FELLOW MARINES

FELLOW MARINES

From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Fellow Marines

What had been predicted as an easy triumph for the U.S. Marines—the swift conquest of a small remote island—quickly became a nightmare and one of the costliest battles of World War II. But the battle for Peleliu Island was not without its victories, for during this bloody campaign, some of our social and military barriers were changed forever.

In the 1940s, racial segregation in the military was a fact of life. Although hard to understand today, it was part of our routine, and no one questioned it. Some, like me, a young kid from New Jersey, were hardly aware of it—until my experience at Peleliu.

After many weeks of intense fighting, we battle-weary Marines suffered heavy casualties with severe shortages of replacements and supplies.

The fourth day of the battle, I left the hospital ship after being treated for wounds and was returning to my company ashore. The ship I took to shore, as well as the beach where we landed, were full of men and equipment to support the fighting. I asked around for the location of my unit, “Item” Company, Seventh Marines. A black truck driver pointed to the hills. I remembered vaguely that noncombatant African-American Marines volunteered wherever needed in combat or support, but this was the first time I had seen African-American servicemen. I wondered who they were and in what branch of the armed forces.

The dark-skinned men were working on the beach, stripped to their waists in the blistering, tropical sun, transferring heavy ammunition from landing craft onto trucks for delivery to the front lines. This task was extremely dangerous at any time, but during a battle, with enemy shells landing nearby, it was a heroic, thankless job that few of us wanted!

One of the men, the driver of a loaded ammunition truck, offered me a ride inland to the front lines. I accepted and climbed aboard. As the truck of explosive cargo bumped along the battle-scarred road, enemy shells crunched into the landscape nearby. I felt this selection of transportation was a dangerous choice on my part; fortunately, it was a short ride to the fighting area, and I reached my unit safely. I thanked the truck driver, wished him well and quickly disembarked.

When I reached our company command post, I located my top sergeant and reported for duty. He explained our battle assignment: “We are an understrength company, and our mission is to seize the ridge and mountains to our front. Gentlemen, get ready to earn your pay. That rocky, treeless mountain range is held by an elite, well-entrenched and hidden enemy who will defend this godforsaken place to their death.”

The sweltering hot days and chilly cold nights added to the misery of this bloody assignment, which continued for weeks. Item Company’s ranks grew thinner daily due to heavy casualties, rugged terrain and 115-degree heat.

Near a grim place we called “Death Valley,” our company’s advance was halted. We were pinned down in a deadly cross fire by a concealed enemy supported by mortars and artillery. We suffered heavy casualties and urgently needed reinforcements. I was a company runner of messages and reported the new losses and the dangerous situation to the top sergeant at the command post. The top sergeant radioed for additional troops, medical corpsmen, water, ammunition and as many stretcher bearers as he could get.

The word came back from battalion headquarters: “Negative! No reinforcements, no stretcher bearers, no help or supplies for the present! All support and reserve units are committed in an all-out battle throughout the island.”

With a grim determination born of desperation, the top sergeant turned over his command to the next in line and, summoning another Marine and me, set out to find help. Our trio jogged in the blazing sun to several rear headquarters command posts seeking assistance, but none was available.

When we reached the beach area, a young African-American overheard our situation, walked up and immediately volunteered his platoon’s services. “We are from a Marine ammunition depot company and have had some infantry training,” he told us.

The top sergeant looked at the dark-skinned sergeant in surprise. The races were so completely segregated during this era that we had no idea who these African-American servicemen were. Suddenly, I recalled seeing and talking to the African-American troops on the beach when I first returned to battle a week earlier. Now, for the first time, I realized they were Marines!

Our perplexed top sergeant tried to discourage the noncombatant volunteers from coming, stating they were not trained or qualified for the intensity of this battle.

By now, the volunteers had heavily armed themselves and lined up behind their leader.

I heard our seasoned professional Marine top sergeant say sharply, “Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” But I know he welcomed their aid.

We all returned to the battle area. There was carnage everywhere. The top sergeant reported to the acting company commander and said, “Sir, I have a platoon of black—I mean a platoon of Marine volunteers who came to help!”

The commanding officer said, “Thank God! Thank you all for coming. Sergeant, get our wounded to safety and our dead out.”

We watched in awe as the gallant volunteers did their job. While breaking through the surrounding enemy snipers, we saw more than one hold a casualty stretcher gently in one hand and, when necessary, fire an automatic weapon with the other hand.

One wounded Marine, probably the most bigoted man in our predominantly Southern unit, turned to me and said, “I’ll never put Negroes down again. These men are angels—black angels.”

The platoon of African-American Marine volunteers made many dangerous trips to our company area for the wounded. With each return trip from the rear, they brought badly needed ammunition, food and precious water. It was nightfall when the evacuation of all the wounded was complete. Then the volunteers moved into empty foxholes and helped fight off a night skirmish.

Finally, Item Company Marines were relieved from the gruesome mountain by a fresh U.S. Army infantry company. As the incoming soldiers passed what was left of our company on the road, the soldiers pointed at the African-American servicemen and hooted, taunting us, “Who are those guys in your outfit?”

Our senior sergeant bellowed, “Why, some of our best damn Marines—that’s who!”

Edward Andrusko

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