The Hawaiian Islands and Philippine Archipelagos were familiar in name only to most Americans on Dec. 7, 1941, but even fewer recognized the names of locations where men died: Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Bataan, and Corregidor, to mention a few.
Other Pacific Islands in the middle of nowhere soon shaped dinner conversations on the home front: Tarawa, Guadalcanal, Guam, Eniwetok, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.
Lesser-publicized Pacific battles faded into history as the island-hopping campaign moved ever closer to mainland Japan. American boys fought, died, and far too many attained the inglorious title of M.I.A. for eternity on specks of sand or in dense jungles with names like Buna-Gona, Huon Peninsula, Tarakan, Balikpapan, Vella Lavella, Noemfoor, and Morotai.
Ralph Dunlap landed and reconnoitered Japanese-controlled islands in the middle of nowhere as a member of Marine Recon. Armed only with a Ka-bar knife, Dunlap and the crafty warriors of Marine recon gathered pre-invasion intelligence in an attempt to lessen the casualties amongst the landing forces hitting the beaches.
Slipping ashore in a rubber dingy or silently breast-stroking through shark-infested waters, Dunlap surveyed 50 Pacific Islands.
“They weren’t all occupied,” he said. “But problem was, several of the ‘uninhabited’ islands turned out to be occupied. We were told Yogachi Shima was uninhabited, but nobody told the 300 Japanese on the island that they weren’t there. They blew two of our boats out of the water.”
Dunlap spoke of Saipan.
“The island was scenic, but war had destroyed a good bit of that beauty.” Pausing to grin, Dunlap recalled, “The Japs had built a Sake distillery in Naha, Saipan’s capital. The boys who took the distillery consumed ‘the spoils of war,’ so to speak. They weren’t in fighting condition for two days. The brass was upset, to say the least.”
Dunlap reconnoitered atolls, coral reefs, and jagged rock-strewn islands with names like Tsuken Shima, Takabonari, Zamami Shima, Icki Shima, Kangoku Rock, and dozens more. He recalled one small island Marine recon surveyed named Ie Shima.
“It was near Okinawa,” Dunlap said. “We were there when Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed. He was called ‘the soldier’s reporter,’ but the truth is most of the grunts on Ie Shima didn’t mourn for Ernie. He was another guy, just another casualty, one more American lost on a God-forsaken Pacific Island. I know that sounds cold-hearted, but war numbs your senses. It drains your humanity, and death soon becomes an acceptable way of life.”
Dunlap and the pathfinders of Marine recon helped pave the way for other 18-year-old Marines packed like sardines in fully-loaded Higgins boats, all praying, all dreaming of home or a sweetheart, all thinking the “other guy” wouldn’t make it out. Dunlap’s monthly Marine salary was $50.
Dunlap’s recon unit has periodic reunions in New Orleans. At the first reunion, 300 Marines met to reminisce. Last year there were fewer than 40.