MARINE, SEAMAN RETURN TO ATOLL 72 YEARS AFTER INVASION

FEB. 6, 2016 / JORDAN VINSON

Marine Veteran Bill Mancke and Navy Veteran Clyde Hansen and their families joined the family of the late Marine Frank Pokrop and the USAG-KA community on Kwajalein Atoll to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of Operation Flintlock, Jan. 27-Feb. 1. On a whirlwind tour of the islands, both Mancke and Hansen were able to retrace their footsteps on Roi and Namur, where they had been sent to invade 72 years prior as young men. Unlike Mancke’s dear friend, Frank Pokrop, who had returned to the atoll several times to commemorate the battle—his last being his funeral on Namur last year—this was Mancke’s first time back on the island.

Standing at the southern rim of Namur, just off the Roi-Namur Dolphins Scuba Club shack, Mancke shaded the late morning sun from his eyes Jan. 31 and pointed off to the east. It was warm and breezy, and in the distance, a couple of Kwajalein residents visiting Roi-Namur for the weekend waded through the shallow, clear water on a sandy offshoot of island jutting out into the lagoon. He had spotted, he thought, the rough location where he ran out the front of a Higgins boat Feb. 1, 1944 with a baker’s dozen other soldiers from Company G, 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Regimental Combat Team to begin the ground assault on the islet of Namur.

“This is the area where we came in,” he said, speaking with an American Forces Network television news crew that flew out from Yokota Air Base, Japan to capture his and Hansen’s stories. “The pier over here was to our left. Mostly we just had mortar fire around the landing craft coming in. Coming in, I know we had to get our feet wet a little bit. I’m not quite sure how far out we were when they finally dumped it and let us come out. But other than that, I’m sure I didn’t see this many trees and so forth around at the time. But it’s a beautiful spot now.”

Joined by fellow Marines storming out of a steady stream of incoming Higgins boats, their objective, speaking simply, was to wrest Namur from the Japanese. But unlike Roi, there were no enemy airstrips and fighter craft located on the island. No aircraft meant fewer artillery strikes and air raids from American bombers and fighters—and a lot more jungle overgrowth on the island, which gave Japanese defenders plenty of good cover. M1 Garand rifles in their hands and clusters of hand grenades at the ready, Mancke and the 24th Regimental Combat Team began the deadly work of piercing Namur and quieting enemy pillboxes, blockhouses and sniper nests.

“I made it in to the first pillbox,”Mancke said, the azure blue lagoon water lapping onto the beach behind him. “That’s where our company was set up. I was on the right flank, trying to make contact with F Company; I was in G Company. I was with my platoon sergeant and another buddy. Just as my platoon sergeant told me to get up and go over to F Company so that we could line up and move out … I stood up.”

It was at that moment, he says, that a large enemy blockhouse, approximately located about 100 yards north of Green Beach 2, blew up. An American assault team had reportedly thrown an explosive charge into the blockhouse to clear it, not knowing it was an ammunition dump. The torpedo warheads and aerial bombs stored in the blockhouse lit up and rocked the island, projecting an immense plume of concrete, shrapnel and thick, black smoke into the sky. The infamous explosion stands out as perhaps the single most destructive chapter in the battle for the atoll’s northern islands.

“We were all pretty well knocked out, I guess,” Mancke said. “When the dust settled, there [were] many big warheads lying around. My platoon sergeant was wounded quite bad. His whole jaw was chewed up, and there was not much I could do, because I found out I couldn’t walk. So I decided to just crawl back out. E Company was in the back of us. I crawled through E Company and told them that there was a lot of guys wounded up there and to get up there and give them a hand. And I crawled back to the beach, found a stretcher there, crawled on it and said, ‘Get me out of here.’”

An officer, who saw the incident from a distance, described the scene in a chilling report.

“An ink-black darkness spread over a large part of Namur such that the hand could not be seen in front of the face. Debris continued to fall for a considerable length of time, which seemed unending to those in the area who were all unprotected from the huge chunks of concrete and steel thudding on the ground about them.

“Before the explosion, the large blockhouse was conspicuously silhouetted against the skyline. After the explosion, nothing remained but a huge water-filled crater. Men were killed and wounded in small boats a considerable distance from the beach by the flying debris.

“Two more violent explosions, but lesser in intensity than the first, occurred among the assault troops during the next half hour.” *The name of the officer is undetermined. His account has been captured in several writings on the incident. Carl W. Proehl’s “The Fourth Marine Division in World War II” is one such example.

Occurring only about five hours into Mancke’s and the 24th’s push into Namur, the blockhouse explosion knocked Mancke out of the game early on. He was taken aboard a hospital ship and brought back to Pearl Harbor, where he spent time recuperating. In June 1944 he went onward with the 4th Marine Division to Saipan, where he picked up some shrapnel, earning his second Purple Heart and remaining on the island until it was secured after a month of fighting. In July he moved on to Tinian and later to Iwo Jima in Feb. 1945, where he was taken down by more shrapnel two weeks into the infamous assault on that island. Four major battles and three Purples Hearts after joining the Marines, he was honorably discharged and hadn’t seen any of the islands since. Finally back after 72 years, Mancke said he was amazed at how much has changed.

“It’s difficult to believe this could be here in the way it is,” he said. “It’s just beautiful, and the way people are treating us here is very nice.”

Hansen, for whom it was also his first trip back, couldn’t agree more. A Nebraskan, Hansen joined the U.S. Naval Reserve’s V Amphibious Corps and trained in Idaho and Pearl Harbor as a Higgins boat operator. On Feb. 1, 1944, at the ripe age of 19, he was one of several Higgins drivers ferrying Marines of 1st Battalion, 23rd Regimental Combat Team to Red Beach 2, near the location where the Rat Shack sits today. His trips motoring to and from staging craft in the lagoon went rather peacefully and unopposed, save for the occasional mortar round coming in close by, Hansen said. Waves of U.S. artillery shots and air strikes that hit the Japanese fortifications and airstrips on the atoll in the weeks leading up to the invasion had quieted much of the defenders’ perimeter defenses. After dropping the bow door and unloading his second group of Marines on Red Beach 2, however, the Japanese defenders delivered a wake-up call. A mortar round landed square in the middle of the vessel as he attempted to motor back out for another trip.

“I picked up an artillery shell or something,” he said. “It hit at about the middle [of the boat] when I was unloaded already. … Water kept coming on so fast that I couldn’t get backed out and was starting to sink too much. I ended up in the water, so I just had to abandon it and leave it be and wade to shore as best I could. It was like a nightmare. But I was still alive, and I was thankful for that.”

After making the swim to shore, he thanked God he was still alive, he said, and joined another group at the beach, where he helped transfer supplies onto shore. Within a day, the Marines of the 23rd and 24th Regimental Combat Teams completed their treks from the south ends of the islands to their northern fringes and rooted out most of the remaining Japanese defenders. The hum of war had gone quiet, and Roi Island was a desolate wasteland, covered with sandy craters, burnt machines and busted-up bunkers. The dead would soon be cleared away and placed into deep pits by Seabees, Navy personnel and Marines.

“Barren. It was barren. No trees, no nothing standing. It was absolutely barren,” he said. “Over on Namur, now, there was a lot of trees and stuff standing there. But here on Roi, it was completely flat. To the best of my memory, I do not remember seeing a tree or building or nothing.”

Between this period and the day he earned his Purple Heart, his time on the island went a bit quieter, but no less uncomfortable. A small canvas pup tent among the blown out craters served as his barracks, and because few palms survived the American bombardment, there was no shade. There was plenty of work, though.

“Most of the time, I spent unloading LSTs

[landing ships]

and barges with supplies,” Hansen said. “I wasn’t assigned to any ship duty or shore duty at all, only except to work here on the beach and get those supplies off.”

Meanwhile, Marines set off around the islands trying to locate the remaining Japanese defenders who, hidden among debris, uncleared blockhouses and jungle overgrowth, managed to kill U.S. Soldiers on occasion.

“This one Marine walked up to us and was talking away, and all of a sudden he was saying that one Japanese come out of the brush with his rifle and his bayonet,” Hansen said. “And he was coming towards him like he was going to charge him. One of the Marines that was in the group said, ‘Stand back guys. I’ll take care of him.’ He walked up and met this Japanese, and he had his bayonet on his rifle set too just like the Jap did and gave him one good poke in the chest. He said it was all over. I can hear that yet, that Marine telling us about it. This was four or five days after the invasion.”

12 days into U.S. ground operations, a Japanese counter-attack, thought to have originated from someplace north (both Saipan and Wake Island have been suggested as origination points), shook the Marines and Sailors on the islands Feb. 12. An air raid siren went off, and Hansen scrambled to find something he could hide under, he said. A road grater parked at the west side of the battered runway was all he and a few others could find.

“I can vaguely remember of hearing plane engines, and it was real faint,” he said. “And it made me wonder how in the hell so high up they could hit this little spot down here. But they hit a bull’s eye.”

While Imperial Japanese fighters blanketed the ground with heavy machine gun fire, seaplane bombers flying over the atoll had let loose their cargo and blasted the already heavily cratered surface of Roi. One bomb came down onto an American ammunition stockpile near Hansen and blew sky high. Second only to the Namur blockhouse explosion in ferocity, it was like a hellish inferno, he explained.

“Debris was falling from the air. Oh I don’t know what it was. I suppose it was coral, metal, whatever,” he said. “But I know I was hugging that big wheel on that grater. There was two other people beside me trying to get behind that wheel, because we was on the south side and all the ammunition and stuff that was going off when the bomb hit was north of us. So we was kind of getting protected from that wheel. But as far as stuff coming down, we had no cover.”

Several Americans had taken off running out onto the coral off the west side of the island to get clear of the explosions and shrapnel but had a tough time getting back onto land.

“All of a sudden I heard a couple of gunshots,” Hansen said. “They was starting to come back, and somebody must have thought they was being invaded, because they [the troops on land] fired a couple of shots, and I could vaguely hear, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t Shoot! We’re not invading you! We’re not the Japs!’”

Still hugging the ground by the big tire of the road grater on the side of the runway, he and the men flanking him were still pinned down by exploding ammunition when he was knocked unconscious by an explosion and suffered second-degree burns on his back. One of the men at his side was badly injured, part of his face taken off by shrapnel.

“I don’t know what happened. I guess I got a concussion or something,” he said. “About the next thing I knew, here I was aboard a ship out in the [lagoon]. I know I was up there in about the third-tier bunk up in a canvas bunk. I could feel I had patches on my back, but how I got there, I haven’t the slightest idea.”

After spending a few weeks recovering in Pearl Harbor, he was handed a .45-caliber and put on guard duty for several weeks at the personal dining quarters of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

“That was pretty good duty,” Hansen said. “I remember he comes up to our barracks one morning, and he says, ‘We’re having schooling this morning on how to disassemble your .45-caliber pistol. Would you like to come down and join us on how to do that?’ He says, ‘I can’t command you to do it.’ But he says, ‘If you want to do it, you’re welcome. If not, that’s fine too.’ I did go. I went down and wanted to learn all I could about the arms I was carrying.”

On May 18, 1944, Hansen received a Purple Heart for his injuries and bravery on Roi and returned to action on the water. He went on to participate in the Philippine Liberation Campaign and later performed more amphibious landings with the Marines during the invasion of Okinawa.

Having gotten the rare chance to travel back to the island he was sent to invade and was wounded in combat 72 years ago was like a dream come true, he said.

“I never thought I’d be back,” he said. “Never.”

Touring the islands of Roi and Namur, Hansen said that the islands’ current beauty is astounding and that their use as a premiere missile test range and space surveillance site makes him proud.  “I’m glad to see how the island is being used now,” he said, smiling, admiring ALTAIR Jan. 31. “It’s good to see that all our effort was worth it.”

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