He was one of “The Few. The Proud.” To me, he was just “Grandpa.”
But the young man who looks back at me from one half of the silver book-style frame isn’t the Grandpa of my mind’s eye—the teddy bear of a man who taught me to fish and play blackjack.
This grandpa is a handsome young Marine in dress blues borrowed from his brother-in-law.
George Albert Gobba was born December 2, 1924, in Adrian, Michigan, to first-generation German-Americans Ethel and Charlie. Just before his fifth birthday, the Great Depression began with the stock market crash of October 29.
Then, and for several more years, all this meant was a single new pair of corduroy pants for the school year—the swish sound gone by mid-year—and summers on the farm where food was more plentiful.
Soon enough, however, Europe was enduring its own tough times—embroiled in a heated battle with Nazi Germany and its allies. Just because Grandpa wasn’t old enough to enlist in the military when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, didn’t stop him from trying.
He did finally join the ranks on March 20, 1943. He was 19.
His decision to pursue the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor emblem of the Marine Corps doesn’t surprise me in the least. There’s always someone, however, who wonders why anyone would put themselves through what is reputed to be some of the toughest training in the military.
According to one of Grandpa’s cousins, Richard Gobba, it was because he “Wanted to join the best.”
Regardless of the reason, he added one more young, stubborn recruit to the Marine Corps’ roster.
A small-town boy from the Midwest, boot camp took him thousands of miles from home to Camp Pendleton, California. Having grown up hunting with his dad may have been a plus when it was time to test his skills on the rifle range. It seems he qualified as an expert on the Browning Automatic Rifle, at least that’s what the badge he’s wearing in my photo indicates.
The BAR, as it was affectionately known, was an air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed, shoulder weapon that weighed in at 20 pounds without its bipod. It also was what the Marines needed to fight and maneuver the rugged terrain of the Pacific campaigns.
The BAR fired .30-06 Springfield cartridges at a high rate of 500-600 rounds a minute from a detachable double-column 20-round magazine box, and those rounds had a maximum effective range of up to 600 yards.
Grandpas’ skill with the BAR is noted in his service records, but Bob Sherlock offered first-hand verification of his prowess. The two men served on the same fire team while assigned to the 2nd Marine Division.
“We walked into a semi-ambush one day,” Sherlock said during an interview from his home in Westminster, Colorado. “I was No. 2 man. Mace was No. 1, and Mace got tangled up in vines and fell and couldn’t get up.”
The men were on a very narrow trail on the side of a mountain and being on the ground tangled in the dense underbrush afforded Mace a great view of the two Japanese troops headed toward them.
“He starts yelling, ‘Shoot!’ I’m trying to figure out what to shoot at because I can’t see anything!”
About the same time the two Japanese troops came into Sherlock’s view, Mace spotted six more on a ridge line above them.
“I dropped the two coming toward us and turned around to fire at the people up above,” Sherlock said. “By that time, Mace is free, and he’s shooting up there.
“George is yelling at both of us, ‘Get the [blankety-blank] out the way!’ because he’s got the automatic rifle.
“He swept it twice with two magazines and that was the end of it,” Sherlock said. “He was good. I always liked having George as the BAR man.”
These were new details to me. The topic of his experiences during the war weren’t necessarily off limits, but most times he quite frankly flat out refused to answer questions.
“I was watching a war movie and he was working on our bathroom,” my mother remembered. “I went in and asked him if he had ever killed Japanese and he didn’t answer me. He just glazed over.
“I’m sure he saw things that nobody should ever see.”
Years later, he was slightly more tolerant if my sister or I asked questions about things that summoned certain demons.
“Grandpa, what’s that funny mark?”
I couldn’t have been much more than seven or eight and the breeze was blowing through the screens of the front porch of my grandparent’s summer cottage. We’d just come up from swimming in the lake and water droplets still clung to the hair on his legs. The shine only emphasized the strange mark.
“It’s a scar.”
“From shrapnel working its way out of my leg.”
“How did it get in there?” I asked, cringing at the thought of a jagged piece of metal oozing from his leg.
“A shell exploded nearby.”
He didn’t need to add that it had happened while he was fighting in the war. Somewhere along the way, I had gathered and filed that information away in my mental “Grandpa” file.
“When I was a little girl little pieces of shrapnel would work their way out of his leg,” Mom told me. “It was a little hole in his leg, but it never bled. It was like it twirled down into a tunnel.”
Not even his service records make it clear where he was injured. There’s no record of treatment, which reinforces the belief that it was a minor injury, but it was, indeed, flesh pierced.
“There was something about a Purple Heart, but he wouldn’t accept it,” Mom said.
He did decline the Purple Heart. I guess he felt, like many veterans presented with the award today, that it was recognition for being in the right place at the wrong time.
I’m still not sure if he answered my question that day at the lake because time had dulled the razor-sharp edge of his memories or because he had a hard time denying me anything.
What little he did tell me was the cleaned up version of his experiences. Tidbits like the fact he participated in the battles at Tarawa, Tinian, and Saipan, were about as much as any of us ever got.
The full truth of what horrors Grandpa saw from behind his rifle I could only surmise until I talked with Sherlock nearly 25 years after his death.
He provided answers to questions I’d always been afraid to ask. Even if Grandpa had talked about his experiences it’s unlikely he would have shared such details with a young granddaughter.
And when I talked to Sherlock I heard stories no one in our family had heard before.
For instance, as a member of the 2nd Marine Division, Grandpa and Sherlock were assigned to a Navy ship that was part of an amphibious reserve asset for the Battle of Okinawa. Despite being in training for the invasion of Japan, the division never made it ashore.
The ship the men were assigned to was caught smack in the middle of a Japanese Kamikaze attack. The LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) off their bow and stern were both hit by Kamikaze pilots.
“I did not like to be locked below decks on the ship so I always volunteered for gun crew,” Sherlock said. “So I’m topside on D-Day morning and I had never heard of Kamikazes and the sailors I was with had never heard of them.
“They came in that morning and I can remember, they opened up on the horizon—and it was just starting to get light enough,” he continued. “I could see the 5.38 (-inch guns) off of the destroyers firing, and then the 40s (mm guns) firing. And then everything around us opened up.
“The first one came in and took out the LST on our bow. Within two minutes time, they took out the LST on the stern of us,” Sherlock recalled. “We got a couple mags off at them but they learned so quick we didn’t get a chance. About five minutes later, another wave came in and they took out the command ship and they hit a couple other ones that were not in our column, and I’m thinking, ‘I can’t dig a hole in a steel deck!’
“I had great respect for the Navy after that.”
Though both survived the Kamikaze attack, if “Fat Boy,” the A-bomb used on Nagasaki, hadn’t been dropped, well, I probably wouldn’t be writing this now.
You see, Sherlock confirmed something about that decision we’d always heard as part of Grandpa’s “war lore.”
Corporal Gobba was to have been the second man off the second boat in the second wave of the invasion of Japan.
“They told us to expect 90 percent casualties,” Sherlock said.
As it happened, both men were spared when the bombs fell.
They arrived in Nagasaki on September 23, 1945. One of the few details Grandpa shared at some point about this duty was his recollection of the smell of burning hair and flesh. It was a memory that haunted him for the rest of his life.
The turn of events, which had spared his life, may have eventually claimed it, though the Marlboro Man most likely had a role, as well.
“Everybody in the family smoked,” Mom said. “And everybody told us kids not to do it, that it was a filthy habit.”
She and her brother heeded the warnings, but it was a habit Grandpa couldn’t kick, not even when I asked him to stop.
I lost my link to the Greatest Generation on October 3, 1986. Grandpa’s brief battle with cancer strangled his lungs and attacked his brain. It stole the things he held most dear—his intellect, humor, and the ability to recognize his own family.
We’ll never know if the residual radiation at Nagasaki, the 40 years of smoking, or a combination of the two caused the cancer, but it really doesn’t matter.
When Grandpa was gone there was no debate about the epitaph that would grace his headstone. Knowing the Marine Corps was as much a part of his family as any of us were, Grandma insisted it bear the Marine Corps slogan—Semper Fidelis.
Though the time I had with Grandpa was way too short by my measure, there were four decades between his January 7, 1946, honorable discharge from the Marine Corps and that dreadful October day my freshman year of high school.
In those years, he came home to the family farm and a construction job, married my grandmother, Doris, and raised two children—my mom, Teresa, and my Uncle Chuck.
Oh, and he spent countless Sunday afternoons reading the “funnies” to his granddaughters.
Semper Fi, Grandpa.
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.