Guadalcanal. Bougainville. Peleliu. Okinawa.

These were strange, odd-sounding names to 17-year-old Dennis Anderson, who was preparing to go to war as a fighting Marine following his graduation from high school in 1943.

Guadalcanal. Bougainville. Peleliu. Okinawa.

These were strange, odd-sounding names to 17-year-old Dennis Anderson, who was preparing to go to war as a fighting Marine following his graduation from high school in 1943.

Even though the Iowa youth didn’t meet the minimum-age requirement to serve in the military, he was allowed into the Marine Corps after his parents finally gave their consent.

Knowing it was not long before he was going to be drawn into World War II, Dennis enlisted early so he could serve in his favorite branch of the service. His older brother, Hoyle, was already in Europe fighting with Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army.

“They let me stay in school until I graduated in May.  Then (the Marines) hollered for me, and I took off for San Diego for my boot training,” says Dennis, who lives with Leota – his wife of 64 years – in their northeastern Independence home.

While training in California, little did the gung-ho recruit realize that the Pacific islands of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Peleliu and Okinawa would be more than names on a map.

They soon became bloody battlegrounds in the Pacific Theater of War for the young teenage rifleman, who fought on the frontlines as a sharpshooter and was involved in hand-to-hand fighting on several occasions as a member of the 1st Marine Division.

Dennis, who was named “honor man” of his boot-camp platoon, was among some 4,400 Marines who set sail for an unknown destination following basic training. Several days later, the Marines learned they were headed for Guadalcanal as replacements for the 1st Marine Division.

“I got in on the tail end of the mopping up on Guadalcanal,” Dennis says, recalling he was on the frontlines with other Marines trying to prevent the Japanese from overtaking Henderson Field, the U.S air base there.

“Eventually, we got it taken care of,” he says.

Some three to four months later, the 1st Marine Division also took care of things on Bougainville, the northern most island in the Solomon chain. Within five to six weeks, the island north of Guadalcanal was secured.

Without further elaboration, Dennis turns his attention to the next invasion site: the tiny island of Peleliu – located about halfway between Guadalcanal and Japan. There, some 7,000 Marines lost their lives in September 1943.

Composing himself after being overcome with emotion, Dennis says the Japanese fought behind fortified bunkers atop a tall mountain on the 3-mile wide, 10-mile long island.

“They were looking right down on us, you know. There wasn’t any cover for us.”
The island was strategic, Dennis says, because it had an air base the U.S. desperately needed so that its fighter planes would have a place to land, refuel and then accompany the bombers as they bombarded the Japanese homeland.
“We secured that island but we lost 7,000 men.”

Next came the invasion of Okinawa, involving the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions, as well as soldiers from the 10th Army Division Command.

“We landed (on Okinawa) on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945,” Dennis recalls, explaining the 1st Marine Division had the job of cutting the island in two at its narrowest point.

Eradicating the Japanese from this well-fortified island took three months of bitter fighting to accomplish. The death toll was high. Casualties from the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions totaled 13,600.

“The Japanese had been on that island for 30 years and they really had it fortified,” he explains. “They had built a lot of concrete bunkers, pillboxes and booby traps ... and in some of those coral ridges, they had even laid railroad tracks and built tunnels from one end of the island to the other. And they had artillery on those rail cars. ... That is what we fought against there.”

The devastated island was secured on June 8, 1945.

For young Dennis, the horrors of war were all around  him. Like the time he and his squad went searching for their platoon leader – a lieutenant – and his driver who had left in the darkness for their docked ship to pick up chow for the men. However, they never returned.

The next morning, the search team found the vehicle wrecked. The driver had been fatally shot in the neck; the platoon leader had been tied to a tree and bayonetted to death.

With the lieutenant’s death, Dennis was placed in charge of the 62-man platoon until another lieutenant could be found to replace him.

Surprised at his promotion? You betcha!

“At that time, I was a corporal and the youngest one in my platoon,” he says.

Recalling his good fortunes in the Marine Corps, Dennis mentions he and two other Marines  were the only platoon members who came through four major campaigns without being killed or seriously wounded.

“Today, I am the only one left out of that whole platoon,” he says emotionally. “But the good Lord brought me back. I believe that.”

Like the time he was leading his platoon between the coral ridges on Okinawa and came under machine-gun fire.

With no place to hide, the young platoon leader jumped into a large muddy track made the day before by an American tank shelling a nearby ridge.

Though the track was just deep enough to protect him,  “gunfire riddled the pack on my back,” he recalls.

A close call, he admits. But there were many.

Like the time he and a buddy were sharing a foxhole on Okinawa that was separated from the other  foxholes. With Japanese artillery exploding nearby, Dennis yells, “Sullivan, let’s get the hell out of here.” And they did, running behind the rear of a coral ridge, where they took cover with the rest of the platoon.

When the shelling stopped, Dennis saw how close he came to death.

“We moved forward again and walked past this foxhole that I was in,” he emotionally says, recalling he could  have driven a half-ton pickup in that hole gouged out by an artillery strike.

“We were lucky again that time,” Dennis says of himself and his platoon.

 The platoon’s luck, though, ran out on May 9, 1945, when 49 members died in a three-hour firefight trying to capture a Japanese-held hill.

Although chased off the hill, screaming Japanese blowing bugles and beating drums made  a counter-attack at 4 a.m. the next day.

“We didn’t know they were there until they got in our foxholes with us,”  Dennis says of the attack that involved hand-to-hand fighting.

“I was right in there with them, but I didn’t get wounded,” he says. “Finally, we drove them off, and they went back to their ridge, and I think we met them (again) the next day.

Dennis didn’t return home after the unconditional surrender of Japan. Instead, his platoon and others were sent to China on a mission: to rescue captured Japanese soldiers from the Chinese Communist soldiers who refused to accept the Japanese surrender.

“(The Japanese) were in compounds in numerous Chinese cities and being slaughtered by the Chinese Communists,” who were trying to take over the country, Dennis explains.

Highlighting his stay in China was a face-to-face encounter with Chaing Kai-Shek, commander of the Chinese nationalist troops. He welcomed Dennis to China on his arrival to Tacuasc on Oct. 1, 1945.

“It was quite an honor,” he says of the surprise visit.

On May 7, 1946, his distinguished military career ended with his discharge from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago.

Looking back over his life, which spans 85 years, Dennis has no regrets.

“I have had a good life and I was blessed many times in my combat career. ... (Leota) and I have had a good marriage and everyone is healthy. I just think I can’t ask for anything more.”

Semper Fi, Dennis Anderson.