A deadly toll: WWII Pacific veteran Clint Watters remembers fallen comrades
Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.
MEDFORD, Ore. — Clint Watters held up the old photograph of five Marine Corps sergeants gathered for a wedding party, pausing to look back on a happy moment during World War II.
It was July 1944. He and other Marine Corps sergeants were back from the front lines for a respite at Camp Pendleton, Calif. They were preparing for the invasion of Iwo Jima, a Japanese-held island in the Pacific.
"John Basilone had asked me to be his best man at his wedding," Watters recalled of his friend. "I was happy to do it for him."
Watters, who turned 91 last week, then pointed to Gunnery Sgt. Basilone, the only enlisted Marine to be awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross during the war, and Sgts. Ed Johnston and Jack Wheeler.
"Basilone, Johnston and Wheeler were all killed at Iwo," Watters said as he slowly touched his finger on each Marine in the photograph. "Rinaldo Martini lost an arm, and I was wounded."
Watters and 14 other Marines are featured in "Voices of the Pacific: Untold Stories from the Marine Heroes of World War II" by Adam Makos and co-author Marcus Brotherton. Makos is the New York Times best-selling author of "A Higher Call."
Published by Penguin, "Voices of the Pacific" is a 349-page hardback that follows 15 Marines from Pearl Harbor to the end of the war. It will be available April 2. The price is $27.95.
Watters retired from Rockwell International in Southern California where he worked in its business office for 26 years. He and his wife, Joan, have been married for 64 years. They have two children.
The veteran also is featured in the 2010 book, "The Pacific," by Hugh Ambrose, as well as the television series by the same name.
Watters, an avid fisherman and gardener, is quick to observe he has never sought out publicity about his war experience. In addition to receiving a Purple Heart, he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal for heroism.
"I've always been kind of quiet about it, then all this came along," said Watters, who hails from Maine, where he served in the Civilian Conservation Corps before joining the Marine Corps on Jan. 5, 1942.
A machine gunner with the 1st Marine Division, he arrived in Samoa early in the spring of 1942. His battalion commander was L.B. "Chesty" Puller, perhaps the most famous Marine of them all. When Watters was promoted to private first class on April 10, 1942, his promotion was signed by Major Puller.
Watters was hospitalized with illness when his unit moved on to Guadalcanal where Basilone's courage would earn him the Medal of Honor.
After he recovered from his illness, Watters joined the 3rd Raider Battalion which led the invasion of Bougainville.
"Bougainville was a real tough fight," he said. "They shipped me home after that. And they later disbanded the Raiders."
After spending a month back in Maine, he was sent back to Camp Pendleton. Following a chance encounter with Basilone, he received orders to join his old friend in the 5th Marine Division.
He also was invited to be his best man in the wedding ceremony held in Oceanside, Calif.
"It was a great wedding," Watters said. "But we shipped out shortly after the wedding."
After stopping for training in Hawaii, they received orders for Iwo Jima. The hellish invasion of the volcanic island began on Feb. 19, 1945.
"A grenade had gone off to the side of my head somewhere and my right eye was bleeding but I didn't stop," Watters said. "People kept saying, 'Sarge, your eye is bleeding.' I kept going."
By then, they had reached the airstrip where there were several revetments — embankments of earth to protect planes against strafing.
"I was out ahead of most the Marines in my machine-gun unit," he said. "Basilone called me and said we were too far out, that he was going to get a tank so we could get some artillery in there. So I started back. That was the last time I saw him."
Basilone died that day.
As the shelling continued, Watters ducked inside a revetment just as a shell landed nearby.
A jagged piece of shrapnel tore nearly through his right thigh a few inches above his knee.
"When I got hit, I couldn't walk," he said.
A Navy medic cut his pants, bandaged the wound and gave him a shot of morphine.
"He told me there was no one to help me get back to the beach," Watters said. "I crawled quite a ways."
At that point he saw a wounded marine wandering around in the battlefield.
"I told him to get down — there were shells coming down," he said. "He said, 'I can't see.' I told him to stay there.
"When I got to him, I told him I can't walk but I could see and, if he could help me up, I could direct us so we could get back down to the beach," he added.
When they reached the beach, the medical staff immediately took the other man away. Watters was taken to a medical ship where he was operated on to have the shrapnel removed.
"I never knew who the blind guy was and how he made out," he said.
Watter remained in military hospitals from February through August of 1945 when he was honorably discharged. He later attended Boston University where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration.