Words From the War

Tribune Correspondent
June 30, 2008

South Bend Tribune - South Bend, Ind.


For the past few years, World War II veterans have been dying at the rate of 1,000 per day.

On June 19, Joseph Long became one of them. Some of these men and women have taken their stories to the grave with them.

But Joe, a Marine corporal in World War II and "damn proud of it," talked of his experiences in an interview in 2003.

Occasionally, he would absent-mindedly rub his right leg.

"Yeah," he said, "it still hurts. Bad, sometimes. Especially when the weather is changing or it is damp outside."

Joe told how he was shot four times within a 20-minute span by Japanese gunfire during a Marine landing on Betio in the Gilbert Islands.

The first three bullets hit him in the head, the left leg and the lower pelvic region. The fourth was above his right knee, breaking his leg. "Three or four of us were hit," he said, "We struggled through the water to the beach.

"I wasn't bleeding much. The bullets went straight through and didn't hit any vital organs. Somehow, I crawled up behind a sea wall made of coconut logs and coral to wait for help."

Help didn't come for two days.

During that spell, because he couldn't walk, other wounded Marines would pick Joe up and lay him on top of the sea wall when the tide came in at night.

Had they not, he would have drowned.

Marines landing and moving inland would pass by the little group of wounded men.

"They'd share their water, give us a cigarette and tell us not to leave, that they'd be back for us as soon as they could.

"We knew they would. Marines take care of their own."

A Plymouth High School student, Joe had quit school his senior year. Just a month after Pearl Harbor, on Jan. 6, 1942, he went to South Bend and joined the Marines along with a classmate, the late George Burgh. Sent to the West Coast for boot camp in San Diego and basic training at Camp Elliott, Calif., he was assigned to F Company of the Second Battalion of the Second Marine Division.

The new recruits spent six months practicing, among other things, amphibious landings.

"We'd storm the beach at night," Joe said, "crawling on our belly in the sand and firing our blank rounds of ammunition." The scuttlebutt was that they would soon be shipping out for the Solomon Islands.

The troops left for the Pacific Theater on June 1, 1942, aboard a troop transport, the Hayes.

On Aug. 7, Joe and his cohorts prepared to land on the Japanese-occupied island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. Crowded into a Higgins (landing) boat were 32 Marines.

It was D-Day on the Solomons.

The smoke and noise were horrendous.

"The Navy got us in pretty close. We had to climb down cargo nets over the side into water waist deep," Joe remembered.

We took some casualties, but we didn't lose a guy from our company. "Not on that day."

Joe was armed with a Springfield bolt-action rifle and four grenades, two in his pocket and two hanging by straps from his backpack. Was he scared?

"You betcha," he said. "I'd never fired at a human being before, but our officers told us that the enemy was out to kill us and we'd better get him first." < P> Joe said he could still remember the sound of Japanese bullets. "There's a crack and a singing noise," he said. "I heard enough of that reverberation to know it ... kind of like a firecracker on the Fourth of July."

That battle, according to Richard W. Johnson in his book "Follow Me!," was the first bitter ground offensive toward Tokyo.

Beyond the Solomons were the Gilberts, beyond the Gilberts, the Marianas and beyond the Marianas, Okinawa and the Japanese homeland. The Japanese went to the hills and caves, coming out to attack most often early in the morning.

"We were supposed to take the island within 72 hours and had drawn only three days of rations and ammunition," Long said.

The unit lacked a week of being six months on the island.

Finally, when the Japanese realized they couldn't save the Solomons, they left.

The Second Marines sailed to Wellington, New Zealand, the first part of March 1943, where they stayed for 6 1/2 months training replacements. In October, F Company was shipped out to Betio, where Joe and his wounded comrades, on the morning of the third day, were rescued and loaded by Navy corpsmen into small rubber boats and transported to a ship.

Transferred to the Solace, a hospital ship, Joe's leg was operated on. He was put in a body cast and taken to Pearl Harbor's Naval Hospital, where he stayed for three weeks before being sent back to the States. Joe Long spent Christmas and New Year's in a Corona, Calif., hospital undergoing skin grafts and other small surgeries before returning home to Plymouth, with a medical discharge in October 1945.

He was given two Purple Hearts and several unit citations and battle stars.

Joe and Nellie Murray, his bride of 68 years, were married in June of 1946.

He worked in Bourbon for 2 1/2 years for Elcar Coach and later, first as deliveryman and then manager, of Clean Towel Services, Plymouth, for 24 years.

He also worked for American Containers for 11 years, retiring in May 1983.

He and Nellie had two sons, seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

They loved to travel and, in a five-year span, visited every state in the Union.

Except for his interview in 2003, he didn't talk much about the war. When his story appeared, people said it was the first they had ever heard of it.

But they knew Joe as a man who raised an American flag every morning at his home on South Sixth Street.

His story told them why.

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