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The World War II land battle for Okinawa involved more than 183,000 U.S. troops. In one of the bloodiest battles of the war, almost 40,000 became casualties. The author was in the thick of it all.
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completely moonless night was about to end. A slight lightening of the eastern horizon heralded the \ dawn. After another night in a foxhole carved into the clay of yet another Okinawan hill, the arrival of ~ ' the new day was most welcome. Following most nights on Okinawa, there were those who would
■ never have the privilege of welcoming another morning. Little did I know this particular day would set off a chain of events that would leave deep and permanent marks on my life.
Having landed on Okinawa on 1 April 1945, we were now a week into our third month on the island. Our ranks had been reduced daily until they were thin to the point of being threadbare. Those of us who were still slugging it out were worn down to scarecrows, but we continued to inch ahead, albeit at a high price. A certain numbness sets in after a time, and you simply do the things you have been trained to do.
On this particular morning I was atop a small hill about 75 yards in front of our line. The line extended along a drainage ditch across one end of a Japanese airfield, then around the base of the hill on which I was dug in whh about ten other men. A lieutenant and I had scouted this hill late in the afternoon of the previous day with lhe thought of setting up an outpost for the night. A Japanese machine gunner had chased us off, but I returned ufter dark with the other, men and dug in. I had telephone contact with our company command post at the base °f the hill so they could be alerted and advised of any impending problems from the Japanese. From the bottom °f the hill, looking up, our company was in a very vulnerable position—hence the outpost.
The night had been totally uneventful for a change, and as daylight edged closer, I looked forward to having a Slnoke, warming up some C-rations, and stretching my legs a bit. After a careful look at the surrounding brush near my foxhole, I sat up and took a better look. 1 playfully tossed some chunks of dirt into a few of the other foxholes. A short while later, three or four fellows got out of their holes and were crouching or kneeling close in front of me. Meanwhile, I was happily opening my C-rations. We were not in the middle of a war; that was going on some place else, we thought.
as possible to keep the blood from running down my
^u’-d not help being aware, however, that the odds against
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' j , °y the time I reached the command post, I was as wob- ,, y as a sick kitten. My legs would barely support me. I / [ a lost so much blood that I suspect I was very close to S jibing it in. Two people grabbed me and placed me face
I never heard the machine gun, since the bullets traveled Wuch faster than the sound of the gun. But I was acutely aware that I had been hit, and hit hard. I have often described the sensation as something like being walloped on the head with a large and somewhat soft rubber mallet. My vision was a rapidly vibrating blur, and I was totally unable to move. As my vision started to clear, I could see blood literally squirting in several directions. I very shortly realized that I no longer had a lower jaw, and a portion of my tongue had gone with it. This was only the beginning °f an excruciatingly long and frustrating nightmare.
Though I was sure I would be dead in a few minutes, 0r maybe only seconds, I felt no fear whatsoever. I had no regrets for anything in my past. There was a momentary feeling of sadness for my parents, who would have to be f°ld that I had been killed in action. They had been advised °f my two previous wounds, but 1 had never written them °n the subject. This would be the last one.
Suddenly, all of my feeling came back like a strong elec- jrfe shock. During the time I could not move, my mind had fe'en totally clear, and it had occurred to me that I didn’t have a prayer, because the closest blood plasma was at fee base of the hill in the company command post. I felt a ray of hope if only I could get down there fast enough.
Since I could not talk, there was no way to tell anyone feat I knew what I was doing and where I was going. As feaped out of the foxhole and took off, someone grabbed fee> but I got loose and kept going. I ran leaning over as
feroat and strangling me. At the same time, I was half chokIng myself with one hand in an attempt at least partly to stanch the flow of blood. All in all, it was a very clumsy e '°rt, but I was completely out of options. I could feel my- Se'f losing strength rapidly, but I was determined to get to ”ere I needed to go. This frame of mind was, I think, Partly because of some excellent training and consider- e battlefield experience. We were trained not to worry rrmch about the odds; just do what had to be done. I
Were mounting by the second.
on a stretcher. Our stretchers had such short legs t J was practically on the ground. This created quite a °blem, since the blood was clotting and piling up on the T()und at the end of the stretcher and I was too weak to Ljd ,T1y face up out of it. I could turn my head, but soon Sas didn’t solve the problem, either. A corpsman finally what was happening and grabbed me by the hair, lifted bis f3Ce °Ut ^ blood, and swept the pile away with
°ot. He repeated this process at least two times that I , 3a remember.
of. rangely enough, I was still pumping out blood. Some feat 011181 *lave '3een P'asma’ because I can’t believe I had far ITlUch blood in me. The corpsman had applied several b|a^e Pressure bandages and tied them on top of my head. lhe i?1a Was 8°'nS 'nt0 both legs down near my ankles. Now L <lttfe was on to get my blood pressure back up. We ob \ Us y won that battle, or I would not be writing this. I had total confidence that I was going to make it, now that I had managed to get to some help. I wasn’t about to give up.
I am not sure how long it took, but it seemed no more than an hour before I was up on my elbows looking around. Sometime later, three fellows got me and the stretcher into the drainage ditch running across the end of the airfield and proceeded to drag me down the ditch into a wooded area and a battalion aid station. Somewhere along the way. I slipped off the stretcher and into about two feet of water. I surely would have drowned had they not retrieved me promptly, because I was still too weak to stand up and navigate on my own.
Prior to arriving at the aid station, I had been given two shots of morphine, but only one had been marked on the tag the corpsman had attached to a button on my jacket. Not being able to talk, I pointed to the tag and held up two fingers to tell the doctor that I had already had two shots of morphine. He patted me an the head and said. “We’ll take good care of you son.” So I got another shot. In a few minutes I couldn’t even feel the stretcher under me.
Later, that same stretcher was strapped onto a pallet in the bottom of an amphibious tractor, and we headed off to the hospital ship. At least that’s where I thought we were going. But we made a detour that took a few hours and left me with memories of scenes that should occur only in horror movies.
Instead of going to the hospital ship, I was taken out to a tank landing ship (LST), which I soon realized was for those who were not expected to pull through. The amphibious tractor pulled up alongside the LST, and the whole palletload of us—probably eight or ten people—swung up into the air and came down through an open hatch to the tank deck below.
While we were still up in the air, I could hear all sorts of strange noises coming out of the hold. As we were lowered carefully, I could see why there was so much noise. Row upon row of canvas cots had people on them with severe, hideous wounds—legs missing, arms missing, insides hanging out, and just about every other gruesome wound anyone can imagine. The men were screaming, crying, praying, whimpering, and talking to their parents. The corpsmen had stripped to their skivvies and shoes and were sloshing through two inches of bloody slop on the deck. The stench was unbelievable.
Some fierce battles must have been going on somewhere, because the wounded kept pouring in. And this ship was by no means getting them all. A large pile of corpses had accumulated against the bulkhead at the rear of the tank deck, because the wounded were coming in much faster than they could send the dead back to the beach for burial. I was on a cot very near the pile of cadavers and watched it grow as new ones were added.
At this point I realized that I was not on any kind of hospital ship. I saw only one doctor, and I did not see anyone being taken to or brought back from what might have been an operating room. And many there certainly had great need of emergency surgery. Therefore, this was simply a place for people to die. I decided I wasn’t going to die that day or any time soon. My strength was coming back rapidly, but I learned quickly I wasn't nearly as strong as I thought.
I reasoned that if I went to the doctor and pointed to my-
No Interpreter Needed
play ese j notv
eration. Frankly, 1 was so emotional! - ••
up to that time, I had served in a M-
Of the many memories that have lingered through the years since World War II, one indelibly stamped on my mind is an experience I had while serving with the Marines during the fighting on the island of Okinawa in April 1945.
A few days after the landing, we were cautiously patrolling northward on the island. I was sure I heard a voice in a small shack about 25 yards off the dirt road along which we were moving. Since the head of our column was well past the building, I was puzzled to think that people were still present. It was our practice to send civilians to the rear, where they were not apt to get caught in the middle of a fire fight. I passed word for the column to hold up while we could check the shack for occupants.
As I approached the small building, I was positive I heard voices coming from within, and they did not sound like male voices. At least they did not sound like men. I cautiously peered in through a small window and saw about a dozen people. They were mostly women, with two old men and a boy perhaps ten years of age. I walked around to the only door, opened it, and stepped inside. Most of the people were squatting on the dirt floor, rocking slowly to and fro while quietly moaning and crying. My appearance served to increase the volume of the wailing and the tempo of the rocking.
We had memorized—but I have long since forgotten—several phrases in Japanese to use in situations such as this. We learned to say “Go this way,” “We won’t hurt you,” and “We will give you food,” et cetera. I tried every phrase I knew, used sign language, trying to look and act friendly. Even though I leaned my rifle against the wall (but within close reach), these people were disinclined to accept any friendly overtures from a filthy Marine who obviously had come to their island home to kill them. They simply took for granted that we would kill Japanese civilians just the same as if they were soldiers. This assumption reflected a lack of understanding of a very significant difference between the Japanese and the Americans. I need not expand on this point, because we have ample firsthand reports of how Japanese troops dealt with captives—civilian and otherwise.
After much cajoling, hand-waving, and pointing, I was about to call for help and drag them out. Then I noticed that the young boy had pretty well stopped crying and was giving me a steady and, typically, inscrutable stare. It appeared that he was wondering if just maybe I was really on the level. At that point I directed all of my attention at him, indicating as best I could that he should get those people out of there before the shooting started. And well it could have, because we encountered resistance a short time later.
One of the crops grown on Okinawa was sugarcane. People commonly gnawed on chunks of brown sugar that had been pressed into a fairly hard cake. The brown sugar may sound like a wide digression here, but it actually became the centerpiece.
Now, back to my problem. I made what I felt had to be my last appeal1 the lad to get the people moving, the I waited for his reaction. He very slowly rose to his feet and dug into i grimy little cloth bag he had been clutching. As I watched, wondering what he might be up to, he brought out a fair-sized piece of brown-suga( cake. He hesitantly took a few steps toward me and extended his arm, offering the sugar to me.
What happened at this point is the reason I don’t try to tell people this story. I can sit quietly and write abo1 it, but the experience was so deeply moving that, even after all these years, I don’t trust myself to relate incident without tears.
With tears in his eyes and his hafl‘ shaking so that he could just barely hold on to the sugar, the frightened jjre little boy stood there with this peace offering thrust before me. It was m) j® lo move. For the briefest time I though: of how dirty and unsanitary the sug3 St must be, but that was a minor cons^. .u§ consumed by the situation that I did nothing.
Throughout most of the Pacific f.
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rine rifle company and had seen mj ^ share of what that entails. I had vis- U|
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self, then to the big hole through which I had entered this place, he would understand that I should be taken to the hospital ship for evacuation. Frankly, the thought of going back to the beach in a bag for burial never entered my mind. Why, I don’t know, because I am sure I was much nearer to that possibility than I realized at the time. I really do not believe it was just a matter of not wanting to die, but some inner something was telling me it just was not about to happen. Not today.
Naturally, I did not even get onto my feet before I fell flat into the slop on the deck. In trying to get up and back onto the cot, I succeeded only in turning the cot over on me. I decided the smart thing was just to lie there and wait for someone to find me and put me back where I * longed, on the cot. I could do little else.
A corpsman finally found me and thought I was one the departed who had rolled off the pile. He grabbed1 by the ankle to drag me and discovered that I was hoo! onto a bottle of plasma. My appearance had to be fri£ ening. No one had had time to clean off my own bid and at the time I was covered by a lot more from others the heap, if they were still around at all. They got1 pa back onto my cot and left me. Those people were so b11 they must have been numb from fatigue as well as ffl q^ the hopeless task they were performing. !h0,
From time to time a corpsman would come around3
te itlte^ a number of pretty beaches and P'ayed hide-and-seek with the Japanese in lot of jungle. All of that ^withstanding, I was in no way pre- ed Pared for this experience. At that mo- :ace ?ent’ the terrified and trembling little my e|tow standing before me was not ugh1 aPanese, was not an enemy. He was ;ug3lJUst an unfortunate little human being nsid ^aaght in the middle of a war about mall ,waich he knew and understood little, did poking back, I am not totally sure I nJerstood it, either.
c w r ^kat courage it must have taken 1 pf ^'s scareci little boy to try to my t.a*e a deal with me, a man whom he vis- °ught surely had come here to kill him. He was the only child in the group, but he was smart enough to realize that they needed a leader. He made his decision to stand up and be counted. At the same time I was feeling such compassion for the boy, I was also admiring his grit. He had a bunch of it.
I finally snapped out of my trance and realized that I had to do something. It was really quite simple. I reached out for the sugar, took a good chomp of it, and handed it back. The boy did not want it. I was to have it all. With some difficulty, I was able to persuade him to take the remainder of the sugar, as well as a “D” bar I had in my pocket. (The “D” bar was G.I. chocolate of a hardness similar to concrete. It was tasty, though, and very nourishing.)
Once we had completed our exchange of gifts, the expression on the youngster’s face changed startlingly. He grinned from ear to ear, gave me one very nice bow, and became an absolute whirlwind of activity. He began tugging at the women and old men and pointing at the door. When they did not move with quite the speed he thought necessary, he resorted to a liberal application of the toe of his shoe. Certainly no interpreter was needed; his instructions were clear. Finally, they were all out of the shack and heading down the trail behind us in the opposite direction. Just before the little group went around a bend, the boy turned and raised his hand to me in what I felt was a rather shy goodbye. He smiled, then turned back and went down the trail out of my sight.
During all the years since that experience I have remembered clearly the face of my little Japanese friend and have often wondered what happened in his life. I was 20 years old at that time, and as I grew older and had children of my own, the impact of our meeting grew. I especially thought of him as I was raising my own sons.
The courage he displayed when the chips were down encourages me to think that he grew into a fine, successful man. At least it pleases me to think so.
From time to time I still wish him well.
R. Lee Russell
0 nty blood pressure. Some time in the late afternoon e checked my pressure three times, then left. He returned Th °St *mmediately with the doctor, who also checked me. ey removed me shortly thereafter and sent me over to iooj hospital ship. That part of my nightmare was over. After frili re than two years of Pacific combat—hitting beach after ch, and having been wounded twice before—I was fi-
J starting the long voyage home. r°t' p rorn the moment that I recovered from the initial imp °h the bullets, I was totally aware of the extent and quuJ^e °f my wound. I knew the repair job could not be tj0ck or easy, but somehow I felt somebody would know ; 1° put me back together. The important thing was that
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my war was over. I had survived.
The hospital ship lay offshore for several more days before leaving for Saipan. I am not sure how many days it took us to get there, but when we arrived, both of my eyes were swollen tightly shut, and I was enduring pain completely beyond imagination. Morphine barely took the edge off. Long before I was supposed to have another shot, the agony was excruciating. Finally, they stopped waiting four hours between shots, and I just sort of floated in limbo most of the time.
When we arrived at Saipan in late June, I went in an ambulance with some other patients for delivery to an Army hospital, the 39th General. It was beastly hot and sticky; it
ltary misfortunes. My attitude was, “I’ve taken my lumps,
> fix me. I have things to do and I’m in a hurry!” I guess i have *--j - - —■ — i=*-
^minded me of the stifling heat on neighboring Guam, when we hit the beach there almost a year earlier. The inside of that ambulance was like an oven.
For whatever reason, 1 was the last one out of the ambulance. After the others had been gone for what seemed like ages, and no one seemed to be coming to get me, I lost my patience. Maybe it was the heat or maybe the pain or having been pumped full of morphine for at least two weeks, ■'daybe it was all of these. I crawled out, thinking that surely someone would see me walking around and take me inside. Anyway, it had to be cooler outside.
The results were not good at all. I fell flat on my tail on the gravel road and couldn’t get up. The next best thing, I thought, was to crawl. I was almost too weak to do that, and could not see where I was going, anyway. Instead of Cr<twling down the road, I became totally disoriented, crawled into the drainage ditch beside the road, and ended UP in some weeds on the other side of the ditch. At this Point I ran out of strength and decided just to lie there until Someone bothered to find me.
To be just instantly reduced from a strong, vigorous Voung man to a helpless nothing was absolutely and completely frustrating. But I just could not give up and admit was down for the count. This simply could not be hapPening to me. When the frustration got too great. I filled VVlth a seething anger and wanted to fight, but there was nothing to fight. This was probably good for me and kept 1^ from sinking into a state of apathy and defeat. Had I et that state of mind set in, I might have become one of
Professional veterans we hear whining about their mil-
e had that attitude most of my life.
After three months in the hospital on Saipan, I flew back ^ 'be States and spent about two months at Mare Island aval Hospital. From there, I went to the naval hospital at j^reat Lakes for 18 months, to Hines General Hospital in es Plaines, Illinois, for about nine months, and then I spent tJee months in the V.A. hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Al- ^gether, I ,spent almost three years in hospitals. It took, * 1 recall, 14 operations to transplant pieces of bone from - hips to build me a lower jaw and to implant cartilage j here needed.
Although I had surgery to repair my tongue, it was still paralyzed. It took a lot of time and effort just to get it to move slightly. I spent almost every minute of every day concentrating on making my tongue move. Finally, after many months of effort, I was able to move it enough to start making sounds. It really took about another year for me to talk—not especially well, but I could talk. From that point, it was a lot easier. All I had to do then was learn to form the sounds more precisely. I was determined not only to talk, but also to function normally in all respects. I wanted to go on to college, and that is exactly how it all worked out. Had I not been so determined, the end of this story probably would be more dismal.
I wish to make some comments to wrap up this yarn. First, I am an inveterate flag waver. Sometimes, when I see our flag or hear our national anthem, I get goose bumps or tears come to my eyes. I have seen many young men die for their country. Our American society may not be perfect, but it certainly is better than any other I know. We should cherish the freedom we have and always be ready to defend it to our last breath and last drop of blood.
Though I wrote this in the first person, I found myself completely detached from what was happening. I was no longer that first person. I found myself feeling a great deal of compassion for that young man fighting so hard for his life. Though the odds against him seemed insurmountable, he would not just give up and throw in the towel. I found I was really pulling for him, even though I already knew the outcome. It was confusing to sit there admiring this fellow’s guts and determination, while realizing at the same time that I already knew him pretty well. I got to know him a lot better.
I have to applaud a statement credited to Sam Rayburn, the well-known Texas Senator. He said, “Freedom is similar to an insurance policy in that you don’t just pay for it once and then have it from there on. You have to keep paying the premiums.” I have never regretted shedding blood for my country. It was simply my turn to help pay the premiums.
Mr. Russell served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 25 November 1942 to 2 January 1947. All his overseas duty was in the same rifle company: first, K Company of the 3d Raider Battalion, then later with a company of the 3d Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division. He participated in the invasions of Bougainville, Guam, and Okinawa.
/; U.S. AIRCRAFT CARRIER
BETHLEHEM STEEL CORPORATION
26 SEP. 1942
17 MAR. 1943 J
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