By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
James H. May went from a “rougher” to a “leatherneck” at age 23.
As a rougher, he helped make steel for World War II guns at the Republic Steel plant in South Buffalo. As a leatherneck in the Marines, he fought in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
“I was already helping the war effort producing steel for rifle and machine gun barrels and artillery shells. I used gun barrels that were probably made from the steel at Republic, and it absolutely felt good. The steel was keeping me alive,” the 90-year-old veteran recalls. “I shot M1 rifles, Browning automatic rifles and machine guns. I also threw many hand grenades but have no idea if the steel came from Republic.”
He enlisted in the Marines to be like his older brother, George, now 92, a Marine who had fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific.
In October 1944, May arrived at Guadalcanal with the newly formed 6th Marine Division to practice for one of the last major battles of the war against Japan, the invasion of Okinawa.
“George had already come back to the United States, and, in fact, he met me just before I shipped out to Guadalcanal,” James May says. “When we got to Guadalcanal, we began training for Okinawa. We had all kinds of demolition practice – shoving tubes into caves and blowing up the caves. A lot of demo training.”
On April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday, the invasion started.
“I was supposed to land in the 22nd wave,” May recalls, “but we went in on about the fourth wave of Marines. My partner and I had the job of putting flags on Red Beach One so that ships would know where to send supplies.
“On our way in, we were attacked by kamikazes. The ships and everything were being attacked. There was stuff blowing up all over us. The Navy was shooting over our heads to try and take Naha Airfield.”
Married to the former Joan Beale and the father of a young boy and girl, May said the idea that he might not survive was something he hadn’t considered: “I wasn’t thinking about getting killed. I didn’t have time.”
Once on the beach, he weaved his way through a blizzard of shrapnel. And by the second day, he ended up on Sugar Loaf Hill, a cemetery for many a Marine.
“The Marines got stuck on Sugar Loaf. We fought there three days, and hundreds of Marines were lost,” May remembers. “I got there about the second day, and we held the top of a hill. When daylight came, I saw hundreds of bodies piled like cordwood waiting to be buried. I still get flashbacks.”
The weather also conspired.
“It rained so much, all our support got stuck in the muddy conditions,” May says. “We slept in foxholes that filled with water. You didn’t have to get up to pee.”
During what was to be the last major encounter on Okinawa’s Oruka Peninsula, May suffered shrapnel wounds.
“I was hit up the back, the face and legs. I was laying down firing on the enemy from a hilltop and watched as other Marines who’d been wounded were being dragged down the hill,” he says. “I could also see that the enemy’s mortars were creeping right across the top of the hill towards me. When I was hit, the Navy corpsman wanted to send me back, but I didn’t want to go.
“I stayed there and continued to fight. We held the hill that night and the next day.”
The hilltop provided him with an added horror.
“We watched Japanese civilians jumping off cliffs and committing suicide. I guess they were scared of us. They were told that we would chop them up. As far as I knew, I never killed a civilian.”
After three bloody months, the U.S. military secured Okinawa.
“We went back to Guam, and I went blind,” May says. “My eyes swelled shut from my wounds. It took about six days before I even knew if I would see again. They shot me in the buttocks every four hours with penicillin, and finally my eyes started to clear up.”
While on Guam, the Marines trained for the planned invasion of Japan, but that proved unnecessary after the world’s first two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered.
But there was still work for May and his colleagues who were shipped to China, where Japanese soldiers were rounded up and sent back to Japan.
“They were all over the place,” May remembers, “but they weren’t hostile.”
Around Christmas 1945, communist troops in China attempted to take over Tsingtao Airfield from opposing nationals, and U.S. Marines were called in to stop the advance.
“Gen. [Lemuel C.] Shepherd sent us in without any ammunition, and we bluffed the communists,” May says. “They stopped. They didn’t take the airfield, and we got a battle star for that on our Combat Action Ribbon.”
By 1946, May returned to civilian life and was reunited with his wife and children:
“It seemed like a miracle.”
James H. May, 90
Branch: Marine Corps
Rank: Private first class
War zone: Pacific
Years of service: 1944-46
Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon with battle star, Presidential Unit Citation
Specialty: Infantry rifleman