War's 'Forgotten' D-days

June 16, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

The front ramps of the landing craft dropped into the surf. Hundreds of helmeted men fought their way ashore, battling for a beachhead in the face of withering enemy fire.

Scores fell, dead and wounded. The bodies of those who never reached the beach drifted slowly on the waves; others died on the sand. The cries of the wounded filled the air.

It was D-Day.

But not the bloody landing in Normandy against the Nazis, commemorated June 6 by hundreds of Allied veterans and heads of state. This was the ferocious June 15, 1944, invasion of Saipan in the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, one of many D-Days on America's island-hopping march toward Japan.

Maryland veterans of the Pacific, to whom names like Guadalcanal, Eniwetok, Kwajalein, Iwo Jima and Okinawa mean more than Ste.-Mere-Eglise, St. Lo or Caen, say they are pleased with the recognition given their comrades from the European theater.

At the same time, however, they feel their contributions have been overlooked except for the annual ceremony that commemorates Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

Some began expressing their thoughts to "remember us" in the wake of Normandy's elaborate 50th anniversary celebration.

"We were a forgotten war out there," said Samuel A. Culotta, 69, a Baltimore lawyer. "We were too far away, and we were dealing with islands and atolls and vast distances; no major cities. In Europe, the war was the battle for Western civilization."

Fifty years ago yesterday, Mr. Culotta, then a Navy medic, came ashore on Saipan in the first wave with the 2nd Marine Division to care for the wounded and dying. "There were dead all over the beach," he said. "Bodies were already beginning to blow up in the heat."

The enemy counterattack the next morning might have driven the landing force back into the sea if U.S. Navy destroyers hadn't moved close inshore and pounded the oncoming Japanese with gunfire, Mr. Culotta said.

"Those destroyers really saved us that day," he said.

"I cared for hundreds of guys on that beach. I saved a lot, and I lost some, too," Mr. Culotta said, as a far-away look came into his eyes.

Mr. Culotta today is better known as a frequent Republican office seeker in overwhelmingly Democratic Baltimore than for having participated in nine island landings across the Pacific from Makin Atoll to Okinawa and the Philippines.

Retired Lt. Col. Frank Novak, 76, of Mount Pleasant, started the war in command of an airfield in Alaska, when an invasion of Japan through the Aleutians was planned. He finished it in Manila, by way of New Guinea, as an officer on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff.

He said the difference in commemorations between the European and Pacific theaters of war involves several factors, including geographic, racial and, of course, political, since General MacArthur's ego and ambitions led to conflicts with his superiors in Washington.

Geographically, Normandy made a convenient, compact focus for the D-Day commemoration, in contrast to the Pacific where hundreds of units fought on scores of beaches on coral dots scattered across thousands of miles of ocean, the veterans said. The great naval and air battles of World War II -- Midway, the Coral Sea and the Marianas among them -- were fought in the Pacific.

Invasion of Leyte

Mr. Novak said such circumstance have led to many lost-in-history Pacific D-Days, including important but largely forgotten landings like the invasion of Leyte on Oct. 20, 1944, which fulfilled General MacArthur's vow to retake the Philippines.

Also, he said, "Our soldiers in Europe fought people who looked just like them, on well-paved streets and highways, well-kept farmland, large cities and villages, people welcoming them with wine, women and song.

"None of that in the Pacific," he continued. "Steaming jungles, hot sand and blistering sun. At night, all sorts of creatures bugging us. And the enemy looking funny.

"GIs from Europe, returning on huge ships, were welcomed with big parades everywhere. Those of us returning from the Pacific were greeted mostly by the Customs checking our bags for contraband."

Mason Brunson, 84, of West Edmondale, was a newspaper reporter before he joined the Marine Corps in 1942 as a combat correspondent. He came ashore the first time with the 8th Marines of the 2nd Division on the bloody beach at Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands.

"I came in with the third wave," he recalled. "There was a lot of shooting going on. I remember one battalion commander in the landing boat was in radio contact with the shore and he kept saying, 'Oh, they're shooting up my men.' "

'Nobody surrendered'

As a combat correspondent, his job was not to compete with the regular civilian war correspondents but to produce "hometowners," articles about fighting men to be sent to their local newspapers.

His stories went through regimental intelligence officers and then through division headquarters before being transmitted to Washington for final dissemination. The delay "was scary," he said.

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