Otworth, 88, joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942 after graduating from Green High School in Franklin Furnace. Packing a rifle with the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Regiment of the Fourth Marine Division, he was in on the first wave of invading forces on the twin islands of Roi-Namur, in the Kwatalein atoll of the Marshall Islands; the first wave on Saipan, and the first wave on Iwo Jima.
It may be called the Fourth, but the division was actually the “first” — first to leave the states and go directly into combat, and first to capture Japanese-mandated territory in the Pacific. The men of the Fourth experienced bitter fighting and suffered a high casualty rate.
The memories are all too poignant. Last Tuesday, Bud Otworth sat in the living room of his home on Pine Creek, five miles northeast of Wheelersburg, and those memories of 65 years ago flowed back so powerfully you could almost smell the gunpowder, almost hear the Japanese soldiers’ shouts of “Banzai!” as they charged out of the jungles at daybreak.
He seemed to decide that maybe it would be best to talk about it.
“On Saipan that night they made two suicide charges,” Otworth said. “At three o’clock in the morning they started yelling, ‘Marine, you die!’ That’s when I saw the little girl, maybe 2 years old, strapped in a pack on the back of her dead mother.”
He and a Marine buddy, at the risk of being shot by a sniper, went out and got the little girl and took her to a safer spot in a command post behind the lines.
The Japanese made their banzai charge at the break of dawn, were repulsed, and Otworth’s outfit advanced.
“There was no time to check again on the little girl,” Otworth said. “We were fighting for our lives. I’ve often wondered what happened to her. She would be about 67 years old now, if she survived.”
He saw friends he had gone through basic and advanced training with die in the water before they ever reached the beach.
He saw a prime example of the adage about finding no atheists in foxholes.
“Pierce, who had been the Golden Gloves champ in Middletown, did not believe in God. In fact, he made fun of me for going to church. On Iwo Jima, three days after the invasion, I believe it was (D-Day plus three, was the way he put it), we were getting the hell shelled out of us. They were falling all around but they hadn’t hit us. Suddenly Pierce said, ‘Otworth, I’m going to move over into that next foxhole.’ I said Pierce, they’ve shelled all around us, but they’ve not hit us. Lay still. He hadn’t been over there five minutes when a shell hit right between his legs. I crawled over there, but there was nothing I could do for him. One leg was blown up over the side. He prayed every breath, every breath he prayed, until he bled to death.”
In the Marshals, troops from the Fourth Marine Division and the U.S. Army’s Seventh Infantry Division simultaneously hit Kwajalein Island, which had 3,000 Japanese troops defending.
At every amphibious landing, U.S. Navy gunfire and fighter planes helped soften enemy positions, but it was the foot troops who did the decisive fighting.
“They would not surrender. They would kill themselves first. They were fighting for their country, we were fighting for ours,” Otworth said of those first Japanese soldiers he faced on Roi-Namur. “It was kill or be killed.”
Roi-Namur was actually two islands, Roi and Namur, which had been linked together by a causeway, making one larger land mass.
Six hours after landing, in January 1944, Otworth’s battalion, many of whom were facing their first combat, had secured one of the islands.
“We took the whole damned island by noon. Two Japs stuck their heads up out of a pillbox. I shot one and then the other as he ran across the causeway,” Otworth said. “I shot another from a palm tree before he could shoot me.”
Suddenly, without warning, shelling by U.S. warships set off an enemy blockhouse on Namur that the Japanese used for storing aerial bombs and torpedo warheads. Concussion from the explosion felled men in every direction and even destroyed some boats in the water.
“I thought the whole island would surely sink,” Otworth said.
When troops reached the northern shore of Roi, they saw one of their most horrible sights of the combat: A trench full of Japanese soldiers had committed hara-kiri by placing the muzzles of their rifles under their chins and pulling the triggers with their toes.
Still, the last few hundred, under cover of darkness, staged a final banzai attack.
When Roi-Namur was secured, out of a garrison of more than 3,000 Japanese soldiers who had defended the islands, only 51 survived.
When the battle for the Marshalls was over, a total of 190 Marines were killed in action and another 574 wounded during the brief engagement. Overnight, the “green” troops of the Fourth Marine Division had become veterans.
Twice, Otworth received the Purple Heart (one Purple Heart with a gold star on it signifying the second), given to those who are wounded in combat. He doesn’t mention campaign medals or any other decorations.
“Don’t make me out to be a hero,” he said. “I only did what I believed was required of me as an American.”
His wounds on Saipan, chiefly concussion, led to his evacuation back to Pearl Harbor but did not keep him out of action long. He returned to his old outfit about two months later as it prepared for the invasion of Iwo Jima.
But on Iwo Jima his wounds were severe enough that his time of war was over. On the 15th day of the battle there, March 6, 1945, he lay on the battlefield, shot and burned by phosphorus from the grenades the Japanese used, his wounds becoming infected, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. while the fighting raged on without him.
“I remained conscious all the time, and I was praying all the time,” he said.
A photo on the inside cover of “Fourth Marine Division,” a hardcover history of the Division, shows Hospital Apprentice First Class John Johnson Jr., USNR, helping a wounded marine back to the Battalion First Aid Station. The Marine, wounded during the assault on Iwo Jima, isn’t named. But Otworth said it is him, and two of his daughters are convinced it is. The photo had first appeared in either Look or Life magazine.
In March 1987, two fellow soldiers who had fought with Otworth on Iwo Jima and helped to save him — George Reising from Cold Spring, Ky., and Ben Craythorne from Hooper, Utah — visited Otworth at his farm on Pine Creek. They both thought he had died of his wounds. Craythorne managed to get Otworth’s address, wrote him, and Otworth wrote him back. The reunion was the first time the men had gotten together in 42 years.
Otworth spent more than two years in hospitals back in the States and wasn’t discharged from the military until February 1947.
It was quite a homecoming for him. Two of his brothers, Charles, with the Army, and Herb, with the Navy, also survived World War II and were waiting for him.
He soon married his sweetheart, Jude Wagner. They had been married 61 years when she died in June.
They have 10 children — six sons and four daughters, all except one living nearby. They have 29 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
The children are David and Bessie Otworth, Linda and Frank Barnett, Michael Otworth, Patricia and Dennis Klaiber, Charles and Connie Otworth and Dwight and Johda Otworth, all of Franklin Furnace; Regina and Joseph Ruggles of South Webster; Phillip and Pamela Otworth of Powellsville; Dean and Julie Otworth of Hillsboro; and Rebecca and William Anderson of Savannah, Ga.
Otworth worked 27 years at Detroit Steel in New Boston before retiring in 1979.
“He had so many injuries he was lucky to get a job,” said his daughter, Linda Barnett. “He also worked this 112-acre farm. And he made sure we children were in church (St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Wheelersburg) every week.
Otworth said he bought the farm April 1, 1961, from Vern Riffe Sr. The brick ranch standing on it near the Oakes Road is 97 feet long, not counting the two-car garage on one end.
“I have more blessings than I can count,” he said. “I tell you today the average American does not realize what a great country we are living in. We should all stand proud to be Americans.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.