Pfc. Tom Cavanagh, Jr. of Punt Gorda, Fla. arrived at Pearl Harbor aboard a troop transport with thousands of other Marines. World War II was 10 months from being over.
“Pearl Harbor was still in pretty bad shape from the Japanese attack,” he recalled more than 70 years afterwards. “I was an 18-year-old private in the 2nd Marine Division.
“We were put aboard an LCI (troop transport) with a flat bottom and sent to Guam. We arrived there a week or so later and became replacement soldiers. Our principal job on Guam was guard duty.”
There were still Japanese on the island who hadn’t surrendered.
“My buddy and I were guarding a reservoir on Guam when a shot rang out. It came from some nearby jungle. The guy that was guarding with me said he saw the bullet just missed me,” Cavanagh said. “We didn’t go after the enemy soldier.
“Our next assignment was guarding the B-17 bombers on Guam. We were at the end of the runway looking back toward the administration building. Some 15 or 20 bombers were parked along the edge of the runway.
“This bulldozer came out of a nearby hanger and started heading down the runway toward the B-17s. It made an abrupt 90-degree turn in front of the first bomber. At this point a couple of us got concerned and started pointing our M-1 rifles at the dozer driver.
“At the same time a speeding car headed down the runway right toward us. Someone was waving his arms and hands out the window of the vehicle,” Cavanagh said. “An Air Force officer jumped out of the car when it got right in front of us. ‘What in the hell are you all doing?’ he yelled.
“Our instructions: We were out on the field to protect the B-17s. This Air Force officer was in our line of fire. He got on his walkie-talkie and contacted our Marine Corps base. We were removed immediately from guarding the bombers and other Marines took our place.
“When we got back to base we contacted our duty officer. He knew nothing about any changes in our assignment.
“We learned later in the day, from Air Force personnel, that after we left the guy on the bulldozer was ordered to push all 20 of the B-17 bombers over a nearby cliff just behind where the four-engine bombers were parked.
“About 5 p.m. that same afternoon we saw a squadron of B-29 ‘Superfortresses’ fly in and land. They were taking the place of the scrapped B-17 bombers,” he said. “These were the B-29s that would bomb Japan.”
Cavanagh and his Marine Corps buddy never heard another word about the B-17 incident at the air strip on Guam.
“Two or three weeks after the incident on Guam we boarded a ship and headed to sea. We didn’t know where we were going. The scuttlebutt was we were headed for Okinawa. When the ship docked we were at the little port of Nagasaki.
“Two months earlier the U.S. had dropped the second Atomic Bomb on Nagasaki. Actually it didn’t hit the city directly it fell on the far side of the mountains surrounding the town. That may have save many Japanese lives.
“The citizens of the city who survived the bombing were told by their government that U.S. Marines would be landing and when they did they would rape and abuse them. All who could fled the city.
“Our reason for being there was to go out into the hills and convince the people of Nagasaki to come home because we weren’t going to hurt them,” he said. “The children were easy to convince. We gave them candy and cigarettes. Their parents were much harder to convince.”
During the time Cavanagh was in Japan as a member of the occupation force his outfit toured Hiroshima. He still remembers what he saw all these years ago.
“We passed through the devastated city of Hiroshima on 4-by-4 trucks. While passing trough I saw a straw that had been driven through a still standing telephone pole by the force of the atomic bomb blast,” he recalled.”The memory of the utter destruction of that city is still alive with me today. It is something I will never forget.
“On June 13, 1946 the experience of a lifetime came to an end for me. It was the end of the occupation for this 19-year-old. I, along with a number of other Marines, sailed home to the USA. I passed through the Panama Canal and on up the East Coast of the U.S. to Camp Lajeune where I was discharged.
“I took a bus ride back to New York City and a train ride on to Flemington, N.J. where my parents had moved when I was away at war,” he said.
“My father had a printing ink business. Right after the war I want to work for him, starting at the bottom rung. Decades later I retired as the head of Environmental Ink & Coating with headquarters in Baltimore.”
Cavanagh and his wife, Patricia, retired to the Punta Gorda area a dozen years ago. Between them they have eight children from previous marriages. They include: Bridget, Catherine, Christina, Christopher, Daniel, Michael, Nickolay and Tom.
D.O.B: 26 Jan. 1927
Hometown: New York, N.Y.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 15 Jan. 1945
Discharged: 22 Aug. 1946
Rank: Private 1st Class
Unit: 2nd Marine Division
Commendations: Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Army of Occupation Japan 1945-46
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, July 25, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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