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Milton "Punny" Dambacher

Milton "Punny" Dambacher

5th Marine Amphibious Corps

As told to Chace Anderson

I was born in the jail in downtown Sonora, California. No, my mom wasn’t a prisoner and neither was I. My dad Jack Dambacher, a World War I veteran who lost a leg in that conflict, was the county sheriff, and at that time the sheriff and his family had to live at the jail.  That was 1923, so my graduation date from Sonora High was June 1941. At that time there seemed to be a push to put kids into the junior colleges rather than the university, so I went to Modesto Junior College on a football scholarship. I made all-league on both offense and defense that year, the only freshman to do that. With one game remaining in that football season, Pearl Harbor was bombed. Just about everybody on the team made themselves available for duty, and so did I. That would be the end of my football playing.

In 1941, the Marines were a small part of the Navy and were the only ones trained to do amphibious landings. Lots of guys would get drafted into the Army, but you had to enlist in the Marines, and that’s what I wanted. The good thing about the Marine Corps was that you had to put yourself there. They were elite, elite, elite. The regular training for the Marines then was damn near what the Seals go through now. When you went into the Marines, no matter what your specialty was, you had to take all the physical training.

Right away I was on the list to go, but it wasn’t until well into 1942, September I think, that I was finally processed and sent to Marine boot camp in San Diego. I became a member of the 5th Marine Amphibious Corps, a unit that spent the next three years in the Pacific, taking part in many of the largest amphibious landings of the war. By the time Japan surrendered, Tarawa, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima had taken a toll on the 5th Marine Amphibious Corps, and I think there were only seven of us left.

Kiska and Attu (August 1943)

Early in the war the Japanese held the Aleutian Islands, and the Marines were sent up there to drive them out. Kiska in August of 1943 was really my first amphibious landing with the Marines. We had always been trained to take the high ground, and as we moved slowly across the island toward its highest point, there was plenty of fire above us.  Although we couldn’t see any Japanese moving around the island, we had to assume they were there. Somehow I just sensed their presence.  We advanced as we had been trained, carefully but relentlessly moving forward.

Well, we ended up taking the island, securing the high ground and the beaches. Then we found out the Japanese had already abandoned Kiska, perhaps even the day before we arrived, and all that fire above us had come from our forces. Attu had fallen three months earlier, and our unit went then from Kiska to Attu to secure that island.

Tarawa (November 1943)

In late 1943 the Marines were sent to Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. That was the first big bloody one for me. The Navy didn’t have any intelligence on what actually was on the island. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t much intelligence on most of the Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. You see, long before the war, the Japanese wiggled out something that became known as the Japanese Mandated Islands, and they went from the Central Pacific to the Marianas. Nobody had gone into that area in those years, and the Japanese had built it up. I think originally the Mandate was a political move to pacify them for something. It was their sacred land, and we didn’t know anything about it.

Now, I’ll tell you this. Most of the Marines I was with thought Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Noonan, were gathering information on some of those islands when they were trying to fly around the world. We kind of believed they were really sponsored by the Navy, looking for info and Jap intelligence on these islands. There was a lot of thought that her plane went down around Kwajalein or Eniwetok, and we were told to keep a look out for any evidence of that. Anyway, here we are, prepared for the amphibious landing at Tarawa, and we don’t really have charts or good maps of what to expect. All anybody knew was that a German battleship sometime before 1935 had gone into a little cove there.

Punny, right out of boot camp, 1942

We were in the first wave in Higgins boats that had been launched from the ships, maybe 15 guys in those little boats where the front opens up. We were getting close to the island when we got hung up on coral and couldn’t go any farther. No one had even known the coral was there. So here we were in real shallow water with the enemy firing at us and casualties everywhere. Dead bodies floating in the waves. The Amphtracs [amphibious tractors] that were supposed to follow us as the second wave had to come in on the coral, and those of us who were okay moved into them to continue the assault. But there was so much fire from the enemy, that all we could do that first day was stay behind a three- or four-foot sea wall and take cover. Right next to us we’d see one of those boats get hit and “boom,” bodies went flying.

Ronnie Kimball, a boy I knew from Tuolumne, was killed at Tarawa. He had dated my wife’s sister. They promised Ronnie the world to get him in the Marine Corps. He didn’t get all the promises. He wanted to go into something special, but when he got to boot camp, he went with all the rest of us. During the landing, pinned down by the Japanese, I saw his body, half on that wall and half in the water. We stayed in a few feet of water behind that wall all the first day, sometimes down among the dead. There were only about 25 guys still alive where I was, and dead Marines under and all around us.

The Japanese tactics for years had been to counterattack at night, and those of us alive were still behind that seawall when night fell.  I could see shadows walking along the beach heading for the seawall and figured they had to be Japanese soldiers.  Again we lay among the dead.  Early the next morning I knew there were Japs in front of us, but we were also taking fire from behind, so I realized that in the night some of the enemy had come over the seawall and moved behind us.

Now this is terrible, but there were so many dead bodies and none of us moving that in the night they must have figured they completely wiped out that first wave. If they’d known how few of us were still alive that first night, I believe they could have thrown a bunch of grenades among all the bodies behind the wall and really wiped us out, making our attack the next day so much tougher. As it was, on the second day, the Navy began firing in again and planes were hitting the island, bombs dropping within damn near 100 feet of that seawall. And there were more Marines coming in. That gave us a force, and we were able to advance. Tarawa made me realize just how bloody the war was going to be.

Kwajalein and Eniwetok (January/February 1944)

When we got to Kwajalein and Eniwetok at the beginning of 1944, we knew a hell of a lot more about amphibious warfare, and we had gained some intelligence. Unlike Tarawa, where there was only one place to land and the Japanese had fortified against it, there were many places to land on Kwajalein and not nearly the fortification. It was late in the afternoon of the first day when our wave landed. The Japanese were changing their tactics. Usually they’d let the first wave in and counter attack, hitting the second. But we didn’t encounter the resistance we expected. Again, the firepower made a huge difference.

We also started using napalm there. You can put napalm on a bunker and you don’t get any shots back. The big thing I suppose is that we kept getting more battleships made and more airplanes made so the pre-neutralizing fire was twice what it had been at Tarawa.  You advance military by neutralizing whatever is holding you up. That’s the only way you’re going to go by a Japanese pillbox. I don’t care how good a bunker you have, those 16-inch shells are going to get you.

Right after Kwajalein and before Eniwetok, my unit did a reconnaissance on a little island called Majuro, where a prisoner had told us there were natives and Japanese fortifications. All we found were friendly natives and beautiful beaches. Oh, there were a few snipers, but no real enemy forces. The natives had a big luau for us, and the other units later accused us of taking a leave there. That’s a place I’d like to go back to.

I landed on Eniwetok the second day of the assault, and it was secured in about four days.  It just became kind of a little goddamn island. We hadn’t picked up any intelligence to speak of, but we sure as hell picked up some firepower. We were also better trained, and we had the Navy for artillery. With each landing, you learned more, gained more firepower, and had better pilots. The whole thing just got better. Thank God.

 R&R and Friends from Sonora

Between battles we always returned to Hawaii and our home base at Pearl Harbor. We’d have R & R for a few days and then more training. You know, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, that pink one, would rent rooms to servicemen for 25 cents a day, just for the linen service. It was the damnedest thing…we would get about three of us to rent one room and then “disinfect” the bathtub by mixing all our booze in there. We’d have a time.

You couldn’t believe how many guys from Tuolumne County I’d see in Hawaii. I ran into Jim Fernandes in Honolulu. The Fernandes family was an old Hawaiian family, but they had moved to Tuolumne County in the ‘30’s, and Jim had a band here.  Well, they got a divorce, and before the war he and one of his son’s went back to the islands.  I saw him all the time. And I’d see Warne Keagy and Ray Minners. Irving Symons was there and Bill Segerstrom. Dave Bonavia. All guys I knew here and ran into on R & R. And Johnny Sardella.

I saw Johnny Sardella get hit on Iwo Jima. At least I’m almost sure it was him. It seems like it was about the third day, maybe the fourthI knew the outfit he was in, and they were bordering our outfit. We were really hung up there with the Japs pinning us down.  He got it in the side of the head. I was 50 to 100 yards away, and it tore into his helmet. It had to have been him.  It’s hard to tell for sure…a guy has a pack on and a helmet. It was just something about him…I just thought it was Johnny. His helmet flew off, and he went down over the rocks.  I thought it was enough to kill him. 

Now they used to mail a Union Democrat to all of us in the service, and about a month after Iwo Jima, I read in a paper they sent that Johnny was wounded in the Pacific and was doing R & R. Well, I knew there was only one place the Marines had for wounded guys doing R & R, a beach close to where we were in Hawaii. I saw Dave Bonavia and Ray Minners, and I said, “Did you see the paper?  If Johnny’s alive, he’s right on this island.”  Dave and Ray and I went down to that beach. The Sardellas all had a certain walk. And he was there.  He had a towel around him. I recognized his walk. We went down and talked to him right there and had a little reunion.

Sometimes the Marines would send us over to Maui for more training. When we were there, a bunch of us would go into Lahaina to this Chinese restaurant and eat. The place was run by an old Chinaman and his family, and people said that he had the best memory of anybody in the world. This old Chinaman took a liking to us. He’d say, “You come down tonight, and I cook this and this and this for you.”  We’d go down and he’d cook up all kinds of Chinese food for us.  He’d call me Danny…that was what they called me in the service. So get this…30 or 40 years later, Joe and Joyce Martin and a bunch of us from Sonora go over and stay at Maui, and I told them there was an old Chinese guy during the war…don’t know if he’s still alive. Must have been 40 years after the war, in the ‘80’s, I think. Well, we go looking and we find that same restaurant still there. We walk in and “DANNY,” he yells.  Imagine that.  He was real old but still there, and he remembered.

My Nickname

I got the nickname “Punny” when I was about two.  Like I said, my family lived at the jail in Sonora because my dad was the sheriff, and in those days the sheriff and his family had to live at the jail. Well, one day, someone was being booked into jail who had a last name that started with a “P,” and it was a tough one to pronounce.  My mom asked him to repeat it a couple times, and each time my brother, a year older than me, would laugh.  My brother then pointed to me and said “Punny.”  And I think I’ve been called that ever since.

Now, I’ll tell you a story about my nickname that’s pretty amazing. While I was in the Pacific, my grandmother in Oakland would send me a box of cookies regularly with a note about how things were going.  I could tell from the notes that her memory may not have been what it once was. Well, I was in Hawaii for some R&R and training between battles and hadn’t had a package from my grandmother in about six weeks when a battered, crumpled up box came to me.  It had been addressed to My Grandson Punny, Somewhere in the South Pacific, United States Marine Corps.

Can you imagine? That box somehow made it through a San Francisco postal outlet, out to the Pacific, and kicked around.  Someone must have heard my nickname, and that package from my grandmother somehow eventually found me in Hawaii.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t complain about the postal service.

Saipan and Tinian (June/July/August 1944)

The Allied invasion force left Pearl Harbor for Saipan and Tinian in the Marianas on June 5, 1944, the day before the invasion at Normandy over in the Atlantic. You see, Saipan and Tinian were right next to each other and important to the U.S. because they were within range of Japan for the B-29s. We wanted an airfield that close to Japan and the Japanese didn’t want us to have one. They were committed to defending Saipan to the death, and that’s about what happened.

I went in the first day on the second wave. Amphibious assault waves were never as formal as you see in pictures.  They were staggered and sometimes the fifth wave may be sent to hit a hot spot and have the toughest time of all.  Saipan went pretty well for several reasons.  One of them was that the Japs would launch their planes and then land them on Guam for refueling. As we were headed for Saipan, our Navy split and sent some ships down to bomb the shit out of every airstrip on Guam. The Jap planes couldn’t refuel and were knocked out by American pilots or ran out of fuel and went down because they had no place to land. That Marianas Turkey Shoot damn near wiped out the Jap naval air force.

The battle for Saipan lasted a little over three weeks, but my unit left for Tinian shortly before it was secure. About the twentieth day the outcome was pretty clear, and we’d start to see some Japanese civilians jumping off the cliffs. I guess they had heard this wild propaganda about how we’d supposedly treat them if we won, and rather than risk being taken they jumped to their deaths.

So why were we sent to Tinian before Saipan was secure? That made us wonder. You see, we had some intelligence and knew there weren’t that many Japs on Tinian.  It was mostly Koreans forced into labor by the Japanese.  As we approached the island, we’d see these civilians—women and children among them—walking to the cliffs and just jumping off.  Well, it ended up taking nine days to secure Tinian because we stopped the bombing and strafing, and we kind of just slowly moved through the island.

We were desperately needing intelligence, but Japanese soldiers just wouldn’t surrender.  The military got so desperate they offered a 30-day home leave to anyone who could capture a prisoner alive. Once in a while one would surface, but they never seemed to be taken alive. It’s kind of bad to say, but here you’re trying to get that goddamn guy. We were trying to shoot them, and every guy around us was trying to shoot them. There was such a hatred for them. They were like ants. You didn’t consider them human. They’d come out of foxholes like gophers. And if they thought the odds were against them or we were closing in, they’d just stand up and shoot themselves.

Well, I remember on Saipan another guy and I did capture two live prisoners, which meant an automatic 30-day leave back home. We were down in this coconut grove, and they came out of the goddamn trees. We had to stay where we were and couldn’t take them back, so we turned them over to three other guys to take to headquarters. Those prisoners never did make it. They got shot before they made it back. We thought we would give them to these guys, and they’d turn them in. But there was just this hatred.

After Saipan and Tinian were secure, we heard these rumors about the landing strips. We didn’t know anything about the atomic bomb, but we knew there was some big priority for all this activity. As the Seabees came in to build airfields, they’d get shot at from some of the pillboxes where a few Japanese had survived and were still bunkered. We were told then to go back and neutralize all the pillboxesYou try to lay down a neutralizing fire and use hand grenades or whatever, even a flamethrower.

I tell you, we got some criticism, but a good way was just to bulldoze the whole goddamn thing. We found if we could get the flamethrowers in, it would neutralize them until a bulldozer could go in.  Because how the hell could you do it?  It was a bitch to get in there.

Quick Promotions

We were promoted quickly in the Pacific. I guess with the casualties and with our experience in battles, we could move up very fast. I was promoted right along, and by the time I was 20, I was giving briefings to admirals and brigadier generals. There was this time some of us who had come back to Hawaii for R & R were told we had to brief Admiral Nimitz and some others on what we had seen and how the battles with the Japanese had gone. Well, I thought, what if I say the wrong thing to these officers? It could be my career.

I was pretty nervous about it until a colonel took me and a buddy aside and said, “You two are going to know more about amphibious warfare than anyone else in that room.  Don’t you worry.”  I tell you, that was like taking a big breath.  In the end it went fine.  They knew we had been in the battles; we had experienced firsthand what they needed to know.

On Saipan, just before leaving for Tinian, I got a battlefield promotion.  While I was still on the island, my commanding officer right there made me a Second Lieutenant, and I spent the rest of the war as an officer.

Iwo Jima (February/March 1945)

My unit went in at Iwo Jima on the second morning of a battle that lasted about 35 days.  By this time in the war the neutralizing fire from American ships was about 10 times what it was at Tarawa. We had even more battleships and more planes, and a lot of the fleet from the Atlantic had been sent over after the landing at Normandy, so that meant carriers too. But Iwo Jima was hard fighting. There was just lava and rock and Japanese dug into tunnels. Sometimes we couldn’t advance 10 feet in five days of fighting. We’d have all this supporting fire from our ships, and our planes would strafe Japanese pillboxes, so then we’d get up and BAM, the Japanese would still fire down on us.

You know, rifles only killed about 10 percent of the Japanese. If they came running out you could shoot them, but most of the time they were hiding in tunnels or bunkers or behind rocks.  It was shrapnel from the big guns and grenades that got most of them.  If you had five or six of them running right at you, a grenade was the only way … We had bits of shrapnel raining down on us all the time. We’d pick out little bits from under our skin.  It was the big pieces that could tear you up.

The nighttime was when we’d go back to the beaches to resupply and meet the new reserves who had landed. Often the Japanese would counterattack at night, so we had to be careful. One night at Iwo Jima I went down to the beach to pick up replacements. At this stage of the war, they were all real young kids.

There was this Harris kid from Sonora I saw there, Nolan Harris, I think. He was about three or four years younger than I was.  He hollered to me and said he wanted to go with me to where my unit was.  At that time we were up on the worst place on the island and weren’t making any progress.  I said, “Nolan, you want to stay here.  You don’t want to go up there.”  I said, “We’re in the worst goddamn spot.”  Well, the next day he was killed. I always felt bad about that.

As everybody knows, Mount Suribachi was the high ground on Iwo Jima, and the fight for it was long and hard and bloody because the Japanese were dug in so well. Most of the enemy defense was directed toward the front because they didn’t believe anyone could get around the steep cliffs to the back, but that’s how the Marines were able to get up there. My unit was about a quarter mile from the top when our flag went up, and that was about the biggest morale boost you could imagine. There was still a lot of fight left, but we now had the high ground and could start figuring out how we were going to neutralize the enemy.

I think about three of the five guys who first put up the flag were killed before the battle ended. It was a small flag that first day, but this guy Rosenthal who reported the war and took pictures didn’t get there in time for the first flag. So the next day they did it again and raised a bigger flag, and I think the Navajo we had in our unit was a relative of the one who was up there at the flag raising. That second-day picture was the one that went out to the press, and I think it sold more war bonds that anything else.

When asked how I got off Iwo Jima, I say “on a ship headed back to Hawaii.”  I was lucky. There were plenty on both sides who never got off the island.

American Deception: Navajo Code Talkers

Now the Japanese were as intelligent as any race there ever was. They knew English and just about every other language known to man. It took a little deception to figure a way to beat them. We were always working on their codes, and they were working on ours.  But the way we were able to beat them was to use the Navajos. They had a language that was not written down anywhere, so the U.S. brought them in. We had a Navajo in almost every battalion. When fire was needed somewhere or intelligence had to go out over the radio, we had one of the Navajos send it in their language. The Japanese never were able to break that code.

But I’ll tell you what, this type of code did cause a big goddamn screwup in the battle for Iwo Jima. We were getting the hell beat out of us. We’d call from a command post for support against the Japanese, and boom, the CP would get hit. We did it again from another Command Post and pretty soon, “Boom,” that CP would get hit. Finally we got it figured out after about three days.  Parts of the Navy that had moved over from the Atlantic to help us in the Pacific didn’t know about the Navajos, so when they heard this language coming from our CP’s, they thought it was Japanese and sent the fire there.  Boy, were we glad when they got that straightened out.

Preparation and Humor

There were so many of the guys I fought with who never did make it back.  I think they figured in my original outfit, there would be about 80 percent casualties, killed and wounded. And that’s probably about right. The strategy of amphibious landing comes down to getting the most bodies you can to land. Some are going to get through.

Why did I make it?  Why did I survive the war in the Pacific? I’m sure there are a lot of things that go into it, but I can tell you there were two big things that made a difference, and they were preparation and humor. One of the things I learned at home and in the Marines was to be ready, be prepared. Practice. Know what to expect. That was drilled into us. It doesn’t matter if it’s football or a job. In the Marines we trained and we trained so that we knew what to expect and what to do when the expected AND the unexpected happened. I was trained that way, and when I became a second lieutenant, that’s how I trained the Marines I was responsible for. There is nothing better than preparation. We wanted to be ready and we wanted to be the best. If we were supposed to go out on a training hike with a 30-pound pack, we’d make ours 40 pounds, so we would be better prepared than anyone else.

But you have to have some fun, too. There has to be humor.  I’ve seen a lot of guys just go off their rockers.  Even suicides. I can tell you, we’d come back from a lot of these battles and there’d be guys…you’d start to see where it really got to them.  So we always tried to have some fun.  We’d do little things, play jokes on each other and try to find some way to make it enjoyable. There was a time later in the war when my buddy and I were training Marines, and we turned on the lights at three in the morning to get ready for the day. The other guys saw the lights on but didn’t know how early it was. They saw us get dressed, so they got up and got dressed. They saw us load our packs, so they loaded their packs. Then they saw us get undressed and go back to bed. Just little things like that kept guys loose. You had to have some fun.

Okinawa (Summer 1945)

I wasn’t at Okinawa for the battle. Afterward we went there as a staging ground for the invasion of Japan.  I couldn’t verify this, but we had some access to security, pretty high echelon stuff. We found out the overall plan. The Marine Corps then had six divisions; we found out the six divisions of the Marine Corps were going to hit a certain area of Japan, and they were marked “EXPENDABLE.”  Nobody was going to come back from that baby.

So when I hear this bullshit about the atom bomb or interning the Japanese, I don’t want to hear it.  The atom bomb saved our lives. We knew from these situation maps that they were going to write off the Marine Corps to establish a beachhead, and that is probably what would have happened without the atomic bomb. There was no way out of that baby, and we knew it.

Coming Home

After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that about did it, and we were ready to go home.  They devised a system on paper that said if you had so many credits—landings and battles gave you credits—you’re going home fast. The guys in my outfit, the 5th Marine Amphibious Corps, we had more points than anyone because we had made all these landings.  The few of us left in the 5th Amphibious were first on the list. They never got around to using that list, but the Marine Corps said, “Let’s just get this bunch home.”

The Navy got me back to San Diego, but I was eager to get all the way home to Sonora, so I looked for a ride up the coast.  Well, there in a bar was Pappy Boyington. You know, most of those aces liked to drink, and he was no different. He said he was taking a Dauntless Divebomber up to Alameda, and I could hitch a ride with him. There were only two seats in the plane, so it would just be the two of us. Right after we took off and headed up over Los Angeles, we saw some smoke off in the distance from a forest fire.  Boyington said, “Let’s go have a look and see.” Well, he took that plane so low to check out what was going on that I actually felt heat from the flames. Man those guys could fly.

Then as we approached the Bay Area he said, “I’ve always wanted to fly under the Golden Gate Bridge.”  And he started down to do it!  Turned out there were some ships or something down there that changed his mind, and we went ahead and landed at Alameda Naval Air Station.

My dad came down to pick me up in Escalon about midnight. As I got in the car he told me we had to go to see the Sardellas down by the Lime Kiln to tell Mrs. Sardella that Johnny was alive, and we had to do it first thing, 6:00 o’clock the next morning.  You see, Mrs. Sardella had been notified that Johnny was seriously wounded, but she didn’t trust that he was alive. They used to send a preliminary notice…there were so many killed over there that it was hard to keep up.  Mrs. Sardella thought he was dead.

“She has to hear he’s alive from somebody who’s seen him before she’ll believe it,” my dad told me, “so we’ve got to go there first thing tomorrow to tell her.  Now she’s going to make you drink some wine.  Even if it’s first thing in the morning, you’ll have to do it.”  You see my dad, now he liked bourbon, but he couldn’t stand wine, and the thought of drinking some in the morning was almost too much for him.  “But we’ll just have to do it for Mrs. Sardella,” he told me.

Well we did get up early the next morning, and we did go see Mrs. Sardella.  My dad took me over there, and when I walked in she just started crying.  She said, with her Italian accent, “Punny, is Johnny alive?”  I told her “yes.”  I’ve never seen an expression on anyone’s face like she had then.  She was just so relieved. She took my face in her hands and cried, “My Johnny, My Johnny, My Johnny.”  She knew if I was there to tell her he was okay, it must be true.  She brought out the wine and poured a big glass for me.  Old man Sardella had a little bourbon for my dad, and we both drank.  I was home, and pretty soon a friend of mine from Sonora, a friend who had seen what I had seen and had done much of what I had done, would return to his family as well.

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