A Marine's tale: WW II veteran Ray Manning chronicles the drudgery and the horror of war

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 10, 2014 

As a World War II veteran, Ray Manning knows he's part of a vanishing breed.

Fortunately, the wartime account he wrote a few years ago details the sometimes funny, sometimes discouraging, sometimes horrific experiences he went through during his 233 days of battle and patrol work, including 55 days of what he calls "24-hour down and dirty combat," especially on Iwo Jima in the South Pacific.

"I was trying to get the whole picture," he said of his account titled "Memoir of a Grunt."

An active, friendly 90-year-old, Manning moved to Bellingham with his wife, Betty Jane, to live close to their two daughters shortly after he retired from the drapery business in 1988.

He started working on his 111-page memoir after a grandson asked about his time in the Marine Corps for a third-grade school project. He published copies for friends and family members in 2006 after working on it for several years.

"I hadn't really done a lot of contemplating about it for a long time," Manning said.

ENLISTED YOUNG

Manning, who grew up in Portland, Ore., was 17 when he and two friends signed up to become Marines shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

He almost didn't get in. The Marines didn't want people shorter than 5 feet 5 inches, but Manning stood a half-inch shy of the mark. A sympathetic doctor told him to go home, do some stretching and return early the next morning. Manning followed instructions and cleared the mark with a quarter-inch to spare.

Manning served as a radio operator, private first class, with the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment.

He was activated in July 1942 after graduating from high school and rode a train to boot camp in San Diego. Manning's tale of drinking too much vodka on the train is one of many personal notes that make his memoir memorable.

Lighter moments he describes include pilfering shipments of beer, sharing a friend's mother's shipment of kosher salami, watching latrine trenches explode, and smearing a fellow Marine with shoe polish so he would have to scrub himself and, it was hoped, eliminate his stifling body odor.

Darker moments include long marches through dank tropical terrain, colleagues killed by friendly fire, bad planning by superiors, and debilitating times with dysentery and malaria.

Manning's memoir portrays the life of a low-level service member during the ebb and flow of war.

"Most of the time we were hungry, thirsty, tired, sweating blood, carrying out actions most civilians nowadays consider heroic, but to us were part of our job - fulfilling our commitment," he writes. "Duty at the front is physically uncomfortable and action even dull at times. At other times, the anxiety, fear, excitement, and adrenaline rush of an intensive firefight were near unbearable."

PACIFIC-BOUND

After boot camp, Manning traveled to New Zealand aboard an ocean liner converted into a crowded troop carrier. He spent a short time on Guadalcanal, an island east of Papua New Guinea that had been the site of bitter fighting between Japanese and American troops but was mostly quiet by the time Manning arrived.

He recalls being bothered when he was told the government was supposed to reimburse Colgate-Palmolive $7 for each company-owned coconut tree cut down by U.S. troops.

"We really balked at that since they wouldn't have any trees had we not recaptured the island," he writes.

Manning saw combat when he landed at Bougainville, a strategic island with air bases and anchorage, in early November 1943. One morning, he was part of a force that withstood a Japanese incursion until heavily armed reinforcements arrived and shot 200 of the enemy to pieces.

"A sad entry into what turned out for me at least, and to many of my fellow Marines, many months of similar devastation," he writes.

That same day he saw his first dead Marine, shot through the chest but lying on his back with a peaceful look and a rosary in his hand.

"I think of him often," Manning writes. "He personifies all the Marines who fell alongside me."

He next saw combat on Guam, where he narrowly escaped death when his rifle jammed but a fellow Marine shot an onrushing Japanese solider just before he reached Manning.

Those experiences paled in comparison to the battle for Iwo Jima, an island with an airstrip 660 miles south of Tokyo. Knowing the island's importance, the Japanese were entrenched in a network of caves and tunnels that withstood intense bombardment before U.S. troops came ashore.

One of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history, Iwo Jima left nearly 7,000 Marines killed and another 20,000 wounded. All but a few hundred of the 18,000 Japanese soldiers died.

"Casualties exceeded 100 percent as we went through the green replacements like water," Manning recalls in his memoir. "We'd never witnessed such carnage before during any of our former action."

At one point, while hunkered down at the airstrip, a large piece of shrapnel knocked Manning on his backside. Fortunately, the piece hit him on its flat slide instead of a sharp, flesh-piercing edge.

After Iwo Jima, Manning was shipped stateside for free time with family before returning to Guam to prepare for the invasion of Japan.

"We knew landing on the Japanese homeland was tantamount to suicide," he writes.

Those fears disappeared after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing the war with Japan to a close.

DWINDLING NUMBERS

Manning organized a reunion for his Marine buddies in 1982, but the gatherings faded away over time.

In February, he attended an Iwo Jima commemoration luncheon for West Coast veterans at the Marines' Memorial Club & Hotel in San Francisco. Eighteen Iwo Jima vets attended the Feb. 27 event, half the turnout of four years ago.

By one estimate, perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 Marines who saw combat on Iwo Jima are still alive.

"We're fading out of the picture," Manning said. 'I'm one of the younger ones."

MORE INFO

Bellingham Vet Center offers a free program for veterans who want help writing about their life. Confidential writing sessions are 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays at the center, 3800 Byron Ave., Suite 124. Details: 360-733-9226.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360- or call 715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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