(As related to his nephew George Reiswig)
One of my visits with my uncle Walter was in the summer of 2002. During that visit we talked about some work I was doing on a veteran’s memorial in Maryland. Walter had never before spoken to me about his military experience other than to say the scar on his arm was a war wound. He talked a bit more on this day.
Walter was drafted in September, 1941. For a new recruit military service began with a physical examination, often done by a local doctor working under contract. After a couple of weeks to get his civilian affairs in order, the recruit would be on his way by bus or train to basic training. Early in the war a city band or members of the local American Legion post might send the recruit on his way. Later, as in previous wars, some of the novelty wore off.
Walter was sent to Fort Snelling in Minnesota for basic training. Fort Snelling, to those who experienced it, (over 600,000 men and women during the war years) made a strong impression. Physically, Fort Snelling was a vast complex of offices, warehouses, rail yards, barracks, parade grounds and classrooms sprawled over a 1,500-acre site above the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. It was buildings as old as 120 years – solid brick and stone structures on park like green lawns studded with mature elms – and hundreds of tar paper and wood frame huts heated with coal stoves.
Arriving at the fort, recruits were marched to barracks and put to work with mop and broom. The over 200 recruit hutments were Spartan quarters made more unpleasant by impersonal noncommissioned officers who (like many behind-the-lines warriors) sometimes showed outright contempt for the new soldiers. A thorough army physical followed the next day, as did the all-important Army General Qualification Test. Scores on this test and results of the personal classification interview would determine the eager recruit’s future. Recruits, however, gave little effort to the test, which was often administered before breakfast. Fort Snelling recruits still scored well above the army average. They were, of course, mostly Dakotans and Minnesotans.
When test scores and interview results had been compiled, the recruit’s fate was sealed. He might be sent to an individual unit if his skills warranted. Those with high test scores likely were assigned to the Air Corps. The majority was designated for replacement training centers and eventual incorporation into existing units as replacements for casualties. Assigned to one of the ad hoc shipping companies at Fort Snelling, our now fully processed recruit awaited his transportation orders. The whole process could take from 3 days to as long as 2 weeks.
From Fort Snelling Walter was sent to Camp Walters in Fort Worth, Texas for additional training and eventually to Hawaii. He shipped out of San Francisco on March 13, 1942, for Hawaii.
After extensive training in Hawaii he shipped out of Hawaii with the 27th Division, 105th Infantry Regiment, Company A – Headquarters Communications. Walter’s primary duty was a radio operator for the company commander. His survival, like that of many others would dictate additional duties. He had no idea he was on his way to one of the great battles of World War II.
The Battle of Saipan was a battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II, fought on the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands from June 15, 1944 to July 9, 1944. The invasion fleet embarking the expeditionary forces left Pearl Harbor on June 5th, 1944—the very same day the allies launched Operation Overlord and the cross-channel invasion of Normandy. The Normandy landings were the larger amphibious landing, but the Mariana’s invasion fielded the larger fleet. It consisted of 14 battleships, 25 carriers and carrier escorts, 26 cruisers, 144 destroyers and countless transports, truly a fleet that meant business.
Willis Wacker landed at Normandy shortly before Walter was to land on Saipan – they did not know each other though both were from ND and Walter later became Willis sister’s husband.
The American 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions and 27th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Holland Smith defeated the 43rd Division of the Imperial Japanese Army commanded by Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito. For the Americans, the victory was the most costly to date in the Pacific War – 2,949 Americans were killed and 10,364 wounded, out of 71,000 who landed.
Walter landed on Saipan at the end of June 1944 [he could not remember the exact date] and was severely wounded during a Japanese Bonsai attack on July 7, 1944, just 20 days prior to Willis Wacker’s being killed at Normandy. Although he was a radio operator he indicated that everyone who could shoot was thrown into the lines to repel the Japanese attacks. He was assigned to a machine gun crew and recalled having to continually shift and raise the machine guns on blocks in order to find clear fields of fire over and around the bodies of the dead attacking Japanese.
This description of the fighting is from The U.S. History Internet site (http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USMC/USMC-C-Saipan/) describing Operation Forager:
On July 7, the battle to secure the Japanese-occupied island of Saipan crested in one of the largest banzai charges of the Pacific War. That charge — which lasted more than 15 hours — brought the total combined Japanese and American casualties for the bloody campaign to more than 30,000.
“Suddenly there is what sounded like a thousand people screaming all at once, as a hoard of ‘mad men’ broke out of the darkness before us. Screams of ‘Banzai’ fill the air, Japanese officers leading the ‘devils from hell,’ their swords drawn and swishing in circles over their heads. Jap soldiers were following their leaders, firing their weapons at us and screaming ‘Banzai’ as they charged toward us.
Our weapons opened up, our mortars and machine guns fired continually. No longer did they fire in bursts of three or five. Belt after belt of ammunition went through that gun, the gunner swinging the barrel left and right. Even though Jap bodies built up in front of us, they still
charged us, running over their comrades’ fallen bodies. The mortar tubes became so hot from the rapid fire, as did the machine gun barrels, that they could no longer be used.”
Although each [attack] had taken its toll, still they came in droves. Haunting memories can still visualize the enemy only a few feet away, bayonet aimed at our body as we empty a clip into him. The momentum carries him into our foxhole, right on top of us. Then pushing him off, we reload and repeat the procedure.
Bullets whiz around us, screams are deafening, the area reeks with death, and the smell of Japs and gunpowder permeate the air. Full of fear and hate, with the desire to kill. . . . [Our enemy seems to us now to be] a savage animal, a beast, a devil, not a human at all, and the only thought is to kill, kill, kill. . . . Finally it ends.
This was the wild chaos that General Smith predicted as the final convulsive effort of the Japanese. And it came indeed in the early morning hours of 7 July (D+22), the climactic moment of the battle for Saipan. The theoretical Japanese objective was to smash through Tanapag and Garapan and reach all the way down to Charan-Kanoa. It was a “fearful charge of flesh and fire, savage and primitive. . . . Some of the enemy were armed only with rocks or a knife mounted on a pole.”
The avalanche hit the 105th Infantry, dug in for the night with two battalions on the main line of resistance and the regimental headquarters behind them. However, those two forward battalions had left a 500-yard gap between them, which they planned to cover by fire.
The Japanese found this gap, poured through it, and headed pell mell for the regimental headquarters of the 105th. The men of the frontline battalions fought valiantly but were unable to stop the banzai onslaught.
Three artillery battalions of the 10th Marines behind the 105th were the next target. The gunners could not set their fuses fast enough, even when cut to four-tenths of a second, to stop the enemy right on top of them. So they lowered the muzzles of their 105mm howitzers and spewed ricochet fire by bouncing their shells off the foreground. Many of the other guns could not fire at all, since Army troops ahead of them were inextricably intertwined with the Japanese attackers. However, other Marines in the artillery battalions fired every type of small weapon they could find. The fire direction center of one of their battalions was almost wiped out, and the battalion commander was killed. The cane field to their front was swarming with enemy troops. The guns were overrun and the Marine artillerymen, after removing the firing locks of their guns, fell back to continue the fight as infantrymen.
The official history of the 27th Infantry Division recounts sadly the reactions of its fellow regiments when the firestorm broke on the 105th. The men of the nearby 165th Infantry chose that morning to “stand where they were and shoot Japs without any effort to move forward.” By 1600 that afternoon, after finally starting to move to the relief of the shattered 105th, the 165th “was still 200 to 300 yards short” of making contact. This tardiness was unfortunately matched by “the long delay in the arrival of the 106th Infantry” to try to shore up the battered troops of the 105th.
The extraordinarily bitter hand-to-hand fighting finally took the momentum out of the Japanese surge, and it was stopped at last at the CP of the 105th some 800 yards south of Tanapag. By 1800 most of the ground lost had been regained.
It had been a ghastly day. The 105th Infantry’s two battalions had suffered a shocking 918 casualties while killing 2,295 Japanese. One of the Marine artillery battalions had 127 casualties, but had accounted for 322 of the enemy. A final count of the Japanese dead reached the staggering total of 4,311, some due to previous shell-fire, but the vast majority killed in the banzai charge.
Walter was wounded in this action on July 7th and was eventually hospitalized in Chicago. The huge number of casualties in the great battles of World War II in the Pacific overwhelmed military hospitals in Hawaii and the west coast of the US so the wounded were sent to hospitals all over the country.
Linda’s sister Bertha, who lived in Chicago, read in the McClusky Gazette (the weekly hometown newspaper – in ND) that Walter was hospitalized in Chicago. She convinced her sister Linda to accompany her to the hospital to visit him. They were both from North Dakota (actually only lived about 20 miles apart) but had never met. You know the rest of the story. Walter was discharged from the Army in Chicago and returned home for the first time in over three years.
I have interviewed and written about a number of veterans of World War II. They were all reluctant to tell of their experiences; quite understandable given the indescribable horror that many experienced. However, once they began, the words flowed; they appreciated the opportunity to share their stories. Walter was no different in that regard. His eventual marriage to Linda, who he met while in the military hospital in Chicago, was also quite typical as many in the military met their eventual wives or husbands while in the service.
Walter was unfortunate to have been wounded, but given the circumstances of the action in which he was heavily involved, very lucky to have survived. Consider this from David Moore, Cdr. USN (Ret.) who wrote The Battle of Saipan – The Final Curtain. It is most fitting and proper that we honor those who died in this great battle of Saipan and in the other battles of this war. Thus, in closing, the following poem by PFC Carl Dearborn (address unknown) of the 4th Marine Division which went over the Saipan beachhead should be cited and left for the historians to ponder. It is titled: I Died For You Today.
I Died ForYou Today
I died for you today on a far off Pacific Island. If you are concerned, to say the least, I’ll tell you who I am… I’m the soldier and the sailor – I’m the airman and Marine… I’m the life blood of your nation – you sent me to this scene… I’m the one who loads the Amtracks…I’m the pilot, just as well… I’m the dedicated corpsman saving leathernecks who fell… I’m the trooper of the airborne, I’m the Seabee with a trade…
I’m the wiry American medic dodging steel to give first aid… I’m the tail gunner in the airplane, I’m the crew chief and the crew… I’m the cannoneer and mortar man in the field defending you… I’m the man of different races clinging to a rumbling tank… I’m Catholic, Jew and Protestant, and I serve in every rank… Call me Dominic, Smith or Kelly or pronounce my foreign name… and regardless of my color – When I’m hurt, I bleed the same… I’m Indian and I’m Mexican. I’m Polish, Dutch, Italian and Greek… I’m every inch American and your freedom’s what I seek… I’m the southern boy from Florida, I’m the northern lad from Maine… I’ve toiled in Georgia’s orchards, and I’ve cut Montana’s grain… I came from every walk of life – from mountains to the slums… I’ve lived, by God, through dust and drought, and I’ve prayed aloud for rain. I’ve known hardship and depression; still I’ve watched our country grow… But when Uncle Sam came calling I was proud that I could go… I’ve watched demonstrations and the people who protest… And I said “Thank God for freedom!” – my country’s still the best… So take your banners and your slogans. Raise your placards to the sky… I’ll defend your right to do it… Though in doing it. I’ll die… I’m your fathers – sons – and brothers…I’m the arm of Uncle Sam… And I died for you today, my friend…On an Island called Saipan…
The Army 27th Infantry Division
This division, before the national emergency was declared in 1940, was a State of New York National Guard organization. It contained many famous old regiments, some dating from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. In World War II, the division’s 165th Infantry had been the renowned old 69th New York Infantry, also known as the “Fighting 69th” and “Fighting Irish” of World War I fame. The first unit of this regiment was organized in 1775.
As the war in Europe grew in intensity, the Selective Service Act gave the President the power to federalize the National Guard. Thus, the 27th Division was activated by President Roosevelt on 25 September 1940. It was first sent to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for intensive training, and then, in December 1941, to California.
On 28 February 1942, the first elements of the division sailed from San Francisco and landed at the town of Hilo on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. During the next two months, the division units were scattered throughout the island for local defense and training. That was the start of the longest wartime overseas service of any National Guard division in the United States Army.
In the fall of 1942, the division was directed to assemble on the island of Oahu. Major General Ralph C. Smith took over command at that time. Then in midsummer 1943, orders came to prepare the 165th Infantry Regiment, reinforced by a battalion of the 105th Infantry and an artillery battalion, for an assault to capture the coral atoll of Makin, in the Gilbert Islands chain. Following a four-day battle there, in November 1943, the division furnished a battalion of the 106th Infantry for the unopposed occupation of Majuro in the Marshall Islands in January 1944.
The final prelude to Saipan for units of the 27th came the next month. Two battalions of the 106th fought at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshalls.
After the division’s struggle on Saipan, it went on to the battle for Okinawa in April 1945, and then to the occupation of Japan in September 1945.
The final chapter came in December 1946 when the 27th Infantry Division was deactivated.