By Bob Butler
In the summer of 1944, I was serving in the U.S. Navy aboard landing craft infantry gunboat 81. We invaded Peleliu — a member of the Palau Islands east of the Philippines on July 24 — and this is what my shipmates and I did that morning.
Several hundred yards from shore we joined a group of LCI(G)’s to form a lateral front. Only a few yards separated one ship from its neighbor on either side. Then, en masse, we proceeded toward the shore with our 40 mm and 20 mm guns firing continuously.
Simultaneously, rockets were passed along a line of men from the rocket source below deck to the launchers. Since I had no experience in invasion tactics, I was told to merely stand by the 40 mm gun. However, once I saw what was going on, I joined the rocket- passing line. A single rocket was fired off to determine our location vis-a-vis the beach. When one exploded on the beach, the commanding officer released 100 rockets — 50 from each ramp. To escape the flash of fire resulting from the release of the rockets, the men and I took cover below deck. After the salvo was sent off, we of the deck crew commenced reloading. We again sought cover below deck and that batch was fired off. At this point, small boats carrying Marines passed through our line of LCI(G)’s. Our 40 mm and 20 mm guns were activated again. After the fourth line of Marines passed by, we got out of there. Our small but important role in the initial part of the invasion was completed.
Our ship’s assignment was to pass information to the incoming ships. I forget what we actually passed. But I do remember running into an incoming surfaced submarine as I maneuvered our ship alongside. I managed to destroy most of the stanchions on the sub’s starboard side. I thought there would be repercussions, but there were none. There was a war going on — no time to deal with minor headaches caused by a “water bug.” (The term “water bug” was used when referring to ships like ours scurrying about the harbor engaged in menial tasks.)
A Japanese midget submarine was sighted within the lagoon. We were directed to check out a small island or islet about 100 miles away for signs of a sub base. We did and saw nothing other than beach front. We befriended a bunch of young natives. They laughed at our effort to maneuver a rubber raft while they took turns encircling us in their canoes.
On a more serious level, we talked to an older man who had been in the Merchant Marines. He could speak some English and he told us that 19 Japanese were living on the opposite end of the islet. Some were soldiers and three or four were civilians doing something involving beach sand. Or, more accurately, this is what we thought he was saying. We asked the man to meet with the Japanese to tell them that the Americans had a large force in Ulithi and that they must surrender to this force or face annihilation. We knew that this was not going to work, but at least we felt that we had to go through the process. (As I look back at our action now, we didn’t have the authority to do anything.) We gave our messenger some K-rations (ugh) to pass along as a gift. We had nothing better. Less than two hours later our guy returned with a “No.” The Japanese also sent a gift — some berries, I think. We went back to Ulithi and reported our experience.
On New Year’s Eve 1944, 18 Marines came aboard. We were planning to leave for the islet right after midnight. But at the last minute an Army general interceded. He wanted men under his command to take on the Japanese and a few days later a much larger force departed for the islet. We accompanied them. The Army invaded in the morning and the firefight ended mid-afternoon. All the Japanese and some Americans were killed.
We were asked to take the body of one of our soldiers back to Ulithi. We learned that the man was young and recently married. That evening each of us was allowed two beers. To develop somewhat of a party atmosphere, one of our guys placed a record player on top of the casket. Many of the tunes popular back home were played. One of them was “Do Nothing ’til You Hear from Me.” I may have been the only one present who knew the last words — “and you never will.” This kid lost his life on an unmarked islet somewhere the vast Pacific Ocean in a firefight only distantly related to the war. I hope his wife never learned of the circumstances leading to his death. What a waste of a young life.
We returned to Ulithi. I can’t remember our assignments, but it was during this period that our C.O. was relieved of his duties and returned to the States. The executive officer, the man I first met as he was nursing his penis, became our leader. Since he maintained command until Japan surrendered and I interacted with him closely, I prefer to refer to him to him by name: Don Hawkins. The next deck officer in line became the new executive officer.
Around the first of February 1945, we received an order to relinquish a first-class and a second-class signalman for duty elsewhere. The invasion of Iwo Jima was imminent, and I realized that our signalmen would be assigned to this mission. I admired our second-class guy, an Italian boy from Baltimore. Frequently we were on the same watch. His skill in sending and deciphering messages via semaphore was outstanding. We had a third-class signalman on board whom I looked upon as a fuck-off. Couldn’t I work out something that would permit us to send him instead? I dwelt on this question for hours. Finally I convinced myself that a man’s life should not in any way be connect- ed to my likes or dislikes. As I dug down deeper into the Realm of Honesty, I realized I was afraid, afraid that if I were successful in getting the signalmen switched, and the new guy got killed, I would be haunted by an image of his face, or worse his eyes, for the rest of my life. But to advance my proposal was absurd from the start. Hawkins would never have agreed to submit it to higher authorities.
The following day I sat by my friend, the second-class signalman, as he packed his duffle bag for departure. There was little conversation, but he did show me a series of sketches he had made of the ocean at different stages of unrest. Now I wish I had asked him for one. I bade him goodbye and wished him good luck.
On Feb. 17,1945, Iwo Jima was invaded. On D-day minus 2, the Navy Seals began disarming underwater mines. LCI(G)’s were there to cover the Seals with close-up fire power. These ships were hammered relentlessly by Japan’s 6-inch cannons. Ten of the 12 were damaged severely and one was sunk. Forty percent of the crewmembers were injured and 43 were killed. Our two signalmen were among the dead.
Some days, or maybe weeks later, the mother of our second-class signalman wrote to us. She said the War Department notified her that her son, who was a crew member on LCI(G)XX, was killed in action. She was sure that a mistake had been made. She knew that her son was on our ship. I asked Hawkins to let me reply to her letter. I told her that the letter from the War Department was correct; that we were ordered to transfer her son to another ship that would take part in the invasion of Iwo Jima; that a man with his skills as a communicator was specifically needed for the mission. I went on to say that he was popular with his shipmates; that I got to know him well as we worked together on issues involving communication with other ships; I held him with high regard. We were all upset when we learned of his death.
I am confident that the above version of my letter to the signalman’s mother over- lapped closely with the original, for I have kept this American tragedy fresh in my memory for decades. At times when I talk about it or even think about it, I cry. Many believe that the Japanese made a gross error by mistaking the action of the LCI(G)’s as the initial wave of the anticipated invasion. By doing so they exposed the positions of their 6-inch guns. These guns were then put out of commission by enabling the battleships to home in on them. So-called experts claim that with the early destruction of the 6-inch guns, many fewer lives were lost in the battle for this piece of rock. Maybe so. I don’t want to go there.
OK, what happened in my immediate space during the invasion? One, the ship to our left hit a mine and sank; its crew survived. Two, several Marines waved at us as they passed by, a gesture that has remained fixed in my memory. This first group to reach the beach was met with overwhelming resistance. In fact, the Marine casualties recorded at Peleliu exceeded those of all other amphibian operations during the Pacific War. Three, I was not scared, probably because I was locked into passing rockets to the next guy in line. The overall noise level was so intense that my world seemed unreal.
After the Marines secured Peleliu, we traveled in convoy to Ulithi. Ulithi is composed of 40 islets enclosing an irregular-shaped lagoon roughly 23 miles long and 15 miles wide. At this stage of the war, the U.S. forces had advanced westward to the point where we could harbor our fleet within 700 miles of Japan. And Ulithi provided an excellent harbor. Aircraft carriers brought their planes within striking distance of Japan. We knew when the fleet was going to leave for Japanese waters. On the day before, the pilots would get drunk at the thatched-roof officers’ club and start fighting — a sign that the men were under intense stress.
Bob Butler, 95, raised beef cattle in Iowa County for almost 25 years after retiring as a highly regarded professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. He lives on his family’s farm near Dodgeville with his wife, Caroline. Read Part III of this series here. Part I can be found here.