Turned down by the Marine Corps, Jack Edwards ended up a member of the 121st Naval Construction Battalion fighting alongside Leatherneck infantrymen during the desperate battle for Saipan.

Saipan, June 15, 1944.

In his book The Great War and Modern Memory , Paul Fussell discusses the process of memory and how the most vivid memories of combat are often of insignificant and incongruous, or ironic, things. On 15 June, Edwards was coming ashore on Saipan under murderous fire when he looked down and noticed in the water what he thought was a mass of kelp. Drawing closer, he was horrified to discover that the “kelp” was actually a clump of olive drab–clad Marine corpses. This picture dominates his memory of the landings. “We took that beach on our bellies,” the veteran recalled emphatically. 20

For the invasion, the 121st NCB was attached to the 4th Marine Division’s RCT 23. While the division landed on beaches opposite and to the south of Charan Kanoa, the 2d Marine Division came ashore to the north of the town; the Army’s 27th Infantry Division would begin landing late on D+1. Once the 4th Division’s initial regimental combat teams were ashore, they began advancing eastward. Edwards’ 13-man demolition squad was culled out and assigned to blow open the safe in the Charan Kanoa bank. Edwards recalled that after taking a lot of time to place satchel charges to blast open the bank, a 16-inch shell tore through one side of the building and out the other. “It exploded someplace else,” said Edwards, “all we had to do was walk around that side and walk in.” What they discovered inside was a treasure trove: “I never saw so much Jap yen in my life; you could fill a [truck] with it.”

Because they had been told that the only legal tender anywhere in theater would be the military scrip they were paid with, Edwards and the others largely ignored all this money. But later that year, as part of the occupation force in Japan, Edwards would be chagrined to notice those same yen were still legal tender there. So much for his chance at being rich.

After helping secure the town, the demolition squad joined the Marines’ eastward advance to cut the island in two and separate the enemy forces. As they struggled across cane fields near a large prewar sugar mill on the outskirts of Charan Kanoa, they began to encounter heavy fire. The Japanese defenders had zeroed in mortars and artillery batteries on the exposed fields, and their fire was murderous. “They tore us up with those mortars,” Edwards recalled. He caught 17 bits of shrapnel in his right leg. Sixteen of them were removed by a corpsman, one remains lodged in his leg to this day.

Moreover, a spotter posted in the smokestack of the nearby sugar mill was able to direct Japanese artillery fire for several days before the high structure was finally destroyed.21 Edwards’ battalion commander was wounded in the cane fields east of Charan Kanoa. In fact, Saipan turned out to be a particularly tough battle to be a battalion commander; 12 of the 27 Marines who initially led their infantry battalions into action on Saipan became casualties. 22

The fierce fighting continued as the 2d and 4th Marine divisions, with the 27th Infantry Division between them, began a northward push up into the island’s hills. Near the right flank of the advance, through rugged hilly territory, Edwards’ unit made painfully slow progress. He recalled that taking one hill required multiple assaults: “We were driven back three times. Took it the fourth time, at night.” 23

During this engagement, Edwards had one of his most harrowing and personal combat experiences. With a counterattacking Japanese soldier a few feet away, charging directly at him, Edwards “blew his stack.” It was the only time in his two years in combat that he experienced this sort of “out-of-body” experience, as adrenaline and a will to survive simply shut down the rest of his faculties. When he came to, the Seabee was sitting in a hole with his carbine and three other guys. He asked one of them what time it was, and was astonished to hear that it was 0215. The assault had jumped off at 2150. 24

As the push northward continued, Edwards, as a second-class petty officer, became a squad leader. He didn’t have a choice; the higher-ups had been killed or wounded. His first command soon was tested. Ordered to make safe some tank traps in a “cleared” area, he told his men to dress out lightly, carrying only Thompson submachine guns and carbines, as it would be a short mission in an area supposedly safe from enemy fire. Sadly, the squad would find that nothing on Saipan was safe from enemy fire.

As the group proceeded up a small gully toward the tank traps, they were hit from three sides by a Japanese unit that had infiltrated the U.S. lines. Enemy soldiers began to close in, and it appeared that the fighting soon would become hand-to-hand, but the Seabees were able to beat back the attack with some help from a Marine security patrol that had happened by and joined in the firefight. Edwards reported back to battalion headquarters with what was left of his demolition squad. Out of 13 men, 3 were dead and 5 wounded. Edwards was spot promoted to first-class petty officer.

It was also during this phase of the fighting that Edwards became proficient at the task of “cleaning out” the Japanese-occupied caves that were everywhere in the hilly terrain. The preferred method of attacking a cave stronghold was to toss in a hand grenade. But, as Edwards pointed out, afterward you had to go in; if you didn’t and any Japanese soldiers survived the grenade blast, they would come out and shoot you in the back after you passed by. Edwards was one of the smallest men in his squad, so it often fell to him to enter the confined cave openings, a .45-caliber pistol in one hand and a specially modified bayonet with brass knuckles for a hilt in the other (after the war Edwards’ wife would use the weapon for gardening). His job was to finish off anyone who might still be alive.

As the desperate Japanese defense began to crumble, Edwards was witness to a new and different kind of horror. Brainwashed by the garrison forces into believing that the advancing Americans would do horrible things to anyone taken alive, Japanese civilians in the path of U.S. forces began to commit suicide in rapidly growing numbers. Edwards saw civilians jump from Saipan’s steep cliffs onto rocks far below rather than risk life under American occupation. At one point, he recalled, one of his officers called for artillery fire to force the would-be jumpers back from the face of the cliff. 25

But once the Marines began to make personal contact with the civilians, they realized that the Americans weren’t there to harm them. 26 Edwards recollected one woman with a little baby coming forward to meet the advancing Leathernecks. The woman’s foot was mangled—almost completely torn off. Using a rifle, the Marines fashioned a sling to carry her down a hill to an aid station. Edwards followed, holding the baby. “I never will forget that kid. Not one movement, not one sound, no expression; just those blank eyes looking right straight at me. . . . It gave me the creeps.” 27

Edwards found himself better able to relate to the Japanese, both soldiers and civilians, than the average American serviceman. Although the Pacific war was fraught with racial overtones, he didn’t see things that way. He’d encountered Japanese culture growing up in California: “The Japanese were not new to me because I worked with them. I went to school with them.” 28 Edwards also respected their soldiers and the way they fought on Saipan. “The Japanese were no cowards. . . . They met us eyeball to eyeball.”

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