Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book Review: "Islands of the Damned" by R.V. Burgin


R.V. Burgin's Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific (2010) is his memoirs of serving in the U.S. Marines during WWII. Burgin joined the United States Marine Corps in November 1942 and became a mortar-man in K-Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (K-3-5). Although his book relates portions of his life from both before and following WWII, the majority of the book concerns his service in the Corps in Australia and the Pacific Theater, including the battles for New Britain, Peleliu, and Okinawa. Burgin earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Okinawa. If his name is familiar, it may be because he is one of the characters portrayed in the HBO miniseries, The Pacific.

Large portions of his narrative seem rather bare of details--probably because it was written so long after the war--and it is only because of generous use of spacing that it reaches 285 pages (not including the bibliography and index). However, there are plenty of incidents that Burgin describes clearly.

One thing that stands out from Burgin's narrative, and the bare statistics of the Pacific conflict, is that the Japanese forces on the islands did not fare very well in infantry combat. It certainly was not a discrepancy in technology since the two sides had comparable weapons and munitions. It may have been because the Japanese lacked air superiority (or much of any significant aerial presence) during the battles. Perhaps they simply lacked battle experience. But, in any case, I'm left with the impression that the Japanese forces were formidable mostly because they were willing to engage in suicidal attacks, and, literally, fight to the last man. Perhaps Japanese Army troops with experience in China or Southeast Asia would have fared better.

A few things that stuck out, particularly as to Burgin's baptism to fire at New Britain. Burgin was a member of a mortar crew, and responsible for carrying the heavy base plate for the mortar, so he initially did not carry his rifle. He describes one of his first encounters with Japanese forces. His unit was digging in for the night, when a group of Japanese commenced a "banzai" charge:
I had been carrying the mortar base plate and didn't have a rifle. I dropped the plate ad pulled my .45 out quick--I don't even remember drawing it--and fired, catching one of them in the chest. He was about thirty-five or forty feet away from me, still running when he went down. Other Marines were firing right and left and more Japs were stumbling, going down. The rest turned back to the woods. I don't think more than one or two got away. 
That was the first man I killed. I didn't feel anything but relief. He didn't get me. I got him. 
After that episode, I always carried an M1 and my pistol. A pistol is fine if somebody's up close, but I didn't want anybody getting that close again. That attack broke me in right away.
(pp. 72-73).

However, he would have an even closer encounter days later:
About an hour and a half past midnight, they came screaming at us through the rain, hollering "Marine, you die!" I was in a foxhole with Jim Burke. I'd had bayonet drill in boot camp alone with everyone else, but I'd made up my mind that as long as I had ammunition I wasn't going to let anyone get close enough to use my bayonet. But I saw a Jap silhouetted at the edge of the foxhole. I was on my knees with my rifle pointed at him and I shoved my bayonet into his chest as hard and deep as I could, right beneath the breastbone. In one motion I leveraged him off the ground and swung him over my shoulder, pulling the trigger all the way. I don't know how many shots I put into him--four or fie anyway. 
He was dead when he landed.
(pp. 76-79). Later during the campaign, he wrote about how you could smell the Japanese and they could smell American troops--each had their distinctive smell (probably based on diet). Burgin wrote:
When we went on patrol we'd take along war dogs that could sniff out Japs. After a while I realized that I could smell the Japs, too, if they were in the area and the wind was right. It was just like hunting in the woods back home, when I could smell a squirrel or a deer. But the smell of Japs was completely different from anything I'd ever smelled. They told us they could smell us, too. They said we smelled like goats. 
We'd have a dog with us, and the Japs would be sleeping in these A-frame lean-tos they made of palm leaves. And the dog would get you in real close, like a bird dog. Japs would be inside, napping or just lying around. 
We'd go in both ends at once and bayonet them or slit their throats. We didn't want to shoot them and let anybody else in the vicinity know we were around.
(pp. 85-86).

Sometimes the Japanese would attack in one's or two's. Burgin described one of the incidents:
There was no way to dig two-man foxholes, so once again we piled up rocks and hoped for the best. Normally we'd stay about six feet apart, almost at arm's length so we could reach out and touch one another. Through the night we'd take turns sleeping. I'd watch and the next man over would sleep. The man beyond him would watch and the next one would sleep, and so on. 
When the Japs came calling at night they wore these rubber-soled canvas shoes, a little like sneakers. They didn't make a sound. You'd look out and not see a thing. You'd look the other way for a second and turn back. And there'd be a Jap right in front of you. Twenty feet away, where there was nothing at all before. 
The fourth man down the line from me was sleeping. All of a sudden I heard this scuffle, these grunts, and then a long, drawn-out scream.  
The guy had been sleeping flat on his back when he felt a weight on his chest and woke up with fingers around his throat. Afterward, when he was able to tell us what happened, he said he found this Jap sitting on him, choking him. He said he could feel himself going under, losing consciousness. He knew the man was going to kill him.  
"Everything I was ever taught in training about judo, jujitsu, how to defend yourself ran through my mind like a streak of lightning," he told us. "I just went through everything." 
"I knew what I was going to do. I reached up and put my left hand behind his head and with my right hand I poked two fingers in his eyes. Hard." 
The Jap instantly released his hold and fell back. 
"I grabbed him by the neck and the seat of the pants and threw him off the cliff." 
I heard that Jap screaming all the way down, from the second his eyes were gouged until he hit the bottom. I've never heard such a bloodcurdling sound in my life.
(pp. 151-52).

In short, it is an easy read, and should be of interest to anyone interested in military memoirs, the Pacific theater, or combat from the point of view of the grunt.

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