Delbert "Shorty" Belton (8/29/13)
"It is time, Odysseus said, that I told you of the disastrous voyage Zeus gave me." For most of us born after the Second World War we have only faded photographs or letters from across the sea boxed in the attic. If your father or grandfather fought in that first true global holocaust you're more sensitive perhaps to the history and visceral accounts of combat unimaginable today.
88 year old Delbert Belton had a good memory, though like many who fought in the Pacific often chose to keep it sealed-away. Belton, called "Shorty" because he was but five feet tall, was born in Spokane and as a teenager enlisted in the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor. But Belton didn't just enlist in the Army; he fought in Okinawa...the last stand for the Imperial Japanese Army entrenched on a God-forsaken island; the last staging hop for United States forces before the incredible prospect of invading the Japanese mainland.
Okinawa is an island 60 miles long and 8 miles wide, part of the Ryukyu chain. Japanese General Ushijima commanded the hardened Dai Nippon forces, touching gloves across the East China Sea with the approaching American commander Buckner, accepting that few of his Imperial army and marines would survive. Ushijima like the Empire was resolved to a lost war; orders were to kill as many Americans as possible in advance of the anticipated landing on Japanese soil. What was it like for American Marines and Army GI's on Okinawa, including "Shorty" Belton?
62,000 American casualties included nearly 12,000 dead, 90 days of fighting where 30 days had been the cavalier American war-planning expectation. By the time Okinawa occurred the Japanese had changed tactics: instead of meeting Marines on landing, they became entombed in caves, concrete bunkers and passageways virtually untouchable by naval bombardment or air attacks. The 110,000 Japanese simply waited in these escarpments opening fire with Nambu machine guns and artillery. When after 3 weeks the rains came, Americans and Japanese often fought hand-to-hand in lava dust turned to mud. The 1st, 5th and 6th Marines took the early brunt of the fighting soon joined by the 10th Army. Weeks turned to months, still Ushijima would not surrender. It was the personification of the phrase "war is hell."
In William Manchester's Goodbye Darkness (an incredible account of his time in the Pacific as a Marine), his chapter on Okinawa describes war beyond imagining. Like Shorty Belton, wounded there, Manchester had an epiphany as he lay recovering. Why he asked, were Americans willing to blindly charge into almost certain death, crawling through mud, mortars, and Japanese attacks in the rain-filled black of night? Suddenly it became clear to Manchester: "I finally understood why I jumped hospital and returned to my unit in violation of orders and almost certain death. It was an act of love. Those men on the line were my family, my home. They were closer to me than any friends I had ever known. They never let me down; I couldn't do that to them. Men, I now know, don't fight for flag or country, for the corps or glory. They fight for one another. Any man in combat who lacks comrades who will die for him, or for whom he is willing to die is not a man at all; he is truly damned."
Last week in Spokane Delbert "Shorty" Belton was brutally, insanely, murdered by two mindless teens for reasons even they can't explain. Thousands turned out to honor their town's fallen hero in stunned disbelief over this act of supreme cowardice and sociopathy. Delbert Belton survived the deadliest battle in the history of the Pacific. 68 years-on, he died waiting for a friend. The ghosts of Okinawa were watching.
Written by Tom Moore