Libraries have always been a special place for me. There is something about holding an actual book in your hand that gets into you. Collecting books is like having a bank account, you can simply sit and look at a stack of books and recall the Magic Carpet that flew you to destinations of the imagination.
I don’t recall when I first saw the photo but it was a long time ago in an old dog eared Life magazine. Life was an American magazine published weekly from 1883 to 1972, and then as an intermittent “special” until 1978, and as a monthly from 1978 until 2000. During its golden age from 1936 to 1972, Life was a wide-ranging weekly general interest magazine known for the quality of its photography. Life’s famous motto read: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel.” Walter Mitty even had it engraved on his wallet. Life photographers went everywhere.
United States Coast Guard photographer Raphael Ray Platnick was one. He went ashore with the 22nd marines at Engebi island*, Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands in the February 1944. WWII had begun three years before. He had immediately volunteered for service, leaving his job as staff photographer for PM magazine. He went ashore with the first wave of Marines at the battle of Makin Island in August 1942. By 1944 he was veteran photographer and knew what he wanted to shoot. Platnick, like so many other civilian and military photographers traveled with the services onto all of the battlefields of the war preserving images for posterity. The actions of young men and women who carried the flag are now archived in collections all over America.
Two of Ray’s photos are famous. Both of these were taken during and after the Marine assault at Enewetak. Both of them succeed in capturing the horror of combat in a way that no blood and guts picture or movie could ever do.
United States Marine Corps Private Theodore James Miller is hauled aboard the Coast Guard-crewed attack transport USS Arthur Middleton APA-25 after an assault on Eniwetak** Island, February 19, 1944. Teddy Miller is 19 years old. Thirty days later he will be dead. He will never see his 20th birthday. He has seen something no boy should ever see. The thousand yard stare with those eyes that see nothing and everything.
All of the boys pictured here had volunteered for the Marines and were almost directly from boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. This was their first combat action, their first glimpse of the world beyond Gung-Ho boot training. It shows.
19 year old Faris “Bob” M. Tuohy of the 3rd Battalion, Independent 22nd Marine Regiment drinking the best cup of coffee of his young life. He has just returned from two days of vicious combat on Engebi island, part of the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The picture was taken by Chief Photographers Mate Ray Platnick*** of the US Coast Guard which operated the Middleton. Like Teddy Miller he is covered in the soot from burned out buildings, explosions and the oil and grease blown back in his face by his M-1 Carbine. The splashes of sugar on the mess table testify to shaky hands and the desperate need for something comforting to do. Something that smacks of normal, something that he hopes will bring back the person he was just forty eight hours ago. The hot Navy coffee held in his cheeks is to be savored, a reminder that he is still alive and can feel. The boys behind him, Private First Class Stephen Garboski of Ringoes, New Jersey, also recuperates with coffee. On Guam in July 1944, Garboski was one of 1,147 men of the 22nd Marines, 1st Provisional Marine Brigade killed in action. Tuohy said Garboski was a victim of friendly fire when Naval fighter aircraft attacked Marine positions on the island. Tuohy also believes the man in the center was killed by the Japanese during fighting on Okinawa in April 1945.
The psychological effects of combat are starkly visible in the two photos. These are not the Marines on recruiting posters. They give the lie to John Wayne. Perhaps they have begun to see that they will surely die on some sandy island far from all they love and cherish. It will become their best defense. These are haunting pictures and once you have seen them you can’t ever forget them. I never have.
This entire little story has been shelved in the back of my mind until yesterday. Dust covered and mostly forgotten, as have those boys and girls who went to war in 1941. Few are left today. As it always has the world has moved on. Until yesterday.
A random post on a FB site contained this photograph taken at a 6th Marine Division reunion in Ohio. The gentlemen holding the photograph is 96 year old Faris “Bob” Touhy. He stated in a letter to the Divisions website that, “A young man, who used to mow my yard and is now a Marine in Iraq, saw a clipping in the Marine Corps Times, recognized me and sent it to me. It shows my picture and tells about one of the battles I was in many years ago. Both of the other Marines in the photo were killed later, one on Guam, one on Okinawa. I am lucky to be here.” Faris (Bob) Tuohy, 22nd Marines.
I think we are lucky too, don’t you?
*Note: The main landings on Engebi were carried out by two battalions of the 22nd Marine Regiment commanded by Colonel John Walker. They landed on Engebi on 18 February at 08:43, supported by medium tanks and two 105mm self propelled guns. There was very little resistance at the beach, except from the southern tip of the island. The airfield was quickly captured, and within an hour the tanks had reached the northern shore. The 3rd Battalion landed at 09:55 and began to mop up the few remaining defenders. The island was declared secure by 14:50, though mopping-up continued through the next day. US losses included 85 killed and missing plus 166 wounded. The Japanese lost 1,276 killed and 16 captured. It was a short but very nasty operation, the Japanese defenders having to be rooted out of “spider holes” concealed beneath the shrubbery by the Marine assault force. A long forgotten little battle, not famous but very deadly. It cost the life of a young Marine every 15 minutes. One in every four Marines were either wounded, missing or killed.
**Note: Enewetak Atoll was used for atomic and hydrogen testing beginning in the 1950’s and ending in 1978. Forty four nuclear detonations occurred on the islands of the Atoll. Vast amounts of radiation still permeate the shore and the surrounding waters and the islets are uninhabitable and will be for generations. The US government has attempted to clean-up the mess but has only been slightly successful in its efforts. The military denies to this day that sailors and soldiers who worked to clean-up the site have been affected by radiation and still denies them medical treatment. A curious side note, The Ivy Mike Hydrogen bomb test at Engebi was a disaster and was far larger and radioactive than estimated. That test was the genesis for the Godzilla story, a prehistoric seas monster awakened by a nuclear blast.
***Note: Ray Platnick continued his career as a photographer after the war. He passed away in November of 1986 in Merrick, New York.
Note: Faris Touhy saw combat at Enewetak, Kwajalein, Guam and Okinawa and was sent to China with the Regiment at the close of the war. He received the following: National Defense Medal, The Combat Action Medal, A Presidential Unit Citation, A Navy Unit Commendation, The China Service Medal, The American Campaign Medal, The Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three battle stars and the WWII Victory Medal. Best of all he survived.