Friday, November 11, 2016

Wayne Terwilliger details the hazards of The Battle of Saipan

Wayne Terwilliger spent over 60 years in professional baseball as a player, coach, and manager. He was teammates with Jackie Robinson, a close friend of Ted Williams, and won two World Series championships as a coach with the Minnesota Twins, but the crowning moment of the 91-year-old’s career on this Veterans Day remains his time as a Marine in World War II.

“I’m more proud of my Marine service than of anything else I’ve done before or since,” Terwilliger said in his 2006 autobiography, Terwilliger Bunts One.

Wayne Terwilliger (circled) of Company D of the 2nd Armored Amphibian Battalion at the Battle of Saipan in World War II. / US Coast Guard

One of a rapidly declining number of living World War II veterans, Terwilliger has fortunately left behind vivid memories of the harsh realities of war in his memoirs. One of the first to enter the Battle of Saipan, he recounted his feelings from some 70 years ago on the morning of June 15, 1944, as he anxiously sat in his amphibious tank awaiting entry into the water.

“The nose of our tank dipped down into the ocean, and for just as second my heart skipped a beat,” he said, “but the pontooned sides of the tank did the trick and we bobbed up like a huge cork.”

The tone quickly changed as soon as they approached the reef; this was no game of friendly fire, the Japanese wanted their death. Their landing would signify the beginning of one of the most hazardous days of Terwilliger’s young life.

“As soon as we got over the reef,” he said, “we were in range of the Japanese, and they started shooting. I started seeing these puffs of water all around us, and it took a second to realize what was causing them. Then we heard small arms fire hitting our tank, and the reality sank in: There were people on that island who wanted us dead.”

His crew was one of the few fortunate ones not to have their tank destroyed by enemy fire. They endured attacks all the way until they reached land. It didn’t get any better once their tank bogged down in the sand and they had to disembark.

“Japanese mortars kept whistling over our heads,” he said. “Most of them were headed toward the beach area, but we never knew when one would come our way. We also had no idea how long we’d be stuck there. We were there at least a couple of hours, though it seemed like forever.”

Stuck in a foxhole, they heard the sound of an unfamiliar tank, one they quickly realized was of the Japanese forces. Spending only a short time in action, he wondered if he was going to meet his demise.

“The tank kept moving closer to us until we could see the 37-mm turret gun and the big red “Rising Sun” on the side of the tank. … The tank stopped just short of our hole and I wondered, ‘What do we do now?’”

From their position in the fox hole, his infantry each took out their grenades and aimed them at the tank. A cloud of smoke ensued and they ran out onto the beach looking for cover.

“I ran until I came to an old Japanese artillery piece, and I thought, ‘S—t, this is the wrong way,’ so I turned and found a little path, and somehow this time I was going the right way, toward the beach. Then I looked back and there was the Jap tank coming after me. … I started zigzagging back and forth in case the tank tried to shoot at me, still running as fast I could. Guys on the beach were waving me in, yelling, ‘Come on, come on!’ I made it to the beach and dove over a small sand dune for cover, and I looked back just in time to see one of our tanks made a direct hit, which knocked the Japanese tank on its side. … That was my first six or seven hours of combat.”

Terwilliger’s story of his first day of combat is a riveting tale of the face of World War II military action that has often been kept a secret by those who have experienced it, a memory too painful to relive. His book remains as an example of our baseball heroes having their careers preempted or interrupted to face death directly in the eyes, and then return home to compete for their jobs once again – a reality our current major leaguers will never again have to face.

0 comments:

Post a Comment