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Excerpted from Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life by Mort Zachter by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2015 by Mort Zachter. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu
… sitting around in those foxholes out on Okinawa… I had to have something to do, so I started smoking.
After the war, Hodges never discussed his military service with his family. He deflected the presses’ questions as well. When writer Roscoe McGowen made inquiry, Hodges stated only his itinerary: boot camp in San Diego in 1943, Hawaii in 1944, Tinian in 1945, and then Okinawa as a member of the 16th Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion. With the where, when and with whom set, McGowan pushed for the what. He had good reason to ask. More people died during the Battle of Okinawa than in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
But as Hodges would do throughout his managerial career when he didn’t want to answer a reporter’s question, he took control of the interview by ceasing to speak. And very few could endure Hodges’ silences. McGowen was not one of them. “Anybody who wants to know what happened at Okinawa,” McGowan wrote, “will have to read the history of WWII in the Pacific. Hodges just says he is not a fighting man.”
Some writers had better luck. Herb Goren got Hodges to recall “that on Okinawa he slugged it out with ack-ack fire against some Jap Betsies, [a type of bomber] but most of the time he had it pretty good.”
Into the void created by Hodges’ silence stepped his Dodger teammate, Don “Tiger” Hoak. A former boxer, Hoak could be counted on to knock out a quote unburdened by facts. Without a clue as to what Hodges really did on Okinawa, Hoak issued the line that became the prevailing legend of Hodges’ war years, “We kept hearing stories about this big guy from Indiana who killed Japs with his bare hands.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. In interviews with surviving members of the 16th AAA Battalion and a review of Hodges’ personnel records as well as the battalion’s after-action reports, there was not a single recollection or reference to Hodges engaging in any hand-to-hand combat. Rather, Hodges comment to Goren that “he had it pretty good” is the one that merits closer analysis because, beyond being classic Hodges-speak minimizing his own accomplishments, it reveals Hodges’ view of the risks he took on Okinawa.
In Hodges’ mind, since he was in an anti-aircraft artillery battalion and not in an infantry combat unit, he had it “pretty good.” But everyone on Okinawa faced the very real possibility of death on a daily basis. During the Okinawa campaign Ernie Pyle, one of Americas most popular WWII correspondents, was killed by Japanese machine gun fire. Japanese artillery killed the commander of the US Tenth Army, Lieutenant-General Simon Buckner, Jr., the highest-ranking American officer killed during the entire Pacific campaign. James H. Powers, a Marine who served in a position similar to Hodges’ in the intelligence and operations section of the 8th AAA Battalion told me, “On Okinawa, you were either bored to death or blown sky high.”
Even if Hodges had it “pretty good,” it was highly unusual for a member of an artillery battalion to win a commendation, and Hodges earned a Bronze Star on Okinawa. Hodges was recommended for that medal at the end of the war, but the story of his military service begins on December 7, 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor where many combat ships were sunk or damaged. But not the USS Phoenix. A light cruiser, the Phoenix survived unscathed because she had arrived when all the docking births in battleship row were occupied, forcing her to anchor on the other side of Ford Island. Aboard the Phoenix was a 23-year old Marine 2nd lieutenant, Robert A. Merchant. By the end of the war, Merchant was the head of the intelligence and operations section of the 16th AAA Battalion and Hodges was his aide-de-camp.
When President Roosevelt declared war on Japan Hodges was 17 and ineligible for military service, but the decision as to when to enlist was soon in his thoughts. Like most of those who joined the Marines, Hodges didn’t wait to be drafted. He enlisted on September 27, 1943 in Indianapolis as the Dodgers were traveling on their way from Chicago to Pittsburgh. That day, when asked to list his current job, Hodges wrote he was a college student — not a ballplayer.
After the Dodgers’ season ended, Hodges returned to Petersburg to say goodbye to his family. On the night before he left for basic training at Camp Elliot in San Diego, he went to the movies to see “Phantom of the Opera” starring Nelson Eddy, which Hodges called “pretty good.” For Hodges, accustomed to the Dodgers’ first-class traveling accommodations, his four-day trip across the country on a military train was a rude awakening. “We really had a terrible trip out here,” he wrote home after arriving at Camp Elliot, “We couldn’t get any births and we had to sit up all the way from Indianapolis.” After three nights of little or no sleep, Hodges’ review of the western states was mixed. “There sure are a lot of mountains out here,” he wrote, “and also a lot of ground that isn’t worth a penny.”
His train arrived in San Diego at midnight and he didn’t get to sleep until 1:30 AM. Reveille sounded at 5:45AM. By noon, he had had breakfast, heard “a few speeches,” and had taken a written exam. Although the first song Hodges would teach his children on family road trips was, “The Marine Corps Hymn,” getting used to Marine discipline was not easy. In his first letter home, Hodges wrote, “Boy you sure have to be able to take it out here. They really shove you around.”
And Hodges’ indoctrination into military life proved to be physically, as well as mentally, challenging. On one of his first mornings at Camp Elliot he received two shots and a vaccination. Since Hodges was going to serve in the Pacific, many more injections were required, and they were administered with rapidity to long lines of Marines. In “With the Old Breed,” a memoir of his Marine Corps service in the Pacific during WWII, E.B. Sledge wrote, “Our arms were sore, and many men became feverish. The troops hated getting injections, and the large number… before Okinawa made us crotchety. The plague shot burned like fire….”
Soon after receiving his shots, both of Hodges’ ankles were “swollen just about twice as they should be” and he could “hardly walk.” Hodges had an acute allergic reaction to the inoculations, but didn’t make the connection. Of the injections, Hodges would write while in sickbay, “It isn’t so bad, but they sure make your arms sore.” But for a tired, 19-year-old, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a doctor to “x-ray them [his ankles] or something to find out about them,” it was a long afternoon. Hodges ends his letter promising, “to write again as soon as the doctor gives me the once over.”
Hodges recovered and, despite those difficult first few days, he learned to comply, receiving the highest possible scores in obedience and sobriety. In San Diego, Hodges saw how an organization responsible for focusing a group of young men on a single purpose went about its business. Years later, the methodology the Marines used — the importance of the organization over the individual, teamwork, and firm discipline uniformly applied — became bedrock principles in Hodges’ managerial handbook.
Gil Hodges was in San Diego for Thanksgiving, while his brother, Bob, got a furlough from Camp Davis in North Carolina and came home for the holidays. By the time Hodges was landing on Okinawa, Bob, then a corporal, was in Germany with the Ninth Army.
Hodges completed his basic training on December 21, 1943. Promoted to private first class, he was assigned to Company A, Infantry Battalion for eight weeks of training as a rifleman using a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). There were no rifles in the house when Hodges was growing up, so that was the first time he ever shot a rifle with regularity. In February of 1944, he qualified as a marksman with a rifle score of 271, which was below the level of sharpshooter (292 to 305) or expert (306 to 340). That month, Hodges joined the 44th Replacement Battalion awaiting deployment overseas.
The Corps believed that a Marine would be most effective performing a task of their own choosing and, where possible, they met a new recruit’s job request. Hodges’ preference was to be in the Military Police. For a man who would become known for breaking up baseball fights, it seemed a natural, but he was assigned duty as a rifleman.
Hodges’ letters home reveal a young man who put the needs of his family first. In one letter, post-marked February 29, 1944, the week before Hodges was sent out for active duty in the Pacific, he arranged to send his family, $25 a month from his pay, “... I won’t need it while I’m over there.” Hodges broke the news of his going overseas to his family as gently as possible, “I guess you will be shocked at what I am going to say but I might as well tell you and there really isn’t anything to worry about, so don’t start worrying about it.”
Hodges knew his family. When his letters arrived, Irene and Marjorie would sit at their kitchen table crying. “Dad,” Marjorie said years later, “just didn’t know what to do for us.” Hodges’ follow-up letter attempted to allay their fears, “... I know I will be all right. I have learned enough here to take care of myself and I’m in a good outfit.”
In a letter to Marjorie dated Feb. 28, 1944, Hodges, who years later didn’t want to leave Brooklyn for Los Angeles when the Dodgers moved, wrote, “It wouldn’t be bad out here in California in civilian life but I can’t say I care for it too much being in the Marine Corps.”
After Marjorie wrote about her struggles in Algebra and Biology; her brother responded, “I know you can get them [good grades] if you just get in there and set your mind to it. 85 isn’t a bad average for the month. I know I didn’t do that good very many times.”
At the end of the letter, he adds, “Pardon my writing.”
In his March 3, 1944 letter home, Gil Hodges wistfully wrote that he hoped to be home in time for next years’ Petersburg Indians’ basketball season so he could “see a few games.” He notes how fast the time was passing before he had to ship out:
“Well, here it is Friday again and this week sure has gone fast. I went to Mass last night and to Communion and I am going again tonight. They have a Mass at 4:30 and today will be the last time I will get to go for a while. The time has just about got here for us to shove off so this will be the last letter I will be able to write for some time...”
On March 5, 1944, Hodges boarded the S.S. Santa Monica to join the 5th Amphibious Corps in Hawaii. Because of military security, the next correspondence Irene and Charlie received was a postcard from Marine Headquarters in San Francisco, informing them that their son had safely arrived at his overseas destination. Due to military security, they were not told where that destination was and thereafter Hodges letters home speak only of his life back in Indiana since he couldn’t mention his location or activities.
Hodges arrived in Pearl Harbor on March 11th. At the Transient Center tent camp outside of Honolulu, Hodges soon met Chuck Askey, another Marine who was awaiting orders to join a unit. Hodges was working in the mess hall and Askey was assigned to Hodges’ pot walloping (cleaning) detail. The first thing Hodges ever said to Askey was to ask if he played softball or baseball. Hodges had formed a team at the Transient Center that played against other units.
In April, Hodges joined the newly created 16th Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion, and a transport ship brought him from Pearl Harbor to Kauai, another island in the Hawaiian chain, where the 16th would train. Askey was also ordered to the 16th and the two Midwesterners (Askey was from Ohio) became friends.
Marine AAA Battalions defended airbases from Japanese bombers. At full-strength, a battalion had 60 officers and 1300 enlisted men. Each battalion was like a small town, with its own trucks, tractors, trailers, mechanics, welders, radar technicians, radio operators, drivers, meteorologist, cobbler, and barber.
AAA Battalions previously had their own infantry, but in 1944 they begin operating as part of the 10th Army, eliminating the need for the AAA units to have rifleman, and in May of 1944, Hodges was re-assigned to work as a clerk at the 16th’s company headquarters where, after transferring from the USS Phoenix, now Colonel Robert Merchant was the chief operations and intelligence officer.
Hodges was a good fit to work with Merchant. Like Hodges, Merchant had attended college. In that era, most had not. Five years older than Hodges, Merchant had graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with an electrical engineering degree. Both men had a wry sense of humor. In reviewing Merchant’s personal military files at the U.S. Marine Library in Quantico, I found a “Memo to All Staff Officers” that Merchant either wrote or appreciated enough to save:
“The typical staff officer is a man past middle age, spare, wrinkled, intelligent, cold, passive, non-committal; with eyes like a codfish, polite in contact, but at the same time unresponsive, cool, calm, and as damnably composed as a concrete post or a plaster-of-Paris cast; a human petrification with a heart of feldspar and without charm or the friendly germ; minus bowels, passions, or a sense of humor. Happily they never reproduce and all of them finally go to hell.”
On Kauai, as Merchant’s clerk, Hodges compiled reports, answered phones, and distributed mail. Hodges position, “Clerk, General #055,” didn’t require the use of a typewriter. But Hodges could “operate a typewriter deftly, accurately, and at stenographer’s speed” and was soon promoted to operations assistant which required he be “thoroughly familiar with the organization of the various types of units within the command” and “their tactical employment.”
The 16th reached its full combat strength on August 1, 1944, and that month landed near Port Allen, Kauai, to practice defending against night attacks simulated by the U.S. Air Force, 494th Bomber Squadron. On December 22nd, the 16th AAA Battalion set out for Tinian, a tiny island in the Marianas. By the time they arrived in early January of 1945, Hodges had been promoted to the rank of Corporal.
U.S. forces had captured Tinian in the summer of 1944 and active combat was over before the 16th arrived. The battalion set up their guns on Mt. Lasso, which overlooked the B-29 airstrip, and remained on alert for Japanese bombing raids. During the 16th’s two months on Tinian, Hodges assisted Merchant in preparing for the most efficient unloading of the unit’s equipment on Okinawa. Unlike Tinian, Okinawa was within easy flying range from Tokyo, making it imperative that the anti-aircraft batteries be established quickly to defend against air raids.
On March 13th Hodges left Tinian on LST 803 for the neighboring Marianas Island of Saipan. LST stood for landing ship tanks, sea-going vessels whose drafts were shallow enough to anchor close to shore so that at low tide trucks could pull the units’ anti-aircraft guns onto shore. Two weeks later, LST 803 left for Okinawa as part of the largest Pacific armada of the war.
D-day was Easter Sunday, April 1st, but the Japanese put up only scattered resistance that day. Their strategy was to concede the beaches and save their efforts for the southern third of the island where the crevice filled terrain gave them clear site-lines from well-entrenched positions in the cliffs. The heaviest fighting, and the greatest number of Marine casualties, occurred there.
In one of his longest letters home, written after combat had ended and military censorship no longer applied, Hodges wrote:
“We arrived here [Okinawa] the first of April and things really cut loose. We were always having air attacks and the ships were really knocking down the planes. It’s just like being tied down when you’re on board a ship because you can’t do a thing but just stand there and wait for something to happen. One Jap plane, a Zero, came circling around where we were anchored and when everyone saw it they really cut loose. I don’t see how it was possible for him to escape with so much firing being done at that time. He was the plane that really gave all of us a scare. He started to pull away from the firing and then he got hit and started circling around, then into a suicide dive. He started coming down and boy he was really moving. He crashed on the bow of another LST not very far from our ship and exploded. I don’t know how many got hurt but I’m sure there were quite a few. Well, that’s just one incident and I don’t want to go into any other at the present time because I could probably sit here and write all day and still not be through.”
The Zero Hodges wrote about crashed into an LST and exploded on April 3rd at 6:16 AM. Hodges was standing on the deck of LST 803 waiting to disembark when the Zero hit the near-by ship. Someone from the 16th battalion had to do advanced reconnaissance to determine exactly where the AAA guns should be set up and Hodges was a member of the reconnaissance party of six officers and twelve enlisted men that went ashore later that day to do just that. By then the beaches had been secured but inland positions were still in flux. Only two days before a Marine had been shot and killed in the same area the reconnaissance party scouted. It must have been an emotional day for Hodges. The next day was his 21st birthday.
The 16th set up several miles north of the heaviest fighting that would take place on Okinawa. Their mission was to provide air defense in the Yontan-Kadena area where the island’s two airfields were located. On Okinawa, the airfields were the primary targets for Japanese bombers. From April 8th when the 16th’s guns were in place, until August 8th, when the last enemy attack took place, there were 131 separate bombing raids. Of these raids, Corporal Lester Foster, a member of the 16ths’ Charlie Co. 90mm gun crew said, “…when they got through, they worked us over pretty good.”
In addition to frequent bombings, the 16th was subject to sniper and mortar fire. The boldest enemy attack came on the night of May 24th when five Japanese planes with 80 Special Attack Corps troops armed with explosives attempted to crash land at Yontan Airfield. All but one of the planes was shot down. That night, two members of the 16th were killed. Over the course of the entire engagement on Okinawa, five members of the 16th died.
Hodges slept in a tent with five other Marines. One was Romeo Paulino, the battalion’s barber. Cutting Hodges’ hair, Paulino noticed a bump on the back of his head and in deference to Hodges working with “the top echelon” Paulino dubbed it, “the bump of knowledge.”
As Merchant’s assistant, Hodges was with him in the 16th’s filter center during bombing raids. The filter center was a rectangular shaped trailer made of corrugated steel that served as the tactical headquarters of the battalion and was set up in between the two airfields. Information from radar stations and any visual identification reports were charted in the filter center on two maps. One covered an area 150 miles in diameter around the airfields, the second a 50 mile area. Based upon the information obtained, the filter center would supply positioning data to the units manning the artillery pieces so they could accurately target enemy planes.
Working in the filter center required mental toughness. While the AAA Batteries could shoot back at the enemy planes — all you could do in the center was sit tight and hope you made it through. All AAA filter centers had two back-up centers set up at least 250 yards away from the operational one. During enemy bombing raids, the back-up filter centers were fully manned in the event the primary was “blown sky high.”
By the end of June, over 1,547 Japanese planes had been destroyed in the Okinawa area and 75% of the planes that sortied for Okinawa never returned to Japan. The 16th destroyed or damaged more planes than any other AAA unit.
In addition to his duties as Colonel Merchants’ assistant, Hodges was also assigned to guard duty in those fox holes he spoke of after the war. That was why all recruits were trained in the use of the Marine fighting knife or Ka-Bar because at some point, it was assumed that either you, or the Marine in the next foxhole, would need to use it. Hodges joked about starting to smoke in those foxholes out of boredom, but the truth was that he, like so many Marines, smoked to allay their anxieties. New recruits — who had been adamant that they would never smoke — would yell out after being in combat for the first time, “Somebody gimme a cigarette.” Hodges left Okinawa physically intact, but for the rest of his life he was unable to stop smoking.
Hodges received a Bronze Battle Star for his “excellent service while serving as a member of the operations and intelligence section...” His commendation read,
“Landing with the assault echelon in the Hagushi Beach area, by his outstanding professional attainments and tireless devotion to duty throughout extensive periods of enemy aerial alerts and extensive bombing attacks, he diligently collected data and prepared vital combat records, thereby contributing materially to the successful accomplishment of the battalion’s mission.”
But in his letters home Hodges never mentions his Bronze Star.
With the island “still was a dangerous place” due to sporadic bombing raids, on June 21st primary hostilities on Okinawa ended. That summer the Marines got a chance to interact with the Okinawan children. The kids won their hearts. The children were not as fearful of the Marines as the adults and they made the Marines laugh. The Marines responded by giving the children any candy or rations they could spare. In addition to interacting with the children, the Marines relaxed by playing baseball and “laughing and running like a bunch of little boys.”
Hodges organized those baseball games for his battalion. He also played. At bat, “Moose,” as the Marines’ called Hodges, often bunted so he didn’t hurt any of his fellow Marines with a line drive. Hodges played catcher, but threw with his left arm to avoid injury. Except for the day Yankees’ star Bill Dickey flew in with a team of major league players, Hodges faced mediocre competition.
Back in Brooklyn, Leo Durocher, fighting his own private war, assaulted a fan named John Christian, who had been heckling him. After a Dodgers’ security guard brought Christian behind the stands at Ebbets Field, Durocher hit him with a blackjack. Christian was hospitalized with a broken jaw and Durocher was charged with second-degree assault; but a jury acquitted him after Durocher testified that Christian’s broken jaw was the result of his slipping and falling down.
Hodges had a harder time getting off Okinawa than Durocher did getting acquitted. On October 9th, Hodges was still on Okinawa when a typhoon with 130 mile an hour winds struck. U.S. forces had only a few hours notice to strike all tents, lash down wooden structures and, for fear of tidal waves, move all heavy equipment inland. Some took refuge in corrugated-steel Quonset huts, but the wind blew off a portion of the roof of one and rain poured inside. The typhoon severely damaged military installations but no one was killed.
On Okinawa, Hodges developed a life-long bond with his fellow Marines. E.B. Sledge wrote that Marines who participated in the war’s terrible carnage “… had an intangible air of subdued, quiet detachment.” As Riley Marietta, a driver for the 16th recalled, “I remember seeing dead Japanese officers …they were bobby trapped and I saw a few blow up. I saw plenty of dead and wounded…. You had to be a little bit on the hard side or your might wind up being a mess.” Years later, in a darkened movie theatre in Louisville, Hodges was seated next to Long Island Newsday writer Jack Lang as they watched a movie about the Marines in the South Pacific. Lang recalled that every time a Marine or enemy soldier was killed, Hodges would silently mutter, “Amen.”
On February 3, 1946, Sergeant Gil Hodges was honorably discharged. In his separation report, he no longer listed himself as a student; instead under occupation he wrote, “pro-baseball, Brooklyn.” His locality preference however, was still “Petersburg.”
Under reason he needed just one word: “Home.”
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