Sep 15

A Marine Hits the Beach

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 12:01 AM


Early in the morning of 15 September 1944, Eugene B. Sledge and his buddies scrambled down the netting hung on the side of the troopship and into an amtrac. When all the men had boarded, the amtrac headed out into the open sea. As the vessel circled, awaiting the signal to head shoreward, long jets of red flame mixed with thick black smoke belched forth with the roar of a thunderclap from the muzzles of 16-inch guns on nearby battleships. The odors of diesel fuel and gunpowder tainted the smell of the salt air. Sledge broke into a cold sweat, his stomach knotted, and his knees nearly buckled with tension.

Suddenly the amtrac engine revved as the driver made for the beach. “We moved ahead, watching the frightful spectacle,” Sledge recalled. “Huge geysers of water rose around the amtracs ahead of us as they approached the reef. The beach was now marked along its length by a continuous sheet of flame backed by a thick wall of smoke. It seemed as though a huge volcano had erupted from the sea, and rather than heading for an island, we were being drawn into the vortex of a flaming abyss.”

“This is it, boys,” yelled the lieutenant as he passed around a half-pint of whiskey.

Sledge refused the offer, afraid he would pass out. At that moment a large shell exploded, barely missing the amtrac. The engine stalled and the amtrac lurched to the left and slammed into the rear of another amtrac. With shells raining down around them, the driver restarted the engine and the amtrac moved forward again. Soon the amtrac came ashore and moved a few yards up the gently sloping sand.

“Hit the beach!” yelled a sergeant.

Sledge and the others piled over the sides as fast as they could. A burst of machine gun fire with white hot tracers snapped through the air at eye level, barely missing Sledge’s head. Sledge tumbled forward onto the island of Peleliu. With shells and bullets tearing at the air above and behind him, Sledge scuttled forward. “The world was a nightmare of flashes, violent explosions, and snapping bullets,” he recalled. “Most of what I saw blurred. My mind was benumbed by the shock of it.”

Amtracs were burning all along the beach. Japanese bullets made long splashes on the water as though flaying it with giant whips. Marines fell as bullets ripped through them. “I shuddered and choked,” Sledge recalled. “A wild desperate feeling of anger, frustration, and pity gripped me.”

Sledge got up, crouched low, and raced forward, meeting up with several buddies. Together, they moved inland. Soon he came across the first enemy dead he had ever seen, a Japanese corpsman and two riflemen. The corpsman lay on his back, his medical kit strewn about him, his abdominal cavity laid open, the glistening viscera bespecked with fine coral dust. A couple of Marine veterans came up and stripped the bodies of souvenirs. The spectacle shocked Sledge. Would he, too, become so callous toward death? He continued advancing.

U.S. Marines have always been considered “naval” infantry, although they would be loath to admit it. Nevertheless, Marines’ experiences have been intimately related to those of sailors, as many Naval Academy graduates choose to become Marine officers, sailors drive the landing craft that put marines ashore, and Navy Corpsmen, Chaplains, and Seabees routinely serve with marines.

World War II provided the Marine Corps with the greatest role in all of its history as the Marines put into action the amphibious doctrine their leadership had been developing since World War I. Sledge, who had enlisted in the Corps on 3 December 1942 and shipped out to the Pacific with the 5th Marine Regiment, First Marine Division after more than a year of training, symbolizes World War II “island hopping.”

How was Sledge able to press on through the horror of his baptism of fire and muster the courage to fight on at Peleliu and later at Okinawa? A friend of John McCain who had received the Medal of Honor explained that it was “a kind of madness” that came over him, enabling him to fight for his own life and the lives of his buddies. It was rage that sustained Sledge in face to face combat with the enemy. But he also needed the kind of courage that infantrymen from time immemorial have had to muster—the courage simply to lift their exhausted bodies from wet foxholes, to put one foot after the other, to endure one more day. Sledge’s courage demonstrates that no matter what kind of ships and aircraft are available to support them, infantrymen experience a kind of combat that most sailors never experience—crawling through muck and filth and fighting the enemy hand to hand.

  • Paul M Hupf

    As I have mentioned previously in September 1944 I was a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps assigned to duty aboard the USS Portland CA33, on which I served as a 5″ battery gunnery officer in Sky Aft, one of the two control stations for the 5″ battery. In early September the Portland arrived at Guadalcanal after extensive work at the Mare Island shipyard. We had all new 5″ controls including new fire control radar, which we tested in the first few days after arriving at Guadalcanal. The Iron Bottom Bay Officer’s Club was located on the beach at Purvis Bay, where the Portland was anchored. I and several others were permitted to go ashore late one afternoon to visit the Club. There I met a Quantico classmate who said he was on the staff of Gen Holland M Smith USMC; that the next operation was Peleliu, scheduled for September 15, and that it would take three or four days. None of us on the Portland, except senior officers and limited communications personnel knew our destination.

    While underway for Peleliu, fire control officers learned officially that Peleliu was our destination. Ammunition allotments, targets etc were discussed. At this same time the ship’s radio picked up Tokyo Rose, who had a much better collection of American Band recordings than the ship had and since Tokyo Rose was broad cast during ship’s working hours when the crew was doing maintenance work, it was continued. One day Tokyo Rose identified herself to say that the First Marine Division was scheduled to attempt a landing on Peleliu on September 15, 1944 at 0800 (or 0830, I forget which) hours and would be driven back into the sea.

    We arrived at Peleliu on September 12th. Preliminary firing was undertaken at selected targets and continued on the 13th and 14th. There was a commanding ridge to the north of the landing beaches, in which the Japanese had tunneled. At the mouth of one of these tunnels, Japanese soldiers could be seen clearing debris. We took the target under 5″ fire. The Captain of the Portland shifted to main battery, first high capacity then AP. The shells exposed concrete structures embedded in the side of the ridge which became known as Bloody Nose Ridge. By the time of the landing just about all the growth on Bloody Nose Ridge was levelled.

    On the morning of September 15, as scheduled, landing craft received the assault forces, assembled, then formed a succession of waves headed for the beach. The Portland as well as the other fire support ships each fired 360 rounds of high capacity 5″ shells, rapid fire, within a 30 mminute period, saturating the beach with explosions and dense smoke which must have risen at least 100 feet above the beach. When the 5″ fire ceased, boats intermixed with the landing craft unleashed a great number of rockets which also saturated the beach.

    There were no Japanese on the beach. As soon as the first wave of landing craft approached the water’s edge at the beach head, mortar fire and perhaps some artillery fire, all from Bloody Nose Ridge, in significant quantity covered the beach and also struck the landing craft as they disembarked their assault forces. The Portland was about 1,000 yards off shore and perhaps even closer. Without glasses one could see casualties and landing craft hit. One landing craft came alongside the Portland with several casualties. One of the Portland’s doctor’s, with some first aid equipment, climbed down the ship’s Jacob’s ladder, entered the landing craft and went with it to the hospital ship USS Hope which was standing offshore.

    The Portland, and other ships continued to provide “call” fire support daily until the end of September at which time the Portland left for Manus to join the 7th fleet for the Leyte landing scheduled for October 20.

  • Jim Valle

    Mr. Hupf’s comment was great! Still it remains something of a mystery why so much firepower did not accomplish the goal of flattening the enemy’s defensive capabilities. Was there ever a study undertaken to determine how much shore bombardments actually helped the invasion process in the same manner as the Strategic Bombing Survey undertaken by the Army Air Force?