Willard Chamberlin was a Marine mess sergeant and rifleman who saw action at Okinawa, the biggest battle in the Pacific during the closing days of World War II. He quit high school in 1943, when he was just 17-year-old, and joined the Marines with his parents’ permission. Before the war was over he had three brothers who also served in the Army, Navy and Air Corps. After graduating from cook and bakers school the teenage leatherneck was sent to San Diego where he shipped out aboard a transport for the war zone in the South Pacific.
“I was a cook in the 3rd Amphibious Corps attached to a battalion of 155 ‘Long Tom’ field guns, part of the 1st Marine Division. There was a lot of speculation aboard ship we were going to Formosa,” the 84-year-old North Port, Fla. resident said. “We ended up in an LST (landing ship) off the beach at Okinawa. Just before we arrived they told us where we were going, what we were going to do and what was expected of us. “Shortly after we got there a Japanese kamikaze (suicide pilot) came down and hit the water right next to our ship and blew up. The explosion rocked our LST so badly the chains holding some of the 155 millimeter cannons broke and the weight aboard our ship shifted,” he said. “The captain of our LST ran the ship on the beach, opened the bow doors and we stepped onto the sand without getting our feet wet,” Chamberlin recalled. “There was no enemy resistance. Within two weeks Marines had taken the north end of the 70-mile-long island without too much fighting.
“I was told to cook some food for the troops. So I set up on the beach and made soup and coffee for the Marines. While cooking on the beach an object flew right by my head and buried itself in the sand at my feet. The object was dug up and we found it was a piece of shrapnel about 20-inches long, 5-inches wide and 2-inches thick. I was told the Japanese had no guns that would fire a shell that size. It was from one of our battleships off shore,” he said. The Marines and Army hadn’t been on the island long when the Japanese Air Force came calling.
“The Marines captured one of the two runways built by the Japanese located on the north end of the island early on. One night we heard Japanese planes fly over. We could tell they were Japanese planes because their engines sounded different than our planes,” Chamberlin said. “They flew right in and landed on the runway the Marines had just taken. They ran down to where our planes were parked and blew six of them up before we got ‘em.”
The U.S. Army’s job was to capture the south end of the 70-mile long island. It was a big assignment since the better part of 100,000 enemy troops inhabited the caves, hills and foxholes on the lower part of Okinawa. The fighting was so fierce the Marines were sent south to help the Army finish the job. “The Japanese had their cannons in caves. They were on tracks and they could pull them out of a cave to fire at American forces and then push them back into the hill to protect their guns from the enemy,” Chamberlin said. “The Army was having a terrible time taking Kakazu Ridge. The Marines were told to take the hill. When we got done with the hill there wasn’t a blade of grass on it.”
“One of these caves had massive steel doors to protect the Japanese artillery. We couldn’t blow the doors off with our guns. So we drilled into the 20-inch thick steel doors and placed charges in the holes that blew the doors off the front of the cave,” he said.
The further south the Marines and Army moved on Okinawa the tougher the fighting got.
“The Japanese military headquarters was in a building near the south end that had walls that were 10-feet thick. They also had underground tunnels running off in all directions from this headquarters.
“I saw the final stages of the fight for Okinawa that ended up on the beach at the south end of the island. I was on a hill overlooking the beach. The Marines had trapped most of the Japanese that remained on the island in the water. They had no place to go,” Chamberlin said.
“All the Japanese soldiers were swimming around in the ocean. The Marines set up speakers and told them to come ashore and surrender. They wouldn’t, so the Marines opened up on them with machine-guns and killed ‘em all.”
In the midst of the fighting Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, the commanding general of the Marines on Okinawa was killed by Japanese artillery. “He was the highest ranking general killed in the Pacific. It happened shortly after he walked right by me on his way to the front lines.
He was told by a Marine to go no further because they had been in hand-to-fights with the enemy. Buckner told the Marine, ‘I’m the general and I’ll do whatever I want.’ He was standing between two coral formations when Japanese artillery round hit and killed him instantly,” Chamberlin said.
“Our general, Roy Geiger, took over for Buckner. Although most people think the battle of Okinawa lasted 82 days, it actually lasted an additional 10 days because Gen. Geiger ordered us to clean out any Japanese still left on the island,” he said.
Chamberlain would spend more than a year on Okinawa after the battle was over. He didn’t have enough points to go home until May 1946.
When he returned to Underhill, Vt., his home where he grew up, he got a chance to play professional baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies. “I signed a contract with the Phillies farm team. I had a pretty good fast ball and a wicked overhand curve ball,” he recalled with a smile.
“I got $100 a month plus expenses when we were on the road. “One day our star pitcher injured himself and I was called in to replace him. The bases were loaded and nobody was out. I struck out the next three batters. By the time the game was over I had retired 21 batters, nobody reached first base.”
Chamberlin was doing great until he collapsed on the field one day. He had contracted malaria in the islands during the war and it ended his promising baseball career. At the time he was pitching for the Phillies farm team there was another young pitcher named Robin Roberts pitching for them, too. “The second year Roberts was in the minors with me he won 17 straight games. He went on to sign a major league contract with Philadelphia and became a Hall of Fame pitcher,” Chamberlin said. “I knew Robin Roberts because he played in our league.”
Eventually Chamberlin got into sales and went to work for the L. & M. Machine Tool Co. of Springfield, Vt. He worked for the firm for 36 years until he retired. He and his late wife, Becky, moved to Florida 25 years ago. She died three years ago; they had been married 61 years. They have five sons: Willard Jr., Ralph, Mark, Kirk and Darryl.
The butcher’s bill at Okinawa
By the time the 82-day battle was over 12,000 American servicemen had lost their lives fighting on the island and 38,000 were wounded. The dead included 8,000 Army and Marines and 4,000 Navy. The Japanese lost 107,000 killed, which included 12,000 Okinawan conscripts. In addition, approximately 100,000 Okinawan civilians were killed in the biggest battle in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.
Name: Willard Chamberlin
D.O.B: June 21, 1926
Hometown: Underwood, Vt.
Current: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: Oct. 15, 1943
Unit: 3rd Amphibious Force
Commendations: Asiatic-Pacific Theatre Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, Certificate of Satisfactory Service Children:Willard Jr., Ralph, Mark, Kirk and Darryl
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Chamberlin’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
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Willard Franklin Chamberlin
Jun. 21, 1926 – Jun. 16, 2012
Willard Franklin Chamberlin, 86, of North Port, FL, formerly of Underhill, Vermont, died on Jun. 16, 2012.