Gunshot

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The war was almost over. Germany in March 1945 was cold and crisp, with a pale gray tint over the ruined countryside. It was quiet as Lieutenant Hecker’s jeep drove down the road. Europe was a hulk of shattered cities. The Third Reich was in ruins, its soldiers surrendering by the thousands to the American Army, but still Germany fought on. Lieutenant Hecker rode with his men, Private First Class William L. Piper and James Wardley.  They had been together through Northern France, the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Now they drove in the enemies heartland. Hecker knew the end of the war was in sight. He knew all they needed to do was stay alive a little longer. What he didn’t know was his jeep was driving toward a buried land mine.

Norbert A. Hecker

Norbert A. Hecker

Norbert A. Hecker was a not a soldier by trade. He hadn’t planned on knowing things like range, targeting and trajectory. He was a clerk who compiled reports on factory labor costs and production. When  he graduated college he thought he would be behind a desk not leading men into battle. He entered the army in 1942, and was assigned to the 8th Infantry Division’s 28th Field Artillery code named “Gunshot” .

Lieutenant Hecker was a Forward Observer. His mission was to report where artillery strikes landed and find new targets to attack. Forward Observers had a short life span on the front lines.  It wasn’t just the enemy that was dangerous, if the observer made a mistake and the coordinates were wrong, or someone else was careless, the called in artillery could land short, right on him.

When the 28th Field Artillery sent out fire, they radioed “Gunshot on the way!”. “Gunshot on the way” was friendly artillery that stopped the advancing waves of enemy armor and infantry, “Gunshot on the way” took out gun emplacements slaughtering pinned down American GI’s. It was that call that could make the winning difference on the battlefield. It was men like Norbert Hecker who brought the gunshot down on the enemy. He knew men were counting on him, that he must complete his mission at all cost. His radio calls could mean dozens or hundreds more men going home alive. It was men like Norbert Hecker who made small towns all over the United States proud of their boys.

Lieutenant Hecker in Dress Uniform

Lieutenant Hecker in Dress Uniform

In Hecker’s home town of Menasha, Wisconsin, the local paper followed news about its 1,384 residents serving in the World War. The daily paper got the residents atuned to where its boys were fighting and what they were doing. It gave folks the little picture they wanted to see of the big show; the news about the boys they used to see on the streets and in church. The paper spread news of men and women who had been promoted or seen action in big battles. When a local boy got a medal for heroism, the whole town knew. They also heard when a man was wounded, or when a someone’s son would not be coming home.

If Norbert Hecker and his men had been walking, they would have been safe. The mine in their path was a teller mine; a circular, anti-tank device filled with five and a half kilograms of TNT. It had a high pressure fuse and needed a vehicle to set it off.

Hecker’s jeep exploded when it ignited the weapon.  James Wardley, by some miracle, was unhurt. Bill Piper, was wounded but alive. They found Hecker covered in blood with his eardrums blown out. But he was breathing. The three men helped each other up.  Hecker’s helmet had a huge dent on the top from the exploding debris. Their jeep was destroyed and two of them were wounded. Hecker put his helmet back on, looked at his men, and they continued to the front.  The war wasn’t over yet. Until it was finished, Norbert Hecker would see his mission to the end.

Norbert A. Hecker's wartime mementos.

Norbert A. Hecker’s wartime mementos.

The dent on Lt. Hecker's Helmet

The dent on Lt. Hecker’s Helmet

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Jitterbug goes to war

Avengers on their way to Wake Island

Avengers on their way to Wake Island

The greatest thrill of his life came as he landed for the first time on the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea. Two years before in 1941, Elton Dale Snodgrass was a kid who read everything in the library and lived to go bowling and dancing. In the summer of 1941 he had just graduated high school in Terre Haute, Indiana. The summer after graduation is always memorable, the last vacation before friends got jobs or went off to college. The summer of 1941 was not special for that reason alone. It was the last summer before the storms in the East and West reached the isolationist beaches of the United States; the last summer where an eighteen year old from the Midwest would only have to worry about being a teenager. In December of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and changed the face of America.

CVL 22, USS Independence at sea

CVL 22, USS Independence at sea

Elton Snodgrass joined the Navy and went to Boot Camp in Great Lakes Illinois. He applied for pilot training but they made him an aerial gunner instead. Leaving Indiana, he carried two things from home, a pair of black converse sneakers he bought in high school for $9, and his nickname: “Jitterbug”, after the dance step he loved.

By November 1943, he was an Aviation Ordnance Man 2nd class, and a turret gunner on a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo plane in Torpedo Squadron Twenty-Two (VT-22) on sea duty aboard the USS Independence. He had already seen action in the Marcus Islands, and flown raids on Wake and Rabaul before VT-22 was given a new task. The Independence, along with the carriers USS Essex and Bunker Hill, was now part of Task Force 50.3, providing air support for the US Marine landings at the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

On November 18th the flight crews of the Independence, along with other carrier and land base planes launched 910 sorties against Betio, bombing the airfield and other installations, flying 170 sorties the day after.

At dawn on November 20th, Task Force 50.3 again launches its planes at the island, the focus is ground targets in preparation for the invasion.  The planes land, and the naval bombardment of the island begins, and the first of the Marine assault force climbs into their landing craft. At nine in the morning, a half hour later than planned, the Marines make their way toward the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

The men of Torpedo 22 (VT-22)

The men of Torpedo 22 (VT-22)

VT-22 too heads toward Betio, flying continuing close air support missions.  Below, landing craft shepherd the 18,600 Marines invading the island.  The 1,900 horse power radial engine vibrates the airframe. The plane dips and climbs slightly as it navigates the tropical air.In the front of the Avenger, the pilot sees what is coming and reacts to it.  The airplane responds to his touch, his desire. Below him, the radio operator has the most room, space to man the radios and the ventral machinegun, things to keep him occupied. The turret gunner’s world is confined to a metal seat with a 50. caliber machine gun, a thin veil of Plexiglas separating him from the blue sky. He is almost like a passenger, having no control over where he is going, just knowing whatever lies ahead will be dangerous and that he cannot see the danger because he faces the rear.

Jitterbug watches the sky and waits.  He thinks of stuff from when he was a kid back in Indiana, things he carries with him in his mind. Stuff like selling strawberries in grade school, and waking up before the sun rose to work a milk route with his mother. His sister Doris, bowling with friends, the things that keep him going, things from the past he wants a future with. He thinks of Mary, the girl who waits for him. He retraces the steps of their last dance on the metal turret, the rubber soles of the black converse shoes muted by the engine noise. He carries his nickname with him too, written on his flight helmet and goggles.

Tarawa Atoll

Tarawa Atoll

There is another thing he carries, something he shares with every man on the plane and the men down below: fear. Fear as the ground at Betio flickers when the Japanese defenses open up, fear when black puffs of anti-aircraft buffet the plane, as tracer bullets fill the air with bright glowing streaks; fear that would change Jitterbug’s full head of black hair almost bald.

When they drop their bombs, they head back to the carrier. Below them the Marines are engaging the Japanese. There is smoke over the task force, and it is from the Independence. A torpedo from a Japanese plane struck its starboard side. The ship is badly damaged, its flight deck closed. Jitterbug’s Avenger makes an emergency landing on the USS Essex. The Independence sails to Funafuti, in the Ellice Islands for temporary repairs.

Two days later, the fight for Tarawa would be over. In three days, 1000 Marines and almost the entire Japanese garrison will lay dead on the island. There will be a documentary film about the battle that for the first time would show the American public the uncensored carnage of war.

Without a ship, Jitterbug’s crew flies raids with the Essex against Kwajalein before going to Pearl Harbor to catch up with the Independence as it heads to San Francisco.

In February 1944, Jitterbug would marry his sweetheart Mary while on a 30 day leave in the US. His crew would train for night flying before orders came for them to be shipped to the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier USS Cowpens.  On a stop at Pearl Harbor, Jitterbug’s application for pilot training is approved with orders back to San Francisco. His Avenger crew head to battle in the Pacific without him, where, on their first mission they are shot down and killed.

Jitterbug would never become a pilot with the US Navy. He was honorably discharged after a week of pilot training. He returned to Terre Haute, Indiana, the place he had left in 1942. He read in the library, bowled with his friends and danced with his wife. But things were never the same as they had been that summer long ago in 1941, when high school had finished and life was waiting to be found.  Jitterbug had gone off to war and come back and life had moved on.

Elton Dale "Jitterbug" Snodgrass

Elton Dale “Jitterbug” Snodgrass

Jitterbug (right) and fellow gunner

Jitterbug (right) and fellow gunner

Jitterbug's flight helmet, goggles, shoes and other mementos

Jitterbug’s flight helmet, goggles, shoes and other mementos

It takes more than heroes

B-29 bombers fly over the 5th Marine Division cemetary on Iwo Jima

B-29 bombers fly over the 5th Marine Division cemetery on Iwo Jima

On 9:00 AM on March 26th 1945 a small strip of land in the Volcanic Islands became silent. The last major action had ended the night before, with a 300 man suicide charge by the Japanese. Iwo Jima would become the iconic battle for the US Marines in World War Two. It would also be the only battle where overall US casualties exceeded that of the Japanese. 6,800 Americans lay in the volcanic ash, in the shadow of Mount Suribachi, where the iconic flag raising took place.

When I think of Marines and Iwo Jima, I think of tough men, pushing forward yard by yard, with rifles and grenades, against a determined foe; the marine with a grenade in his hand and a flamethrower on his back. These are the men that captured the minds of Americans; the heroes of Iwo Jima. But when the heroes got in trouble who could they turn to? Who paved the way for their trek to Suribachi and immortality?

The 5th Marine Division saw its one and only combat at Iwo Jima. It was one of three Marine divisions on the island, and the only one new to fighting. William Manning was a corporal in the 5th Marine division. William wasn’t the hero who led men into battle to grapple with the enemy in hand to hand combat. William was an artilleryman, in Headquarters battery, 4th Battalion, 13th Marine Artillery Regiment. He was one of the men those heroes turned to when they needed help. Assistance so they could move forward.

William helped for the thirty-six days of the battle, then he never fired a shot in anger at the Japanese again; his next encounter with them came when the 5th Division went to Japan, to occupy it peacefully.

Napoleon Bonaparte once made the comment:

“With Artillery, War is made”

So William Manning made war, so that he could find peace, a peace that 2,416 of the 5th Division’s men would never know. But because of him and the others in the artillery, maybe a few more got to see it. Sometimes in war, it takes more than heroes.

Fatigue shirt of Corporal William Manning 13th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division

Fatigue shirt of Corporal William Manning 13th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to Echoes of a War. I have had a keen interest in the Second World War since I was a child. In my blog I hope to share history, personal stories and artifacts that will be of interest to the historian, collector and anyone who likes to learn about and share history.

I am new at this so I hope to learn more about blogging as I go along and connect with some interesting people.

Thanks for reading.