Night at Kitchen Table, Battle of Saipan
Forty years ago, Warren Dickerson of Bobtown, now 60, was in the Navy and stationed at Great Lakes, Ill. His family was living in Florida and he decided to surprise his parents with a weekend leave.
It turned out to be a fortuitous visit because Dickerson’s father, a Navy veteran, never spoke of his experiences during World War II. But on this night in February 1972, the two sat down and talked. What follows is the second installment in a series that recounts that conversation, a conversation Dickerson refers to as The Night at the Kitchen Table.
During their travels around an island, they went through a “slot,” which is an area that separates two groups of islands. It was there that they came upon a drifting boat. Dad said that the ship slowed so that they could look at the boat. He said that it was a 16-foot Kamikaze boat. He asked the captain if it would be OK to bring the boat aboard, and the captain said yes.
Dad and his friend got on the boat and found that there were 500 pounds of dynamite on board, with a contact detonator in the bow. He thought the Japanese set it adrift so that an American ship might run into it at night, which he said they might have done, if they came through there at night.
Anyway, they threw the dynamite overboard and brought the boat onboard. They found that the boat had a six cylinder Chevrolet engine in it. Dad said, imagine that, ‘we make the engine, and they try to kill us with it’.
He said that when they got back to Ulithi Atoll they had a great time with the Kamakaze boat. They used to race it around all of the other ships that were anchored in the lagoon. He said the 16-foot boat would really fly. One night when they were racing around the ships they hit something submerged in the water and the boat broke apart and sank. He and his friend swam to another ship that was not far away. A small boat from their LST (an LST is a ship that can land combat tanks and equipment on an island beach) came over and picked them up. Dad said that that little boat was, ‘great fun.’
On most invasions, an LST will run up on the beach to unload men and equipment, but this is not always the case. Dad told me of his experiences at Saipan, which I think had a profound impact on his life.
In the 1940s not many of the Pacific islands had been charted. The depths of the waters were not known, and nobody knew where all of the coral reefs were located. Dad’s LST was just off Saipan and was taking Marines and equipment to the beach, when they received a signal that there was a coral reef ahead. They could not proceed for fear of grounding the ship.
Their mission was to get the Marines off the ship and onto the beach as soon as possible. The captain gave the order to lower the ship’s two, 36-foot landing craft into the water. As dad was an engineman, he was responsible for the operation of one of the ships two landing craft. He said that approximately 40 Marines were loaded into the landing craft.
He was at the wheel when the landing craft went over the coral reef and headed for the beach. He said the Japanese were killing a lot of men with ferocious gunfire. Suddenly they started taking heavy gunfire from a machine gun on the beach. He kept going forward. Then he said they started to take machine gun fire from the opposite direction.
He said that he knew the Japanese had pre-directed their gunfire to intersect at the landing crafts current location. The landing craft was being riddled with bullets. He ordered all to abandon ship. Those who were able jumped overboard into water that was over their heads. The landing craft then blew apart.
Dad went into the water with nothing but his life preserver and helmet. He swam to shore, ran across the beach, and got behind a big rock. With him behind the rock were a few Marines and a sergeant asked dad if he could shoot a rifle, he said that he could.
The sergeant handed him a rifle and said, ‘you’re with us now, let’s go.’ At that moment he said that he looked out to sea and saw his LST turning around and heading out to sea. He was staying with the Marines on Saipan.
At first he was assigned to a rifle platoon. Within a few days he was teamed with a few other soldiers to hunt Japanese snipers. He did this for four days. The Japanese snipers would tie themselves to the top of palm trees. For them it was a one-way ticket because they would die tied to the top of a palm tree. They would not surrender.
During this time he said a rifle, ‘fell out of a palm tree.’ He picked it up as a souvenir. It is the rifle that I still have. It is also the rifle that dad put under his mattress when he sailed home on the USS New Jersey.
Dad hit the beach with the first wave of assault troops on Saipan, and was with the Marines in the jungle for seven days.
He said that he saw things that you could never imagine. After a week with the Marines, he heard that LST’s were on the beach. He looked down the beach and saw his LST and said he felt a great relief because he knew he was going to get off the island.
He also said that he felt badly for the Marines that he was with, because if they were lucky enough to survive this battle, there would always be another island to be taken, and their odds of surviving would be less and less.
Dad told me this story when I was 19 years old. I asked him if he ever had to kill anyone. He said, ‘I don’t know, I shot at them.’
Next Sunday: 10,000 cases of beer
Editor’s note: Warren Harding Dickerson, the author’s father, died at age 54 in 1977. The younger Dickerson moved from Cape Coral, Fla., to Bobtown in 1996, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer. They have two children, a son and daughter.