Five NH Men Recall Battle For Okinawa
By Roger Amsden, Sunday News Correspondent
and Pat Hammond, Sunday News Staff
New Hampshire Sunday News, Manchester, N.H., Sunday, April 2, 1995
This is about Okinawa, the largest joint Army-Marine Corps amphibious assault in history.
It was to have been the penultimate campaign -- the last battle before the massive invasion of Japan. Instead, there was no invasion of Japan: Okinawa, an island in the Pacific, was the stage for the last major battle of World War II.
An extraordinary and powerful new weapon, the atomic bomb, saw to that.
The Sunday News talked to five New Hampshiremen, survivors of the campaign that garnered the highest number of casualties of any in the Pacific theater.
Marine Robert Ellis of Nashua, Army Signal Corpsman Bill Holman of Gilford [formerly of Hampton], and three Navy men, Robert Giguere of Laconia, Edgar F. Brodeur of Penacook and William Russell of Francestown, dug into memorabilia of frayed photos, marked-up Okinawa paperbacks, and things taken off dead Japanese, reclaiming the events of April through June 1945.
For those involved in the fighting 350 miles from the main Japanese islands, memories of the battle ar still as vivid today as if the battle had taken place yesterday, not 50 years ago when they went ashore as young men to do battle with a fanatical empire prepared to fight until the last.
For Bill Holman of Gilford, it was the first battle he had ever come close to. Bob Giguere of Laconia, who had gone ashore on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day the previous year, feared it would be his last.
Holman still has a 7 mm Japanese army rifle, a helmet and canteen that he took from the body of a Japanese solider. Giguere no longer has, but vividly remembers, the letter he penned to his mother which was left on board ship with instructions to have it mailed to her "in case something happens to me."
One of First Ashore
Japanese snipers had begun to infiltrate the area. "John Diefenbach told me to round up the other guys and get ready to leave. There was a cemetery near there above a village and some of the guys would go there and smash open the urns, looking for gold teeth. I went there and found them and just as I did a sniper fired at us and hit me in the foot."
It was the second Purple Heart for Giguere, although somewhat less gloriously earned than the one at Normandy where he was knocked unconscious by an explosion which killed an officer he was talking with. He woke up days later to find himself in a hospital in England.
Holman said that he barely got his feet wet when he went ashore on May 2, , a month after the landing. He was with the 318th Army Signal Corps and recalls that some fierce fighting was still going on, especially in the southern part of the island.
And, although he never fired a shot at the Japanese, he vividly recalls the night Japanese suicide commandos raided the Yontan airfield, a mile away from the dugout area where his signal post was situated.
"It was one wild night. We heard the air raid sirens and then it was like a fireworks show at Weirs Beach [N.H.]. The air was filled with tracer bullets and the whole sky was lit up," Holman said.
Japanese suicide planes tried to crash into the American aircraft parked on the runway and squads of Japanese commandoes or Marines got out of planes that they had crashlanded and ran up to the aircraft, blowing them up with grenades or setting off dynamite charges that were wrapped around their own bodies.
Only a handful of the 50 Japanese aircraft made it through, and the commandos who survived the night committed suicide the next morning by setting hand grenades beneath their bodies.
Holman recalls nearly tripping over the body of a dead Japanese soldier the next morning as he walked to the airport to survey the damage from the fighting.
He recalls that the fighting created widespread devastation and hard times for the Okinawan civilians. "When we were in the capital, we set up our communications center in the only building that was left standing in the city," he said.
Japanese resistance was dogged and determined. Rather than surrender, thousands of the Japanese penned into the southern part of the island jumped from cliffs into the sea, Holman said.
Holman was still on the island when Japan surrendered and Giguere was training for the final assault on Japan when he received word of V-J Day. He credits the atom bomb with saving his life.
Robert Ellis is a tall, rangy fighting man, a Nashua retiree whose battles these days have to do with who has access to Iwo Jima flag-raiser Rene Gagnon's Marine memorabilia, not Yontan airfield which Ellis helped protect against Japanese fire.
Ellis, whose black van sports USMC license plates and Marine bull dog bumper stickers, was going to be a career man but decided after six years that he'd had enough.
He doesn't want to tell a reporter what it felt like out there on that blood-washed Pacific island. He'd rather provide maps and fact sheets published by the Division of Marine Corps History & Museums.
"I wasn't a greenhorn on Okinawa," is about all he will say. "I was in Samoa and the Gilbert Islands. We were just doing our job."
"My participation was to set up on the Yontan airfield and protect it from the planes coming in to bomb the field. My outfit's job was anti-aircraft. We set up anti-aircraft guns and manned them, situated there at the field to the end of the war.
"I was with the 6th Marine Division and, before Okinawa, we woke up one morning and looked out and saw a thousand ships getting ready for the invasion of Okinawa. That was their (the Japanese's) last hope of keeping us away from their country. That was the last stop to Japan.
"There's a lot of anticipation when getting ready to get off the ship. You look over your shoulder and then -- what's in front of you? Got a gun you have to set up. I got to Okinawa on an LST (Landing Ship Tank) and we had to bring all this equipment in and set it up.
"We shot down many planes. We did our best. Of course, after a while we did control the island. But as we were aboard ship preparing to unload, the Kamikazes were coming in heavy on the ships there.
"While this was going on, and you're doing all this, you look over and see that, you look at it and say, wow!"
Ellis doesn't talk much about Okinawa, at least to non-Marines, but that isn't because he's choked with emotion. Okinawa didn't do that to him.
"I had been in other battles before so this was nothing new," he said. "For the oldtimers it wasn't the same as it was for the greenhorns."
A Family Affair
For Edgar Brodeur, Okinawa was a family affair.
An electrician's mate aboard the USS Shea, Brodeur scanned the Navy PBMs flying overhead and recognized the numbers of the aircraft his Navy-pilot-brother Richard flew. "I got a message to him," said Brodeur, "and on May 2 he came over to the ship on a mailboat and had dinner with me. Two days later we were hit by a Japanese Baka bomb.
"We had been at general quarters most of the night because of the heavy attack. I had breakfast, and then I was talking to these two fellows. One was from the Midwest and he used to call me 'New Hamp' because I had New Hamp on the back of my shirt.
"They went back to their battle stations and I went to mine, the last compartment on the ship. But they never made it. That was the way things happened. You took it for what it was, you know."
The pilot-operated Baka bomb was carried to the area of operations under the belly of a Japanese "Betty" bomber, which released it when they neared the target. It had no propellor. It was driven by a rocket. The Kamikaze -- suicide -- pilots who manned them had no option except to crash them into an enemy target.
"At 9 a.m., we were hit," Brodeur recalled. "I was in after-steering, the fantail. I heard two shots. They say they struck the pilot and he deviated, turning slight to the right, then going through one bulkhead, through a room, down the stairway and out the opposite side, blowing up just before going under water.
"He was headed straight for midships and if he hadn't deviated he would have split the ship in half and I would not be here talking to you," the congenial, retired personnel manager of Beede Electrical Instruments of Penacook said.
"My brother Dick was monitoring activity that night and saw the ship was hit but did not know I was okay until I had a signalman send him a message, with a flashing light, in Morse, saying 'I'm okay, good luck, Edgar, Poxie.'
"Poxie was our dog at home," Brodeur said.
The day the Shea was hit, Edgar Brodeur's picture fell off the wall in Penacook, and his sister screamed. She wrote Dick saying something had happened to Edgar. Dick wrote back assuring her that their brother was okay.
The USS Shea shot down 15 Kamikazes during the Okinawa operation, six of them within one 10-minute period near Ie Shema, the island where was correspondent Ernie Pyle died.
She had come to Okinawa in advance of the invasion, providing fire power for the mine-sweepers, and doing night radar picket duty to intercept and destroy enemy airplanes.
After the USS Shea was hit, she limped to the Navy "graveyard" on nearby Kerama for repairs, then returned to the States, where Edgar and Elizabeth Brodeur were married.
William Russell began his Navy career as a gunnery officer aboard a tanker. Because he came to the Navy with some experience with sailing boats, he was sent to school in Miami and upon graduation given his own ship to command.
LCS 24 was the gunboat's official name, but those who knew her called her Elsie, Russell, a retired New Ipswich state legislator, said.
The first stop was the Philippines where Elsie participated in test runs on an island profile that resembled Okinawa.
LCS 24, under Lt. William A. Russell, took part in the Joint Expeditionary Force that led the assault waves of IIIV Army Corps and supported the main landing on the Brown Beach sector at Okinawa.
Elsie provided intensive close range fire and rocket fire and rescued survivors of blown-up ships including the USS Bennett, the USS Calhoun and the USS Bush.
On April 6 Elsie, under Russell's command, rescued a crashed Kamikaze pilot, patched him up and stashed him away in an empty locker where his presence remained a secret from U.S. Navy men rescued from the ships he had helped to sink.