MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C --
Wendell V. Perkins’ eyes melted as memories of a past life dripped slowly into the present. With words alone, like a priceless blue-era Picasso, he painted the picture of a simpler time. He splattered his metaphorical canvas with accents of somber blues and accentuated highlights of his tale with energetic vigor. With every stroke, the masterpiece took the shape of a story that began in the early 1940’s with a young man making a choice.
“We were depression-era kids, and we came to California because there was nothing in Texas,” the Walnut Grove, Ca. native began. “We picked cotton and tomatoes; we were transient crop followers. Once we started to settle down, people started to get regular jobs, and then the war broke out.”
A day that will live in infamy, December 7, 1941, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese brought the United States into the bloodiest war in America’s history.
“Well, as a 17-year-old kid I wasn’t thinking about wars, I was thinking about girls,” Perkins laughed. With wide eyes, a youthful smile snuck across his face.
“Of course, I was ready to enlist and go fight to protect us on Dec. 8, but my parents wouldn’t allow it so I had to wait a year until I was just about forced into the draft.”
A notice arrived at the door and his draft number was almost up. Perkins made a life-changing decision against the wishes of his parents. He went down to the local recruiting office and picked up the paper needed to enlist. Once home, he told his father about his decision and that he asked for his signature to seal the deal.
“He grabbed the papers and stormed out of the room. A few hours later, I was lying on my bed and he came back and threw them at me and replied, ‘Here’s your death warrant!’”
As a Marine who was wounded in the battle of Belleau Wood, Perkins’ father acted as a typical parent would, wanting his child to be safe and in good health.
“My father was very proud of the fact that he was a Marine, but hoped that I would get into something that wouldn’t get me hurt; deep down, he couldn’t have been more proud.”
At a time when the safety of the United States was at stake, patriotism and enthusiasm were high, Perkins was ready to fight; he was ready to go to war.
“I chose the Marine Corps because I figured if we were going to war, we might as well learn how to fight.”
Perkins went to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in December 1942. After eight weeks of rigorous training, he went on to tank training school where he qualified as a light tank driver and gunner. From there he joined a group of 300 tankers and traveled overseas to New Zealand, where only three tankers where selected for duty. The rest went into the infantry and Perkins ended up as a machine gunner with Weapons platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division.
“I felt fine about going into the infantry; in hindsight I thought it was a smart move, those light tanks were nothing but tin-can death traps,” he said.
November quickly approached and 6th Marines followed the 2nd and 8th Marine Regiments as they made the initial landings on the Japanese-held island of Tarawa. Carrying little more than an extra set of clothing, shaving gear and a change of socks, Perkins waded toward the shoreline, rubber boats in tow, carefully negotiating mines placed beneath the water.
“It was frightening,” he explained. “We got there about six in the evening and it was getting dark. We bedded down and started to sleep for the night. I sort of laid down beside this log, and when I woke up in the morning it was this dead Japanese soldier. They were everywhere”
Perkins spent days in the extreme heat protecting an artillery unit throughout the battle, surviving on C-rations and what other food he could find.
“The C-rations were cans you opened up, and there was a big, old, hard chocolate bar in there that became my favorite candy; it was horrible stuff, but I got to where I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Once the Marines had taken the island, Perkins was ordered to Saipan where Marines defended their position against the largest Japanese banzai attack in the Pacific war.
“The battle was intense!” he exclaimed.” “It was scary as hell, but after a while you get tired, the fear is gone and you just want to get it over and done with and get off the island.”
Perkins remained on Saipan for four weeks until the island was secure, keeping track of the losses, the wounded and all of the Marines in the company.
Throughout the years, the experiences of his time on Tarawa and Saipan have shaped his relationships with the Marine Corps and the 2nd Marine Division. He reflected on the conflicts in the Middle East and concluded that present day Marines have it much harder.
“I think the Marines today have it a hell of a lot tougher fighting than we did because you don’t know who your enemy is. At least our enemy had on uniforms and they looked different. In Iraq and Afghanistan, everyone carries a weapon. I’m just so impressed with the Marines I’ve seen in the past few years, and I’m very proud to have been a part of the 2nd Marine Division.”
As Perkins returned to the present, he stepped back from the symbolic easel satisfied with the story resting before him. With silent repose he laid down his brush in remembrance of his fallen brothers.