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Hero Saluted After 50-Year Delay

Military: Retired Marine Gen. James L. Day was 19 when he fought off the Japanese for three bloody days. His Medal of Honor recommendation apparently never left the battlefield.

January 29, 1998|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. — He's been retired as a Marine Corps general for 12 years and, reflecting a sterling career that spanned the world, James L. Day holds just about every military decoration possible.

Now, finally, the greatest award of all--the Medal of Honor--has been bestowed upon the 72-year-old Day for his heroics as a 19-year-old Missouri farm boy who, for three days in a muddy bomb crater on Okinawa, fought like there would be no tomorrow.

For three rainy days and nights in May 1945, with the bodies of his buddies strewn around him and the promise of reinforcements lost in the cacophony of battle, Jim Day manned a machine gun, lobbed grenades and picked off Japanese soldiers with his M-1 rifle as they crawled to within feet of him and then lunged forward.

For three sleepless days and nights, Day virtually single-handedly repelled more than a dozen attacks by enemy soldiers who were crazed that they couldn't overpower him as he crouched in the shallow crater, a couple hundred yards ahead of his own front lines.

For three harrowing days and nights, he winced every time he heard the metallic tap of an enemy soldier triggering a grenade, and every time he heard the whistle of an incoming artillery shell, and every time he heard the thump of a mortar shell leaving its tube, some exploding in the muck just a few feet away, and stinging him with shrapnel. And he slapped mud on his own scorched arms after an American shell landed within feet of him, spraying him with burning phosphorus.

When the fourth day dawned and the bloody battle for Sugar Loaf Hill was won, other Marines got to Jim Day and they gaped at the sight of 158 dead Japanese--some 100 yards away, some in his hole. "I thought maybe I killed 4,000," he would say later.

For this, his commanding officer in 1945 recommended that Cpl. James L. Day be awarded the Medal of Honor.

And for this, Day finally received the award last week, nearly 53 years later, in a White House ceremony hosted by President Clinton.

It took this long because the men wanting to honor the young hero died in combat within days and the paperwork apparently never left the battlefield.

In the end, more than 2,000 Marines died at Sugar Loaf Hill, a fight critical to the Okinawa campaign because although it stretched less than 200 yards and stood only about 75 feet above a plain of scattered brush and trees, its relative height was strategically important to the forces that held it.

Day spent another month in combat on Okinawa before being hospitalized to treat hand grenade shrapnel that scarred his face.

For decades after, Day didn't whisper a word that he had been considered for the Medal of Honor, keeping it a secret even from his wife, Sally. He didn't figure he would get it anyway; most recipients are the battlefield martyrs who throw themselves on top of grenades to save their buddies.

After World War II, Day was commissioned as an officer and went on to oversee combat troops in Korea and Vietnam.

He moved up the ranks of the military, taking commands in Japan, San Diego, Camp Pendleton, Washington--and back to Okinawa. And by the time he retired in 1986, and moved to the Palm Springs area, he had accumulated 31 decorations, including the Silver Star three times, the Bronze Star, the Navy Commendation Medal twice, and six Purple Hearts.

In 1980, a retired Marine living in Augusta, Ga., was going through some boxes in his garage containing World War II memorabilia and discovered faded carbon copies--"flimsies"--of the reports first filed in 1945 recommending that Day receive the Medal of Honor.

The various reports recalled how Day had led a dozen men into an advanced position, taking cover in a bomb crater that was about 25 feet by 15 feet, depressed four feet at the deepest. All but Day and another man were wounded or killed almost immediately by Japanese artillery.

The other unscathed Marine was nonetheless incapacitated with fierce headaches and fever and was unable to fire a weapon, and Day would become virtually the sole defender in a three-day stand, far ahead of friendly lines.

"Ignoring painful wounds sustained in two previous days of unrelenting close combat, Cpl. Day engaged the enemy with ferocious rifle fire and hand grenades, repulsing the savage attack causing them to withdraw," read one of the old reports.

"During a final attack on his position, Cpl. Day repelled the enemy once again, killing 10 to 12 of the enemy at the very edge of his hole."

In another letter, a lieutenant wrote in amazement of a report by a reconnaissance officer who witnessed Day's heroics from a distance: "Cpl. Day had been engaged in a very heavy duel with Japanese infantry and [the spotter] had never seen as many dead bodies in front of a single position in over two years of combat."

In his own report, the spotter said he eventually reached Day and "advised him to try and join up with our company. He said he would stay put, but he still needed more Marines."

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