Some people are born fighters.
Not in a violent sense, but rather with a passion for life that carries them through the darkest of tribulations. Raymond Mitchell, 85, is one of those people.
Earlier this year, Mitchell lost his leg after being hit by a car. After delivering dinner to a neighbor who had recently had a stroke, he crossed Salem Road back into his own yard when the driver of a car lost control, crossed the center line and barreled toward him. He fell out of the way, which prevented him from being directly hit, but the force of the car severed his left leg and broke his left arm in three places.
Mitchell spent three weeks in the intensive care unit at Atlanta Medical Center, but this was neither his first stint in a hospital, nor his first brush with death.
Some 64 years ago, Mitchell was a member of the 1st Marine Division, fighting in the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Theatre in World War II.
As a soldier
A Rockdale County native, Mitchell joined the marines in 1942 at the age of 18.
While training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, a colonel asked him to be the caretaker of the beer hall at the camp because he didn’t drink and would be more responsible than the current caretaker. The colonel told Mitchell he would promote him if he accepted the position and he wouldn’t have to risk his life fighting overseas.
"I’ll take my chances," he told the colonel. "If I take that job, I can’t say that I went to defend my country.
"I never did feel sorry about that," said Mitchell. "I didn’t drink no way."
So, he set sail on the Pacific with the 1st Marines headed toward Guadalcanal and commenced "island hopping."
During training, a soldier in the 5th squad had trouble with his sergeant and squad leaders asked Mitchell if he would leave the 3rd squad, trading with the other soldier. Mitchell agreed.
On Sept. 15, 1944, Operation Stalemate II began. The mission of the 1st Marines was to secure the airfield on the uninhabited island of Peleliu — something that was supposed to be an easy task.
"It took us 45 days to secure the island," Mitchell said.
The Japanese forces on the island were well prepared and fortified themselves in a cave system that snaked up cliffs and ridges toward high ground the soldiers called "The Point." They covered the entrances of the caves with sliding steel doors outfitted with artillery and machine guns. The 3rd squad, which Mitchell had traded out of, was ambushed and lost every man.
While climbing the craggy terrain toward their goal, Mitchell and a fellow soldier were spotted by enemy combatants and had to seek cover behind a large rock and a tree. A dead Japanese soldier greeted them there. For five days they stayed in that spot in near 120 degree heat without food and very little water, taking turns sleeping and dealing with the smell of the dead Japanese soldier.
Mitchell’s companion would occasionally place his helmet on the butt of his rifle and jut it out over the rock. A barrage of gunfire let the two know that the enemy was still somewhere below.
When Mitchell’s companion became brave enough to peer over the side of the rocky outcrop where they were stranded, an enemy soldier shot straight up from a tree on which he was perched piercing the American’s chest. Luckily the bullet did not strike any major arteries or organs. Mitchell said he didn’t even lose any blood. Doctors later told him that the bullet was so hot it healed its way all the way through and exited his body.
Eventually, American tanks arrived and employed flame throwers on the Japanese hide-out cave. Mitchell was able to advance his position and drink a bit of water. The only fresh water on the island for the Americans was in a 55-gallon oil drum. Many thirsty men vomited oil while on the island.
The fighting was fierce, but the Americans eventually prevailed. Japanese Col. Kunio Nakagawa committed suicide on the island.
"The Japanese didn’t surrender," Mitchell said. "They let you kill them or they took their own lives."
After Peleliu, the 1st Marines headed for Okinawa. Operation Iceberg was to seize the island as a staging point for an invasion of mainland Japan. The battle that ensued was later called "Typhoon of Steel" because of the amazing amount of ammunition spent by both sides of the battle.
While first storming the beach on April 1, 1945 – Easter Sunday – Mitchell’s division suffered heavy casualties.
Mitchell’s E Company was a machine gun squad. Soon after reaching the beach on Okinawa, his company’s gunner was shot in the head.
"I picked his head up and he was trying to tell me something," Mitchell said with fresh tears from the old memory wetting his cheeks, "but I never could make out what he was saying."
He said most of the injured men on the battlefield called for their mothers. Many of the men were not married – 90 percent of the men in Mitchell’s division were between the ages of 18 and 20. The seasoned marine in his squad was 32; the men called him "Pop."
After collecting his fallen comrade’s wedding band and sparse personal effects, Mitchell continued advancing toward the inner island.
"They were bombing us and shelling us – just mortar and artillery fire everywhere," he said.
Some of the men near him jumped into a mortar crater seeking some sort of shelter in the hail of steel, but the enemy fired another shell into the crater.
"I turned to run over to see about them," said Mitchell.
Before he could reach the men, another explosion sent searing shrapnel toward him, chewing out a large chunk of his leg. A navy corpsman found him and dressed his wounds as well as he could while on a battlefield and called for stretcher bearers to carry him out of harm’s way.
When they reached the airfield hospital on Okinawa, Mitchell told his caretakers that he could walk. Stepping off the stretcher he immediately collapsed.
"You’re so shocked that you do things you think you can, but you can’t," he said.
At the hospital Mitchell saw men with a varying severity of wounds, but they all had one thing in common: no pain medication.
"You’re just laying there taking it."
The next day he and others were flown to a hospital on Guam. Surgeons operated on his leg on his 21st birthday. He stayed at the hospital for three months.
After Okinawa was secured in late June, Mitchell was shipped back to the island, crutches and all. It was there he heard a news report about the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"We had no idea what they were talking about because it was a secret up until the day it was dropped," Mitchell said.
The 1st Marines were soon charged with disarming all Japanese forces in North China and departed with a convoy of ships across the East China Sea.
On Aug. 15, 1945, the captain of the boat carrying the division announced that the Japanese had surrendered.
"He said, I don’t care what you do, just don’t sink the ship."
The men began to fire everything on the ship with a trigger.
"It sounded like we were in war with all the ships firing guns just celebrating."
Being previously injured, Mitchell sought refuge from the party.
After a cold winter in the then-primitive city of Peking (now Bejing) he was shipped back to the states and honorably discharged in February, 1946.
He was married to his wife Dorothy in November of the same year. They had one son, Gary. In 1989, he retired from Golden State Foods.
After seeing the film "Saving Private Ryan," Mitchell’s grandson Donnie became curious about his grandfather’s service during WWII and began asking questions.
"I never talked a lot about it," Mitchell said. "When you come out of the service, a lot of it you tried to forget. You didn’t want to think about it."
When Donnie learned about the infamous battles in which his grandfather had participated, he wrote then-governor of Georgia Zell Miller inquiring about any medals his grandfather should receive. Mitchell only had a Purple Heart for the injury he sustained at Okinawa.
In 2003, Miller sent back a letter and a bevy of recognition for Mitchell’s service with the 1st Marine Division, 5th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company E. He received a modern Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, China Service Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze stars, WWII Victory Medal and a Rifle Marksman Badge. He stores them with the Bible he carried throughout his tenure as a soldier.
Since the winter accident that took his leg he has made an amazing recovery. He is able to move around with a walker and has even recently been to the beach with his wife, Dorothy.
"He gets bored just sitting, and he seldom uses his chair," Dorothy said.
On Saturday, his doctors equipped him with a state-of-the-art prosthetic leg.
Dorothy said he is a living miracle.
"He’s never been depressed," Dorothy said. "He’s just a special man."