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Friday, June 22 2018 @ 09:50 am PDT

Happy Birthday USMC

In honor of the USMC's birthday, I'm reposting my "Hero Next Door" post about Marine Captain Wallace E. Nygren's firsthand account of Tarawa.

Hero-hunting is a tricky business. Often they don’t want to be found. That Purple Heart and the chance to go home to their families was more than enough. When I first asked retired Marine Captain Wallace E. Nygren if I could share his stories on the internet, he hedged. Yet four months later, he gave me carte blanche to write anything I wanted to write about him. Why the change? He never explained. I doubt it was for glory. He’d written up his memoirs for his family, and that was sufficient for him. But so many memories flashed in his eyes when I made my request. Suddenly WWII wasn’t sixty-some years ago; he was the young Marine who had survived some of the war’s bloodiest battles and lost one of his best friends. I watched the pain come back, watched him remember the hospital ship slick with blood. And I thought I’d never have the chance to tell his story.

I saw him last week, when I was overwhelmed by the volume of material on his war years. I’d expected to discuss details of the battles and of his friends. But he wanted to talk about family. “All I’d ever wanted to do was be in the military,” he told me, with a wink at his father’s desire for him to become a doctor. “But after the war, I wanted to be a family man more than anything.” And so this Marine hung up his uniform and spent the rest of his life working for Ryerson Steel, providing for the needs and comfort for his wife and two children. Today his hair is thin and grey, his body frail, but he asks help from no one but family, which aggravates the people who love him even while we’re fiercely proud of his independent nature in the midst of this entitlement-focused world. And still he smiles at me and says, “I have no regrets.”

It’s not that there was never a mistake in his life. He hated the short time he spent in medical school, and undoubtedly regretted the month he spent in the Naval Reserve… except for the fact that it convinced him that he’d rather be in the Corps. “The Marines always stood a little apart. They were the best of the best, the most military.” And so the morning after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he skipped work and went straight to the Marine Corps recruiting station, the third man in Chicago to be sworn in.

In April 1942, then-Corporal Nygren was given the opportunity to attend Officer’s Candidate School. He refused, preferring to stay with his unit instead. But in May of the same year, the Marine Corps sweetened the deal: they’d let him come back to the 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion. Therefore, on July 15, 1942 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, and the next day, he was assigned to duty as Platoon Leader, 3rd Platoon, Company B, 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion.

Fast-forward to November 1943. With ever-increasing responsibility and a promotion to 1st Lieutenant, Lt. Nygren was about to face a day like no other. He survived to write his own account of Tarawa:
.................................


Tarawa, November 20th, 1943
It began early. Reveille was at 3:30 A.M. Breakfast at 4:00 A.M. Shortly thereafter, the P.A. system barked, “Tractor crews, man your tractors!”

The men descended into the bowels of the LST. Seventeen LVTs waited there in the dimly lit hold. “Landing vehicles tracked!” They looked large and monstrous in the confines of the tank deck. We climbed aboard.

Each amtrac carried a regular crew of three: a driver, an assistant driver and a crew chief. As Platoon Leader, I was in the lead tractor with my maintenance sergeant, Tech. Sgt. Morris Wimer. We started the twin diesel Cadillac engines. Thirty-four diesels roared into action. The noise was deafening. The tank deck filled with fumes from the exhausts. We waited... and waited. The ship continued to move with a slow lazy roll. I felt, rather than heard the ship’s engines stop. Then the anchor chain rattled. We were at our station.

Slowly the bow doors swung open and I could smell the tropic air. The upraised ramp in front of me fell forward into the water and there lay the dark and heaving ocean. Every crew chief stood tensed at his gun platform watching me. I gave the arm signal “forward!” Tommy Kane, our crew chief, reached into the cab and signaled John Oliver, our driver. We climbed the small approach ramp and then rushed down the main ramp into the water. Correct timing was important. If you hit the ramp on the upward roll, it could break under the weight of the tractor.

It was dark on the water. There were ships everywhere but only dimly seen. Not a light was showing. We made a wide swinging circle. The LST was spitting out amtracs. We waited for them to join up and when all 17 were out, I motioned the direction we were to take and we plodded through the water toward our troop ship. Our twin tracks scooped us along like a fat waddling duck. The rest of the platoon followed in single file. The huge armada of ships around us was more felt than seen. Our job was to pick up and land the troops of the second wave on Red Beach 2. A large waterspout shot up into the air immediately ahead of us. I could see other huge splashes to the sides. There was the unmistakable sound of large shells screaming overhead.

The fleet was thrown into confusion. No one had anticipated 5” shells from naval rifles coming at us. The transports all were within range. Anchors were hauled, engines revved up and it was full speed ahead in all directions as the transports fled to get out of range. Our little group of tractors bobbed up and down in the water. Dark shapes loomed up out of the night and cut across our bows. We were in danger of being run down by our own ships. We hung back, waiting for the danger from collision to subside. We then began our pursuit of the ships at our top speed, 6 mph. Somewhere in that welter of confusion was our ship, but where?

The sky was beginning to lighten. Flashes of naval gunfire illumined the horizon as our cruisers and destroyers zeroed in on the shore battery. There were no more shells from the island. As the darkness continued to fade, I became aware of the distant ships disembarking troops over the sides by means of landing nets into the boats. The sea came alive with boats, LCVPs and Higgins boats. They roared toward us in a hodgepodge mess, looking for amtracs. Our orderly plans for landing were all awry. I looked for boat signs indicating Red Beach #2, 2nd Wave; I could see none. A boatload of Marines came up to us. Their signs indicated they were Red Beach #2, 3rd Wave. I gave up looking for the 2nd Wave and motioned them aboard. Other boats from the same landing team followed. We loaded them into our 17 amtracs.
As the early morning light continued to brighten the scene, a semblance of order began to emerge. Other groups of amtracs were taking on whatever troops they encountered, readjusting their positions to the troop signs. H-hour came and went.
Our destroyers came in close to mark the perimeters of the landing areas. They continued to fire at the island. There was no return fire. Slowly 3 long files of tractors began to form. A guide boat with our Executive Officer, Captain Lawrence, and a Troop Liaison Officer, roared back and forth like a sheepdog rounding up strays. Finally we began to move towards the island. By 9 A.M., we were in position abreast of the beaches. Captain Lawrence gave the arm signal for all crew chiefs to relay back down the column. “By the right flank! Execute!”

Every arm went down and three long lines of amtracs, almost 100 in all, made a 90-degree right turn, and 3 waves of tractors started moving towards the tiny island.
We had been told by the naval gunfire liaison officers and the naval air force officers that there would be no opposition left. I thought that they were overly optimistic. We were 1000 yards out from the island, in deep blue water. I could only see remnants of palm trees sticking up from low lying land. There were fires burning all along the shore. Black smoke welled up. Wisps of burnt powder bags from our naval rifles filled the air. The sun blazed down and it was getting very warm.

The three waves of tractors plowed on through the water. In the tractor to my right, I could see our C.O., Major Drewes. We waved to each other and I wondered how he had gotten into the line. He should have stayed back with the command boat. It was typical of him that he would come with us into the thick of it.

We churned on and the island began to look larger. I could see a few planes making bombing dives. The Navy was hurling a fierce bombardment over our heads toward the shore. I hoped they would lift their fire in time. I could see the water ahead breaking over the fringing coral reef. The reef water was green in color, indicating its shallowness. Then we were over it! The tractors lurched and tossed as we climbed the coral heads, throwing the troops about in our open troop compartment. Our 3 lines became ragged and we bounced and lumbered along the reef. Mortar shells from shore began to explode around us.

Tommy Kane and I stood on the gun platform waiting for targets. He had the .30 cal machine gun and I had the .50 cal. Ahead of us in the water loomed a barrier of concrete tetrahedron blocks with iron rails projecting outward. We had no chance of getting over them. I saw that large gaps had been left between the concrete blocks in the water. The gaps were closed by rows of barbed wire strung on posts. I motioned for Tommy to head for the wire. The surface of the water ahead looked like rain was falling on it. A shower of steel was sweeping the barbed wire. The gaps were fire lanes for enemy guns which had now opened up. The tractors had been forced close together as we were funneled into the wire by the concrete blocks. Major Drewes’ tractor was only 3’ to my right. I pointed to the water ahead, churned up by the enemy fire. He shook his head pessimistically. The 3 waves of tractors became a shambles. There was no order now. Tractors dropped behind me as crew chiefs struggled to avoid the obstacles. There was no one ahead of us now, just the wire. We hit the wire head on and tore it to shreds. We rolled towards the beach, dragging 50 feet of wire and posts behind us.

Directly in front of us, high on the land, was a long low block house. It looked intact. Spouts of flame were coming from its gun ports. I aimed the .50 cal at the gun ports and began firing. I could hear Tommy’s .30 cal going also. We pulled up on the white sand beach. There was an amtrac there already. It lay overturned on its side and burning; 3 Marines were crouching behind it. No one else was on the beach.

A tremendous blow knocked me down. I sat sprawled on the gun platform, dazed. My right hand was a bloody mess. Tommy Kane was also down, his leg spurting blood. Fear such as I had never known before clutched my heart. I heard Sgt. Wimer bellow from the rear of the crouching troops, “Are you hurt, Lieutenant?” He pushed his way forward and jumped up on the gun platform by the .50 cal. The next moment he was down beside me, a bloody hole in his chest. The troops remained huddled below the bulkheads. They made no move to disembark. I shouted to them to jump over the sides. When they still hesitated, I told them they were not Marines; they belonged to the army. This was all they needed to hear to spur them into action. They got to their feet then and went over the sides.

I struggled to my feet trying to reload the .50 cal with one hand. I stood up on the gun platform and dragged the heavy iron links up to the breech. It wouldn’t load. I finally realized the breech was smashed. The gun was hopelessly out of action. I bent down and peered into the cab. John Oliver was still sitting there at the controls, waiting for orders. I hollered to him to back out and not turn around as our front gun shields gave us some protection, but our rear was unprotected. We lurched backwards, back into the water, back through what was left of the wire. Once we had cleared the wire, we turned around and headed for the edge of the reef. I dragged out my first aid kit, and managed to wind a bandage around my hand. Tommy was taping his leg. We helped each other fasten the bandages. I turned to see Sgt. Wimer. There was nothing I could do for him. He was alive, but had taken a bullet through his chest. He wasn’t bleeding much, but looked scared. I was sure he was going to die.

We were having difficulties getting back over the reef. Boats loaded with troops buzzed back and forth in the deep water, waiting for amtracs to take the men ashore. Our amtrac had been damaged. Despite all of Oliver’s efforts, it wouldn’t steer straight and kept pulling to the right. Sometimes we would go in a complete circle. Our pontoon was filling with water faster than our pumps could pump it out.
A boat came alongside and the troop captain shouted to me that we had to take them into the beach. I shouted back that we couldn’t steer our tractor. He called us cowards, said we were afraid to go back in. I was in such a rage over this that I took off my helmet and slammed it to the deck so he could get a clear view of me while I cursed him for his stupidity. When I finished cursing him I told him we would take them in if they would put Tommy and Sgt. Wimer into their boat for transportation back to their ship. The coxswain agreed and the transfer was made. I said goodbye to Tommy and Sgt. Wimer and the boat roared off. We headed back over the reef. We hadn’t gotten in very far when it became obvious that we were in trouble. The tractor kept pulling right and we began moving in circles. I shouted to Oliver to hold the circle as wide as possible so as to get as close to the shore as we could. We kept circling and got a little closer to the beach, but the tractor was becoming more and more unmanageable. The troop captain became aware of our problem and agreed with me when I told him we couldn’t get any closer. He took his men over the side in waist-deep water. They held their rifles over their heads and began wading towards the beach. They were brave men.

We began drawing rifle fire. I spotted a man floating in the water who had a yellow marker on his life jacket. I went over the side and waded to him, pulling him towards the amtrac. We managed to push and pull him up the side and into the cargo compartment. I took off his life jacket and rolled him over. He was dead.
He was wearing a pistol belt and a .45 automatic. I appropriated both and felt better now that I had a weapon I could use. My carbine was not designed for one-hand use. We started drawing mortar fire again. We began our crazy circular sweeps and finally one sweep took us out of the reef’s edge and back into the deep water. We were riding very low. Captain Lawrence came up in his boat and asked us how we were doing. When I told him we were sinking, he pointed out a sand bar and told us to try and make it to there. He also told us Major Drewes had taken a direct hit in his tractor and was dead. Lawrence was now in command of the Amtracs. His boat roared away and we headed for the bar, still making our crazy circle. We finally made it and pulled up on it. It was only 2 feet under water. Our pumps started making headway again as we rested high out of the water.

We again began drawing fire, mostly mortars. The mortar fire had been incredible all day and the reef was littered with amtracs that had been hit. We pulled off the bar and back into the deep water again. The tractor steered better now that the pontoon had been drained, and we headed for the nearest ship for help. A ship passed us underway and waved us off; a second ship refused to help. We started riding lower as the pumps started getting behind again.

We approached a third ship, the U.S.S Heywood, and yelled for help. An officer on the bridge began shouting orders and a boom swung out over our heads. A large hook on a steel cable was lowered down. We hooked it to our loading ring and cables and signaled for them to take up the slack. We were then wrenched from the water and quickly lifted aloft. The boom swung over and set us down on a hatch cover. We were streaming water like a sieve. The same officer was now shouting orders for the sailors to assist us. He shouted, “Get that man to sick bay!” He meant me!

I was hustled down to sick bay. Oliver followed and stood alongside the table as they laid me down on it, stripped to the waist. While the doctor and corpsmen worked on me, I told Oliver to get wooden dowels from the ship’s carpenter shop and plug all the holes in the pontoons. He took off to do it. I had a bullet crease in my right shoulder, a bullet in my right hand, my ring finger was broken, my forearm, hand and shoulder were splattered with steel fragments from the .50 cal gun. I had 4 minor flesh wounds in my left side where a spent shell fragment had stung me. I had pulled it out with my fingers when it hit. It was about an inch square and still hot when it struck. They tried to cut off my Marine ring to get at my finger. They nicked it but couldn’t remove it. They gave up on the ring and dusted my hand with sulfa. They pulled steel fragments out of my hand, wrist and shoulder. My shoulder and hand were bandaged and my arm put in a sling. When they finished I got up and put on my dungaree jacket and went to find Oliver. He was with Lt. Speed, one of our amtrac officers and a personal friend of mine. This ship had carried part of our battalion from New Zealand and had launched tractors in the attack this morning. Speed had been left behind with his maintenance unit to wait until a beachhead had been secured.

There were 27 holes in our amtrac, all in the right pontoon. Some were an inch and a half in diameter. Every hole had been plugged with a wooden plug, which had been whittled to fit. The smashed .50 cal had been replaced, our fuel tanks filled, and we were now ready to go again.

Incredibly it was almost dusk; the light was fading fast. Oliver had gotten another crewman and we climbed aboard signaling the winch man to start the donkey engine that powered the boom.

Suddenly the ships around us opened up with their anti-aircraft guns. They weren’t shooting up; they were shooting sideways. Their tracers looked like they were aiming right at us. Someone shouted that Jap torpedo planes were attacking. “General Quarters” was sounded.

The winch man shut off his engine and ran. Men were running in every direction to man their battle stations. Bulkheads were slamming shut. The three of us in the tractor leaped back onto the deck and dodged into a passageway. We sat down on the floor and listened to the sounds of firing. The ship was standing at “General Quarters” and we couldn’t disembark until they stood down. It was getting darker all the time and it seemed ridiculous to try to make the island at night. I decided we had better get some food and sleep and go in the morning.

I was awakened in the morning by Speed and my crew. They had come to say goodbye. The medical officer had told Speed he was going to operate on my hand this morning, as he was afraid I might lose the use of my hand if he didn’t operate. Speed said he was going in my place so I gave him the .45 automatic pistol to carry. They all shook my left hand, wished me luck, and left. I watched them go with mixed feelings of sadness and relief. I hated to see them go without me. I was out of it. Through the portholes in Speed’s cabin I could see the distant land. It looked like an inferno. The P.A. system gave us the battle news as it came in. We held a few precarious footholds on the island, and that was all.

Boats started coming back with casualties and suddenly the sick bay became very busy. My operation was forgotten as the flow of casualties swelled to a flood. The battle news started improving as we were getting men ashore in a few places.
Most of the Amtracs were out of action and the Marines were now wading in. Casualties began mounting at an alarming rate as the enemy continued to resist fiercely.

I went up on deck and from the ship’s rail I could see a Navy destroyer had pulled up to the edge of the reef, about 500 yards from shore. It was firing point-blank at the island. The destroyer was using the officers’ ward room for a sick bay operating room. They were working on casualties in there when a shell from the island’s defense guns hit. The ward room was wiped out.

The Marines kept wading in all day. They were shot at from the front, sides, and the rear. The Japs had swum out to sunken ships and burned out Amtracs during the night and set up machine gun nests. At various times they would open up on the Marines wading by. The reef was littered with floating bodies.

By late afternoon, most of the sniper nests were wiped out. We had stronger positions ashore. The battle was no longer in doubt and moved in from the beach line. In one more day it would be all over but the mopping up.

On the 4th day, troops were brought back aboard and the ship weighed anchor for Pearl Harbor. The doctors worked around the clock on the wounded. They lay in bunks everywhere. My hand was giving off an unpleasant odor, but it didn’t hurt. When we got to Pearl Harbor on November 27th, I was taken to Naval Hospital 129 in Aiea Heights, just outside of Honolulu. There my hand was x-rayed and the bandage removed. The stench was overpowering. A doctor, who himself was on crutches, finally gave me the overdue operation. He gave me a local anesthetic, made a deep incision into the back of my hand, and came up with a Jap bullet. I have it to this day. Sulfa drugs gradually eliminated the infection and my splintered finger and creased shoulder eventually healed. The metal splinters stayed. It was easier to let them be rather than to try and take them out.

Out of 125 amtracs, we brought back 50 in operating condition. A year later the Navy Office of the Quartermaster General sent our C.O. a letter, demanding he account for 75 amtracs.

Sgt. Wimer didn’t die and he and Tommy were sent back to San Francisco. Wimer was eventually discharged and Tommy went to radio school. I never saw them again. John Oliver and Lt. Speed both made it through the battle and they were with the battalion in Hawaii when I returned. Speed returned the .45 to me and I gave it to Oliver as a souvenir. It was contrary to regulations, but I didn’t care.

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Nygren’s story didn’t end there; he continued with the 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion through the assault landings on Saipan, Tinian, Okinawa and Iheya Shima, eventually being appointed the Commanding Officer of “C” Company. He returned to Camp Pendleton in August of 1945 and was assigned as the Commanding Officer of the LVT Company.

Captain Nygren and his wife Violet have two children, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. They live in Beaverton, Oregon.

I'm honored to be part of their lives.

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