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Veteran recalls World War II battle

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

By Valerie Baldowski

vbaldowski@henryherald.com

This is the second year that George Sweat, Sr., will not be planning on a reunion with other members of his World War II Marine unit. Survivors from his unit have dwindled to four, he thinks.

Sweat's unit, and the men in it, were involved in the Battle of Peleliu during World War II, an invasion that reportedly resulted in the deaths of more than 1,300 Marines on the 2-by-6-mile island. The island is located about halfway between the Philippines and New Guinea.

The National Museum of the Marine Corps has reportedly referred to the battle as "the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines."

The Peleliu battle is one that has left Sweat troubled, and one he does not want to be forgotten.

"When I got home, it lasted 50 years," said Sweat. "I'd have nightmares. I'd almost kick my wife out of bed. If I have a military get-together, it all comes back."

The 90-year-old McDonough resident said he still has nightmares.

Along with the U.S. casualties, 5,142 were wounded in action, and 73 were reported missing in action.

Sweat is a member of the Peleliu Survivors, a group of Marines who organized annual reunions, until 2008, to mark the battle, which took place beginning in September, 1944. There used to be 15 members of the group but its membership has dwindled as veterans have died.

"We usually try to have it around September, [but] we don't have it any more, because there aren't enough," Sweat said.

Sweat said many of the troops who took part in the mission were forgotten.

"A lot of guys who got wounded didn't get any recognition ... no Purple Hearts or anything," he said.

Sweat's Marine division landed on the island on Sept. 15, 1944. The reason for the invasion, Sweat said, was because the U.S. wanted the island to use for a landing strip to bring in supplies. The mission was ultimately successful, but it took three months to complete.

The fighting was fierce, he said, and the invading U.S. troops killed the enemy hiding in the caves before the enemy could kill them.

"When we went in, everything behind us was dead, including the landscape," Sweat said. "We were savages."

There were 10,000 Japanese defenders waiting for the Marines, said Sweat, outnumbering the 9,000 U.S. troops storming the island. Sweat credited the Naval "Seabees" for providing support in the endeavor.

Top military brass planned the invasion poorly, and casualties were high, Sweat said. The claim also has made its way into the books, "Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu," by Bill Sloan, and "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa" by Eugene B. Sledge.

"They [military leaders] were arguing whether to take the place or not," Sweat said. "Some of them wanted a feather in their cap. It was a fouled-up deal. They usually send the Navy Seals in at night to case the island. They were supposed to go to that island, and look for the best place for us to go in. They didn't do it."

Sweat was a corporal at the time, in charge of bringing ashore large refrigerated units to set up onsite, to store blood and medical supplies. The refrigerators were brought ashore in pieces for assembly later, he said.

During the process, Sweat and his comrades were fired on by enemy troops.

"That's the most devastating feeling anybody could ever have," he said. "Any minute, you don't know if you'd get another step or not."

The troops were forced to cross an airfield to gain access to the island. Across the airfield, at the top of a hill, was a cave where well-organized Japanese soldiers hid, waiting with a cannon-like gun, Sweat continued.

"They rolled it out, fired at us coming in, then rolled it back in, loaded it up, then rolled it back out. It was on a track," Sweat said.

The casualties were so high, those who normally would not be asked to handle a weapon were pressed into service. "Anybody who could hold a rifle were infantrymen," Sweat said.

Remembering World War II, and the lessons it offers, is important, said Eric Tedder, a local historian and a member of the Georgia State Defense Force.

"Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it's extremely critical," said Tedder. "We can learn from both the good side and the mistakes in our past. If we don't learn from them, we're going to repeat them. Everybody was fighting for their own country. The reason it [World War II] resonates so much today was that it was a fight against tyranny."

Sweat's family members have maintained his military service tradition. His son, George William Sweat, Jr., is a retired Army colonel. His grandson, James Sweat, is in the Army. His great-grandson, Allan Sweat, is in the Army, and recently served in Iraq until he was wounded.