One Soldier’s Story

A Work of Historical Fiction, Contributed by Stephen Roquemore

“Attention!” yelled Sergeant LeJeune of the 51st Rifle Company as he called it to attention. All the men under his command were fresh from civilian life, including 21 year old Private Martin Egan who had come from Springfield, Illinois.

With no experience with the armed forces or auxiliaries, Egan thought he would never get through boot camp during March, 1942. Just three weeks before, he had stepped off the bus and entered General Bradley’s training camp in Los Angeles. With blue eyes, a mere weight of 152 pounds, skinny limbs, blond hair, and a height of exactly six feet, nobody thought he would make much of a soldier. But, as a crack shot with a hunting rifle (he had been hunting since he was five years old), his Father insisted that he join the Army, which was in bad need of men, since it only numbered about 200,000 men at the time.

During the first few weeks of boot camp, all Egan learned was the basic commands. But one morning was different than the others – the whole company was going to do the obstacle course and weapons training. The O-course, invented by General Omar Bradley, spanned 20 acres, and unlike any other O-course in the country, had live-fire exercises, which meant that the soldiers would have to run the course dodging live bullets, grenades, and explosive charges to simulate shells. The Sergeant picked half the company to run the course and the other half to operate the simulations. Egan was part of the group that was to operate the live fire machine guns.

When the whistle blew, the first half ran toward the course while machine gunners fired toward the dirt or the trees. The runners were ducking and dodging to avoid any stray bullets and to keep away from the main streams of fire. Deep in the woods a few machine guns chattered, but mostly the grenades were exploding all around the runners. Whenever some scardy-cat would come to a creek, the operators would pull a wire and a charge would explode to simulate a shell. Most of the time, though, the runners just landed in the water instead.

As the runners neared some buildings, the windows were suddenly lit by the flashes of machine guns. Egan was stationed in the third story with another private.

“Isn’t this fun, pretending to shoot our buddies and nobody scolds us for doing it?” he asked.

“Yea. Hey, did you ever get scolded by your parents for pretending to shoot your brother with a toy gun?” asked Pvt. Johnson, who was with Egan.

“Oh yea, many times. My parents once caught me sniping people with a toy gun I modified to shoot slimy foods or drinks!” he said.

Johnson burst out laughing. “Ha ha ha ha, wow, I bet you never did that again!”

Egan retaliated, “Actually I built a tree house to do so. Once I saw this lady coming down the sidewalk with expensive silk clothes on. At that time I had grape juice for ammo. OK, Johnson, you do the math.”

Johnson almost pitched out the window. “You didn’t!” he said.

“I did”, said Egan. “She went screaming down the road with purple spots all over her, shouting about ‘purple rain ruins silk dresses’. Man did she have a fit!”

“I’ll bet”, chuckled Johnson.

The next day, it was the operators turn to run the course and the ex-runners to have some fun. The whistle blew and Egan took off like a rocket. First, he went for a few high mounds from which to “hide” behind. Just as he hit the ground, a bullet clipped the sole of his boot and his heart started jack hammering. A little later, he entered the woods, a. k. a. jungle, where he faced the danger of the large blast radius from grenades. Fortunately, he survived that and took off once again, this time to pass the buildings before his luck ran out. He completed the course as the first one out and set a new record. Everyone gave him congrats and the Sergeant said, “Egan, when I saw you get off that bus, I thought you’d never make it the first week out here.”

Egan nodded and said, “Well Sarge, that’s mighty right. I thought I wouldn’t make the first MONTH out here.” An old man who lived a few miles away said he heard laughing out of nowhere.

Months later, a telegram from General MacArthur ordered the 51st to San Francisco and to wait for orders there. When they arrived, a letter told them to board transports en route to Guadalcanal. The 51st had to wait for 6 months before they actually made it to Guadalcanal.

One night, after retiring to their ship’s berths as usual, there suddenly came out of nowhere massive explosions, ringing all around the ship. Egan yelled over the commotion, “I’m going up to see whether the Japs are attacking!” Every warship in the task force had opened up with every gun that could reach the beaches. This included the AA guns. Then Egan heard over the PA system, “Away the 1st Marine Division!” It, in turn, was drowned out by the roar of Wildcats and Dauntlesses flying overhead. “I’ll guess we’ll have to wait until morning to see land.” he thought.

The next day, Japanese cruisers surprised some Allied cruisers and sank them all. The troop transports were withdrawn for their own safety. Later in the week, the transports came back and the company was given permission to land and cover the flank of the top-secret 1st Expeditionary Force with their sister company, the 50th Rifle Company.

Following their return to the island, Egan learned that a four-man squad from the classified force was going to infiltrate the Jap airfield on the island and take it over. Once they cleared out, the rifle companies were to storm the field and locate any weapons stores. The two companies waited and then, a flare from the squad appeared, signaling that they had cleared out. Someone yelled “Charge!” and they all ran to the airfield eager to kill their first Jap. Egan was ordered to find the weapons cache the squad had planned to leave. He ran off to the left and found a tiny ‘house’ with a truck and a car in front. “Hmm, maybe that car was used by a Jap officer” he thought. With his Thompson cocked, he opened the door and found a dead officer. But what caught his attention were the many weapons the squad left. He inspected the store and found some weapons of interest, such as a Japanese version of the bazooka and a version of the British Bren LMG. Egan even found other Thompsons the squad discarded. He ran over the airfield, yelling, “Hey everyone, I found the cache!” A cheer rang throughout the airfield because the men were having trouble – they were almost out of ammunition.

During the next few weeks, Egan was assigned to sentry duty for the weapons cache. But when he asked Sergeant LeJeune about the squad that was responsible for it, the only answer he received was that it was the most secret Force in the US military. And, after they had cleared from the airfield, nobody had heard or seen them. “I guess that they went home to their Area-51!” he said.

Rumors had it that the Japs were retreating via destroyer/transports. Following a party the 51st had to celebrate its first offensive victory in World War II, they were ordered by General Douglas MacArthur to return to their ship and head to Midway for debriefing and replenishment. When they arrived, they helped make repairs for the damage created during the attacks on June 6-8, 1942. Most of the base had been repaired, but there was still plenty of evidence that the Japs had left without paying for the damages.

“Hey, Martin!” He turned and found Johnson all covered in aircraft oil.

“Johnson! Why did you go jump in a tar pit!” said Egan.

“The captain in charge says he needs extra help here until he gets reinforcements to replace those killed in the battle, and we’ve been elected to help with new planes and the island’s defenses. If you need something, go to the airfield and look for a tan two-story building. That’s the command post.” Johnson replied.

Egan thanked him and gave him one more needling. “Don’t be digging for more oil; all you’ll get is wet!”

Before Johnson could counter, Egan was off like a cannon shot. At the command post, he was assigned to operate one of the atoll’s many AA guns. While exiting a building, he got an idea. He would pass by Johnson, needle him about comparison in jobs, then get a horn and blare it in his ear. If all worked out, Johnson would think it was an air raid.

Everything worked out except for one thing, Johnson was nowhere to be found. Deciding to forget the joke, Egan headed to his station. When he sat down, he noticed his seat was lumpier than before, but quickly forgot about it as his AA gun started going off! He worked frantically to shut it off, but it was no use. Men all over the island poked their heads out to see what was going on (as in, where are the planes?). The captain came storming out of his post and Egan began sweating bullets. “Oh no” he thought, “I’m really going to get it now.” Just as the captain reached him, a storm of laughter came from inside the hanger where Johnson had been working. “Of course,” he thought, “Johnson’s getting back at me.” In a few minutes everything was worked out, including the .50 machine gun.

Three months later, the 51st was ordered to Tarawa. When they arrived, they helped mop up the remaining resistance. Egan also learned that the 1st Expeditionary Force had been there to eliminate three Jap naval guns that had decimated the initial landings, along with all of the beach’s defenders.

It was during his stay on Tarawa that Egan got his first crack at the Japs. With fourteen other members in the platoon, he was ordered to head to the western part of the island to “clean up”. Besides himself, there were two medics, five support gunners armed with BARs (Browning Automatic Rifle), three riflemen armed with M1 Garands, and three submachine gunners. The submachine gunners, including Egan, were armed with Thompson machine guns.

Egan was given command of the platoon and headed into the jungle to wipe out any remaining Japs. They were on high alert, waiting for a glimpse of a Jap or a burst of machine gun fire from a hidden pillbox. Suddenly a shot rang out! “Hit the dirt!” Egan ordered and everyone dove for the high grass. Shots continued to whiz by them, and Egan recognized the sound. “That’s a sniper rifle, an Ariska rifle with a scope on it, judging on how far away the shots are coming from,” he said. Pvt. O’Neil, one of the support gunners, countered, saying “I don’t care if that blasted Jap is two feet away – he needs to be taken care of!” The others murmured their agreement. Egan thought quick and said “Were any of you issued a Springfield sniper rifle?” Pvt. Boyle, a medic, said he had one, but said there was no ammo for it. Egan ordered, “Get me a bead on that Jap!” Boyle sighted the Japanese sniper, and then Egan issued orders. “All right, support gunners, cover us. The rest of you with Tommy guns, Follow me!” The submachine gunners disappeared into the jungle as the sound of heavy machine guns ripped though the leaves overhead.

Suddenly, the machine gunners were caught in an ambush! About ten Japanese charged out of the jungle, all armed with type-100 submachine guns. Egan ordered “Cover me you guys, I’m going for that sniper.” Egan headed up the hill and came out on top, behind the Jap. There were tracers from the BARs flying over the rim. Egan didn’t even hesitate. He drew a bead on the Jap and fired. The bullets ripped through him like a shotgun blast through a beer can. “Well, that’s that” he thought and headed back down to assist the others. When he arrived, the Japs had all been killed and the only injury sustained was a 8mm round from a Nambu pistol in the arm of Pvt. Salvadore.
Over the next two months the platoon accounted for ten snipers, fifty machine gunners, twenty-two riflemen, one tank, which they destroyed by opening the gas tank and tossing a grenade inside. Also, they were given credit for seven howitzer crews and thirteen officers before the company was transferred back to Midway on April 14, 1944.

After replenishment and debriefing, the 51st was again ordered to the western Pacific, this time to the island of Saipan. Heavy bombardment had driven the enemy off the beaches, but they had only retreated into their tunnel system that honeycombed the island. At 0500 hours the company was ordered into the landing crafts and to hit the beaches. As soon as the Higgins boat hit the sand and the ramp fell, the soldiers ran onto the beach and charged inland. Egan was again the leader of the same platoon as on Tarawa, but this time they had three extra men, each armed with flamethrowers and M1A1 Carbines, in case of regular combat. And every one of them was issued a Colt .45 for close-in use inside the tunnels. Almost instantly they saw the Japs retreating into an entrance. Egan waved in their direction and the whole platoon opened up, hoping to kill as many as they could before their targets escaped into the tunnel. About four Japs were killed before their comrades escaped. Martin then directed the flamethrowers to the entrance, then pulled out a couple of grenades and crept up to the entrance. At any time the enemy could come charging out with machine guns, decimating the whole platoon. Just as he came up to the edge of the hole, one of the flamethrower men reported, “Sir, I can hear them Japs rifle bolts clicking!” Egan ordered them to fire. Down in the cave, the Japanese were making ready their Ariska rifles when suddenly a huge sheet of flame lit up the room and ‘roasted them like chickens’. For good measure, Martin pulled the pins of his grenades and tossed them into the tunnel. Three seconds later a muffled explosion was heard. Martin smiled and said, “Come on men, we’ve done a good job. Let’s get out of here.”

The next day Egan was ordering the platoon into position for a surprise attack on an artillery crew when suddenly one of the crew spotted Egan. In what seemed like a flash, the Jap pulled out his machine gun and gave Martin a burst of fire. A bullet thudded into Egan’s arm. “Oh God, I’m hit! I’m hit! Medic!!!” he cried. Pvt. Boyle rushed up as the rest of the platoon delivered the Japs a gift of hot steel. The medic surveyed Martin’s wound. He then reported, “Don’t worry, Sir, it’s a minor wound. The bullet can easily be dug out.” Egan breathed a sigh of relief. Boyle then gave him a dose of morphine and wrapped his arm up and had him transported to the beaches via a jeep Boyle had called in. He was then put aboard the hospital ship just a few miles off the island. The bullet was taken out and Martin was told he would have to stay on board for three days in order to recuperate. Egan’s CO (commanding officer) then sent in for a Purple Heart, which represented ‘wounded in action’. The very next day, Egan received a promotion to Lieutenant. When he arrived back at the platoon, he discovered it now numbered twenty men with the addition of two men with bazooka AT weapons. The platoon cheered when he arrived back. He informed them about his promotion and they all gave him congrats. Three months later, after repeated tunnel and artillery busting, the 51st was informed on September 14 to head to Guam for a well earned liberty call.

During their stay in Guam, the new aircraft carrier USS Lexington stopped by for her own replenishment. As the sailors and pilots came ashore, Egan started talking with one of the F4U Cosair fighter-bomber pilots. He soon learned about the kamikazes, Japanese pilots who would crash themselves, with a full load of fuel and a 500-to-1000 pound bomb, into an American ship in hopes of sinking it. The new Essex class aircraft carriers were taking the brunt of the attacks, because both sides knew that aircraft carriers had become the most powerful ships in any navy. The pilot, Ensign George Anderson, said that the Americans were losing many good men as a result of these suicide attacks from the ‘Divine Wind’, but what hurt the most was the loss of valuable AA gunners. Egan tried to cheer him up. “Hey, look on the bright side. They’re running out of planes and pilots every time they crash.” Anderson replied, “But we don’t know how many they have left.” “Look here,” Martin said, “I’ll buy you a beer, on the house.” “Hey thanks,” Anderson said.

As the year of 1945 rolled into summer, Egan learned that the Americans were assaulting the tiny island of Iwo Jima. Only nine square miles, he couldn’t understand why they couldn’t just skip past it like so many other Jap strongholds. Then he was told that they needed it for damaged B-29’s on their way back from Japan. The 51st would be held back in case reinforcements would be needed. As it turned out, they would not be needed for mop up operations on Iwo Jima, but for the assault on the giant island of Okinawa. After only one month at sea, the largest task force in history, (task force, not assault force!) assembled off the island. At 0200 hours, the longest pre-invasion bombardment commenced, and lasted three whole days against 100,000 Japanese soldiers.

As the first landing craft left the transports, the 51st was readying their weapons, eager to fight the last battle of the war. As the afternoon came, the Company was to board the craft and head to the beach to cover the flanks of the Marines, who were the main assault force. Once on the island, Egan again led his platoon inland. And, as before, a lot of what they had to do was sealing up the tunnels. But many times, they faced something they had never come across in the whole war: banzai charges. These charges by the Japanese were completely futile because they hardly had any modern weapons. Many times they would charge American tanks with nothing more than a few pistols, a couple of swords, and a machine gun. Once, while patrolling the southern part of the island and walking through a field of high grass, five Japanese suddenly appeared, just carrying swords and yelling like banshees, “Banzai!” Egan ordered the platoon to open fire and the Japs were mowed down like the grass.

After the island was secure, the 51st was ordered back to Guam for a long rest in readiness for the invasion of Japan itself. But in August, two atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 51st learned that the Japanese had surrendered.

After three and a-half years of island-hopping combat, the 51st was being sent home. The company arrived in San Francisco where they said goodbye to each other and went their separate ways home. Once Martin’s plane landed in Springfield, he was greeted by his parents. But, once all the celebrations had ended, Martin thought, “Is this it? Have I come all this way and it just ends, just like that? All the horror and blood and suffering and… Oohh.” Martin then realized he may have come through a lot just to come home, but that home was worth fighting for.