Mr Philip LaViolet, of Westbrook, was 18 at the time of the invasion of Okinawa. He passed away last year. Phil wrote “April 10th, 1945- Most of the Boys except a few moved down to our new Bivouac area where our big depot is going to be. As we passed the 96th DIV. cemetery, they were burying our soldiers and there were about 25 crosses. I’ll bet than in a few weeks we won’t be able to count all the crosses in this cemetery.”
This excerpt taken from Phil’s diary that he transcribed for the Westbrook Historical Society was quite revealing and poignant. That excerpt was written the first week of the invasion. I knew Phil for a few years and enjoyed talking with him often when he would come up to the historical society to work on his war veteran collection. I still miss his stories and his presence there.
I knew about Phil’s diary but never read it while he was alive. He wrote with great humor, detail and with great historical references. I believe he was a born historian. After reading his diary, I am convinced of that.
He joined the army like so many young men of that generation did. Basic training was at Camp Shelby in Louisiana , with weeks of sleeping on the ground outside in the cow pastures full of manure and mud. There was a comical drawing made by one of his comrades of Bugs, known as Major Pritz. One of the fellows gave him that nickname because he had two front teeth which protruded. In Phil’s descriptions, every time Bugs would shout orders, they all began with, “Damn it!” The writing is very descriptive and it appears that the guys were entertained with Bugs’ charades. In later years, Phil had handwritten an addition to an excerpt explaining that they had the highest respect for Bugs, and the humorous anecdotes were in no way meant to be disrespectful of the man they calls Bugs. Several times in the diary, Phil credits Bugs for turning them all into men, part of a fine unit. He credits Bugs for helping to prepare them for what they were later to experience as the Invasion of Okinawa on April 1st, 1945.
One of his fellow friends was named Edward Sestak. I can’t help but wonder if Joe Sestak, veteran and politician, from Pennsylvania may have been a relation, because his family has military ties. It is interesting to read history and find these connections.
He wrote about their Sunday services and how they were lucky to have them. Interestingly, he noted that there were many more fellows attending these services than did so while in the States. He wondered if they were afraid, or cowards who wanted to repent. Phil was raised with a strong religious background in the town of Westbrook, Maine. He told me once that since there was no Catholic High School, his mother sent him to Worcester, Massachusetts to attend Assumption College High School to continue his religious education. Jokingly he told me that his mother didn’t think there would be too many girl distractions in Worcester, but Phil said that of course there were girls down there.
Once I started reading, I could not put the diary down. It was compelling to read as he wrote with much description. Phil wrote about the huge convoy headed for the Pacific somewhere. As far as he could see, he estimated about five thousand ships, and described destroyers, carriers, tankers, battleships and so on. At some point the convoy became smaller Phil mentioned. He thought it had split. In fact, when they finally found out that they were headed to Okinawa, he wrote about the convoy meeting again for the invasion. His description of the ships all together was most impressive. He felt that the invasion was larger than the one at Normandy. (Battle of Okinawa was the largest amphibious invasion of the Pacific Campaign , quoted by one Okinawan as “storm of steel”) Quite often in his writing, he reveals his belief that there will be much friction between the European Theatre and the Pacific Theatre. The reasons were that their European counterparts had towns, taverns, women and were basically spoiled in comparison to those serving in the Pacific. The European Theatre also had USO shows. He wrote that this friction that would be ever present.
This young man thought and wrote as he journeyed across the ocean unaware of where he was headed or what was in store for him. Their only stop would be in Hawaii for a while. Before they left, Bugs spoke to the men and told them he would not be going with them but would be joining them shortly. Phil wrote how Bugs appeared a little choked up, but assured the men that they would be ok. He mentioned how Bugs probably just told them that to help prepare them all, unsure what their destination held for each of them. It had been 56 days with no mail from home. The moral was not good.
Kamikaze planes shot at a few of the allied ships, in all taking out about 34 ships. The Japanese aircraft loss was very significant in the Invasion of Okinawa, almost eight thousand planes. Upon arrival, amphibious landings proved successful partly due to all the practice landings they had done. Phil wrote how they heard Tokyo Rose broadcasting and calling men in their unit by name as they were landing. Okinawa was situated about 400 miles south of Japan, proving to be a strategic location to cut off Japanese sea lines of communication and also their supply lines of materials from the south. The Japanese on the island did not choose to fight allies at the beach, but rather waited inland. By nightfall some 60,000 landed on the beach unopposed. Immediately, roads were built, and camps set up trenches and foxholes dug to accommodate all the soldiers. Then nearly every night they were raided by Japanese, either by planes or by snipers, sometimes flying so close to the foxholes, you could light a cigarette, Phil wrote.
Communication of world events was significantly far different then in comparison to today. For instance, Phil wrote that they heard had heard of the death of FDR ,however it was two days later when they received the news of their Commander in Chief’s death. They had also heard of Germany’s surrender later.
About two or three weeks later, “Bugs” Major Pritz joined his troops again. The men were happy to see him, however their experiences had been quite intense since they last saw Bugs. The first day upon Bugs’ arrival, there was an air raid and the men grabbed their helmets and ran for cover, some for the foxholes. Bugs jumped into a foxhole and LaViolet later wrote that Bugs had pissed his pants. It wasn’t long before Bugs was shouting orders and busting people. LaViolet wrote that Bugs should be careful because “over here” someone wouldn’t care and could put a bullet into Bug’s head. This was in May.
On June 20th, LaViolet writes about General Bruckner getting killed because he wanted to see what the infantry was up to in Naha, capital of Okinawa and was caught in battle. Throughout his diary, he writes of the fighting, and death around him as he did in June when he wrote of six Japanese men killed. On July 5th, a dud exploded, killing twenty five Americans. His diary is full of photos of his comrades and places and events. He also attached several articles of historical interest to the campaign and also Japanese customs, though like any soldier did not think kindly of the enemy. Phil wrote of meeting a fellow Westbrook boy named Gerald Fluett in August. On August 10th Phil wrote of the excitement in the use of the A-Bomb to end this war. The following day, August 11th, there was a wild excitement and reckless celebration over the rumor that the Japanese were going to surrender. The reckless behavior continued long after the commanding officer’s shouts to stop the behavior were ignored. Phil and others dove onto the ground with helmets to avoid the gunshots by fellow soldiers. After the ordeal was over, six men had been killed from the wild behavior. Phil wrote that the guys went crazy when they heard rumor of surrender. Once the surrender did take place, Phil and some fellow soldiers went into town to look around. Evidently, they entered a building that had been shelled and they were scavenging. They heard some noises and a group of soldiers found some Japanese soldiers hiding. The Japanese were shot. They could have easily shot the Americans because the Americans were unaware they were so close.
He later wrote of men having accumulated points. The men with the most points, because of being married and/or having children, would be allowed to go home first. It seems there was a lot of bureaucracy in getting the men home and frustrations mounted. At the end, LaViolet was to be part of the Occupied Army and was stationed in Korea after the war. It took some time but he finally got home.
I am grateful I finally read of Phil’s experiences. I have always held him in high esteem, a good humble family man whose true gift was his passion for history and his devotion to God and family and friends.
I sought permission from one of Phil’s daughters to post this story and she obliged graciously.
Reprint permission with author’s permission @ firstname.lastname@example.org