Part 6: Bum Phillips endures most dangerous battle of life

Aug. 29, 2010 at 3:29 a.m.

Editor's note: This is part six of a seven-part series.

The night we left for New Georgia - June 20, 1943 - was as clear as the night we left for Vanguna, only this time a storm didn't swell within the sea.

As it turned out, the storm awaited us inland. This battle would be the costliest and most challenging we faced the entire war.

I was with the first wave of Marines during the assault. Allied coast watchers, who'd befriended natives, learned the Japanese wouldn't enter the landing area. Given an uncontested beach landing, our mission was supposed to be simple: Break through the Japanese stronghold, gather intelligence and seize the Munda airfield.

We didn't know it, but we were outnumbered 10 to 1 on New Georgia and 20 to 1 if you count the Japanese soldiers an island away. The Army, which was supposed to attack with us but from the north, was a day late.

The early morning sky was black and cloudless. The moon shined bright. The salty water was calm and the stars glimmered in the rolling waves.

I climbed down the netting on the side of the destroyer, dropped into the Higgins boat and adjusted my helmet. I wore all-green fatigues, carried an M-1 rifle and hauled a light pack. Four destroyers floated in the water, and I watched their outlines fade into the horizon as the Higgins boat crept quietly toward shore.

One thousand Raiders hit the beaches and began a methodical push north. Just as on Vanguna, we landed without receiving enemy fire. We pushed toward the enemy base through the thick, entangling jungle growth, around coconut trees, up and down ravines and through mangrove swamps. Because of frequent rainstorms, the ground was muddy. It caked to a man's rubber-soled boots and made his steps heavy. I could smell the rice in the flooded fields.

The Japanese opened fire first. They knew where we were, but we couldn't see them. The Japanese military wall, which blended into the dense jungle, at once pulsed red with bullet fire. Japanese machine gunners crossed their bullet sprays, which left little room for movement.

Once gunfire erupted, we spread out over a great distance and moved into an arched formation, which bowed outward at the middle. I smelled gunpowder, heard the mortar explosions landing all around and dodged the tree branches that fell from the fray above.

I heard the order: "Move!" One by one, each 50-member group charged 10 steps forward, in waves, and then took cover. While on the ground, I scouted the thick tree line ahead. I couldn't see anyone.

Without a tank, we were ill-equipped to penetrate the defensive wall. Our largest weapon, a 50-caliber machine gun, proved fruitless. I knew we were losing when I again heard the command to charge, and this time only 12 men pushed forward.

The green, grassy terrain became a killing field. We didn't have time to think. We ran out of ammunition by about 3 p.m. and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with bayonets.

The Japanese had all the advantages. I was just thankful to be alive.

Many of my fellow Marines, however, were not so lucky. In four hours, two-thirds of the battalion became casualties of war. Men were ripped apart in explosions, killed by bullets and maimed by grenades and other shrapnel.

When men fell to the ground wounded, we created makeshift stretchers by tying shirts to bamboo poles. We hauled 360 Marines out. Soon, though, we lacked enough standing soldiers to carry every wounded man to safety.

Already, 700 men were dead or wounded. Three went missing in action. Only one-third of my crew could fight, and the Japanese were taking it to us.

When leadership within the Raiders realized we could no longer advance, they ordered us to retreat to about 250 yards south of the enemy base. Medics worked overtime. The commander gave us an option: Head to the beaches and return to the ships, or dig in and fight if the Japanese counterattacked.

We voted to stay put. We set up camp and a defensive perimeter. I established a post, stood guard and became angry. I got real mad once I learned the Army didn't attack from the north as planned.

My role was just to survive that night, but I had time to think. I thought about how we sometimes ask people to do things in a war without thinking plans through. What I now know for sure is that God looked out for me.

I struggled with faith at that moment, though, because it seemed there were a lot of people He didn't look out for.

Watching them die planted questions in my head that went unanswered for years.

TUESDAY: Bum returns home from war.



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