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November 2, 2008

Our War: Belleville veteran liberated Chamorro

Ruthie Wehmeyer's been gone for two years, seven months, four days.

Ruthie Wehmeyer's been gone for two years, seven months, four days.

Otto Wehmeyer recites it.

Her passing left him with too much time to think.

"The biggest problem in life today is my age. I've outlived almost all the people my age, both relatives and friends, and it makes me wonder sometimes why I'm still around."

"But I'm still trying, you know."

He is 87. He doesn't go into his basement without good reason.

The walls are covered with photos of the Wehmeyers and friends from more than 15 reunions of the U.S. Marine Corps' 3rd Division, 3rd Tank Battalion, C Co. There are pictures of him in his greens and dress blues, and with his tank crew in the South Pacific during World War II.

There are two small bottles of black volcanic sand. Next to one is a Purple Heart. They came from the same place.

On March 6, 1944, Sgt. Wehmeyer and his Sherman tank crew were above landing strip No. 3, near the end of Iwo Jima. He was platoon leader after their 2nd lieutenant soaked his feet in diesel fuel to avoid the battle.

The captain sent the tanks up a draw, telling them to go as far as they could.

"We pulled into this draw and we hit land mines. Both of us, we blew tracks off and were receiving anti-tank fire. I radioed down to the two men up front, asked if they could evacuate by hatch. I received word, 'No. We're bellied up. We can't.' And I radioed next door, to the tank beside me on the right. They had the same problem. Threw their track off and they were immobilized. I radioed, 'Let's evacuate if we can.'"

"I got out first in the top with the hatches and someway, an explosion or so hit the tank someway or other with damage to my hands.

"I got out and hit the ground. The gunner got out right after me, but the third man -- the radio man -- they had a bead on and they shot him trying to get out."

Wehmeyer never again saw the two men up front, the driver and assistant driver; not after that day and not at all the reunions. He still doesn't know if they made it.

His hands were shattered by the concussions.

They ran 100 feet back to their lines. He dove into a foxhole. A medic put sulfa on his hands, bandaged them. They put him on a jeep.

He got down to landing strip No. 1. A C-47 was about to take off loaded with wounded Marines.

"One, two, three that plane was heading down the air strip, sort of towards Mount Suribachi to take off. I looked at all the destruction we were passing and the grief that had happened on that island and was just thinking to myself, 'Do you mean I am getting off of this thing alive? Do you mean I am getting off of this thing alive?'

He remembers prayers on the plane. It was quiet enough he remembers the sound of the nurse passing from stretcher to stretcher.

The naval hospital was a quonset hut on Guam. They cut off his wedding band before operating by getting snippers under the swollen, broken flesh.

"That was very painful. Even the stretcher cases around me thought that maybe they had cut my finger off."

Ruthie later had the three pieces of the gold band soldered back together and placed on a chain.

After the operation his hands were placed in wire mesh, like a tennis racquet. His fingers were spread so they would not stick together as they healed.

Because he was shuffled aboard the C-47 so fast, the Marines lost him in the system. His wife and parents were told he was missing in action.

He couldn't write.

Ruth Wehmeyer was about to the point of believing she was a teenaged war widow when she finally heard from him.

Otto and Ruth Wehmeyer were married Sept. 5, 1942. Otto's father was a World War I vet and told Otto that whatever he did, not to get Ruth pregnant before he shipped out.

"'You have a 50-50 chance of coming back from service,' he told me. 'Her life will go on.'"

He enlisted in the Marines to avoid being drafted into the Army. His boss at the surveying company in St. Louis told him he was crazy, lecturing him that Marines were nothing but front line troops.

On Nov. 17, 1942, he left on a troop train from Union Station in St. Louis. Ruth was on the platform with both of their parents. He looked out the train window and saw her crying in the rain. It was her 17th birthday.

"That was the hardest thing I did in my life, leaving them and not knowing for sure I would see them again. I was a homesick pup for a long time."

When he got to the South Pacific there was an initial calm.

On Guadalcanal he was on a tank retriever, outfitted with a boom, and was helping unload cargo all day. They were headed back to camp late at night when a guard flagged them down with a flashlight.

A barge filled with beer had gone down in about four feet of water off the beach. The guard was supposed to keep Marines away from it, but he was ripped and invited Wehmeyer and his crew to partake.

They got drunk, filled the tank with beer and drove back to camp. Instead of putting it in the tank park, they ran the 33-ton vehicle between the tents, waking everyone. Their commander came out in his skivvies, yelling.

He made them unload the beer and run over it with the tank.

They also wore out two tank treads heading to their swimming hole on Guadalcanal, diving off a destroyed Japanese transport.

Another time he was in a six-by-six Marine truck and gained on an Army truck loaded with fresh eggs. A guy named "Pee Wee" climbed on the hood while they sped to catch the back of the Army truck and he liberated a crate of eggs for the Marine mess.

Then came combat. It nearly took his life at least four times.

Wehmeyer's first combat came on Guam, where they landed at 8:30 a.m., July 21, 1944, on a coral reef 150 yards from the beach. The tank hatches were sealed and the exhaust was channeled up through old oil drums for the landing.

They worked their way up Chorito Cliff and faced five hard days of close jungle fighting. They ran out of water.

His tank was sent to take out a pocket of resistance. They unloaded fierce fire on the position and Wehmeyer popped out of his hatch and was sitting with his arms on the ring as infantry came up.

"All of a sudden, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, a Jap machine gun opened up 50 feet from us. They took out half a dozen infantry. My platoon leader said 'Sergeant, get down in your hatch and stay there!'

"I don't know why they didn't get me."

Wehmeyer said he was told to prepare for a Japanese counter-offensive one night. He was positioned at the end of a cultivated field with a ravine that gave the enemy cover. Flares occasionally lit the field and the tank would use its 30-caliber machine guns on Japanese coming up the ravine.

"We fought all night long with no rest. The next morning we saw what we'd accomplished."

He remembers a Japanese soldier running out with a pole charge. He placed it on the side of Wehmeyer's tank and it exploded.

"It did nothing to us, but he just disappeared. He was very young. Had he put it on the track, or on the air intake on top he would have taken us out."

They worked their way to the capital, Agana, and passed a destroyed cemetery. Chamorro native people came running out, waving small American flags. The Marines tossed them cigarettes and K-rations.

"Freeing the Chamorro people was the highlight of my life. The Japs were horrible to them, raping the young girls and women. Resistance was death. They'd cut off their heads."

The next campaign was Iwo Jima.

The Third Division was being held in reserve but was soon committed after the landing on Feb. 19, 1944. At 5:20 p.m. on Feb. 21, Wehmeyer was sitting on a hatch cover, trying to eat his chow aboard LST 477.

He couldn't eat and went to the fantail to dump his meal. He saw a Japanese Zero fly close enough to see the two pilots in the cockpit, then it turned into the side of the ship to aim for the magazine.

The explosion blew off the hatch where Wehmeyer was sitting. The Zero's engine block drove through crew quarters and stopped with a bulkhead between it and the magazine. Three Marines and six sailors died.

The next day they were buried at sea.

"The most sickening sound you'll ever hear is a body on a board and they tip it up, 'schloo-kerplush.' Your Adam's Apple jumps. We were standing beside them yesterday and we're burying them today."

They limped to the island and twice tried to run aground on Feb. 23. That's when the American flag went up on Mount Suribachi. Yells swept across the island.

They finally got the damaged LST on the beach the next day.

"Everything was destroyed. DUKWs, Higgins boats, landing craft. We couldn't spread out we were so packed in there. It was constant booming. They could lob mortars and every explosion would take something."

The 3rd Tank Battalion, Charlie Co., worked their way through landing strips 1, 2 and on March 6 were near 3 trying to mop up and end the campaign. They lost 10 tanks trying to break through.

Wehmeyer and three others were wounded that day. His radio man, Warren Scott, was killed in action with two other tank crewmen.

By the time Wehmeyer's hands were healed, his commanding officer wanted him to go to Officer Candidate School. His sea bag was packed and he was waiting for transportation to the states when the first atom bomb was dropped.

He had enough points to go home and was soon at Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago. Ruth came to Waukegan.

On Dec. 11, 1945, Otto Wehmeyer was discharged with final pay and travel stipend of $150.92. He knocked on his wife's hotel room door.

"I said, 'Remember me! I'm your husband!' I couldn't believe how good it was, the sight of my Ruthie there."

They came home to raise a son and daughter in Belleville. Otto Wehmeyer briefly drove a bus for Bi-State Development Co. and eventually supervised the Illinois Division.

"When you are as old as I am and have so much time, you ask yourself, 'Have I made a difference? Have I helped the world to change and made it better?' I can answer, 'Yes, I have.

"I helped free the Chamorro people. I helped get Guam back as a U.S. territory. I helped fight the Battle of Iwo Jima."

Contact multimedia editor Brad Weisenstein at bweisenstein@bnd.com or 239-2470.

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