This guest post by Colin Wilson is part of a new series discussing research of World War II.
Let’s take a journey through time together.
It’s November 20, 1943. You’re 19 years old and a replacement in a Marine Corps rifle squad headed towards Red Beach 2 and a place called Betio. Not much more than a year ago you sat in school surrounded by friends and never would have been able to find this place on a map. Today you’re surrounded by strangers and not sure if you’ll see sunrise tomorrow.
The craft that carries you closer to your ultimate fate is an LCVP or “Higgins Boat” to the folks back home. They’re a marvelous invention but not for Betio because they can’t cross the beach in the shallow low tide. Before you know it the craft comes to an abrupt halt. Your mind races. “Wait we can’t possibly be ashore yet,” you think to yourself. Before you have time to ponder your ever shortening lifespan the Coxswain yells out, “end of the road Gyrenes! This is as far as I go!” With a splash the bow ramp settles in the water and suddenly you’re faced with reality and the chaos that engulfs you. Peering ahead the world is afire and you know you’re expected to be in the middle of it. You’re still over 100 yards from the beach. “How will I ever make it that far? No one can survive this!” Every inch of the beach and lagoon have been pre-sighted with Nambu machine guns that have a cyclic rate of 700 rounds per minute. Don’t kid yourself either. The Japanese have you covered with mortars and artillery too. You inch forward not knowing how you’ve made it this far. At some point you realize that you made it to the seawall. You turn to congratulate the Marine next to you. You made it. You both defied the odds and made it but this is just the start and with that a snipers bullet strikes him just below his left eye. He doesn’t make a sound, just slips softly to the sand and he seemingly rests his head against the seawall. Damn it, what was his name? Was it Webb or Webster? Or was Webb just a nickname short for Webster? Who the hell knows now. He was from second squad and now he’s dead. You’ve been in combat less than two hours and you’re already a changed man. You’re changed forever. Good or bad that is yet to be determined.
Scenes like this play out in dozens of amphibious assaults around the world for thousands of warriors. Today we call those warriors “The Greatest Generation.” They fought what’s known universally as “The Good War” or simply “The War” as I knew it growing up. No other conflict had mattered so much to their generation or for that matter to those generations that would follow. We couldn’t help but admire them for their courage and devotion to duty. What I ask today is that we take a step back from our admiration and analyze the brutal reality of why our ancestral research can be so difficult.
Recently Jennifer Holik and I discussed why it is that the Graves Registration Service was not always able to properly identify and properly bury the remains of our loved ones. The reasons are as diverse as the environments in which World War Two was fought. My intention is to try and explain some of these reasons from my own perspective as a combat veteran.
In my introduction I asked that you mentally place yourself in a Higgins Boat approaching Red Beach Two at Betio. In those opening hours of what would be a three day operation the tactical situation is fluid and to be honest uncertain. Those Marines who headed to the beach aboard LCVP’s that day were faced with the fact that they were unable to reach the relative safety of the seawall immediately. The LCVP had a draft of four feet when fully loaded. Projections for the tide at Betio at 0900 on November 20, 1943 were five feet. When landing craft arrived they found the tide at three to four feet. Many of those men cut down by mortar and artillery fire here were left to the mercy of the tide or the weight of their equipment. A similar fate awaited the Marines whom immediately reached the seawall however. Although the amtrac’s that carried them offered some semblance of armored protection as well as offensive machine gun fire they were not yet equipped with loading ramps. These LVT-1 and LVT-2 type vehicles required the Marines to debark over the sides of the craft. It meant an immediate death sentence for many. The ultimate goal was to drive inland and it was a matter of necessity not choice. This meant that the gathering amount of bodies accumulating ashore was not of the utmost importance in those early hours. Remember that this was not out a lack of caring or respect. It is simply a fact of life and ultimately death at war.
Unfortunately what I have just described is one of the tidier aspects of what we need to analyze in our realm. War as I have seen personally is a tragic, disgusting, business. There are times when a warrior is killed in battle and on the outside it may be nearly impossible for the family to see what fell their loved one. On the other hand there are times when all that is left is a memory for lack of a better word. The Greatest Generation faced lethal odds in their battles but the tools of the trade have only become more lethal as years have passed.
In the European Theater of Operations (ETO,) the Germans made lethal use of the 88mm artillery piece. This gun was originally designed for anti aircraft use but was deemed effective against vehicles and troops on the ground as well. The muzzle velocity of this weapon was so great that typically the shell exploded among its prey before the report of the gun was ever heard. A direct hit from an 88mm shell was enough to leave behind no trace of the man on the receiving end. Often in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge the men dug in and covered their position with logs, branches, and pine needles. With tree burst fire from the 88 every tree was turned into thousands of wooden projectiles and many men were buried alive never to be found.
The Axis or Pacific Theater of Operations, arsenal was virtually endless. Flamethrowers, machine guns of every caliber, mortars and field artillery all could spell instant death in ways that lay people can’t imagine. A four round burst from an enemy machine gun is often enough to separate torso from legs and make identification virtually impossible. It’s instances like this that force today’s warrior to label each boot, his trousers, his blouse, and even his helmet with his name and blood type.
Of course there are also the truths of battle that are known only to the warrior. Perhaps his aircraft was lost in a storm or too badly damaged to return all the way to a friendly airfield, or maybe he got separated from his unit in the jungle, or forest in the fog and snow. Sadly a classmate of my grandparents was never recovered during the Battle of the Bulge. When Sergeant Homer Hall learned that his company weapons platoon had left behind a valuable and much needed mortar and baseplate, he took it upon himself to go back for it. Late morning January 1, 1945 near Bitche, France he set off never to return. In speaking recently with surviving members his of Company D 399th Infantry Regiment I learned that Hall was admired throughout the company for his leadership and devotion to duty. No one was surprised that he went of his own accord to make sure that the mortar didn’t fall into enemy hands. Unfortunately we’ll never know his fate though. Perhaps he was discovered by an advancing German patrol. Perhaps he was killed by artillery fire from either side during the German counter attack. No body for his family to bury. No ultimate closure. Just a void left where a loved one had once been.
The technicalities and the possibilities are endless but we must remember one thing. The men and women whose task it was to give proper burial to our warriors did the very best that they could in the time allowed and in the most horrific conditions that one can imagine. Typically those serving in the Graves Registration Service who were tasked with burial and collection were working as much against time and elements as they were a lack of proper procedure and training.
In speaking with my grandfather about his combat service in the Pacific I learned the stark reality of what would come of the dead
overseas. After moving off of the front line on Peleliu he was shocked to find a high school friend lying atop the “dead pile” as he called it. Pfc. Victor Case had been killed while destroying a Japanese gun emplacement single handedly. His action earned him the Navy Cross. Little did either of them know at the time they had been only a few hundred yards apart when Victor was killed. After his body was brought to the beach he was placed in a pile with other dead Marines awaiting burial. These bodies laid in the sweltering hot sun of the Central Pacific for hours before being further identified, processed by which ever command was in charge and subsequently buried. The Japanese dead were simply buried en-mass in either a shell hole or ditch dug by bulldozer. To many people today, this all may seem quite uncivilized. The simple fact is however, without the ability to preserve the bodies above ground properly it was better for everyone that they be buried wherever as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of disease.
Fortunately on the modern battlefield it is unlikely that subsequent generations will experience the sometimes endless difficulty in records research that we have come to know as normal. But maybe those who come after us will find excuses of crashed hard drives instead of the “Great Fire of ’73.”
About Colin Wilson
Colin graduated from William Penn University in 2001 with a BA in Secondary Education with an American History and Political Science emphasis. He attended graduate school at Cal State Long Beach. Colin also taught High School History before joining the Marine Corps. He served In the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve from 1996-2008. His service included deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Colin’s interest stems mostly from his Grandfather’s service in the Pacific with the Army. Growing up he spent most of his days with his grandparents. He loved their stories and spending time with their friends.
© 2014, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL