OBSERVER OF WAR
An Observer of War
I was hot, dirty, sweaty, tired, and thirsty. Perhaps a bath would make me feel better and awaken me to my duties here. I slipped down to the lagoon through a grove of scraggly pine trees, over a gravely bank and to the coral reef. There, I removed my shoes and clothes and waded cautiously over the sharp coral into the water. But no comfort. I was now in the full rays of the sun; the shallow water barely covered my knees and was as warm as the tropical air I was breathing. I rubbed some salt-water soap over my body, sat down as best I could and splashed rinse water over me. I carefully moved farther out, stepping cautiously, for this coral was sharp and, suddenly, I stepped into a deep hole- up to my shoulders. What joy! The water at my feet was cool, I guessed at least 30 degrees cooler than at the surface. I exhaled, held my breath, and sank to the bottom in a sitting position. Then back up, a few big breaths, another exhale, and back down. I repeated this several times in spite of the discomfort of holding my breath, but, Oh, that cool water.
But then, as I popped up I heard the rat-a-tat of a machine gun and saw bullets ricocheting in the water around me. Looking beyond the curve of the lagoon to a far point, I could see several figures moving around. Were they friend or foe? No time to find out. The bullets kept splashing around me. This time I took a deep breath and ducked down as far as I could. How long could one hold one’s breath? I don’t know, but when the pain got too strong, I rose up, gasped some more air, observed the splashes were still coming, and dropped down again. I kept wondering, were these Japanese firing at me, or our own troops, thinking I was a ”Jap”? Finally, after some ten minutes of these maneuvers, the shooting stopped. Perhaps they thought I had been killed or wounded? I would never know. I dashed over the sharp coral, ignoring the pain, grabbed my clothes, ran up the bank, and out of sight of my antagonists.
A fortnight before, my orders, dated 11 May 1944 directed me to report to the Commanding General of the 24th Provisional Corps Artillery for temporary duty as an observer. I was stationed at Camp Tarawa situated on the Parker Ranch at Kamuela, Hawaii, as Battery Commander of Battery “A”, 10th Gun Battalion, Vth Amphibious Corps Artillery. At one time I was an instructor in the Seacoast Artillery Section of The Base Defense School in Quantico, Virginia, and Camp Lejeune in New River, North Carolina. Then, it was decided we needed no more Defense Battalions, so I learned Field Artillery from The 2nd Division on Hawaii. It was common to assign officers to an invasion force, as observer, to gain combat experience. I flew to Oahu and reported into an Army camp just north of Pearl Harbor, where I was assigned duty with a Captain, whom I will call Jack.
It wasn’t long ‘till we were part of a magnificent flotilla of war ships sailing east ward as a convoy. Forward, they stretched, so that only the masts of the leading ships were visible. And aft, they stretched, until out of sight. Cruisers, destroyers, cargo ships, troop ships, small anti-submarine boats, all zigzagging across the ocean in radio silence. The only communication was by signal lights and flags. It was a scene out of a movie! For five days we voyaged on under fair skies, with destroyers and anti-submarine boats, maneuvering around us, though I saw no splash of depth bombs being dropped. Our deception must have been good. Not much to do on board except eat, sleep, play acey-deucy, and, finally, examine maps of our objective. It was only now that we learned our objective was Saipan. Saipan is the northernmost significant island of the Marianas. Farther south is Guam, and in between, and very close to Saipan, is Tinian.
A few days later, we awoke to find ourselves anchored about a half-mile offshore on the western side of Saipan, with hundreds, or what seemed, thousands, of ships around us, many lobbing shells at the island. We heard that battleships had been doing the same for several days, but now had left and joined up with carriers to seek the Japanese fleet. We could see small craft ferrying troops and weapons to the shore only to be met by vicious shelling from hidden sites in the hills. But, ashore, the marines and soldiers did go and move inland.
Our units, 155 millimeter field artillery guns, went ashore on the 3rd day. My memory is vague, bur I recall wading in a bit, crossing the sand and entering a grove of trees, where I observed a building. It appeared to be an abandoned store, and my curiosity invited me in, only to find it empty, no goods on the shelves. Had the proprietors cleared the place and moved north with the Japanese, or had souvenir seekers emptied it? As I was leaving to join our group progressing forward, I spotted an object on the floor – a slide rule in a black case. It ended up in my pocket, and I have it to this day, my only souvenir of that Island. We ended up that night at our guns which were just being set up and slept in shallow fox holes dug by troops the day before.
The next morning I set out with Jack, a driver, and a radioman (actually telephone) in a jeep heading inland on the southern part of the island, which was somewhat secured, for our troops were now pushing the Japanese northward. We knew little of what was going on up there, but could hear lots of artillery fire. We holed up in a small grove of trees and awaited instructions, not knowing if there was enemy around us. That night we didn’t sleep – our headquarters kept ringing our phone, in spite of our protests, to see if we were still connected. No better way for the enemy to locate us.
The next day I did some reconnoitering and came upon a grassy clearing with the bodies of perhaps a dozen Americans and an equal number of Japanese laid out in opposite rows. My first reaction was that they had faced each other in gunfire, as they might have done in Colonial Days, but then realized that they had been placed there, awaiting the “graves” detachment for burial. It was a sobering sight, a recognition of the inhumanity of war, and while we had been taught in boot camp to hate the Japanese, It didn’t stick. I stood for a few minutes, weeping, something I had not done for several years.
And now, a few days later, feeling grubby, thirsty and useless, I slipped down to the lagoon for a bath.
I don’t recall how we spent the next few days. At one time I discovered a water well on a meadow and thought “oh boy, fresh cold water!” I preferred to go thirsty than to drink the chlorinated water we were given. But a Marine guard stood by, preventing any military personnel from drawing water, though there were two natives there, filling their buckets. The dead cow lying along side did not deter them.
We finally got an assignment as forward observers to direct fire on the island of Tinian, about ten miles to the south and the next invasion target. We found a grove of trees that gave us partial shade, and obtained a bit more by erecting a tarp, supported by limbs we cut from the trees. We then set up a telescope where we had a good view of our targets, mostly buildings, called in approximate distances to the gun control officer by phone, located some two miles away, and puffs of smoke appeared around the target. Then, by ordering up and down, and right and left commands, we bracketed the target with just one gun, and when the target was hit, the command was “fire for effect!” and all four of the battery’s guns opened up. We continued this for several days, noting that some smaller army artillery came out near us each day and fired continuously at a point of land ahead of us and to our left. We discovered that this was Nafutan Point, a rocky peninsula on the south end that was by-passed when this part of the island was secured. It appeared, now that the plan was to keep the enemy penned in their rocky retreat. But why did this small artillery draw back at night, leaving the four of us alone out there? Actually, we were not too worried, and probably not too smart, since hidden in a grove of trees, we felt we were unobserved. We joked about this light artillery cowardly backing away at night, while we were brave to stick it out.
Our targets on Tinian were rather vague, probably large warehouses, and, we suspected, an airfield beyond, but could not actually see it. The days wore on; the light artillery kept firing at Nafutan Point in the daylight, and pulled back at night. Our firing at Tinian became sporadic, our airfield had been rebuilt enough to allow our cargo and fighter planes to come in and perhaps they had neutralized Tinian. I was still hot, tired and thirsty. And then it came; a telephone message that I was to return to my home base in Hawaii. A vehicle would come and pick me up. Yes, it came around 10:00 P.M. . . . a jeep, with its headlights on, with rays of light flashing up to the light cloud cover ,and then disappearing as the vehicle drove through a ravine We screamed at the driver to turn off his lights, but to no avail. If the Japanese were watching, and they surely had guards posted, they would now know we had a position here.
I made my good-byes, threw myself and gear into the jeep and was driven to some head quarters and shown a cot. But before I could sleep, a bomb attack warning sent me down into a basement. It seemed no time at all ‘till I was roused, put into the back of a big truck, alone, and driven to the airfield in the dark of early morning. The truck drove up to a large transport plane, deposited me, and drove off. And, just as I walked over to the plane all hell broke loose. The rat-tat of machine guns and rifle fire, this time all around me, with tracer bullets lighting up the area. I dashed to the plane and crouched behind one of its large wheels, assuming the enemy was in the direction of the tracers. Were these the Japanese that had been holed up on Nafutan Point? Did the jeep driving out to pick me up with its lights on have anything to do with this attack? Perhaps. A half hour later, and with dawn breaking, all was quiet. A Marine appeared and guided me to the ramp of the plane.
I entered, to see the interior of a cargo plane with no seats. Stretched down each side of the cabin were wounded men, some on stretchers, others sitting against the bulk head. All was quiet. The only activity was two nurses going down the line giving cups of pineapple juice to the injured. My mouth watered in anticipation of this delicacy, and, finally, a nurse stopped beside me and said she had one drink left, and as I reached for it – the drink I had been thirsting for over the last two weeks, the man lying next to me said he would like some more. I handed him my cup, and my thirst disappeared. The plane took off and the roar of the engines was the only thing that bothered my sleep for the next several hours.
In late afternoon we landed at Kwajalein. I was directed to a large mess tent where, sitting alone, I was served all the pineapple juice I could drink, and a hearty meal. How quickly I was rejuvenated. Then, a stopover at Midway Island, and the next day the sunny shores of Oahu.
The transportation officer looked at my orders, and with a wink, said he could not get me back to Hawaii for a week, but I could stay in the B. O. Q. and could borrow a jeep from the motor pool if I wished. In the B. O. Q. I found Captain John King and Lt. Dwight Sales of my outfit on Hawaii, who had also just returned from Saipan Captain Jack, whom I had just left, firing on Tinian had asked me to look up his girl in Honolulu to say he was OK. I visited her that evening where she lived in a house with several other girls, and made a date to see her the next night. But circumstances changed. John King had an introduction to the manager of the Dole Pineapple Company, He and I and Dale were invited to dinner at their house the next night, and then spent several days being shown around the Island by his daughter and another pretty girl. I phoned my broken date to find that she had taken a hotel room the night before, and had left directions for me to join her. She was not happy with me. Well, win some and lose some. Then, back to the big Island.
WAR IS HELL!
Did I learn anything as an observer? Not too much. Did I serve purpose? Yes, to some extent for Tinian was invaded two weeks later. Did I know what was going on north of me on Saipan? Very little. But, years later, reading the official history of the battle and the personal stories of participants, I now feel that I was there. Some 500 Japanese had come out of Nafutan Point that night and attacked the airfield. Did that jeep, with its headlights on have anything to do with their breakout? I heard later that the friends I had just left were killed.
No, I didn’t crawl on my stomach, jump up and throw hand grenades, didn’t direct a flame thrower into caves, didn’t repel bonsai night attacks, didn’t see men dying around me. I didn’t even observe it. I was no hero, but, I was there, on this little Island only 12
miles long by 6 miles wide.
Seventy thousand Americans battled 30,000 Japanese. Three thousand Americans were killed and ten thousand wounded. Nearly all the Japanese were killed or committed suicide by jumping off the northern cliffs and taking with them some twenty two thousand civilians who were made to believe that the Americans were brutal.
Tags: Saipan Invasion