Major James and the Day We Captured Martha's Vineyard (And the Joys of Field Medicine)
The news last month that philanthropist Jackie Onassis had bought some 375 acres of Martha's Vineyard to help preserve the environment reminded us that it was just this time of year, thirty-six years ago, when we landed on that island and captured the airport at Oak Bluffs. At the time, we were part of a special commando force and our leader on that foray was Major Chet James.
James, a small-town politician in his forties, was one of those civilian soldiers who had come up through the Colorado National Guard. In spite of his more than two year's experience on active duty, the Major was about as unimpressive a specimen of "officer and gentleman" as could be imagined. Throughout the regiment he was known as "Joe Blow"; a large, bombastic, florid man with dissipated eyes, loose jowls, and a prominent, sagging paunch, who pursued, with consuming interest, wine, women and song. He was not one of our favorites.
Earlier, in mid-summer and as part of a 500 man special unit from the division, we had helped to inaugurate the nation's first commando training school on the south shore of Cape Cod near Falmouth, where we had learned about landing craft and shore-to-shore invasion tactics. In the early fall of 1942, as a last full-scale maneuver before packing up to join General Patton on the North African invasion, the entire regiment moved to Cape Cod for training; its final exercise was to invade and capture Martha's Vineyard.
Because of our previous commando training, part of our medical section and part of Company I (about 150 of us in all) split away from the regimental bivouac and returned to the commando school area a few miles away. We were assigned the special task, in a joint mission with a unit from the 82nd Airborne, of capturing the island airport. While the main force of the regiment was invading the south end of the island, we were to land, and the paratroopers were to drop, some twenty-two miles away on the northeast corner near Oak Bluffs.
The fall weather was beautiful and the pre-invasion plans and training proceeded on schedule. On the day before the island-taking exercise we even had the added treat of flying with some of the airborne officers in one of their DC-3s over the island on a reconnaissance mission to spot the landing beaches.
Some hours after midnight our small commando group with proper, blackened faces began loading into the 12 small landing craft that were to ferry us across the seven-mile channel to Martha's vineyard. We rode in the command boat with our intrepid leader, Major James, and Major Woodcock, the handsome, authentic British commando veteran of the Dieppe and Tobruk raids who was advisor to the new training school. We followed immediately behind the navigating Navy patrol boat, with the rest of the landing craft strung out in file behind us. At this early stage of amphibiousness there was no radio communication between boats and the main concern during the dark channel crossing was to keep the small, green stern light of the craft ahead in view at all times.
Far the first half of the journey no problems arose. The two majors, who had been at a Cape Cod night spot partying and drinking almost up to the moment of departure, slumped comfortably in the stern of our boat and, in a matter of minutes, lulled by the steady throb of diesel motors, were sound asleep. As the only other officer aboard we felt obliged to stay awake, particularly since we had a young and inexperienced Navy coxswain at the helm who tended to get drowsy, allowing the green light ahead almost to disappear in the foggy blackness. We just had to hope that there were other conscientious light watchers in the 11 boats strung out behind us. By a combination of constant chatter and frequent prodding we kept the coxswain alert and at his task for the entire journey.
We were supposed to land at dawn and, sure enough, just as the darkness began to fade, there were the bluffs and the correct beach immediately in front of us. The Navy patrol swung away and our group of LCPs, still about a half-mile from shore, went into a circling rendezvous formation in preparation for the dash toward shore all abreast.
As the light improved it became evident that only eight boats were circling, but in view of our previous amphibious experiences (and, in fact, all subsequent ones) we considered the accomplishment remarkable; the right beach, the right time, and 2/3 of the boats still afloat. We later learned that two of the boats were picked up 40 miles out at sea by the Coast Guard, another landed on the northern tip of Cape Cod 50 miles away, and the other made a perfect dawn landing on the same beach we had left only a few hours before.
Just as we approached the beach, the planes came over and the pale, pink and orange dawn sky began to fill with the multi-colored chutes of the paratroopers. In our command boat the two Majors slept soundly on until jolted awake by the keel grinding to a sudden stop on an offshore sandbar.
James lurched to his feet unsteadily, took in the surroundings and, pleased with what he saw, bellowed, "By God, Woodcock! Right on target!" then, grandly assuming command, roared, "Over the sides, men! Get to that airport before the paratroopers land." We went over the sides into waist deep water and waded to shore with the surf breaking on our backs.
By 9:00 A.M. our special mission was over. The infantry had landed; the paratroopers had landed; the airport had been properly captured. There was only one casualty - a paratrooper with a fractured tibia, and we had him splinted and comfortable. We ate a K-ration breakfast on the airport turf and sprawled in the warm sun to dry out our soaked shoes and woolen clothes.
At 10:00 the planes arrived. The paratroopers packed their gear, waved goodbye, loaded into the transports, and flew back to Ft. Bragg. Our boats, however, had returned to the Cape after landing us. They were needed to shuttle the last units of the regiment over to the beaches on the south end. We stayed at the airport enjoying the rest and, at one o'clock, ate a K-ration lunch.
A short time later it dawned on James that there was no way for us to get back to the mainland except with the rest of the regiment. After fussing and fuming a while longer, he also discovered that there was no motor transportation on the island available to pick us up. There was nothing to do but set out on foot for the other end of the island, 22 miles away.
It was a long and miserable march along deserted roads. The summer colony inhabitants had long since left the island and most of the roadside stands and stores were closed for the season. We were already tired from lack of sleep, and our salt encrusted clothes and shoes added to the walking misery. When we stopped for a chow break at 5:30 in the afternoon, we still had more than 8 miles to go. We collapsed on the roadside, but before we could relax to tackle still another delicious K-ration meal, a runner from the head of the column appeared. "Doc," said the messenger, "the Major wants you up ahead. He says it's an emergency."
We struggled erect slowly, shouldered our pack and medical kit, and limped painfully on our bruised and blistered feet past the long line of resting GIs to the head of the column. Major Woodcock was snoozing. James was sitting against a rock resting. He was eating a real sandwich and drinking a cold beer, one shoe was off and a beefy foot was propped up on his Musette bag.
"I got me a blister, Doc. Fix it up for Me." said Joe Blow, and he went on eating and drinking.
Chet James died of cirrhosis many years ago, back in his small town in the Colorado Rockies where he operated and owned a gas station. It took us a long time to forget that painful march and the capture of Martha's Vineyard. Reluctantly at first, but openly later, we grew to admire old Joe. He was one of those paradoxes of a wartime Army. A sorry, degenerate boozer as a stateside soldier, magnificent, clear-headed combat leader overseas when real bullets were flying and the chips were down. It takes all kinds- to run an Army.
(c) "The Doctor's Lounge", The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, Oct 1978, Vol. XXV No. 10