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Project WWII: Voices of the Greatest Generation

Marines tell of battles against Japan

by Dylan Welker

Bernard Riggs
Bernard Riggs served the Marines in the
combat Intelligence Section Headquarters
Company 2nd.

Bernard Riggs and Jerry Sherman fought in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The sacrifice of these men can be shared by all who have fought for freedom in this country's rich history.

The islands they battled for were virtually uninhabitable and the enemies hid in caves and refused to surrender to the last man. Sherman and Riggs are honored today, 60 years after the end of the war as marines and as men. Many of the soldiers who fought by their side did not return home. They spent many nights in fox holes, on over crowded ships, thousands of miles from home, as they fought the Japanese Empire.

Sherman joined the marines because his father had been captured at Wake Island in 1941 when the war broke out. His father, a civilian construction contractor on Wake Island, was captured shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor. Sherman's father remained a prisoner of war until the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. In November 1944, when Sherman turned 18, he joined the Marines to find his father.

"If I would have been drafted, I would have been sent to Europe," Sherman said. "I felt by enlisting in the Marines I would be sent to the Pacific, where I could help in the effort to bring my father home."

"The reason I wanted to be a marine, was that my dad was a construction worker for Morrison and company," he said. "They were fortifying Wake Island. So he was a prisoner in Japan for 45 months."

Riggs, another local marine, joined up on Dec. 11, 1942. A background in engineering allowed Riggs to become part of a combat intelligence section. He fought in many of the main battles in the Pacific against a relentless enemy.

"We could not comprehend the horror of death that we were about to face," Riggs said.

His first encounter with combat was at Tarawa.

"I was wading in, my first battle there at Tarawa," Riggs said. "I was so scared that I decided I would focus on a core man right in front of me. All of a sudden an exploding shell hit him and he disappeared. I was blown out of the water and then sucked down in the water. I remember forcing my way up and I could just get my head up. But at that time I was paralyzed from the waist down. I had to get to shore and I knew just about where my commander was. So I pushed on my rifle butt to keep my head above water and I finally got to shore and got up to this embankment and dug myself a foxhole."

Soon, he recovered from the shock he felt in the water and the feeling returned to his legs. Riggs helped capture many important positions in the Pacific and recently wrote a book about his service to this country.

Sherman fought at the crucial invasion of Okinawa. This battle was one of the worst battles in the war with more than 38,000 Americans wounded and 12,000 killed or missing, more than 107,000 Japanese and Okinawan conscripts killed, and perhaps 100,000 Okinawan civilians who perished in the battle. Leading a platoon along the island Sherman came face to face with death.

A mortar shell landed directly in front of him and three men from his unit were killed right in front of his eyes.

"I was leading a platoon and we went down towards this little village; and up on the left there was a tunnel where people would come out," Sherman said. "They had underground tunnels all over. Three Jap soldiers came out of a tunnel up above on a ledge and we were headed up that way. Before we got there, there was a loud explosion. Well, just like peeling an orange or something, a set of brains fell out right in front of me. And it was sitting there trembling just like Jello."

Near the end of the battle on Okinawa, Sherman dug into a foxhole. He had stumbled across two major tunnels just beneath him. In these tunnels were about one thousand men, whom he knew nothing about.

"We were up on a big ledge, we dug into foxholes there and we stayed there until the island was secure, because we were clear out on the end," Sherman said. "Well we found out later, underneath us there was two huge tunnels. 500 Japanese marines in one of the tunnels and 500 in a hospital, they brought all those out at the end."

The battle was eventually won by the allied forces and they spent many months doing clean up operations throughout the Pacific. They spent months clearing the Japanese soldiers of the islands as the enemy continued to fight — often down to the very last man.

Riggs joined Combat Intelligence Section Headquarters Company 2nd. Battalion 8th Marines, part of the 2nd Marine Division. His tour of duty in the Pacific began in New Zealand and ended when he was shipped home from Japan.

"One of the men in our unit drew cartoons that provided us with sunshine and laughter, many times when we had reason to cry," Riggs said.

It was this kind of banter that kept these soldiers alive in the battles that they fought.

"I think each combat outfit should have somebody like that in their midst, because he would turn every thing that was gloomy into laughter," he said.

The marines in the Pacific theater fought several enemies. The day-to-day struggle for survival was fought against the Japanese soldiers and such diseases as malaria, dengue fever and many other illnesses that could land them in the hospital. Riggs suffered from dengue fever, a disease spread by mosquitoes, which caused a high fever, pain in the joints and extreme fatigue.

"The mosquitoes, it seemed, were perhaps a Japanese secret weapon," Riggs said.

Sherman and Riggs returned to the United States without any serious injuries. They both reside in the Joplin area today and remain active.

Sherman is involved in a local VFW, and he speaks freely about his experience in the war and his life since his return from the Pacific.

His father was returned safely home and they reunited in San Francisco shortly after the end of the war.

Riggs returned home to his wife whom he married four months before he joined the Marines. Just a few years ago he wrote his memoirs in a book titled Ei Kie Malingy. His memories of the war are vivid and complete. He currently resides in Joplin and remains in good health.

The effort of these marines in the Pacific supported the efforts of freedom for the world. The soldiers had been preparing for an attack on the mainland of Japan for months and the marines were preparing for a long and hard fought battle.

"The day the atomic bomb fell on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima the cheers were heard throughout the camp," Sherman said.

"It was hard for our young minds to absorb the shocking news as being for real," Riggs said. "We had already prepared ourselves mentally for the invasion of Japan."

For the soldiers who participated in the Pacific, it was hard to believe the enemy they had fought for so long was going to surrender, and not continue to fight until they had been completely destroyed.

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