Denfeld News

March 12, 1944
Duluth News Tribune

Wally Smith neglected wounds to get his Japs
By Reidar Lund

“They let us get within 200 yards of shore before they opened up. Then all hell broke loose. Anti-tank and mortar shells and light and heavy machine gun bullets splattered into us from all directions. Of the 24 marines in our amphibious tank, I was the only one to reach shore alive.”

Pfc. Wally Smith, USMC, eased his shattered left arm into a more comfortable position and shifted his bullet-riddled body uncomfortably, not from physical pain, but because memories of those first hours on Tarawa were unpleasant.

This is the same Wally Smith who from 1939 through 1942, wrote football history for Denfeld High School with brilliant ball-toting that set him apart as the greatest halfback ever developed at the Head of the Lakes.

But he’s a quieter, more mature Wally Smith now; a young man who lived a lifetime in one exciting dawn on the tiny, Jap-infested atoll in the South Pacific.

He’s in Duluth now visiting friends and relatives on a recuperation furlough, and it was with some reluctance yesterday that he gave a sketch of his part in the Tarawa invasion described by war correspondents as the most costly victory in American military history.

Smith completed his studies at Denfeld in the fall of 1942 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, leaving there in March for a marine boot training camp, after which he was sent to New Zealand.

“We left there October 13 and after a couple of stops en route we finally arrived off Tarawa on November 19,” Smith related.

“There was no sleep that night because we were told there would be more action in the morning. We had breakfast at 2 a.m. and at 4 a.m. we set out in amphibious tanks for the island about 15,000 yards away.

“Our ship’s heavy guns had been hammering the atoll and it was kind of awesome, the thunder of those shells, and the way they burned through the night and exploded. We were due to hit shore at 9 o’clock and we proceeded cautiously.

“Some distance out we passed an old, rusted transport and finally we got within 200 yards of shore. Then all hell broke loose. Anti-tank and mortar shells and light and heavy machine gun bullets splattered into us from all directions.”

“The Japs had a couple of heavy machine guns in that old transport. They held their fire until we got between them and shore, and when the island defenders let loose, so did the Japs on the transport. We were like clay pigeons.”

Of the 24 men in his tank, Smith alone reached shore alive.

“I had five or six body wounds,” he said, “but didn’t realize it until later. I was interested only in the fact that I could still navigate, and I quit the tank and somehow got to shore.

“I had lost my rifle in the excitement and fortunately stumbled on a B.A.R. (Browning automatic rifle) and about 600 rounds of ammunition when I reached the beach. I grabbed them and looked around to get my bearings amid the confusion.

Bled Profusely

“My wounds were bleeding profusely, but in all the excitement they didn’t hurt. I noticed some Jap fire coming from behind a sand dune and opened up on them.”

How long he kept this up, Smith doesn’t remember. It might have been 10 minutes, or five hours.

“Then a hand grenade exploded pretty close to me and for the first time I looked around to see exactly where I was. I got kind of a funny feeling when I discovered I was stretched out alongside a Jap pillbox.”

“We know how they’re constructed and I started inching my way around, trying to get at the Nips inside. I hadn’t crawled far when I came on a couple of them, wounded, but still full of fight. My knife came in pretty handy in the next couple of minutes.”

That knife, an ugly black thing, was brought into the room by an aunt, Mrs. John Wilkinson, with whom Smith is visiting at 1700 Jefferson Street.

“Well, then I got around to where I could toss one of my own grenades into the pill box, then stepped back and waited. I was getting pretty weak by this time and just about ready to pass out when three Japs came barging out of the box.”

Nipped the Nips

“They didn’t get far. I guess the jarring of my B.A.R. against my shoulder shook the cobwebs out of my head and I kept moving around, doing what damage I could.”

Then a 60-caliber machine-gun slug plowed into his left arm, shattering his elbow.

All this while the marines — among them Smith’s pal and former schoolmate at Denfeld, Jim Young — were trying desperately to break through the deadly hall of Japanese lead and establish themselves on the beach. Young was killed.

“When that slug hit my arm it kind of put me out of commission,” Smith recalled. “I made it back to the tank (it still was off shore) and got behind it and stayed there for about seven hours. Then the tide came in.

“Somehow or other I was back on the beach. I don’t remember how I got there, but some guy jerked me into a foxhole and I spent a long time there.”

The battle had raged so furiously all this time there had been no opportunity for Smith to reach the medical station for aid until the second night.

Evacuated to Ship

Then he was evacuated to a ship for attention.

“It was tough sledding, all right,” he admitted. “But the fellows sure had guts. They kept coming in when they knew what the odds were, and, well, you know what happened."

Smith had high praise for the officers, too. “Best in the world,” he called them.

Eventually he was removed to Pearl Harbor where, aboard ship, he was presented with the Purple Heart by Adm. Chester W. Minitz, commander in chief of the Pacific fleet. From there he went to San Diego, Calif., where he remained until his present recuperation furlough.

Cited by President

On his chest Smith also wears, in addition to the Purple Heart, the American theater of operations and South Pacific theater of operations ribbon, as well as a presidential citation.

“Yeah, it’s pretty rugged,” he concluded. “It sure feels great to be back.”

His parents are Mr. and Mrs. Jack Smith. They reside in Rockford, Ill.

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