Attorney George Derryberry Writes Book About Fellow Marine After Discovery Of Mysterious Canteen

Monday, March 03, 2014

An intriguing message on a 1944 canteen that was spotted when it was about to be thrown away has led attorney George Derryberry to write his first book.

Path of Valor; A Marine's Story has gotten several favorable book reviews.

He noted that while on a 1962 work detail at Camp Lejeune, N.C., his good friend and fellow U.S. Marine, Lance Corporal Delmar Lee Reynolds, was carrying several surveyed canteens to a location where they would be destroyed. 

Mr. Derryberry says, "Glancing downward he noticed an odd pattern of scratching on one 1944 canteen’s surface. On closer examination he was able to make out a faintly scratched message:         

          SURIBACHI TAKEN I’M

          ON IT. KILLED 3 JAPS

          IWO JIMA ROUF GO

          MOVING ON TO CAVES

          IF I DON’T MAKE IT

          BACK TELL BETTY

          H. C. Ayres

          23rd Marines

          2/23/1945

   He notes, "The canteen’s message was evocative on multiple levels, including the famous battle itself, the risks that the Marine would face in the 23rd Marine Regiment’s continuing drive to the north, and his concern that a woman he cared for be informed if he failed to 'make it back.' 

     "Because all the battered canteens had been abandoned, Reynolds sequestered and protected the canteen bearing the message from Iwo Jima.  Several Marine veterans of World War II with whom he served occasionally displayed and discussed their own battle trophies. At these sessions Reynolds showed the canteen to them, but the “salty” veterans demonstrated nothing more than mild interest in the canteen and its message, preferring to admire their own Japanese swords, pistols, helmets, and an occasional battle flag emblazoned with the rising sun.

     "Eventually a serious accident interfered with my friend’s plans to research the history of this Marine and his message.  Stating that “a Marine carried this canteen and another Marine should have it,” Reynolds entrusted it to my care, and with it the privilege and task of searching out all available information about Harris C. Ayres, Jr."

  Path of Valor presents the results of over six years of travel, reviews of veterans’ personal accounts of the battles, research of military personnel records and official casualty and operation reports, and other sources.

Mr. Derryberry relates, "Shortly after I received the canteen, and resolved to find out all I could
about this Marine, my wife and I traveled to his home town of Montrose, Pa.  There we met everyone still alive who knew him - the Potts family children, now much older of course, who took him into their home as a quasi-son and sibling, others who were his classmates at Montrose High School, and even his fiancee, Harriette, who was in Montrose and delayed her return to her Texas home when she heard we were coming and why.

"Harriette gave us the pictures in Chapter 1 of Harris and her at Forest Lake near Montrose. She also gave us the picture he sent her of his machine gun ("This is the baby that will give the japs hell"), and some other pictures taken of Ayres and his buddies at Camp Lejeune, N.C., which
he had mailed to her. The shot of Ayres crouching between Norval and Delbert Potts on page 43 was given to me by Delbert Potts. Other pictures, including the shot Of Robert Avery with the Hollywood lass and 2 buddies on page 48 were provided by Robert Avery's sister, Lee (now Lee Culley) whom I contacted and communicated with at her home in Colorado.

"That's how I got most of the personal information - by arranging to, and then going up there, meeting, and speaking at length with these folks for a few days.  We even hosted at a local restaurant a luncheon for all the locals who knew him, and the memories flew around while I furiously took notes.  Of course very basic things like 'Ayresie's' birthday and enlistment date came from his official personnel record."

Interviews with veterans of the 23rd Marines’ campaigns in the Pacific, including a surviving member of Ayres’ machine gun squad who served with him from boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., until he was wounded on Saipan, provided particularly valuable information based on personal experiences. 

     Through these efforts the author learned practically everything that could be learned about Marine Sergeant Harris Carpenter Ayres, Jr. of Montrose, Pa. Path of Valor recounts Harris Ayres, Jr.’s life from birth and childhood in Susquehanna County, through his enlistment and training following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and his service in the Pacific with Company I, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines, one of three infantry Regiments of the 4th Marine Division. 

     The book focuses primarily on the experiences of Ayres and his machine gun squad and section, and the infantry platoon and company in which they served.  This close focus is complemented by carefully researched descriptions of their movements and participation in combat.

    Ayres and his men participated in Operation “Flintlock,” the invasion and rapid capture of Roi-Namur in the Marshall Islands.  On arrival at the 4th Marine Division’s Pacific base on the Island of Maui PFC Ayres was promoted to Corporal, and led a machine gun squad. He survived the unpublicized May 21, 1944 “Second Pearl Harbor” disaster, leaping with his squad from the flaming deck of LST 69 into Pearl Harbor’s West Loch.  This ship was among six LSTs that exploded, burned and sank with all of the embarked Marines’ weapons, field equipment, clothing and personal items.  After struggling to shore, all surviving Marines whose assigned LSTs were lost, including Corporal Ayres’ squad, were reissued new weapons, dungarees, and equipment, and assigned to other LSTs. 

     Corporal Ayres landed on Saipan’s Blue Beach 1 under devastating Japanese artillery and mortar fire in Operation Forager, where he was wounded, refused evacuation, and continued to lead his squad until the island was secured.  Some two weeks later he landed and fought for the duration of the campaign to capture Tinian. Returning for the second time to the 4th Division’s Pacific training base on Maui, Ayres was awarded the Purple Heart for his Saipan wounds, promoted to Sergeant, and assigned as leader of a full machine gun section.

     Operation Detachment, the invasion and capture of Iwo Jima, receives particular emphasis and thorough treatment. Path of Valor explains the reasons for selection of the objective, describes Japanese General Kuribayashi’s careful planning and preparation of the island’s formidable defenses, and the evolved Japanese strategy which required its soldiers to remain in concealed and mutually supporting positions, refrain from costly and strategically futile banzai attacks, and exact a fearful toll on American Marines until they were killed or died by their own hand.  Against these determined Japanese in their devilishly planned and virtually invisible positions, the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, later reinforced by elements of the 3rd Marine Division, assaulted 2 miles of Iwo Jima’s eastern shoreline on D Day, February 19, 1945.

     The author’s interviews resulted in being granted access to a lengthy and detailed handwritten account by Ayres’ Platoon Commander, Lieutenant Harcourt Waller of Augusta, Georgia, who replaced the popular and respected Howard “Smiley” Johnson as leader of 2nd Platoon, I Company after that officer was killed in action shortly after landing on D Day.  Lieutenant Waller’s lengthy handwritten narrative, written immediately after the survivors of I Company boarded their troopship and departed Iwo Jima for Maui, makes several positive references to Ayres, his “machine gun Sergeant.”

     Suffering heavy casualties, Ayres’ I Company participated in the capture of Airfields 1 and 2, and was then ordered south to a reserve assembly area near the base of Mount Suribachi.  From this area I Company’s Marines could easily observe the second flag raising photographed by Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945.  In their reserve role they also had the opportunity to climb onto its lower slopes, or for that matter to its summit. 

     As announced by a “warning order,” or as correctly foreseen by Sergeant Ayres, Company I soon moved northward.  There, with other 4th Division units, they fought over what most military leaders and historians conclude was the most difficult ground on Iwo Jima, the aptly named “Meatgrinder” consisting of Hill 382, “Turkey Knob” and the “Amphitheater.”  In this area the terrain, and the concealed and  mutually supporting Japanese firing positions, were at their very worst.

     After the Meatgrinder was finally taken, Sergeant Ayres led his gunners in support of I company, 23rd Marines in the final drive to the limit of advance in the 4th Marine Division’s sector of Iwo Jima – its Eastern coast in the vicinity of Tachiiwa Point.  By this time most Marine combat units had suffered casualties approaching and often exceeding fifty percent, and were manned to a disturbing degree by replacements.  Although trained as Marines, a significant number of these men normally performed regular duties such as company clerks and typists, cooks, and supply workers, and were lacking in combat experience.  Mounting casualties also required combinations of separate Marine infantry companies and battalions into composite units.

     The 23rd Marines advanced to Iwo Jima’s eastern coast against determined resistance over tortured and difficult terrain cut by ravines, and peppered by caves and other concealed firing positions.  By the late afternoon of March 8, 1945, 17 days after D Day, the Marines of I Company, including its 2nd Platoon with which Sergeant Ayres served, now fought alongside Company F and other units of the Second Battalion, 23rd marines.  These Marines were in strong defensive positions less than a mile from Iwo Jima’s rocky eastern shore.

     To their front, Japanese Naval Captain Inouye, a fanatical officer who bristled under General Kuribayashi’s orders to remain in position and exact maximum Marine casualties, longed to assume the offensive.  It is possible that Captain Inouye did not have reliable communications with his General. In any event, Inouye’s Bushido instincts to die in battle for his Emperor overcame his sense of discipline, and he ordered over 1,000 Japanese remaining under his command to mount a night counterattack against the American lines.      

The Captain’s ambitious and unrealistic orders to his troops were to carry through the Marine lines, kill all Americans in their path, destroy any American aircraft on Airfield 1, and reoccupy Mount Suribachi, replacing the American flag with the Japanese.

     Japanese rocket and mortar fire increased and persisted throughout the counterattack on the night of March 8, but the advancing Japanese troops remained quiet until they closely approached the Marines’ defensive lines.  Then they rose as one, screaming “banzai,” and attacked with any and all weapons available to them.  Some Japanese troops carried sharpened spears.  Others threw grenades, and fired American rifles and automatic weapons salvaged from Marines killed in action.  Several carried land mines strapped to their bodies, which they attempted to and sometimes did explode inside the American lines.  Japanese carrying litters and Marine dungarees, also taken from American bodies, attempted to trick unwary Marines by calling out in fair imitation of English “Corpsman, Corpsman!”

     The tricks failed, the Marines fought back furiously, and their lines held. 

     During the attack the steady bursts of fire by Sgt. Ayres’ machine gunners, and firing from the riflemen of 2nd Platoon, I company against the Japanese, now revealed by parachute flares fired by Navy ships offshore and Marine mortars, threatened to deplete their supplies of ammunition. In addition, a call to seal a nearby Japanese cave believed to shelter Japanese combatants was received.  Aware of these critical needs, Sergeant Ayres, who consistently led from the front and stepped forward without hesitation in such crises, quickly gathered ammunition and explosives, and hurried to resupply his Marines.  As machine gun and rifle fire continued, and rockets and mortar rounds exploded among the Marine lines, Ayres suddenly dropped in mid–stride to the ground. A nearby Marine quickly approached him, but Sergeant Ayres lay lifeless.

     The Japanese lost over 800 men, including their commander, Captain Inouye, in their attack during the night of March 8 and early morning darkness of March 9, 1945.  Harris Ayres’ death in combat, along with some 80 other Marines in the vicinity, occurred mere days before the 23rd Marines reached the limit of their advance at Iwo Jima’s eastern coast, ending their combat assignment on the island.

     Sergeant Ayres, who was frequently called “Ayresie” by his Marines, had the rare ability to instill both respect and affection in subordinates.  He was mourned by his men, and briefly but sincerely eulogized in his Platoon Commander’s personal handwritten account.  Ayres was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star with combat “V.” 

     Mr. Derryberry says, "Three differing versions of the exact manner of Sergeant Ayres’ death emerged from research and veterans’ reports.  These are discussed, and ultimately receive a degree of reconciliation in the book. All versions are interesting, but none challenge the fact that Ayresie was among those for whom 'Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue.'”

     Concluding chapters discuss the toll and aftermath of the U.S. Marines’ conquest of Iwo Jima, events after Ayres’ death in combat, and the author’s search for and final conclusion in answer to the question frequently asked by those who learn of the canteen’s inscription: Who was Betty?

Path of Valor is available on Amazon.com.


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