(A departure from my usual parenting musings, in honor of our fallen war heroes on Memorial Day)
John Grant, 91, does not like to talk about the War; it was too horrific. Instead, he prefers to focus on the men with whom he served.
Sitting in his kitchen in the Landis Homes Retirement Community in Lititz, Penn., with Nancy, his wife of 63 years, by his side, he pointed to an old photograph. Pictured were the Marines who fought under his leadership in the Pacific Theater 68 years ago. Grant was Sergeant Squad Leader of the 12 men comprising the 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Regiment, 4th Marine Division.
“We were all young kids,” said Grant. “We were neophytes, too.” He explained that in the heat of battle they had difficulties discerning their targets. “We couldn’t even see one another. I swear sometimes I think we were shooting right at each other,” he said, laughing at the memory. None got hurt by friendly fire, but one morning, one mortar shell would claim three of their lives.
Grant and his men had experienced fierce fighting in the Marshall Islands as part of the U.S. forces’ Pacific Campaign. Their next target was Saipan, the largest of the Mariana Islands. Located just 1,400 miles from Tokyo, it would provide U.S. forces with a critical airbase for their new long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers. But Saipan had been under Japanese control since 1920, and was fortified with tens of thousands of Japanese troops that had to be taken out first.
On June 15, 1944, more than 500 ships carrying 127,000 U.S. troops (77,000 of whom were Marines from the Secondand Fourth—Grant’s—Divisions) converged on Saipan. American battleships, destroyers and bombers had shelled the island for two days before the landings, with mixed success.
Hundreds of amphibious tanks led the invasion in the morning hours for the start of what would become known as the Battle of Saipan. Grant and all of his men were in one of these armored vehicles. He was holding his rifle against his chest when a mortar shell exploded directly into their tank. Three of his men were killed; everyone else was wounded. Grant was knocked unconscious.
“When I woke up from the explosion, I thought, ‘Oh, my God. It’s raining! It’s raining!’” It was a clear day. “They’d hit a major vessel in my neck and the blood was squirting up in the air and coming down onto my face,” he said, his voice shaking as he spoke.
Grant was evacuated to a hospital ship where they operated on his neck and performed the first of three surgeries on his right hand, which had been riddled with shrapnel.
“The doctor told me, ‘You were one lucky boy,’” said Grant. The neck injury had been life threatening. The second surgery on his hand was performed at a naval hospital in Hawaii, and the final one was stateside at the Brooklyn Naval Hospital in New York. He extended his hand, showing how his middle finger remained fixed in a bent position. The retired dentist shrugged it off, saying, “Hardly a disability.”
The same morning that Grant’s tank was decimated, there were approximately 2,000 American Marine casualties along a four-mile stretch of beach of Saipan. Among the dead were three of the sergeant’s men: David Dougherty, Sammy Samson and Jack Jones.
Given the fog of battle, the extent of his injuries, and the lack of communication available, Grant did not know the fate of another.
“For a long time, I thought this other guy had been killed too, until somebody said he thought he saw him somewhere,” he said, the relief in his voice still palpable nearly seven decades later.
When he was discharged from the Marines, Grant went about building a life for himself. He attended college and dental school on the G.I. Bill; met and married his wife Nancy; raised their five daughters; and ran his thriving dental practice in Ephrata, Penn. What he did not do was talk about the war, until 25 years ago.
It was then that Grant arranged a reunion of his squad at his deer camp in Cedar Run, Penn., gathering all of the surviving members together for the first time since the Battle of Saipan. According to Nancy, once the men got together, they started to talk about the war in detail.
“It’s the first time we wives knew what had happened,” she said.
Grant remained in contact with the men over the years. Today, there are only three other squad members still living: Charles Wolf (“The Wolfman”), Leo Kelly, and a man Grant remembered simply as Lance—the last name escaped him.
As he spoke about those who were killed when the mortar shell hit their tank, Grant did so slowly, softly, his voice overcome with emotion. He apologized often for “getting a little bleary-eyed.” There was one Marine in particular whom he kept bringing up: David Dougherty.
“He was the baby,” Grant said, explaining his deep affection for the man. He had joined straight out of high school and was the youngest in the squad, though he was only a couple of years younger than his sergeant. Grant said he felt responsible for looking out for him.
After he was stateside, Grant got a phone call from Dougherty’s cousin, who was frantically trying to get word on the young Marine’s whereabouts; he did not know he had been killed in action.
“He asked me if I knew David. And I said, ‘Know him? I used to tuck him in bed every night,’” said Grant, choking up at the memory.
On June 15, Grant and his wife hope to travel to Dougherty’s hometown of Hawthorne, N.J., to see a street renamed in the fallen Marine’s honor. He has offered to take one of his three surviving squad members with him, but said he was not sure if the man would be up for the trip.
“We’re in our early 90s now,” said Grant matter-of-factly. Maybe that is why this retired dentist who does not like to talk about the war was finally sharing his memories. If not now, when?
His home is filled with photos and mementos, not from his days serving in the Pacific Theater, but from the life he and his wife built afterward. He was relieved to be done talking about the war and to give a tour of his study. He pointed to a wall filled with honors, achievements and newspaper clippings chronicling the accomplishments of his children; there were also a few diplomas and awards of his own. Countless framed photos of his daughters, their spouses, and his grandchildren graced other walls. He showed them off with pride.
Not on display, but tucked away in a desk drawer, inside its original decorative box, sat his Purple Heart. He opened it for a moment, and then closed it, moving quickly on to show a framed newspaper clipping of his daughter celebrating a huge field hockey win.
originally written for and published in my local newspaper