Donald Hughes (left) and Gene Bell
Two men sharing World War II and the Pacific in common, but with very different experiences, will represent the Liberators of Guam at various memorial events and head up Friday's 73rd Liberation Day Parade as Grand Marshals.
Donald Hughes grew up on a farm in central Wisconsin, milking 20 cows daily. Drafted into the Navy, Hughes received new duty assignments far from the dairy barn, first aboard the USS Maguffin, a troop transport ship which delivered fresh manpower to the fighting on the various Japanese-held Pacific islands.
Later, Hughes piloted the landing crafts which took Marines to the beach during amphibious landings. "The ship got in within a mile or two of the shore," he says, "they dropped your boats down into the water and the troops would climb down the rope ladders and get into your boats and you took 'em to the shore. The boats had a ramp on them, they ran out and you pulled the ramp back up and got out of town before they could get you with their kamikaze planes."
Former Seaman First Class Hughes has particularly vivid memories of the bloody Battle of Okinawa, during which he made six runs to the beach. His craft barely made its pickup as the mother ship retreated in the face of a kamikaze attack, a very memorable part of the desperate Japanese attempt to defend the homeland. That day was particularly scary, Hughes said, since the former farm boy had never learned to swim.
Hughes was able to visit Guam twice during the war, very briefly, so his ship could refuel. After the war he had a busy career and not much desire to re-visit the places he saw during the war. "I was never an advocate of war, no. They had to draft me, I didn't volunteer."
But Hughes is proud of his brief duty tour on Guam, this time around. "It is an honor I wasn't looking for," he says.
Gene Bell hit Guam a few days after the invasion as a Marine replacement and at that point, the Third Marine Division needed plenty of replacements. "It was very, very difficult. The elements, the jungle, the heat and the humidity. It wasn't fun being in the jungle every day on a patrol. There was no day off." Those patrols led up to an October march of 28 miles which covered the entire island and flushed out most of the remaining Japanese troops.
Bell later trained for the invasion of Iwo Jima at a camp in Talofofo and survived the subsequent fighting there. He would have been training for the final assault on the Japanese mainland on his return to Guam, but the Marines had other ideas, shipping him off to officer candidate school in the states. He's unlikely to forget the day he left, April 13, 1945, which was also the day President Roosevelt died.
During his rare time off, Bell got to know some of the people of Guam: "They were fantastic. They loved the Marine liberators. After the island had been secured for some time, we were allowed to go about the island in proper dress, khaki uniform. Had a boy and girl, they were 12, 13-years-old, used to come into the camp pick up our laundry. And I sure wish I could find them in their later years. I tried, but unfortunately I didn't get any last name, but they were delightful young kids, brother and sister and they took good care of us. Any village we entered, it was the same way. The people were just delighted to see us.
"The complete island was devastated. It was just unbelievable. There was nothing standing, completely devastated."
As to the war itself: "It was something we had to do, we knew we had to do it and we did it to the best of our ability. When you were in high school, you had two choices: either join the service you wanted to join or be drafted. And that's why I chose, at 17, to join the Marine Corps."
Bell went on to a 40 year career in law enforcement in the Los Angeles area. He's re-visited the Pacific often over the years and is a board member of the Iwo Jima Association of America, Inc.