IN?HONOR… Saluting area war veterans

Editor’s note: This is part two.

VMF 312 had orders for Guadalcanal, a Japanese island that had been taken over by the U.S. Marines. Rumor had it that the island was completely clear of Japanese enemy forces, but it wasn’t long before those rumors were proved wrong. Rogue Japanese snipers started appearing in the trees, taking shots at will at allied troops. The real truth was that no place in the Pacific was safe.

With the United States gaining complete control of the airspace there, the 312 was sent to a new location of conflict: the island of Okinawa, a Japanese-held island covered in airstrips, closer to the mainland and closer to danger. The island’s climate was hot and consisted mostly of rock, which many of the U.S. troops weren’t used to. As they landed in this unforgiving place, an officer from John E. Abram’s unit was hit with a hand grenade. He had fragments embedded in his groin, and was rushed to a nearby ship’s operating room, which was protected only by sand bags. The young officer’s life was saved by the hours-long operation, but the doctors told him that he would probably never father children due to the injuries he had sustained. Years later, Abram met this officer again at a 312 reunion. The officer introduced John Abram to his two sons, standing proudly beside their father.

Okinawa is a long and narrow island, 60 miles long by 18 miles wide. The entire Japanese army seemed to be underground, hiding in an elaborate network of tunnels. The nightly Betty bombs that were dropped filled the landscape with huge craters, which filled with rain and turned into mud pits. Soon, the four-wheel drive Jeeps couldn’t even navigate the terrain without sliding into one of these pits. They were everywhere.

The only dry places to be found were the caves. Many Marines took up positions within them, trying to keep themselves, their equipment and their ammunition out of the rain and in working order. But wet weapons weren’t the only trouble. Puddles and standing water meant mosquitos, and mosquitos meant malaria. The caves seemed, for a short time, to be the answer.

But it wasn’t long before the Japanese officers figured out where the Marines were staying. The Japanese detonated the caves, collapsing tons of rock onto the soldiers inside. To this day, many Marines remain entombed in the fallen Okinawa caves. For the Marines, the only “safe” place to sleep was out in the rain. Mosquito netting helped some men, but not all, ward off malaria.

Word came to the allied officers that 11 Japanese ships were headed to Okinawa to take back the airstrips. Eleven gliders were to hit Yontan. Marines were ordered to get out of the foxholes and to shoot at anything that moved. Abram had an M-1 and fired all he could at the Japanese soldiers. At the end of the firefight, the U.S. had lost 16 aircraft. Later, the bodies of Japanese soldiers were found, dynamite still strapped to their chests. They had been on suicide missions, running up close to the engines of allied planes and detonating the explosives. They blew themselves and the planes’ engines to bits. But the sacrifice was worth it to these Japanese soldiers. It was a way for their families to honor their emperor.

Each day of the war brought new horrors that Abram would never forget. Scenes of violence and desperation on that rocky island will never leave his mind’s eye. His commander, Richard Day, was killed as he flew a plane with his wingmen Ruther and Dempsey. The plane was full of Napalm, and Abram remembers that as it was hit, that plane exploded like a blown-up building full of dynamite. Abram went to Day’s wedding on Parris Island, watched as he married his bride, a former Rockette. She was only married a short time before she became a war widow, sharing that title with so many other unfortunate women who received letters and telegrams telling them their husbands would not be coming home.

The Marines paid again and again for that Godforsaken island, giving life after life to maintain their hold of its craggy landscape. The Japanese death toll reached 10,000-plus, but the Marines’ losses were even higher. Around 15,000 good men were lost on Okinawa. The price for an airstrip close to mainland Japan was high, especially for the families and loved ones that those fallen heros left behind.

Abram’s next direction was to board the USS Southern Cross, which took the squadron to Guam. With supplies prioritized – ammunition and food first – the Marines had no decent clothing to replace the island-battered uniforms they were wearing. When new uniforms handed out, the entire 312 squadron burst out laughing. The only uniforms available were Navy uniforms! Many jokes were shared about that situation. A Navy sailor passed them and asked if it was Halloween! When the next Marine supply depot was found, the uniforms were exchanged. The Marines were glad to look like themselves again.

The next action Abram saw was in Guadalcanal. Then it was New Guinea and Port Moresby in 1943. Since it was Thanksgiving, Abram was served a meal of canned ham. He was also given a certificate saying he had crossed the equator.

The squadron boarded their aircraft carrier and left the Guadalcanal area. Their new “ride” was the USS Franklin CV Hull 13. With orders for U.S. planes to bomb nearby islands, the carrier’s job was to refuel those planes on its deck. This is just what the USS Franklin was doing when it was hit. Panic and confusion followed the blast. Some men heard that there were orders to abandon ship and jumped into the water, but the admiral wasn’t going to give his ship up so easily. He took the Franklin and all the surviving men on board to Ulithi, a nearby island, sailing there with only half a crew and the help of the USS Pittsburgh. The ship was listing at over 13 degrees and more than 700 men were dead. Over 200 were injured.

By the time Abram was on his way to Okinawa, the USS Franklin had been repaired to sailing condition and was headed for safe port at Pearl Harbor. The proud ship was decommissioned in 1947, after serving its country for only three years.

From the relative comforts of staying on an aircraft carrier, Abram was now aboard the LST-598, right alongside the LST-599. LST stands for “Landing Ship, Tank,” a ship designed during World War II to support amphibious operations by transporting large numbers of vehicles, cargo and landing troops directly to shores without landing ports. Some men grimly joked that LST stood for “Large, slow target.” Sometimes it is dangerous to make jokes like that.

When the two LSTs were just a few days’ journey away from Okinawa, the captain came over the ship’s intercom and announced that Japanese submarines had been spotted nearby. With the ship full of Marines and high octane aircraft fuel, it was not just a floating bomb but also a bullseye for the Japanese. As Abram tried to put his worries aside in order to do his job, the captain played the song “Nearer, My God, To Thee.” The entire crew became silent.