March 12, 1944
Wally Smith neglected wounds to get his
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
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,”
“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
“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.
“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
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.