Bullets, not bunnies, bounce in Don Morton’s Easter story.
There’s no baked ham on the table. Only franks and beans cooked in haste in a steel helmet.
Every year at this time, the north Spokane man’s thoughts drift back to the gritty Easter he celebrated over a half-century ago. “You know what happened April 1st, 1945?” the retired trucker asked when he called the other day.
The date was six years before I was born. I admitted I was clueless. “I thought so,” answered Morton, 72, who proceeded to tell me about the invasion of a South Pacific island I’d only heard about in old movies and history books.
Okinawa is a 700-square-mile chunk of land 350 miles from Japan. It is where one of the last great battles of World War II raged to a horrific conclusion.
Morton, a stocky man with a ruddy complexion and white bushy beard, says he was 19 when he joined the United States Marine Corps after graduating from Kellogg High School in 1943.
He became a machine gunner with the proud First Marine Division. On Easter morning 1945, he was among the thousands of Americans who landed on Okinawa to break the stubborn back of the Japanese ground forces.
It took 82 days to get that ugly job done. The Japanese were burrowed in caves they had dug. American progress was measured in a bloody series of pushes against men willing to die rather than surrender.
Die they did. In droves.
The Japanese body count was an incredible 110,071. Nine Japanese died for every American.
“They were great soldiers and well trained,” says Morton. “Every night they’d rush through our lines with no plans of making it back. They would just try to take out as many of us as they could before being killed.”
Morton remembers the Easter landing as vividly as if he’d watched a video replay a thousand times. A hasty church service was held on the troop ship before the Marines scrambled down rope netting to board landing craft.
The roar of planes strafing the hills and deafening thunder of artillery were continuous as the young Marines took the beach and dug in. “I was gung-ho, I guess, but never really scared,” says Morton. “When you’re young, you figure maybe the other guy will get killed, but you never think you will.”
The expected heavy resistance never materialized. It was if the chaplain’s prayers for protection were heeded. In his narrow foxhole, Morton cooked his Easter dinner of C-rations and waited.
“It felt like we walked into a trap.” Okinawa, other Marines claimed, was “the screwiest damned place in the Pacific.”
It was odd. They were on a skinny island 60 miles long and 20 miles wide yet couldn’t find 200,000 Japanese soldiers. The enemy, however, was concentrated in the southern end. They struck in force on April 6.
Within hours, six American ships went down along with 135 kamikaze pilots.
Morton lost a good friend during the siege of Okinawa. George DeJanovich, a Kellogg High graduate who had joined the Marines with Morton, was shot and killed on May 5. Like Morton, DeJanovich was a machine gunner.
Morton and DeJanovich chanced into each other the day before he died. They talked mainly about going home. “Then I heard he’d been killed,” says Morton. “It was so sad.”
Morton had his own close call. Eating lunch on May 6, he was hit in the back by a mortar burst of shrapnel. He spent over a month in a hospital, then helped finish the battle.
After the war, Morton returned to Idaho and Thelma, the high school sweetheart he had married before enlisting. The couple, married 53 years, raised two daughters and a son.
He still carries a souvenir from Okinawa: a dime-sized chunk of shrapnel in his lower back that surgeons say is too deep to remove. “It hurts all the time,” says Morton. “Never lets up.”
Yet Thelma says her man is easygoing despite the pain. Often joking with each other, she threatens to cook him an Easter dinner of franks and beans in tribute to his war days.
“If she does,” counters the ex-machine gunner, laughing, “I’ll dig a foxhole in the back yard and eat it out there.”