It happened on or around May 10, 1945.
It was recorded as “Death of a Tank.” The short piece of film was taken by a military field correspondent during the Battle of Okinawa. It chronicles the last moments of a tank and its crew during that conflict. To this day is it a dramatic testament to the sadness and tragedy of war.
The short film shows the account of an American Sherman tank that has been flipped on its back after running over a Japanese land mine. The tank is burning with most of the crew pinned inside. The frantic attempts of accompanying infantry to dig the hatch free are not successful and the ammunition stored within explodes, totally destroying the tank and killing the men inside, that is if they hadn’t already burned to death. I found this very same account in a book I purchased, Okinawa: The Last Battle – WWII
. My interest in the book was due to the fact that my father served with the 6th Marine Division in that campaign. My research brought me to the book. But, in the book are a series of photographs that document the last moments of the tank.
However, there is more to that story. As a young man my father told me a story of an event that happened to him on Okinawa. The years have worn on the story and it is vague in areas. But, my memory is that my father was assigned as a scout for the tanks on Okinawa. He accounts for a time when he was moving into position with the tanks. As a scout he did not ride in the tank. His job was to act as outside intelligence. He would spot for it, watch its back, and protect it as well he could. He carried an M1 rifle and a radio as part of a two man team.
On this particular day, my father was behind the tank and running to its rear, attempting to jump aboard and hitch a ride. Before he could accomplish this task the tank ran over a buried Japanese land mine. The explosion tossed him well to the side as it flipped the tank, setting it on fire. After his head cleared, my father ran to the tank with others and attempted to extract the crew from the tank. One member of the tank's crew had been thrown clear; however, the others were trapped in the burning tank.
Efforts to free the trapped crew were unsuccessful. Those trying to free the men labored in vain as they listened to the screams of the trapped crew within the burning inferno. Eventually the ammunition within the tank exploded and the crew perished. My father’s story tracks well with the account recorded in Okinawa: The Last Battle—WWII
. Could this be the same tank as the one in my father’s story? Could the Marine digging furiously (photo 2) to free the tank be my father? It certainly resembles him. I had no way of knowing. Except for a strong suspicion, I had no further proof.
Years later as I worked at my desk one Thursday afternoon in October of 2012, my telephone rang. On the other end of the phone was a lady who verified who I was and who my father was. It seems she was following up on an inquiry I had placed on a service site for Marine Corps veterans. At one period in my research I had covered the Internet with possible leads to men who may have served with my father during the Okinawa campaign. It was several years before anyone responded. However, on the other end of the phone was the daughter of a veteran who had served with my father. She was also looking for men who had served with her father. The connection was made.
Old photographs in my archives of my father’s days in Okinawa had always been a mystery. I never had the opportunity to ask him who these men were. The names written on the backs of the photos were unfamiliar. Nevertheless, one name, Cuddy, was repeated several times and one man was always either standing near or close to my father in the few photos that I had. The voice on the phone confirmed this name, W.C. Cuddy. Finally I had a person to attach to the story—a piece of the puzzle that comprised my father’s life. I was thrilled to discover her father was still alive. At 88 yrs. of age his mind was sharp and still inquisitive. For all these years he had been wondering what happened to his buddy Boutwell. Near the ending of the Okinawa campaign Cuddy was assigned to other duties and he lost touch with Boutwell. He never knew what happened to Dad after Okinawa. His attempts to find him were unsuccessful—until now.
Later that same evening, Cuddy called me and I filled him in quickly on what my father had done and where he had gone after Okinawa. It was a pleasant conversation but brought several questions to surface which were critical in helping to paint the picture of Dad’s Okinawa experience. Of great interest to me is that he helped add to the story of the Death of a Tank.
I had sent Cuddy a photo that was a mystery to me. I recognized one person in this photograph and that was my father. He knelt with some other men in front of a Sherman tank. Cuddy informed me the men in the photo were the crew of the tank and he and my father. My father and Cuddy were intelligence/scouts assigned to the tank. The call sign of the tank was “Square 2”, the same tank as in the photos in Okinawa: The Last Battle—WWII (photo 2.)
Cuddy refined the story. A line of Sherman tanks were moving down a trail. The trail had earlier been cleared of buried mines. However one was missed. “Square 2” was the second tank in line. “Square 1” had just passed. It is believed that the first tank ran over the mine but did not depress the trigger and the mine did not detonate. When “Square 2” ran over the mine the tank caused the mine to detonate this time. The explosion flipped the tank on its back, covering the hatch. The only way to get the men out was to dig a trench to the hatch and let them escape. The rest of the story matches that told by my father.
Just a couple of parting notes to complete the story. In the previous photo of the tank crew with Dad and Cuddy, the man standing second from the end on the right is named B.B Woodall. He is an American Indian from the Navajo tribe. He was the driver of the tank ("Square 2".) Notice also, the man standing on the end on the left. I do not have his name; but, notice he is the only one with a service revolver on his right hip. Now, direct your attention to the photo of the dazed crew member in the Death of a Tank story (third photo.) That appears to be the same revolver. I surmise this unnamed man was the sole survivor of the doomed tank crew.
So, what does all this prove? Not much—somehow it makes this all seem a little more personal. History can be so impersonal when it is reduced to facts and illustrations. It brings that time back to life. It brings personalities and emotions into play. It reminds me that at one time may father was young and vital. He developed and nourished friendships, bonds, brotherhoods. It helps me to understand in some little way the measure of this tragedy that came into his life. And, my contact with Cuddy has connected me to the circle. Other than that, I still don’t know what it proves. But, I’m glad I know.