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Eclipse 2017

Eclipse 2017
Eclipse 2017

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Okinawa Story - One from 'The Greatest Generation'


April 1st 1945 U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine forces invaded the Japanese Island of Okinawa.  The ensuing struggle became the bloodiest and most difficult battle of the Pacific war.  My dad was there.  Earlier in the week my brother gave me a call and asked if I would write something about my dad's war time experiences.  A good friend of his, who was the editor of the local newspaper, agreed to have it printed as a surprise and in honor of the anniversary of that invasion.  What follows is that front page essay.

The well known journalist Tom Brokaw once coined the phrase ‘The Greatest Generation’ referring to the young men and women of this country who were thrown into a world conflict in the 1940’s known as The Second World War.  For those who have been counted as such, few would ever acknowledge claim to that title.  For them, well…they simply were doing what they had to do.

One of the great privileges of my life is to have known someone from that generation. A few months prior to the start of the year 2000, I sat down with my dad, Kenneth L. Bridgman of Okmulgee, Oklahoma, with a microphone and tape recorder and for several hours recorded his memories and experiences of his military service during World War II.  Even though I grew up hearing stories about those years and times, my dad rarely ever spoke of the events that challenged his young adult life.  As he began to revisit those memories, they seemed as fresh and clear as if from more recent times and yet his words resonated with a nostalgic clarity born from having personally experienced the horrors of war and the satisfaction of having done ones duty during those traumatic and dangerous years.

On April 1, the sixty sixth anniversary of the invasion of Okinawa...one of the smaller of the Japanese main islands…is upon us.  Reflecting on what my dad experienced generates mixed emotions as many of America’s young men and women today are once again in harms way engaged in overseas fighting.  There is a kindred spirit of sorts that connects their generation with those from the Second World War.  It is a spirit worth sharing.

He was barely 19 years old when he shipped off to the South Pacific as a corporal in the U.S. Army attached to the 321st Engineer Combat Battalion as part of the 96th Infantry Division (The Deadeye Division).  He scored well at the gunnery range receiving at the time the second highest score ever recorded in the battalion, second only to the sergeant in charge of the outfit.  As a result he was given special training in defensive preparations and was assigned the responsibility of being in charge of all the unit’s machine gun operations.  That responsibility included not only maintaining the 30 caliber light machine guns but the heavier water cooled 50 caliber guns as well, plus making sure they were transported, operational, manned, and supplied.  He often found himself manning those emplacements as well.

His unit was actively involved in General Douglas MacArthur’s ‘Return to the Philippines’ as they landed on the shores of Leyte in 1944 to support the combat units reclaiming territory the Japanese had taken earlier in the war.  The 321st Engineers were more than a support unit. They were actively engaged in combat rolls and many times went in ahead of the infantry to prepare the way.  Sometimes they took out seawalls that blocked exits off a landing beach, other times repaired or built bridges, often under fire.  Their charge one day might be to support an offensive, or assemble Bailey Bridges across a ravine or river, or to remove or mark a mine field, and to even take out concrete bunkers.  Whatever their call, my dad’s unit was often upfront in the thick of deadly fire.

As tough as the Leyte campaign was, Okinawa proved to be the largest and most difficult battle of the Pacific theater.  The 96th Infantry along with the U.S. Army 7th and U.S. Marines 1st and 6th divisions invaded Okinawa on April 1, 1945.  Being one of the home islands of Japan, it was defended with fanatical tenacity by one of Japans toughest and best lead military units…the Japanese 32nd Army.  The Japanese all through the Pacific proved themselves as tough fighters, and Okinawa proved just how tough, disciplined, and well trained they were.  Their underground fortifications positioned along a series of ridges and escarpments traversing a narrow pinch on the southern end of the island were specifically designed to inflict heavy casualties. What was encountered along this Shuri Line was the largest concentration of Japanese firepower that confronted the American forces anywhere in the Pacific theater.

The 96th was a major contributor to the breaching of that line and name places such as Kakazu, Tombstone, Nisharu, and Hacksaw Ridges…Conical Hill and Charlie Hill…are forever engrained into the history and exploits of the battalion.  The 321st Combat Engineers were there through it all.

Although during our recording session, my dad spoke of many experiences, there was one experience he spoke about in a more subdued manner.  His unit had stopped moving forward and setup for the evening.  As was his duty, he setup several machine gun emplacements around the perimeter as a defensive measure and assigned himself on point…the area most likely to encounter any kind of an attack during the night.  As it turned out, his commanding officer indicated that my dad needed to head back to the landing beach area and help unload supplies which was an all night, physically challenging thing in its own right.  Although he argued the point about needing to stay, the officer told him to head out and get someone else to take his post on the point.  That evening the Japanese attacked their position and the point location took heavy fire and the man he appointed to take his place was severely wounded and later died.  Many years after the fact, as he recalled the incident, I could still see in his eyes just how moved he was by what had happened.

One of the most revealing things I learned during our recording session was just how often the good Lord protected my dad.  Indeed, my grandmother often told me when I was younger how she and my grandfather would every morning and every evening kneel next to their bed and pray for the safety of their son…their only child.  Those prayers were most certainly answered more than once.

There was one incident where it appeared his unit was going to stop moving for an extended time, so he gathered a bunch of timbers and old tin roofing material and built a make shift bunker of sorts…one that would protect him from just about anything except a direct hit.  Shortly before sundown, the sergeant came by and told all of them they were moving out pronto.  During the night an intense artillery duel ensued with shells flying from both sides over their position.  By morning, things had calmed down, and he needed to return to his make shift bunker to get some supplies he had left behind as they had moved out so quickly the day before.  When he found his bunker…it had taken a direct hit by a Japanese artillery round destroying everything in and around it.  Had his unit not moved out, he would have been in that bunker…and I would not be writing this article now.

His unit was manned by a bunch of tough characters many of them coming from construction and heavy equipment operations before the war.  During the blur of combat difficult moments and snap decisions are often made, sometimes with tragic results…sometimes with uncanny insight.  In all of the carnage…during all of the stress of combat…my dad’s humanity saved the life of a Japanese soldier.  His unit had captured a scared and confused young Japanese private not much older than he was.  Things had been rather chaotic and some of the guys in his unit wanted to shoot the guy and be done with it for they didn’t have time to deal with him.  My dad stepped in and argued against doing so, saying that the guy was no longer a threat to anyone…couldn’t they see that he was scared to death.  They just needed to hang onto him for a while until they could find an officer to take him back for interrogation.  Before too long an officer did drive by in a Jeep and he flagged him down…and turned over the Japanese soldier to him...saving the life of not just a foe…but another human being.

Notice the camera?
 It's an old Argus C3
With the anniversary of the Okinawa campaign on the horizon and in light of the recent earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan, it somehow seems fitting to reflect on just how much the world has changed since those tumultuous times.  Those who were once a bitter enemy are now a trusted friend and our hearts and prayers go out to the Japanese people and nation.

The legacy of the greatest generation and my dad is less about the political environment of the world in the 1940’s, and more about the character of a nation as experienced through the lives of those who lived it.  They were ordinary men, thrown into an extraordinary situation…and changed the world for the better.  We are all part of that legacy and are forever indebted to that generation…Although my dad would never say it…I will say it for him…I am proud that he can be counted as one from ‘The Greatest Generation’.

Keith Bridgman 

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