, a couple of mortar shells thundered into our positions. Kilburn Bales, in the hole on our right, was wounded. Dusk, again mortars roared in. This time, S/Sgt. Robert Gills, in a trench to our left, was wounded in the leg. Darcy bandaged him as he moaned in pain. The medics got him to the aid station just as it was getting dark.
This was one of the worst days ever. The company was badly mauled: six men had been killed and total casualties were close to 50 percent in all of the rifle platoons. The two replacements that had joined us on Wednesday were both badly wounded. We never got to know them. Two days ago our platoon had 41 men; 18 were left as the day ended. It was partly cloudy as we settled down in our holes but, thank God, there was no threat of rain. Before he left for the aid station, Bales gave me his Japanese pistol for safekeeping. After the war, back home in Detroit, I mailed it to him.
Roll Call -- 5/11/45
Platoon H Q 1st Squad 2nd Squad 3rd Squad
T. Sgt. Gibbs S. Sgt. Quinn Sgt. Marucci Alaimo
Levi Quintern Pannel (Missis-sip) Chambers
Darcy Gosizk Crevier (Woody) Bloechil
Wilson Sanders Bessone
Gifford Ruuth Barrera
Saturday, May 12, 1945.
Lots of shooting all around during the night. Several enemy soldiers were killed in front of our hole. Another had been wounded. We heard him moan but could not see him as he tried again and again to activate a grenade by pounding it on his helmet. It refused to detonate. I kept dreaming about him. I talked him into surrendering. The war would be over for him and he would come home alive. My instinct was to save a life, not take one. In the early morning the grenade finally went off as he held it to his head. In the light of day I saw him lying only a few yards from my hole. His head was an unrecognizable bloody lump; I quickly looked away. He had been convinced that we would torture and kill him.
Around 7:30 am we were on our way down the northern slope of our hill. We halted as heavy artil-lery and mortars from behind us pounded the Jap positions. At 8:00 the barrage stopped. Now our heavy machine-guns racked targets on our flanks as A and B Companies attacked. The third platoon was in reserve and made up the rear. The sun shone most of the time, and it seemed like a pleasant spring day—if you didn’t notice the chaos.
At first the news was good; the advance was going well. That changed quickly as the Japs reorganized to take up their defensive positions after having sought refuge from the heavy bombardment. There now was a steady flow of machine-gun and rifle fire punctuated with mortar explosions all around us. The attack crawled to a halt and we were ordered to mop up the rear. In a devastated field we came across the remnant of what had once been a home. It was a wreck, but the walls and part of the roof were still intact. We halted. Inside, to our amazement, we found an elderly woman and two young children—a boy and a girl—sitting around a table. I approached the two children and offered them candy. They looked straight ahead—I did not exist. I wanted to get through to them and tried everything; I offered water, a can of K ration. There was no response. I gave up and we moved on. They continued to sit there. No further advance was made and we were ordered to return to last night’s position.
Back on top of the hill, we took off our packs and relaxed. A copy of the latest 77th Division newsletter, The Liberty Torch, was passed around. The lead stories were about the end of the war in Europe and the implementation of a point system for immediate discharge. Accumulation of points was based on length of stay, decorations, the number of battles and dependents. With his many children and his long military career, Tom Chambers was the top point man in the platoon ready to be sent home after we got out of here. Quinn was next. The rest of us, single guys, or married without children, had a long way to go.
We ate our cold K rations of cheese and crackers and headed into a heated discussion of the new point system. Vince Quinn complained that the Air Force, as usual got the best deal, -- five points for each mission while we get five points for each campaign. Based on what the flyboys get, we should receive five points for each day in combat. Pete B. demanded that Russia get into the act now and attack the Japs in northern China. So it went on for an hour until Gibbs interrupted us to announce that the 3rd platoon had been chosen for reconnaissance. Our mission was to probe once more the small ravine to our right front in the area where this morning’s attack had been thwarted. We packed up and headed down to the company command post. Satchel charges to blow up caves were immediately distributed. One was handed to me.
His face masked in worry, Captain Barron gave Gibbs instructions before we moved out. I was aware of this morning's heavy losses in the area, a fact I instinctively pushed aside as we piled through an opening into a narrow valley. A hill at the end of the gorge was probably this morning’s failed objective. The steep slopes to our right and to our left were like everything else here—naked, covered with shell holes of every size. The dark entrances of a number of caves loomed ominously, daring us to advance. In two columns, one on each side of this narrow passage, a heavy tank in our middle, we headed in. The satchel charge on my back was a burden on top of everything I already carried. About one hundred yards into the draw a small bend halted us for only a moment. We headed on, a short distance. Suddenly, there was chaos as bullets zipped in from all directions and mortar shells blossomed in our midst. One landed near our supporting tank. It turned around —back to the safety of the line of departure. We felt abandoned. There was no cover. Tom Chambers, next to me, suddenly stiffened, his hands clawed the side of the hill. He must have died instantly. I looked at Bloechil. He shook his head; there was nothing we could do. Marucci and four others were also hit in the barrage but they were able to make it without help as the order came to end the attack. In a flash we headed around the bend and to the line of departure. Captain Barron was waiting, relief on his face; only one fatality.
Once more we settled down in our old holes. I kept thinking of Chambers—that rough-and-tough Southerner always protective of me. He had shared his last drop of water when I was so thirsty on Guam. In his own endearing way he used vulgar language to prod me through the perils of life in this army jungle. He was Regular Army dating back to the years before the war, and had been up the scale to top Staff Sgt. then down to buck private a couple of times. He had been so close to going home. He made a big target and, next to him, I was insignificant—I think that saved me. One bullet into my satchel charge and we would both have been blown to shreds. Bloechil thought Tom was hit by at least 10 bullets.
I remembered an episode on Guam when the fighting had just ended. We were making our way back to a bivouac area when we passed a long line of natives and Chambers had spotted an old woman. “You know, Levi, I’d love to screw her,” he said. “What a disgusting thought,” was my response. “You don’t understand, Benno. Because she’s so old, she’ll think this is her last chance and she’ll give it all she has.” It was his way of being funny. In the late afternoon we moved on again, this time to a high hill on our right rear and a little to the west toward the Marine lines. Luckily, an earlier occupant left ready-made foxholes for us.
Cold C rations again, a little later, as darkness descended, I took the first guard shift. The view of the terrain sloping down to the western shore, and the many ships off the coast, was magnifi-cent. To the north, toward the airfields and loading beaches far behind our lines, we saw occa-sional searchlights crisscrossing the sky.
Above me was, star-studded sky, later replaced with a thin layer of clouds. Several times heavy artillery fire roared overhead, northward toward the rear areas. This was followed, triple-fold, with our reply zooming in the opposite direction to-ward the Japanese lines. Although there was heavy fire in our vicinity, nothing was directed at us. The scene seemed almost peaceful—the stars were brilliant between patches of clouds. I sat fantasizing about my return home. With the war in Europe over, it couldn’t be long now. On the other hand, the Japanese were fanatics -- their ferocity and dedication to the cause was beyond belief.
(May 12, 1945 was bad, almost four months later I found out how much worse it really had been. It was just after VJ Day; the euphoria of peace was shattered when the chaplain handed me a letter from my father. He finally broke the news to me. My mother had passed away in the hospital after a short illness on May 12 at the age of 59. I saw her standing by the front door on Collingwood Avenue waving goodbye to me, a sad smile on her face. One bullet into my satchel charge that Saturday afternoon and we would have died together.)
Roll Call -- 5/12/45
Platoon H Q 1st Squad 2nd Squad 3rd Squad
T. Sgt. Gibbs S. Sgt Quinn Pannel (Missis-sip) Alaimo
Levi Quintern Sanders Bloechil
Sunday, May 13, 1945.
The crimson colors of dawn greeted me as I got up and ate my breakfast unit. The sun slowly rose across a sky that was a patchwork of clouds and segments of blue. We start out at 8 am, advancing southwest between ridges occupied by the 3rd Battalion of the 305th bypassing the little valley of yesterday's disaster. Our advance was halted by a mound of earth in front of a valley shaped like a bowl, resembling a football stadium. From the naked hills that made up the sides of the bowl, a series of caves, their forbidding entrances stared like eyes.
The 3rd platoon, with only eleven men, was in the lead. Captain Barron called Sgt. Gibbs, now acting platoon leader, for a brief conference. Gibbs returned. We were to go into the “stadium.” He nodded in my direction; my turn; -- you and Bloechil jump over and, in opposite directions, throw a grenade as you go from cave to cave. It goes without saying, the battlefield is physically confrontational but, -- even more so, it is a personal confrontation. This is my death sentence! We all, at this point, close our mind to thoughts of death and dying; blindly we go. Come what may, it will be quick, we’ll never know what hit us; wounded or maimed is not a thought.
Over the mound; I look for immediate protection. There was none. I was spotlighted on a stage, defenseless. Eyes watching, guns aimed -- they can’t miss. Quickly, I threw my first grenade into the dark hole, braced myself against the side of the hill as it exploded. Now that fatal bullet was coming to rip through me -- nothing happened. Bloechil and I crept on, throwing grenades. Soon, the rest of the platoon followed and we continued our work along opposite sides, deeper into the valley.
The Japanese finally woke up and directed mortar and sniper fire at us, but now, under constant counter-fire, they did little damage. Demolition crews from the reserve company moved in. They hit the caves once more, this time with flame-throwers. No chances were being taken. Our advance continued; -- through the valley, to the top of a hill. We set up the company command post. Gibbs and I stayed while the rest of the platoon went on to occupy another hill to our front. A little later, Gibbs glanced at me, “tell them to dig in and stay with them.” I dashed across the field towards the hill. I had almost made it when a machine gun opened up. I hugged the ground until the firing stopped, quickly crawled to the hill, up to the top, and plunged into the hole being dug by Quinn, Gosizk, and Quintern. A little later I joined them as we enlarged and deepened our little sanctuary. It was easy digging, mostly sand.
We took a break and ate our cold C rations. As we relaxed, I looked at Quintern, today is Mother’s Day, it just doesn't fit. He nodded.
We watched as new demolition squads behind us sealed the caves that had been blasted with gre-nades and scorched with fire. A mortar barrage hit one group, no one was badly hurt. The rest of the battalion, advancing toward our hill, was held up by intermittent bursts of machine-gun fire, snipers and mortars. West of our position was the road that marked the boundary between the 77th and the 1st Marines. It ran through the ruins of a village and meandered up the hills towards Naha, a little more than a mile away. One of our tanks had crawled up that same road and began to fire at the machine-gun holding up our advance. The firing stopped. As soon as the tank disappeared, the Japs resumed their harassment. The attacking units now made a quick detour around this little trouble spot. With the support of a couple of tanks, the rest of the company advanced beyond our positions. The battalion now held a series of small hills facing in the direction of Shuri Castle, less than half a mile away but partially hidden by more hills.
The advance was held up as opposition continued to be strong. Several men were wounded, and Klaus Schiebler was reported killed. A little later word came back that he was alive, but that strong enemy fire prevented evacuation. Once more one of our tanks moved up and blasted away. Finally they got him out on a stretcher. He had a big grin when he waved to me on his way to the aid station. -- Homeward bound with a million dollar wound. I never saw him again, he died later, -- complications.
Lt. Colonel Landrum, our popular former battalion CO who had been reassigned from Division HQ to coordinate this attack by two battalions, was wounded a few yards from our position. That was the third time for him. On Leyte, he was hit twice in one engagement. They patched him up then, and back he came to resume command of the 1st battalion.
As Landrum was being evacuated, our Company Commander, Captain Barron, left to temporarily take over the 1st Battalion. What a lousy break. We had been so pleased recently when Barron took over after recovering from his wounds, now Lt. Robinett, who really didn't want the job, was in charge of the company again. Our one consolation was that Barron was now in charge of the 1st Battalion but, unfortunately, Landrum was gone.
Late in the afternoon we were assigned the forward slope of our hill. Battalion H Q was right behind – we felt a little safer. Two caves in our sector. Staff/Sgt.Quinn, Homer Quintern and Chester Gosizk with his BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) had the first cave, while Master/Sgt. Walter Gibbs, Harold Wilson, John Darcy and I took the second. Russel “Mississipp” Pannel, Ross Alaimo, Virgil Bloechil and Harold Sanders dug foxholes to our left. That’s all that was left of the 3rd platoon. To our right the Marines were attacking towards Naha, the capital. We watched as heavy tanks, equipped with cannons and flame-throwers, slammed shell after shell and hissing tongues of flames against the fortified hills all afternoon. The morning had started out partly sunny, but in the afternoon the sky clouded up and the sun remained hidden for the rest of the day. C rations before dusk were eaten cold. All was quiet for a while as we settled down. Two shifts of guard duty in front of the cave during the night for me. There was heavy firing again all night, but nothing came our way.
Monday, May 14, 1945.
Comfortable night. Caves are great – so much better than slit-trenches. Just as dawn broke a whis-pered warning from Gosizk in the cave next to ours. Japs approaching. We grabbed our guns. Shit, useless, clogged with grains of sand from our cave. Grenades at ready, my Jap pistol, clear of sand, in my hand. Suddenly a couple of quick barks from Gosizk’s BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) and it was over. Just two stragglers, looking for food – some GI rations in their packs. No time wasted, we quickly cleaned our rifles, slid them into our protective plastic sleeves, vowed this would never happen again.
It was cloudy all day. We spent most of the afternoon sealing caves in our immediate vicinity. One satchel charge for each did the job. From our positions we watched the Marines on our right front as they battled for control of Sugar Loaf Hill, grateful that we didn’t have to participate.
Sgt. Quinn, aware of the fact that he had enough points to be discharged when we got out of here, was taking fewer risks than he used to. Chambers’ death on Saturday was sharply etched in his memory. We were all protective of Quinn, so close to going home; something terrible could happen so quickly. We spent another night in the comfort of our cave. Heavy firing all around, but again nothing at us.
Tuesday, May 15, 1945.
A violent rainstorm hit us during the night. Boy, it was great to be dry in a cave. At around 9 am, a heavy artillery and mortar barrage on the enemy positions in front of us was the prelude for an attack by Companies A and C. Our objective was to extend our positions on the ridge southward toward Shuri Castle. The third platoon was assigned to cover the right flank of the attack by taking a small hill directly in front of us to our right, adjacent to the First Marine Division. With a heavy machine-gun section from D Company as support, we had no problem taking our objective with only scattered resistance. Once there, we sealed a couple of caves and then took up positions facing southeast, covering the advance of the rest of the Company.
Lt. Mastakowski, in charge of the D Company section, was a Detroiter who lived in Hamtramck. We talked of the old hometown—the Tigers, Hudson’s, hot fudge sundaes at Sanders, the movie palaces downtown. What a thrill to see a film at the Fox or United Artists or the Michigan. It’s amazing what a great comfort it was to meet someone from home and talk about the old, familiar places.
From my post I had an unusual view of the battlefield. Like sitting in an amphitheater, we were able to watch both sides in battle. Our position bulged into the Jap lines, a good distance to our left (east). We were able to observe the rear of a Japanese-fortified hill about five hundred yards away, separated from us by a valley and smaller hills. I watched through a pair of binoculars, as a frontal attack by elements of the 306th Regiment was under way. As our mortar fire hit them, the Japs took cover in caves on the reverse side of the hill.
When it stopped, out they came. I saw one climb to the top, peek over and shout instructions to the two-man mortar unit below. One dropped shells into the tube, the other made adjustments. We were helpless as the mortars fell on the attacking troops. The distance between us made our guns ineffective. We ate our K rations before being called back at 2 pm to join the rest of the company in positions a little farther south from our last one. Just before nightfall we were ordered back to our cave for the night – thank God.
Wednesday, May 16, 1945.
During the morning the third platoon moved back to the positions we had temporarily occupied yesterday. Gibbs, Darcy and I settled in a large hole, which we expanded to accommodate the three of us comfortably. Our post was on the western slope of the southern tip of our ridge. On our left were the small hills and valleys on the approaches to Shuri, directly to our front. On our right, marine positions extended southwest over a valley dotted with small hills and rocky ridges to the outskirts of Naha.
Bitter fighting raged all around. To our left front the 307th was attacking the area towards Shuri, while on our right the Marines were battling for Wana Ridge. We re-occupied the hill that had been our previous day’s objective and continued to blast caves and trenches to render them unusable. Several attempts were made to reconnoiter the area to our front, but snipers and a heavy mortar barrage held us at bay. Strong resistance on our right kept the Marines also in place. After a while, we returned to our new positions on the ridge. Later in the afternoon, we came under heavy artillery fire but suffered no casualties.
Thursday May 17, 1945.
An uneventful night with shooting all around us, but only a few rounds of artillery and mortars hit our area. During the morning, in support of an attack by our 3rd battalion and units from the 307th right in front of Shuri castle, we occupied another small ridge to our right front. There was no opposition. We stayed for several hours, then were withdrawn to our little dugout on the hill. We had a bird’s-eye view as the Marines on our right front attacked Wanna Ridge. The assault followed a brutal softening-up process by the artillery and a surge of fighter planes that strafed and bombed the Jap fortification. Several tanks used their gigantic flame-throwers to scorch the enemy positions.
In the afternoon two tanks parked next to our hole and directed a constant stream of fire to our left front toward Ishimmi Ridge, in front of Shuri. The action was in support of Company E, 307th Regiment, which had initiated the first American nighttime assault of this campaign at 3 am to-day. Although isolated, they were tenaciously holding on in spite of savage Japanese counter-attacks. No reinforcements or supplies had been able to get through. Again during the night there was heavy fire around Ishimmi Ridge to our left, and Wana Ridge on our right, where the Marines were still battling for that key position.
Friday May 18, 1945.
At around 2 or 3am, we heard someone calling softly in front of our hole. At first we didn’t answer. But when he asked for C Company, we decided he was no Jap so we directed him into our hole. He was slightly wounded. Darcy, our Medic, bandaged him up. He told us he’d been in a vicious battle where most of his platoon had been wiped out. He had hidden in a cave all day and waited until the middle of the night to cautiously make his way back. Darcy took him to the aid station as soon as it got light.
Shuri Castle and Wana ridge, on our right front, were blasted several times with 1,000-pound bombs from our carriers.
The explosions kicked up clouds of dust, but the Japanese were deeply entrenched. Later in the afternoon, as if to prove that point, they slammed us with a powerful artillery barrage. I was away from my foxhole when shells came screaming in. Diving into a ditch, I was joined by one of the sergeants from another platoon. He was hysterical and kept saying something about his mother. I calmed him down by directing his attention to the responding artillery barrage from our rear, heading toward the enemy lines. I assured him they were zeroing in on the source of the shelling that was hitting us and would certainly knock them out. That relaxed him, and he came back to himself. . It is amazing how even the toughest guys can break under these attacks. I was just surprised that I was holding up. Tanks once again squatted next to our holes and fired in the direction of Ishimmi Ridge, where our men were still holding on in spite of overwhelming Japanese resistance. Help is unable to reach them and it looks like they can’t even get out. I keep thinking – it could have been A Company. What a horrifying spot to be in.
Today was the first day of Shavuouth (Pentecost). I tried to say a few prayers but I had only my little army prayer book. I thought of home and saw my family celebrating the holiday with mother’s great cheesecake. It has been two years since I had my last piece.
Saturday May 19, 1945.
Cloudy day with a few drops of rain. Patrols went out to blast caves while the rest of us just held on to our positions. The battle raged as we sat in relative peace and watched. Again long fingers of fire flicked along the slopes of Wana Ridge as flame-throwing tanks attacked in the area just a little in front of us on our right (west). At the same time, massed artillery pounded the Jap positions around Ishimmi Ridge in front of us on our left (east) where E Company of the 307th is in a death struggle. Several times during the day planes unloaded their bombs and our heavy warships pinpointed targets in front of Shuri.
All morning, as I watched the scene, my thoughts kept drifting on this, the second day of Shovuoth, to the time so long ago when I lived in another world called Alsfeld. It was just a short walk down our street to our magnificent synagogue that was destroyed during Kristallnacht, 1938. I hummed the tunes we sang and saw the flowers arrayed around the altar, as was the custom on this, the 50th day after Passover, when we commemorate the acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Today, there are no flowers decorating the place where once we prayed, and there certainly are none here. In Europe the avalanche of evil has finally halted. In the town where I was born, the Nazi oppressors are gone, too late for those members of our community who were not able to flee. No one survived.
In the late afternoon, the din and the dust was settling from another fierce artillery bombardment on the Japanese positions around Shuri, in front of us and on Sugar Loaf, near Naha, directly west and just a little south. Gibbs and I were reminiscing when he said something to the effect that, this time when we get back to the rear, he’s going to complain about his back. He had an injury from desert maneuvers and it bothered him. Enough of this shit – it was time for a ticket out of combat. I mentioned my heart murmur and of joining him at sick call. We fantasized on and on but we also knew that, once back behind the lines, we would just settle down and forget it.
I liked Gibbs, he and Marucci and Quinn the best noncoms in the 3rd. All three were intelligent, never hesitating to follow tough orders; all three were not prone to take unnecessary risk. Here I differed, I did take reckless risks without thinking – I had a need to do so, they did not. They were accepted as brave, I had to prove myself and exonerate the anti-Semitic image of Jews being cowardly.
Sunday May 20, 1945.
During the night a heavy mortar and artillery barrage hit us with no serious damage to our pla-toon. Gibbs returned from the morning staff meeting; orders were to take a group of heavily fortified hills. Attempts by other units to do the job had been repulsed with stiff losses during the last two days. At around 11 am we headed out.
Company A, had started with four platoons comprising about 160 men. Bitter fighting since May 7 had decimated the company bringing us to less than 60 infantry men. In my platoon, the third, only 11 of us were left from the 42-man full strength level reached with replacements shortly after we started this offensive on May 7. As a result, we were in reserve and settled down with company headquarters on the reverse slope of the hill from which the operation was being launched.
While waiting, a message to the CO, Lt. Robinett; two sergeants involved in the assault felt it was impossible to take their objective. His message back – "you have to do it, the Colonel said so.” Leading the attack was the second platoon under Sgts LaMachia and Blevins. First battle report to Lt. Robinett; devastating fire from a pillbox and surrounding caves had forced a quick withdrawal and that Sgt Blevins had been killed. Ten minutes later a revision— he was wounded lying fully exposed in the middle of a field. Continued heavy fire kept would be rescuers at bay.
In less than 15 minutes, two tanks pulled up near us. Like elephants, they rested for the stomp against the enemy. Our platoon leader, Sgt. Walter Gibbs was assigned to them as point man to direct their fire at positions pouring a withering barrage at our troops. He disappeared around a bend to do the job.
A little later, S/Sgt. Coolter of the 1st platoon sent a message; a satchel charge was needed to blow up a cave. I got the job and cautiously made my way back to him. His platoon was shel-tered behind cover, facing our objective. I crouched next to him behind a mound of earth. In front of us was an open area surrounded by a series of small hills. Commanding the battle-ground, and sitting like a stage in a theater, was a large pillbox at the furthest edge of this half circle directly to our front. It had the support of a series of caves set into the flanking hills, their dark entrances like eyes staring at us. The ground was pocketed with craters of every size and shape. Devastating fire from these positions had halted the platoon in its tracks.
“Where is Blevins?” Coolter pointed to a shell hole maybe 400 or 500 feet from us. I could barely make out his crumpled body lying in it. He turned to me, “what do you think Levi, should we try it?” I was ready to blurt out: “Are you kidding, a bunch of fanatic Japs are holed out there just waiting to cut us down, you saw what happened to Blevins and his platoon.” Why me? He had been sitting here for over half an hour with the platoon he commanded – now, with me here, he comes up with a rescue attempt.
How much longer do I need to disprove the vicious stereotyping that has haunted me all my life? This was suicide, but, as defender of my faith, there was only one answer. He may not have expected my affirmative reply and I was surprised to hear myself say it as I envisioned that fatal bullet tearing through my body.
Without another word, we took off our packs and raced across the field. Before I knew it, we were crouching in the hole at Blevin's side. I could see that he had a chest wound through which air was sucked every time he took a breath. We quickly got rid of his field pack and lifted him out of the crater. Coolter was a powerful guy; I helped him hoist Blevins over his shoulder. We dashed back.
The medic, waiting for us, went right to work while Coolter and I collapsed on the ground. We looked at each other with a thin smile of satisfaction and relief. We were alive – unhurt. I was almost sure that no one had fired in our direction, though only if I had been hit, would I have noticed. Was it the supportive fire from the rest of the company blazing over our heads into the Jap positions that saved us or was it a miracle?
I made my way back to the command post to await our next move. A little later Sgt. Gibbs returned from his mission with the tanks. I realized then that, possibly, the fire he had been directing at the caves before I arrived on the on the other side may have helped bring Blevins back. He asked about Blevins and was told that Coolter and I had brought him out. He gave me a look and a nod of approval. I felt good – proud. He was my pal. (Ten months later when I was a civilian once more, a Bronze Star arrived in the mail as the Army’s appreciation for this episode. Later, a Christmas card came from Blevins. He thanked me for joining Coolter in saving his life. This I treasured even more than the medal.)
We stayed where we were until about 3 PM; the attack was not renewed. I am confident that, had Colonel Landrum been in charge, we would have taken the pillbox and surrounding hills before we left. Another unit took over the area that we were occupying and we returned to our old positions. Rumors floating have us going to the rear for a rest tomorrow.
Monday May 21, 1945.
Shook myself awake into a cloudy, dreary morning. Artillery fell again in our area during the night with no damage. Heavy fire continued to our left in front of Shuri and to the west in the Marine sector.
Wow!!!! We are going to be relieved this morning! Gibbs brought us the news from the platoon leaders’ meeting. Trucks would pick us up as soon as they could make it to a point behind our lines and take us to a rest area – hard to believe. At around 10 am, Company G of the 306th, at full-strength, was able to replace the whole decimated 1st Battalion. Before we left, we were told to “police,” that is clean up, the area. It seemed so incongruous – we had to make the battlefield litter free. “Chicken shit, just like on maneuvers in the States,” was Gibb’s response. A little later, our foxholes nice and tidy, we coiled our way in single file back about half a mile to the rear.
The whole company piled into a few trucks that were part of a small convoy making up what was left of the 1st Battalion. We sat together on the hard benches, Quinn, Quintern, Gosizk and Wilson of the 1st squad; there was Sanders and Mississip in the 2nd squad, Alaimo and Bloechil of the 3rd squad and Gibbs, Darcy and me. That was all. The usual sharp, sarcastic banter was missing. All was quiet. Our thoughts took us back two weeks as we were on our way into battle. We had agonized then how we would be coming back – if at all. We had our answers and they left us stunned as we headed back to the rear – eleven unscathed out of forty-two in the third platoon.
I thought of all the wounded guys heading back to the States—the ones with the million-dollar wounds – the lucky ones. I envied them. Then there were those severely injured. What about Bereswill and Chambers? There was Violet, Werner’s fiancée, and Tom’s wife and children. If he had survived just eight more days he would now be getting ready for his trip home. Feeling sad but proud, I looked around. I had held up well during fourteen days of hell. We gained less than a mile but it seemed like fifty. . Our rest would not last long. In a week we may be back and then the nightmare would start again. But it was a long time until then. Today I was safe and happy to be alive. Who knows, the war might end by next week.
Roll Call -- 5/21/45
Platoon H Q 1st Squad 2nd Squad 3rd Squad
T. Sgt. Gibbs “the Gibber” S. Sgt Quinn Sanders Alaimo
Levi Quintern Pannel (Mississip) Bloechil
We stayed in our rest area for ten days while the rains came down. The word from the drenched front was that all was quiet but muddy as hell. We were grateful to be in a dry tent. Rumors had it that the Japs were abandoning the Shuri line. On May 30th, we were up there again, reinforced with twenty-five fresh replacements. The chase was on as the Japanese headed south. For more than a week we mopped up. Easy work, just a few firefights but the enemy was massing near the southern tip of the island. One last battle to be won.
Our Battalion was assigned to the 96th Division. On Thursday June 21st, in the final battle on Oki-nawa, we won a Presidential Unit Citation as we took hills #75 and #85 in a bitter battle with very heavy casualties. The cost for the capture of the Ryukyu Islands was a staggering 12,700 American dead and 36,800 wounded. We left Okinawa on June 30th bound for the Philippines, unaware that on that Thursday, June 21st, we had won the last major battle of WW II.