By Dave Ongie, News Editor
On Sept. 14, 1942, Carter County native Robert Franklin “Frank” Gentry walked into a recruiting office and volunteered to join the Marines.
Gentry had registered for the draft a few months earlier on his 18th birthday, and he knew the writing was on the wall. The draft was being filled out with young boys that had just registered, and Gentry already knew he wanted to be a Marine.
“So I joined the Marines and beat them to the punch,” Gentry told the News & Neighbor last Friday.
One day later, Gentry was on his way to San Diego, California, for training. From there, he was sent to Camp Pendleton to await transport to the Pacific Theatre, where he eventually saw action in Bougainville, Guam and Iwo Jima.
Gentry admitted to being a little homesick at first, but having some good friends with him helped as he made a whirlwind trip halfway around the world. On his way to volunteer, Gentry had run into another boy from Elizabethton –Robert Shell – and encouraged him to join up as well. The two young men went through boot camp together and ended up in the same platoon.
Gentry’s first stop was New Zealand, where he stayed for a number of months to do additional training. Then it was off to Guadalcanal for more training before he saw his first action. Gentry still recalls how the Marines had a knack for occupying a young man’s time with training that could come in very handy in combat.
“We used to have to sit down and take our rifles and disassemble them blindfolded and put them back together,” Gentry said. “That was because of night fighting. If your rifle quit on you, you’d have to tear it down and put it back together and find your trouble.”
Finally, Gentry and the rest of his platoon saw action in the Bougainville campaign. Gentry remembers “going up the chute” from Guadalcanal. Gentry’s platoon helped clear the island, secure it and hand it over to the U.S. Army. It was on Bougainville Island where Gentry recalls getting into a little mischief.
Since Gentry was using an outdated rifle that wasn’t well-suited for clearing the jungles, he was assigned to set up a beach defense with some other men to be sure the Japanese didn’t try to land more troops on the island. One day, Gentry went to stretch his legs with a couple of other boys, and during this walk they ended up at the Air Force base.
“They had a tent set up, and they were showing a movie,” Gentry recalled. “We asked if we could go in and see the movie. They said, ‘No, you’re not Air Force.’ ”
Gentry tried to explain that it was the Marines who had secured the island in the first place, but to no avail. With their admission to the movie denied, Gentry and his buddies got a measure of revenge.
“We kind of got mad, and when we got ready to leave, we took our knives, went around and cut all the ropes on the tent and let the tent collapse in on them,” Gentry said with a laugh. “Then we went back out in the jungle. That’s the only thing I did wrong when I was in the service.”
With the island secured, Gentry and his platoon headed back to Guadalcanal for more training before shipping back out to take part in the retaking of Guam. Gentry recalls that his buddy Shell was wounded during the fighting on Guam. Gentry said he visited with Shell a few times after the war was over. Shell returned to the area and worked briefly at Tetrick Funeral Home before moving to Florida.
As for Gentry, he did more training on Guam before entering one of the most significant battles of the entire war. Gentry’s division landed on Iwo Jima in February of 1945 and embarked on five weeks of heavy fighting that left tens of thousands dead on both sides.
“That was a hellhole,” Gentry said.
During the day, Gentry recalls that air cover from Navy planes did a fairly good job of neutralizing the Japanese firepower on the heavily fortified island. That all changed, however, when the sun went down.
“But at sunset, when the planes had to go back to the carriers, that’s when the (Japanese) really poured it to us,” Gentry said. “As soon as those airplanes left, they’d start.”
Under the cover of darkness, Japanese troops were able to pull heavy artillery units and “buzz bombs” out of the tunnels and caves on the island and fire them at U.S. positions without fear of an airstrike. As night fell, Gentry and his fellow Marines would do the best they could to dig a secure foxhole in the sandy ground in order to survive the inevitable overnight onslaught.
While planes could not offer air cover, the Navy did fire flares over the island throughout the night in order to provide some light to aid the Marines on the ground so they could see where the enemy fire was coming from. Slowly but surely, U.S. troops were able to gain a toehold on the island. Gentry spent his 21st birthday on Iwo Jima, and lost a squad member from Elizabethton named Lloyd Carver in the fighting.
“That hurt me with him being from Elizabethton, and I was his squad leader,” Gentry said.
There were times when the young Marines questioned why they were going to the trouble of securing tiny islands in the South Pacific. But when it came to Iwo Jima, there was little debate about the island’s strategic value. Located just 500 miles south of Japan, the Japanese base located there was a huge thorn in the side of the Allied Forces.
First off, the base gave Japanese troops the ability to send air raid warnings to the Japanese mainland, and it also allowed the Japanese to scramble fighters to interfere with Allied bombing runs aimed at Japan.
While the toll was high, the strategic value of securing Iwo Jima was undeniable. Gentry saw that first-hand on March 4, 1945 when a B-29 bomber that had been crippled during a bombing raid over Tokyo made an emergency landing on one of Iwo Jima’s airstrips that Gentry and his fellow Marines were in the process of seizing from the Japanese.
“A B-29 landed while we were taking the airstrip,” he said. “It was shot all to pieces. That was the biggest bomber I’d ever seen.”
By the end of the war, more than 2,400 B-29 bombers made emergency landings on Iwo Jima, saving the lives of over 24,000 Allied crewmembers. What’s more, Gentry said the airstrips on Iwo Jima allowed Allied fighter planes to be stationed on Iwo Jima, providing a huge strategic advantage.
“When the B-29s left Guam to bomb Japan, the fighter planes would take off from Iwo Jima to join them for protection,” Gentry said. “The fighter planes couldn’t carry enough fuel with them to go from Guam to Japan and back, so that’s why they took Iwo Jima.”
After five weeks of heavy fighting, Gentry was on Iwo Jima as six U.S. Marines raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. Gentry had no way of knowing it at the time, but Iwo Jima would prove to be his final combat action.
On his first day back on Guam, Gentry recalls talking to some young guys who turned out to be replacements.
“They’d never seen combat,” he recalled. “They’d have liked to talk me to death.”
At around 1 in the morning, Gentry was awakened by a superior who spoke words that seemed too good to be true.
“Gentry, get your sea bag and your rifle. You’re going home.”
At first, Gentry couldn’t believe his good fortune. He was the only man in his outfit that got sent home that night. With the benefit of hindsight, he figures the points he accrued during 28 straight months of service in the South Pacific qualified him for the 30-day furlough. The fighting was so heavy during his time in the Pacific Theatre that he was unable to leave even after the death of his mother.
The trip home required a bit of work as Gentry was charged with guarding a group of Japanese prisoners that had been captured on Guam as they were transported via ship to Pearl Harbor. Once Gentry escorted the prisoners off the ship at Pearl Harbor, he returned to the ship and sailed back to U.S. soil.
When his furlough was over, Gentry reported to Key West Florida and prepared to head back into the heat of battle. But the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent surrender of the Japanese spared Gentry from any further combat.
“Thank God for (President) Truman,” Gentry said. “I thank him for dropping the atomic bomb because we were told that the six Marine divisions were all going to lead the assault on Japan.”
As his life unfolded after the war, Gentry clung to the brotherhood that was forged in the heat of battle. At 96 years old, he still feels a kinship with the men he served with.
“The Marines, they were close friends,” Gentry said. “As the old saying goes, Semper Fidelis. Always faithful. Good friends, good buddies. They’d share everything with you.”
Gentry has exchanged letters over the years with a member of his old platoon who went to great lengths to keep up with everyone in the outfit.
“Every time he writes, three or four of them passed away,” Gentry said. “It’s sad, but you can’t live forever.”