They thought they could sneak in and get us

Published 10:55 pm Saturday, August 4, 2007

Like all veterans, Gunnery Sergeant James Mitchell has numerous stories to tell about his days in the service, from his enlistment in 1940 until his retirement in 1961.

“I’ve been an awful lot of places, done an awful lot of things. Some of the things some people don’t believe, but I did ‘em,” Mitchell said in an interview Wednesday.

Mitchell was just 18 when he joined the United States Marine Corps in the summer of 1940 and was shipped to San Diego, Calif., for boot camp. He was assigned to the First Defense Battalion, and was shipped to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in January of 1941. With the exception of a six-week stint to set up defense perimeters on Midway Island, Mitchell, a machine gun specialist, remained at Pearl Harbor until September of 1941, when he was transferred to Wake Island.

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Wake Island, located in the central Pacific Ocean, is actually a coral atoll composed of three small islands – Wake, Peale and Wilkes. Wake Island, the largest of the three, is V-shaped, with Peale and Wilkes extending from each arm of Wake.

“It was not too big, I guarantee you… It was just big enough to put an airstrip on there to land the planes that we had,” Mitchell said. At the time Mitchell was there, he said there were slightly more than 400 soldiers and 1,100 civilians residing on the island.

Mitchell was still on Wake Island on December 8, 1941. On that day, “…All hell broke loose,” Mitchell said. (Wake Island lies across the International Date Line from Hawaii, so the date is one full day ahead of Pearl Harbor.)

“Around December 9, they decided they were going to take over Wake Island. The Japanese did,” Mitchell said. “We proved them wrong.”

Mitchell said he received an unusual present for his twentieth birthday of that year, which fell on December 10. “I was presented a 1,000 pound bomb for my birthday. It couldn’t have been over thirty feet from where we had our gun positioned.” Mitchell said the bomb landed near approximately 100 tons of dynamite, and the explosion blew all the shrubbery in the area out to sea.

Mitchell said he was manning a .50 caliber machine gun about seventy feet away from a five inch gun when a Japanese destroyer, the Hayate, came into sight.

“A destroyer came sailing down the side of the island, and it wasn’t nobody moving or nothing, and when it got right straight out in front of us, that five inch fired one shot. It hit the middle of that ship, the boiler, and blew that ship half in two, just about it. In six minutes, it was gone. I picked up the little, what they called the double-E eight telephone… and I heard it ring and I heard the major on the other end say, ‘What’s going on over there?’ The captain that we had over us… said, ‘we sunk the son of a b—–‘.”

Mitchell said the tiny force on the island was expecting the attack, having heard of the one at Pearl Harbor. “We had everybody standing by when they come in the first time. They didn’t think we was ready. They thought they could sneak in there and get us, but they didn’t… Every time one of them planes dove trying to get to that five inch gun, we knocked him out… When we cut loose, I’ll guarantee you, they didn’t last but just a few seconds.”

Mitchell said the soldiers that were stationed on the island fought well during the Japanese’s first attempt at invasion. “We had five inch guns, three inch anti-aircraft, .50 caliber machine guns and .30 caliber machine guns. That’s all we had. But, we had plenty of ammunition,” Mitchell said. “Anti-aircraft could get to 25,000 feet. That’s the reason they couldn’t hit us on the island, because that first group that came through there, I think we shot down about six or eight of their big planes. And after that, they started coming in so high; they couldn’t see the island, hardly.”

Two weeks after the initial attack, the Japanese came back again on December 23, this time with reinforcements, Mitchell said. “(They had) aircraft carriers, light cruisers, and I don’t know how many troops they had ‘because a bunch of them were killed at sea.” At that point, the soldiers and civilians on Wake Island surrendered.

Mitchell said the POW’s were put aboard the Japanese troopship, Nitta Maru, and taken to Japan, where they remained on the ship for three days. At that point, the group was taken to Shanghai, China, from which they walked 12 miles to an “old Chinese camp,” where they were guarded by two battalions of soldiers, Mitchell said.

After about two months, the POW’s were moved another eight miles to another camp that had a reinforced brick wall with an electric fence inside the wall, where they remained until June of 1945. At this camp, the prisoners were used to build a rifle range, which Mitchell calls “the finest rifle range that you ever laid eyes on, that you can see from outer space.” The range was built with dirt that Mitchell says they hauled in carts and dumped until it was 40 feet high.

In June of 1945, the prisoners were taken by train to Tianjin, China, and then down through to the tip of Korea. In Korea, they were placed on ferries and taken back to Japan. The soldiers were separated from the civilians and taken north to Hokkaido, Japan.

In Hokkaido, the soldiers were put in the coal mines, forced to shovel coal until August of 1945. “When the emperor surrendered, the Japanese disappeared. We stayed there until August 15, when a plane flew by with a bunch of photographers and (journalists) and seen us there and we was flagging and waving at them. That was in the morning. That evening, they come in there and started dropping barrels of clothing, shoes, everything. They flew us out of there two days later by C-130’s,” Mitchell said.

After their rescue, the soldiers were flown over southern Honshu, the main island province of Japan, to view the remains of Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic bomb drop.

“You know where they’ve burned a bunch of logs and stuff like that and you ain’t got nothing but ashes and chunks and everything else? That’s what (Hiroshima) looked like then,” Mitchell said.

On the trip home, they made stops in Guam and Pearl Harbor before arriving in San Francisco, where Mitchell stayed for about a month, being treated for a collapsed lung and other medical difficulties. “I went into prison camp weighing approximately 185 pounds. I came out weighing approximately 80 pounds,” Mitchell said.

After leaving San Francisco, Mitchell ended up in New Orleans, where he spent his time recuperating in December of 1945. He received his discharge from the Marines in the late spring of 1946. After his discharge, he went to a V.A. doctor in Memphis. When the doctor gave him a clean bill of health, Mitchell re-enlisted on June 1 of that same year.

After re-enlisting, Mitchell was stationed at Camp LeJeune and served two six-month tours in the Mediterranean. At one point, just off the coast of Africa, he was able to see the pyramids, but only in the early morning and the late evening. He said during the day, the heat rising from the sand was so intense that the heat waves hid the view of the pyramids. Mitchell also traveled to Naples, Italy, and met Pope Pius XII, and spent two weeks in the French Riviera where he met the King and Queen of Greece.

At one point, in Israel, Mitchell was told to go out on patrol in the desert with a British lieutenant. While on patrol, someone shot out their windshield. Mitchell laughs as he recalls the incident. “They missed both of us. When it busted my windshield, I hit the ground. That British lieutenant looked at me and said, ‘I say old man, what are you doing down there?’”

After Mitchell returned to Camp LeJeune, the Korean War broke out, and Mitchell was a member of one of two Marine regiments (the 5th and the 7th) sent to Camp Pendleton in California for training. After training, Mitchell’s regiment made a landing at Inchon, and went up to the 38th parallel and back. They then made another landing at Wonson soon after.

Mitchell fought in the battle at the Chosin Reservoir, also known as “Frozen Chosin”. At that point, Mitchell said they ran into three divisions of Chinese soldiers. Mitchell’s regiment was taking fire, when they called for artillery and were told there was nothing available at that moment.

“About that time, there was a little voice came in, nice and peaceful like, and said, ‘What’s the coordinates?’ The lieutenant gave them to him. A few seconds later, (what sounded like) a freight train passed by us overhead. It took half of the hill (from where they were being fired upon) away. And the little voice says, ‘What do you want next?’”

Mitchell said the battleship USS Missouri was there behind them, and shortly after the initial attack, “Big Mo unloaded all nine rounds off of that battleship. He called in and said, ‘Is there anything left?’ And the lieutenant looked at (Mitchell) and said ‘Well, there was a hill over there. Ain’t nothing but a hole now.”

Soon, Mitchell was sent back to Pearl Harbor to be treated for frozen feet, and remained there for a while. Afterwards, he served as a recruitment officer and then a drill instructor. He also taught at a Marine survival camp, where he taught Marines “how to stay alive”.

In 1958, he took his family to Hawaii and was there in 1959 when it received statehood. In 1961, he retired after 20 years of service with the Marines with the rank of Gunnery Sergeant, which he received in 1951.

Mitchell stays close to home now, and tries to get out and stay active around his house in Picayune. He has four children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

He said during his time of service, he traveled to 37 states and 19 countries, and feels like he’s done and seen a lot. He says he would have liked to see the Grand Canyon and the geysers at Yellowstone Park, but he isn’t complaining. “I reckon I’m to the point I can turn my toes up and call it quits,” he said.