#ad#Independence Day is a work holiday for most of us, but there are no days off in war. On July 4, 1944, Navy air and sea forces attacked Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima in the Bonin Islands, in preparation for the invasion to come. The Japanese fought back tenaciously, and the attack saw the first use of the kamikaze suicide tactics that would later become well known and feared. Seaman Dennis Latham of the destroyer USS Brown wrote, “This has been the most fireworks I have seen on the Fourth in my life. We bombarded the Island of Chichi Jima, in the Bonin Group, five hundred miles off Japan… These islands are very beautiful. At the ends of each big island, there are huge volcanic mountains, towering into the sky. It is a shame they are to be destroyed.” Navy pilot Lieutenant Adolph Mencin wrote of the engagement, “This was our toughest fight; we were out numbered, and the Jap pilots and planes were the best we ever encountered. The Japs flew like something out of a circus, but the Hellcats were too much for them. While they were doing acrobatics, we were shooting.” Lt. Mencin was credited with three aerial victories that day and was awarded the Silver Star.
Meanwhile in Europe, 1,100 American guns fired a “salute” into German positions in Normandy, as U.S. troops fought doggedly towards the French town of St. Lo. Private John Ausland wrote his parents, “Dear folks, Today, just to celebrate independence day we loaded every gun — as did all battalions in the army – and fired them simultaneously at 1200.” It was not the first such demonstration in the Army’s history. At noon on July 4, 1864, Union guns around Richmond fired a “national salute” towards the Confederate defenses. But as one correspondent noted, other than that, “Independence Day came and went with few outward signs to mark it from many others.”
Truly for some Americans at war July 4 is like any other day — hazardous. “I didn’t even realize it was the Fourth of July,” Private Glenn Robinson said, manning a defensive position in Korea in 1951. “I was too busy ducking.” Earlier that same Independence Day in Korea in 1951, Sergeant Leroy A. Mendonça, Company B, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division, had been helping consolidate his platoon’s position on newly won Hill 586. The enemy made a strong night counter-attack, and under pressure his platoon was ordered to pull back. Sergeant Mendonça volunteered to stay behind to cover the withdrawal. He held off the enemy as best he could with his rifle and hand grenades until his ammunition was exhausted. He then continued to fight with bayonet and rifle butt, taking out thirty-seven enemy troops before falling mortally wounded. But his unit was able to regroup, and later that day Hill 586 was solidly in American hands.
Sixteen years later Marine Private First Class Melvin E. Newlin, 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, was manning a perimeter machine gun position at Nong Son in Vietnam when Viet Cong guerillas mounted a sudden mortar and infantry attack. Four Marines with Newlin were killed outright, and he was seriously wounded. Nevertheless he manned his weapon and beat back two assaults before being rendered unconscious from a grenade explosion and overrun. The enemy took him for dead and moved on to assault the main objectives in the Marine position. Newlin regained consciousness and poured fire into the enemy rear, disrupting their attack and giving his fellow Marines more time to organize a coordinated defense. The enemy rushed him two more times before he finally succumbed. But by then the Marines were able to stave off the enemy main force.
Both Mendonça and Newlin were awarded posthumous Medals of Honor for their heroic actions on Independence Day.
For America’s POWs, July 4 could be a time of reflection, celebration, or defiance. Sgt. Carl S. Nordin, captured by the Japanese in 1942 on Mindanao, noted in his first Independence Day in captivity that some of the men in the camp celebrated by drinking some rice wine they had made in a secret still. “The end result must have been what they desired because the participants really did frolic around for a while,” he wrote in his diary. The inebriated prisoners ran and slid trough mud puddles in the camp yard, until hangovers began to set in, apparently without much notice from the guards. “Needless to say,” Nordin observed, “it was not a very noble display of patriotism.” Lieutenant Frank Hughes, of Company E, 37th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, spent July 4, 1862 in a Confederate prison in Macon Georgia, having been taken captive at the battle of Elk River. “The only way of celebrating the glorious old 4th is profound & silent meditation,” he wrote. “It was cool & cloudy all day here seemingly as a frown from heaven.” Two years later English journalist George Augustus Sala noted that the Union prisoners in Macon raised an American flag they had smuggled in. “With bloodhounds at their throats,” he wrote, “with muskets pointed at them, without bread to eat or a roof to cover them, these poor men took refuge and found consolation in patriotism.”
Navy officer Dr. Jonathan Haskins, one of America’s first prisoners of war, spent July 4, 1777, in a cell in squalid Mill Prison, Plymouth, England. He had joined the crew of the ten-gun privateer Charming Sally the previous November as a junior surgeon, been taken captive by the British the following January, and shipped to England after five months of shipboard confinement. That day in his journal he absently noted the movements of merchant vessels in the harbor, and added, “This Day 12 Months the United States of America Declar’d Independent which they’ve Supported one year. God send they Ever May — “
But for most Americans at war July 4 is a time to think of their families and loved ones back home, the people for whom they are fighting, whose hard-won freedom they are defending. And perhaps they ponder if their sacrifice is going unnoticed, if the traditions they defend are fading. Russell Stroup, an Army combat chaplain from Virginia serving on the front lines on the savagely contested island of Biak, wrote on July 4, 1944, “Dearest family, I wonder if, nowadays, parents still makes holidays so noteworthy for their children that when they grow older they will think of home more poignantly on such days than on any others?” He added, “Out here the Fourth is neither safe nor sane,” noting the ferocity of the fighting and the Japanese ethos that demanded defending to the last man. But his heart was with his loved ones, and he did not dwell overmuch on the difficulties of war. “Some men near me are playing cards with a set that has a cocker spaniel on the back like our dog General [Lee],” he continued, “and this makes me homesick, or should I say this increases it. I can close my eyes and see you all as you would be about this time of day, supper time, with General all eager for the meal to begin. He wouldn’t be any more eager than I would be if I were there.” Chaplain Stroup survived the war, and when he returned home General Lee greeted him by running about, leaping and barking for half an hour.
All across the world, at posts and on ships, from Iraq to the Philippines, Okinawa to Afghanistan, wherever Americans serve, Independence Day will be celebrated, in ways great and small. For those most fortunate it may be something very much like what they would enjoy at home, with hot dogs on the grill, softball in the afternoon, maybe fireworks at night. For others, a daylong patrol in a hot Hum-vee, MREs when they get around to eating, and, God willing, no fireworks at all.
— James S. Robbins is author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point, and an NRO contributor.