Looking back at the events of World War II through our 21st Century lens, it’s not hard to lose sight of what the war really was. Reading about it in history books, many people assume that the war played out in a series of set-piece battles where the Allied forces used overwhelming firepower to bludgeon the enemy into defeat. As a matter of fact, quite a few well known historians have made their livings promoting this idea. To my mind, this does a great disservice to the American fighting men of World War II.
The Marines of the Second World War are old now, very old; near the end of their lives. With canes, walkers, and wheelchairs they make their fragile way through the world. Most that still live are in their eighties. They are dying fast, like the ones did who fell on the Pacific islands 65 years ago and more.
The few remaining World War II Marines appear the same as old people anywhere. But, there are some subtle differences, if you know how to look. Many of them wear faded Marine Corps tattoos on their arms, souvenirs of forgotten liberties in Dago, Honolulu, or Jacksonville. They carry the old scars, hard earned in desperate battles at places such as Edson’s Ridge, the Meatgrinder, and Sugar Loaf. Inside, there are other scars that cannot be seen, memories and thoughts that ache in the night.
When they were just teenagers, the Marines of World War II marched proudly across the parade decks at Parris Island, Montford Point and San Diego. They hitch-hiked to Washington DC, and Los Angeles, and spent the weekends with their buddies in slop chutes. They lived in tent cities and breathed the dust of camps with names like Elliot, Pendleton, Maui and Tarawa. They chased girls in Wellington and Melbourne, lived as fast as they could, and wrote letters to their folks back home.
As they lived their lives in wartime, combat Marines confronted a hard reality each day. No matter whether they were in battle, or in a camp somewhere in the rear area, Marines had to face not knowing how long they had to live. Men who had not yet been in combat may have been able to look at their future without thinking of their own death or dismemberment. But anyone who had already experienced battle couldn't have looked at the future with much certainty.
They should have been building jalopies, going to college ball games, and taking their high school sweethearts to the prom. Instead, they learned to hike, to shoot, and to maneuver. No matter where they were, the Marines knew they would soon shove off for the next camp, the next staging area, the next beachhead. There was no rotation plan, no shortcut back to the states. There were only two ways home - the end of the war, or the million dollar wound. There was a third way, but Marines didn’t dwell on that; they couldn’t.
Marines were masters at utilizing every weapon in the inventory to blast, blow or burn the enemy out of his defenses. There was no other choice. In a world with no option but victory, American firepower was often the difference that helped crush the Japanese. But even in those instances where the fighting was desperate and man-to-man, such as on Edson’s Ridge in 1942, Tarawa in 1943, and Iwo Jima in 1945, it wasn’t the Marines’ arsenal that carried the day. It was the young Americans themselves.
No matter how skilled a Marine might be with his equipment and weapons, the next artillery round might have his number on it. His amphibian tractor could be the next to take a direct hit. The Japanese could have that patch of ground zeroed in and interlocked with machine guns. The possibilities were endless. The Marines knew something about death - too much. In their youth, they were already familiar with cemeteries. Each time they returned to their camps after an operation meant empty bunks, buddies who were just gone, and holes in the platoon to be filled with replacements. The phrase “kill or be killed” was more than empty words to them. It was life and death.
With the world in conflict, the Marines saw, smelled and tasted war on the most intensely personal level. They stood on the rails of darkened troopships and wondered how long they had to live. They looked at their buddies standing in formations and asked themselves, “I wonder who isn’t gonna make it?” They saw too many of their best friends die in the most horrible ways possible.
In many ways, the wartime Marine Corps was the child of brilliant officers in the pre-war period who developed a firm basis of amphibious doctrine. There was trial and error in the pressure cooker of war, but few were the accidents that led to victory. That the Corps grew so large, and yet maintained its fighting effectiveness throughout the war, was a testament to the firm foundation of courage, sacrifice and commitment that made up the fighting Marine ethos.
In the final tally, the United States Marine Corps was victorious not because of its weapons, but because of its men. In every last battle of the Pacific war, Marines stood on the razor’s edge between victory and defeat. Struggling each day to survive, American men wearing the eagle, globe and anchor accomplished their mission. Many of them died in battle. More were wounded. Some succumbed to the horrors of combat. Others were injured or killed by accidents. All of them who served were affected in ways large and small by their experience of war.
And so the World War II Gyrene marched into history. Never again will an amphibious force ride at anchor off a balmy Pacific island in the intricate dance of a D-Day landing. The order “Land the landing force” will never again echo across the early morning stillness as the sun rises in the east. Men will never again stand in their foxholes against the rising tide of a nighttime banzai charge. And thank God, Marines will never again break ground on a plot of earth to bury their buddies killed by the Japanese.
In the not too distant future, we’ll hear on television about the death of the last Marine from that time. That will be a sad day when that World War II veteran shoves off for the far shore. With him will go the living memory of that war so long ago, and yet so close in time. Of course, we’ll still study the war and scholars will continue to write books and articles. But there’s no doubt we’ll be poorer for losing the chance to talk to men who looked war in the eye during the 1940s.
But we have a while yet. There are still men walking among us who served with Lou Diamond and Chesty Puller. A few who survive know the story of Wake Island and the fall of the Philippines from first hand experience. Others remember with utter clarity wading across the reef at Tarawa. And some recall the day when a flag went up on an island called Iwo Jima. To the World War II Marines, places that most Americans have never even known about will always be unforgettable. The old Gyrenes may not remember the exact dates and times, but each of them carries an indelible record of war in his heart and in his soul. And all recall the courage and sacrifice of their buddies. Not a one will say, “I was a hero,” but every one of them will tell you at the drop of a hat, “I served with a great bunch of guys and they were heroes.”
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