By JUDY SHERIDAN
Looking back 70 years, former Parker County Justice of the Peace Melvin Simons, 88, is glad to have served his country in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
“You feel like you’ve done your duty,” he reflects, “given it your best shot along with your friends. Most of us were young and didn’t have our own families.”
Simons, who saw three years of combat with no leaves, served in the hard-fought battle for Peleliu Island as well as in Okinawa.
A native of Clay County, Texas, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines at the age of 18, against the wishes of his father, who had secured a farm deferment,
“I went up and cancelled that and volunteered,” he said. “We were getting deep in the war, and nearly everybody was going.”
During boot camp in San Diego, Calif., the Marines trained Simons on a 30-caliber machine gun that could fire 150 rounds a minute, used to protect the big guns of the artillery from the enemy.
A hard worker, he eventually became an expert gunner.
“Somehow I took to that,” he said. “Some guys could never comprehend it — it was 200 pieces, and a lot can go wrong — but you better know what to do if you want to come home.”
Simons’ first combat experience was a doozy — taking a small but heavily fortified island with a good airstrip in the Palau Islands.
The offensive took the 1st Marine Division and, later, the U.S. Army’s 81st Infantry Division, more than two months to accomplish.
Simons came ashore on Peleliu the afternoon of Sept. 15, 1944, in the eighth wave of the Marine division, which suffered heavy casualties.
“The enemy had it loaded,” he said. “We hit that bugger, but we paid the price.”
Simons said the men slowly advanced toward the air strip, amidst heavy fighting, with support from guns on the ships and in the air.
“The enemy had 24 tanks, and they threw them all at us,” he said. “They wanted to drive us back into the ocean and roll up the lines ... Well, it didn’t work.”
Later, Simons grimly recalled, they “got the dozers in there and pushed them off a big drop off, tanks and bodies and everything.”
How does it feel to kill someone or watch others die beside you?
“You take care of yourself and take what comes your way,” he replied quietly. “That’s all.”
Simon’s closest brush with death came the next morning, when Japanese forces dropped a large shell between he and his friends.
“We hit the deck as quick as we could,” he said. “It blew caleche all over us and, more or less, rung our bells.”
When Simons left Peleliu In October, he traveled to Okinawa, where he was asked — as lead gunner — to take out a “big boy” blocking the path to a final American victory.
The “hot deal” meant a 10-mile crawl over rough terrain.
“They told me four times that I didn’t have to go, that there would be no repercussions,” he said, “but I was anxious to get in there and get something done.”
Simons and a backup squad were four miles out, he said, when superiors called them off. Someone else had picked off the gunner.
“I sure was wanting to knock that bird down,” he said. “Even today I wish I got him.”
After a stint in China — spent celebrating the end of the war, Simons said — he returned to Texas in March of 1946.
One of his brothers, who served with the U.S. Army in Europe, came home, too, but another was killed by a shell in the Marshall Islands.
Simons said getting called to go on a mission during the war was a blessing.
“It felt like you were the man to get the job done,” he said.