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Salute Veterans Like Charlie Behan

by Terry Frei,, 31 May 2010

During fighting against Japanese forces on Okinawa on the morning of May 18, 1945, shrapnel struck Marine Lt. Charles E. Behan in the mouth. Behan’s “runner,” Bill Hulek, wondered if the severely bleeding lieutenant would head back to the aid station.

Behan insisted on staying on the front lines.

“He kept changing cotton in his mouth,” Hulek told me from his home in Castleton, N.Y.

Behan had a last charge to make — up Sugar Loaf Hill.

Born in Crystal Lake, Ill., the man called both Charlie and Chuck played end at Northern Illinois State Teachers College. He was a Detroit Lions rookie in 1942, when many young Americans — especially college students or recent graduates — had enlisted in the Armed Services and awaited their call-ups.

In late 1944, when Behan was with the newly reformed Sixth Marine Division on the secured Guadalcanal, he played in a Christmas Eve touch football game between teams representing the 4th and 29th Regiments. I came across the game in “Third Down and a War to Go” research, and I’ve written in the paper about several other Marines who played in it.

Today, it’s Behan’s turn.

Most Marine players and spectators involved in the game moved on to Okinawa in April 1945. Amid the 82-day Okinawa campaign, the Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill lasted 10 days. Control of the hill changed several times. Behan, with the bloodied cotton in his mouth, joined what turned out to be a crucial May 18 charge.

“We went up Sugar Loaf and got up there all right,” Hulek told me. Behan tossed grenades at a Japanese machine gun nest. Next, Hulek said, “Lieutenant Behan kneeled there with a little carbine. That jammed, so he took my rifle and started shooting again.”

Behan was hit by machine gun fire.

“The bullets came right out of his back,” Hulek said, “and you could see his jacket raised — plink, plink, plink.”

Posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, he was one of 12 players in the Guadalcanal “Classic” killed on Okinawa. Nearly 1,700 Marines died in the Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill alone. Today — and I hope always — we salute them. And all the others.

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