I didn’t quite know what expect. The drive had taken me on circuitous route from the Twin Cities to well into the open country where subdivisions and strip malls give way to soybean fields interspersed with long stretches of cattails and tamarack swamps. As I stood outside the impressive log home, my friend, the author and naturalist Tom Anderson, gestured toward the door where I was about to meet a Marine Raider. As we walked toward it, he said, “Oh, just a warning, he’s got a really strong grip, and I forgot to mention, he’ll probably have a handgun nearby.”
The setup seemed appropriate. Anderson had contacted me at my job as an editor with a book pitch, and I mentioned offhand that I was editing a book about men from tiny Minnesota towns (populations around 100) who served in World War II. Tom responded, “I should have you meet Stan. He’s a Marine Raider.”
I almost spit out my coffee. Then I said yes.
Pumping Iron and Reading Books
Stan Nelson doesn’t look 93. In fact, the first thing you notice when you enter his house—a log cabin he built himself—are the dumbbells and weights tucked into the corner. And then there are the orderly stacks of books, one after another, enough to resemble a little skyline. On the coffee table in front of us, are more books, hand strengtheners and a guide to the latest research on macular degeneration, which Nelson was diagnosed with about a year ago. And, just as my friend warned, tucked into the corner pillow of the couch, is a handgun, its ornate handle just visible
Joining the Marines
Born in 1923, Stan R. Nelson was raised in south Minneapolis. He grew up poor, but found a good job at 17 at Minneapolis Sugar Feed Company. Before that he was an amateur boxer, going to nationals in the Gold Gloves tournament (and eventually having five professional fights.) After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he knew he’d end up in the service, but he waited for the inevitable draft, as he wanted to save some money for his mother and his family.
When he was drafted, he was sent to Fort Snelling. He didn’t like the process. “They sent us through Fort Snelling, bare ass and in fairly cold weather. We were sent from one room to another and split into lines of short, fat, et cetera. On the sideline there was a Marine in his dress blues. He got up and tapped me on the shoulder, and said you look like a Marine to me. That’s when I joined the Marines.”
Boot Camp, and then the Marine Raiders
Nelson fared well at boot camp, but on graduation day, he watched the members of his platoon leave for their assignments. He didn’t get one until his drill instructor and the review officer arrived to inform him that he had been selected as the Honor Graduate (also known as the Honor Man) of his platoon, which earned him a place in Officer Candidate School. Unfortunately, there was a problem.
At the time, Nelson lacked a high school education, and due to Marine Corps rules, he couldn’t attend without OCS without it. Instead, he was delegated to more menial tasks as the Marines he trained with went to their new units. About a month later, he soon heard that the Marine Raiders were looking for replacements.
The Chinese Influence
The Marine Raiders aren’t exactly easy to describe. They were largely inspired by-then Lieutenant Colonel (and eventual Brigadier General) Evans Carlson, who spent a great deal of time in China, including a year traveling with the Chinese military, alongside leaders such as Mao Zedong, as its forces attempted to combat the Japanese invasion of mainland China in 1937. Outmatched by the Japanese military, the Chinese military suffered a series of major defeats, but they didn’t fold. Instead, they harassed the Japanese forces with quick strikes and guerilla attacks. The Chinese troops also had a much different outlook on how they treated officers and enlisted men, encouraging officers to lead in example in combat, instead of by their rank alone.
A few years later, in 1940, the British developed a similar idea, forming the first Commando units, which, like the Chinese guerilla units, were intended to strike quickly, in daring raids, often infiltrating behind enemy lines in the process. And then, just as in China, the units were created in part due to a sense of desperation in the face of an overwhelming enemy.
The Marine Raiders Are Born
After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military was drawn into the war, and after repeated defeats across the Pacific, the U.S. was looking for answers. There were several different proponents for agile, special-ops-type units that could strike behind enemy lines—and soon. One of the chief supporters of the idea was James Roosevelt, the son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a member of the Marine Corps Reserves. Others disagreed: to some members of the brass, an “elite marine unit” was redundant, as the Marines were already elite.
Those in favor of the new units won out, and the 1st and 2nd Raider Battalions were created in 1942. Lt. Col. Merritt Edson, who would soon become famous at the Battle of Edson’s Ridge on Guadalcanal, commanded the 1st Raiders, and Lt. Col. Evans Carlson led the 2nd.
Carlson brought along some of the ideas he’d picked up in China, including a more relaxed view of rank and the interactions between officers and enlisted men. Enlisted men in his Raider division rarely had to salute—something unheard of elsewhere in the Marines, and he also introduced a now-familiar bit of lingo to the leathernecks—the term Gung-Ho, which roughly translates as “Work Together” in Chinese. Even more crucially, Carlson also introduced the concept of the modern fire team, which is now standard in both the Marines and the Army.
Eventually, there were four raider battalions in all, and they soon saw some of the heaviest fighting in the Pacific. Nelson describes the situation like this, “They needed Raider replacements, but in a hurry.” The training was arduous, 12 hours a day, with many water discipline marches, which were intended to emulate the conditions of the sweltering Pacific, where water was often impossible to get on the battlefield.
Then, like now, some of the candidates washed out. Nelson describes it: “On long hikes, some just collapsed, but as long as they crawled until the end of the march, they made it.”
Some Unique Training
While much of the Raider training would be familiar today—there was a lot of long marches and shooting—some of it was less traditional. On one occasion, Nelson and his fellow Marines were treated to a demonstration by the famous archer Howard Hill, famous doing the archery stuntwork for Eroll Fynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Apparently, “Somebody in the Marine Corps thought that a skilled archer could be good for picking enemy soldiers off.” Of course, Hill was one of the best archers in the world and had spent years perfecting his craft. Still, he put on a show. “He did some remarkable things. He shot cardboard disks out volunteers’ hands, busted balloons way up in the air.”
A Strange Detour
Before Nelson and his fellow Raiders set out for the war, they got to pretend to be in one. The replacements for the Marine Raiders were called in to serve as extras on Gung-Ho, the 1943 movie about the Marine Raiders and the August 1942 Makin Island Raid, in which Carlson’s Raiders conducted one of the first American land offensive operations in the Pacific.
“Out of the blue sky, it just happened, and I don’t know if the Commandant was responsible because of good publicity, or what. The movie was actually nothing like the actual Makin, but it was interesting, meeting some of the guys.”
After the filming, the Raiders were treated to dinner at the famous Masqers club, an actors’ club frequented by A-list celebrities. There, Nelson met celebrities including future President Ronald Reagan; because of the hierarchy of the club, Nelson found himself most interested in the actors working the tables—lots of extras from B-westerns, including famous movie villain Charlie King.
As it happens, Nelson was in the original movie, but it’s since been edited down to fit TV (and for DVD), and his scenes were cut. He can still pick out a few buddies, however, who were close to the leaders and in the background.
Into the War
Soon enough, however, Nelson and his fellow Raiders were headed to the real deal. Their first stop was New Caledonia, and from there, to Guadalcanal (which was already under U.S. control), where their Raider unit was folded into the “New” Fourth Marine Regiment, the old one having surrendered at Bataan and which had then endured the Bataan Death March.
Their first mission as a new unit was to capture Emirau in late March 1944, which was north of the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul. The capture of the island, coupled with the construction of new airbases there, allowed the Allies to isolate the Japanese stronghold.
Nelson describes the mission as “relatively bloodless;” the Japanese had abandoned the island, and the Seabees soon showed up to build airbases. About a month later, Nelson and the 1st Provisional Brigade were sent to the northern Mariana Islands, where the plan was to capture Saipan, then Guam, then Tinian.
Nelson’s group was slated to take Guam, but Saipan turned out to be a shock. The Japanese had fortified much of the island and it turned into ridge-for-ridge fight. The battle lasted just three weeks, but cost more than 3000 U.S. KIA and 10,000 wounded. (For some grim perspective, that’s more than all the combined soldiers killed in action in the entire war in Afghanistan.)
After almost a month listening to reports from Saipan filter in, Nelson’s unit was set to invade Guam. In a piece he wrote for the January 2017 publication of The Minnesota Weapons Collectors Association, Nelson writes:
Finally on the morning of July 21, with full packs and weapons, amid the deafening racket of naval shelling and plane strafing, we crept down into the hold of our LST and in a fog of exhaust fumes crammed into our assigned Amphtracs. Once loaded these vehicles clanked over the lowered ramp of the LST and dropped into the sea, churning into irregular lines being formed by Amphtracs from other LSTs. Being in the 3rd wave our Amphtracs circled in the heavy swells, waiting the signal to go in. Some of us became nauseous, no doubt the result of a greasy breakfast, exhaust fumes and ocean swells; soon almost everyone was vomiting, and ashore things would get no better.
The first wave got in OK, the second received some artillery fire, and we really caught hell. From high land beyond the beaches the Jap artillery had our range. Directly ahead of us I saw 3 wrecked Amphtracs and guys crawling on the beach and a few yards alongside us a direct hit blew the pilot off his Amphtrac and helmets and weapons were flying. Something broke the tread on that side of our vehicle and we had to flounder to the beach in knee-deep water. There were dead and wounded Marines along the beach and shallow water and our corpsmen were pulling the wounded in to some tidewater ridges for protection from small arms fire.
Farther inland Jap artillery was all overhead indicating fixed gun positions, but machine gun and rifle fire was heavy in certain areas where they had cut fire lanes. We were soon able to work in close enough to use grenades and satchel charges on caves and pill boxes. This was slow going until about noon when we were joined by two men from Special Weapons Battalion armed with Rocket Launchers, which we had never seen before, though the army had used them in North Africa and Europe.
Eventually, Nelson and the Marines made their way past the beachhead and headed for their objective, Harmon Road, near Mt. Alifan.
When asked how the amphibious landings in the Pacific differed from those in Europe, Nelson noted that in the Pacific, in the jungles, “sometimes you could just bump into the enemy when coming around the turn.”As it happened, that’s exactly what happened to Nelson and a dozen of the Marines on the first day on Guam:
Going up a steep slope, a dozen or so of us reached the ridge top and stopped to catch our breath while waiting for those behind us. Some guys were smoking, some sitting, Jim, a BAR man (Browning Automatic Rifle) was kneeling while putting a loaded magazine back in his BAR while I was adjusting an Air Force shoulder holster for my 1911 A1 .45 while sitting on a steel can of belted machine gun ammo.
Someone yelled “Look Out” and we turned to see a Jap officer with upraised sword flanked by 2 other sword bearing soldiers and 3 loyal riflemen screaming “Banzai” (or something). What followed was over in about 20 seconds. Caught with our pants down we all reacted well. Jim blocked the officer’s overhead sword swing with his BAR; I already had my .45 in my hand so thumbed the safety off and shot first, just pointing, dropping the officer and one of the NCO’s with 5 shots. The guy who yelled the warning had a Thompson Submachine gun which he picked up and started firing just after I did while Jim, still kneeling, regained his balance and fired his Bar from the hip, cutting the Jap riflemen down not 20 feet away. Our officers came running up anticipating an attack in force, but scanning the foothills with binoculars they saw nothing but dust on the distant Harmon Road where our supply trucks were coming up. So we conducted a post-mortem on the dead Japs. The officer and 2 NCOs all had Nambu pistols, fully loaded, yet no shots were fired—another Japanese mystery.
Such banzai attacks were common on Guam, and they simultaneously baffled the U.S. service members and were welcomed by them. It got to the point where they would just “charge and we would just mow them down; shoulder to shoulder…I still don’t know whether that was because of the urge of every theoretical Samurai/Bushido military man to die before surrender. Maybe they knew they were going to get wiped out, so they decided to do it the hard way. I haven’t read enough from their perspective. There have been a few Japanese military reminisces translated, and I do know the life for the average Japanese solider at that time was awful.”
Other threats Nelson describes were less straightforward, “Toward the end, on almost every island, at night we’d be dug into foxholes, and the Japanese would come over with a knife or a bayonet on a stick, get up as close as the could and jump into the foxhole. We lost a few people like that, getting stabbed in foxholes. That’s why everyone in the Marines had their own pistol; you needed something you could move fast.”
After victory was declared on Guam, Nelson was recovering from hearing loss back on Guadalcanal and was held back from the next campaign where he was stationed at headquarters and served as a boxing coach, putting on exhibition matches for the men.
Nelson hated every minute of it, describing it as a “goldbrick operation all the way through…I wanted to go where the action was, and where my friends were. That’s what happens in a situation, you get to know people.”
When headquarters was soon moved to Guam—the new forward base—he sought to get sent back to his old unit. He got his wish, and was soon on a transport headed to Okinawa.
After several days of trekking to catch up with the Marines—and passing dead Japanese soldiers and U.S. Marines alike along the way—Nelson arrived at headquarters and was assigned to serve as security for the Graves and Registration staff members who were recovering and recording the bodies Nelson had just seen.
Civilians Caught in the Middle on Okinawa
At night on Okinawa, Nelson manned a Browning Light Machine Gun, which is “something that I don’t like to remember.”
During the course of the war, the Japanese had convinced the indigenous inhabitants of Okinawa and Saipan that American soldiers were beasts deadset upon murder and torture. The Japanese even went as far to encourage Okinawans to commit suicide, sometimes even providing them with hand grenades.
Further complicating matters, thousands of Okinawans had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese, making it next to impossible for U.S. soldiers to tell civilians from the enemy, especially at night.
The Marines did their best to counter this propaganda, dropping paper pamphlets and blasting loudspeakers that asked Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians alike to come out peacefully during the daytime. This occasionally worked, and Okinawans were even sometimes accompanied by Japanese wounded. But all too often, Japanese soldiers—and Okinawan natives—would rush the Marine lines at night, “So we would shoot, and few got through. That’s when the civilians would get killed.”
Eventually, the cumulative requests to surrender during the daytime gained traction, and tens of thousands of civilians were spared. Some 7,000 Japanese soldiers even surrendered, an incredibly high number given that other battles had produced perhaps a few hundred. (At Iwo Jima, there were perhaps 200 Japanese POWs; at Saipan, around just 900.)
As the Japanese capacity to resist waned, many Japanese soldiers holed up in the many caves and tunnels in southern Okinawa; these were sealed off with explosives and bulldozers. Nelson notes that “the last shots I fired on Okinawa were at someone taking pot shots at bulldozer operators.”
The battle of Okinawa ended as one of the deadliest battles in the war for the United States. Despite its brevity—it was over in around three months—12,000 Americans died in combat, and 110,000 Japanese soldiers died. According to the Okinawa Prefecture, 100,000 civilians died during the battle, and many more were wounded, physically or otherwise.
Planning for Operation Downfall
Nelson and the Marines headed back to Guam, assuming that they’d soon be taking part in the invasion of Japan, which was expected to dwarf Okinawa in terms of casualties. According to a then-top secret report, U.S. planners expected hundreds of thousands of U.S. casualties, with one estimate projecting that half a million American soldiers and sailors would die, along with millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians.
But then came Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Echoing the sentiments of many American soldiers and civilians of the era (and President Harry Truman), it seemed like a “gift from God.”
Into Tokyo After All
After the Japanese surrendered, Nelson’s unit was sent to Japan after all, to take part in occupation duty. Just as with his division’s appearance in the film about the Marine Raiders in 1943, he chalks it up to good publicity. “It was a last-minute affair. The 6th Division was going to China to accept the surrender of the Japanese there, but someone got the idea to have the New 4th Marines release the old 4th Marines, who had surrendered at Bataan.”
Life After the War
Always an inveterate reader and a historian, Nelson earned a degree in history at Macalester college after the war. In fact, he was so well-versed in Frontier History that one of the professors asked him to teach a seminar on Frontier History, enabling him to pay off his tuition. (He also studied history in graduate school for one year at the University of Minnesota.)
Until the last few years, Nelson never really talked all that much about his wartime service. “I never joined veteran’s organizations; those were all young guys, all 21 and 22, and most of them drank. I knew what kind of meetings those would be, so I didn’t join.”
Still, Nelson notes, he was somewhat surprised by the reaction to his piece in the Minnesota Weapons Collectors Association, which drove a lot of interest. When asked if it was easier to talk about things now, he said, “When someone has seen a fair amount of combat, and enough of the blood and guts, your mind picks it up and it makes impressions that you never lose, even though you try to lose them. Myself and almost everyone I know after World War 2, they didn’t talk about it.”
That makes it all the more fortunate that folks like Mr. Nelson are still around and willing to chat for a couple hours on a Friday morning, because some stories are too important not to be told.