Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Lost Battalion

Like many of my generation, my father served in the Armed Forces during World War II. His service was with the Marine Corps in the South Pacific, with Company A, 10th Amphibian Tractor Battalion. I was privileged earlier this year, to be able to attend reunion of these Marines (I once had the temerity to comment that they were ex-Marines. The correction that I received, that there are no such thing as ex-Marines, only Marines who are not currently serving, leaves me shamed and humbled to this day.)  

I am privileged again, to be able to share with you a part of their story.

Activated on December 5, 1943, this unit was deployed the following month to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. After enemy resistance had ceased there (a curiously benign expression considering what was going on, but that is the way it was described to me) the bulk of the 10th, along with Company A of the 11th Battalion was sent to Maui. Company A however, was told to remain with the 25th Marines, set up camp on a little stretch of sand known as Andrew Island, and watch as the departing ships slipped over the horizon.

Left on their own with no spare parts for their (20) LVT-2's (Landing Vehicle Tracked), their maintenance people were forced to scrounge for whatever was required to keep them a fighting force. This scrounging ended up requiring not only stripping the wrecked vehicles on the beach; but eventually diving on the tractors that were sunk on the initial landing and remained under water. When relief finally arrived after a month however, it was painfully short-lived. Before Company A could be more than half embarked on a ship with the 25th, they were told to disembark once again. Returning to their "island paradise", they discovered that their new neighbors were now the 22nd Marines. 

Knowing that Marines can easily become bored on extended island visits and perhaps concerned that such idleness might lead to misadventure, they were issued orders to make "reconnaissance missions" to some of the neighboring atolls. This resulted in landings at the following Japanese held positions: 

Woth Atoll March 7-14, 1944  
Ujae Atoll March 7-14, 1944  
Lae Atoll March 7-14, 1944
Alinglapalapalep Atoll March 18-27, 1944
Emmuik Atoll March 18-27, 1944  
Ebon Atoll March 18-27, 1944  
Kili Atoll March 18-27, 1944  
Namu Atoll March 18-27, 1944  
Rongelap Atoll March 18 - April 6, 1944  
Bikini Atoll March 18 - April 6, 1944
Lemuik Atoll March 18 - April 6, 1944
Mejit Atoll March 28 - April 5, 1944  
Hiluk Atoll March 28 - April 5, 1944  
Uterik Atoll March 28 - April 5, 1944

Amazingly, after months of hard use and 17 landings on enemy held positions, 19 of the original 20 LVT-2's were still in running condition. The final unit finally succumbed during this period, and ended its service as spare parts for the rest, even to the stripping of metal from its sides to repair holes in the other tractors.

(The LVT-2 that Company A used) 

During all of this time, these Marines received no mail, no spare parts, little in the way of supplies, and of course no pay. In fact, it appears that the Marine Corps was not entirely aware of where Company A was. Finally on April 6th and almost by accident, this "lost battalion" was picked up by the USS William P Biddle, a transport ship that happened by with no actual orders to do so.
USS William P Biddle 

Forced to leave all of their equipment behind as the part of the price of passage, the Company was transported to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where they arrived on April 12th. While no garden spot, the Company was at least "found" as far as the Marine Corps was concerned, and able to get their first mail in four months. Since there was not much of the original group left, what was left was detached from the 22nd Marines and attached to the 4th Amphibian Tractor Battalion.

Thus began another deployment, and a period of extended ship-board travel in which Company A visited such exotic ports of call as: Kwajalein Atoll,Tulugi, Eniwetok Atoll, and finally ended up on Guam. The company was immediately pressed into action after spending 59 days aboard ship, which included some ship-board entertainment provided by the Navy achieved by sailing through a hurricane. Soon after, the Company was detached from the 4th, which of course moved on, leaving Company A behind and orphaned once again. This time however, they were at least able to receive the first pay that had come their way in ten months (excepting a total of $30 in emergency payments).    

Company A of the 10th Battalion was finally changed to Company D of the 3rd Amphibian Tractor Battalion by the Marine Corps on October 19, 1944. Shortly afterward, being only a temporary addition to the 3rd Battalion, they were disbanded completely and transferred to other Amphibian or Armored Amphibian Battalions for the rest of the war; and the "Lost Battalion" was lost again (except perhaps to history).

Can you imagine the embarrassment of the Corps. and the outrage of the press and public today if it were discovered that an entire battalion of troops had been lost for months? Can you imagine the non-stop demagoguery of legislators in Congress and demonizing of military leaders and the Administration if the conditions that these soldiers had been forced to live under in the field had been exposed? (Thank God that this happened 60+ years ago. Can you imagine the reality show that some shameless fool in Hollywood would probably have come up with based on their experiences, calling it "Gilligan's Battalion" in homage to what passes for originality on TV these days?)     

As for the members of "The Lost Battalion", there aren't many of them left these days. Those that are stay in touch with each other regularly though and continue to gather every year they can to renew the bond that they shared during those war-torn days. Many of them died during that war and some have passed away since. All however, share a fierce love for each other; and a equally fierce pride in their service, their country, and the Corps. We who know them can't help but feel pride in them as well. 

That pride though, is not for them alone. At this time, when many are currently serving overseas, it's only right to honor all of those who have answered the call of service to their country. It's good to remember those that served then, those who serve now or will be doing so soon.  It's likewise important to revere those who made and will make the ultimate sacrifice in the protection of freedoms that we far too often take for granted.



Maggie Thurber said...

Thanks for this post. It'd be nice if your dad would be willing to share his memories of his time with Company A. What our soldiers do in service needs to be shared, preserved and remembered for all time.

Tim Higgins said...

Maggie, you couldn't be more right. Fortunately my father, along with others of the "Lost Battalion", did get a chance to share their memories during series of interviews down in Quantico, VA, during a previous reunion. This was done as part of the ongoing project by the Marine Corps and will become part of the Marine Corps Museum that is now located on the grounds of that base.

Maggie Thurber said...

that's terrific!

Anonymous said...

Yes, really.

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Randy Lehmann said...

Glad I found your post, I had to check up o The "Lost Battalion" since I am a Marine. They just lost another member the other day, a guy by the name of William "Bill" Roberts in Bismarck ND. He was my hockey coach and I didn't even know he was a Marine. If yu want to pass a long to your dad if he still around. Semper Fi