One young tank commander, two wars
When Art Anderson landed on the tropical island of Peleliu, part of the Palau Islands, in the spring of 1944, it was quite a contrast to the harsh landscape around Minot, N.D., where he grew up. Amid coconut trees, white beaches and blinding blue oceans, the 18-year-old Marine finally was getting to fight for his country.
“I joined the Marine Corps in the fall of ’42, me and my friend Joe, we were going to go in together,” said Anderson. “I was born in Canada so that kind of held me back – I didn’t get to boot camp in San Diego until August of ’43.”
Anderson got four months of tank training and in early 1944 was shipped overseas. He faced his first battle on Sept. 15, 1944.
“We were the ‘zero wave,’ you know, the very first, and I drove the colonel’s tank, so I was right out front,” said Anderson. “We didn’t know what we were getting into. We had 70 tanks going in and we were left with half within 40 minutes.” The fighting on Peleliu lasted 72 days.
“We all had dysentery all the time and we had very little food,” Anderson said. “Bodies kept washing up on shore and there were huge bull flies. They’d get to your food before you ate it yourself.”
He estimated they killed 10,000 Japanese and lost between 3,000 to 4,000 American troops taking Peleliu.
“We buried our own dead the best we could,” Anderson said.
To make up for the lack of food, they hunted little pigs.
“They ran around in groups, and they’d attack you,” Anderson said. “But we’d catch one and there were always some older guys or one of us farm boys who knew how to butcher it. We’d roast it over palm leaves the best we could.”
As the war progressed, so did Anderson’s duty. On Easter, April 1, 1945, he was among the first troops landing on Okinawa.
“That was one of the last battles in Pacific,” he said. “We knew there were a lot of Japanese troops there, but it was strange pulling up on the beach – not a single shot was fired. We looked around like, ‘Is anybody here?’ ”
Someone was indeed there: In the next two and a half months, an estimated 125,000 Japanese troops were killed on Okinawa.
“There were 1,500 ships in the bay at Okinawa by then, you know, the war was over in Europe,” Anderson said.
The fighting on Okinawa lasted until June 16, 1945 – there were more than 50,000 Allied casualties; 12,000 American soldiers died and about 36,000 were wounded.
“I’m a lucky person, I know I’m a lucky person. I was never in the right place to get shot,” he said. “I heard the bullets fly past my head, I heard the ammo hit my tank – I know I’m a lucky person that I didn’t get shot.”
Anderson’s World War II tour didn’t end at Okinawa. After President Harry S. Truman ordered nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Anderson was sent in to disarm remaining Japanese soldiers or civilians.
“The Japanese were so depleted that they were training women and children to use sharp bamboo sticks to fight us,” said Anderson. “I’m glad the war ended when it did or we would have been killing women and children.”
He spent six months in Nagasaki.
It was late 1946 when Anderson returned home to Minot and his dad’s farm. In December of that year, he married his wife, Eldora. Their marriage lasted until she passed away in 2007.
Flipping through a photo album, gazing at hand-tinted portraits of Eldora, Anderson said, “It really is the women who suffer when the guys go to war. They put up with so much.”
The couple moved to Spokane in 1947 and Anderson leased a Mobil station on the corner of Third and Sherman avenues.
Life was prosperous for the Andersons as the business grew – but it didn’t last: In 1950, Anderson was called to serve in the Korean War.
“I had joined the reserves, but I was still enlisted because back then you enlisted for 10 years,” Anderson said. He sold his business overnight and a month and a half later was on his way to San Diego.
“They were in such a hurry to get us over there,” Anderson said.
On Nov. 17, 1950, Anderson saw his first battle in North Korea, where he was once again a tank commander, part of the United Nations force moving north.
Anderson described a chaotic military operation with no supplies, no field kitchens and, worst of all, no ammunition.
“We ‘stole’ ammunition from the Navy the night before we were supposed to move north,” he said.
Barely started on his mission, Anderson narrowly escaped one North Korean attack north of Seoul.
U.N. tanks ahead of him got hit by a mortar, Anderson said, and his crew took out two attacking Korean tanks – but a third got away.
Searching for that tank the following night, Anderson and his crew found themselves completely surrounded by North Korean troops in the dark.
“I yelled, ‘Fire every gun, back this thing up and get out of here’ – we got out of there faster than we got down there,” Anderson said.
Allied forces moved farther north as temperatures dropped to 40 and 50 below zero, on roads so narrow and icy the tanks could barely fit through.
Word soon reached Anderson’s group that United Nations Command forces were surrounded farther north.
“It was terrible, they were surrounded at Hagaru and they wanted us to get up there, but we ran out of gas – I got about halfway up there,” Anderson said. “I got the crew out, me being the tank commander I was the last guy out. They were firing at us from the hill, right at us.”
After destroying the tank’s guns, Anderson jumped out last.
“I badly busted my ankle,” he said. “The guys behind me had been captured. I was the last tank out this way.” He grabbed on to a truck to hitch a ride out and that’s how he reached Hagaru.
“I had nothing, no gloves, no sleeping bag – nothing,” Anderson said about how he arrived at Chosin. “We had no food for two days. It was 40 below. There was a dead guy in a sleeping bag and they dumped him out; that’s how I got a bag.”
Looking back, Anderson said it was probably his upbringing on the northern plains that saved his life. His parents were from Norway.
“They taught us what to do in the cold,” he said. “When you feel the needles in your fingers, you have to work that spot or something. When you feel drowsy, you’ve got to get up and walk – don’t fall asleep in the cold or you will die. All these young guys from California didn’t know that. They just froze to death.”
He spent 15 days at Chosin.
“There was 120,000 Chinese up north and we were maybe 15,000 Marines – they came in waves,” Anderson said. “The Army was west of us, and they got totally shot to hell. We saved them on the water, on the ice on the Chosin, the best we could.”
Anderson talked about attacking Chinese forces with knives and sticks because there was no ammunition.
“You think you are going to die tonight; that’s a funny feeling, you don’t want to die, and you want to fight to the very last,” he said. “When you get that close you think you have no chance tonight – you’ll be surprised how you know how to say the Lord’s Prayer and all that.”
They found abandoned Army trucks and managed to get one with a trailer started. Anyone who could move was needed to fight the way out from Chosin.
The Chinese troops blew up the bridge needed to reach the shore.
Anderson waited with his crew all night on the road under a bright moon. But no one came after them.
“Our job was to pick up all the dead and the wounded – our truck was full, and we weren’t the only truck,” he said. Every half mile or so, they were attacked by Chinese forces.
A replacement bridge was air-dropped – but it wasn’t long enough.
“What do you think they used for shoring? The engineers, they were two feet short of the shore,” Anderson said. “They used frozen Chinese bodies for shoring.”
By 1951 he was back in Spokane and back in business.
Soon, Anderson was running five gas stations, yet he really wanted to be a car dealer.
In 1968 he got the Subaru franchise in Spokane.
“My wife didn’t talk to me for two weeks,” Anderson said, laughing. “She said we were doing fine, we didn’t need any more and she liked that she could come in the morning, after the kids were in school, do the books and then get home before the kids came home.”
Anderson Subaru on Trent Avenue became a success, allowing Anderson and his wife to retire early and spend winters in San Diego.
Today, living alone in a comfortable retirement community, he spends his days drawing and painting, organizing family photos in albums for his children and grandchildren, as well as looking forward to the beginning of pheasant season.
His Marine dress uniform, issued in 1946, still fits.
“I don’t know about this,” Anderson said, self-consciously, buttoning the brass buttons. “I just did what everyone else did. It was all in a day’s work, all in a day’s work.”