On Patrol

Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO


HBO's new epic series The Pacific has focused attention on the Marines who were the first to begin World War II's campaign against the Japanese. The following is a first-person account originally  published by the U.S. Naval Institute.

Reprinted from Naval History with permission; Copyright © 2010 U.S. Naval Institute/www.usni.org.

By Edwin C.  Bearss

The author, a historian emeritus of the National Park Service, was in the first wave of Marines to run up against the hidden Japanese defenses at Cape Gloucester's infamous Suicide Creek. The following recollection of that bloody encounter is based on former Naval History editor Fred Schultz's interview with him, which first appeared in the June 2002 issue.

What I remember most about my service is the day I got shot. It was on 2 January in 1944. The 3d Battalion, 7th Marines—in which I was a member of L Company, 2d Platoon—and the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines were to do a sweep in front of the lines at Cape Gloucester on New Britain.

A portrait of Edwin C. Bearss. Courtesy of USNI and used with permission.

We'd been on patrols out there a number of times, had the perimeter set up, and were to clear the front of 1st and 2d battalions of the 7th. I was a scout. We advanced about a half-mile or a mile. Out in front, we approached a creek flowing perpendicular to our line of advance and into the perimeter. As we got near, the other scout and I saw that the ground was very level until we reached the edge of the declivity that led down to the creek.

The creek itself was probably 10 to 15 feet wide. We didn't know at the time the Japanese had dug their pillboxes into the side of the bank, on the opposite side, just below the lip. We could see several Japanese soldiers. We didn't know whether they were decoys or what, but they seemed oblivious to our approach.

We checked with the squad leader, who said, "Open fire!" So we opened up on them. Within a minute or less, all hell breaks loose.

The machine-gun squad supporting us was not set up when we moved off the lip and down the creek bank. The slope was probably about 45 degrees. I was on my haunches when all of a sudden the gun immediately opposite me, about 35 yards off, started firing. He started off to my left and got immediate hits. At that point, they hit the gunnery sergeant off to my left. Then they started searching back toward me and the guys to my right.

The first bullet hit me in the left elbow. It felt like a sledgehammer. Probably fortunately, it pulled me somewhat to the left. The next round hit me in the right shoulder and lodged in my chest at about the tenth rib. They were hitting men all over. Our machine gun never got set up. Both BAR (Browning automatic rifle) men in our squad were killed. Our battalion commander lost control of the situation. The 2d and 3d platoons of L Company were pinned down, and we lost, dead and wounded, probably 60 percent. In a matter of about five minutes, our squad alone had five killed and six wounded, one of whom subsequently died.

I was lying downhill on the creek bank, and I didn't know whether I had a left arm below the elbow, because it was twisted around and numb. I knew the shoulder wound did no nerve damage because I could see the bullet hole. So I lay there a while.

We tried to get corpsmen to come up, but they couldn't. So finally, I started to get up, and I didn't know how to do it. I tried to turn myself around, but not being able to use your arms makes it even more difficult to get on your knees.

So I was thrashing around, trying to get at least pointed uphill, when the Japanese see the movement. They open fire again, and this time they hit me through the left buttocks and shoot off the left side of my heel. It feels like a whip hitting me.

That was the only time I got angry. I'd been pretty cool up until then, trying to figure how to get out. We knew they didn't take prisoners, but I was wondering why they were shooting at a wounded man. They were within easy voice range of us, so I shouted some epithets at them.

Then I lay there probably two hours. I noticed it was getting dark, but it was only about noon. I began to wonder if I was dying. To my right, I saw Private Floyd Martin behind a log. I yelled, "Martin, can you get my helmet out of my eyes? I can't see."

He said, "I'm afraid I can't do it, but I'll see if I can reach you with my rifle." He reached over with his rifle and was able to use the barrel to knock my helmet upward. So then I could see and watch. The Japanese fire the same way we do, probably one tracer to three ball, so I can tell where the gun immediately opposite me is firing.

Another gun was to my right, not immediately in front of me. The guy with the gun immediately opposite me, in the pillbox, evidently sees some Marines moving off to my right and starts firing at them.

At a time like that, you don't realize you can get superhuman strength. I was able in some way to turn myself at least partially sideways, so I could get a little roll. I got myself up and walked on my knees to where the bank leveled off. Off to my right I could see the machine-gun squad, who never got set up. If they're not all dead, they're all dying by that time. The Japanese gunner sees me, but he can't get his gun low enough to hit me.

A portrait of Edwin C. Bearss. Courtesy of USNI and used with permission.

I'm next lying on my back after falling. I could see the tracers, which looked like they were very close to hitting me. By this time, our platoon leader was killed trying to get people out. Some men were going to get medals that day, and it's questionable whether others should. Lieutenant Thomas J. O'Leary, a New York Irishman, was the commander of the weapons platoon. He and a corpsman named Hartman got a lot of guys out. But they don't get any medals.

So the two came up to me. They had to lie flat and push with their feet, because they couldn't crawl; that's how low the tracers were. Hartman inched around and gave me a shot of morphine. O'Leary said to me—because I'm lying with my head toward them—"We cannot get on our knees. Can you stand it if we pull you by your dungarees?" I said, "Yes, any way to get me out of here." So they had to move using only their toes, as they're lying perfectly flat, and pull me probably 30 yards before they were able to get on their knees and move me to a battalion aid station, about 300 yards back.

There, they put me on a stretcher and—just like you see them doing in the stills from World War II or in Vietnam—they stuck a rifle with its bayonet in the ground and from it hung a plasma bottle to combat shock.

Stretcher bearers later hauled me probably a half-mile. Japanese mortars fire, and the bearers dropped me. They finally got me to a jeep, which they needed because of the mud. Gloucester has the heaviest rainfall average in the world: 400 inches in the rainy season.

I stayed in the regimental aide station for 2.5 days. By that time shock set in and I have very little memory of it. They were not able to get planes to the strips, so they evacuated us on an LST (tank landing ship). The LST has probably the worst smell I ever smelled in my life. Some of about 250 guys hadn't had a bandage changed in 2.5 or 3 days, like me. Nothing stinks like blood.

See the full Naval Institute guide to The Pacific.