Born and raised in Lackawanna, James J. McGovern seemed destined to work at Bethlehem Steel, joining “my whole relations, my father, my brother, my father’s brother, and a couple of my cousins.”
McGovern worked in the sheet metal mill, and it was plenty hot.
“My father and my uncle worked in the No. 3 open-hearth mill and that was a lot hotter.”
But less than a year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the United States entered World War II, McGovern was headed to one of the world’s hottest spots, not only because it was in the Pacific, but because the Japanese were such fierce fighters.
“I enlisted in the Marines because I thought it was a great outfit. I was with the 4th Marine Division, and our first battle was Jan. 31 to Feb. 8, 1944, on Roi-Namur,” McGovern recalls.
“That battle wasn’t too bad. Then we went back to Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. Between every battle, we went back to Maui for training, and it was beautiful.”
His next combat was at Saipan from June 15 to July 9, 1944.
“We always landed on the first day of battle, and I was the luckiest guy in the world: I never got hit. But I always felt terrible when one of our guys got killed,” he says. “After Saipan, we fought at Tinian and then went back to Maui for more training. Then we landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19 and fought until March 26, 1945.
“Oh, that was tough! We had an awfully hard time getting off the beach, unlike the other battles. We had to crawl over dead guys. We had a great sergeant. He hollered, ‘If we don’t get off the beach, we’ll all be killed.’ He stood up and shouted, ‘Load your guns and shoot anywhere.’ ”
It wasn’t that easy. Members of the company were lugging parts for a powerful artillery piece, the 75 mm Pack Howitzer.
“We had a number of cannons with us, and we each had a part to carry. I also had my .50-caliber machine gun,” McGovern says.
But faced with the prospect of being slaughtered on the beach, he said the company embraced the sergeant’s call to move. “We followed the sergeant, and me and all my buddies got off the beach. We advanced 100 yards farther onto the barren island, and that’s where we set up our guns and started firing.”
Although 68 years have passed, the memories of the many casualties from the war in the Pacific are still hard to take, bringing tears to the aging warrior’s eyes.
“Our division in those four battles suffered 17,722 casualties,” McGovern says, pausing for a moment to pay homage to the Marines with whom he served.
McGovern earned an individual citation for bravery from his unit commander, and the division as a whole received two Presidential Unit Citations.
His personal citation states, in part, that in the battles at Saipan and Tinian, “Corporal James J. McGovern by his cool and capable execution of his duties prevented enemy infiltration from disrupting the supporting fire of the battery. His conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest tradition of U.S. Naval Service.”
As he recites those words, he again pauses, overcome with emotion, before saying, “The Good Lord was looking after me. I survived.”
Back home, he joined up with the union bricklayers employed at Shirley-Herman Co. and, after a decade, started working for other contractors.
“I was later elected business agent for Local 45 of the Bricklayers.” he says. “Then I was asked to serve in Washington, D.C., as the refractory director of the International Union of Bricklayers. I served for seven years and retired back to Buffalo.”
At 92, he says, he remains “the luckiest guy in the world.” He and his wife, Joan Dorr McGovern, raised three daughters and a son.
Weather permitting, James McGovern adds, he spends his time tinkering in the yard and enjoying the sunshine.