THE LEGACY OF THE WORLD WAR II GYRENE

 

There is nothing particularly glorious about sweaty fellows, laden with killing tools, going along to fight. And yet — such a column represents a great deal more than 28,000 individuals mustered into a division. All that is behind those men is in that column, too: the old battles, long forgotten, that secured our nation... traditions of things endured and things accomplished, such as regiments hand down forever; and the faith of men and the love of women; and that abstract thing called patriotism... all this passes into the forward zone, to the point of contact, where war is girt with horrors. And common men endure these horrors and overcome them, along with the insistent yearnings of the belly and the reasonable promptings of fear; and in this, I think, is glory.

Fix Bayonets! by Capt John W. Thomasen, Jr., USMC




The epitome of the United States Marine Corps: a Platoon Sergeant wearing the Dress Blue Uniform. Life Magazine

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 70 years ago and more.

The few remaining World War II Gyrenes 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.

An infantryman of the 1st Marine Division waits to board trucks after combat duty at Cape Gloucester on the island of New Britain in early 1944. Still image from USMC combat camera film


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.

Many Americans enlisted. Others received their draft notice from Selective Service. And too many faced the cruel barriers of rascism and bigotry in their fight to serve. Nearly all of them formed their ideas of life in the Corps through the medium of Hollywood and press reporting of the war. This fantasy of combat showed men dying quickly and gallantly with clean wounds that caused no suffering. Sanitized and glorified, this version of war permitted little or no reality to creep in and show the true horror of combat.

These men faced a steep learning curve that drove them closer and closer to the true face of combat. The war was a huge engine and boot camp provided the fuel to keep it running. During their first weeks in the Corps, most recruits gave little or no thought of what fate might have in store for them. There was simply no time to dwell on it. Their days and nights were filled with the here and now of training, drill, rote memorization and cultural molding. Every transfer, each new assignment, brought them closer to their baptism of fire, that split second in time that changed them forever.

Iwo Jima -1945. Marines move toward the front line past burning Japanese corpses. Still image from USMC combat camera film


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. In his landmark book Goodbye, Darkness, wartime Marine William Manchester had this to say about himself and his buddies:

"In the twenty-five centuries since Thermopylae, war has variously been described as an art, a profession, and a science, but the Marine infantryman of World War II was more a skilled blue-collar workman. His weapons were his tools, and even after he had become a journeyman he worked ceaselessly to improve his mastery of his craft."

19 November 1943, Men of the 2nd Marine Division at chapel services aboard ship just prior to D-Day on Tarawa Atoll. Still image from the motion picture, "With the Marines at Tarawa."


Each time Marines climbed down the nets of their transports off the reef of a Pacific island on their own D-Day, every man knew somewhere in his mind that this might be it. It didn’t take much imagination to realize that death was a random chance in combat. Once a Marine saw buddies being killed at close range, it was impossible not to think: that could’ve been me.

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.

Marines stand on the rail of their troopship watching a Pacific sunset while en route to Iwo Jima. Still image from USMC combat camera film


Just boys really, they answered the call of duty. That call took them into combat against the toughest opponent in our nation’s history; the Empire of Japan. Across fire-swept beaches, in trackless jungles, on rugged coral ridges, the Marines of World War II kept going. Their buddies died, they closed ranks, regrouped, and moved out. Every battle, every campaign, each freshly dug grave was a marker on the Road to Tokyo.

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.

The price of victory in the Pacific. Still image from the motion picture, "With the Marines at Tarawa."


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.

When the war was over, the Marines moved on with their lives. They raised families, went to work, and tried to find their piece of the American dream. The medals were put away in boxes, or maybe framed and hung on the wall. As best they could, the Marines tried to forget the time when life counted for nothing, when eternity was measured in seconds, when the only thing that mattered was the next beachhead.

A Marine halftrack fires at dug-in Japanese defenders during the campaign for Saipan, June 1944. Still image from USMC combat camera film


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.”

Last Rites for the Sergeant, a pencil sketch by artist Kerr Eby. US Navy Art Collection


Today, we honor the memory of the World War II Gyrene. The modern Marine Corps was shaped by their war, and many tactics and techniques honed in the Pacific campaigns are still used to this day. But the World War II Marine passed on more than just tactical knowledge. His courage, his humility, and his sacrifices in the crucible of war have burnished the Marine Corps Emblem - today and forever. Long after the last Second World War Marine has passed on, he will be remembered.

"...I met Speedy and noticed that he was carrying his guitar. We trudged toward the camp. "Reckon we could stop at the cemetery and say goodbye?"

We walked through the white wooden archway where the sign read--SECOND MARINE DIVISION CEMETERY. I supposed it wasn't much different from any other cemetery in the world--except for Speedy and me. We found the Sixth Marines' section and slowly wandered between the mounds and crosses. We stopped for a moment at each grave and for that moment remembered something, the kind of thing a guy remembers about another guy. Some crazy little thing that just stuck in the mind.

JONES, L.Q., PFC...ROJAS, PEDRO, PHM 1/C...HODGKISS, MARION, CPL...GOMEZ, JOSEPH, PVT...HUXLEY, SAMUEL, LT. COL...MCQUADE, KEVIN, MGY SGT...SHAPIRO, MAX, CAPTAIN...KEATS, JACK, MARINE GUNNER...BROWN, CYRIL, PFC....

Speedy stopped over Seabags' grave and parted his lips. "I sort of made a promise, Mac." His fingers strummed a chord, but he could not sing..."

Battle Cry by Leon Uris


A group of Marines waves to the camera while en route to an objective in the Pacific during World War II. Still image from USMC combat camera film

A split-second captured in time. A sweating Marine on Saipan moves past a combat cameraman. Still image from USMC combat camera film


 

 

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