A couple of weeks after Ernie Pyle, the most famous war correspondent in World War II, was killed by a Japanese bullet on Ie Shima Island off Okinawa, Pfc. Jim Picard and his 90 mm antiaircraft gun crew arrived.
“I got off the ship onto a Higgins boat and went ashore with a buddy. We pitched our tent on the beach where Ernie got killed,” the 83-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. resident recalled. “Where I was sleeping there was a lump in my back so we moved the tent a few feet.
“The next morning I discovered the lump that had stuck me in the back was the detonator from a (Japanese) bomb they buried in the sand as an antipersonnel mine.”
Pyle had spent most of the war covering the fighting in Europe. When the Germans surrendered, he transferred to the Pacific Theater along with the 77th Infantry Division.
By the time Picard came ashore on Ie Shima, a sign had already been erected in Pyle’s honor. It read: “At this spot the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945.”
Picard remembered a few peculiarities when he and his younger brother, Richard, were drafted into the U.S. Army. First, it was Dec. 7, 1943, two years to the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Second, both of them were drafted on the same day. Because of that, the mayor of Woonsocket, R.I., where they were born and raised, held a big party. Finally, the ship on which Jim sailed to war was the USS Grant, a German vessel captured during the First World War. It was the same ship on which their father returned home to the U.S. after the World War I.
When Picard and his antiaircraft crew arrived on Ie Shima Island, there were thousands of Japanese imperial marines fighting to stay alive on that 8-square-mile island. Most of them were holed up in tunnels in a hill on one end of the island called “Pikes Peak.”
“There were 2,500 Japanese hiding in tunnels in that hill. We’d raise our flag and the next morning we’d find it on the ground. It was cut down by (the Japanese) during the night,” he said. “When we had time, I’d go out with soldiers from the 77th and shoot enemy soldiers who were escaping Okinawa by swimming the 3/4-mile channel to Ie Shima. We’d sit on shore with our rifles and shoot them as they swam across.”
Picard said Bob Hope and his USO troupe made it to Ie Shima while it was still being attacked by the Japanese air force.
“We were watching Bob Hope and his troupe when we came under attack from Japanese Betty bombers. The only time the troop left the stage and the music stopped playing was when the bombs started to fall nearby,” he said. “The lights went out until the bombers passed and then the show went on.”
The 14 members of his 90 mm anti-aircraft crew got a lot of practice shooting at Betty bombers and Zero fighters as they attacked the vast American fleet that surrounded Okinawa and Ie Shima.
“Mostly we shot down bombers, but we got a few Zeros, too,” he said. “We named our gun ‘Buster’ because it was always busting down.”
Their anti-aircraft battery consisted of four 90 mm guns connected to a single radar unit. The way the guns operated, when the hands on a clock matched, all four guns were on target and would be fired. Picard was an elevation tracker on one of those guns.
One of the perks of being a gunner was that during off hours, the B-24 and B-25 bomber crews would take one member of their gun crew on a mission. Picard went up a number of times while on the island.
“This particular time, I was scheduled to take a ride on a B-25, but the guy who invited me to fly with them decided to take his buddy up that day instead of me. The plane crashed at the end of the runway while it was taking off and they were all killed,” he said.
Picard’s gun was set up near the end of the runway built by the Americans. One of their least-favorite jobs was removing the armament from crashed planes and the bodies of the dead aviators tangled in the wreckage.
“We were disarming plans and dragging bodies out two or three times a day at first,” he said. “Later, these crashes would only happen every once in a while.”
Possibly the most interesting part of Picard’s stay on Ie Shima took place at the very end of the war. A couple of Japanese Betty bombers with green crosses painted on their wings and tails flew into the island’s airfield and landed. They were carrying a surrender delegation.
“We were allowed watch the Japanese soldiers get off their bombers and climbing aboard an American C-54 transport plane on their way to meet Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Manila, but we weren’t allowed to bring our rifles,” he said. “When they returned to Ie Shima from their first round of meetings with Gen. MacArthur, one of their bombers developed engine trouble. American mechanics worked on the disabled bomber’s engine and got it running properly again.”
A day or two later, the Japanese surrender party returned to Ie Shima on their way to see MacArthur. At that point, Picard and the American troops on the island were told this was the real thing, the war was almost over.
After the surrender, he became a truck driver and spent a few months carting the same group of 10 Japanese POWs around the island on various work details.
“One of the Japanese soldiers was educated in the U.S. and spoke English. He told me at one point, ‘I don’t want to kill you and you don’t want to kill me. All both of us want to do is go home.’ I never had any problems with any of the POWs.”
A few months later, Picard boarded a ship and island-hopped his way back to San Fransisco, Calif. By the time he reached the U.S., the war celebrations were over. He got on a train in San Francisco and got off at Fort Devens, Mass., outside Boston, where he was discharged.
Several years later, Picard joined the Woonsocket Fire Department where he served as a fireman for 36 years until his retirement in 1988. A short time later, he and his wife, Gloria, moved to Gardens of Gulf Cove subdivision near Port Charlotte, Fla.
James W. Picard
8 March 1924 – 2 July 2011
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2007 and is republished with permission.
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