Islands of the Damned, page 1
Islands of the Damned
R. V. Burgin
An unvarnished and moving memoir of a Marine veteran who fought his way across the Pacific Theater of World War II-whose story is featured in the upcoming HBO(r) series The Pacific
This is an eyewitness-and eye-opening-account of some of the most savage and brutal fighting in the war against Japan, told from the perspective of a young Texan who volunteered for the Marine Corps to escape a life as a traveling salesman. R. V. Burgin enlisted at the age of twenty, and with his sharp intelligence and earnest work ethic, climbed the ranks from a green private to a seasoned sergeant. Along the way, he shouldered a rifle as a member of a mortar squad. He saw friends die-and enemies killed. He saw scenes he wanted to forget but never did-from enemy snipers who tied themselves to branches in the highest trees, to ambushes along narrow jungle trails, to the abandoned corpses of hara kiri victims, to the final howling banzai attacks as the Japanese embraced their inevitable defeat.
An unforgettable narrative of a young Marine in combat, Islands of the Damned brings to life the hell that was the Pacific War.
R. V. Burgin
with Bill Marvel
ISLANDS OF THE DAMNED
A Marine at War in the Pacific
Dedicated to the men in K Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, First Marine Division—in K/3/5—who fought so valiantly in World War II.
I was born on the thirteenth of August, 1922.
My dad was born May 13, 1890.
His brothers, my twin uncles Romus and Remus, were born November 13, 1894. I was named after Romus.
I joined the U.S. Marines on the thirteenth day of November, 1942.
And a big “13” was painted on the side of the amtrac we were about to climb aboard that September morning in 1944, somewhere in the southwest Pacific. It was one of seventeen amtracs tucked into the bay of LST 661, anchored off the coast of a place none of us had ever heard of before—Peleliu.
Motors were gunning, pumping out stinking clouds of blue smoke when we climbed down the ladder into the cramped hold. After a morning up top washed by a steady sea breeze, our eyes burned. Below, it was close and hot as hell. We were burdened with combat packs, carbines, sidearms, first aid kits, KA-BAR knives, two canteens each, struggling to keep a foothold on the pitching deck. NCOs were barking orders into the racket:
“First platoon, load!”
“Second platoon, load!”
“Third platoon, load!”
“Mortar section, load!”
That was us: First Marine Division, Fifth Regiment, Third Battalion, K Company mortars—K/3/5 for short. Two mortars, six men each, two squad leaders, a sergeant and a lieutenant. I was a corporal in charge of one of our 60mm mortars.
Someone spotted the number on the side of the amtrac.
“Jesus! Thirteen. Now we’re in the shit.”
“Don’t worry, boys,” I said. “Thirteen’s my lucky number.”
I believed I was going to come back in one piece. There were guys I knew, Marines I fought alongside, who got a feeling their time was up. Once they got it you couldn’t talk them out of it. When we had been fighting to hang on to Walt’s Ridge on New Britain, Lonnie Howard said, “Burgin, if anything happens to me, I want you to take my watch.”
“You’re crazy,” I told him. “You’ll be okay. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
That night one of our artillery shells hit nearby. The shrapnel killed Howard and another Marine, Robert McCarthy.
Me, I was anxious and wary that morning off Peleliu. But I never thought for a minute I wouldn’t make it.
Number 13 was one of the older amtracs, the ones without a drop-down back end. When we rolled up on the beach we’d have to scramble over the sides. That’s when the Japs would have a clear shot at us. That didn’t seem so lucky.
There were about twenty of us, plus the driver, probably a Navy man, all jammed together like toes in a shoe. While we waited, sailors topside looked us over, giving us the thumbs-up and shouting encouragement that we couldn’t hear over the noise. Finally the big clamshell doors of that LST—Landing Ship, Tank—cranked open. Number 13 shuddered, and we followed the other amtracs down the ramp, nosed into the water, and floated out into the bright morning sun.
It was a little past eight o’clock.
An amtrac at sea wallows like a buffalo. The flat-bottomed Higgins boats could do twelve knots. We barely managed four and a half, which is about as fast as a man can walk. Think of us walking to shore under fire. We circled for half an hour until the beach master dropped his red flag, the signal to form up and head for shore. Our battleships and cruisers had been working over the island since dawn, guns cracking like thunder. They paused long enough for the Dauntless dive-bombers and TBMs to sweep in and dump their bombs. Then they started up again. After our wave got under way, a couple LSTs that were parked out on our flanks sent swarms of rockets screeching over our heads. I’d never heard a sound like that before. Something like cloth ripping. A curtain of black smoke hung over the whole beach. It looked like the island was on fire.
Somewhere along our way in Jap artillery found the range and started working us over. The last thousand yards we were under fire the whole way. Over the general racket I couldn’t hear bullets dinging Number 13, but we kept our heads down anyway. Shells were smacking the water all around us, raising big spikes of foam. Here and there other LSTs and Higgins boats would disappear in a roar of flame. The first bodies floated by. We’d see many more.
About seven hundred yards out, Number 13 lurched and halted, pitching us into one another. Treads flailed and something went grinding and scraping beneath our hull. We’d struck a reef. Now the Jap shells were landing closer—left, right and behind us. We sat there churning the water, and minutes seemed to drag by, though I’m sure only seconds were passing.
Our sergeant, Johnny Marmet, leaned forward and stuck his .45 in the driver’s face.
“If you don’t get this son of a bitch moving, I’m going to by God shoot you in the head!” he shouted. “We’re sitting ducks out here!”
The driver was pushing and pulling controls like a madman, trying to rock a car out of the mud. Treads were spinning, kicking up spray. Then something gently lifted us and we were moving again.
The instant we broke free, an explosion ripped the water right in front of us, dousing us with spray.
I made a quick mental calculation. All that time we’d been moving toward the shore, some Jap gunner was watching us, leading his target. When he figured the trajectory of his shell would intersect our path, he fired. The seconds we’d hung up on that reef were just long enough. If we’d been plowing forward we’d have ended up just where he calculated. That shell would have landed in our laps.
None of us talked about it afterward. We were busy with other things. But I honestly believed it then, and I believe it today. That was a God thing that hung us up on that reef.
* * *
We’d been lucky back on Cape Gloucester, too. The Japs expected us, but not where we landed, and we went ashore almost unnoticed and unopposed.
At Peleliu they were waiting for us and they hit us with everything they had. After we stalled on the reef they never gave us a moment’s rest. We never felt safe and we never let down our guard, not even for a minute, until the day we left the island.
Number 13 rolled up onto the beach and we bailed over the sides, dropped to the sand and took off running. That’s Marine doctrine: Get off the beach. You’re a target. You’re cluttering things up. Move out!
Beyond the beach lay a strip of dense scrub and, two hundred yards beyo
Coming in, we’d seen our own men floating in the water. Now we came upon the bodies of the Japs who had been caught in the bombardment before we landed. And the body parts. We also saw shell casings, Marine helmets, combat packs, weapons lost or discarded. All battlegrounds eventually look like trash dumps. As the temperature climbed past a hundred, we started dumping things ourselves. The gas masks were the first to go. Then our canvas leggings. They were a nuisance, hot and chafing. Most of us hated them. Later in the day I came upon a bazooka on the ground and I knew exactly who had left it. A bazooka weighed about twenty-four pounds, and he didn’t want to carry it. I caught up with him a little farther along and handed it to him. I said, “Don’t you ever lay that thing down again and walk off and leave it.”
The Japs had planted mines all over the beach, but most of them were duds. They’d even buried bombs in the sand with the fuse end pointed up. We picked our way around them, but they took out some of our amtracs and DUKWs.
About thirty yards off the beach we found ourselves in what must have been a small coconut grove. Fire from both sides had shredded the trees and left a low forest of ragged stumps. Still, they gave us some kind of cover. You couldn’t dig in the hard coral, but there were plenty of shell craters, and we hunkered down to catch our breath. Bullets were singing over our heads. The small Jap grenade launchers we called knee mortars were popping and artillery was rolling.
Our battalion had already lost its executive officer. Major Robert Ash was just stepping ashore when he was hit by artillery. The amtrac carrying our field telephones and communications personnel was burning out on the reef. We’d be without communications a good part of the day.
But K/3/5 had made it this far. Nobody in the mortar section had been hit.
Private First Class Eugene Sledge, one of my ammo carriers, was just behind me.
“Hey, Burgin,” he said, “you got a cigarette?”
Sledge was a college kid who had given up officer training to become an enlisted man. I knew he was a nonsmoker.
“You’re crazy, Sledgehammer,” I said. “You don’t smoke.”
“I want a cigarette,” he repeated.
I dug one out and handed it back to him.
A little bit later I looked around. He hadn’t lit the thing. He was chewing on it. In fact, he had chewed it down to shreds.
* * *
The mortars and machine guns slacked off a bit and we got orders to move out.
We didn’t know it at the time, but up on the north end of the beachhead, a thousand yards to our left, the First Marines’ Third Battalion were getting the hell beat out of them. They’d landed on White Beach One with orders to take the high ground north of the airfield, and then got caught up in a bloody struggle for a foothold on a coral outcrop called the Point. Just south of them, Second Battalion had landed on White Beach Two. They were to link up with the Fifth Marines’ First Battalion, which came ashore to their right, on Orange Beach One, with intentions to sweep across the airfield. As the Fifth Marines’ Third Battalion, we’d be farther right, pushing across the south end of the field from Orange Beach Two. From the coconut grove we could see the south end of the runway a few dozen yards in front of us.
The Seventh Marines were supposed to land on our right, on Orange Beach Three. Their plan was to mop up resistance on the southeast corner of the island, then link up with us and swing north.
But the Seventh was already in trouble. Coming into shore, their Third Battalion ran into heavy fire from their right, and a number of their LVTs had to swing leftward and come in on our beach. Now there were two different Third Battalions where there should have been only one. To make it worse, both battalions had K companies.
For half an hour NCOs barked orders to find out who was who, trying to get things sorted out. The Seventh’s K Company was shifted to our right, but now we were behind schedule. It would be another hour before we caught up with our own I Company, which was to our left. The morning’s confusion would ripple through the rest of the day and by nightfall leave us in danger.
On the east side of the airfield, on the edge of a dense scrub forest, we came up on a Jap artillery piece firing away at the beach. They had a strange way of doing things. The six men working that gun were lined up, and as each took a turn firing it, that man would move off and the next man would step up, take his place, and fire. They just rotated around like ducks in a shooting gallery. We watched in amazement. Then we started shooting, picking them off one by one. As each one rotated around, we’d fire and he’d go down. Then the next one, and the next until there weren’t any left. They never seemed to catch on.
Afterward, we dropped a grenade down the barrel of the gun. That seemed to finish it. Then we moved off into the forest. This was not the tropical jungle we’d fought through on New Britain. Peleliu was a thick tangle of stunted trees and vines that was the devil to get through but that screened our movements from the Japs who were up in the hills pounding everyone else. As we advanced we expected them to come screaming out of the trees in a banzai attack at any minute, like they had on New Britain. Instead we found only scattered snipers and bunkers. The bunkers weren’t much more than piles of logs and rock, but they were impossible to see until you’d almost stepped on them. We had to knock out each one before we could move on.
Deep in the woods we came across the trail where we were supposed to turn north. Some of our riflemen pushed beyond and came out on the edge of a bay. The Seventh Marines, which were supposed to be on our right, were nowhere in sight.
Our riflemen shot some Japs who were thrashing across the mouth of the bay from one shore to the other. Then we were all ordered to head out and move north along the trail.
Peleliu has always been turned around in my mind. I never was able to get it straight, north and south, east and west, all the time we were on that island. I guess our sergeant, Johnny Marmet, may have had a map. The lieutenant had one. It turned out the maps were full of mistakes. They showed the mountains and the trees. They didn’t show what was on the ground, or underneath it.
By early afternoon we lost contact with I Company on our left. A big gap opened up. L Company was moved forward with part of the Second Battalion that had been in reserve. But they couldn’t find us. To tell the truth, we weren’t sure where we were either. All we knew was that we were on a north-south trail somewhere in this scrub jungle.
We bumped into another nest of pillboxes and bunkers and had to wait for a tank to come forward and blast them out of our way.
By now communications had been reestablished. The Seventh Marines’ Third Battalion—the same outfit that had got tangled up with us on Orange Beach Two—finally called in their position to headquarters. They were somewhere off to our right, on a trail. We had already reported we were on a trail running north through the scrub. We all assumed we were on the same trail, but they were a couple hundred yards ahead of us.
In fact they were south of us, where the trail branched and one part turned east.
Headquarters ordered their Third Battalion to stay put until we closed the gap. We started forward again. It was midafternoon. The heat was suffocating. We were dripping with sweat, sucking our canteens dry and popping salt tablets. We stumbled along expecting to encounter the Seventh Marines around the next bend in the trail. But by four p.m. we still hadn’t run into them. We got further orders to keep moving until the scrub thinned out, east of the airfield.
We were all now stretched out like a rubber band. If a Jap counterattack hit us in the right spot, we’d snap.
We came out of the woods within full view of the
As we watched, a line of what we first thought were amtracs appeared from behind the hangars and barracks on the far side of the field and started rolling southwest, parallel to the main runway. Behind them we could see large groups of men moving forward. The firing picked up on both sides, and we realized we were watching Jap tanks and infantry. They had begun their expected counterattack.
We got orders to dig in and concentrate our fire on the infantry. Digging in the rock-hard coral was impossible, so we found craters and set up the mortars and began lobbing shells into the field.
The tank battle was no contest. Those little Jap tanks were thin-skinned and fragile, and our own Shermans, plus fire from bazookas and artillery, just tore the whole column apart in minutes. The foot soldiers melted away. We blinked and they were gone. Afterward, pieces of their tanks were scattered across the airfield like insect parts under a spiderweb.
But strung out along the edge of the scrub, we now had a fresh problem.
Sledge was holding a 60mm shell, just ready to drop it down the tube, when bullets started whining over our heads. They were coming from behind us. A stream of tracers passed over, close enough to dust his knuckles.
I turned in time to look down the barrel of a Sherman tank, its turret swiveling in our direction. He was parked in a clearing a hundred yards to our right. Beyond him came more tanks, and behind them, Marine riflemen, and they were shooting. Not past us, but at us!
Someone yelled at Sledge, and he froze. If a bullet hit that shell we’d all be blown to hell.
It was instantly clear to me what had happened. While we had been trying to catch up with the Seventh’s Third Battalion in the woods, they had been behind us, waiting. Then they saw our mortar squad in front and assumed we were part of the Jap counterattack and opened fire. Those bright .50-caliber tracers that the Sherman tank was spitting would soon be followed by a 75mm shell from its cannon.