It was his son’s curiosity that whetted his appetite to gather more details about what had happened to them on Saipan, those weeks they faced their fears as they claimed the island from Japanese military stranglehold.
Mark Leary Matthews was in his 30s when he asked his father, WWII veteran Carl Matthews, how come they had never talked about the Marine whose last name he carries as his middle.
The elder Matthews had grieved over the loss of his platoon officer, his friend, Lt. James Stanley Leary Jr. on Saipan. His remains were never recovered from the battlefield following the last of the skirmishes with the defiant Japanese military.
Mark’s curious question kindled in Carl a gnawing desire to memorialize all the details he could find about their time on Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands. One memory after another, he put them together in his narrative of the war.
In his autobiography, Carl invokes these memories, crisp as a new dollar bill, as if he were describing the event in real time.
Before he saw action on Saipan, he was in Samoa then he saw action on Roi-Namur, north of Kwajalein in the Marshalls.
“The stench of the island grew worse as the sun heated the concrete and the bloated bodies of Japanese who still lay where they had been hit,” wrote he in is autobiography.
He said he had a strange experience back there. Before disembarking the Sheridan, Carl had stowed a copy of the Gideon New Testament wrapped in plastic in his chest pocket before wading ashore on Roi. Later, when the campaign was over, he discovered lodged in its pages a shrapnel. He said what was even stranger was it darted on the part of the scripture that states “from whence cometh wars.”
Roi, for Carl, was the least costly of all the prior campaigns and securing the Marshalls had moved the Americans’ timetable for invading the Marianas by six months.
Before he was to take part in the Battle of Saipan, the Marines were to spend several months training on Maui, in Hawaii. From Roi, Carl noted that they arrived on Maui on February 16, 1944, four months before they storm the beaches of Saipan.
Before deploying to Saipan, a new platoon leader took over command: Lt. James Stanley Leary Jr. whom Carl later came to know as “generous” and “gregarious”. Carl was to serve as Leary’s “runner”, an aide-de-camp who would be transmitting messages for Leary to whoever.
While training on Maui, he ran into Lee Marvin, who would later be wounded on the day they hit the shores of Saipan, and later still, become a famous actor.
In his autobiography, Carl was forthcoming about feeling afraid going into another major battle. There was a passage there where he compared notes with his childhood friend, Bill Lawrence, a Navy Corpsman. “I confessed to Bill that I had been afraid. I questioned Bill, ‘Were you scared?’ Bill, whose unit had hit Namur and was involved in some very heavy fighting, replied, ‘Hell yes! Never been so cared in my life!’ I was comforted.”
The invasion of Saipan
On June 15, 1944, Carl was among the first wave of Marines to wade ashore. A photograph of him (Carl was second from right) with two other Marines—Leary from Ahoskie, North Carolina, his platoon leader, and Wendell Nightingale of Skowhegan, Maine— in front of an Amtrac on a beach in Chalan Kanoa has been used in many publications, and a copy of which hangs on the wall of the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico. Both Leary and Nightingale would die on Saipan.
“We were on the beach for no more than 90 seconds, but in that time a combat photo was taken in which I appear. An enlargement of that photo now hangs in the Saipan exhibit at the National Marine Corps Museum,” said he to this reporter.
On June 19, 1944, just when they thought they had been traversing unopposed over a a vast farmland; the enemy surprised them with a hail of bullets. This had scuttled them back to safety in the gully. His tent-mate in Maui, Wendell, was unfortunately hit.
“Before I could think of what to do, Richard Freeby (my Gold Dust Twin from Quannah, Texas) had dropped his rifle and was racing against the hail of bullets and had reached Nightingale’s side. He began pulling him toward the gully when additional shots hit Nightingale. Nightingale was dead and we watched in horror as Freeby dropped Nightingale and began to race back to the gully. Freeby was not hit, but his pack was riddled with holes. He cried. That was the greatest act of bravery I had ever seen or ever hope to see. He had risked his own life in an attempt to save the life of his friend.And he cried when he realized he had failed,” wrote Carl about losing one of his friends.
As they pushed further inland, the terrain offered more challenges for them, and how they always prepared for the possibility of a banzai attack.
“Nights were always frightening—especially frightening because of several banzai attacks, but they were becoming less frequent as we moved through the mountains. However, there was always the possibility of such an attack at any moment. Consequently, we rarely if ever, moved at night. We always attempted to be in position by nightfall, foxholes dug and a knowledge of where everyone else in the platoon was located. It was amazing just how fast a foxhole could be dug with our little shovels. I developed the proficiency of a salamander taking care, of course, not to dig in farmhouse garden plots,” said Carl infusing a bit of humor as he alluded to an experience he had digging foxhole in the farmland enriched with manure.
Despite having had to endure wearing dungarees soaked in mud and sweat for weeks without an opportunity to wash up and change, one thing Carl said could manage to do: “We changed socks regularly, washing them wherever possible and drying them on the run. We had no changes of dungarees.”
Three weeks after the invasion, the campaign had begun to take a toll on them. As they pushed the Japanese further to the northeast end of the island, they experienced a staunch opposition from the Japanese, resulting in casualties from their end.
“We had experienced a series of bad days, more men had been killed or wounded and the few replacements sent could not produce like the men who had trained together who were hardened by experience, who had been part of a team that had developed close personal ties. We had been on the island for three weeks and were becoming drained physically and emotionally,” he said.
On Saipan, they had to wrestle with a moral dilemma: to kill or be killed. Carl said, “The mountains were filled with small caves, crevices, little ravines, and all sorts of places for the enemy to hide. We began using flame throwers in places where we knew the Japanese might be, but couldn’t see then. I always felt bad when the Japanese would run out of their holes, almost naked, but with fuel and fire from the flame throwers covering their bodies, screaming and dying. But if we gave them half a chance we would have been the ones dying.”
There were moments of extreme anguish. Carl shared a story about a squad leader he called “Billings.” Their platoon leader had called for a meeting of all squad leaders and Billings was unaccounted for. Carl had learned that he went down the ridge, he followed him there and told him that Leary had summoned him. His response to Carl: “Matthews, I can’t go back up there. I’m scared that we are all going to die. I just can’t go back up there.”
He was impervious to Carl’s reasoning with him. Carl said that forced Leary himself to come for him, pointed his carbine at Billings, and said, “Billings, you are either going to go back on the ridge where you may die; but if you don’t, you sure as hell are going to die right here and now.” He decided to come back to the ridge with them.
Towards the tail end of the battle was when the G Platoon suffered a a major loss. It was the day before the last Banzai attack. Carl recounted the details:
“… we were high on the mountain road that was bordered by a stone wall. Beyond the stone wall was an open field, quite level, and beyond that a steep cliff with, possibly, a sixty or seventy degree slope. The slope was covered with heavy vegetation and looked over a large plain that went to the ocean shore.
We rested at the stone wall for several minutes and began moving across the open field to the edge of the cliff. There was no resistance. We began to make our way down the steep slope. We were almost a third of the way down when the order came to hold up to permit other units with more difficult terrain to reach their place on the line. Mr. Leary and I sat on a small mound of earth that was level, looked at the ocean, and at the open plain north and south.
Six or seven hundred yards to the north I spotted several Japanese soldiers walking into the open from a stand of heavy trees. I watched them through my binoculars and realized that they were officers in full dress uniforms, complete with swords. They were, apparently, discussing the situation and looking in our direction. I pointed them out to Mr. Leary. Our small arms could not reach the distance involved and Mr. Leary was considering calling for artillery to shell the area.
No shots had been fired for, perhaps, thirty or forty minutes and Mr. Leary and I had commented that it appeared that the Japanese were near the end of their fight. Word was passed that we were to move out and as Mr. Leary and I stood up a burst of machine gun fire erupted and I instinctively fell to the ground. Somehow, I knew that Mr. Leary had been hit…and bad. J P North was just above us and I heard him call for a corpsman. I remember telling North that it was too late for a corpsman. Mr. Leary was dead.”
Carl was wounded from a blast that ruptured his left eardrum and blood vessels in his head. He had a severe mental block that he could not remember what had happened to them on the last day of the fighting with the Japanese.
He said he had deteriorated emotionally. It took him months to deal with what had happened. “When my leader died, I gave up,” was what Carl happened to him.
“When my leader died, I gave up.”— Carl Matthews described his emotional state following the death of his platoon leader 2nd Lt. Leary
His fellow Marines filled in the blanks for him when they had the chance to reunite for the first time after Saipan.
Carl said Frank Routh told him that they had retreated to the stonewall, and that he, Carl, had been collecting hand grenades.
“Later, someone noticed that I was walking alone across the open field in the direction of the cliff and where we had gone down the slope. Several Marines called to me to come back, but I continued to walk toward the cliff. Routh recalled that he raced across the field and reached my side before I had reached the edge of the cliff and inquired as to where I was going. I informed him that I knew where the machine gun was located and that I was on my way to knock it out.“
Carl was heading towards the edge of the cliff and could not be dissuaded; Routh had to struggle with a defiant Carl and had to subdue him before he could be taken to the medical corpsmen. Routh saved his life.
Carl Matthews, 93
Three years after he returned to Saipan to mark the 70th year of the battle, Carl passed away on Jan. 7, 2017 at the VA Hospital in Dallas, Texas. He was 93.
According to his biography, he was born on Aug. 14, 1924 in Corsicana, Texas where his father was employed by the Ford Motor Company.
He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in August 1941. He was initially with the 8th Marine Regiment which was among the first contingents of troops to leave the United States after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
While in Samoa, Matthews contracted an undiagnosed illness and was sent back to California for treatment. After his release from the hospital, he served as clerk at the headquarters in San Diego.
Following his completion of combat training in 1943, he was assigned to G Company. By February 1944, he participated in the invasion of the Marshal Islands. Then on July 15, 1944, he was among the first wave of marines to storm the beaches of Saipan. Having spent 23 days on the island, he was transferred to U.S.S. Samaritan hospital ship then later to a Navy hospital in Noumea, New Caledonia where he was awarded a Purple Heart.
Matthews obtained a college degree from Baylor University in 1948, then earned master’s degrees in theology in 1953 and religious education in 1956.
A former teacher and minister, Matthews also was owner, editor and publisher of The Burleson Shoppers Guide.
Later he became associated with the American Heart Association.
He also ventured in a steel business.
Matthews returned to Saipan to join the 60th Anniversary of the Battle of Saipan commemoration. He was among the 50 veterans who participated, including B-29 Enola Gay Captain Paul Tibbets who led the crew that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima August 6, 1945.
At 91, he published his first novel, “Dolph”, based on life of Adolphus Martin, a Kentucky slave born in 1856, who migrated to Carl’s hometown in 1878. Carl told this reporter that Dolph died in 1940 “as the largest black landowner in the area. Two sons became millionaires.”
“I never knew Dolph, but my father knew him well. I did know some of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One granddaughter earned PhD at the University of Chicago, and was a distinguished teacher at the University of Pennsylvania. A great-granddaughter married the honor student of the first class to graduate as a Tuskegee Airman. He flew 92 missions in WWII, retired as a lieutenant colonel, and was appointed by President Carter as assistant director of the National Safety Board,” he told this reporter.