Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Shipfitter 3rd Class James Wire. In this final part of his interview, Wire describes the chaos of serving on the USS Missouri during the invasion of Iwo Jima and the Battle of Okinawa.
SF3 James Wire:
I was on the USS Missouri, when I was in the invasion of Iwo Jima. We fired at the guns. They were in the hills. They had come out on railroad tracks. The doors had opened, the gun would come out and fire at us and go back. I think there were around 80 ships and we were just one of them, besides the Missouri, and some aircraft carriers, and LSTs, and LSDs, and so forth. They were all around Iwo Jima, but the worst part was that hill. Suribachi was the highest point on Iwo Jima and they had a nest of Japanese all over the place. They must have had over a dozen caves with large, long range guns that could fire ships and do damage. They were firing back at us and we saw splashes in the water, but evidently, they didn't get our range because they were in such a hurry to get out and withdraw the guns. They'd come out, fire a couple of shots and pull them back inside. They'd close the door and it looked like just foliage. They had foliage on over the gates and you couldn't see them after that. Even with the glasses that brought it up close, you couldn't see where the guns had been. They were that camouflaged.
Through the glasses, you could see about two or three of them working the guns. There were about three men on each gun and then about four or five men were loading them and pushing the powder and the shells up in the guns. You could look at them through the long glass from the bridge and see them firing the guns and loading them and then they'd pull them back inside, close the door and it looked like the hill again. It looked like a plain hill. That was their camouflage. They had very good camouflage.
The beach? Well, it was pretty bloody. I looked at the beach and I got kind of sick, because they were just mowing the men down, like you'd cut grass. Every time they'd run across the beach and they'd mow them down. The Marines that were smart, they'd throw themselves behind a little sand dune or something and level of rifles and fire back at the machine guns that were covering the beach.
They were firing from about 500 feet above the beach and the Marines had to run that gauntlet there, with the bullets kicking up sand all around them, and in the water, there was bullets splashing in the water as the Marines tried to land. The first waves that went in were just cut down like you'd mow grass. They came, oh, there must have been 100 landing ships all around the beach. As they ran across the sand, the Japanese had the machine guns, heavy machine guns firing down and they were just mowing them down until they could establish mortars and so forth and fire back. Then, they'd wipe out this Japanese machine gun nest that was about 500 feet up the hill. They had the high ground and it was very, very hard to land there. They had a very difficult time. It was sickening even just to look through the glass and see your men dying and so forth on the beach. You could see the paramedics even with a little red cross on their little pack. They'd run to the Marines that were still just wounded. It was real bad. Iwo Jima was the worst that I've ever seen. It was even worse than Tarawa.
The Missouri was what they call covering fire. The Marines would radio back to the ship, the ship would fire over their heads. That Mount Suribachi was the highest point. They'd fire over the Marine's heads to knock out those big guns, because the big guns were aimed right down towards the beach. Then, they stopped firing at the ships and started firing at the beach, at the landing ships, and that was horrible. We fired as much as we could. We fired a lot of shells. The Missouri fired, I think over 100 rounds of big 16-inch guns. We let them have it. All the time, they'd ask to spot, the planes would spot where they needed it, and they fired over the Marine's head. Then, as long as they'd take the hill, they'd fire a little higher and a little higher until they finally get all those railroad guns knocked out. The Marines that were right on the ground would radio back exactly the coordinates for where those guns were. Even though they were camouflaged, we fired 16-inch shells, pretty soon, we'd see their ammunition go up. Big black smoke would go up and we'd know we'd hit an ammunition dump and hit their guns and their ammunition inside the cave.
The Missouri was there for the entire battle. We were doing a cover fire until the islands were taken. They wanted Iwo Jima, because they had about a 5,000-foot runway built. The Japanese had built it by hand and it was between Guam, where the big B-29s came to bomb Japan, it was about halfway there and all the bombers that would lose a motor or two were ditching in the ocean. If we had Iwo Jima, they started landing on Iwo Jima, all the crippled B-29s. Each plane had about 13 men on it. They saved a lot of men that way. Some of them even crash-landed, where the wheels were shot away by the Japanese, they would land on this one runway. They only had one runway, and of course, it ran the length of, or almost the length of the island of Iwo Jima. That's why it was so important to get that island, because the Japanese were using it to attack our fleet. They were using that airfield to attack our fleet, so we had to take it and they used it to B-29 emergency landings. They landed several B-29s on there after it was taken and while the war was still going on.
We circled the island constantly to help out with covering fire, because after they took the hill, they still had to go to the other end of the island and the Japanese were pretty thick on there. They had, I think 3,500 soldiers as a pledge to fight to the death on Iwo Jima, because that was a Japanese island and it was close to the mainland. It's part way between Guam and Japan, so they didn't want to lose it. It was pretty heavily fortified and it was heavily manned by the Japanese soldiers.
When we went in to bombard Okinawa, we did the same thing we did at Iwo Jima, we bombarded all the coastal guns. They had coastal guns on Okinawa and we fired. We got in as close as we could. Our range was 20 miles with our 16-inch guns, accuracy was 20 miles, so we stayed about 15 miles out. Well, the Japanese, they were thick with the air, so they had had control of the air to start with. They sent, I think it was over 1,000 planes with kamikazes. They fastened the bomb on and sent the young pilots, so some of them are only 21, 22, I guess as low as 19. They'd hold their funerals, send them out in the planes, teach them to fly the planes and to dive and so forth. They dived into ships. I saw one cruiser was hit right next to us and sunk. Two airplanes hit it with the bombs still aboard the planes and they dove right in like that and made a hole right down through the ship and hit vital parts in the ships, tore a big hole in them and they sank right away. This cruiser sank right away. It must have been within 30 minutes of the time they hit it.
The men were in the water and we sent over boats to pick them up. We helped pick up and saved all the men that we could, because there were a lot of sharks around in the water and they were hungry. They attacked a lot of men that were in there with life jackets on. We saved as many as we could. Then they attacked at us with suicide planes on the Missouri. They sent out 13 planes and the Missouri knocked down 12 of them. One plane got us. That didn't do much damage, it just hit a gun tub on the side of the ship, on the deck of the ship, came in aft and disintegrated when it hit the gun shield. One of the little guns they used to strafe us with got caught in the wing, from the wing, and went through the barrel of one of the 40-millimeter guns. I was damage control, so I helped pick up the pieces of the plane and the pilot. The pilot was cut in half, right here. I guess he stood up or something. Anyhow, he was cut in half and they took him down the sick bay. Of course, it didn't do any good, but it was a mess. I got there about three minutes after the plane hit. They called for damage control, so we were out there. Some of the wings and so forth jammed the gun, it wouldn't turn around, so we lifted the wing off from the parts of the plane. We got those free of the guns, the 40-millimeter. We had Quads, that means four guns of 40-millimeters. We had to free those up first and get the debris off the deck. It didn't kill any of our gun crew, and yet they were all at their battle stations. They were lucky, they had about a half inch armor shield that protected them, that the plane smashed against and disintegrated.
I think we counted 100 planes at one time that were sent down there to attack the fleet. We had around 400 ships and the Missouri was just one of those ships. They had various other ships and heavy cruisers and the destroyers, they were the thin little thin fast ships, and they were firing at those planes. They would try to knock them down before they hit the ships. They splashed most of those planes, only I'd say about eight out of 100 hit the ships. But if two planes hit the same cruiser, then it sank.
We were firing at those planes too. We had all our guns manned. They fired one side of where the planes were and then we circled around and fired from the other side, so that we could train our guns that were on each side, give them a chance to shoot at those planes and knock them down. During the war, I saw the Franklin get hit by two planes, dove right straight into the Franklin. I thought the Franklin would sink, but it was set on fire from stem to stern. They thought the Franklin was lost, but they fought the Franklin fire because the firefighters there were good, well-trained. They fought the gasoline fires and so forth that were started on the hangar deck and on the top side and they saved the Franklin. It was just a burned out hull from on the top side, but it was still, the motors were okay and they brought it back and they've lost a lot of men on the Franklin. I don't know how many, but it ran into the hundreds that they'd lost from those fires and being bombed or the planes diving into them.
All I saw was kamikaze planes, and just as sure as they'd fly over, they'd go into a dive, a steep dive, and they didn't intend to pull out. A lot of them, we'd fire and throw them off course and set them on fire and they'd land maybe 30 feet from the ships. I saw planes straddle the ship. One went here and one went there, because we'd knocked it down. We helped knock down a lot of them.
The little tin cans were real good, because they were maneuvering at high speed around and they could fire at those ships. The ships, the planes didn't hit them very often, because they were fast and could maneuver faster than the Missouri was 888 feet long. You can't hardly hide one of those big ships 888 feet long. It's about what, three football fields or something, long.
They were relentless. They were from dawn to desk and even at night they had kamikazes. That's when you worried, because we had to get in close to bombard the beach and we were about 15 miles out, the kamikazes would come out there. After a while, we had so many guns going that they left us alone. They left the Missouri alone, and Wisconsin was there, the New Jersey, all battleships and they were armed to the teeth with Quad 40s, those 40-millimeters. The Japanese were afraid of those, because they can reach about 2,000 feet or almost a mile high and knock a plane down. They’d fired a shell about a foot long at a plane and they had pretty good range.
Some planes came in and knocked some of the kamikazes down in the water. I couldn't count how many planes went into the water and that didn't hit the ships. But Japan sent all the planes that they had, I think, left. They put bombs on them, fastened bombs on them, and they were to dive into a ship, not drop the bombs they might miss, but just dive head first into any ship they could find. They figured if they could get a ship with say four or five planes, if two of them got through and sunk a ship, like it sunk that cruiser that I saw sank, that it was paying off for the Japanese. That was a last ditch stand. Okinawa was part of the Japanese islands. It's itself, like Honshu and so forth was right above it. Okinawa was right a part of Japan itself. See, it's part of the main islands. They wanted to keep Okinawa if they could. They drained off most of their air force through suicide planes.
At night, they would bombard us. They'd send over a couple of planes every night, so that we would fire at them and they could tell where the ships were from the fire. After a while, they sent over a couple of planes and we maintained a darkened ship, had no lights on the top side at all and all the communications were done by radio and not the little signal light, like between ships.
After a while, they stopped shooting at a couple of planes, just let them go over, and the planes couldn't find anybody and they went back or ran out of gas or did something. They say they were low on gas, they'd give them enough gas to get out there and not enough to get back. They had to ditch a plane in the water or hit a ship as best they could.
Well, aboard ship, I saw this one cruiser sunk about five miles from us and that was pretty close. Two planes dived right into it at the same time. Two kamikazes hit it. One of them hit forward, I guess they hit the ammunition lockers and magazines and just a great big pile of flame went up. The other one was a small flame, it hit in the back and they hit them from both ends. The cruiser sank within just a few minutes. They didn't have much time to get off, but they got most of the men off and we picked up a lot of them, because of the sharks. The sharks were attracted by men falling in the water, jumping in the water and so forth. Some of the boats, we sent riflemen out to shoot the sharks in the water to keep them from getting the guys that had to abandon the ship. They'd shoot at sharks around them, so that they wouldn't attack them. We had riflemen there, marksmen that shot in the water and shot sharks in the water. Sometimes you'd see blood come to the surface of a shark, sometimes they would turn their belly up and so forth. But it was really bad, because the cruiser had around I think 11 or 1,200 men and they all had to get off, but they got most of them off, that one ship that I saw sink.
I didn't see any suicide boats at Okinawa. We kept moving, of course, and tried to cover the beach and bombard the beach as best we could. I understand they told the Japanese on the Okinawa that if we captured them that we'd cut off their hands or would torture them until they died. Some of them, you could look through the field glass and see them about 14 miles away. We kept out about 14 or 15 miles, within gun range. Finally, at the lower end of the island, I saw what looked like about 500 Japanese troops come to this cliff and they all just jumped over and killed themselves rather than surrender. I saw that. We were about 14, or 12, or 14 miles away, but you could see the little figures jumping over, through the long glass. You could see them jumping off of this cliff, killing themselves rather than surrender.
Of course, the Marines had them surrounded, and the Army, they had them surrounded. They forced them to the end of the island and over they went, off the cliff. There must have been about 500 of them. It looked like an awful lot of them. They were just heading for the cliff. I didn't see any rifles, so I guess they had fired their rifles until they ran out of ammunition or something and they just ran and jumped. Some of them had their canteens on them, and their hats, and so forth. Keep it from coming any closer.
The suicide trucks were little, small Japanese trucks, looked like about one ton. They'd have a couple of soldiers in the back with whatever they could get, ammunition, or bombs, or whatever they could, and they'd run and attack the Marine positions and Army positions. I understand they killed the Army general that was in charge of the Army, in Okinawa, he was killed there. I don't know where they got him, by suicide truck or what, but they were using those trucks.
I only saw about three trucks. They ran down and blew up. Then the big explosion, almost like a plane had dropped a bomb, but then the truck disintegrated and so did the two soldiers in the back that was working the controls. They'd set the bomb off and blow themselves up and killed all the Marines they could, especially where the Marines were thickest. That's the only way that they could counterattack the Marines.
Actually, when the Marines landed, it looked like they made it to the beach. They didn't mow them down, like they did at Iwo Jima. They let them land. It was a strategy that the Japanese had learned. Let them land and get them all on the beach and then open fire from the cliffs, they were about 50 feet high, usually around Okinawa. They had the high ground there and they'd fire on the Marines after they had all landed and come out of the LSTs and so forth. They landed and they were regrouping to move forward in. They thought they had the beach secured and all at once, they opened up on them from cover. They had a cover. It looked like the Japanese had deserted or went away, from where I was on the ship. We were looking at them and we didn't see anybody there. The Marines all landed nicely. There was no mowing them down, like at Iwo Jima. They landed and let them come ashore. Thousands of Marines came ashore, we watched them, and had the shore thick with men, and Jeeps, and light tanks, and personnel carriers, and so forth. They let them come ashore. The LSTs and all that were backing out to get another load from our troop ships, and then the Japanese opened up. But the Marines were pretty good, they stood their ground and pretty soon they had those guns silenced. It was hard, because they were firing blindly at the trees and so forth that the Japanese hid behind the trees and thought they had all the guns.
Okinawa was one of the hardest places to take. It took longer than Iwo Jima. I think we circled Okinawa, well around three sides of it, about three weeks, firing at various places that planes would spot our fire and it was so hard to take Okinawa. The Japanese would retreat and then they'd regroup and come back. They'd pin down the Army and pin down the Marines below the cliffs and they'd let them all land. That was kind of their strategy, to let them all land and then mow them down after they got in there.
The Marines wondered why there weren't any people shooting at them when they landed, but then they cut loose with everything they had. We were out there with planes at say elevation 50 feet, let them have it. We were firing over the heads of the Marines and I don't know how the Marines felt to hear the 16-inch shells going overhead, but they sound like a freight train. I've heard them. In fact, I've been out on deck when they were firing and it's quite a concussion. It's really quite a concussion.
We had some seaplanes. We had two seaplanes and then the Air Force spotted for us, there at the last, because we kept our planes aboard for close in, if we were attacked at close in. They were seaplanes and they were slow. They were only 350 miles an hour, which is slow in comparison with some of the B-29s that do around 500 miles an hour, or 450, something like that. They were slow, to just a little over 300 miles an hour. They were getting shot up pretty well, our planes were. We had a lot of patches on the floats of the planes.
That was SF3 James Wire.
If you missed it, make sure to check out the first part of his interview, where he talks about serving on the USS Tennessee during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Tarawa.
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