World War II Veteran Carl Eckert Tells of Suicide Mission in Pacific Theater
11/08/06 By Yvonne Miller
|Imagine an 18 year-old kid from Kiowa, Kan., who had to jump into the Pacific waters armed with only a knife and two cyanide capsules facing the unknown. Yes, the cyanide was for him to take and end his own life if he was captured to avoid torture and reveal American military secrets.
That kid had to crawl through the jungle on a tiny island of which he didn’t even know the name to try and estimate the number of “Japs” inhabiting the island and where the enemy had their ammunition – all the while dodging bullets and worse. He witnessed the horror of the “Japs” slaughtering his buddies. Of the 227 in his outfit, only seven survived that suicide mission.
Lifelong Kiowa resident Carl Eckert doesn’t know how he was one of those seven survivors, except to say, “Someone from above was helping us.” Quickly turning into a man from that boy who grew up painting with his father and siblings, Carl’s story proves why he is a member of the Greatest Generation as a soldier in World War II fighting in the Pacific Theater.
Carl was a member of the ACORN 17th whom he described as “even tougher than the Marines.”
“We were trained to kill with our bare hands,” Carl explained.
He said the ACORN group, so named for Aviation, Communications, Operations, Radar and Navigation, is what eventually transformed into the elite force known as the Navy Seals.
World War II Veteran Carl Eckert of Kiowa shows the medals he won for helping secure islands in the Pacific Theater that led to America’s victory over the Japanese. Photo by Yvonne Miller
|Carl guesses he was selected for this choice group of Navy men from his performance at boot camp in Faragot, Idaho and also in California.
“I’m not braggin’, but I was in pretty good shape. I played football in high school,” Carl said of his performance on two and five mile obstacle courses he completed plus a multitude of other training exercises including Martial Arts and beyond.
He also admitted being a “hot-headed kid with a temper” so was ready to go for it. “I was trained to take on nine American soldiers. That’s how dirty we was.”
“I already had three older brothers fighting in the war and figured I could do anything they could,” Carl said. Those brothers were Alvin, army; Albert, navy; and Loyal, army. Their youngest brother is Leon who also resides in Kiowa. Those men were part of the 8 kids in the family. With a German-born father named Zeifried, the siblings (even the girls) got the nickname “Zeke,” which continues today in many cases.
|Carl remembers in preparation for that suicide mission, the military took their regular Navy whites and had them wear blue dungarees and t-shirts to blend in to the water. The men were stripped of their dog tags so had no identity or connection to the U.S. He carried the cyanide in a plastic bag.||Carl Eckert enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943 to serve in World War II.|
|“Before we went into the water a chaplain gave us a readin’,” Carl recalled.
To the best of his recollection, the mission lasted about two hours. When he somehow managed to get out to the beach he had to swim “too far” in the dark to get back to the landing craft.
“That’s why to this day I hate to swim,” he said.
His next mission was helping take the island of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands in a bloody attack in November 1943. This was after the Battle of Midway and the U.S. launched a counter-offensive strike known as “island-hopping,” establishing a line of overlapping island bases as well as air control. The idea was to capture certain key islands, one after another, until Japan came within range of American bombers.
Betio, the primary island of Tarawa atoll, is only two miles long and 600 yards wide, but had the only airstrip in the islands and was vigorously defended by highly trained Japanese troops.
|When entering the beaches of Tarawa which were surrounded by a treacherous coral reef, Carl had his own pack with rations, set of clothes and a 30-06 gun that he even held while sleeping.
He said guard duty in the early morning hours was scary because U.S. troops were trained to shoot at anything moving outside their pup tent as the enemy was known to slash their bayonets through tents. How could he sleep in such circumstances, Carl replied, “You would just blank out your mind and sleep because you were so tired.”
|Carl Eckert and his army buddies stand on one of the beaches they helped secure in the Pacific during World War II. His friend “Andy” Andrews, for whom he’s searched since the war, is at the far right.|
“Our mission was to take the island and get rid of the Japs,” Carl said. He said the determined Japanese had their big guns mounted in cement and had concrete and steel bunkers reinforced with coconut tree logs.
“Our bombs couldn’t destroy them,” he said. The flame thrower helped the U.S. finally prevail.
“There wasn’t a tree left standing after the U.S. bombing,” Carl said of the island. He said soldiers were to stab a bayonet into any Japanese they saw lying on the ground who weren’t already bleeding to insure they were dead.
Putting his face in his hands, Carl said, “You don’t forget that stuff – you just live with it.”
He said the island natives welcomed the American soldiers after they freed them from the Japanese who tortured and raped them.
“You wouldn’t believe they stuff the Japs did to the natives,” Carl said.
In rebuilding efforts on Tarawa, Carl helped build an airstrip so U.S. bombers B-24s and fighter planes B-25s could land.
From the time Carl entered the service in May 1943 and rode the train from Kansas City to Idaho, Carl said he had a buddy Robert James “Andy” Andrews who was at his side through it all.
Referring to his family, Carl said, “When we was kids, Dad was real religious and read the Bible to us and we’d say the Lord’s Prayer every morning.” During his time in the Pacific where death was just a second away most of the time, Carl said, “Me and the Lord had lots of talks.”
Once during heavy combat, Carl and Andy were deep in a foxhole together. He said when the “Jap’s” bombs whizzed near, you could tell it was their’s by the sound. “Birds would squawk and squawk before the radar picked up the incoming.”
In that foxhole, Carl said, “I told Andy, if we dig any deeper we’ll be buried alive. If we climb out we’ll be hamburger.”
Overcome with emotion, Carl said, “All at once we saw a figure who said `follow me’ and we did.” Later the two volunteered to carry a live bomb to the water and again survived.
Another time Carl remembers being in water up to his neck and treading water with his gun over his head. After giving the correct password to a Marine who realized he was one of the few to survive, Carl said with tears welled in his eyes, “The marine put his arm around me, hugged and kissed me.”
Although once suffering flesh wounds from shrapnel, Carl was unscathed in the war – at least physically.
After their horrendous experiences, for rehabilitation, they were sent to Parry Island to do boat repair. “All we done was work. It was something to take our minds off all of it,” Carl said.
Upon returning to Kiowa in 1945 after his two years, five months and 23 days in the service, Carl said he and Juanita (Garman) fell in love and got married in February 1946.
Sitting across the kitchen table from her, Carl pointed at Juanita as his pillar of strength all these years when memories of the war get to him. The love and bond they share is evident in their looks and comments to one another. They’ve worked together custom painting, wallpapering, tiling and custom harvesting throughout their lifetime.
“I knew what plan God had for saving me when we had our son Max,” Carl said.
Their son Max was born deaf and blind after Juanita had measles early in her pregnancy. They lost a grown son Lex to asthma and another son
David who is disabled due to his asthma.
Carl has undergone numerous surgeries from back to gallbladder and survived prostate cancer. One of his biggest regrets is that he’s never been able to locate his buddy Andy since the war despite his search. It also always bothered him not to graduate from high school as he was drafted as a junior because he was 18. He thanks the late Helen Griswold who was school secretary when he was in high school for doing the work to get him an honorary diploma in 1995.
For his involvement in helping take the island, Carl received both the Presidential Citation and the English Citation. He has a display box featuring medals and a U.S. flag flown over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a day in his honor.
One of his greatest moments was when Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, came ashore and shook soldiers’ hand to say thank you.
“We felt great,” Carl remembered.
When today’s newest generations see Carl and other veterans who served in previous wars stand at programs across the nation this Veterans Day, they need to see beyond the bodies of older men nature imposed. They need to see the heroes who selflessly slithered through the jungle with the constant threat of death to get information to help the United States win wars so that this generation and future ones can live in a democracy where freedom rings.