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Our War: Still a Marine; WWII combatant faced heavy fire at Saipan, Iwo Jima

Gordan Bien took this photo of his gun crew on Saipan.
Gordan Bien took this photo of his gun crew on Saipan.

Gordan Bien's six children don't know much of his story.

They know he wears two hearing aids, thanks to the 105mm howitzer he manned. They know he served in the U.S. Marine Corps and made corporal. They know he has a basement room full of memorabilia after four major battles, including Saipan and Iwo Jima.

"They'd ask every once in a while, but then they'd get a dubious look on their face," said Bien, 82, of Belle-ville. "They know some of it. I don't think they know the depth of it."

Four campaigns in 13 months -- Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. You might think Iwo Jima was the battle that hit Bien hardest, but it was Saipan.

On June 15, 1944, Bien's 4th Division, 14th Marine Regiment (Artillery) landed on Saipan. His crew set up their howitzer, "Belching Bitch," next to a road with the beach behind them.

Although the Roi-Namur campaign in the Marshall Islands was behind him, Saipan put Bien in the direct line of fire.

"Your instincts take over. You dive for cover," he said. "You hear it, then you don't -- that means it's coming straight for you."

That night, mortars came in and one landed right in the gun nest. Of the seven men, three were killed, three wounded and only Bien came out unscratched.

"Two were killed outright, Victor DeGuglielmo and Philip DiCorpo. Mike Banas was a big Pole. We heard him calling out all night -- 'Maria. Maria.' We didn't know if he was calling for his mother or the Virgin Mary," Bien said.

There was nothing a medic could do for Banas. After a while, he was quiet.

"It hurt. They were brothers. They were family," Bien said. "I still think about them, but I don't dwell on it. Those are the guys who go around half crazy, who dwell on it."

Several days later, a Marine was loping toward the beach with his rifle slung over his shoulder as a Japanese sniper atop a palm tree took aim.

The shot hit just inches behind the Marine's heel. He started running along the road as the shots quickly followed his steps, almost like a cartoon character.

"We were laughing our you-know-whats off until we neutralized the sniper," Bien said. "I guess the guy didn't think it was too funny."

The sniper had been in that palm since the Marines landed on Saipan -- more than three days earlier. Bien suspects the sniper was the one who called in the mortar attack.

More than one in four members of the 4th Division became a casualty on Saipan -- 5,981 men. The island put the U.S. within bomber range of Japan.

Tinian was next, just a few weeks later. The four howitzers in his battery pummeled the island, each shooting 400 rounds until the barrels glowed red.

Later, Bien found what he believes was a Japanese naval officer dead in a bunker. He and his buddies collected souvenirs.

They were wary of booby traps, and one guy used a string to retrieve the dead officer's samurai sword. Bien took a messenger case that contained a Japanese military training manual. He also took a photo album.

The cardboard album contains photos of children, women in kimonos, sumo wrestlers, group portraits of military men and families. There is little to identify the owner, other than the images.

While Saipan hurt, Iwo Jima nearly cost Bien his life -- twice.

The first time was when his DUKW, an amphibious vehicle called a "Duck" that could drive onto the beach, swamped as it rolled off the troop landing ship, or LST. He swam back to the ship.

All his gear was lost, including the camera he'd used on the three previous campaigns. That's why he has no pictures from Iwo Jima and why he landed in borrowed Navy gear.

His gun emplacement was on the long, black sand beach with the airfield in front of him and Mount Suribachi to his left. That was where he had his second near-miss.

He and a buddy were ordered to dig a foxhole in the rain. They piled up sandbags for the walls, then decided to put on a roof of steel bars, mesh, canvas and several inches of sand to keep dry.

That night, a 75mm mortar round landed on the roof.

"We were asleep and it turned us both over. That roof saved us," he said.

After Iwo Jima, the 4th Division was preparing for the invasion of Japan. Bien would have gone into Tokyo Bay several days after the invasion started to the south.

"Then Harry dropped the A bomb," Bien said. "I stayed drunk for three or four days."

He came home and drank away another $300 he got from the state. Then he became a carpenter, married the girl across the street and had six children.

He and Rita Bien's living room is decorated with a Marine Corps tankard, a sculpture of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi and a throw embroidered with his service dates.

Cpl. Gordan Bien was discharged on Nov. 11, 1945.

"You never stop being a Marine," he said. "I'm still a Marine."

Contact Assistant City Editor Brad Weisenstein at bweisenstein@bnd.com or 239-2551.

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