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WWII Veteran remembers harsh fight for Okinawa

Merwin Cowles with his wife Mary in their Plattsburgh home. Cowles served in the South Pacific with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Merwin Cowles with his wife Mary in their Plattsburgh home. Cowles served in the South Pacific with the U.S. Marine Corps. Photo by Shawn Ryan.

— Merwin Cowles was a farm boy from Adams, N.Y. when he joined the Marine Corps in 1943. Because he was good with machinery from being a farmer, Cowles ended up piloting an “Amtrac” in some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater.

An Amtrac is an amphibious landing craft with tank-type tracks that operated both on the water as well as on land. Cowles commanded a squad of three Amtracs that ferried men and supplies from ships off Saipan and Okinawa into battle, then returned to a hospital ship with the injured and dead. While on shore, Cowles and his Amtracs provided support fire with the vehicle’s two 30 caliber and one 50 caliber machine guns.

“It was just fighting, that was all. Just plain, hard fighting,” said Cowles at his Plattsburgh home, his wife Mary at his side for support. “It was very, very hard. It kind of took a lot out of us.”

It took so much out of him, that for 70 years he never talked about the battles he took part in, including Okinawa’s bloody Sugar Loaf Hill. Okinawa was the largest and one of the deadliest battles, and also the final battle, of the Pacific theater. The 100,000 Japanese defending Okinawa suffered almost 100 percent casualties, fighting often to the very last bullet, and then committing suicide in front of the Marines. But there were no easy battles in the Pacific.

Cowles was wounded once, when a piece of shrapnel lodged in his knee, but he never received the Purple Heart because he didn’t go to the hospital for treatment.

“One of the medics took a pair of scissors and pulled it out. He wrapped it up and slapped me on the a and said ‘Go boy, go.’”

With a halting voice, and a self-conscious manner, Cowles recounted “The Sugar Loaf,” and how the Japanese forced teen-aged children, including girls, into battle. To save himself and his fellow Marines, Cowles, and countless other Marines like him, were forced to swing the Amtrac’s big guns into action. Those actions lived quietly inside the Marine throughout the long expanse of years.

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