Archive for Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lost’ Marines found a new family

April 24, 2007

For the last 20 years, Shawnee resident George Higgins has created a second family.

He and some 60 other men and their families have grown close based on one shared event, an oddity of World War II. They were members of Marine Company A, generally known as the "lost" company -- a group of men left on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific with no orders, no pay and no supplies for four months.

Since reuniting for the first time in the 1980s, they have come together again every year, sharing the stories of the strange time when military officials seemed to forget about their company's existence. Over the years, they have become closer even than during their four months "lost" in the Pacific.

Last weekend, they got together for what may be the last time.

A small handful of the men and several family members of others came to the first reunion ever held in Kansas City for Higgins' sake. Because of conditions like emphysema, Higgins must always have oxygen and for the last two years has not been able to fly to the reunions, most often held at Quantico, Va.

It was one last reunion to say good-bye to those who had become as close as family over the years.

Lost and found

Higgins, who grew up on a farm in northeast Iowa, entered the military the day after his 17th birthday in December 1942. He enlisted in the Marines and was shipped off to boot camp in January. He was in a guard company at a destroyer base nearly a year later when he was moved to the "amtrac," or amphibious tractors, battalion.

"Farm boys were supposed to know how to drive tractors, and that was an amphibious tractor," he said, though he added the assumption wasn't a good one. "I'd probably been on a tractor 10 times in my life -- tractors were a rare item in those days."

Company A was activated Dec. 5, 1943, as part of the 10th Amphibian Tractor Battalion. In early January 1944, the company shipped out from San Diego to Kwajalein Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, where they landed Jan. 31.

Higgins said after landing on the Marshall Islands, they were ordered to clean the Japanese out. He said they were to return to Pearl Harbor, but somehow it was decided another unit should go, so they were left behind. And that was the last they heard; the company of about 140 men were stuck on the Marshalls.

"We had no idea what was going on," Higgins said. "... We could contact people, but we couldn't contact anyone that could do anything about where we were."

For a month, they waited with one unit of Marines, and finally a ship carrying a replacement unit of Marines came. The company thought they were shipping out and were half loaded onto the ship when they were told to get off, and again they were stuck in the Marshalls.

So Company A began going on reconnaissance missions to the various atolls in the Marshalls, clearing out the enemy on 16 in all throughout March and early April.

Higgins said they met up with other army or navy ships that would come through the islands, but "they didn't know why we were there and they didn't care," he said.

Higgins said the company got no mail or pay while there, nor did they receive any pay for another six months after they finally left the Marshalls.

"The pay doesn't make any difference, because there was nothing to buy anyway," he said.

The company lost several men in the four months on the Marshalls; Higgins said there were more like 80 men by the time they finally got out. The company's numbers were cut down from getting malaria, getting wounded in attacks with the Japanese, and a large amount of odd occurrences.

Higgins said there was a high amount of mental problems among the men -- like the gunnery sergeant who "went bonkers." Then there was the first sergeant, whose foot was accidently cut off under one of the amtracs, and the platoon sergeant, who left camp at night and was killed because he was mistaken for a Japanese soldier. The captain was blown off a cliff into a tree as some of the men threw explosives into some caves trying to root out any hidden enemy camps.

When someone was too sick or injured to go on, Higgins said the company found someone in the military to take them home. When they needed supplies, they often "borrowed" them from the other military units stationed in the area, and they depended on the help of the island natives, as well.

The ship that finally picked the company up April 6, 1944, was the USS William P. Biddle. It took them to Guadalcanal, and by October, the company had been split up to move on to various sites in the Pacific.

Becoming a family

After the war, Higgins moved to Chicago and became a bookbinder and then a salesman of book-binding equipment. He and his wife, Ruth, moved to Shawnee after retiring to be near their children.

It was about 20 years ago, while the Higgins were still living in Chicago, that they got a call from Wilson Peck, an officer with Company A who had moved up to colonel by that point. He was trying to get together a reunion of the "lost" company.

The men hadn't seen each other in some 40 years, but they quickly fell back into step. There were no strangers, George Higgins said, after spending four months together on some very small islands.

"You were together all the time, so everybody knew everybody," he said. "Nobody had any uniforms... so you couldn't even tell a captain from a private."

It quickly became apparent that it wasn't just the men who enjoyed the reunion.

"I was very nervous the first time we went, because these were strangers to me," Ruth said. "But the wives bonded immediately."

The men and their families became very close. Ruth can now rattle off the names of the men and several of their children, and she says their Christmas card list is very long. The families soon learned about a lot of things that happened during the war through their husbands' and fathers' stories, stories the men hadn't shared of their own volition.

One favorite was talking about the commanding officer's dog, Brownie, who had a nasty habit of urinating on the Marines as they stood at attention. Before they shipped out to the Marshalls, somebody, no one was quite sure who, decided they'd had enough and killed the dog.

"The first three reunions, that's all we ever heard about, was 'Who shot Brownie?'" Ruth said.

Of all the stories of Company A's days on the Marshalls, George joked that maybe half of them were true.

"They have a rule," Ruth explained. "If only one person can remember it, it didn't happen. If two people can remember it, maybe; if three can, it probably happened."

Of course, there aren't so many to confer with on memories of what happened on the Marshalls anymore. There are about 14 members of the company still alive, only three or four whose health allows them to travel.

The other company men in town over the weekend were Parker Lillie of Cincinnati; Bethel Griffith of Eden, N.C.; and Al Richins of Palermo, Calif. Also in town were a number of Company A relatives, including Col. Peck's widow.

The travelers visited the Truman Library and the World War I Museum, though Higgins could not go with them because of his health. But they all met both Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at the hotel where the men were staying.

Two years ago, the men of Company A thought the reunion would be their last, but several keep finding a way to get together again. But after this year, George thinks it might be time for the reunions to end.

"Mark my words, this will be the last time," George said.

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