Debris of War

Debris of War:
A Personal Narrative

Sergeant Patrick L. Finelli
U.S. Marine Corps

Peleliu duty:
UDT-6 pre-invasion beach recon
3rd Bn, 1st Marines, “K” (King) Co

Transcribed from a personal interview, June 17, 2002
by Patrick M. Finelli, Ph.D.

I was a 19-year old Marine from Newton, Massachusetts when I saw combat duty with UDT-6 in the waters of Peleliu, demolishing explosives, obstacles and debris of war to prepare for the invasion. Later, during the land battle, I was re-assigned to the 1st Marines at the front, blowing up caves where the enemy held fiercely to their last bastion of defense.

I had enlisted in February 1943, trained at boot camp on Parris Island, then at USNTTC Aviation Ordnance School followed by Bomb Disposal and Explosive Demolitions School at North Island, Coronado Naval Base, California. I was promoted to Sergeant in April 1944 and assigned to MAG. 45, Ordnance Battalion.

In July 1944, we were in Santa Barbara, California ready to ship out to see action in the South Pacific. Repeatedly, we prepared for deployment with our gear, only to hear that we had to wait.

We were told that there was a screw-up at Tinian involving the Marine Recons, under Capt. Jim Jones and the UDTs under someone named Kaufman. (Ed. note: Lt. Cmdr Draper L. Kauffman was given the assigment in June 1943 to organize the first UDT unit called CDU (Combat Demolitions Unit) Number 1 in Ft. Pierce, Florida. On July 14, 1944 at Tinian UDT Team 5 under Lt. Cmdr. Kauffman attempted a mine clearing but the weather and sea conditions forced abandonment of explosives and abort of the mission). The UDTs didn’t get to the beach and the Marine Recons did. It also involved a dispute over “high water” responsibility. General Holland Smith, revered in the Corps as the Patron of Amphibious Landings, felt that his Marines, in particular the Recons could and should do the whole job of Recon & Clearing. The problem was Recon was small and needed elsewhere.

General Smith was very upset with the Navy and the Army and sent out search teams to find Demolition men who could be spared for UDT work in concert with his beloved Recon group. My guess is we in aviation were expendable so Capt. Sweet volunteered us. He volunteered himself, me and another Marine for a special assignment. I was a good swimmer, trained in bomb disposal and demolitions. We were dispatched to Eniwetok where we we were given physicals and swim tests. OSS personnel indoctrinated us with rigorous training in the use of swim mask and fins. Capt. Sweet never participated, he just observed and took notes. At the conclusion of training, we broke up and went different ways. My group was assigned to the Clemson, APD-31, a converted World War I vessel. Two destroyers in our fleet, the Noa and the Fullem, hit each other and one of them went to the bottom with the explosives from the ABLE unit. After OSS’s loss, UDT Team 6 took over and the fleet kept going. Swim teams were matched for reconnaissance on Peleliu.

Our job was recon on enemy held beaches in September 1944. The Navy destroyers and battleships shelled the island while we were in the water. You could see the vortex of the shell in the air as the water rippled from the shock wave. After our mission, we waited in the water until they could get in close enough to pick us up. (Note: please refer to September entries under Chronology for more details).

We received orders to report to the Beachmaster. We reported as Marines, and were directed up to the command post. The beach was a mess. The Japanese had targeted the invasion and destroyed amphibious troop carriers during the first wave. The Beachmaster said he needed us to clear the beach landing zones of war debris that littered the waters. There was a severe shortage of demolitions people.

Our assignment was far from over. After our beach duty, we were assigned to help K Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines for a day and a half, then transferred to 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. Our duty was to help advance on Umurbrogol Mountain, “Bloody Nose Ridge.” My job, as a demolitions expert, was to take Bangalore torpedoes and satchel charges to blow up the caves where the Japanese had hunkered down. The “torpedoes” were 5’ long, 3” diameter pipes with explosives and Primacord. We had to climb the ridge and lower torpedoes into the openings, sealing the caves on one end, similar to the recent actions in Afghanistan at Zhawar Kili in early 2002. It was dangerous duty as I concentrated on the difficult task with limited rifle support when suddenly someone shouted, “Here they come!” I turned around to see the Japanese soldiers on top of us. It was close-quarters, fierce rifle fighting, finally ending in hand-to-hand combat. We got the best of them, but a Japanese bayonet seriously wounded me. I was 19 years old with the three stripes of a buck sergeant. I didn’t think I would live to see my 20th birthday later in September.

They shipped me out to Guam and then on to Hawaii, where I was admitted to the Aeia Heights Hospital. I was dirty and wounded, but I could walk and went to breakfast. They wouldn’t let me in the mess hall. A corpsman went down for some fresh clothes and brought back some food for me.

I was in the hospital through Christmas. My parents received a letter from the Red Cross and a visit from a chaplain telling them that I was missing in action.

Shortly thereafter, I was in the hospital ward that treated shattered limbs. In an unbelievable coincidence, Dr. Sidney Derow was the physician in charge. He had set my ankle when I was a boy. A car hit me on my bicycle while delivering newspapers in my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. He wrote to his wife, who relayed the message to my parents that I was alive and in the hospital.

There was trouble with my thyroid gland. I learned later that the residue of explosives, a familiar aroma that I had grown to like, adversely affected the thyroid. I was treated with radioactive iodine. During my hospital stay, I befriended Frank Scavuso, a PFC who had been clobbered on Guam while serving with an engineer battalion.

One day we were ordered to fall out and line up in front of the hospital. That’s where I received my medals and was told the papers would be sent to my parents. After the war I tried to follow up, but the hospital no longer existed.

When my weight stabilized at 130 lbs., I took part in duty on shore patrol, but wanted to rejoin my original outfit. I was given orders and hitched a ride to the Marine airbase EWA in Pearl Harbor. I flew to Johnson’s Island, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Guam and heard that my outfit was in the Philippines. While flying into Ulithi, I noticed the markings of my unit and had them drop me off at the Headquarters of Marine Air Group 45, providing cover for the fleet as we pressed toward Japan.

I went back to my old job in bomb disposal. Our assignment was to clear the debris of war. After Okinawa, the Kamikazes made their desperate attempt to stop us, but many bombs were left unexploded on the ships. An LST was brought to Ulithi, and we had to salvage equipment, clear bodies and remove explosives to make it safe. We anchored to one side and defused several bombs.

After the A-bomb, we had to go down and clear the island of Yap for the military government. The Japanese wouldn’t tell us where the mines were. I was injured from shrapnel in Yap while performing clearing demolition duty. I returned stateside by hospital ship from Guam. My first stop back in the states was at Oak Knoll hospital in Oakland. Then I went by hospital train to the Chelsea Naval Hospital in December 1945, where I underwent an operation. I was restored to duty at the Charlestown Navy Yard. I was discharged in March 1946.