Historical Pictures From Kwajalein Atoll by Neil Schwanitz

Bill Merdink was 18 years old when he joined the Navy. This is his story in his own words about his experience on Kwajalein Atoll

 Monday, November 22nd, 1943 at 12:30 we got our last glimpse of the Good Old U.S.A. fading in the dusk. It was a funny feeling for we knew what lay ahead of us and we wondered if we would ever see the coast again. We were assigned a bunk in No. 2 hold, between decks and were packed in like sardines. (I think sardines were luckier). A couple of days later we had to move into No. 3 hold. Then the guys from No. 3 hold moved into No. 2. Man, what a scramble, rifles, bed rolls, packs all mixed up! We went to chow twice a day. Got in line at 05:30 and stood ‘til 09:00 then back in line again at about 16:00. There were about 1200 troops aboard and one small mess hall to feed them. I got stuck on K.P. one evening and that was enough for me! We had our Thanksgiving services top side, somewhat different from sitting in church, but it served the purpose. Then came the turkey dinner. Big turkeys lying in the pans frying and looking delicious. Come time to eat they slapped a large piece on my tray. One bite and my appetite took a powder. Man! What a foul smell and I mean “Foul”. And so they started once again, as many times before in the Navy from steam table to G.I, cans The fish were only ones who enjoyed that lovely turkey. We had fire drills and abandon ship drills ‘til we were blue in the face. Shaving in cold salt water was not joke either. So on we plugged at 8 Knots for eight days and nights. The Island of Oahu, Hawaii, came into view and we pulled slowly into dock about 16:40 in Honolulu Harbor (Pearl Harbor) and stayed aboard that night. We disembarked about 10:30 on December 1st. 1943, and were mustered in at the barracks at Barber’s Point N.A.S. about 20 miles from Pearl Harbor. Here we re-organized and were put on working details to unload our ship and check all supplies. This done, we aviation men worked with C.A.S.U. #2 and C.A.S.U. #209 in the hangars at the field Allan, who had been there and I got together and spent liberty in Honolulu. On Christmas Days I visited him at his Camp at Schofield Base and had a good Christmas dinner on the Army. New Year’s Day 1944, Allan came over and got in on some of our Marine training, a beer party on Nankoolie beach. He left the Islands (Oahu) in the middle of January 1944 so I haven’t seen him since. We got some more Commando training and Free Gunner practice shooting at a sleeve towed by plane. Chaplain Hooks took us on a tour of Oahu, Pineapple factory, Diamond Head Blow Hole, Mountains and Valleys, Hicks Field, Pearl Harbor Sub Base, etc. I made my 2/c rating on Jan. 1st 1944. I attended fire fighting classes at Pearl Harbor for four days. Then came the work details of reloading our ships again.

January 27th, 1944, we boarded the U.S.S. Robin Wently. A few of the boys went aboard the U.S.S. Young America. We kissed the Islands good-bye the following day, January 28th, at 10:00 and joined our convoy at sea for parts unknown to us. The Robin Wently was a fast ship as compared with the U.S.S. Livingston. We had two good meals a day and didn’t have to stand in line so long. More fire drills and abandon ship drills. The troops aboard put on a program of acts and boxing matches on the deck. I’ll never forget: “A Clean Ship is a Happy Ship.” (Came over the loud speaker every few minutes.) We moved into the lagoon and anchored off Roi and Namur Islands, two of the 90 Islands of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshalls. They were nothing but Coral reefs, the highest point was 6 ft. above sea level. The same day, February 8th, 1944 we were divided into different groups. Some to go ashore and some to go to other ships for unloading. The Marines aboard hit the beach. I was assigned to the U.S.S. Cape San Mactin. We loaded landing craft for a day and then an L.S.T. tied up along side and we loaded from one to the other. The L.S.T’s could hit the beaches to unload.

We had Air Raid alert every night but no enemy planes came over. It was just “Snooping Charley” (Jap reconnaissance planes). It took four days and nights to unload the ship, after which, on February 12th, we were put ashore. The Marines had landed two days before we arrived. One large Jap oil dump was still burning and our dive bombers and battle wagons had just finished pounding the hell out of the two Islands. Officers and men said there wasn’t 12 sq. feet of ground that didn’t have a bomb crater on both islands. The area of Roi is 7/10 sq. mile, while Namur is about 5/10 sq. mile. Jap planes caught on the ground were riddled with bullet holes and strewn everywhere. Two hangars were destroyed and I don’t believe there is a piece of metal 2 ft. long on either hangar that didn’t have bullet holes in them so fierce was our strafing and bombing and Naval shelling. Aside from the “junk” lying around, there were the duds (unexploded bombs) and 16 in. naval shells lying around, some buried and some lying on the surface. Anyone moving or driving over one could have been blown to bits, also hand grenades of the Japs and the Marines had left lying around. Then there were the dead Japs lying in the hot sun decaying. Boy! What a smell! Everything we ate for weeks after tasted like dead Japs. It was bad enough trying to down a K-ration alone. There were a few snipers around in drainage ditches under concrete blocks etc. It was reported that a Sea Bee had his throat cut while driving a truck down the runway. Another Sea-Bee killed a sniper who charge him while driving a Bulldozer. The Sea-Bees (109th) and Marines, were blasting dead Jap bodies from holes to get rid of the smell. The sanitation squad worked day and night and had record of 2.900 Japs that were hauled into big pits and buried plus those who were blown to bits, so no one knows how many were on the Island. We had our tents set up just at the side of 228 Japs (buried). I was in a block house (one of the few left standing that the Marines couldn’t get the Japs out of. The Japs would shout: “Come in and get us, you souvenir hunters. A Marine Sgt. Had tied dynamite around his waist and walked in. Two of his Buddies had been killed besides him as a result of the Japs throwing grenades (thrown at them) back into the faces of the Marines before they exploded. This Sgt. Killed them all and himself by running into the building with the dynamite. After a Jap was shot the boys would knock their teeth out (looking for gold) even before the Jap was dead. I was as bad as the rest of them Some beautiful saber and “Harrie Carrie” knives were found. The Marines got all of the good articles, wrist watches, knives, pistol rifles, and gold teeth. Later on everyone was getting in the holes and dugouts for souvenirs and found plenty. One Marine was filled full of lead, while removing the wrist watch from his Buddy, by his own Sgt! The Sea-Bees had set up a Mess hall and one meal had been served before the fateful night.

The morning of February 13th, 1944 (never to be forgotten). As I mentioned before, I came ashore and set up a tent and about an hour later an officer made us take it down and reset it one foot over. We were 8 men to a tent. The entire personnel were camped on Roi Island between three runways, except a few Marines cleaning out snipers on Namur Island. A bunch of us went swimming to get cleaned up and then wandered about Namur Island in the afternoon. We were walking along the beach and noticed something sending up large geysers of water about 200 yards off shore. The Marines didn’t know what was going on and the air raid siren hadn’t sounded. It was later learned that a Sub or something had been shelling us from over the horizon! And there we stood like damn fools and watched what might have been instant death had the Japs improved their range! But we thought nothing of and went on looking for souvenirs. We are a K. ration for supper that night and every night for the next month. We sat about and shot the breeze and then hit the sack about 21:30. At approximately 02:30, February 13th, that air raid sirens let go! We hadn’t dug any foxholes. A few that had been on the island had theirs. We stood around watched the search lights play about the skies. The Anti-aircraft guns opened fire for a couple of minutes, but later we learned the bombers were too high so the Island was blacked out again. We stood about and beat on a fast timber(smoked a Fleetwood cigarette) and hit the sack again. I had just dozed off when Bloody! It came. I came to and found the skies lit up like a hot furnace. Dirt, shrapnel, tents, men, gear and what-not coming down WITH ME. I had been lifted about 6 ft. and turned over to come down on my stomach, and slammed down on the bunk, half on and half off, with tent on top. Luckily, I had been so tired I had fallen asleep fully dressed except for a shirt. I don’t know how I got out of the tent entanglements and gear, but I knew I was moving and moving fast. Someone shouted “Hit the Deck!” so into the bomb crater head first I went! I don’t believe I had quite hit the bottom when another bomb let go! And the concussion lifted me up and then dropped me. I lay there a couple of seconds PRAYING (which seemed like hours) when BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Four bombs made their pattern down the runway towards ME. If there had been a fifth one, little Willie wouldn’t have been here, because I was in a shallow crater on the edge of the runway. A runway draws bombs like flies to food! The air was full of singing shrapnel and I could hear a “pluck” as they buried themselves in the coral. By this time the Island was a flaming mass of what had been our supplies. Our bombs (2000, 1000, 500 lbs) and ammunition lit the skies like Fourth of July! Empty casings whistled throughout the air and tracer bullets shot skyward. Our camp had been set up on the windward side so there wasn’t much danger of being burned out. A small fire started on the next tent to mine from incendiary dropped by the Japs, but a couple of guys beat it out. The fire burned the Sea Bees camp to the ground and down the runway where the supplies had been unloaded, a couple of guys came diving into the crater with me. One had a wound on his arm, not serious. After the Jap bombers left, a few fellows started poking their heads up, but very shortly hit the dirt as one of our bombs went off. I was so scared I shook like a fat woman on a reducer! It was awful cold without a shirt and besides being scared, a frisky wind was blowing off the Pacific. The bombs went off at longer intervals, so I beat it back to my gear for my shirt and hard headpiece and a jack and my rifle. I was forced to eat dirt again as more bombs went off. Then up like a scared rabbit I hit for the beach and an old pillbox of the Japs. About halfway there, I ate dirt again, and then moved on. It was only 300 yards to the beach but I’ll bet I broke a couple of records! The pillbox was full of guys, so I found a large fox hole with 6 other guys. Then came another scare. A tin can off shore was laying a black smoke screen. An officer came running down the beach shouting “Go get your rifles and all the ammunition you have. The Japs are attacking”. Well, there I was on clip (5 rounds) in my rifle. My belt was back with the other mess. So back in the direction of the exploding bombs and ammunition. I found my ammo belt and started back for the beach. Every few minutes hitting the dirt as a bomb let go. An officer grabbed me and told me to start carrying cots for the sick bay. They couldn’t keep up because of so many casualties coming in. We later heard it had been one of our tin cans off shore. I met one of the fellows from my tent carrying cots and stretchers, so I helped him. He was soaking wet from sweat! We worked pretty hard carrying wounded to the sick bay. The fire was getting close to another pile of 2000 lbers., so we got into a fox hole and stayed there. Up until this time I hadn’t talked much, but doing a lot of praying. Some men were lying on their stomachs praying out loud, and others to themselves. We finally started a conversation with a couple of officers in the same hole. We were all waiting for daybreak which seemed would never come! My buddy told me that he and another corpsman were carrying a wounded sailor on a stretcher, and that he heard something swish past him. The corpsman caught that piece of shrapnel in his leg and went down. A Marine helped him and another helped with the stretcher. More bombs (ours) started going off so we practically pushed our heads into the dirt. This foxhole happened to be round with sand bags piled around the edge. A piece of shrapnel came whistling towards us, and I guess I must have gotten a little panicky because I crawled around that fox hole a dozen times or more not knowing where to stop because I could hear that hot iron getting closer. I finally started eating dirt. We heard it munch into the ground 10 ft. away. We found it after daybreak; about 12 in. long, 6 in. wide and 3 in. thick buried in the hard runway. It was impossible to fight the fire, so it just burned out.

About daybreak the last bomb went off and men dug themselves out. There wasn’t a tent standing on the island! Men were completely naked, without shoes, and some with just a headpiece. Men came limping back because of the shrapnel and sharp coral, yet during the raid, they had run up and down the runway and never noticed a thing! If you ever hope to see a bunch of sad sacks, you should have seen us guys! We were all so tired we could hardly move. There was gear strewn all over the place. A few of the unlucky boys (dead) were being hauled in from different parts of the island for identification. Some were burned stiff; others covered with blood, and some without a scratch. Seeing our buddies lying there gave us a more tired and sinking feeling. About 06:30, without chow we set to work digging a hole for an operating room in case the bombers returned. We filled sandbags for protection of the patients. I was so tired I could hardly lift the shovel, so we worked in shifts of 10 minutes. About 07:30 the sirens howled again! Everybody went wild! I headed for the pillbox on the beach (300 yds.) and I’ve never lifted a rifle that weighed so much in all my life!! I tried to run but couldn’t and ended up just dragging my rifle behind me! The pillbox had a bunch of dead Japs that had been buried when the box was blown open. There must have been 25 men in a space about 5’ x 10’. This alarm turned out to be Snooping Charley (Jap recon.) about 30 miles out. They couldn’t get much work out of us after that. We got a chocolate bar at 11:30 as our chow. The doctors decided to move to the other island so we made ourselves scarce and went to straightening up some of our gear. There was a lot of personal belongings stolen because it was strewn all over the place. The center of attraction for weeks was the bomb crater. It was approximately 150 yds. from where we were camped. We stepped it off (diameter) as best we could, and found it to be close to 200 ft. in diameter. And no one knows how deep! Anyway the whole island used it for a freshwater swimming pool before the Sea Bees filled it in. The remains of a torpedo (aerial) were found in that vicinity. The torpedo had hit 82 of our 1000 lb. bombs plus smaller shells and ammunition. It all went off at once, too. About a week later, the C.B.’s dug up a body buried in the upheaval of coral at the edge of the crater. That afternoon was spent in collecting personal gear, what was left of it, and finding a place to sleep on the other island. No bombs had been dropped on Namur, but everyone expected the bombers over again that night (Feb 13th), so we dug in.

Twenty five of us located in an old Jap dugout 20’ x4’. We all hated to see the sun go down, so sat about watching it till it was not more. We finally got some K-rations and for the first time that day. Again, the smell of dead Japs turned our stomachs in the dugout! We lay down cross ways with our legs folded practically on our chests. Rifles and head gear served as pillows! Sand trickled down our faces, and ants ate heartily! A couple of hours of that and most of us gave way to slumber. The bombers didn’t return that night, Thank God! Twenty-five men, with stiff necks and aching legs, dragged themselves out at daybreak. Ate some K-rations which tasted like dead Japs, and drank some warm water. That morning, Feb. 14th 1944, our division, Field Operations moved back to the air strip and pitched tents. We finally washed our faces in salt water for the first time since before the bombing! We set up field lights on either side of the runway, that day. Just at sundown, 2F.6F night fighters set their welcomed wheels on the rugged runway. One blew a tire on the shrapnel, so with no repairs on the Island it was useless. A little more sleep was gotten that night. Feb. 15th, about 14:00, a transport (C.47) landed. There were a lot of tears in the eyes of our crew because we had made the strip somewhat serviceable in such a short time. I almost cried aloud! Nicest feeling a man could have was when that plane came in. You’ll never know the feeling of trying to sleep with Jap snipers around and open tents. Feb. 16th, 2 Jap laborers were dug out of a hole and put in the brigg. We all hated to see the sun go down and always watched it ‘til the last ray. There was a bomber’s moon (full) that everyone grew to hate, including myself! The estimated damage of the raid was 85% equipment, 50% personal gear, a landing boat, 32 dead, some 600 wounded. Some men had gone aboard ships in the harbor, most of C.A.S.U.’s men had swam to another island, etc. So it was a couple of days before a complete muster list was turned in. Casualties were evacuated to Pearl Harbor on transport ships. Two hospital ships anchored and took a few and treated the ones that were not injured too badly. The C.B.’s (109th) got to work on the airstrip with the equipment available, and later the 95th C.B.’s came aboard to help. Marines that had been on 73 to log bombings on Guadecanal, said that this was the worst raid they had been in! Admiral Nitz declared it the most destructive so far in the Pacific action. Rumors were that a number of Jap bombers had been intercepted out at sea and only three or four got through to Roi and Namur Islands. WHAT AN EXPERIENCE!!!


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