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The Loss of An American Hero

Charles Morse



By Peter V. Sellars

Having been a Marine of recent years, I could only imagine what it would have been like to storm the beaches, much less reach the beaches. Fortunately, the wars we fight today do not place hundreds or even thousands of us on a front line, wading through water, toward a beach with little or no protection from gun fire.

I have known some of these brave men in my lifetime and listened to their stories. I have even listened to my grandfather who served thirty-two years in the Navy, talk about the Marines of World War II. He always referred to them as “seafaring bellhops” – of course, he said this with a smile on his face.

Some never told their stories. Most never told their stories. The ones who shared omitted the gruesome details of battle. It must have been horrific to see so many buddies lying dead or wounded on a day that started very early in the morning, with cold chow, tense nerves, deep thought, followed by repeated instruction related to the mission.

The waiting and preparation time would have been preceded by the loud continuous pounding of the ships’ cannons aimed toward the beach and the inland areas, as was done prior to many beach landings.

Several years ago, I met a gentleman named Charles Morse who had been a member of the Marines Memorial soon after it was opened. He was still in the Marines and often stayed at the hotel. He had story after story, but none about his experiences during World War II.

During the course of our friendship of old Marine and young Marine, I assisted him with requesting the medals he had never received or had lost after leaving the service. I was amazed when I saw his discharge papers. He had been in several notable battles. I recognized these events from my Marine Corps history.

He had been in the 2nd Marine Division during the war. In the section under BATTLES, ENGAGEMENTS, SKIRMISHES, EXPEDITIONS, it read: “Guadalcanal, British Solomon Islands; Tarawa, British Gilbert Islands; Saipan, Marianas Islands; Tinian, Marian Is.”

He was also a “Platoon Sergeant” who had been promoted to Second Lieutenant and then was “reverted back to enlisted rank.” I knew I was in the presence of someone who had been part of history and all that I had been taught to respect. This was a Marine.

Charles eventually received his medals in the mail. It was notable that he had received four Presidential Unit Citations. Still, we had never spoken of his experiences during those conflicts. A few more years had passed, until this year when he began to talk about those experiences.

Charles Morse was born on May 19, 1918 in Chicago, Illinois. He enlisted in the Marine Corps on November 4, 1940, remaining until his discharge on February 20, 1946.

The 2nd Marine Division saw some of the fiercest action in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Most of the early battles were lessons which better prepared the troops in subsequent battles.

Today’s history teaches Marines that the beach invasions were the most brutal and bloodiest battles of World War II and it was thought the gun batteries would have softened the enemy’s forward positions before the Marines hit the beaches. This was not the case at all. A prepared enemy awaited the Marines.

In that Battle of Guadalcanal, the Marines learned about fighting to the death. Their enemy remained entrenched despite the efforts of U.S. warships firing their cannons. Their enemy fought to their deaths or committed suicide. At the same time, the Marines delivered a fierce attack in which the enemy would crumble.

On Tarawa, Charles spoke of having to wade through waist deep water once leaving the landing craft. He was assigned to H&S 110, a communications outfit, and was with the second wave of men to approach the island. He said his group became hung up on the coral and waded in water the rest of the way.

He climbed up onto a pier with other Marines. He saw dead Marines on either side of him. He believed they were shot by Japanese who had been waiting beneath the pier. Charles did not talk a lot about that battle other than there was nothing to hide behind. The beachhead was the only place to stay behind, but did make a statement that “most men died in a vertical position because sand did not stop the rounds.”

The Battle of Tarawa, 1,687 Marines and Sailors died. Another 2,296 Marines were wounded. Of the 5,200 Japanese and Korean troops or laborers (Koreans were used as only laborers), only 146 survived.

On Guadalcanal, Corporal Charles Morse was asked to reconnect communication lines which had been cut during the shelling. These were the critical lines of communication between the artillery and the infantry.

“There were 19,000 Japanese readying to attack us,” says Charles. “The lines across the river were cut and radios did not work. I was asked if I could find the break and repair it. I asked for a couple of guys. I was given two infantrymen with grenades and other things hanging off them. The coxswain pulls up with his landing craft and my major - the executive officer Wendell Best tells the coxswain to take us across the river and explains the task at hand. The coxswain says this boat ain’t going anywhere because it’s about to blow up.

“But the next thing I know we’re all in that boat. The coxswain says you better unbutton your helmet straps because if the boat blows up, the concussion will take your head off. We are across the river now and get out of the boat.”

The three Marines continued to move through the area but had to stop several times because they kept hearing noises. “We heard them making signals. Scouts are always ahead of the main force. We weren’t sure if we should keep going, but knew that without that line repaired Marines would die. It was risky if we left we’d end up getting killed too.”

Charles had to be inventive and use a ruse in order to keep the three of them alive. “I told them guys to shout out as if they were talking to others, like there were a lot of us. –Act like we have a lot of people with us. This way the enemy thought they were outnumbered.”

They finally found the broken wire. “I find one end of the severed line, another guy grabs the other end and we pull the ends together,” says Charles. “While one guy keeps lookout, I manage to splice both ends together and test it with my field telephone. The line is fixed.

“Without that line of communication we are a force divided and could have been ambushed. Now that we had the communication in, I said give me five minutes to get the hell out of here because we aren’t going to run, we’re going to walk out. I did not want them to see us fleeing. I was still thinking about those scouts. We made it out of there.”

In the context of the experience of war and comparing yesterday’s warrior to today’s warrior he stated: “So many people make heroes out of guys that get blown up or shot. The real hero is the one who thinks. They ought to give medals for the leader who saves the lives of the warriors under him.” Charles continued to talk about other battles he had been a part of including the Battles of Saipan and Tinian. But that is for another story.

Being a Marine during World War II almost guaranteed you some action in the Pacific. Today, very few of these brave island hoppers survive. It is in their memory this is written.

For the past 40 years, Charles Morse resided in San Francisco, California.

I received this letter about 6 weeks after the funeral.  I thought it was worth sharing.

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