Harold C. Best
As a young lad in my teens in the late 1930’s, I was well aware of world events taking shape in Europe. Before going to bed at night Mother and I listened to the late night news on the radio. I listened out of curiosity and went right to sleep. Mother listened because she had three sons and perhaps did not sleep so well as I.
The rise of the National Socialist (Nazi) party in Germany and Fascism in Italy were familiar to me. The incursion of Italy into Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War were future warring parties tested military weapons, the rise of militarism in Japan, and the bullying antics of Hitler which eventually led to his unprovoked attack upon Poland on September 1, 1939 were all a part of my awareness. I had graduated from high school in June 1939 and was working in the family grocery store when Hitler made his move.
Within three days of the German invasion of Poland, Great Britain and France were involved, and ultimately the rest of the European countries were drawn into the fray. Reason and common sense in Europe had given way to hate and blood letting. I knew that eventually the United States would be drawn in and at my age I would be too.
With Mother’s death in December 1939my ties to home were less strong. Subsequently, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps on October 23, 1940in Philadelphia, Pa. The next day I entrained on the B & OR.R. for Paris Island, South Carolina. The recruiting sergeant was kind enough to drive our small group to the station early so that we could see President Franklin Roosevelt who was coming to Philadelphia that day for the drawing of the first draft number at Independence Hall. Thus began the induction of 13 million young men and women who served in WWII.
I completed the nine weeks of rigorous training at boot camp where they make marines out of civilians. I said that I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience we just went through, but I wouldn’t give a penny to do it over again.
Boot camp became a new world to us as our Drill Sergeant immediately took command. Sergeant Ruhl and his assistant, Corporal Ray, became our only links to the human race for the next nine weeks. I had purchased a camera to record my environment for the next four weeks, but along with our civilian clothing all cameras were prohibited and had to be sent home. After 56 years I remember Sergeant Ruhl well. He was of medium height, straight as a ramrod with close-cropped red hair. His strong raspy voice barked orders, which we quickly learned to obey. He was my ideal marine, and it is my prayer that both of these men survived the war. “Thank you men for training us so well despite our clumsiness.”
After boot camp I was one of two members of Platoon #144 who in December, 1940, were sent to Marine Sea School at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia. Sea School was the sought after assignment by most young marines (duty was aboard the capital ships of the U.S. Navy-battleships, cruisers and aircraft carriers.) It led to early promotion; travel to foreign ports and “dress blues.” At that time were only issued to sea going, ceremonial assignments, and recruiting and foreign embassy marines. In battle, sea-going marines manned the ship’s secondary batteries.
Upon graduation from sea school I was assigned to the newly formed Marine Detachment of the USS Erie. The detachment comprised approximately 145 men and was formed to serve as a special force to be quickly transported anywhere in Central or South America to protect the lives and property of American citizens living or passing through those areas.
From Norfolk, Virginia, in May 1941, our detachment was transported by ship to join the USS Erie at Balboa, Panama Canal Zone. Upon reaching Panama, 45 men were designated as a component of the Erie’s crew, and would be rotated at intervals with the balance of the detachment. Those aboard the ship were to carry out the usual duties that sea-going marines perform. Those troops billeted ashore at the Balboa Naval Base on the west bank of the Pacific side of the Canal began strenuous training in jungle warfare and techniques of amphibious landings in unfriendly territory.
Sunday, December 7, 1941 – a cloudy, sultry day in Panama. Eight months had passed since arriving in the Panama area. We Erie marines were laying around, some reading or writing letters home, others polishing shoes, or were washing clothes and other mundane barracks activities usual for an off-duty day. I was lying on my bunk reading.
It was sometime in the afternoon, a telephone call was received by the Corporal-of-the-Guard from our leader, Captain Sayers. The Captain placed the call from the Tivoli Hotel in Panama City where he was visiting his wife upon her visit to him from Connecticut. The guard was informed that Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in the Pacific and that all marine personnel wee confined to base and that he would return immediately. When the guard announced the purpose of the call not a man had any doubt that at that moment we were at war with Japan.
Hearts beat a little faster; I swallowed hard. What did it mean to us? Would the enemy now attack the Panama Canal? And how would the U.S. respond? We were marines, young and trained. What I expected since high school now had happened. The excitement soon charged us like electricity. We alone, the Armed Forces of the United States, stood between our loved ones at home and the deceitful, sneaky Japanese Imperial Army and Navy. We knew our future, Never, for a moment did we doubt the outcome.
Christmas day, 1941; we rose at 3:00 A.M. to man our foxholes, dug as time would allow after December 7. Japan would not catch us napping in Panama. We ate our Christmas dinner under arms that Christmas, a platoon at a time, until all the detachment had eaten while eyes and ears were kept on the sky looking for enemy aircraft.I soon learned that it was Joseph Lockhard, a childhood friend of mine, who saw the Japanese planes coming on radar and gave the report to his superior, who, in believing it was flight of B-17’s arriving from the states, didn’t pass the alarm on. How unfortunate, Joe’s warning was sufficient that, if heeded, the men would be manning their battle stations and the enemy would have had a warm welcome. It would not have changed the outcome of the attack but many American lives might have been saved.
Early in 1943 the USS Erie was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat off Caracas, Venezuela with loss of life. By good fortune I was not aboard. The Erie Marine Detachment was disbanded and transferred to Marine Barracks, Balboa Naval Base.
In the ensuing months we were all rotated back to the states to join other marine units preparing for the Pacific War. I arrived at Quantico Marine Base, Quantico, Va. In the fall of that year, the cool air of October was invigorating after Panama and the trees were dressed in their beautiful autumn foliage. We were given an all too short furlough home, and then back to duty.
During that time I was in the marine Corps I was home only 23 days of those five years and two weeks. I don’t believe today’s youth would be very happy with that; however, since WWII was a “total war,” all effort was put forth in winning it.
Around July 23, 1944 we pulled a practice landing near San Clement beach, California for Pres. Roosevelt to observe, and almost immediately boarded a ship to San Diego Navy Base. Destination, Guam, where the battle for the island was in progress. We were to be reinforcements should we be needed.
Leaving the states again was very hard. I already had three and a half years overseas. A cruiser, the USS Baltimore, carrying Pres. Roosevelt to Hawaii was docked a few hundred yards from our transport. We watched across the water for the President but only saw Fala, his dog, romping on deck with the sailors.
At dusk we pulled anchor and slipped quietly out of the harbor, each man with his own personal thoughts as the city of San Diego disappeared into the darkness. (Since then, the song “Harbor Lights” has always had a nostalgic affect upon me, and a sadness as I see in my mind San Diego receding in the distance). Soon after we left, the President’s ship slipped out of the harbor into the darkness to meet in Pearl Harbor with American leaders. I felt a kinship with the President as I remembered four years before when he waved to us in Philadelphia and now he was somewhere at sea facing the perils of enemy subs as we were. I didn’t realize at that time how much this parting with San Diego would mean to me. It was not until many years later that I would dream many times that I had to leave my family, board a troop ship and sail overseas again. It was like going into exile.
After several days at sea we got the word that the battle for Guam was going well. We were to disembark to Hilo, Hawaii and proceed to Camp Tarawan, formerly the Parker Ranch, the second largest cattle ranch in the world next to the King Ranch in Texas. The ranch was at 5,000 ft. elevation on the slopes of the volcano Mauna Kea. Mauna Loa rose majestically to out south. The remainder of the 5th Marine Division soon joined us and once again maneuvers commenced with the infantry and all support elements; engineers, tanks and artillery engaged. The climate was pleasant, warm days and sometimes cold nights and very little rain since the high lands blocked the prevailing trade winds.
We lived day to day not giving much thought to what soon would be our destiny. We often went to sleep with the distant thunder of artillery at night gunnery practice. Artillery is often used to harass the enemy at night, as well as to cause him casualties to keep him from assembling for their famous bonsai attacks. Occasionally we would spend weekends in Hilo, the largest city on the island of Hawaii. Lacking transportation, it was often difficult to visit other places. Often we’d just swim at a nearby beach. At this late date it gave little solace to a military mind honed for combat rapidly approaching. Home was far away.
Christmas, December 25, 1944 was rather quiet. I had received a package from home containing an eight-inch high Christmas tree. With decorated it with strands of steel wool for tinsel and small hard candy tied to the little branches. We sprinkled cotton around the base to represent snow. The mess hall was open so that troops could get coffee and someone else came up with a fruitcake sent from home. Soon, Bob Crosby, brother to Bing, came by on a truck with troops in the back singing Christmas carols. That was the last Christmas for 6700 young marines who had only weeks remaining to live. It grieves my heart just to write that memory.
January 1, 1945 we boarded our combat loaded transports in Hilo harbor for a destination unknown to us, When we pulled anchor and sailed first to Pearl Harbor we discovered our ship sabotaged by a fire bomb, no damage. I learned later that the Japs knew everything: where we were going, how many marines and an estimated time of arrival at the target. It puts a lie to the belief that all Japs on Hawaii were loyal to America. However, I have all the respect in the world for the Japanese recruited in Hawaii and fought so gallantly for America in Italy.
Pearl Harbor was rapidly filling up with transports and warships gathering for the assault about to be made. We were there for two weeks and were given permission for liberty on beautiful Oahu.
Several days after leaving Pearl Harbor our target was disclosed. The guessing game was over. Iwo Jima, what a strange name! Maps were broken out and we saw what was a relatively small island, shaped like a pork chop. At one end it supported an inactive small volcano about 550 feet high. Extending northward from the volcano was convoluted plateau featuring two air strips and a third under construction. Vegetation was mostly banyan trees and grasses, fringed by black sand up to pea-sized particles. Looking closer we saw telltale symbols of gun emplacements, pill-boxes, blockhouses, trenches, etc. Unfortunately, caves that later were to prove so lethal to us were not evident.
In due time our invasion fleet stopped at Kwajalein Island for refueling and mail forwarded for the troops and sailors. The next stop was Saipan Island where we took on our ammunition and explosives and distributed it to the appropriate troops. Now, four days from Iwo Jima, troops began writing last letters home and to loved ones; and many, for the first time, prepared their wills.
Each hour the tension grew. Bayonets and knives were sharpened and the last rounds of ammunition were tucked away for ready use. We all had our last haircut, close cropped for sanitation and so that head wounds could be better treated.
Vincent Marenna last his right arm later on Iwo. Vinnie is still fighting the battle of Iwo every time he buttons a shirt or ties a necktie. Never have I heard him complain. He has always been an inspiration to me and the others of our company. He is an excellent example of the sacrifice some our generation made to insure our liberties and our freedom.
February 19, 1945, D-Day on Iwo. After a fitful sleep the troops were awakened at 3:00 A.M. Breakfast was eaten, steak and eggs with all the trimmings. We called it our “Last Supper.” It proved to be the last supper for so many fine, young marines. All too soon the Debarkation Officer announced over the PA system, “All troops report to their debarkation stations.” Soon, under a thunderous barrage from many naval vessels, the assault waves were headed toward the beach to strike at H-hour, 9:00 A.M. The lines crept forward. The battle for Iwo Jima was engaged.
Much has been made of our high casualty rate. I attribute that to the tenacity of the Japanese soldiers who fighting from fixed and fortified positions and his skillful use of extensive underground caves giving him personal shelter and protected storage for his supplies and ammunition. Whereas, our troops, from necessity, had to constantly expose themselves on frontal assaults against their interlocking positions.
The historic raising of the American flag will always be an inspiration to Americans. It occurred on the morning of February 23. Our 2nd Platoon, “A” Co., 5th Engr. Battalion was attached to the 26 Marine Regiment’s 2nd Infantry Battalion, 5th Marine Division. We were slowly fighting northward on the upper west side of Airstrip #1. A cry arose to my right and spread along the line from man to man, “The flag is on Suribachi.” I looked over my right shoulder and there it was. The thrill we troops experienced at the time was not one of historical nature. It was the realization that now we would not receive any more enemy fire from our rear; furthermore, that our position would not now be relayed to the enemy in front of us.
To this day, just the thought of, or the sight of that photograph and the six marines will cause a wave of emotion to erupt in my heart and frequently tears to my eyes. To us marines that were there, that picture embraces a world of meaning, known only to us. Most do not know that within three weeks three of those men would be killed in action. The three survivors were pulled out of line and returned to the states. The original flag can be seen today at the Marine Corps Museum, Washington, D.C.
RETURN TO CAMP TARAWA – WAR’S END, JAPAN
March 29, 1945. We marines were relieved by the Army’s 147th Infantry Regiment, and the survivors and remnants of the 26th Marine Combat Team sailed back to Hawaii for rest and reinforcements. Our rest period lasted just two weeks when we began making preparations for the impending invasion of Japan on November 1, 1945.
After Iwo, some had the premonition that they would not survive another battle. This was particularly disturbing to me because three men I knew who fought in prior battles expected to die on Iwo and did just that.
The following months passed quickly. We had a rehearsal for the invasion of Japan when we found that my platoon would be in the fourth wave of the assault battalion, with our old Iwo friends, the 2nd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment.
August 10, 1945. On maneuvers in the field we received the astonishing news that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Immediately we were withdrawn to camp and all live ammunition was collected for safety reasons. Two days later, Nagasaki received the bomb. On August 14th, Japan surrendered unconditionally. Contrary to published reports elsewhere over the surrender, we at Camp Tarawa were rather quiet and reflective. I found this was mostly true with combat troops. Our lives now were to change drastically. Inside our emotions were reeling. We are alive and soon perhaps will be going home. Could it be true? No, not yet.
August 27th. The 5th Marine Division embarked from Hilo, Hawaii and once more we sere heading west ward, this time to Japan. We arrived September 22nd at the Sasebo Navy Base, Kyushu – Japan’s third largest. We were delighted to see the extensive damage to the base and to the once powerful warships and aircraft carriers. We occupied the city, disarmed Japanese sailors and sent them home. We secured all fortified positions and coastal gun emplacements. After several days the women and children began arriving from the hills to which they had fled. They were told by their leaders that we would abuse them terribly. We were disciplined troops. History has proven that no conquered nation has ever been treated any better than the Japanese by America. As a matter of fact, I believe that Japan is still at war with us, only this time they got smart and made it an economic one. I am ashamed to say that we may be losing this war.
RETURNED TO PENDELTON – GOING HOME
Two weeks after arriving in Japan I received word that my length of service qualified me for transit to the States and discharge. One happy marine said good-bye to friends and boarded ship next day for San Diego, California – home. After riding out a hurricane in Sasebo harbor I set sail for the last time.
A marine band met us at the docks and played while we disembarked. It was late. We saw no welcoming crowds. Trucks drove us the fifty miles back to Camp Pendelton, the birthplace of the “Spearhead Division,” our own beloved 5th Marine Division. I couldn’t help but think of the many fine marines who left this camp for the Pacific battles on hot sandy beaches and who would not be coming home to their loved ones. They gave their life for us – the living. To remember is the least we can do.