WWII Marine and hero laid to rest at Punchbowl 80 years after his death
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser October 17, 2023
HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Nearly 80 years after Marine Sgt. Arthur Ervin died fighting on Saipan, he was laid to rest Monday in a ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
Ervin, a Navy cross recipient, died alongside his platoon leader Lt. Philip Wood on July 5, 1944, during an ambush as they were trying to aid local Chamorro civilians caught in the crossfire of the battle. The two men were buried side by side along with others from the unit killed in the ambush in a field burial ground on the island.
Wood would be buried at Punchbowl after the war, but Ervin’s body — lacking dog tags, a legible name on his uniform or any personal effects — would end up listed as an “unknown“ as the military moved bodies around.
It wasn’t until June 2022 that the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency officially identified Ervin’s remains. For decades they were locked away, with his family wondering what had happened. For years they, as well as a relative of Wood’s, worked to find out.
Kay Gay, Ervin’s niece, recalled hearing bits and pieces of the story from her mother.
“He spent a lot of time with her when she was young, you know, babysitting. So she just really looked up to him,“ said Gay. “She was very, very private, so she didn’t share a whole heck of a lot. But she always, when something came up, it always sparked a curiosity about what happened to Arthur.”
Gay eventually convinced her mother to send in her DNA and try to get answers. It turns out they weren’t the only ones looking.
Geoffrey Roecker, a historian and author who was related to Wood, told the Star-Advertiser, “When I was reading Lt. Wood’s letters, I started wanting to find out everything I could about the people he mentioned and everyone who was in his company. I found out in the course of that research that Sgt. Ervin had never been recovered and accounted for.”
He said that given that it was documented they had died side by side, and a letter from an officer in the unit said they were buried together, that didn’t make sense to him. Roecker became passionate about gathering information about Ervin and other missing Marines in the Pacific, establishing missingmarines.com.
Roecker eventually connected with Ervin’s family when Gay found his website, which recounted Ervin’s life in the Marine Corps. The two worked together to unravel the mystery of what happened after his death.
Ervin grew up in Detroit, Texas. His father and namesake, Arthur Ervin Sr., died in a coal mine when he was just 6. The younger Ervin bounced between jobs around the country before enlisting in the Marine Corps, and he arrived in Hawaii in September 1940 and was assigned to Naval Air Station Pearl Harbor on Ford Island.
He enjoyed island life — perhaps a bit too much. In November 1941 he and fellow Marine James Coupe were arrested for stealing a car and burglarizing a Waikiki establishment, making off with $75. On Dec. 7, 1941, the two Marines were in custody at the brig on Ford Island awaiting a court-martial when the Japanese navy launched its surprise attack.
Sailors and Marines outside were fighting back, shooting at the attacking Japanese planes with whatever they had. As the attack continued, Ervin and Coupe were released from the brig, issued pistols and told to join their comrades outside. In the aftermath of the attack, both Marines volunteered to help dig unexploded bombs out of the ground. But once the smoke had cleared, both were sent straight back to the brig.
They both plead guilty and were set for imprisonment that would end in dishonorable discharges. But as the need for Marines in the Pacific became more obvious, they were granted a second chance. Citing “mitigating circumstances “ as well as “the youth and inexperience of both the accused, their previous good records“ and “their commendable actions during and after the Japanese air raid,“ the court made a “unanimous recommendation“ for clemency.
Gay said that her mother told her that in a strange way “Pearl Harbor probably saved him,“ as Ervin dedicated himself to being the best Marine he could be.
Ervin eventually got the opportunity to volunteer for the elite Marine Raiders. He earned a Purple Heart during fighting on Roi-Namur in the Marshall Islands and was sent back to Hawaii for treatment. It wouldn’t be his last Purple Heart during the war.
He healed quickly and was eager to rejoin his unit. When he returned he was assigned to the unit’s mortar section, led by Wood. The young officer quickly recognized strong leadership qualities in him and made Ervin, at the time still a corporal, his right-hand man over higher-ranking sergeants in the section.
Ervin, a wild Texas kid, and Wood, a New York aristocrat and aspiring lawyer, made an unusual pair. But another officer from the unit later wrote that the “the mutual admiration and respect which grew between the two was obvious, and they were a strongly attached pair who worked together as well as any and better than most.”
Ervin would be awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during a battle on Feb. 1, 1944. According to the award citations, he “skillfully located and led the attack upon each hostile strong point in this zone of action.”
Despite being wounded he launched a single-handed assault on a Japanese heavy machine-gun nest, returned to initiate a raid into an occupied blockhouse and moved up fire into a Japanese trench and shouted to fellow Marines to press forward. He was wounded a second time during the attack and stopped fighting only under direct orders from superiors.
He received his Navy Cross at Camp Maui from Adm. Chester Nimitz. He wrote home to his brother, “I am damn proud of it and sending it home to Mother. Wish you could have been here Bud to see me get it.” He was also finally promoted to sergeant.
Ervin and Wood went on to fight together on Saipan, where the Marines again saw heavy fighting. On July 5, 1944, the mortar section was pounding enemy-held territory as other Marines prepared for a major attack. But as they looked out, they spotted a group of local Chamorro people, some wounded, trying to make it to their lines.
The mortars stopped, and Wood and Ervin requested permission from their superiors to go help the islanders, something their company commander wrote they had a developed a reputation for doing. Several of the Chamorro were women and children, and some spoke English. They told the Marines they had escaped Japanese forces and that there were more of them in a cave ahead.
The massive planned attack was going to have artillery with it. Ervin and Wood volunteered to go find the civilians and get them out before the attack began in hopes of getting them out of harm’s way. But as they approached, a sniper’s bullet struck Wood. Seeing him go down, Ervin ran to his aid. According to a fellow Marine, Ervin’s last words were “Don’t worry, Phil ! I’m coming for you !” before taking a bullet to the head.
A bloody firefight broke out as the Marines fired into the trees, taking more casualties. Six died. Another platoon went to help the survivors and drove back Japanese troops. The remaining Marines went to inspect a nearby cave and found a group of 60 Chamarro and Japanese civilians. They got them out of the cave and brought them to their lines for aid.
In Roecker’s research he found that Wood had been buried on the island with several of his men and one of the “unknowns“ right next to him, who he suspected was Ervin. He recalled, “We said, ‘Man, this has got to be, this has got to be him.’ And it took 11 years for us to kind of convince the DPAA that we had a good match.”
Gay’s mother died in 2019, before a match could be made. Gay said she was determined to see it through and went to DPAA. She said she was told the DNA her mother gave couldn’t be matched because it lacked a Y chromosome. She reached out to a male cousin who agreed to send in DNA, finally confirming the match.
Four Marine Ospreys did a flyover of the service at Punchbowl to honor Ervin, and a Marine honor guard handed his family a folded flag.
“All the work that he put in after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and all the fact that he was given that second chance, this was, we felt, the place he belonged,“ said Gay. “I’m happy to bring him home.”
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