By the time Everett Marvel’s ship arrived off the shoreline of Peleliu, a tiny island in the Pacific, his spirit was calm about the coming firefight between U.S. Marines and soldiers from the Japanese Imperial Army.
After all, he had not only survived a horrendous battle on New Britain months earlier, he had earned a Bronze Star for risking his life to save his brothers in the field. And that feat had been made possible by skills he had learned on the family farm in Wasco County.
“I was at peace, I didn’t know what was going to happen but I felt comfortable,” said Marvel about taking part in one of the great Marine battles of the Pacific Theater during World War II.
He was 22 years old and held the rank of private first class at the time, although he was temporarily in a corporal role and handling the leadership duties of a sergeant.
It was 8:32 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1944, when the first wave of Marines made an amphibious landing on the southwestern beach of Peleliu, which is one of 16 states of Palau.
Infantrymen hit the ground running to secure a foothold and Marvel’s artillery regiment followed closely behind.
Marvel, who had been aboard the U.S. Dupage, didn’t have time to mentally process the horrors he saw coming ashore; he was too busy dodging bullets.
There were Marines burning alive in mortared vehicles and the bullet-riddled bodies of other Marines were draped across a fence of concertina wire.
The beach was filled with thousands of obstacles for landing craft, including mines and a large number of heavy artillery shells buried with the fuses exposed to explode when they were run over.
A bullet missed Marvel’s head by inches, instead striking the hydraulic line of the vehicle he was supposed to be traveling in, rendering it inoperable.
Marvel was assigned to the 1st Marine Division, which secured the airport right away but sustained heavy losses during the first two days of combat. Postwar analysts would later say the battle for Peleliu was some of the most vicious and costly fighting in the Pacific.
“I don’t want this story to be about me,” said Marvel. “I am telling this story for all the men who never made it home.”
‘BLOODY NOSE RIDGE’
The mission of the Marines was to secure an airfield on the tiny island that was just six miles long and two miles wide. U.S. commanders wanted to stop Japanese air attacks in the area and bring the war closer to Japan.
U.S. troops, which included Army soldiers and other Marine units, were attacked by a force of about 11,000 Japanese from heavily fortified bunkers and caves. The enemy was firing 150 mm, 81 mm and 47 mm guns, as well as 20 mm cannons.
Within an hour of the Marines’ landing, the Japanese had destroyed 60 vehicles used to carry men and equipment to the beach.
Major General William Rupertus, commander of the 1st Marines, had predicted the island would be secured within four days. However, because the Japanese were so well fortified, it took more than two months to rout them out.
The Imperial Army’s defenses were based at Peleliu’s highest point, Umurbrogol Mountain, which was located at the center of the island and dubbed “Bloody Nose Ridge” by the Marines. The mountain contained some 500 limestone caves, interconnected by tunnels, which made excellent bunkers.
The island had been bombarded by Navy battleships and air strikes before the Marines arrived. However, the Japanese were so well fortified that most of their positions had been left unscathed.
The Marines were fighting in 115-degree weather and, further complicating the situation, water to many units was distributed in empty oil drums that were contaminated with residue, which made them sick.
Marvel’s regiment secured the objective and fought the Japanese for one month on Peleliu before being relieved and given some rest and relaxation time.
The battle of Peleliu resulted in the highest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in American military history. A full 40 percent of the 28,000 Marines and Army soldiers who fought on the island died or were wounded.
The decision to invade Peleliu was controversial because of the island’s questionable strategic value and the high casualty rate.
ON TO OKINAWA
Marvel was hospitalized for pneumonia on the Solomon Islands after Peleliu and missed the April 1, 1945, invasion of Okinawa, the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific.
He rejoined his unit about one month into the 82-day-long battle that resulted in 14,009 Allied deaths, with more than 12,500 Americans killed or missing. The offensive included four divisions of the U.S. 10th Army and the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions.
The plan was to use Okinawa, a large island only 340 miles from mainland Japan, as a base for air operations against the enemy.
Marvel and the 11th Marine Regiment had been ready to deal with Japanese defenses on Peleliu and Okinawa after encountering entrenched enemy forces during the infamous Suicide Creek battle on the island of New Britain, which was a territory of Papua New Guinea.
READY TO ROLL
The invasion of New Britain began the day after Christmas, Dec. 26, 1943.
It was the second WW II landing of the 1st Marines, following Guadalcanal, and would later be recorded as one of the most desperate operations of the Pacific Theater.
The Marines found out the hard way after coming ashore, said Marvel, that intelligence information had been faulty. Not only were there more Japanese than expected, the enemy was entrenched on a ridge that had not shown up on maps.
The mission of the Marines was to capture and expand the Japanese military airfield at Cape Gloucester. What was expected by commanders to have been a short stroll through the jungle to reach the objective turned into a nine-day rolling firefight.
Marvel, who had joined the Corps at 20, didn’t know what to expect. He had made it through boot camp in San Diego, Calif., despite getting pneumonia and having to be hospitalized. His artillery training had taken place at Camp Elliott, also in California, which was the Fleet Marine Force Training Center on the West Coast.
Most of Marvel’s childhood had been spent on a wheat and cattle ranch near the remote community of Friend, and he would realize soon after landing on New Britain how valuable his farming skills were.
“I had gotten a draft notice but not been called,” he said. “But when my friend Dick Merrill came by in 1942 and said we should join I thought, ‘Well, why not.’ I was in for the duration of the national emergency.”
His first deployment began after he boarded the USS Mt. Vernon, named after the homestead of General George Washington.
The ship carried several thousand Marines, including a group of paratroopers who were offloaded in New Caledonia before Marvel’s unit arrived in Australia and transferred to the USS Simon Benson, a Liberty ship made in Portland, Ore.
The troop ships spent about six months at Oro Bay, New Guinea, a staging area for Allied equipment, before heading off to New Britain. The Marines trained in how to maneuver caterpillar tractors with large pieces of weaponry, a skill that Marvel excelled in because of his farming background.
While aboard the ship in Oro Bay, Marvel and other Marines watched Japanese bombers fly strafing runs across the beach, but were not called into action.
“It was more of a harassing thing,” he remembers.
The Marines offloaded at Cape Gloucester on New Britain and immediately ran into trouble.
The ridge gave the Imperial Army control over the trail through the dense jungle that served as their supply line. The enemy was a battalion of battle-seasoned Japanese soldiers who had engaged Americans at Bataan.
That historic battle of World War II was one of the last stands of American and Filipino soldiers before they were overwhelmed by Japanese forces.
On New Britain, the Japanese were well provisioned and dug in, waiting in hidden pillboxes to pick off the Marines as they advanced.
“We really hadn’t been told much of anything,” said Marvel of the situation.
Moving forward was problematic for the Marines, who had been told to expect boggy ground that turned out to be a widespread swamp with up to five feet of standing water in places.
“When it rained it was like five-gallon buckets of water were being poured over your head,” said Marvel.
He said the men in fox holes were “practically swimming.”
The first deluge lasted five days, and recurring storms persisted for another two weeks. At times, the Marines could not see more than a few feet ahead of them.
Wet uniforms never really dried and the men suffered continually from fungus infections, the so-called jungle rot, that readily developed into open sores.
“There were all kinds of leeches, bugs and spiders,” said Marvel. “And our feet were always wet, rotten.”
Mosquito-borne malaria threatened the health of the Marines.
The 11th Marines and other units struggled to find routes of passage for vehicles that could not plow through the deep mud, and frequently had to rely on winches to move them along.
In addition to the weather, the Marines had to hack their way through the tropical rain forest, where varieties of trees and bushes formed an impenetrable barrier — and created plenty of hiding places for enemy snipers.
The mangrove forest also proved a formidable foe due to a maze of roots that spread from the trees.
There were fields of wild sugar cane, with thick stalks that grew to a height of 15 feet to further impede passage.
The problem with traveling slow to deal with these obstacles, said Marvel, was that the Marines were an easy target.
The 10- to 15-foot wide waterway flowing perpendicular to the line of advance was dubbed “Suicide Creek” because the Japanese had dug pillboxes into the opposite embankment and mowed down Marines who tried to cross.
There were times, said Marvel, when the water ran red.
He was adept at getting the tractor around obstacles, so was given the job of delivering water, food and ammunition to infantry units on the front line.
He didn’t see it as a heroic act on Jan. 8, 1944, to move a 37 mm fieldpiece to the embattled riflemen at the foot of the ridge.
The big gun had been held up in the jungle behind the battalion and the Marines couldn’t push forward without it.
Following is an account of his achievement printed in the June 2, 1945 edition of Collier’s magazine: “There was only one way he could go. For 50 yards or more that way ran right along the front line. It was through heavy mud; slow going. And he would be completely exposed to the enemy’s fire. They told him that, but PFC. Everett Marvel said he’d give it a go.
“The battle was at a furious pitch as he came clattering along the front, perched high on the driver’s seat of the tractor, perched there like a hen on a roost, the plainest target a man could have, with the whole enemy line blazing at him.
“Bullets banged on the cat, on the gun, and bullets hit within inches of him, but by crazy luck ‘that marvel Marvel’ wasn’t hit. He swung in at last at battalion headquarters. He lighted a cigarette. ‘Here she is,’ he said. ‘Where do you want her?’
“They told him the spot on the line. He said, ‘Okay,’ and trundled off to deliver the gun. Then he swung homeward. They figured he was a dead man for sure. He’d made it once, a million-to-one shot, and at those odds you don’t repeat.”
But the “long shot” came through again and, despite having hundreds of bullets raining around the ambling tractor, Marvel also made it through the return trip unscathed.
“I was out in no-man’s land. I was going as fast as I could,” he said.
He figured that being in front of the line provided a smoother lane of travel than rockier terrain behind the infantrymen.
“I don’t think I did anything extraordinary,” he recounts.
“It was fairly level ground and I tried to concentrate on doing everything correctly and letting all the other problems dissolve.”
Two weeks later, he found out that he was being recommended by a field officer for the Bronze Star with a Combat “V” for Valor.
“I have no idea what I said, I hope it was ‘Thank you,’” he said.
The battle of New Britain cost the lives of 310 Marines and wounded hundreds more.
Marvel stayed in the Corps until the end of the war in 1945 and then returned to Wasco County. War trauma followed him home and haunted his dreams.
“I didn’t know for a long time that I had PTSD,” he said. “I was miserable, not a very nice guy.”
He experienced depression and anger, which he said made it impossible for him to work for anyone else. Taking classes at Oregon State University helped his reintegration a little, and so did the solitude that he found on the farm, where he decided to stay.
Thirty-five years ago, he married Betty Marie and found more peace in life.
Although Marvel hadn’t sought out the company of other Marines after leaving the service, Betty talked him into attending the 50th anniversary of his unit in Texas and he reconnected with old friends that he now stays in touch with.
On Jan. 31, Marvel will be 95 and one of the dwindling number of Marines still alive from a war that has been etched into the annals of American history.
Although age has made it difficult for him to recall some of the dates and names from his service, Marvel learned long ago that the memories of combat never fade.