Tom McBride: Dodging the bullet

October 31, 2005 

The first mortar round landed mere feet from where Tom McBride lay flat on his stomach.

It didn't explode.

The second drove into an Okinawan rice paddy a couple of yards away. McBride, pinned down by Japanese gunfire, couldn't move.

He stared at the shell's tail fins.

Two duds.

"I swear to God, the first one I could have reached out and touched," said McBride, 81, a retired bacteriologist in College Township. "They simply lit in that bog and sizzled. I can remember for as long as I live that mortar round sizzling."

For a Marine on the Japanese island of Okinawa in the early summer of 1945, there were many ways to die.

An artillery shell from a ridge could find him. He could be caught by a sniper's bullet from one of the caves and bunkers honeycombing the land. A shadow could slip up to his foxhole in the black of night with a pistol or knife.

Death followed McBride, a 1st Marine Division private first class, across the island's moonscape of mud and shattered trees.

Almost 40,000 Americans were killed or wounded -- 7,665 from McBride's division -- during the three-month campaign to take the desperately defended last stepping stone to the Japanese mainland.

Starting with 940 men, the division's 2nd Battalion absorbed 600 replacements, including McBride.

"It was a very cruel time," McBride said.

The son of a small-town doctor in Kansas, he had dreamed of becoming a naval aviator. But his vision wasn't up to snuff, so he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942.

Grades bounced him from the V-12 officer program and, after infantry training, McBride arrived in Guam on April 12, 1945.

Across the Pacific, the battle for Okinawa raged. McBride carried reminders in stretchers -- Navy burn victims from kamikaze suicide plane attacks -- to Guam's naval hospital.

On May 25, after a kamikaze crashed into the water 100 yards from his troop ship, McBride set foot on Okinawa.

Japanese forces had retreated to entrenched lines in the island's southern end. Marines and Army soldiers also contended with blinding monsoon rain and knee-deep mud that halted vehicles and tanks.

McBride first lugged supplies to the front -- back-breaking work but safe compared to his next task. With satchel charges, squads sealed caves, often with defenders inside.

Sometimes, a few futilely charged out. None ever surrendered.

"The Japanese would never, never give up," McBride said.

As a machine-gunner, he eventually joined Company F, its men so weary from the intense fighting they seemed ancient to McBride. He soon found out what aged them.

Wounded Japanese soldiers detonated grenades while being turned over by Marines. Officers kept their sidearms in their jackets and removed their insignia so snipers couldn't single them out.

At night, Marines dug in, two in each foxhole, and listened for infiltrators.

"You did not get out of your hole, at the peril of your life," McBride said. "Unfortunately, we lost several people who ignored that."

Once, McBride heard a rustle and saw the outline of a Japanese soldier behind his buddy. He motioned for his friend to duck, then drew his pistol.

"I shot (the enemy) in the head," McBride said.

One firefight after another led to Kunishi Ridge, the last stand for the Japanese. A long trench of machine guns threatened from atop Hill 69, a lower ridge jutting out from Kunishi, flanked by sugar-cane fields.

An attack up one side mauled two Marine companies. McBride's outfit went next.

"We simply stood up and charged the side of the hill," he said. "And there were enough of us that we got on top of it."

On the slope lay the company's last officers and sergeants. A corporal took over McBride's platoon.

McBride would be shelled repeatedly -- including the two duds -- before the Americans finally broke through Kunishi to the sea. Company F, relieved after 30 days on the line, could finally bathe and sleep soundly.

But Okinawa still held surprises. A group of displaced Okinawan refugees approached McBride's platoon one day.

This time, he saw life.

"One of the women was very decidedly pregnant," he said. "Right in front of us, she stopped. She laid down; she had her baby. She got up, picked up her baby and they went on their way."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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