1st Sgt Robert Henry Phelps
2 Purple Hearts
Robert Henry Phelps
WWII remembrances redacted from his autobiography
After a short stint at the service station a friend talked me into joining the Marine Corps with him. This sounded like a good idea at the time .In order to join I had to get my father’s permission which he was very reluctant to give. He said at the time that he would sign my application and that the experience would either make or break me. When part way through basic training this "friend" faked injury and was medically discharged. There wasn't a thing wrong with him. What friend!
I spent four years in the Marine Corps, two of which were aboard the U.S.S. New Orleans. This ship had a Marine Detachment consisting of 40 men, a second lieutenant and a Captain, as Commanding Officer. The Captain's name 'was Brunelli. (Years later he would become the executive officer of our 4th Marine Division, second battalion of which I was a part. He naturally remembered me from our shipboard days.) Our responsibility was primarily guard duty and manning two 50-caliber machine guns and two 5 inch anti-aircraft guns. I was a pointer on one of the 5 inchers. These guns had a trainer and a pointer. The trainer took care of the horizontal sighting and the pointer handled the vertical sighting the two had to work together and the pointer was responsible for the firing of the guns. We had five shell men who carried and loaded the gun. These shells were very heavy. The shell man, the last man who would place the shells in the shell tray and ram the shell home had to be a large man and quite strong as the shell tray was about five feet from the deck. We would usually have gunnery practice during which time we would compete against the sailors. We would usually win each contest.
While I was aboard ship we did a considerable amount of sailing to different parts of the world.
We went through the Panama Canal while in Panama I was the only one aboard ship that obtained ship leave as I had a relative, an Aunt who was the postmistress for France Field in the Canal Zone. This aunt was my mother's sister. I also got a chance to see my cousin, Maxine for
the first time. My aunt's husband was in the Army Air Corps stationed in the Canal Zone. He was killed in a bomber crash. My other time was spent at the San Diego Marine Base, Camp Elliott and Camp Pendleton. When I was at Camp Elliott and Camp Pendleton we had nothing but tents to live in. Now Pendleton is like a huge city with beautiful buildings and divided highways. I used to claim that I had walked over every square foot of Pendleton which is a huge area consisting of several thousand mountainous acres. During this time I was assigned to the First Division.
While I was in my second or third year of Marine service my father took sick with cancer and passed away after a long sickness. I have always felt that his problem started years before when the only doctor in Lancaster, by the name of Savage (an old army doctor), purchased one of the very first X-ray machines. When he used it on my father's leg he seriously burned it and it never healed afterwards. I remember receiving word of his illness and visited him in a Los Angeles hospital. He was in a semi comma when he heard some religious music being sung buy some people outside on a balcony. He momentarily came to and said, "I always wanted to go to Ireland". I think this stemmed from having a very good friend, a waitress in the Palmdale Inn, who was very much Irish and from Ireland.
After I had served the four years I was discharged as a sergeant. I went to work for Northrup Aircraft. I had been there for about a year when war was declared and I was recalled to the Marine Corps. I was soon sent to First Sergeants School and upon completion I served in several companies as acting First Sergeant. When the Fourth Marine Division was forming I was sent to Camp Pendleton as a company First
Sergeant. and promoted to full First
Sergeant. Upon completion of the forming and training of the Fourth Division we boarded ship and went to Pearl Harbor where we joined other divisions and proceeded to combat taking the Roi-Namur Islands, which is in the Marshall Islands. When these islands were secured we returned to Maui of the Hawaiian Islands where we set up our base camp for further training and the replacing of our units to full strength. Later we again boarded ship and proceeded to our staging area for the invasion of Saipan. We made that landing and fought some thirty days straight.
Our first objective on Saipan was to advance across the island and secure the peninsula and swing around to the left and join an Army division commanded by a General Smith. We accomplished our mission, made the swing and waited several long hours with our whole flank being exposed because the Army refused to join up. Our commanding general, "Holland Mad" Smith, who was senior to the Army General, relieved him from duty for refusing to move up as instructed. His theory was to take it slow to perhaps save lives while the Marines believe on moving ahead and get the job done as quickly as possible
When the island was secured we rested three or four days and then proceeded to make a landing
on Tinian. Which is only about five miles from. Saipan. While we were resting after the battle of Saipan we set up a bivouac area and each company assumed the responsibility for establishing a security patrol. When it was my time to establish this patrol rather than set up a full guard unit consisting of sentries, a corporal and sergeant of the guard I assumed that responsibility in order to give more men the chance to rest and recoup from the many hard days of fighting. When
posting the sentries the question was asked "what about the smoking lamp". I responded that the smoking lamp was lighted. What I meant was it was lighted for the bivwack area. (A sentry never smokes on post.) It wasn't but a few minutes when the battalion commander sent for me. He was extremely angry. He said, "Phelps I caught one of your sentries smoking on post and he said you told him he could." I thought for a minute as to what I had told him. I said to the battalion commander, "If the sentry said that I told him he could smoke then I must have said so." (I didn't want to get the sentry in trouble). With that the colonel said, "Phelps III see you the first thing in the morning." Bright and early the next morning he sent for me. He said "Phelps I wanted to break you back to a private but the other battalion officers wouldn't let me so I am going to send you up to Company G and Captain McCarthy as his First Sergeant. I am either going to get you killed or you are going to learn a lesson. I then reported to McCarthy. He welcomed me board and said "we'll show that S.O.B. (He had no use for the colonel, whose name was Rothwell). Incidentally we used to call this colonel, "fox hole Charlie" for he was scared of his own shadow. The slightest noise that he heard he would dive for his fox hole which someone else had dug for him.
After three or four days we proceeded to and took Tinian. We climbed up huge rocks the size of
several houses and took the island after several days of hard fighting. The first evening before dark we strung coiled barbed wire in front of our position and placed bandolier charges on the wire.
During the night we heard these charges being exploded all night long. Captain McCarthy and I found Japanese dug out and used it for our fox hole during the night. All night long huge rats crawled all over us. We couldn't move for if we did we would have been shot by our own troops. The next morning we found dead enemy troops all around us - in front of the barbed wire and all around our foxholes. One very young BAR man was mortally wounded but he wouldn't leave his position. We had to physically remove him and take him to the aid station. He was indeed a dedicated Marine.
It was during the first day of fighting that my very good friend and former commanding officer, 1st Lt. James Granier was killed by a sniper. When we were at Camp Pendleton, the Lt. used to come to my tent office and we would drink a small bottle of cheap rum, which was all either of us could afford.
Following the Tinian engagement we returned to our base camp on Maui and filled our vacancies, retrained and prepared for our next engagement. At that time we held several formal formations for the purpose of presenting various awards. Our division was presented with the Presidential Unit Citation and I received my first Purple Heart Medal for wounds received to my hand from a grenade.
Our next objective was to proceed to Iwo Jima and take that strategically important island which was one of the fiercest battles that lasted weeks
The landing and fighting on Iwo Jima was extremely fierce. During our landing, craft all around us was being blown out of the water and casualties and bodies were everywhere. The beach consisted of knee deep volcanic ash which was extremely difficult to maneuver over and the enemy was looking down our throats with extremely large artillery causing great causalities and strewing equipment wreckage everywhere. Our first assignment was to advance and take the airstrip. It was this airstrip that was the main purpose for taking the island as it served for
emergency landings for aircraft returning from bombing the mainland of Japan. The bombers all flew out of Saipan from which we had taken earlier. It was these two islands that played a major part in our winning the war. During this operation I was again wounded as I was checking our various platoons for casualties by a gunshot through the arm. I considered myself lucky as I was holding my map case in front of me or the enemy would have got me through the middle of my guts. (It was as a result of this battle that my Captain received the Medal of Honor}.
I was then evacuated to a ship serving as a hospital ship. We didn't know where we were being taken. I was first taken to a temporary hospital, which had been set up; on Guam. In a day or two I was taken to a ship that was carrying wounded. We didn't know where we were being taken but hoped it was to the States. The ship pulled into Pearl Harbor and we feared were going to be left there for treatment. While we were tied up at Pearl Harbor a ship sailed past us that I recognized as being the ship on which my brother was a Chief Motor Mechanic .I happened to mention this to a Chief Signalman who was on the ship that I was on. He immediately went to the bridge and sent a message to my brother's ship. As soon as my brother's ship tied up he came over to see me. I was very happy to see him. I happened to mention that I hadn't been paid for quite some time so he gave me some money, probably all that he had. In a day or so we proceeded back to the States
and to San Francisco. I ended up in Oak Knoll Hospital in Oakland, California where I would spend the next eight months. Later I was awarded my second Purple Heart.
In 1945 while I was in Oak Knoll Hospital the doctor came around one day and said, "Phelps if you will go out and get a job I'll give you indefinite leave." I took him up on this offer and got a job working as a stock and shipping clerk for Stromberg Carlson Company, which was located in the old Merchandise Mart on Market Street in San Francisco, California. Stromberg Carlson is an old manufacturer of sound equipment, televisions, and telephone equipment, including switchboards - manual and electronic. I stayed with a great aunt who had lost her first husband, Arthur Phelps and had remarried a John McCaffery. At that time I met my first wife, Mary Ellen who was a friend of this aunt. Her son, Odel Phelps was my best man when we were married in August of 1945. Mary Ellen was in the Navy and was a third class storekeeper stationed at Treasure Island when I met her and at the time of our marriage.
During the war it was impossible to find an apartment so we stayed in a rooming house with kitchen privileges. After a while a friend of my aunt who was moving suggested we move in with her and in that way when she left we could assume her rental agreement. Both rooming house and apartment were in Oakland, California. Mary Ellen soon asked for and received a dependency discharge since I was in the hospital. I frequently reminded her that since she received a discharge she was supposed to support me. I was discharged in November 1945 at Mare Island, California.