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World War II Marines reunite at Combat Center

13 Sep 2013 | Kelly O'Sullivan

When the artillerymen of H&S, G, H and I batteries, 3rd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment sailed from San Diego on July 1, 1942, headed for war in the South Pacific, some figured they’d be home in time to ring in the New Year.

Cpl. Rolland Jay “Pat” Patrick of H Battery, 3/10 was among the believers. The 17-year-old who grew up in Oklahoma and Texas had joined the Marine Corps just 363 days earlier and had been training with the year-and-a-half-old 75mm pack howitzer battalion since leaving boot camp.

“I was still 16 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor” on Dec. 7, 1941, Patrick said Sept. 7 as he took a break from battalion reunion activities in Palm Springs. The following day, at the behest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. Congress declared war on Japan. America’s involvement in World War II had officially begun.

Now 88 and retired from the oil industry after selling his company three years ago, the Liberal, Kan., resident shakes his head at the memory of the cocky young boot who was about to get the surprise of his life.

“We thought we’d go over, be there about six months and come back heroes,” Patrick said. “We were on ship for 30 days before going ashore on Tulagi. That’s when reality set in.”

Reality was that 3/10 and its successor, the 2nd 155 Howitzer Battalion, — collectively known by its men as “The Forgotten Battalion” — would spend 34 months in continuous service in the Pacific Theater, racking up six battle stars supporting five separate Marine divisions and several U.S. Army units during combat landings at Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam and Iwo Jima.

The Forgotten Battalion wasted little time making history.

On Aug. 9, 1942, a little more than a month after leaving San Diego, I Battery, 3/10 fired the first field artillery round in a U.S. offensive in World War II — aimed at suspected Japanese snipers hidden in coconut trees near Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. Sgt. Cecil E. Chastain, No. 4 gun chief, who died in 2010, kept the round’s brass casing and had it engraved with the date and place. It was donated to the Marine Corps History and Museums Division in 1999.

Hours later, H Battery provided field artillery support for a landing attack for the first time in Marine Corps history, its guns firing on Makambo Island from their position on Tulagi in support of the 2nd Marine Division.

Ultimately, The Forgotten Battalion would fire upwards of 56,000 artillery rounds against the Japanese and bring home three Presidential Unit Citations and two Naval Citations along with its battle stars.

Their second combat landing was on Guadalcanal, with 3/10 staying in the region for six months before setting sail for New Zealand for a little R&R and a lot of training. When they arrived in Wellington on Feb. 7, 1943, the men collected six months’ back pay — at $79.80 a month for a corporal, that was a nice chunk of change — then spent the next 10 months regrouping and getting to know the locals.

“New Zealand was the highlight of my foreign service,” Patrick said. Why? “The money and the ladies.”

From New Zealand, they headed for Tarawa, where they would earn their third battle star during four days of intense fighting from Nov. 20-23, 1943. With new, larger 105mm and 155mm guns en route, Tarawa would mark their last days as 3rd Battalion, 10th Marines as well as the last time they would fire 75mm pack howitzers in battle.

Shortly after wrapping things up at Tarawa, the battalion headed to Hilo, Hawaii, for a five-month stay marked by a series of rapid-fire changes that included the April 1944 redesignation it would keep until the 2nd 155mm Howitzer Battalion deactivated on May 6, 1945, as the war in the Pacific wound down.

“They gave us 155s after Tarawa, with no instructions how to use them,” recalled retired Sgt. Maj. Ray V. Wilburn of Twentynine Palms, who joined the Corps on Oct. 19, 1939.

At 94, Wilburn is a legend aboard MCAGCC. In the spring of ’44, he was a battle-hardened, 24-year-old battalion gunnery sergeant who’d spent the better part of two long years busting his behind to make sure that he and his men survived to fight another day.

The 2nd 155 earned three more battle stars after Tarawa — at Saipan in June 1944, Guam in July 1944; and Iwo Jima in February 1945. It was the only artillery battalion to see action on both Guam and Saipan.

Sgt. Bill Miller, a combat reporter for Leatherneck magazine, introduced The Forgotten Battalion to the world in a February 1945 cover story, describing the men of 3/10 and the 2nd 155 as “one of the fighting outfits in the Corps.”

Wilburn would not make the landing at Iwo Jima with his men; like many of those who served in WWII, malaria got the better of him and a month after the 2nd 155 landed on Guam he was sent stateside to recover.

After several months at Quantico, Va., he was headed back to the South Pacific with the 4th Battalion, 13th Marine Regiment when word arrived that President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaski had secured the Japanese surrender and the war was over.

Not eligible to return to the states, Wilburn was sent to Sasebo, Japan, then to Nagasaki to join Gen. McArthur’s Repatriation Team. He returned home in 1946 and continued his career in the service, retiring in 1971 after 31 years, four months and 15 days on active duty.

“I never had (another) group of Marines that could carry these men’s packs,” he said of fellow reunion attendees wire chief Earl Lance, communicator Jim Lieberknecht, radio operator Arnie Meads, section chief Rolland Patrick, ammunitions handler Ray Piper, crew member Bill Roberts, truck driver J.V. Rodriguez of Henderson, Nev., and the other men of The Forgotten Battalion lost in the war and in the years since.

The Battalion Banner

Thanks to two C-47 Skytrain military transport planes and a train, the 2nd 155mm Howitzer Battalion’s trip home from World War II in May 1945 took just fraction of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment’s month-long voyage to the South Pacific nearly three years earlier.

Still, the flights from Guam to Hawaii to San Francisco and the train ride to San Diego with a stop in Los Angeles provided ample time for Cpl. James Francavilla to put pen to canvas and memorialize the battalion’s 34 months in the Pacific Theater.

Francavilla had worked as an artist before enlisting, so he had no trouble creating a colorful, well-styled banner to serve as a backdrop for Marine photographers making portraits of the returning warriors. A weathered newspaper clipping and a host of photos in battalion members’ memorabilia collections show different groups of smiling Marines seated in neat rows under the banner proclaiming “Forgotten Battalion returns!!”

When Francavilla brought the banner to the battalion’s first reunion in 1987, he kicked off a tradition that continues to this day. Every year, battalion members sit together in neat rows beneath the canvas while family members line up like paparazzi hot on the heels of Hollywood stars to take photographs.

When the original went missing one year, Francavilla created a new one. Since the artistic Marine’s death in 2008, the battalion’s surviving members keep a watchful eye on the banner.

“It’s pretty special to all of us,” said Jim Lieberknecht, who had never flown in a plane before hopping aboard that C-47 in Guam 68 years ago.

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