Sitting in the family backyard on Townsend Street on Buffalo’s East Side in the summer of 1942, Matthew Gagat listened as his older brother Jim spoke of wanting to enlist in the Marine Corps, eager to fight in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
It seemed odd to Matthew.
Jim Gagat had returned home a few years earlier from a stretch in the peace time Army. Jim and another brother, John, joined the Army during the Great Depression “to alleviate the pressure on our widowed mother,” Matthew Gagat said.
But in the backyard on that summer afternoon, Jim harbored revenge. Only after being pushed on the question of why he was so gung-ho on returning to the military did he explain his reasons.
“He told us he wanted to join the Marines. I told him he was married and had two girls. I said, ‘Why don’t you stay home with the family, and I’ll join the Army.’ I was single. But then it came out. Jim said he wanted to get at the Japanese for killing his Army friends over in Pearl Harbor, where he had been serving,” Matthew Gagat recalled.
There was no talking Jim out of going into the Marines. He joined and quickly advanced in rank to 1st sergeant.
As a member of 6th Marine Division, Jim Gagat fought many battles with many opportunities to avenge the deaths of his Army buddies, but the harshest encounter occurred when he participated in the invasion of Okinawa, where the enemy was firmly dug in.
Matthew Gagat said he, too, was sent to Okinawa, but by the time he arrived, the battle was already won.
“I was a master sergeant in charge of about 50 mechanics and welders, and our job was to repair the 40-ton tanks, half-tracks and other vehicles,” Gagat said, adding that he had no idea his brother had fought at Okinawa, since troop movement was classified information.
As the head of the machine shop on Okinawa, Gagat had access to a Jeep.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to play Gen. MacArthur.’ The Japanese soldiers who had been captured and pacified were working for us. Using hand signals, because I didn’t speak Japanese, I taught one of them how to drive a Jeep, and he drove me around the island. I was just like an officer with a driver.
“The Red Cross had this station with coffee and doughnuts, and we drove to it, and I turned around and to my surprise I saw a Marine cemetery. It was for members of the 6th Marine Division, where my brother served. With that I got up and started walking and reading the names. I didn’t know if I’d find my brother there.
“But after going 15 or 20 feet, I stopped and said to myself, how am I going to react if I see my brother’s name? So I turned around and got away from there.”
Matthew Gagat later learned that his brother had “just barely survived” the Battle of Okinawa.
“Jim was on a hospital ship when I was on Okinawa. He had multiple wounds and was on his way to San Diego. He was eventually discharged and went home,” the younger brother said.
Two other brothers also managed to survive the war: John, who served as a guard at the Panama Canal Zone, and Bill, a member of Navy, who served on a destroyer.
Out of the four brothers, Jim was changed the most by the war.
“Jim was not the same happy-go-lucky guy. He moved to California with his family. He bought a small house and got a job in security where they only hired former Marines. When I visited him out there, he was never the same,” Matthew Gagat said. “He would lean against a tree and just stare into the distance.”
To this day, even at 95 years old, Gagat says he can still recall the sadness in his brother’s face.