While Dec. 7, 1941 and June 6, 1944 garner much of the fame and remembrance regarding America’s involvement in World War II, another milestone in that war began today — 72 years ago.
On Feb. 19, 1945, 30,000 U.S. Marines landed on the soft, volcanic sands of (Japanese for Sulphur Island) and commenced one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War. They were the first of 70,000 Marines to take part in the fight for an island that was more heavily defended than anyone expected, since most of the defending Japanese forces took shelter within a network of tunnels and thus survived the intense naval bombardment prior to the landings.
Cheat Lake resident Guyla Gans (83) said she still remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a child living on Sunset Beach Road, she recalled a family friend coming over and telling her father of the bombing that fateful Sunday.
“I didn’t really understand it, being a small child, but I knew it was something big,” she said.
Her husband, Estal ‘Red’ Gans (91), said he and his cousin were cleaning an elementary school at the time and a small radio playing in the corner of the room informed them of the attack.
“We had no idea at the time where Pearl Harbor was. We never dreamed we’d be in the military,” Red said.
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1943 and trained as a radio operator. Initially, he was assigned to the USS Auburn, a joint Army/Navy communications ship. Red faced perils even before shipping out for the Pacific in the form of storms off Cape Hatteras that almost exceeded the Auburn’s roll limit, and German U-boats lurking off the East Coast.
In 1944, Red departed from New York and, through the Panama Canal, to Pearl Harbor. He’d been assigned to a landing ship, tank (LST), specifically LST-731, one of 63 LSTs that landed supplies to the Marines on . Once ammunition was loaded, LST-731 picked up the Marines on Maui and headed west. Red said none of them had any idea where they were going until shortly before the landings
“They showed us a big 3-D mock-up of and one of the Marines said, ‘We’ll have that island secured in 72 hours,'”
It took more than a month to secure the island and by the time it was, 6,000 Americans were dead and another 20,000 wounded, while only about 200 of the 22,000 Japanese defenders survived to be captured.
Nevertheless, the objective of making into a safe landing zone for damaged American bombers striking the Japanese Home Islands was achieved. Red said this also provided a springboard for long-range P-51 Mustang fighters to escort the bombers to their destinations.
LST-731 performed 40 supply landings in 38 days. While Red can no longer recall everything that happened every day, some instances stand out.
A wrecked Japanese gunboat that was initially ignored had to be cleared out when it was discovered the enemy was calling in mortar strikes from the wreckage.
A different LST tried to approach the island, guns blazing, (even with friendly forces already ashore) but was forced to turn back after any fire threatened to blow open the ship’s bow gate.
Red saw the two flags raised on Mount Suribachi, the second of which was immortalized by photographer Joe Rosenthal and is now a memorial near Arlington National Cemetery.
During the battle, LST-731 went out to open sea to fetch ammunition from a civilian cargo ship and the supervisor told the Marine requesting the ammunition simply that he’d have to try again in the morning since it was quitting time. Red said the Marine responded by tossing the man into the water.
On another occasion, one of Red’s crewmates went ashore to see some Japanese prisoners. One of the captured soldiers called out to him by name. It turned out the two men attended the same California school.
While the ships off didn’t come under kamikaze attack– unlike the armada off Okinawa– Red said a lone Japanese aircraft conducted a night raid on LST-731. While the plane failed to score a direct hit, the bomb exploded nearby and damaged the rudder with shrapnel.
This, along with damage sustain brushing up against other ships in the rough seas, necessitated repairs that essentially sent the vessel island hopping in the other direction in search of an open dry dock– from Saipan to Guam to Pearl Harbor and finally to the mainland U.S.
Red was later transferred to another ship, the APD-101 which was a high speed transport designed the haul the iconic Higgins boats used in amphibious landings. He then prepared to go to Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific Coast in preparation for the invasion of Japan itself, the invasion that never happened due to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Red later served in the Philippines and was discharged in 1946.
After the war, Red went on to work a multitude of jobs including 30 years as an electronic technician for Federal Aviation Administration. He also worked as a commercial pilot, owning several aircraft and flying for WVU. He even counted Ronald Reagan as one of his passengers before he was president of the United States.
Reflecting on the Battle of as its 72nd anniversary dawns, Red said the credit for that victory lies not with him but the marines who did the fighting.
“I didn’t put my life on the line 24 hours a day every day,” he said.
(c)2017 The Dominion Post (Morgantown, W.Va.) — www.dominionpost.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.