This is the 3rd and final post in a series of guest-posts, written by my dad H.W. Davis, about my grandfather and his experience serving with the First Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. My grandfather Herbert William Davis Sr. had some incredible war stories, and some of his experiences were nearly unbelievable, like they were straight out of a movie. His time in Okinawa was no different. I knew that these stories must be told, and since my grandfather “Poppy” passed away in 2007, I asked my dad to share some of Poppy’s stories before they are forgotten. If you want to read more of my dad’s talented writing, download his 1st published book. Seeking Diana by H.W. Davis is available for Kindle by clicking here. Hope you enjoy these stories about Poppy! -Stephen
My Father’s World War II Memories From the South Pacific: Part III – Okinawa
by H.W. Davis
General MacArthur and Admiral Halsey were directing the Pacific war plan of taking or re-taking island by island. Each provided the needed critical requirements of protecting the shipping lanes and securing needed airfields. The end objective was the eventual invasion of Japan. Two critical battles remained in that process: Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
Dad’s First Marine Division headed to Okinawa. Located in the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa was a rocky, hilly island pockmarked with dozens of caves in which the Japanese had entrenched themselves.
DAD’S OKINAWA LANDING MIRACLE
The battle lasted from April to June, and it was one of the bloodiest of the war. U.S. ships pulverized much of the island with their big guns as well as air raids. Three Marine divisions and the U.S. 10th Army had to make a series of bloody beach landings. During Dad’s landing, something seemingly miraculous occurred. Because of heavy Japanese fire, many of the naval landing craft did not pull as close to shore as they should have. Young marines loaded with nearly 100 pounds of gear and ammo struggled to make it to shore through the water and withering Japanese machine gun fire. At only 5’5”, Dad was too short for this location. He immediately sank in water over his head. He struggled in vain to remove his pack. Just as he thought he was about to drown, a strong arm reached down into the water and pulled him to the surface. Gasping for breath, he saw one lone sailor on the craft. Dozens of other Marines drowned that day. The sailor maneuvered the craft closer to shore. Dad and the remaining Marines on the boat stepped into the water. Dad told me that he had to push aside the floating bodies of dead marines who either had drowned or been cut down by gunfire.
Finally shore, his group had to make its way across the hot sand to gain a toehold on the beach. Eventually enough Marines made it ashore to secure the beach. They realized they were in for a brutal battle. The Japanese military was now in desperate, straits. Many American vessels were damaged or sunk by Kamikaze pilots on suicide flights. Their military was given orders not to surrender. A massive Japanese destroyer, Yamato, attempted to beach itself so it could turn its huge guns on the Marines. Fortunately, it was sunk before it could do so.
The casualties mounted on both sides. Dad witnessed soldiers and frightened locals jumping off cliffs to their deaths. The Japanese Army impressed teenage boys and girls from the local population. They used the locals as human shields and forced them to perform manual labor as well as serve at gunpoint in battle. The locals were caught in the middle. An estimated 149,000 of the pre-battle population of 300,000 died. Many Japanese entrenched themselves in the caves that honeycombed the island. Dad told of Marines who used tank flame throwers and hand held flame throwers on these caves. Many burned to death in the caves rather than surrender. Over 70,000 Japanese soldiers died plus 7,000 sailors. At the Okinawa Japanese Naval Base roughly 4,000 sailors committed suicide. Some 7,000 Japanese survivors finally surrendered. There were 82,000 American casualties including over 14,000 dead. It was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater.
SHOT BY SNIPER FIRE
Earlier I mentioned that being a scout probably had prolonged dad’s life. As casualties mounted, the scouts were pressed into front line duty. The carnage was horrific. One day Dad took out a patrol of 13 men as they battled for Sugar Loaf Hill. He returned with two who were not dead or wounded. Dad felt like the proverbial cat that was running out of lives. Although only 21, he was considered to be a grizzled veteran. New soldiers and Marines rotated in daily. Their inexperience helped contribute to a terrible attrition rate. Day after day he witnessed this and rarely even knew the names of the new men around him.
One day Dad’s luck finally ran out. His unit was suffering high casualties from two Japanese snipers. A brand new second lieutenant who had only been in battle for a couple of days asked my father the sources of the casualties. Dad tried to explain it was from the snipers and pointed out the general direction. The young officer insisted that Dad be more specific and ordered him to stand up and point. Against better sense Dad stood, and one of the snipers made him the newest casualty. A bullet that was close to three inches long penetrated his right shoulder and nearly exited his back.
STRAPPED TO THE WING OF A PLANE
At this point, two Marine tanks rolled between the snipers and the wounded Marines. Because Dad was still mobile, he crouched beside one of the tanks and moved several hundred yards to a safer location. By this time he had lost a lot of blood and was feeling faint. The medics were overwhelmed by the larger number of casualties and essentially had to do a field triage. As badly as Dad was wounded, there were many more in worse shape who probably did not survive. The medics tried to stabilize the wounded. The Marines lacked the helicopters so prevalent by the War in Vietnam. Small planes meant for observation were used to ferry some of the wounded. A more badly wounded Marine was placed inside one plane. Dad and another casualty were secured on top of the wings of a small plane. The plane struggled but made it airborne. Dad said he could sense Japanese bullets whizzing by the small plane, but his guardian angel was still on duty.
Dad’s war was finished. A surgeon said the bullet missed his spine by one quarter inch. It seems a miracle that his crouching behind a tank and a bumpy small plane ride didn’t result in death or paralysis. The wound caused muscle damage but otherwise was fairly clean. About the time he was to be released from a rear area hospital, Dad developed malaria. In the end he was greatly weakened and down to only 109 pounds. Somehow, though, the tough inner city kid had survived. While he recuperated, his unit was shipped to China to mop up Japanese resistance there.
Dad said he later pondered President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. War critics have debated its necessity. Dad told me that he ultimately decided Truman was correct. The military estimated that the U.S. would have suffered a million casualties invading mainland Japan plus there would have been several million Japanese deaths. The First Marine Division would have been part of such an invasion. I thought about Truman’s decision as I listened to the 2016 Republican and Democratic Conventions on the television. I wonder if the current president or either of the candidates could have made that difficult decision.
Although the Japanese surrendered in August of 1945, Dad did not muster out until December. Three long years had passed since he had been home. During that time, his kid brother Frank had become a veteran of the Navy. One sister moved to California and became one of the Rosie the Riveter women in an aircraft plant. Dad and Frank had become high school dropouts because they believed the stakes were too high to wait. After their discharges they would pass the GED and go back to school, as did so many GI’s of that era.
For his service and sacrifice Dad received both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
In 1946 Dad met my mother, Reva Davis. She had been a nurse and a lieutenant in the Army Air Force. I think it bugged dad that his wife had outranked him in the war! He was an acting sergeant at the end. They used the G.I. Bill to buy their first home. They would raise a family and join the burgeoning middle class in the 1950’s.
I point out the middle class because like many of the Greatest Generation, they paid dearly for that status. They had survived the Great Depression. Dad and twelve million other Americans went to war. Some such as the survivors of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines had been gone from the U.S. for more than four years, mostly as ill-treated POW’s. Many middle class families probably struggled to live on the meager military salaries their bread winners received. As a nation, our relatives faced rationing. In 1974 my wife Sherry and I rented her grandmother’s home. In the backyard I found the area where they had a victory garden. In the attic I found chicken coops and 30 year old chicken feathers. They had raised chickens in the attic for the eggs. I truly believe that our nation emerged stronger as a result of the challenges and deprivations of that era. I hope that if our generation or our children and grandchildren ever have to face such challenges, that we, too, will rise to the challenge as did my parents’ generation.