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Veterans Day Tribute: Marine recalls bloody WWII battles in the Pacific

Marines wade ashore on Tinian (National Archives, Marine Corps)
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Thank you Veterans!

I met World War II Marine Tom Teela, of La Pine, OR, while interviewing his grandson, Kyle Thompson. Thompson, a combat-wounded Marine,  who had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.  On Veterans Day, 2017, we are pleased and honored to re-post Tom Teela’s story of war in the Pacific.

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by Leon Pantenburg

The 18-year-old Marine had been riding around in circles in a landing craft all night, waiting to land on a smoking, bomb-cratered coral atoll code named “Helen.” The embattled second Marines on shore were clinging to the narrow beach in the face of repeated counterattacks from the Japanese defenders.

U.S. Marines wait aboard a Coast Guard manned combat transport at Tarawa for the invasion barges that will take them ashore. Beyond the rail Coast Guard coxswains can be seen

U.S. Marines wait aboard a Coast Guard manned combat transport at Tarawa for the invasion barges that will take them ashore. Beyond the rail Coast Guard coxswains can be seen maneuvering loaded barges. (National Archives, Coast Guard)

Earlier that day, the Marine commander on shore had radioed that: “The issue is in doubt,” and the Marines ashore were clinging onto the beachhead through sheer tenacity.

“We had seen the smoke and heard the battle, from the railing of the ship, and wounded were being brought on board,” says Thomas Teela, 86, of La Pine. “We were in the reserve, and wondered why they didn’t send us in.”

Teela was a teenager during WWII, but like many of his generation, felt that he should serve in the Armed Forces. He was born in Havre, Montana, in 1925, and enlisted in the Marine Corps in September, 1942, at age 17.  By the time he was old enough to buy a beer legally, Teela had been in some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific, survived two suicidal “Banzai” charges, and been wounded at Saipan.

Teela, like most people during that time, was concerned about what was going on overseas.

“I’d been following the war in Europe and felt we needed to stop the Germans,” he said. “My father was a World War I Marine, and he’d been wounded at Belleau Wood. He was also the head of the local draft board, and I knew I would probably be drafted.”

The Marines specialized in amphibious assaults, Teela said, so he knew he’d probably end up in the Pacific.

During World War II, the American first priority was victory in the European theater of war. But the Pacific could hardly be ignored, or put on the back burner.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec.7, 1941, Japanese forces expanded rapidly. On April 9, 1942, U.S. forces on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese. This was followed by the unconditional surrender of U.S troops on Corrigador on May 6. This effectively removed most of the resistance in that area, and the Imperial forces advanced rapidly on Australia. The Japanese suffered a decisive defeat at the Naval battle of Midway on June 4-5, but it didn’t stop them from landing on Gona on New Guinea. In September, the First Marine Division invaded Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

In the meantime, Teela was sent to San Diego for training.

“Boot camp was fine until the first morning,” he recalls. “It started with this bugle blowing to wake us up before dawn. It was quite a shock. I wondered what I’d gotten myself in for.”

Training lasted eight weeks, and upon completion, Teela was sent to Mare Island Naval Shipyard  (25 miles Northeast of San Francisco) and assigned to Military Police duty. From there, Teela was sent back to Camp Elliot near San Diego for infantry training. Much of the training was related to amphibious assault, he said, and some of it involved climbing up nets, and disembarking with full combat gear.

“We ended up carrying up about 50 to 60 pounds,” he said. “We all carried two bandoleers of ammo, some extra clothes and food. When I see all the gear they carry today, I wonder how they can even walk around!”

After another six weeks of training, Teela was assigned to the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, Second Marine Division, and he and 7,000 other troops were sent to New Caledonia. The Marines stayed briefly at a training camp. The next stop was Wellington, New Zealand.

The American strategy was in the Pacific was called “island hopping”  whereby selected islands were secured by allied forces (usually the Marines). These islands would have some strategic value (like an airfield or anchorage) which helped to move the fight closer to Japan. Many islands were bypassed because of significant Japanese defenses. The idea was to shorten the distance to Japan and establish forward land bases for supply purposes.

The result was that amphibious assault forces had to attack heavily-fortified islands, and the defenders had plenty of time to prepare for an invasion.

Tarawa: Code-named “Helen,” Tarawa Atoll was a one-square-mile tract in the Gilbert Islands, located in the critical central Pacific region.  In the Battle of Tarawa (Nov. 20-23, 1943) the heaviest fighting occurred on the Japanese-held island of Betio. Betio was less than three miles long, no broader than 800 yards at its widest point and contained no natural elevation higher than 10 feet above sea level. Everywhere there were pillboxes, nearly 500 of them, most fully covered by logs, steel plates and sand.

Marines seek cover amongst the dead and wounded behind the sea wall on Red Beach 3, Tarawa. (National Archives, Marine Corps)

Marines seek cover amongst the dead and wounded behind the sea wall on Red Beach 3, Tarawa. (National Archives, Marine Corps)

The 18,000 U.S. Marines sent to the  tiny island were expected to easily secure it; however, problems quickly arose.

“The first group went in on AmTracs (Amphibian Tractors), and some of them got to shore,” Teela said. “But low tides prevented some U.S. landing crafts from clearing the coral reefs that ringed the island.”

Japanese coastal guns pounded the snagged vessels and desperate Marines gave up trying to free the boats and instead waded toward shore – hundreds of yards away – through chest-deep water, amidst heavy enemy fire.

“Our ship was about two miles out, and we couldn’t see anything,”  Teela said. “But we could see explosions and the airplanes going in.”

Later in the day, Teela and fellow Marines got into a Higgins boat (a shallow-draft, landing craft with a ramp bow) and “went in circles.”

“We rode around in the dark, and when the sun came up they sent us in,” Teela recalled. “We didn’t meet any resistance, but we could hear the shells going overhead.”

When the boat started scraping coral, the ramp dropped and the Marines got out in the chest-deep water and headed toward shore.

“It was about a 15 to 30 minute hike,”  Teela said. “We were under fire, but we went to the right of where the main action was going on and came ashore on a sandy beach. We didn’t take any casualties.”

Teela and several other Marines went along with a flamethrower team to attack a pillbox further down the beach, which housed a machine gun.

“The flames went through the slits, and we could hear the screams,” Teela said. “We shot them as they came out.”

Teela admits that his next recollections “are real hazy.”

“We were trying to make contact with the other Marines and we dug in,” he said. “Then, there was a counterattack.”

That night the Japanese troops made one final attack on the Sixth Marines —  a suicide Banzai charge, according to USHistory.com. The Marines were able to hold off the attack for a while, but when they radioed for reinforcements, were told that they would not get them. The men were barely able to hold their positions against the charging waves of soldiers, the USHistory.com report added. A gruesome aspect of banzai counterattacks was that if the Japanese ran out of ammunition or failed to overrun the enemy, then they committed suicide

A Marine from 1st Marine Division uses a flamethrower to clear a path through what was once a thick jungle in Tarawa - 1943 (National Archives, Marine Corps)

A Marine from 1st Marine Division uses a flamethrower to clear a path through what was once a thick jungle in Tarawa – 1943 (National Archives, Marine Corps)

“We had pretty much stopped them by then (that morning) ,” Teela said. “Then we pulled back and they were hit by our air power.”

The Marines finally took the island after a bloody, 76-hour battle in which both sides suffered heavy casualties. The Marines sustained nearly 3,000 casualties, but of the 4,700 Japanese defenders, only 17 survived.

Teela’s unit was taken back to the ship, and their next job was to take the island of Apamama, that was part of the Beito chain. They boarded Higgins boats and assaulted the beach, he said, but there was no resistance because all the defenders had committed suicide.

“We were in one of those south seas island setting like you see in the movies,” Teela said. “We built a defensive area right next to a beautiful beach.”

The Marines were given a short time to rest up and relax after their ordeal on Tarawa.  The natives were friendly and appreciative that the Japanese were gone, Teela said, but the Marines had orders not to fraternize.

“The Japs had mistreated the natives badly,” he said. “We all followed orders.”

Still, every Saturday night, there would be a big bonfire, and islanders would participate in their native dances. The Marines spent Christmas on the island, then departed for Hawaii for more training. After landing in Hilo, on the big island, the Marines were loaded on trucks and taken about 70 miles to the training base named “Camp Tarawa.”

“It was named to honor our men,” Teela said. “The Second Division had lost about 1,000 Marines at Tarawa, and had about 3,000 wounded.”

But there was not a lot of time for resting.

“We started training again, and we’d go out all day and do all sorts of exercises,” Teela said. “We trained a lot in the sugar cane fields, so we figured we were headed for some place in the jungle.”

After practicing amphibious landings on Maui, the Marine boarded ships and headed for Saipan in the Marianas Islands.

Saipan was another of those islands that couldn’t be bypassed and had to be taken. The assault on Saipan began on June 15, 1944. An armada of 535 ships, according to navysite.de, carrying 127,570 U. S. military personnel (two-thirds of whom were Marines of the 2nd and 4th Divisions) converged on the island.

A Marine advances on a cave on Saipan (National Archives, Marine Corps)

A Marine advances on a cave on Saipan (National Archives, Marine Corps)

“We headed for the island during the night, and when we woke up, there was the whole fleet,” Teela said. “The shelling was so intense, we figured there wouldn’t be anything left alive by the time we got there.”

Teela was in an AmTrac and headed toward the beach in the first assault wave. He doesn’t recall being particularly frightened at that point.

“It was a beautiful day, and I could see all those AmTracs headed for the beach,” he said. “I thought we were invincible.”

But then an accident came that most likely saved Teela’s life. His AmTrac hit a coral reef, simultaneously as a large breaker hit the vehicle. The AmTrac flipped over backward on the Marines, and they ended up trapped underneath.

“I was under the AmTrac and saw air bubbles rising, and thought I was going to die,” Teela said. “My thoughts were about my parents getting a telegram about me being dead. I dropped all my equipment and got out from underneath the AmTrac and stood on the reef.”

Several Marines drowned. A ship picked up Teela and took him back to the fleet, where he spent the night on a Navy vessel.

“All you ever see in combat is what is right in front of you,” Teela said. “I didn’t know what was going on shore.”

The next morning, another AmTrac took Teela to shore, where he rejoined his unit. The rest of the first wave was nearly decimated when they landed. By nightfall of the first day, the Second Marine Division had sustained 2,000 casualties, according to unit records.

“There had been a big Banzai charge the night before, and bodies were all over in front of the position,” Teela said. “I missed all that fight and all the fighting the first wave did.”

Teela’s unit was supposed to move forward up to a ridge that morning and take a defensive position.

“We got about three-quarters of the way up the hill when we were told they (the Japanese) were coming,” he said. “We were under fire the whole time so we dug in and waited.”

The attack never materialized, he said, and for the next few days, the Marines kept pushing forward.

On June 27, Teela was wounded in the face and hand. He was in a fighting position, and had piled rocks up in front. He was aiming his rifle, and looking over the sights, when some sort of explosion occurred directly in front of him.

“All I saw was the explosion,” he said. “There was a lot of debris, and it hit me in the trigger finger, in the face, and a chunk of coral hit me in the nose.” Teela was sent back to an aid station, where he received a shot of morphine and a cup of coffee, before being sent to a hospital. He spent three days in a hospital ward, then was released to go back to his unit.

The fighting continued until July 9, when organized resistance on Saipan ceased.  The Marines got a 10-break, Teela said, then they were loaded up for the next assault. The taking of Siapan made Tinian, only 3.5 miles southwest, the next logical step in the Marianas.

Tinian control would put the home islands of Japan within striking distance of U.S. bombers. The 2nd and 4th Marine divisions landed on July 24, while the naval forces bombarded the island and artillery was fired across the strait from Saipan.

On July 31, the Japanese launched a suicide Banzai charge, according to the United States Marine Corps History Division, which resulted in many casualties. The American forces numbered 389 killed and 1,816 wounded. Japanese casualties were enormous, with 6,050 killed, 236 POWs and 2,500 evacuated.


Marines wade ashore on Tinian (National Archives, Marine Corps)

Marines wade ashore on Tinian (National Archives, Marine Corps)

“We advanced to the end of the island, and saw Japanese civilians committing suicide by jumping off cliffs,” Teela said. “The emperor told them if they committed suicide, they would go to heaven. They expected us to torture them to death.”

After Tinian was secured, Teela was sent back to Saipan, and transferred to a scout/sniper platoon. They “did a lot of shooting,” Teela said, in preparation for the invasion of Okinawa.

Once again, Teela and fellow Marines boarded a ship and headed for Okinawa. He witnessed Kamakazi attacks on ships, but was in the reserve and didn’t take part in the battle. Teela’s unit was sent back to Saipan, where they continued training.

“Our next big goal was the invasion of Japan,” he said. “We would be in the initial beach landing.”

Civilian and military casualties were expected to be extremely high, but the invasion never took place.

Teela was returning from a patrol one afternoon on Saipan when he heard about an atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. Shortly after that, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

“The peace agreement was signed after that, and we were sent to Nagasaki for occupation duty,” he said. “We didn’t know anything about radiation. Maybe it contributed to my good health!”

Teela was honorably discharged from the Marines in November, 1946, and went back home to Montana. He worked for the Great Northern Railroad, from 1946 through 1955. He went to work for the Immigration Border Patrol, then transferred to the U.S. Customs Service. He retired in as head of the Customs Department at Los Angeles International Airport.

Teela married his first wife, Betty, in 1946, and the Teelas moved to La Pine in 1982. Betty died of cancer after 46 years of marriage. Teela married his wife Donna in 1994.

We can’t thank these WWII servicemembers enough, so let’s allow that respect to include ALL veterans of ALL American wars: Thanks, and God bless you!


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