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Shards bear mute witness to heroic time

The shrapnel still oozes from his body. For six decades the pieces of metal have burrowed their way from his back until, one by one, they surface as small dark spots under the skin, usually in his hands and feet and, on one occasion, his nose. He squeezes the spot and out slides a metal shard from a Japanese grenade, another souvenir from the Battle of Tarawa, World War II, 1943.

Ray Casaday is blind in one eye, a repository of more scrap metal. His back is covered with dozens of pockmarks from shrapnel. He has periodic bouts with pneumonia because some of the shrapnel works its way into his lungs. At last count there were 11 pieces in there. Every time he has a chest X-ray, the doctor asks him, "Have you ever been shot?"

On Veterans Day, we remember men like Ray, who would otherwise blend into a crowd. He is a small man, nearly 85 years old, with curly white hair and pale blue eyes. No one would guess he was a soldier who once found himself face to face with the business end of a machine gun and a bayonet.

He grew up in Price, one of nine children. His father, who was a stagecoach driver and miner, died when Ray was 2. His mother took in washing and ironing to help the family survive the Great Depression. That was followed by World War II.

Swept up by the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ray signed up for the Marines and was assigned to amphibious tractors known as Alligators. His first and only battle was Tarawa, one of the bloodiest, most infamous of the war.

Tarawa was part of America's island-hopping campaign to dislodge the Japanese from strategic footholds in the South Pacific. The Japanese were living in caves and tunnels carved into rock that were virtually impenetrable to bombs. They vowed to die rather than surrender.

All of the above meant the Marines met fierce resistance as they stormed the beach 62 years ago this month. Ray's Alligator was lowered into the water at 2 a.m. and was among the first to reach the beach. Ray, the crew chief, was standing in the Alligator directing his driver as it climbed a seawall on the beach. Just as it crested the wall, the engine died and Ray found himself staring into a machine gun nest.

By then, the beach was being strafed by rifle fire and airplanes, and grenades and mortars were exploding everywhere.

Ray sprayed the beach with a machine gun. His passengers bailed out. Two grenades landed in the vehicle and exploded into his back. With the Alligator in flames, Ray evacuated. He threw his back against the seawall, where he was mostly hidden from the Japanese but commanded a view of the Marines as they came to shore.

"I saw ever so many Marines fall; so many bodies washed on shore," he says. "The water was red."

A wounded Marine was shot dead as he laid in Ray's arms. Later, Ray learned that a Japanese soldier was poised to drive a bayonet into his head when a fellow Marine shot him.

Ray was shipped out to have his wounds treated. Doctors removed 87 pieces of shrapnel from his back. He was one of the lucky ones. There were 3,000 U.S. casualties that day. Of the 4,700 Japanese on the island, 17 survived. Only three of the 26 men on Ray's Alligator survived.

Ray, one of only a handful of Americans from Tarawa who are still alive, didn't even tell his children about the battle for decades. He was from a generation in which going to war was just something men did and there were no questions about right and wrong. It's what ordinary men of the Greatest Generation did, which made them extraordinary.

Curiously, Ray developed a love of boating in the Marines. He's owned nine boats. "I found I enjoyed boats after the war," he says.

Especially since no one was shooting at him.


Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. Please send e-mail to drob@desnews.com.