SAILORS IN FOXHOLES
The story of Navy Communication Unit Seventeen and the Invasion and occupation of Ie Shima, Ryukyu Islands
By Lt. (J.G) William J. Gorman
We joined the Navy instead of the Army because we wanted a clean ship, a clean sack, good food -- and we'd take the sea battles were we found them. Now we're living in tents, eating K rations, slogging through mud up to our knees, spending half our time in foxholes....Who ever heard of Sailors in foxholes? (From a letter that every land based Navy man has written at one time or another to the folks back home)
The story of Mobile Communication Unit 17 is the story of a small outfit of 134 men and 26 officers which set up and operated the original joint Army-Navy communication center on Ie Shima, the last important Island to be taken by American Forces in the Pacific and, at war's end, our farthest advanced fighter and bomber base on the road to Tokyo.
MCU - 17's story is not one that can, or should, stand alone. Handling communications is no the kind of military mission that has any unity or sense to it when considered only by itself, it is instead a service, and the work done by the military units using that service is the fundamental story of the unit itself. The engineers who came ashore at Ie Shima and in less than three months converted a piddling little Island of truck farms into a great air base; the fighter and bomber squadrons that swarmed onto the island a few hours after their runways and hardstands and taxiways were completed, that comprised 750 planes by the firs of August and that spearheaded the most devastating air raids of the war against Japan; these are the two great stories that combine to tell the story of MCU 17, because the success of the air groups depended, as the success of military missions always does, on the proper and efficient handling of their communications. "Communications can't win the war, but can lose it". MCU 17 didn't win the war-- but the outfits that MCU 17 serviced, whose thousands of messages it encrypted, and decrypted, transmitted and received, efficiently and without a single critical mistake during four months of operation--those outfits, those engineers and air groups, played a vast and important role in winning the war.
On February 11, 1945, when Lt. Comdr. Glenn E. Talbutt, Officer in charge of Reserve Communication Unit #17 stationed at Iroquois Point, Oahu, received orders to form a mobile unit from his available personnel and to train equip and make them ready for imminent movement to a forward area, the state of the rest of the world at war was briefly this: The British and American and Russian armies were closing in on Hitler's Germany; the war in Europe was clearly in its final stages. In the Pacific the Navy's program of Island hopping was going forward apace. From the landing of the Marines on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 7 August 1942 our troops had moved in a broad pattern of bloody conquest; Adak in the Aleutians, 30 August; Port Morsby, New Guinea, 25 September; landings on New Georgia and Randova 30 June 1943, invasion of Bougenvill3 November and on 21 November landings on Makin and Tarawa; then New Britain on 1 February 1944, Kwajalein on the 20th, Eniwetok on the 29th. Through all these long months, our fleet was adding victory to victory. From the undaunted terrier that emerged from Pearl Harbor an incredible hunting pack had been born; the greatest, the mightiest fighting fleet the world had ever known. The Mid Pacific and South Pacific campaigns had won bases and harbors for the vast new fleet; a deep wedge had been driven far through Japan's perimeter of early victory.
In June 1944 Saipan and Tinian were invaded, soon would base our B-29 Superforts for all out raids on the Jap home islands, on 20 October 1944 MacArthur's promise that he would return to the Philippines was fulfilled. Seizing Leyte, on of the small islands lying between Mindanao and Luzon, he split the Jap occupation troops; now, as our unit was alerted back in Oahu, American troops were in Manila, the capitol of the Philippines had fallen, Japan had lost her greatest prize.
But the fighting was bitter; no inch of ground in the Philippines had been or was to be taken in the next six months without terrible cost in bloodshed and death. That it would be the same elsewhere was proven at Iwo Jima, invaded 19 February 1945 in the fiercest and costliest battle of the Pacific war.
The word: Every move in the Pacific from now on will be bloodier and bloodier.
The Island of Oahu in February of 1945 had reached the ultimate in its conversion from a peacetime vacation spot to an arsenal of war. The cloverleaf lagoons of its magnificent harbor had more warships in each branch than were present in all of them when the Japanese sneak attack destroyed the greater part of the American fleet on 7 December 1941. Day after day and week after week through Pearl Harbor's channel streamed the already giant and ever growing armada that America's new young Navy now manned Battlewagons, cruisers, destroyers -- carriers, carriers, and more carriers, Huge transports converted from the super liners of peacetime, freighters and tankers of the old merchant marine -- and sleek new attack transports and attack cargo ships, trimly fitted with five inch guns and batteries of anti-aircraft weapons l All this and landing craft too -- swarming into Pearl and swarming out again, for many a brief stopover on the way from the shipyards of our East and West coasts to their baptismal fire in the forward areas. For others in increasing numbers as the months went by Pearl was a haven, the closest thing they knew to the States, a place for over hauling, reconditioning, "relaxation and rehabilitation" for the crew, retreat for a brief moment from the strain of war. For some, but not too many, the cloud-wrapped peaks of Oahu's beautiful green mountains were to be life's last view of free soil. The Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the Army Garrison Force which was to occupy Ie Shima, was organized at Oahu and assigned to the Tenth Army on 24 January 1945, Brig. Gen. Charles E. Thomas, Jr., USA, assumed command of the garrison force on 30 January, and throughout the month of February the units which were to form the first echelon were alerted, given necessary special training, and equipped for duty in the forward area. The personnel of MCU 17, excepting the five officers an 40 men of the 1714th Signal Service Company, which had been designated a part of the unit, had been training with the Advanced Base Combat Communication Training Center at Iroquois Point, for several months and upon being alerted, were withdrawn from that training to assist in the more urgent business of testing, adjusting and making ready for service the radio vans and other gear that would accompany the unit. Naval Detachment Baker, which was to operate the signal tower on the beach at Ie, also became part of MCU-17 at this time. Between 26 February and 4 March a dress rehearsal simulating actual field conditions was successfully conducted on the west shore of Oahu 20 miles from Iroquois Point. The Unit moved to the site in convoy, wearing combat gear and with trucks and vans fully loaded, and with the designated teams so placed in the convoy as to arrive at the site in the succession in which their jobs would be done. The unit was on the air, receiving and transmitting messages on the island net, within four hours after arrival, the circuits were efficiently manned and much valuable experience was obtained in the handling of volume traffic. The camp building job was considered 4.0
Difficult days followed the return to Iroquois Point , with Lt. Comdr, Talbutt and various of his officers trying desperately to obtain the hundreds of items essential gear that allowance lists and common sense called for but that, too often, the supply depots seemed never to have heard of or were unable to provide. Lt. Menice, RMO, and Chief Radioman Jesse Barnhill worked their crews night and day getting the radio vans into final shape, the motor macs under Leslie Cadwell, MoMM1/c waterproofed all the vehicles and gave the motors final tuning; officers and men toiled together on the unfamiliar and impractical job of trying to load 25 tons of supplies on trucks and trailers whose total capacity was eight tons. By borrowing truck and hold space from the Army wire team outfit that accompanied the unit the impossible was achieved, however and on March 13 the convoy of overburdened, swaybacked trucks and jeeps crawled onto the Honolulu docks and was loaded aboard the GRETNA VICTORY for transport to the target.
Seven days later on March 20, the personnel of MCU - 17 boarded the new attack transport USS CLEARFIELD (APA 142) in company with the entire first echelon of the garrison force, of which Lt . Col. B. F. Moddisett was troop commander. On March 5 Lt. Col. J. A. Muller and Maj. J. D. Fleming of the Headquarters staff had been ordered on detached service to join the 77th Division at Leyte, P. I. and to accompany the assault troops on the original invasion. Gen. Thomas, his Chief of Staff Col. L J. Greeley, and two other officers of the headquarters company would meet the convoy at Ulithi.
In March 26 our convoy of eight ships, escorted by five DEs, dropped anchor in the harbor at Eniwetok. The cruise thus far had been uneventful. There were a couple of abandon ship drills and at sunrise and sunset each day the troops were confined to quarters while ship's crew took their stations at general quarters. At almost all other times the troops were given virtual freedom of the ship.
Most of the troops aboard the CLEARFIELD were seeing a forward area for their first time, as were all but four enlisted men and Lt. Comdr. Talbuttof the basic MCU-17 unit. Lt. Frank Klingberg and Lt.(jg) John Wheeler and several of the men with them in Naval Detachment Baker had worked together previously on Saipan, and it was not the surprise for them that it was for the rest of us when we saw literally hundreds of ships lying at anchor at Eniwetok. We had seen them in infinite numbers at harbors in the States -- at Boston, New York, New Orleans, San Diego, and San Francisco. We had seen them by the hundreds at anchor and by the thousands entering and leaving the harbor at Oahu. Now we were to see, at Eniwetok and Ulithi and Okinawa, that hundreds and thousands more filled the island harbors and anchorages all across the Pacific.
shortly after church services on deck on Easter Sunday April 1, during which prayers were offered for the success of the Okinawa campaign which had been launched that morning by troops of the Tenth Army, the ship of the convoy weighed anchor and stood out to the southwest on the fast run to Ulithi,. There again amid hundreds of ships of the line and transports and cargo vessels and merchant freighters, we remained for several days during which men and officers enjoyed the privilege of regularly scheduled liberty parties ashore on Mog- Mog island; playing ball, hunting seashells and drinking beer. On the afternoon of the 13th the convoy formed again, this time including among thirteen vessels the GRETNA VICTORY which carried our supplies and operating equipment. Accompanying the units gear aboard the Gretna were three of our motor machinist mates and one officer, Ensign Joe Creason, their assignment being to care for the equipment during the passage and to ensure its readiness and proper handling during the landing.
On April 5 the Sixth Marine Division had moved into Motobu peninsula, a strip of land jutting westward from Okinawa and reaching within three miles of Ie Shima. On the 13th, the day we left Ulithi, troops of the 77th Division seized the tiny island of Minna Shima off the southeast coast of Ie Shima to be used for artillery emplacement in support of the landing operations. On the morning of the 16th, after a brief but intense aerial and naval bombardment, the first landings on Ie were made at 0800 by the 305th and 306th Infantry Regiments. The assault troops, accompanied by the 1118th Engineer Combat Battalion, swarmed ashore at three points along the virtually undefended southwest rim of the island. As they moved inland they met with rifle and machine gun fire from scattered pillboxes and caves and suffered many casualties. The major part of the western half of the island including the airfield, however, was secured by 1700 on that first day of the assault
On the following day, April 17th, the 307th Infantry Regiment landed on the south beach and attacked Ie village on the south slopes of Iegusugu Yama, miniature mountain in the center of the island. On this day also Col. Muller and Maj. Fleming went ashore with a military police company as first members of the Army garrison force to land on Ie.
During the briefing of MCU 17 officers aboard ship as well as back at Oahu much emphasis had been placed upon the information obtained by Army and Navy Intelligence regarding the size of the defending garrison on Ie, the civilian population, the presence in great numbers of poisonous snakes and the dangers encountered from malaria. The defenses were so meager, Intelligence said, that the island would easily be taken in two days; actually the heavy fighting lasted six days and the last snipers were not finished off until July 3. The civilian population was said to number 6000; actually it was little more than half that number. There were very poisonous snakes found on the island and only three or four cases of snake bite reported to the field hospital. Malaria was practically unknown on Ie.
The inaccuracy of the information on the island's defenses caused the only serious difficulty during the assault. Our convoy arrived in the area on the 17th, the troops aboard prepared for landing that day or the net according to schedule. As events developed it was evident that our arrival was premature and that it involved unfortunate congestion of the anchorage at Hagushi, which was under nightly enemy air attack and which in the daytime was the scene of heavy naval bombardment of enemy mortar and machine gun emplacements on Okinawa's shores. The CLEARFIELD stood two miles off shore at Ie the afternoon of April 18, her passenger troops and crew watching from her decks the house to house struggle of the infantry pushing through Ie village and the aerial pounding of Iegusugu's hidden caves and gun emplacements. But the island was far from secure on the 18th (the day Ernie Pyle, famed s
Scripps Howard newspaper columnist, was killed while reconnoitering front line positions with Lt. Col. J. B. Coolidge, commanding officer of the 305th Infantry) it was little better on the 19th or the 20th. Progress was being impeded not only by the 5000 skilled fully entrenched enemy troops in their two and three story interconnecting mountain caves and their pillboxes and embattled ancestral tombs, deep layered in solid rock; there was also the fact that Ie Shima was the most heavily mined island yet encountered in the Pacific. 5000 mines consisting of inverted aerial bombs (some of them 500 pounders), percussion charges, controlled charges, and fused drums of high octane gasoline had the fields and almost every foot of the airfield. An average of 500 mines per square mile the island over! And in the first days of the assault six out of eight men of the mine disposal team were killed in a single explosion, necessitating the organization of new and less experienced teams by the combat engineers.
During those early days of the assault, when the troops aboard the Clearfield never knew what the next move was to be -- whether they would land this time as they approached the target, or whether they would retreat again at nightfall to take shelter at Nago Wan or Hagushi -- during those days the strain was felt by the men and officers of MCU 17 as was by all the other troops aboard. On the repeated runs from the night's anchorage north along Okinawa's coast to Ie they got to know the full beauty of the area they were in and the rugged beauty of the island they were to occupy. They became familiar with Okinawa's deep green rolling hills, the picturesque coves and tiny islets that dotted is irregular coastline. They came to Ie's amazing profile against the northern sky; its spire of rook shooting 601 feet high out of a thickly wooded patch of rock and rich black earth a little east of the islands center. They were daily witnesses to one of the bloodiest battles of the war; from the comparative safety of their ship standing two miles offshore they saw the 77th Division infantrymen move up from the beach, through the town and up the mountain slopes in an engagement that was to rank with Iwo Jima and Kwajalein in ferocity, with 215 enemy killed the first day, 419 the second, 516 the third, 1006 the fourth -- before the island was finally undefended the total would be 4,898 enemy dead. There would also be 203 American dead and some 900 wounded. The incredible percentage in our favor of those casualty figures was unknown to us at the time; we knew that we were going ashore soon, but not how soon, and the majority of us felt grave concern, not so much as to the personal dangers involved but more as to the prospect of fouling up in the communication job we had come to Ie Shima to do. It was going to be different here than it was in Oahu. This time it was war -- and it seemed close because we could see it and remote because we still had not been in it.
On April 21st Lt. Comdr. Talbutt went ashore with Maj. J. H. Sullivan, Island Signal Officer, to select a temporary site for the Joint Communication Center. The permanent site which, according to original plans, would have been occupied from the outset was in the still unconquered territory of the eastern edge of the village. The Island Command site, slated for the same area, was established instead near the airfield and the signal center area was finally designated as adjoining the Island Command. On April 21st Gen. Andrew Bruce of the 77th Division claimed control of the island; on the 23rd MCU 17 and the balance of the garrison forces came ashore. Intense fighting still persisted in the mountain area, however, despite the fact that the summit had been reached on the 21st and the American flag raised there, and not until April 26th did Gen. Thomas takes charge as Island commander.
MCU 17 did a good job in landing and setting up its Joint Communication Center. Not a single piece of unit gear was lost or damaged; the three officers and fifteen men designated to handle the landing of gear and routing of it from beach to camp performed their duties without a hitch, and the revetting of vans and generators and installing of antennas and laying out of a camp proceeded equally without incident at the other end. Four hours after the first power unit hit the beach MCU 17 was on the air guarding the frequencies assigned to it in the western Pacific radio network in which it would hold until war's end and the proud position of Americas farthest advanced Joint Communication Center.
Ie Shima looked a great deal different with its sandy beach underfoot than it had from two miles offshore. The rainy season had begun by April 23rd and the mud that lay hub-deep in the roads beyond the beach had not been visible from the ship. But it was more visible when our overloaded trucks and vans began their two mile trek from the landing area to the camp site. The unit's bulldozer was busy no only revetting the gear as it arrived at the scene of operations; in many instances it was called upon to drag cumbersome vehicles through the mud of the roads in order to get them to the scene.
The camp site was on the western half of the island. Little resistance had been met there by the infantry on the first day of the assault; on the infantry's terms the area had been secured that first day. But infantry takes a different attitude toward "security" than our communication unit did. The rifle shots and occasional machine gun bursts that swept over our campsite from Japs attempting to infiltrate past our perimeter security guard did not spell security on MCU 17 terms. Later on the terror of that first night was to be the subject of jest in an Army-Navy victory play put on by the unit; at the time it was anything but funny. It was serious, and had it not been for excellent discipline and a lot of luck it could have meant death for some of our men. As it was that night and succeeding nights, each becoming less threatening, brought no harm to any of our number. They brought the discomfort of lying in foxholes that were sometimes full of rainwater, and of sleeping with a cocked automatic or carbine at ones side, alert even while sleeping for the least threatening sound, but they brought on casualties.
The observation was made frequently by men and officers of the unit during those first crucial days after landing that the Japs were missing a good bet in not sending their bombers against Ie. The island was helpless against such attack, with neither fighter planes nor sufficient AA guns on hand and with shipping crowding the beaches and traffic jamming the roads. But no raids came; they were held off completely, wonderfully, by the cordon of naval vessels and carrier planes that had been thrown across the entire Okinawa area's northern frontier. Some of them got through occasionally to Okinawa, which they regarded as bigger game, but none got near to Ie Shima until the night of April 28. That night there were two air raids. One enemy plane was shot down and four were reported damaged.
Our Joint Communication Center (JCC or NanCommCen) was located just below the southeastern end of the major Jap airstrip in an area which had been under cultivation by the natives before the occupation. The camp site adjoined the operation area; both had been carefully swept and cleared of mines before the unit moved in. The center of the communication installation was a large tent and it was surrounded by the three receiver vans and the coding van, and within a week after operations began another tent was added adjacent to the central one and housing radio-teletype gear facilitating plain-language communication between Ie and Okinawa.
The amount of traffic handled by the JCC in the early days was a surprise to most of us in MCU 17. We had expected much more. But that expectation was ill considered. The traffic volume would be slight while the occupation units were incomplete. When occupation reached its maximum, which it could not until the airfields were built the traffic would reach its maximum too. We handled fifty or sixty messages a day for the first few days. More occupation troops came ashore and our volume of traffic moved up to seventy and eight. Then, although more units were ashore, the volume tapered off because the formalities of the primary stage were being disposed of.
After a few days of operation we began to feel a certain degree of confidence and subsequent events were to prove that the confidence we felt was justified. We were to handle many messages in the weeks and months that followed at Ie Shima. Some of them were to be handled during air raids that were the worst that any island in the Pacific had known. Yet, when the score was brought to total, there was not to be a single significant fault found in the handling of any message by MCU 17
The camp that we set up was different than any other on the island at that time. We were in 16 x 16 tents before almost any other unit. We had our galley and mess tents set up definitely before any other unit. We had our foxholes dug but there was a strange thing, a sad thing too.
We had our foxholes dug at the original area. When there was an air raid we went out and got into them. We got into them and spread ponchos over us against the rain and if the foxholes were only a foot or eighteen inches deep we were still naive enough to think them protection. But they were not protection and took an enemy plane to prove it to us. On May 6, Sunday morning a lone enemy plane, tentatively identified as a Zeke 52, approached the island at medium altitude and made a gliding run at shipping in the anchorage. As the plane pulled out of its glide antiaircraft batteries from the ships and shore began to score and the plane, in the course of a steep banked turn, broke in two and crashed into the sea some 500 yards from shore. The antiaircraft fire had scored elsewhere too, however. A shell penetrated our galley. Several shells landed in our camp area. Those of us who thought lightly of foxholes gave more serious thought to them now, we dug them to decent depth, covered them with logs and sandbags, attempted to give them security against flak as well as from the possible concussion of a nearby bomb hit.
By the middle of May the island had undergone great change. More units were coming ashore almost every day engineers, truck and duck companies, wire gangs, radar teams, additional antiaircraft battalions, and advance units of the scores of air service groups whose camps and operating equipment would soon surround the entire airfield. The native truck farms were disappearing and in their places rows on rows of tents were springing up. The sides of the low hills rising to the center ridge of the island were staked off in large areas by the engineers, then invaded by the bulldozers and scraped clean of vegetation and soil until the underlying coral beds were exposed to the great jaws of the crane shovels. By August 15 those shovels were to have excavated 6 million cubic yards of coral and fill, a load so vast that were it put into a single pile 300 feet square (an average city block) it would rise eighteen stories high.
Ie's first completed airstrip was in operation; the first squadrons of the 328th Fighter Group, sleek new P 7Ns flown from Oahu to Johnson to Majuro to Eniwetok to Saipan on the longest overwater single engine ferrying project of the war, completed the last 1,425 mile leg of the long hop and landed on Ie Shima on May 13. Several C-47 transports were already based on the island and cub planes had been operating between Ie and Okinawa since a few days after the island was secured.
By 15 May MCU 17 was in its new location southwest of the mountain in the area that had been formally fringed Ie village. The shattered and broken houses lying in burnt piles with smell of dead bodies still hovering over them were being cleared off the land by bulldozers. Souvenir hunters, among them many of MCU's men and officers, prowled through the ruins ahead of the clearing gangs picking up relics such as Saki cups and teapots and other china ware, elaborate little plaster alters embellished with the figures of Japanese gods, primitive saws and hatchets and shovels and small delicately made native spinning wheels. Some of the searchers found Jap rifles and swords; almost everyone found more than they wanted of magazines and children's school books all printed in Japanese, Ensign Bob Kendall, before leaving the old area, went into a cave and brought out a fine pair of Jap officer's field shoes, and broke into a cold sweat a few hours later when cleanup troops killed a Jap sniper hiding in the cave.
MCU 17's new site became more or less a showplace during those early days of the occupation. Our JCC was housed in the first Quonset hut to be erected on Ie. The hut was almost underground, revetted ten feet below the level of the road bordering it on the north. The three receiver vans were lifted off their truck beds and laid on coral foundation with their decks level with that of the Quonset and their doors opening directly into the hut. The coding van was removed from its undercarriage and similarly set up flush against the south side of the hut. The vans were sandbagged on top and sides and a wall of sandbags was built around the entrance at the east end of the hut. Camouflage nets were strung over the roof, providing effective concealment for the greater part of the installation. The transmitter vans were located at the opposite end of the camp from the JCC, revetted deep between the rock walls of a row of native tombs. The galley and mess halls and tents for personnel were set up in a cleared area between the JCC and the transmitter area.
Across the road from the camp in the wooded area at the base of the mountain mopping up operations were still in progress and throughout the first month at the new site Jap soldiers were still being ferreted out of the caves and taken prisoner, or, more often, sealed inside the caves by dynamite.
On one occasion a group of MCU men were poking around in the mountain base area when one of them looked up just in time to see a Jap soldier toss a hand grenade in their direction. The men ducked and ran, all but one of them, John J. Considine, T/5, who was so burned up at the Jap's conduct that he picked up a rock and hurled it at the offender. The Jap retreated and Considine jumped behind a boulder while the grenade went off. Then he and the others went back and got their rifles and returned to find that the Jap had done the job for them; had blown himself up with a hand grenade at the entrance to the cave.
The 77th Division infantry had been removed to Okinawa, the last regiment having embarked on May 7, being replaced for final mopping up operations and security guard by the 2nd Battalion of the 106th Infantry 27th Division. Six of those troops were assigned to guard the area of the JCC and MCU 17 camp. By May 10, 4820 enemy soldiers had been killed on Ie, 120 had been taken prisoner, and 2033 internees were in Military Government's civilian compound. By May 26 the last of the civilians and PWs had been removed to islands of the Kerama Retto.
With the arrival of the 318th Fighter Group the volume of traffic at the JCC took a decided upturn. With every mission flown (and the 318th flew long and complex and highly successful missions almost every day from the middle of May until the end of the war) there were reports to be sent to Guam and Oahu. Often times the reports told stories that even in the terse wording of official jingo made dramatic reading. The three squadrons of Thunderbolts were raiding the Empire day after day, dropping Napalm flew bombs and 500 pounders on war plants and production centers and fighting their way through formations of enemy fighter defense planes with almost incredible success.
Marine Air Group 22 landed three squadrons of Corsairs on Ie on May 22, just in time to get in on one of the roughest weeks of bombing and enemy air activity that the island was to see throughout the war. This was also the time of the heaviest rainfall. During the two weeks from May 19 to June 3 daily downpours flooded camps, washed out roads and made an impassable mud hole out of most of the primary supply dump area just back of the beach. 8.4 inches of rain fell in one 6 hour period; that was the time when the deeply revetted jcc very narrowly escaped disaster.
Just across the road that bordered the north side of the revetted hut a concrete bathing pool still remained to mark what had once been a small park. The blocking of the ditches and natural drainage courses by the bombing of the assault and the bulldozing of the construction crews now, when the rain began to reach cloudburst proportions, caused the tide that rushed down the mountain to spring across the ditches and roads and flood the bathing pool. Every man and officer of the unit was called out that morning to work with shovels and picks in the driving rain in an attempt to reroute the torrents that swept within a dozen feet of our almost underground hut. In the nick of time a bulldozer was brought up to knock one corner out of the concrete pool and relieve the threat of it overflowing into the revetment; then the 'dozer was turned into the woods to dig a five foot wide canal from the JCC area to the brink of the hill to the south, and this was accomplished in time to disperse the flood before it reached its full height.
In addition to the floods there were incessant air raids, and some of the worst of them occurred in the brief hours of relief from the terrific downpour. In a pamphlet prepared by the 318th Fighter Group covering that outfits activities in the Marianas as well as at Ie, this statement appears; "If Saipan was a hot spot, Ie Shima sizzled, the 83 air alerts which marked the Marianas campaign were but mild preparation for an average of three foxhole sprints a day during the first month in the Ryukyus.
The heaviest raid of them all occurred the night of May 24 when enemy planes were overhead almost constantly from 2005 until o500 the next morning. Estimates of the number of planes participating in the raid vary considerably but there were more than seventy separate radar contacts. One flight alone comprised twelve planes, and during the night 17 planes were shot down by our antiaircraft batteries. That was the night that the naval dispensary on the beach took a direct bomb hit, killing 24 men and wounding 21. Lt. Klingberg, in charge of the signal tower, was in his foxhole a hundred yards from where the bomb struck but received injuries from the concussion that necessitated his evacuation a few weeks later. Many of the dispensary casualties were sailors from the LST 8s08 being treated for injuries received two days earlier when the 808 was torpedoed and run aground and then further smashed up by a suicide dive bomber . Lt. Comdr. Tallbutt and five officers and a score of men from MCU 17 were on the scene of the disaster within ten minutes after receiving word of what happened and were instrumental in rescuing the wounded and removing the dead from the bloody and tragic scene.
Far more tragic for the officers and men of MCU 17, because for every one of them it was a matter of personal loss was the death of Chief Radioman Jesse Barnhill on May 30. The island had been on red alert for over an hour on May 28 when, shortly before 0800, a Jap bomber, a twin engine Betty, appeared coming in at medium altitude from the north. Two Corsairs were making runs on her as she came over the island but they gave her up to our antiaircraft batteries as soon as she was within their range which was when the Jap was almost directly over our camp. The AA guns opened up immediately and within a few minutes the Betty had taken more than she could handle and went into a suicide dive on the "Brown Victory" at anchor in the harbor, causing heavy casualties and considerable damage to the stern of the vessel.
During the intense antiaircraft barrage over our camp hundreds of fragments of flak had fallen. One of them struck Chief Barnhill as he started out of his tent for his foxhole. Barney's friend ant tent mate Chief Yeoman Marion Eustace, was standing beside him as he fell and Chief Eustace got word immediately to Chief Brockhaus, the Unit's Pharmacist's mate, but the wound was fatal and neither the skill and cool efficiency with which Chief Brockhaus administered blood transfusions brief minutes after it happened nor the efforts of the doctors at the 36th Field Hospital prevailed against it. Barney died two days later, on May 30, as the sun went down over the East China Sea.
Camp Barnhill carried on under its new and unanimously approved name; carried on under a constantly increasing volume of traffic and an unremitting air assault by frenzied Jap pilots. The equipment of the JCC now included the finest cryptographic machines available at Army or Navy communication station. The radiomen and technicians, the yeomen and motor machinists and electricians and carpenters and seaman, all hands were turning in their best work and it was good. Okinawa had a bigger communication center than ours but we had the satisfaction of knowing that we were doing a better job, the foul ups in which they were so frequently involving us were to be harpooned later in our play, "The JanCommCensation of 1945" "Hey, this message was garbled in transmission!" , "Sure, it's from Okinawa. They send with their feet", "Sir, this message won't break", "Why won't it break, "It's from Okinawa, Sir, no one can break a message from Okinawa.
June was hell. After the tragedy that struck deep into our hearts and minds on May 28 there were prayers but there were also precautions, and earnest physical activity. Within a week MCU 17 had more and better foxholes, including vast community projects, than any other unit in our area. They were covered with timbers and piled over with sandbags and they were to be our homes during of the nights of June and July. But if the Japs were giving us a bad time on Ie it was nothing to the time our pilots were giving them up around Kyushu. Beginning the night of the mass attack on our island on May 24 the wail of the air raid siren became on of the most common sounds in the area. At all hours of the day and night the Japs came over, sometimes doing no damage, other times doing a tragic lot. Rain and heavy overcast during the full moon period staved off the raiders two or three nights but they made up for it as soon as the weather cleared; eight alerts the night of June &; four the next night; five the next and so on. On the 10th an enemy plane came in low from the east at 0350 using signals that identified it as friendly. It dropped a bomb near the Marine Air Group area, killing 14 Marines and Seabees and wounding 41.
But the JCC's best customers, the 318th Fighters were giving the Japs plenty of hell. Every night the officers and men around the CWO desk on the 1800 to midnight watch looked forward to the arrival of Capt. Seaquist with his reports of what his boys had been up to during the day already practically encrypted in the Air Corps double talk (Five amber circle one beige three) they would be further encrypted by our coding board, but first the captain would tell us the story in English. Here are some of the stories he told us, as they were later condensed and presented in the 318th's unit history:
"In 18 days starting with the group's first kill over Kyushu on May 24, the 318th scored 102 of its 116 Ryukyus, Kyushu air victories. Although Thunderbolts were often outnumbered as many as 15 to 1, only three were knocked down by enemy fighters during the campaign.
"Sparked by two pilots who jumped 30 Zekes and shot down eight in four minutes near Amami O Shima, 20 pilots of the 318th scored confirmed victories May 25. Their total bag of 34 enemy planes in four hours broke up a large scale Kamikaze attack and set a new kill record for a single fighter group in a single action.
"Another two man show over southern Kyushu May 28 squared off against 28 Zekes; shot down six, probably shot down two more, damaged a ninth and scared hell out of the rest to highlight a day which saw Group score 17 confirmed kills and four probables.
"With its insolent handful of P 47s the 318th was outfighting the enemy from Okinawa to Central Kyushu, goading him into the all out defensive effort which came on June 10. When 35 Thunderbolts flew north that morning to protect Navy photographic Liberators, they found a reception party of 134 Zekes, Jakes, Tonys, Tojos, and Georges. Few Thunderbolts were free to carry the battle to the Japs; most held their defensive screen to discourage any major attack on the photo planes. Of the 35 Thunderbolt pilots only eight actually found targets for their guns. But the eight handed the Japs a lacing that left the wreckage of ten Zekes, 6 Jakes, and on twin engine bomber sprinkled from 30 to 50 miles north of Kyushu's Kagoshima Wan.
"Captain Judge E. Wolfe bagged four that day to run his total to nine and establish him as the Group's leading marksman. But the hair raiser of all stories brought home that noon was the one told by Lt. Bob Stone. Flying on of nine Thunderbolts in a diversionary sweep to suck Jap defenders away from the photo planes, he shot down two of seven Zekes encountered 30 miles north of Kagoshima Wan. A few miles further north the 318th pilots spotted 50 more Jap fighters and climbed for altitude. Stone, whose induction system had been damaged on takeoff, couldn't develop full power at high altitude and was maneuvering to attack a lone George down below when he saw 25 Zekes streaking down on his tail. Stone went from 28000 feet to the deck in one long screaming dive. He pulled out of the bush tops and streaked across country with two Japs hot on his heels, the rest of the pack strung out behind. Part of the time the belly of his Thunderbolt was less than three feet off the ground. The two leading Japs were within 300 feet and firing as Stone nosed up to clear a low hummock and flash past the startled Japs standing on the runway of Nittagahara Airfield. A twin engine Betty bomber, just leaving the ground, loomed squarely in his path. Stone swerved left to dodge the Betty and the next instant became the 318ths fifth ace. His prop wash caught the two Japs close behind him and they crashed together, and then still together they plowed into the hapless Betty!"
The Marines weren't doing too badly, either, in spite of the fact that they were operating Corsair fighters which were much older and much slower than the 318th's brand new P 47s. In the same period that the 318th knocked down 102 enemy planes the pilots of Marine Air Group 22, knocked down 40.
Captain Seaquist took occasion shortly before he was transferred to the 318th's Liaison Command on Okinawa late in June to tell Lt. Comdr. Talbutt that in no other theater of operations had he had such excellent cooperation and efficient communications as had been given him by MCU 17.
On June 13 the second airstrip with its accompanying taxiways and hardstands was completed, and business at the JCC really began to pick up. The 547th Night Fighter Squadron arrived that day and was joined shortly by the 548th. On the 17th the 413 Fighter Group arrived with three more squadrons of P 47s. All these new outfits had messages to send and the JCC's once slack hours from midnight to breakfast became busy ones; not as busy as the daylight hours, during which the island command and the engineers and the port director and our other regular customers were filing dispatches right and left, but still busy enough so it was no longer a time for the coding board to catch up on its sleep.
On June 21, (Three days after Lt. General Simon Bolívar Buckner, Jr. in command of the Tenth Army in the Ryukyus campaign, was killed in action on Okinawa) 60 enemy planes attempted to attack Ie Shima during five alerts which totaled 7 hours and 9 minutes. Only one hostile plane penetrated the night fighter screen to get within four miles of the island. This Betty was shot down by AA fire. During the strike our night fighting "Black Widows" shot down 14 enemy aircraft with six probables. The next morning MAG 22's Corsairs destroyed seven more.
MCU 17s time was beginning to run out by the first of July. Ours had been labeled a 90 day operation in the beginning we figured we had about twenty days or maybe a month to go before we would be relieved. We were so naive.
The war in the air over Ie continued all through July but the ground activity ended July 3. On that day the last snipers were cleaned out. During June several score of Jap soldiers were sealed in caves when they refused to give themselves up; half a dozen accepted the offer and were taken prisoner.
The first week of July saw the arrival of the 842nd Signal Company, our designated relief, but it was almost the end of July before their equipment began to arrive. The first shipment was unfortunate enough to be aboard a ship that was torpedoed in our harbor and much of the stuff was damaged, but replacements came in due time and by the end of the month construction of the new and permanent signal center were under way. There was a considerable let up in air activity over the island during the first two weeks of the month; from the 1st to the 119th there were only seven air alerts.
By the 13th of the month more than 400 planes were based on Ie Shima, including several squadrons of heavy and medium bombers. On the 20th the third airstrip was completed and by the end of the month 750 planes were operating from our airfield. All this was wonderful to see; the great shiny silver planes ling the strips, the mass formations taking off every morning at dawn for their magnificent work of devastation over the Jap home islands and now, in recent weeks, over the China coast as well. It was inspiring and also some how unbelievable to look around our island and see what miracles the engineers had performed to make so insignificant a little plot of truck farms into so formidable an air base . Wide smooth paved highways covered the island in a vast net work rain held no threat to traffic any more. The airfield, with its two 7000 foot strips and a third almost 6000 feet long was a showplace with its flees of Lightning and Mustangs and thunderbolts and Mitchells, and Liberators and Air Sea rescue Catalinas and Fortresses, no to mention the scores of transports and Cubs that came and went day and night. Practically everyone on the island, including the personnel of MCU 17 took occasion whenever they could to visit the field and watch takeoffs and landings.
MCU 17 saw the other side of that vast picture of expansion of course, the ships that anchored off our south beach and some thousands of tons of cargo ashore day after day, that brought new units to Ie which would give the island a population by August 1st of over 40,000 men, all this activity meant more messages for the Joint Communication Center. Every watch was under steady pressure by the end of July, and by the fact that we were at last breaking in the personnel of the 842nd Signal outfit gave a bright outlook to our own future. We had come in with the assault; we had seen the island at its worst with the stench of dead bodies and burned flesh hanging over it; we had seen the torrential cloudbursts of the "Rainy Season" turn into a sea of mud, and through all that we had withstood the strain of the heaviest, most constant air attacks leveled against any island in the Pacific. We had done our job, and were ready to shove off.
We were the only ones who felt any anxiety about our closing up shop getting on our way, however, the 842nd proceeded slowly with the work showing infinite patience The JCC watches, as August 15 approached, were manned about 75% by 842nd personnel but their own station was still not ready to take over. Lt. Comdr. Talbutt was still responsible for the JCC's operation, and would remain so until the end of August, almost two weeks after the war was over. Then would begin the long drawn out period of having nothing at all to do except lie in the sack and wait for orders.
The Atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima on August 6 spurred the Japs on to a series of night attacks on Ie Shima. We hit the foxholes eight times on five successive nights. The attack on August 8th was the most serious; a phosphorous bomb was dropped among a group of P 51s blasting a crater eight feet wide and four feet deep and destroying eight planes and damaging six.
On August 9 we got the word that Russia had declared war on Japan; on the 10th, after the second Atomic bomb had leveled Nagasaki, Japan's offer to accept the Potsdam ultimatum brought on a celebration that caused the deaths of 15 men on Ie Shima as the result of drinking wood alcohol. Several men were killed on Okinawa by flak from exuberant antiaircraft firing. Then followed the dickering between the Allied Powers and the Japs as to what was meant by unconditional surrender, and on the 15th the Japs announced their acceptance of Allied Terms.
MCU 17 had taken a significant part in the war's final phases and was to have the pleasure of joining the throng bordering our "B" airstrip at noon August 19 to witness the arrival of two white painted Jap Bettys carrying the Jap Peace Emissaries, and to see the somber little yellow men leave their planes and be taken aboard a giant C 54 for the final leg of their trip to Manila.
The war was over.
There was nothing left to do but go home, no question still unanswered but - when?