'To Do My Duty'

By Kathleen Broome Williams

We and our fellow "goodbye babies" have been paying for World War II for more than 60 years, many of us accepting as normal a persistent sense of loss, but without ever knowing just why our fathers died. Until recently, and for reasons I am just now beginning to understand, I mostly ignored the void in my life that research might have helped to explain. Finally, I am ready to examine why, after such a long time, I came to ask questions, and how I began the journey to find answers.

Growing up in London, almost all I knew about my father I learned from his Marine Corps photograph and the citation hanging next to it on my brother's bedroom wall. The photo showed a man in uniform, caught at the beginning of a smile. I spent hours staring at that picture, searching his face for a resemblance to my own, but all I saw were his gray eyes looking back at me with faint amusement. Almost the only thing I understood from the citation was that my father had been a hero. He must have been, because we had his medals, each encased in a heavy dome of plastic like those paperweights with dried flowers inside. One medal was a Navy Cross, another a Purple Heart with one star. Until recently, whenever people asked me why I became a military historian, I just answered - as the simplest truth - that ever since I could remember I had been drawn to war stories.

Mary Nelson Kenny's mother died in 1993, changing everything for me. Going through her mother's papers, Mary came across a bundle of wartime letters from her father. Marine Captain Loreen A. O. Nelson had been executive officer of the regimental weapons company commanded by my father on Saipan. Loreen was with him on 8 July 1944 when they were both hit. Like my father, he was evacuated to Hawaii but lived barely a week, dying of his wounds on 16 July. More than 50 years later, using her father's letters, Mary began to search for his fellow Marines. She found surviving members of the company who had been holding reunions for a number of years and was warmly welcomed into the group. Eventually she found us, because my brother has our father's name, and we were welcomed too.

Once I met men who had served with my father, who had fought by his side, I was no longer content with a paper parent in a photograph. As the aging veterans talked, their memories still painful, I realized that all my life I had tiptoed around the idea of a father. Now I needed to come to terms with something more solid, with someone who was real, who had married, had children, made plans, went to war.

The 60th anniversary of the landings on Saipan was to be commemorated there in June 2004; I knew I had to go. Mary Kenny and I went together, two daughters raised worlds apart, each of us hoping to learn more about our fathers who had fought and fallen together. I walked the silent, startlingly beautiful, flame-tree-fringed invasion beaches and saw them suddenly fill with tens of thousands of young men. They poured out of their landing craft, flattened themselves on the narrow, congested, tumultuous beaches, and clung to the sand. Then, in small groups, they stumbled forward, tripping over the bodies of those who had gone before, somehow advancing through the deafening noise, the concussion of ordnance, and the cordite-laced air.

I searched for the ravine where my father was shot, and as I struggled through the dense vegetation, fighting the enervating tropical heat and humidity, cutting myself on the sharp limestone, as they must have done, I saw my father, not alone anymore but as one of the thousands of fathers on Saipan. I knew then that telling his story would mean telling their stories too, and that I had been warily circling the task for a long time. But still I was not sure I was ready for it. Talking to the veterans who had made the long and emotional journey to the commemoration, I could sense how keenly they had suffered. But I had never been in combat. How could I know what drove men forward into death ? How could I presume to give those men a voice ?

It was time to read my father's letters. My mother had kept them all these years and never told us, although I had once found them by accident. I now read them all, from the first ones he wrote from Brazil in December 1941 to those three years later that, too weak to hold a pen himself, he dictated to Navy nurses in Hawaii. At last, the man in the photograph came to life, and when I finished, I knew how to tell the story of why men go out to face death. I would begin with my father's words. I would do it for all the men who risked their lives and for all the goodbye babies. I would do it for myself.

To my surprise I found that my father, the war hero, initially was denied a commission in the Marine Corps for failing his physical exam. He was color-blind - an absolute disqualifier for naval service. 5 He was so keen to serve, though, that after graduating from law school in 1938 he spent 2 .5 years fighting for a medical waiver, finally receiving one in February 1941. Once commissioned in the Marine Corps Reserve, my father eventually succeeded in his equally determined efforts to move out of the staff jobs he scorned and into a combat command.

The Corps had good reason for assigning him to staff positions. While in Brazil for five months in early 1942 - with the first American overseas expedition of the war - he contracted malaria, persistent debilitating bouts of which continued to dog him for the rest of his life. 6 Still, he pleaded to get into action. In October 1942, married for almost a year but with no children yet, he requested assignment to combat duty "as soon as practicable," explaining that

Recent events, and the loss of very dear friends at the hands of the enemy, have made me exceedingly anxious to be in a combat unit. I joined the Marine Corps, and was carefully trained thereafter, to lead troops in combat. I believe that I am better qualified for that duty than for any other. 7

Unimpressed, the Marines had other plans for him. Between January and June 1943 he was assigned to the Preparatory Staff Course at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. My brother was born there in April at the naval hospital, but apparently parenthood did not temper my father's drive to get overseas and into the fight. From Newport he eventually reached Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. To his bitter disappointment he still did not get a line command. Instead he was appointed aide-de-camp to Major General Harry "the Dutchman" Schmidt, the commanding general of the 4th Marine Division. His new duties were described as "exclusively and strictly personal, confidential and of a routine character." 8

But at least he was heading toward the action. The 4th Division was about to sail for Roi-Namur, twin islands at the northern end of Kwajalein Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. 9 They left San Diego on 13 January 1944, disembarking onto the beaches of Roi-Namur on 1 February. My father was at General Schmidt's side during the 11 days the battle lasted, after which the general wrote of him that he was "an excellent officer, suitable regular officer material." 10 My father, for his part, did not regard Schmidt highly and was frustrated by the limitations of staff duty. The night before the Roi-Namur landings he had written his wife: "Tomorrow we start fighting Japs. I have the safe place the general's aide is forced to occupy." 11

On Roi-Namur my father shared a "little bachelor apartment; a hole covered with a tarpaulin" with Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson of Carlson's Raiders fame. 12 Carlson, an "old China hand" who had spent time with Mao Tse-tung, was a controversial figure; his radical social theories made him deeply suspect in some military quarters. The time Carlson spent traveling through China with the communist guerrilla forces in the 1930s had convinced him of the superiority of their egalitarian, team-building approach. His adoption of the Chinese slogan "gung ho" (work together) and his notion that officers should serve the men they led, not be served, seemed threatening to those who preferred the traditional military hierarchy.

My father, though, deeply admired Carlson, calling him "a man of vision and principle . . . who lives what he preaches." 13 Thoroughly sick both of General Schmidt and of being his lackey, my father was again angling for a transfer. His hope of doing something with Carlson, though, was probably doomed. After Carlson's raid on Makin Island in 1942 and his exploits on Guadalcanal later that year, for which he was awarded two Gold Stars in lieu of additional Navy Crosses, he was denied a combat command and instead relegated to observer status.

In February, at the 4th Division's new base on Maui, my father heard of his promotion to major. Hopes of a change of position dimmed, though, when he found that "jobs for majors are as scarce as hen's teeth in this division." On 2 March he was finally released as aide to General Schmidt, but instead of joining a combat unit he was given another administrative job. "Yesterday the boom was lowered on me," he wrote. "I think because of my association with Col. Carlson and his ideas, the Chief of Staff [Colonel Walter Rogers] told me I was going to be a Transport Quartermaster. Aside from not being qualified for the job by experience, training or temperament, I took it to be a dirty dig. I said so and raised hell about it. As a result the matter is being reconsidered." Nevertheless the decision stood, and by the next day he wrote that "a few minutes ago the blow fell, and I am now Asst. Div. TQM, but I hope to God it won't be for too long." 14

About a month later, my father learned that his wife was pregnant again. While he was delighted with the news and thoughts of his children were prominent in his letters, this in no way deflected him from his eagerness to get into the fight. His job, as he saw it, was "to make it possible for our children and grandchildren to grow up in peace." "There is only one reason I'm out here," he wrote to his wife. "I want to do my duty for you and for everything you stand for. My only wish now is to get the job over and get home to you." The job he was convinced he was best suited for by temperament and training was to fight.

My father's appeals for a new job finally succeeded. He secured appointment as commanding officer of the Regimental Weapons Company, 24th Marines, 4th Division, "the best job in the Marine Corps for a major - in fact the only command," even though it meant he would not be with Carlson.

Lieutenant General Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith, commander of the V Amphibious Corps, rigorously prepared the more than 70,000 men of the 2d and 4th Marine divisions and the Army's 27th Division for the next operation, the invasion of the Mariana Islands, 1,200 miles beyond the Marshalls. 15 "I don't know much about the business now," my father admitted to his wife on 23 April, "but I'm learning all the time. You can imagine how much I want to succeed and how hard I'm working on the job. Every bit of it though," he continued, "is spent in hard work to put an end to this damned war and let me come home to you. I love you and the baby and the little darling to come."

Two days later he wrote: "Last night we had our big company party out in the field. . . . Much beer was consumed, promotions and decorations announced, an orchestra played by a huge bonfire, and Carlson spoke. I believe the men enjoyed it; it was the first party they had ever had." 16

From 14 to 19 May the weapons company participated in practice landings in the Maalaea Bay area of Maui. It was at Pearl Harbor on 29 May and sailed from there with the rest of the forces on the 31st. "Dearest," my father wrote from the USS John Land (AP-167) that same day, "If anything should happen to me, with two children you are entitled to more compensation from the Veteran's Administration. I think it amounts to around $80.00 per month." Still at sea on 9 June, he wrote that "The coming addition to our family has got me on needles and pins. . . . It is much easier to be a father when you are home than when you are away."

The invasion of Saipan began on 15 June. "Tomorrow morning we go in after our enemy," my father wrote the night before. "It will be a heavy blow for him and will go a very long way towards finishing the war. That is what we are all striving for so hard, and now at last we have a real chance to take a big step forward." He continued: "Dearest you will, I know, bring up our boy to be a gentleman. Poor darling, you are familiar enough with all my faults to which he might fall heir, and please do your best to show him the right path when he is young."

For the next two weeks the 24th Marines fought their way across the 14-mile length of the island. 17 "The major was a leader who would go first rather than an officer who would direct from the rear," recalled former private first class George Foster. Foster remembered when "Maj. Broome arranged for RW [Regimental Weapons] to fall back from the front and get a much needed bath in a stream." 18 According to Foster this caused some friction with the regimental commander. The major "did what he said he'd do," recalled former corporal Jack Langsdorf. "He looked out for his troops - sometimes by ignoring orders from regimental headquarters!" 19

Regimental headquarters was not the only group to experience the major's wrath. "On Saipan we were constantly getting artillery rounds that appeared to be falling short," recalled former corporal Clifford G. Huehn. "Major Broome called artillery several times bawling them out. One day when we got several rounds short he called artillery and said if they didn't stop hitting us we were coming back and have a shootout with them." 20 Apparently, that endeared my father even more to his men. So, too, did the nickname they soon acquired - perhaps reflecting Carlson's influence - "Broome's Mechanized Raiders." 21 Both in Hawaii and back in the States, my father received many letters from his company. "The men have all caught your spirit," wrote Gunnery Sergeant William O. "Willie-O" Koontz on 1 November, "and we will try to better our grade as Jap exterminators." "Best of everything to the best C.O. in the Marine Corps," he ended. 22

My father was slightly wounded on 27 June. A few days later, according to his Navy Cross citation, "acting on his own initiative . . . he personally took a 75-mm self-propelled gun and, bringing effective fire to bear on Japanese holed up in inaccessible caves, successfully attacked and enabled the infantry to advance."

By D+23 - 8 July - the day before organized resistance on Saipan ended, the 4th Marine Division was winning the race for the rocky northern tip of the island, soon to become infamous for mass suicides. On that day the 2d and 24th Marines were to push across the plain on the northeastern edge of the island and head for the sea. The Marine Corps' account of this action notes that in order to allow the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines to move ahead, Major Broome "volunteered to assume, with two 37mm guns and a few riflemen, a position from which to protect the right flank as the unit swept to the coast." 23 Once the infantry departed, the account continues:

Broome's isolated position was rushed by a numerically superior group of Japanese. During the skirmish, the 37mm crews fired their pieces at ranges of 10 to 20 yards, taking up the brief slack between rounds by throwing grenades and firing small arms. For a time the issue was in doubt, but the Marines held. This exceptional employment of a weapons unit was necessary and effective in this situation. 24

Shortly after that action, my father and Captain Nelson were hit in a firefight with a number of Japanese dug into a cave. 25 The next day, 9 July, the island was declared secure.

My father was extricated from the battlefield and eventually evacuated. On 15 July he was admitted to U.S. Naval Hospital #10 in Hawaii, where he remained until 7 September. The medical report explained the nature of his injuries:

He had been shot through the left hip by an enemy rifle bullet [that shattered the hip and femur and paralyzed his bladder and rectum]. Examination showed him to be critically ill . . . with a small wound of entrance over the sacrum, and a very large, foul, destructive wound of exit on the left thigh. On 30 July . . . a guillotine amputation was done at the hip. Because he is incontinent, he should travel via air, with an escort. 26

At Bethesda my father clung to life for another four months, finally succumbing to complications from his wounds. He died on 18 January 1945, forever a hero, forever 29.

Some fathers did not have choices about their military service but many, like my father, did. And many, like him, served willingly. As one father wrote in 1943, "naturally, one could have, as others have, avoided service. However, I never would have allowed such to happen. . . . The sooner all realize that it is part of their job to win, the sooner it will be over." 27 Looking back, one war orphan explained: "My father did his honor thing. He didn't have to go. You know how hard it is to hear that ? My father could have kept out of combat." 28

Although my own father's letters make clear how much he cared for my mother and for his children, it was not enough to stop him from fighting the way he wanted to: on the front lines. I am just beginning to see why that was and why he chose to leave my brother and me to grow up without him. I hope the journey I am on will help us better understand that dimension of war that leaves goodbye babies in its wake.

 



1. See Reuben Hill, et al, Families under Stress: Adjustment to the Crisis of War Separation and Reunion , (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), p. 57.

2. This article would never have been written without Mary Nelson Kenny. I am also most grateful to Dr. Gary Weir for his careful reading of an earlier version of this paper and for his insightful suggestions.

3. Dispatch from NAVHOSP TREASUREISLAND to NATIONAL NAVMEDCEN BETHESDA, 21 September 1944, Roger G. B. Broome, Official Military Personnel File, Headquarters Marine Corps: Official Miscellaneous Correspondence and Orders Jacket (hereafter RGBB/OMPF), National Personnel Records, National Archives and Records Administration, St. Louis, MO (henceforth NPR). Unless otherwise noted, all RGBB material comes from his personnel file or (when they were apart) from his almost daily letters to his wife, Jane Leininger Broome.

4. See, for example, War Orphans' Educational Assistance Act of 1956, Public Law 634, 84th Congress. William M. Tuttle Jr., ' Daddy's Gone to War': The Second World War in the Lives of America's Children (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 26-29.

5. The Marine Corps manual of 1931, paragraphs 2-52 (1) and 2-52 (8), prohibits enlistment of recruits who are color-blind and requires a test for color-blindness as part of the pre-enlistment exam. According to Section 2-53, any physical defect could be waived by the commandant, but such waivers were to be granted sparingly and only in cases that did not significantly impair a recruit's ability to perform his duties.

6. Maj. General Commandant to CO, 17th Provisional Co., 15 Dec. 1941, file 17th Provisional Co., box 50, Record Group 127 (hereafter RG127), National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives II, College Park, MD (hereafter NA2).

7. RGBB to Commandant, 29 Oct. 1942, RGBB/OMPF, NPR.

8. Commanding Gen. to Capt. RGBB, 19 Aug. 1943, RGBB/OMPF, NPR.

9. For these campaigns see, among others: Edwin Howard Simmons, The United States Marines: A History , 3rd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998); J. Robert Moskin, The U.S. Marine Corps Story rev. ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987); Robert Debs Heinl, Jr., Soldiers of the Sea: The United States Marine Corps, 1775-1960 (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1962); Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps , revised and expanded ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1991); Albert A. Nofi, Marine Corps Book of Lists: A Definitive Compendium of Marine Corps Facts, Feats and Traditions (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1997); Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl, The U. S. Marines and Amphibious War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951); Joseph H. Alexander, Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995) and Alexander, Storm Landings: Forcible Seaborne Assaults in the Pacific War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996); S. E. Smith, ed., The United States Marine Corps in World War II (New York: Random House, 1969).

10. Fitness Reports of 10 Apr. 1944, RGBB/OMPF, NPR.

11. RGBB to JLB, 30 Jan. 1944. By nightfall on D-day Schmidt had set up his command post on the beach. See Heinl, Soldiers of the Sea , p. 423.

12. RGBB to JLB 5 Feb. 1944. This is confirmed by the writer's interview with MC correspondent Bill McCahill at his home in Arlington, VA, May 1999 as well as by photographs given to the writer.

13. RGBB to JLB, 9 FEB 1944. See also, for example, RGBB to JLB 9 FEB 1944, 16 FEB 1944.

14. For Rogers see Smith, United States Marine Corps , p. 572.

15. Instead of flat atolls the Marines now faced Saipan's 72 square miles of cave-riddled mountains, densely wooded ravines, and sugar cane fields defended by 30,000 well-armed, dug-in Japanese. See COL Joseph H. Alexander, USMC, "Saipan's Bloody Legacy," Leatherneck (June 1994): 12-13; Millet, Semper Fidelis , pp. 410-414.

16. RGBB to JLB, 25 Apr. 1944.

17. Simmons, United States Marines , p. 156; Moskin, Marine Corps Story , p. 557; Smith, United States Marine Corps , pp. 598-603.

18. Writer's questionnaire, George Leo Foster, Huntsville, NC. The bath story is corroborated by writer's questionnaire and interview with former PLT SGT Vincent Basile, Stoneham, MA, 21 Sept. 1999. "He [Broome] was up front;" adds CPL Clifford Gale Huehn, of Harris, IA, "wouldn't send men where he wouldn't go." COL Alfonso Constantine Adams of Albany, NY, remembered Broome as "a Marine's Marine respected by all." Unit Report 18 June, file A26-3, 24th Mar. Regt. Unit Reports, box 336, RG127, NA2. Also invaluable are the "Incidents, messages, orders, etc." found in file A26-4, box 336, which record messages sent among all the units of the regiment. See also box 91, Record of Ground Combat Units 22 - 25 Marines, and boxes 341, 342, 343 , 344, Geographic Files relating to Saipan and Tinian.

19. Writer's questionnaire, A. J. Langsdorf, St. Louis, MO. Langsdorf earned two Bronze Stars on Saipan.

20. Writer's questionnaire, Clifford G. Heuhn, Harris, IA. Typical of such reports was that from the 2d Battalion, 19 June noting "Numerous casualties from own arty and mortar fire." Incidents, Message, Orders, etc., file A26-4, 24th Mar. Regt., Unit R-1 Journal 15 June - 13 July '44, box 336, RG127, NA2.

21. Letter from SGT William O. Koontz to Mrs. Jane Broome, 28 March 1945.

22. GSGT to RGBB, 1 November 1944.

23. MAJ Carl W. Hoffman, Saipan: The Beginning of the End (Historical Division Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 1950), p. 239.

24. Hoffman, Saipan , p. 240.

25. R.A. Tenelly, "Major's Rescue," 27 September 1944. This is a typewritten account in the writer's possession bearing the identification "#312" and written by SSGT Dick Tenelly of Washington, DC, a Marine Corps combat correspondent (hereafter "Major's Rescue"). Tenelly's account, apparently, was based largely on information from GSGT William O. Koontz, who came on the scene after the action had begun. This account is corroborated by writer's interview with PFC Crane who was with MAJ Broome and CAPT Nelson and was also severely wounded. See Kathleen Broome Williams, "That Wasn't Bravery, Hell, I was Scared to Death: The Story of Marine Pfc. William A. Crane," Naval History 15, No. 5 (October 2001).

26. Report of Medical Survey, U.S. Naval Hospital Aiea Heights, T.H., 5 September 1944, and Report of Death, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Navy Department, 15 February 1945, RGBB/OMPF, NPR.

27. Tuttle, Daddy's Gone to War , p. 32.

28. Calvin L. Christman, ed., Lost in the Victory: Reflections of American War Orphans of World War II (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1998), p. 104.

 

Dr. Williams teaches at the Bronx Community College, City University of New York. She is the author of the upcoming book, Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists and U.S. Navy in World War II (2001) and Secret Weapon: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic (1996), both published by the Naval Institute Press. She holds a Ph.D. in military history from the City University of New York.

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