From Little Italy, Tiffin, to seeing the Enola Gay

The last and biggest of the Pacific battles of World War II occurred on the island of Okinawa, Japan, from April 1 to June 22, 1945. It was considered the bloodiest battle of the Pacific campaign, involving 287,000 troops of the U.S. armed forces against 130,000 Japanese soldiers.

The war ended with the dropping of atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, respectively.

This article describes the culminating war experience of a Tiffin Marine, Joe Dariano, who fought battles on several islands in the Pacific, including Okinawa, where he was wounded a second time. Joe shared his story with Mary and Percy Lilly (and a written chronicle of details), who at that time were reporters for a Seneca County weekly newspaper, the Open Market.

From 1999-2003, the Lillys did a series of stories based on interviews of local veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Joe’s story was meaningful to Percy Lilly, also a World War II veteran, particularly as it showed the patriotism of immigrant Americans, who within one generation were willing to make deep personal commitments to defend democracy and freedom.

The Darianos

Four D’Ariano brothers and one sister immigrated to the U.S. from the Naples area of Italy in 1911. Joe’s mother, also from Naples, arrived in 1912. His parents, Francisco and Maria (Giaruffa) D’Ariano soon came to Tiffin and the other D’Arianos remained in the New Jersey and Bronx area.

In Tiffin, they settled in an area affectionately known as Little Italy, along Wall, Miami and Clay streets. Joe Dariano, along with three brothers and six sisters, attended St. Mary’s School. Their father’s first job was with Webster.

At age 18, in December 1942, Joe enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was sent to Parris Island, South Carolina, for his boot training and then in the fall of 1943 he left for New River, North Carolina. In March, having completed vigorous amphibious combat training, he boarded a troop train for San Diego. After a few more weeks of training, they boarded the SS Mormachawk and set sail for the South Pacific.

After 20 days at sea, they finally reached the New Caledonia Islands. The 2,000 Marines were glad to get ashore after dealing with seasickness, lousy food and tight quarters. After three days, they boarded small boats and took off to Guadalcanal. This island had been secured in 1943, but in 1944 there still were many evidences of the horrendous battle there, including sunken ships and battered Japanese war machinery. After a week on Guadalcanal, they headed for Pavuvu.

Pavuvu, South Pacific

At first sight, the very small island looked like a tropical paradise. The lagoon and swaying coconut palms were a welcome sight. However, after landing, reality struck home. There was no electricity, running water or toilet facilities. Because it rained every night and day, they were up to their knees in mud. For showers, they lathered their bodies and rinsed in the rain. They wore their clothes and soaped and rinsed them in the rain, too. They filled bottles with kerosene and used socks for wicks, so they could write letters and play cards.

They confronted other forces of nature besides the rain, heat and high humidity. Large rats and enormous land crabs were constant nighttime visitors. The crabs quickly would die if temporarily trapped and would start to smell like rotting fish. Each day, their carcasses were gathered out of boots and other hiding places and burned or buried. They spent several months there and trained for amphibious landings. According to Joe, “Life on Pavuvu was pretty rugged.”

Joe became a member of the K Company, Third Battalion, First Marine Division. This division, 20,000 strong, was ready to be deployed. L Company was made up of three rifle platoons, a machine gun platoon, a mortar platoon and various attached units.

Joe’s platoon, the second, consisted of three squads each with three fire teams. Joe was the Browning automatic rifleman for his fire team. At the end of August 1944, K company loaded up on a LST 227 and went to Guadalcanal for a final week of rehearsal. Then they were off to the Palau Islands.

Heading for Peleliu

Their destination was Peleliu, the southernmost of the Palau Islands. They were told it would have 10,000 Japanese defenders, but the brass thought it would be cleaned up in 72 hours. Their equipment was stored below deck and the men lived and slept top-side for the 10-day trip, a distance of 1,500 miles.

No one slept the night of Sept. 14, 1944. They watched the sun come up and ate steak sandwiches before they were ordered to go below and load up in their amtracs. Each platoon was in one amtrac. Amid deafening noise and fumes from the engines, the amtracs moved down the ramp, into the water. The sailors on the LST waved and gave a thumbs-up sign.

U.S. warships fired rockets and guns at the beach area. Through the smoke and noise, they saw carrier planes strafing and dropping bombs. One plane was hit, caught fire and crashed on the beach in front of them.

They knew this was real, no longer a practice war.

Joe’s amtrac reached the beach and the Marines ran ashore in knee-deep water. They had advanced a few yards on the beach when the defenders opened with rifle and machine gun fire. Their amtrac was fired on and some of the men crouched low and crawled inland. Joe’s platoon leader and fire team leader were killed instantly. Others dropped all around him. Those who were able kept moving and crawled away from the beach as the “softened up” Japanese increased their firing.

About 150 yards from the beach, the survivors came upon a trench, 10 feet deep and 30-40 feet wide. They quickly realized it was a tank trap, so they regrouped and started up the other side. A guy from Platoon I joined them and managed to fire his M1 rifle in the direction of a machine gun nest, but he died instantly from head wounds. Joe got about 30-40 feet on the other side of the trench while firing his Browning. “I was hit! I must have been out for a while.”

Wounded during fighting

When Joe came to, blood was running down his face from under his helmet. As he crawled back toward the tank trap, he was hit again and knocked into the trap. Because of all the blood and camouflage make-up, his squad leader and buddy, Foley, didn’t recognize him. There was a hole through his helmet, his left ear was cut and the second shot had gone through his left shoulder, taking a chunk of his collarbone with it. Foley dressed his wounds and they smoked a cigarette together.

Jenkins, a medical corpsman, came along, gave Joe a shot in the arm, some dope pills and redressed his wounds. They could see many dead and dying soldiers all around them. The company runner, St. Charles, fell into the tank trap and died instantly from a shot through the heart. Jones, the flame thrower, climbed over the edge of the trap to try and burn out the machine gun nest that had them pinned down, but fell back into the bottom of the trap and died.

Throughout most of the hot hellish day, they were pinned down. Their camouflage paint burned their skin and their canteens were emptied. Machine guns pelted the trap, and snipers in the trees were another problem. Joe was helped to another part of the trap. They came across Lucarello, one of their guys sitting in the trench, glassy-eyed. The top of his head came off when they removed his helmet.

Jenkins scurried around the trap all day treating the wounded. He told them the “old” guy in their outfit, almost 30 years old, was dead. They had called him “Pop.” A Sherman tank came up to the edge of the trap and unloaded water and ammunition to the survivors. They drank and filled their canteens, but in a short time, they all vomited because the water had come from unwashed oil drums.

Late in the afternoon, they were able to make it to the beach, sheltered by a Sherman tank. Riley, who had had part of his calf shot off, kept falling and walked supported by his buddies. The tank could not avoid running over many dead Japanese bodies. Dead Marines were all around. The beach was cluttered with destroyed amtracs lying partly sunk in the shallow water. Some had bodies hanging out of them.

Other amtracs and boats were bringing in supplies and taking the wounded back to the ships. Riley made it to the ship that night, but Joe and two others spent a sleepless night in a hole near the beach. Shooting and shelling continued all night. “Wars don’t stop at night,” he recounted.

Wars don’t stop at night

The next morning, the rest of the wounded were moved to the ship. Joe, after a two-hour trip, was hoisted aboard the USS Warren. In an operating room, his head was shaved and the wound stitched. A chunk of his collarbone was removed and a drainage tube was placed where a bullet had gone through his shoulder. His ear required five stitches.

Joe awakened to real sheets and a real pillow, then realized he was sleeping in the sack of a naval officer. He was treated to an ice-cold bottle of Coca Cola, his first ice-cold drink in many months. After a few days, he was transferred to the USS Samaritan, a hospital ship. His bunk was topside (on deck), because there were so many casualties.

Sept. 23, l944, they were awakened shortly after midnight when the hospital ship ran aground on an uncharted reef. After a couple of days, tugs pulled them off the reef and slowly they were moved to Banika, a 12-day trip. There were four or five sea burials each day.

Repair, rest and reunion

Joe stayed about two weeks at the naval hospital on Banika, where his wounds, except for his shoulder, had healed. Oct. 12, not quite a month after he landed on Peleliu, he was returned to Pavuvu for rest and more training.

He was glad to see 12 guys from his second platoon. He soon learned to his dismay that out of the original 45 men in his platoon, 16 had been killed and over 20 were wounded. He was sad to learn that two of his good buddies that he had gone overseas with were killed at Peleliu.

During his absence from Pavuvu, the rear echelon had built showers and toilet facilities. The muddy streets were “paved” with coral, and large tents had been erected. The natives had built a nice chapel out of bamboo with a palm thatched roof. Protestant services and Mass were conducted each Sunday.

After a few weeks of rest, training resumed. Replacements were brought in from the states. K Company was brought back up to its former strength. Joe was promoted to corporal Dec. 20, 1944, the same day he reported to sick bay to have a fragment of a bullet removed from his shoulder. They spent the entire month of January practicing ship-to-shore landings on nearby islands.

Late in February, troop ships arrived. The First Marine Division packed all their personal and non-combatant belongings into sea bags with their names and serial numbers on them. They left Pavuvu for good aboard the USS New Kent.

Joining the fleet

About five days later, at night, they pulled into the Ulithi Island group and dropped anchor. At daylight, they couldn’t believe their eyes. Battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers, destroyers, tankers and transport ships filled the horizon. Joe went cruising in a small boat to look at the fleet and ended up with close looks at battleships the USS Pennsylvania, the USS Missouri, the USS New Mexico, the heavy cruiser USS Atlanta and aircraft carriers USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise and USS Franklin. The USS Franklin was on fire and listed badly.

Later that afternoon, they went to the beautiful little island of Mog-mog, where they drank their allotment of three beers. The white sandy beaches and tropical vegetation showed no sign of war except for the warships anchored off shore.

In a few days, they found themselves at sea. It was announced they were to invade Okinawa. Joe crossed the equator for the fourth time and found the weather chilly as they moved further north.

After a lot of shelling by the naval big guns and much airplane activity, they hit the beach Easter Sunday morning, April 1, l945. As they moved in on the beach, the air was filled with smoke and planes and the deafening sound of the big guns.

Intense fighting on Okinawa

There was no enemy fire! They moved through a large hole in the 12-foot sea wall and regrouped. They reached an airfield called Yontan and were told to dig in on one of the runways. The digging went slowly through the crushed coral. Finally, they deepened their foxholes until their heads were just below ground level. There was no sleep that night as they crouched, two men in each foxhole. The next morning, the runway was strafed by a lone Japanese plane that was downed by antiaircraft fire at the end of the airstrip.

On the third night, enemy planes bombed and strafed the U.S. ships. After their bombs were dropped, the planes would crash into a ship, Kamikaze-style. Kamikaze means “divine wind.” Watching, Foley and Joe counted over 50 of these planes either shot down or crashed. The next day, U.S. carrier planes landed on the airstrip. In the week that followed, they enlarged and improved their foxholes. There still was no sight of the enemy troops.

To secure more of the northern sector, they moved about 10 miles and dug in for the night. That night, the Japanese threw grenades into their area. One landed in a foxhole with Maroney and Korth. Maroney pushed it over in a corner and put his feet over it. The concussion knocked both men out. Bill Jenkens patched Maroney up the best he could and moved him out in a jeep the next morning. This was their first contact with the enemy in Okinawa.

That night, there was a hell of an air raid and they heard that four U.S. ships had sunk. They were told to go back and garrison the airstrip. After doing so, a bunch of enemy fighter planes “softened” the field for bombers that would drop paratroopers. U.S. planes shot down 17 of the 20 bombers and no paratroopers appeared.

April 19, l945, the brass realized the Japanese would make their stand on the southern end of Okinawa. K Company was able to hitch a ride on Army trucks headed in that direction. They arrived at the lines and soon were greeted by an artillery barrage. The barrage continued through that day and night. Foley and Joe holed up in a cave with two soldiers from the Tenth Army.

The next morning, when they got out of the cave, they saw an army “six-by” full of dead soldiers. The artillery barrage again forced them to move back into the cave and remain there another day and night. In the morning, when they came out of the cave to examine the fox holes of two of their fellow Marines, they found their buddies had been bayoneted during the night.

After advancing inland, they had to dig in because of another barrage. The artillery was “ear-shattering and nerve-wracking.” Some distance away from the barrage, they noticed an old man trying to get water from a shell hole to give to a woman sitting against a tree. Joe noticed the back of the man’s left foot had been blown away. Joe dressed his wounds and gave them some water.

After attacking and taking a large village, the Japanese drove them out on two consecutive nights. The army ordered their tanks in and with flame throwers burned the village down.

Later, they were to cross some rice paddies and attack a hill where the enemy had dug in. The Japanese started throwing hand grenades, so they were forced to dig in. Bill Foster, a new replacement in their platoon, threw himself on a grenade that was lobbed into his foxhole and saved the life of his buddy, Mel Hauge. He died a few minutes later. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and his remains are buried in Cleveland, his home town.

May 2, l945, Ray’s company attacked the hill. As they advanced across the rice paddy, Japanese soldiers were seen firing their machine guns and rifles at them. As they neared the hill, a mortar barrage forced them to lie on their bellies. “Suddenly, a mortar shell landed between Clarence Lamb and me.”

Wounded on Okinawa

When Joe came to, he was lying on dry ground, with other G.I.s looking down at him. He was having difficulty breathing. Blood ran from his mouth and he couldn’t move his right leg. After they bandaged him and stuck a rag in the hole in his chest, he could breathe easier. He then was able to learn all Lamb got was a busted leg.

As Joe and Lamb waited in a cold rain for evacuation, his dungaree jacket and the legs of his pants were cut off, and his wounds were dressed. Joe believes the corpsmen knew what they were doing, and probably saved his life. They gave Lamb and Joe a bottle of brandy to sip on and they found it very warming.

The road to the Army aid station was very long and rough, and the trip took most of the night. The brandy was gone when they arrived. There were no operating facilities at the station, and Joe lay there a few days before evacuation to a hospital ship. By way of an LCM (Landing Craft-Mechanized), they reached the USS Soliace.

Examination and X-rays revealed a wound about six inches below Joe’s arm pit. Shrapnel had ripped through his chest wall and lodged in his right lung. The doctors agreed removal of the one-inch piece about as large as a cigarette was too dangerous. (That piece is still there today). Another shrapnel piece had lodged deep in the calf muscle of his right leg and that, too, was left. The wounds on his left leg were dressed and a drainage tube was inserted into his chest. Plasma IVs were started and he received shots of the new wonder drug, penicillin, every four hours for four weeks.

Recovering on the Mariana Islands, May-August, 1945

From May 11 to late August 1945, Joe was in the Naval Hospital 110 in the Mariana Islands. He later learned the entire First Marine Division had gone on to liberate Tientsin, China. He also learned this division had over 7,600 casualties on Okinawa and that his platoon of 45 had lost seven.

By the end of June, he was able to walk around on crutches. From their hospital room, nightly they watched B-29s taking off on bombing runs which they were told were “fire bombing the hell out of Tokyo.” Aug. 7, 1945, Joe was there when the Enola Gay left from this airfield and dropped its A-bomb on Hiroshima. Japan surrendered Aug. 14 and formalities occurred Sept. 2, l945, ending World War II.

Coming Home

Returning from the Pacific, Joe and his buddies were welcomed into San Diego as bands were playing. Thousands greeted them at the dockside in the harbor.

Twenty-one-year-old Cpl. Joe Dariano was discharged Oct. 29, l945. He had received a Gold Star in lieu of a second Purple Heart. By train, Joe arrived in Tiffin Nov. 4, l945.

“That night, as I lay in my own bed, in my own house, in my own town, with my own mother and father, my own brothers and sisters, I thanked God again for getting me through all of that. I fell asleep not worrying about war with that wicked enemy that had taken so many of my buddies’ lives and fellow Marines and caused our country so much grief and suffering.”

Joe and Nita McDonald were married July 5, l947. They had corresponded during the war while Nita was in the Army Transport Corps. In l946, Joe’s first job was as a carpenter at the General Electric plant, where he soon was promoted to an administrative position. He started Dariano Construction Co. in l960 and retired in l985. They have three children, Douglas, Debra and David.

Joe knew about 30 K Company survivors who kept in touch, and they often got together at the First Marine Association annual reunions.

It has been a privilege for Mary and me to have talked with Joe and to have read his own account of World War II. Joe and Nita had a beautiful home in the former clubhouse at Lake Mohawk.

Nita Dariano died Jan. 22, 2011; Joe died Sept. 11, 2014. Joe is remembered for his renovation work on St. Mary School and St. Joseph Church. The Dariano family continues their tradition of contributing to the community to this day.