Heroes: the Marines
"... The beautiful skyline of San Francisco was a magnificent sight. Home at last! Just a few more days would pass and it would possible to embrace loved ones who had not been seen for such a long time..."
Russell C. W. Crom
- Branch of Service: USMC
- Unit: 1st RI Platoon Fleet Marine Force
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: Pacific Campaign -- New Caledonia, Guadacanal, Guam, Oahu, Eniwetok, and Iwo Jima
- Rank: PFC
- Birth Year: 1923
- Entered Service: Arkansas
Following the Iwo Jima operation in the spring of 1945, Marines from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions were dispersed to various pacific bases. PFC 478123 was fortunate enough to be assigned to Maui. There, dozens of International Correspondence School lessons caught up with him and provided mental exercises which were ideal to help put activities of the past several months in proper perspective.
One afternoon, after completing correspondence lessons, there was opportunity to read notices on the company bulletin board. One item of unusual interest stated that 300 marines would be selected from the Fleet Marine Force to attend V-12 school at Quantico, VA. Upon successfully completion of the college portion, the program would lead to officer training school (OCS) and a commission.
A visit with the platoon sergeant confirmed that PFC 478123 was eligible to take the series of tests, provided that permission could be obtained from the Captain in charge of the 1st RI platoon. The sergeant, who had often helped with algebra and other correspondence lessons, encouraged the idea. An appointment was made with the Captain who approved the request. Tests were completed with satisfactory scores and followed by a series of interviews. The final interview was with the Colonel, who was in charge of selecting the final 300 men from the Pacific operations for the special program. Here again good luck was with the PFC. The Colonel thought he had the right stuff to be included among the 300 men for the special program.
Having been overseas about 2 1/2 years with duty at New Caledonia, Guadacanal, Guam, Oahu, Eniwetok, and Iwo Jima, the trip back to San Francisco was an exciting time. Just as the homecoming ship sailed from Hawaii, atom Bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This dramatic event caused the Japanese to surrender. When the ship was a couple days out of San Francisco, word was received that for all practical purposes the war was over.
The 300 potential shave-tail lieutenants were co-mingled with other marines that were returning to the States for various reasons. Very few on board the troop ship were personally acquainted with any of the other individuals. Leisure time was spent in different ways such as chess, poker, craps, and innumerable card games. Of course everyone was required to enjoy calisthenics, along with other lottery assigned duties such as KP and head details.
In addition to the activities mentioned above, there were countless bull sessions. There was little conversation exchanged about battle details or close calls. More interesting topics for discussion included speculation as to what would happen to the 300 would-be second lieutenants.
Obviously the Marine Corps would not need the number of officers which had been projected as being necessary to invade the Japanese homeland. Iwo Jima reduced the number of living marine lieutenants considerably. Many were killed in action. Those who survived were often promoted to replace higher ranks that were opened because of the relatively large number of officers who had been killed during the battle for the 8 square miles of volcanic sand and an extinct volcano named Suribachi. One third of the marines killed in WWII died at Iwo Jima. It was an operation where officers did their share of dying.
The possibility of the Marine Corps not needing the special 300 was feasible. Speculation about an early discharge was also considered believable because of probable downsizing of the Marine Corps. This type of fantasy led to other daydreaming. It was not a secret that some of the men aboard the ship were bona fide heroes. Some had won medals for valor during battle and were fortunate enough to receive the decorations personally instead of having the awards delivered to widows and mothers posthumously.
Would these individuals receive special recognition when the ship docked at San Francisco? Would there be a parade to honor the veterans of Iwo Jima? After all, word had been passed about how well the Flag over Suribachi had been favorably received by the entire country. San Francisco had been always been perceived as patriotic city. It seemed plausible this great city would do something special! Would a grateful nation do something to recognize returning marines who had done their best to do the job their country has asked them to do? A blink of the eyes could produce a mental picture of cheering crowds and welcoming bands playing Semper Fidelis.
As the Golden Gate came into view at sun down, expectations were high. Even heavier than normal ground swells did not quell enthusiasm. Departing from San Diego years earlier ground swells had caused seasickness, but no one on board showed any signs of seasickness this time. The beautiful skyline of San Francisco was a magnificent sight. Home at last! Just a few more days would pass and it would possible to embrace loved ones who had not been seen for such a long time.
The ship's speed dropped to just a few knots. Soon the ship slowed to a drift. It appeared that the anchor might even be dropped. Why? This was not an operation where marines would have to descend cargo nets to board landing craft. There was no official word but it was rationalized that the formality of tugboats was essential in a civilized port. My, but it was a time consuming process! It took hours to reach the pier. The war could never been won with such slow tactics. More rationalization suggested that perhaps the extra time would be well utilized by grateful civilians who were planning the welcoming festivities.
After dusk the ship finally tied up at an inside pier, but there were no cheering crowds to welcome the returning marines. There had been no comment from those in command about what was to be expected once the ship docked. Instead of cheering crowds on the well-lighted pier, the welcoming party was a large number of well-armed Shore Patrol personnel (Naval Police) in formal formation.
To be without authentic news was a drastic change for 478123. His last ship had been the USS Eldorado, the Flag Ship for the Iwo Jima operation. As a member of the 1st Radio Intelligence Platoon with radioman and message center duties, reliable information had been readily available. Live broadcasts to the States originated on board the Eldorado and news from the States was relayed to all other ships and shore operations. Now everyone was in the dark.
On this ship, returning marines were not aware that servicemen had rioted in San Francisco following word of surrender by the Japanese. Military personnel had badly abused a victory celebration with drunken and disorderly conduct. Stores were looted, windows smashed, women raped, and several persons even died during what would become known as the San Francisco servicemen's riot. As a consequence, there would be no hero's welcome for marines or any other servicemen, regardless of what they had done for their country.
A number of barges were brought along the Bay side of the ship. Without any explanation, all returning marines were shuttled off to quarters on Treasure Island. The Shore Patrol was armed and everyone was under strict orders to obey what ever an SP directed. As marines were assigned to their bunks, word was passed that it would take about a week to process travel orders. In the meantime everybody would be confined to Treasure Island.
The next morning 478123 went to the Duty Sergeant and formally requested a three-day pass to see his Aunt and Uncle who lived in Temple City near LA. The Sergeant almost laughed and stated that no one would be getting a three-day pass!
A request to make a telephone call to Temple City was granted. Through out boot camp, Uncle Elden and Aunt Rae (A & U) had been second parents to PFC 478123. Uncle Elden had served on the Arizona. Considering the fate of the Arizona at Pear Harbor December 7, 1941, the PFC had been a personal representative to the Japanese for A & U.
The collect telephone call was promptly accepted! Unk could not believe the story he was told. His comment bordered on an order. "Gyrene, you stay put! We are coming to get you and we will see about that three day pass!" The next morning the PFC was told to report to the Duty Sergeant on the double. A not too happy noncom handed a three day pass to the PFC with the comment, "I don't know who you know, but here is your @@#$!@ three day pass".
The pass was to begin the following day. Another telephone call filled in details about the rendezvous point. Unk never did confide whom he knew, but his firm had received kind words from Washington for excellent performance on defense items. Obviously, Unk had some kind of connections. His nephew knew better than to ask questions.
There was at least one Marine who received a hero's welcome even if he did not have medals of valor. The rewards included additional telephone calls to home in Arkansas where the news of a safe return was gratefully received.
The scenic trip to LA from San Francisco along the coast was a wonderful experience. A more lovely stretch of God's creation does not exist elsewhere in the world. In spite of earthquakes, storms, and a few other drawbacks, the California coast is something to behold. The trip was also a reminder that civilians had indeed sacrificed to support the war. Tires on Unk's Studebaker were paper thin with no replacements available. Unk's connections produced a few extra gas-rationing stamps to make the San Francisco--LA trips possible.
The three days were packed full of joyful activities. The visit started out dramatically! To celebrate the many times 478123 came up to LA from the San Diego Marine Corps base and sacked out on the couch, another couch test was the first activity upon entering the house on Rio Hondo in Temple City. Muffins (Aunt Rae's Angora Cat) curled up on his chest. This was a repeat of one more State side joy. What was intended to be just a "cat nap" turned out to be several hours of peaceful sleep. An adoring Aunt and a proud Uncle let their Marine sleep undisturbed.
Being a strict military man, Unk made sure that the three-day pass concluded with 478123 checking back into Treasure Island on time. As additional news was obtained the civilian reaction to returning Marines became understandable. The riots were awful and made the Treasure Island quarantine necessary to protect both civilians and Marines. Some civilians had been murdered just because they looked like Japanese.*
A week later A & U were surprised again to receive another telephone call. This time the call originated in LA. However, the troop train was just passing through en-route down to San Diego to pick up additional Marine passengers for the train trip across the continent to the East Coast. There was not even time for A & U to make a quick trip to the train station.
It was a long trip back to Camp Lejuene. There, things were well organized in Marine Corps fashion. After one night's rest the 300 special Marines were called together and informed that the Marine Corps would not be needing the additional officers anticipated when the program had been initiated. Two options were offered:
1. Sign up for 4 more years and go on to OCS.
2. Receive an honorable discharge within two weeks.
Out of the 300, only 6 decided to remain in the Marine Corps. What the country had requested be done, had been done. It was time to return to civilian life.
PFC 478123 left home as a civilian about three years previously and had never had a furlough. He returned as a civilian where his country gave him the GI Bill and an engineering education. Studies from the International Correspondence schools made it easier to be accepted as an Engineering student at the University of Arkansas.
Previously, eight-month public schools of Northwest Arkansas had left him poorly prepared for Engineering. This was his preferred line of study but lack of acceptable credits and funds caused him to start his education, by entering Draughn's Business College in Springfield Missouri. This did not seem proper when his country needed him for military service. Consequently, he dropped out of Draughn's to join the Marines. His Dad had not been enthusiastic when requested to sign consent papers for his underage son to join the Marines. "But Son, why the Devil dogs? Why not the Navy like your Uncle Elden?"
There was an unforgettable welcome when 478123 finally reached home. Those who have read DOG STORY are requested to forgive the writer for repeating a few paragraphs here. The home folks knew their Marine would be coming home, but as the good run of luck would have it, he was ahead of schedule. A kind old gentlemen had gone to the bus station at Camp Lejeune looking for a serviceman who could help him drive to Little Rock. This not only improved the time schedule tremendously, the man paid for all of the meals and would not take a penny for the ride. He said he just wanted help in making the long drive. True blue Americans loved and supported their servicemen during World War II.
No one was expecting the returning marine at the moment he arrived home, except his Dog King. Before the Dog's Master went away to school and the Marine Corps, he had worked at a local limestone mill on night shifts. King developed a habit of leaving his normal sleeping place under the front porch for a position at the front yard gate at the top of the hill from the main highway. King would stand guard until his Master returned from the mill before he would go to this place under the front porch.
The Trailways bus from Little Rock let the Marine off at the mailbox on the highway, which is out of sight from the house. The Marine was in dress greens because his Mother had never seen him in uniform. The young man's pace quickened as he walked up the hill to his home. As soon as his head was above the crown of the hill, King came into view. About the same time King spotted his human friend. The dog shot like an arrow toward his long missing human. Recognition was instantaneous. The sensitive nose, which had been badly offended, years ago by a skunk, verified that this was the right human even if the clothes were different.
This time the dog was not satisfied with a pat on the head. He barked and barked and jumped up on the Marine to lick his face. The neatly pressed uniform and brilliantly shined shoes did not impress the dog nor alter his display of affection. There were no "Down" commands, which had been used in years past to protect 'Sunday clothes'. The boy was equally happy to see his dog. The Marine put his seabag down and let the dog jump into his arms just as the dog had done years before as a puppy during the stock dog training years. But King was no longer a puppy. He was a full sized dog, typical of German shepherds, and he washed the Marine's face with his long tongue.
The welcoming party was so noisy that the mother investigated to see what all the barking was about. She had been making bread and her hands were white with flour. Now the dog had to yield because it was Mama's turn. What a wonderful homecoming. It was so good to be home! Dusty paws and floured hands made the most beautiful decorations that a Marine uniform could have.
Once the Marine was home the dog resumed a routine that was similar to what had been before his master left for the war. The dog no longer stayed outside the front yard gate watching the road. His Master could come and go but King would keep his spot either on or under the front porch from then on. The dog knew there was no longer a need to stand guard at the front yard gate.
Three years changed many things. The most noticeable was that a new house stood where the old one had been. Lightning had struck and burned the home while the Marine was serving at Guadacanal. His father and younger brothers had rebuilt a sturdy and beautiful home, which still stands today. The next most noticeable thing was that his Mother who used to have light brown hair was completely gray.
A half-century has passed all too quickly between the events described above and the writing of these lines. Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Several memorial services commemorating 50 years after the invasion of Iwo Jima, V-E day, the fire bombing of Tokyo, dropping of Atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaka and the end of the war in 1945 have shown that we do remember the past. However, the philosopher should have qualified his statement and specified, "Remember correctly". Some things are being said and written in attempt to rewrite history. Unless the lessons of war are learned correctly, we are condemned to repetition.
Those who would have present generations deplore the United States for dropping the Atom bombs and fire bombing of Tokyo have not been aboard a ship when it was under attack by a Kamakazi plane nor have they taken the brunt of a Banzia attack. The Japanese warriors had a religious zeal toward dying for their country. It took dramatic events to cause the Emperor to deny deity and surrender a proud nation that was ready to fight to the last man. One need go no farther than the letters the Japanese General, Kuribayashi wrote to his wife about the defenders of Iwo Jima to understand the zeal of the Shinto.
Had Japan won the war, Iwo Jima would be celebrated in the same way as the Alamo is for us. If a US Marine falls on a live grenade to protect his buddies we award the Medal of Honor posthumously, but the Kamikaze pilot is a religious suicidal fanatic.
As a nation we have demonstrated that we did not learn lessons correctly during WWII or there never would have been a Vietnam War. The experience of the Treasure Island welcome made this writer all the more sympathetic with the Vietnam Vet. In many battles in Vietnam the fighting was just as tough as experienced at Iwo Jima, but the country was not behind the cause of the war. By and large the fighting men were trying to do what was asked of them. The politicians and those who would glorify war deserve our disdain.
We are in the period before World War III. May that period last forever. In the meantime there is nothing wrong with sincere Flag Waving. It still stirs this fading Marine's blood to hear the Star Spangled Banner. We should sing all verses and pay particular attention to the last verse:
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto, "In God is our trust."
And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O're the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The cause in Vietnam was not "just" We are still paying the price for the lies that got us into the mess. Drug use became an American pass time and deficit spending became a way of life for our government. Misuse of Marines in Vietnam caused that elite fighting force to have the worst record of absent without leave offenders, desertions, drunkenness and drug addiction of any branch of service. In comparison, in previous wars the record had been the best. Survival rates of Marines in POW camps of the past had been above 80% compared to 60% average for all services. Things changed because of political manipulation
Our trust has been in military might and not in God. Might does not make right! Over spending on defense during the 1980s put the country so far in debt that interest on the debt now exceeds military spending. Yet, we still have those who would squander resources on "Star Wars" in preference to balancing the budget. It is obvious that we have not learned the lessons we need to learn from war.
In spite of problems, we still live in the best country in the world. Internal dangers to freedom are now greater than foreign threats. Equally dangerous as the immoral Hollywood left are the forces of the hypocritical religious right that saw fit to squander millions in an attempt to elect a glory hound and professional liar to the Senate in 1994. Just saying Lord Lord and rhetoric about family values will not put us on God's side. Our cause must be JUST.
Loud mouth nasty talk show hosts grub money by exploiting differences instead of seeking common ground of reason. Keep it up and eventually we will "enjoy" ethnic differences as now is going on in the former Yugoslavia. Christ brought to our attention, and centuries later Abraham Lincoln reiterated the point fact that, "A house divided against its self cannot stand". It took the Civil War to drive home that lesson. Here is hoping that another war will not be necessary to re-learn past lessons. World War II demonstrated what our country can do if we are truly United.
Russell C. W. Crom
Fmr. PFC 478123 USMCR
*(Essay written June 1995. This note added in October 2006. Google VJ riots for more details)
Additional Related Information to the above story is listed below. Mr. Crom served on Iwo Jima alongside Keith W. Johnson in the 1st Radio Intelligence Platoon.
You can read the story of Mr. Johnson and his quest to return a photo album to a former Japanese soldier below:
"The Returned Photo Album"
Keith W. Johnson, 1st Radio Intelligence Platoon
U. S. Marine Corps
Original story is from a message (e-mail) received on 23 October 2006.
Story added to website on 23 December 2006.
We, at the World War II Stories - In Their Own Words web site wish to offer to Mr. Russell C. W. Crom our most profound THANK YOU for his poignant story of his personal experiences -- during World War II and especially for allowing us to share those memories. We will always be grateful for this fine gentleman's contributions to the war effort and to the countless other men and women who put forth their "finest hour".
September 5, 2002.
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