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"They'd Just Fight Until You Killed Them"

by Pat Rice, Daytona Beach News-Journal, 11 November 2015

If ever there was a hell on earth, it was the Battle of Okinawa.

Harry Bertram lived to tell about it—although for a long time he didn’t talk to his wife, Dolores, and their six children about the horrors he endured. He was 18—really still just a boy—when, as a U.S. Marine, he landed on the Japanese coral island. It was Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945.

“April Fools Day,” Bertram, now 88, said during an interview at his Port Orange home.

Okinawa was the single bloodiest battle of World War II. According to U.S. military records, a total of 12,500 American soldiers died taking Okinawa, which is one-third the size of Rhode Island. Tens of thousands more Americans were wounded. The Japanese lost 77,166 soldiers and an estimated 150,000 civilians, many of whom committed suicide. More people died at Okinawa than when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

“They’d just fight until you killed them,” Bertram said of the Japanese at Okinawa. “Their mission was to kill as many Americans as they could.”

Harry Bertram, 2015

Bertram was an automatic rifleman with the 6th Marine Division, 29th Infantry regiment, I Company. The regiment began the Okinawa campaign with 3,512 Marines; when the battle of Okinawa ended 82 days later, 2,812 members of the regiment had been killed or wounded. Bertram remembers being soaked by cold monsoon rains. He often went hungry, partly because the stench of decaying bodies so permeated the air that he couldn’t eat. The noise of battle was constant. He lost normal human feelings.

“You just became numb,” he said.

Okinawa was a far cry from Philadelphia, where Bertram grew up. Born in 1926, he spent the first years of World War II as a patriotic teenager. He enjoyed the movies, and one of the films that impressed him was “Guadalcanal Diary” with Anthony Quinn. “That’s what got me interested in the Marines,” he said.

On December 9, 1943—his 17th birthday—Bertram joined the Marines. He went to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, in February 1944. He trained at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Then he and other Marines took a train across the country to San Diego. They were shipped to the Pacific island of Guadalcanal, where they trained some more.

Then, Okinawa.

All told, nearly a quarter-million members of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines took part in the battle. The mission included 1,400 ships, according to military records.

“We landed, no problem,” Bertram said. Their first objective was Yontan Airfield. It was abandoned, with numerous Japanese planes destroyed. Okinawa is a narrow island, about 64 miles long and just 5 to 7 miles across. That first day, the Marines and Army cut the island in half. Then they began moving north and south.

Bertram’s company headed north marching 55 miles in five days. Their mission was to take the city of Yae-Take. The terrain was mountainous with caves and creeks and no paved roads.

“It was rainy, miserably cold,” Bertram said. “We didn’t have a raincoat or anything.”

Resistance was light at first.

“Just a few snipers, that’s all,” he said. But just before reaching Yae-Take, Bertram’s platoon was crossing a creek when a sniper shot the two men right in front of him in the head.

Yae-Take fell relatively quickly, but not without significant casualties. “We had a skirmish with the Japanese,” Bertram said. “Lost 53 men.”

Fighting was continual and heavy for the next 75 days. The 29th Regiment headed to the south end of Okinawa. The worst battle—a week long in May 1945—was for Sugar Loaf Hill. It was a small hill, just 50 feet higher than the surrounding ground and only 300 yards across. But the Japanese were heavily fortified. The Marines charged the hill 13 times before taking it; Bertram took part in two of the charges. By the time Sugar Loaf Hill fell, 2,000 Americans had been killed or wounded.

The constant fighting took a mental toll on the soldiers. “I’d say 30 percent of the guys cracked up,” Bertram said. He simply became numb to normal human feelings.

“If a friend got killed, you’d think, ‘At least it wasn’t me. I’m still alive.’ That’s the attitude you took,” Bertram said. “A lot of pressure for an 18 year old.”

Bertram landed at Okinawa weighing 180 pounds; by the time it was over, he weighed 137 pounds. Not only was food sometimes scarce, but the smell of dead bodies was overpowering. “The smell and the noise, that was the hard thing,” Bertram said.

He witnessed terrible moments that stayed with him. At about 4 a.m. one day, a flare shot up into the air on the edge of where the Marines were encamped. The Marines saw movement on the edge of the camp and opened fire. It turned out to be 20 Japanese women and children. All of them were killed. “I’ll never forget it.” Bertram said.

In the end, as the Americans pinned the Japanese against the south end of the island, thousands of civilians and soldiers committed suicide rather than be taken alive. Many jumped off cliffs onto the rocks below.

“We pushed them right back into the sea until they were gone,” Bertram said. “We didn’t take any prisoners.”

With substitutes, Bertram’s company included 463 men. When the battle of Okinawa ended, just 53 of them hadn’t been killed or wounded. Of the 44 men in his platoon, Bertram said only he and two others weren’t killed or wounded.

When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bertram was relieved. The 6th Marine Division was preparing to invade the main islands of Japan, and he assumed he wouldn’t survive. The atomic bombs “saved a lot of lives on both sides,” he said.

Bertram left the Marines in 1946, then joined the U.S. Air Force and became a navigator. He retired from the service in 1964, then worked for the U.S. Postal Service for another decade before retiring altogether. Along the way, he and Dolores—they married in 1954 and she’s now 83—had five boys and a girl. They visited the area in 1983, liked it, and have lived in Port Orange since then.

For decades, Bertram did not talk about his experiences on Okinawa. Not to Dolores, not to his children. But one night a few years back, Bertram bolted upright in bed in the middle of the night.

“I was throwing hand grenades,” he said.

A dozen years ago, Bertram and Dolores traveled to an annual reunion of the 6th Marine Division. There, he could share his experiences with other survivors of Okinawa. “It was a big relief,” he said.

A decade ago, Bertram and Dolores went on a cruise that included Okinawa. The last time he saw the island, bullets and bombs had completely denuded the island of vegetation.

“(Now) everything’s nice and green,” Bertram said. It’s amazing how nice it looked.”

Bertram doesn’t regret joining the Marines and fighting against the Japanese and the other axis powers, Germany and Italy. Japan attacked America, and it was his duty to fight. But he doesn’t view war gloriously. Not at all.

“War is stupid,” Bertram said.

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