FORT DOUGLAS — Visitors to the new Fort Douglas Military Museum exhibit that documents the feats of the 96th Infantry Division (Deadeye) during World War II's battle for Okinawa see a diorama of a soldier moving up a hill and the life-size painting of a soldier's face behind him.
The mannequin inside is dressed in authentic WWII battle gear. Paintings on the end panels accurately portray the landscape of the area known as Zebra Hill and a soldier slogging uphill the morning of May 10, 1945.
The GI depicted was Pfc. Harold L. Heindel, Idaho Falls, almost 25 when he was killed that day. The few moments before are captured in the painting by his son, architect and artist Richard Heindel, Farmington, who was 4 when his father was killed.
A single banyan tree in the painting has three leaves left on its branches after intense bombing. One leaf is nicked by shrapnel, one is cut in half and one is left whole. Heindel painted the leaves that way to honor the memory of the soldiers who fought and were wounded, died or came away whole from the battle.
"The one full leaf represents what a lot of guys ask: 'Why was I spared?' " Heindel said. "My purpose in drawing the leaves was to pay respect to my friends in the 96th Infantry, those who came back and those who didn't."
Because the battle for Okinawa was the last big battle of the war, Heindel's goal was to pay tribute to the soldiers who fought there. He is a lifetime member of the 96th Infantry Division Association and friend of the vets. "I've visited Okinawa with some of them and walked the battlefields there, including the hill where my father was killed."
The Battle of Okinawa started on April 1, 1945, and went all summer, ending with an estimated 240,000 soldiers and civilians killed, including two-thirds of the native Okinawans. Many of the natives killed themselves as the Americans advanced across the island because of the false stories Japanese troops told them of American atrocities.
Heindel said he has two memories of his father while he was alive: one when his father put him on the handlebars of a bicycle and took him for a ride and the other — that is just an indirect memory — the night the uniformed Army officer came to the house and told his mother the bad news.
"My mother and I were ready to go to bed when a man came with a telegram. She started to cry and broke down. I remember the whole experience of the moment when she was trying to comfort me. It was more about the sorrow of my mother, but it had to do with my father," Heindel said.
"It took some time, but she recovered and married a nice guy, and he was a good stepfather to me. They're both alive and living in Idaho Falls."
Pfc. Heindel's body was returned in 1949 to Idaho Falls, where he's buried in a local cemetery.
The 96th Infantry Division was activated just three weeks before the end of World War I and was deactivated in 1919. In 1921, the division was reactivated as an Army Reserve unit in Portland, Ore.
While not as well known for its WWII exploits as the 25th Infantry Division in the Pacific or the 1st Infantry Division in Europe, the 96th fought hard in the Pacific, from Leyte in the Philippines to Okinawa, and was only one of four infantry divisions during the war to earn a Presidential Unit Citation. The citation is normally awarded only to battalion or smaller-size units that fight furiously for brief periods of time.
The exhibit documents the achievements and sacrifices of the division on Okinawa between April 1 and June 30, 1945.
Heindel believes the bloody battle for Okinawa was the determining factor for President Truman to order the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan because of the high rate of casualties. "It was a meat grinder. More people were killed on Okinawa than at Nagasaki and Hiroshima together. Dad's company took 147 casualties. Those bombs, while terrible, were a blessing in disguise because it would have been horrible, with 4 million Japanese facing 1 million American soldiers. It would have been a grueling hand-to-hand battle because they were so entrenched."
Former Deadeye mortarman Don Dencker, Sun Prairie, Wis., wrote about his experiences in his book, "Love Company," the story of a rifle company during the battles of Leyte and Okinawa. He joined the 96th while it was in training at Camp White, near Medford, Ore., preparing to fight the Germans.
The 96th, Dencker said, was a draftee division with few regular Army officers. "We had a West Pointer that started with the division on activation day and was with it when it disbanded, although we got a number of West Point graduates in June 1943 that came in as platoon leaders."
After taking casualties in the Philippines, the 96th was under strength when the battle for Okinawa began. Dencker said the rifle companies on Okinawa ended up taking more than 100 percent casualties as replacements were wounded and their replacements were wounded.
"At that time, the average rifle company was at least 25 men short. We got a lot of replacements and a lot of replacement casualties. Most of our replacements were 1944 high school graduates, and they were great. I give them a lot of credit."
After the battle for Okinawa, the 96th went to the Philippines for rest. "We had a contest to name a sweetheart of the 96th. A lot of pretty Hollywood stars were nominated, but a guy in my regiment said we wanted a rough girl and he nominated Marjorie Main, who played Ma Kettle. She won the contest and when remnants of the division came back to California, she was there to meet the boys at Los Angeles Harbor with her pistols and 10-gallon hat."
After the war, Dencker went back to college and earned a civil engineering degree. He now maintains the 96th's Web site, www.96th-infantry-division.com. Because of the relationship between the 96th Division and the 96th Regional Support Command, headquartered at Fort Douglas, the 96th Association decided to locate much of its archives in Salt Lake City, Dencker said.
The Fort Douglas Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free.