Interview with Sterling Mace
ww2dbaseIn Fall 2012, World War II Memoirist Sterling Mace agreed to be interviewed by Bryan Hiatt, Assistant Professor of English at Frederick Community College and longtime contributor and blogger at ww2db.com. What follows is part one of a three part series running over the next few weeks. Mace is the author of Battleground Pacific: A Marine Rifleman's Combat Odyssey in K/3/5 (May 2012) with Nick Allen.
Part I: Pre-War
Part II: In the Pacific
Part III: Post War
Part I: Pre-War
Hiatt: Early in the book, you describe your father starting a fire to unfreeze a frozen engine block in winter. Do other examples of depression-era problem solving come to mind and how did these contribute to your outlook growing up?
Mace: That's a good question, and I remember an event that taught me that you can dress something up like it's something special, and even believe it to be true, but that doesn't mean that it is. After all, ignorance is bliss, isn't it? Because like a magician who shows you the secret behind his trick, from that moment on, it's up to you to decide whether or not the illusion is greater than the sham. In other words, you can hold on to the magic or let it go.
In this case I had an aunt who trained in from California all the way to New York. Because of the financial difficulties that prevailed during the depression years, my dad in order to prevent the family from appearing destitute, filled her request for food in a peculiar way. My aunt asked for a squab because she was famished from such a long trip. A squab? Where she got that idea I'll never know. Unbeknownst to anyone, though, my dad went out to the pigeon coop, and he grabbed the fattest city pigeon out there. He plucked it clean, smothered it with butter to give it a golden brown hue, and then placed it the oven. My dad even put it on one of our best plates and presented it to her as if she were royalty. She ate it and loved it. However, to prevent her from getting any other ideas, dad told her that she was lucky because that was the last squab of the bunch-that we had already eaten its brethren the week before!
In this case I chose the illusion over the facts, because the facts back then were sometimes just as illusory as the real thing.
Hiatt: The sledding episode early in the book captures a unique moment in time, of still being a kid and also of a future with girls in the mix. I have to ask, though: did your sled have a name?
Mace: My Junior Racer Flexible flyer was named Rosebud, Jr. Or, better yet, "Mine." Throw in "Beautiful" for good measure. I suppose if someone would have swiped it I would have named it "Gone."
Hiatt: What did you like so much about baseball growing up? Did you have a favorite professional team in New York? Favorite player(s)?
Mace: Playing ball as a travelling team you came into each town as the unknown factor. Now, when I say "town," I'm speaking of little spots within the boroughs of New York that had their own names. Communities, if you will. The stands were hostile, the people unfamiliar, and as for the fields, themselves, some of them were in very good shape, while others were just awful. In other words, you never knew what you were going to get. Yet, if we knew we could beat the team, we would go into our showoff mode that would really rile the hometown fans. It was all in good fun, though, and that's what made it my favorite sport... partially because it was the most popular sport at the time, drawing good attendance, even though it was all local stuff.
It was also my favorite because we kids organized it ourselves, sometimes with a little adult help, but mostly not. Every little town like Richmond Hill, Queens or South Ozone Park, Queens, would form our own teams and pool our nickels in order to make the trip somewhere. It's even true that we bet with those nickels, in what would probably make the White Sox laugh. Again, it was strictly kid stuff; nevertheless, we had to possess a little drive to make it all work, otherwise there would be no baseball.
My favorite team was the New York giants. My favorite player was Carl Hubble, another lefty, famous for his screwball.
Part II: In the Pacific
Hiatt: In the photograph section of the book, you mention “throwing your arm out” as a pitcher in Casual Company. How extensive were Marine Corp athletic programs in those years? Were they casual? intra-mural? Matches between battalions/divisions?
Mace: First you have to understand the nature of Casual Company. Casual Company was a group of marines with no specialized training, in say, intelligence, machine guns, or the like. It was at New River, Camp Lejeune-just a pool of marines waiting to get their orders. So, stateside didn't have a solid athletic program, other than intramural, because people were always shipping out. I played baseball a short time before throwing out my arm, as a member of the Hadnot Point team, Camp Lejeune. At the same time, though, if you were really good you could stick with the team and play skip out on combat. Eventually the really good ones went into the 12th defense battalion and played baseball on a daily basis on Saipan. If I hadn't messed up my arm I probably would have done the same thing, but as it, I went into a rifle squad. I'm glad for it, though. Even though guys were rotating out in Casual Company, we still had Marine Corps baseball uniforms that sort of made you feel like an elite member of an already elite group. Come to find out, however, that the really elite group was the fellows that landed on those beaches... and I wouldn't have traded that for anything in the world (although I wouldn't do it again for anything, either).
Now, stationed overseas baseball was a different story, where there were regiments and division, and each company had a softball team. We would play against other companies. Individual companies had dirt basketball and volleyball courts, too. I understand the 1st regiment even had a track team. It was short lived, and it was only between Peleliu and Okinawa, as we were stationed on Pavuvu again, but I was the captain of the softball team for K Company. We had some really good times before we gave it all up on Okinawa.
Hiatt: In the book, you mention using the BAR and M1 in your experiences in the Pacific. In your view, what was the most effective weapon you fired or witnessed another marine firing?
Mace: That would be the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR); the one I carried and used on Peleliu, which could lay down a hellfire of 20 rounds in 2.5 seconds. It was a little heavy at 19 lbs, but it was not cumbersome in the least.
You know those little crackers called Cheese Nips? Well, with the BAR I created this little snack called Swiss Cheese Nips (if you catch my meaning).
Hiatt: What was the least effective weapon you observed in combat (and why)?
Mace: That would be the M1 carbine. It was such a flimsy little thing, with a small caliber round. I don't know about over in Europe, but in the Pacific you got the feeling that these were only to be used as a last resort, or at really close range.
Oh, they were deadly, and I'm sure a lot of the enemy met their ends with M1 carbines, but it certainly wasn't the weapon of choice for a rifleman. Those would be the M1 rifle, the BAR, Thompson machine guns and sometimes shotguns. But Tommy guns and shotguns were almost worthless in any type of jungle fighting.
Back to the carbine, though. I think they were a godsend to guys like the mortarmen, because these marines had a tremendous amount of gear to lump; therefore, anything bigger than a carbine would be impractical. That's probably the same thing with the artillerymen and the tankers. i.e. guys responsible for a lot of heavy equipment.
Hiatt: The appearance of the chicken on Peleliu is certainly a surprising moment in the book, as is the image of Douglas shaving during an artillery barrage. Were there other moments similar to these that surprised you that didn't make it into the book?
Mace: The appearance of the chicken was the most surprising because of the enemy presence. If Douglas shaving tried to impress anybody it wasn't working.
The indigenous birds on Peleliu, with their strange warbling cry in the morning, was spine tingling and surprising, but I don't think anything surprised me as much as how any of us made it out of Okinawa alive.
I suppose you could say that it was a surprise to witness the surprised looks on marine's faces as the life ebbed out of them. That shouldn't have been surprising at all, given the circumstances. But we were young.
Hiatt: In the book, you mention the "distance" between intelligence and actual facts on the ground in Peleliu. With 60+ years hindsight and study, do believe that battle planners had much of an idea beyond the "3 days"?
Mace: The battle planners missed the boat when they said it was three days and it was over, like Tarawa, especially when consider the size of Peleliu, alone. That is, how could they say it would be like Tarawa, when it was a whole lot bigger? At the same, bigger islands took longer to take than Peleliu, so the math is off to begin with. In other words, as well meaning as I'm sure they were, there was no way the brass could have anticipated the Japanese dug into honeycombed cliffs like they were. Who's going to put a stopwatch on that and call it quits at 3 days? I think they were just telling us that to make us feel better, because really they had no idea.
Hiatt: What was the most evocative nickname you recall of a person or equipment? EX: "Screaming Jesus".
Mace: Not many. A marine could give a nickname to just about anything. I'm sure I was "shithead" a time or two. It could happen to anybody. But there was this one guy named Zombie, who sort of loped around just as his name implies. Then there was this machine gunner named Preacher Will. I didn't know him that well, but I imagine he was some sort of backwoods bible baby, who had aspirations after the war. I bet he was a great guy, and I hope he made it home. He was probably the opposite of Larry Mahan, who was a staunch atheist (the first guy I knew like that). Just being a pal with a guy named "Preacher," though would have made me want to stick a little close to the guy.
Hiatt: Would you describe your exit from the boomerang formation on Okinawa to aid the wounded Marines as a "breaking point?"
Mace: Taking the jeep to the battalion aid station, getting the thing to moving in the mud, the purpose of the mission, and saving those marines was the stimulant. The first spark-not the fire.
It was only when I really got my bell rung (almost checking out in the process), in the aftermath of an attack under an artillery barrage, was when you might say I was at my "breaking point," though I didn't feel broken, despite certainly being at a "point." If Corpsman Chulis had not caught a look at my eyes I would have still been on the line. He sent me back. I knew something was wrong with me, but I had no idea that both of my eardrums were pierced through and that I was massively concussed. In fact, I never even had the thought of coming off the line until Chulis presented me with the option (actually, I had no choice in the matter. They would have came and got me on Chulis' authority). Having said that, I was glad to get the hell out of there.
Because the truth is, you've always heard that saying, "That bullet had his name on it," yet that big stuff coming in on us-that artillery-it only reads, "To whom in may concern."
Hiatt: A Vietnam era marine veteran once told me that he would not read memoirs because "what marines do should remain unspoken" to the public. Did you have any reservations about including details like visiting a prostitute or admitting that it is "an easy thing to do... to kill a man," or "pil[ing[ up Nips with my BAR"?
Mace: I might have sided with this Vietnam marine if I were a younger man, but these days I have no qualms about writing about my days in combat, since for many years I barely said a word about it.
It's sort of funny, but up until a few years ago, when my wife passed away, I was still unable, or unwilling to talk about it. Sure, I told some funny stories to my children sometimes, but the real combat I left out. These days, though, what have I got to lose? I wanted to write a book that told the whole truth and nothing but. I wanted to bridge the gap between my generation and this one by letting them know that not much has changed since I was in the marines-since I was their age. There was a lot more bawdier stuff that we left out, simply because it didn't have its place, but times change-people don't.
Also understand, that an awful lot of marines were in combat zones, but that doesn't mean they participated in combat. The old expression, "I don't want to talk about it," is because a lot (but not all, of course) don't have anything to talk about. I never wanted to be one of those guys. It just so happened that circumstances lead me down a different path.
If you really want to hear some dirt you should listen to my experiences in the theater business after the war. That'll get you revved up!
Part III: Post War
Hiatt: What were some of the challenges of writing a book that relied so heavily on dialog?
Mace: There were a few challenges, but not many. It was hard work that I think paid off. As I wrote to someone on the same topic:
A good example would be when Larry Mahan, George McNevin and myself were talking before going into battle, I made it very clear that I didn't recall who said the last words, but I remember the whole conversation preceding our final goodbye.
In some cases, when reciting dialogue, we would write it down for the book, but then I would lay in bed at night thinking about it when I realized that it was Larry who spoke first and not George, or that I had gotten the order of the words mixed up, but that the words, themselves, were correct. Then I would have to go back to Mr. Allen and let him know that I was incorrect the first time. From there he would ask questions like, "Did he say this fast or slow?" "Did he pause at any time?" "What would you say his attitude was at the time?" Things like that.
Now, granted, there could have been a lot more dialogue, but if I was foggy on something, we either cut it or never included it. It had to meet that 10% margin of error... or 90% correct. So, yes, I suppose there could be some errors in there, but not very many, I can assure you of that.
Hiatt: Aside from your book, what are 5 books that students of WW II history should read?
Mace: Coral Comes High by George P. Hunt, Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis, The Naked and The Dead by Norman Mailer, Neptune's Inferno by James D. Hornfischer, The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich by William L. Shirer.
Hiatt: After viewing HBO's The Pacific mini-series, you highlight (in a news article) the distinction between riflemen and motormen via this quote: "My mother wants to join the service, can she join the mortar men?" How intense was the ribbing that occurred between different groups of marines?
Mace: No, for the most part there was really no ribbing to speak of - only good-natured ribbing among marines you knew. You know, cracking jokes among buddies. That quote from the article was really a misquote. The truth is, that's what RD Wilson (Blowtorch Willy) told that kid Snafu Shelton, but only because Shelton had a personality disorder, not because Snafu was in the mortars. In fact, there was really no time to rib anybody or put down anybody while on Pavuvu, because most guys didn't mingle with other units. Riflemen would pal around with other riflemen, the mortarmen would pal with the other mortarmen, the officers with the officers, and right on down the line. That separation was not forced, nor was it anything many people thought about, as far as I know. Really, marines were friendly with one another, and if it ever came time for a fight, it would happen within your own ranks, because of the above reasons.
I think the reason many people think that I am "anti-mortars" is because of some of the things I mention in my book, yet I made it clear that the mortarmen were excellent marines like any other (they had to do their jobs well, otherwise the riflemen would have been sunk). It's only because of a series of unfortunate events that happened amongst the mortars that made us raise our eyebrows at the time. Coming back from Peleliu, though, I know I didn't give those events much of a thought, except for what the 81mm mortars did to us on Ngesebus.
So, I hope I answered your question. There's another part of the equation, that yes, if you're a rifleman you think the machine gunners have it better than you. A machine gunner probably thought the 60mm mortars had it better than them, and the 60mm mortars probably thought the 81mm mortars had it better than them, and so on. All of that though is not only human nature (whether it's real or only imagined); moreover, I believe it's just a result of "birds of a feather, flock together."
Sure, I nearly got into a fistfight with Sgt. Spiece, and sure nobody liked that Shelton kid too much, but otherwise we were a part of a community and we acted like it.
Hiatt: In the same article, you mentioned that "There's too much machine gun fire, too many mortars" in The Pacific mini-series. Is there is a war movie that you have seen through the years that hits the mark in terms of historical accuracy and combat visuals?
Mace: Well, there's no Hollywood film that captures the full experience. There are certain films, like The Story of GI Joe with Robert Mitchum and Burgess Meredith that had the best sound effects of any film about the war. The sound in that movie was exactly the way they were in real life. It was almost like they had recordings of the shells falling on Okinawa to capture that feel. Otherwise, there are bits and pieces of films - even The Pacific television show - that have realistic sections. Battle Cry is another that comes to mind. I think some of the movies from the 50s, made by some men who had come back from overseas, probably had more accurate parts in there, despite not being able to show scenes that can be shown in films today.
Hiatt: Finally, if there were one thing you'd like readers to know about your book, what is it?
Mace: I would like for readers to know that they are getting something unique with the story I have to tell. Contrary to popular belief, even with a major publisher, there isn't any money in these kinds of books, so rest assured your investment should be in the interest in educating yourself to how the war was seen from this rifleman's perspective. It's a unique perspective. One that I give to honor those who never made it back.
Bryan Hiatt's review of Battleground Pacific: A Marine Rifleman's Combat Odyssey in K/3/5 can be found on his World War II File blog right here on WW2DB. ww2dbase
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945