Boatswain’s Mate Second Class, USCG
D-Day (Utah Beach), Iwo Jima, Okinawa
“If freedom is worthwhile living for it’s got to be worthwhile dying for.”
I first met Marvin Perrett in 1999, at a Coast Guard conference in St. Louis. Dressed in a WWII uniform, he recounted his experiences as a coxswain for landing craft used to bring soldiers and marines ashore in the Europeran and Pacific theaters. A gifted storyteller, he had us laughing one moment over the reactions of a gawky teenager to military life and, in the next, experiencing the fear and the courage required to push these boats through unbelievable carnage — never to see many of those men alive again.
I was privileged to spend some time with this honorable man and his wife on several occasions over the next two years. A man devoted to the memory of the men he had served with, he was tireless in bringing his story to schools, civic organizations, and Coast Guard units across the country. He was universally greeted with an outpouring of affection and, from today’s Coast Guard men and women, deep pride.
His oral history is located at the Coast Guard’s history page. Some extracts:
Packed like sardines. Now what would happen is, even to this day if you were to view this area (the landing well) and you see 36 persons there you’d say, “Well that’s no big deal, they can sit down” or whatever. No way, because every one of these Soldiers or Marines – as was the case in the Pacific – every one of these fellows had backpacks on with like 80 or 90 pounds of gear. Everything they owned was on their person because they didn’t know whether it would be the next day or a month from now, and consequently when these guys are standing in this same area; restricted area, they’re in there now packed like sardines. They can’t move around. They are actually frozen in space and in time. They can’t move. They can’t even sit down in their own spot, so it was a tight assemblage of personnel.…. these troops are in my boat now at 2:30 in the morning and H-hour for everybody; first wave is going to be 6:30 am. As it developed I probably didn’t bring my troops ashore until maybe seven o’clock in the morning. So these guys are – all of us; Navy and Coast Guard personnel alike, in these slow moving circles. Every time you got to the top of the circle you’re eating your own diesel fumes and as a result many of these fellows were a little worse for the wear before they ever hit the beach….
I wasn’t about to show fear to those troops. We’re line abreast charging in. We’re going in and we’re about 50 feet apart. We’re rather be close because you want to keep these troops together because they’ve got to match up with their people as they get ashore. And as we’re going along . . . it’s interesting. The students to this day would ask me, “Well Mr. Perrett, were you shot at?” I said, “You’re darn right we were shot at”, and what would happen, maybe like a city block from the beach I ‘d see out ahead of me the machine gun bullets hitting the water and cascading ten feet high, and this is in front of me. It’s in my line of path. It’s in my line of vision and anybody in their right mind you figure, “Man, lets hold up here a minute fellows and let the guy run out of ammunition,” or hope he’ll train the gun at another angle or whatever, but you can’t do that. You can’t stop. And I don’t know how we did it but in their line and visually seeing the bullets hitting the water, you are compelled to keep going come what may, and I know that’s a difficult thing to say or even to do, even to this day, but the problem is – and one might even say, “Well maybe we’ll pull out here and go to starboard a little bit or we’ll go here and go to port and try to get out of that line of what we’re seeing; the fire ahead of us”, but you can’t do that either because seem, there were mines out there that they had not swept yet….
So I must tell you because you are an historian and I would want you to know that we were scared. Oh yes, we were scared to death. But I’ll tell you what; as a coxswain I could never show my fear to my three colleagues there. Moreover I wasn’t about to show fear to those 36 troops, whether it be Army or Marine, because they were as frightened as I was but I wasn’t about to show it (by dropping them off in deep water) because I would have had to go back to the ship and face my shipmates for the rest of the tour of duty and my own three men would say, “Man, he dumped them off . . . “
I would have been court-martialed. So you must know that that never happened. Now admittedly, once those guys . . . because you see what happens is when you look at the old newsreels you see these guys walking in water almost up to their chin and they’re holding their rifle above, and to that particular person or anyone observing that would maybe very well say, “Man, look, that’s a shame the way they . . . Man, those guys . . . they slaughtered those guys putting them off in the water.” That wasn’t the case. When you would step out, just like going swimming at a beach, you know, when you got out of my boat in knee-deep water and you walked maybe five feet or ten feet in front of my boat, you might have stepped off in a 30 foot hole of water because, see, we bombed the heck out of that beach for months before we got there but I couldn’t see that. You see, we landed on a low tide and consequently the . . . in other words I’m like a city block from dry land on the beach and there’s a lot of stuff going on under the water that I can’t see.
Four invasions and I came out without a scratch. And then too: again it gets to the point . . . a macho man or whatever. You don’t want to show . . . like I say, everybody in the boat is frightened to death, I’m sure, and I’m talking about the Marines and the Army and the whole nine yards, and us to boot. So you figure, “Well I can’t stop. I’ve got to go and I can’t slow down”, and to do so you would have to live with the fact that all these guys are going to consider you a coward or whatever and you wouldn’t want to live with that. So we were compelled for whatever higher action was done to just go through and drive into a hail of bullets. Now in Italy some didn’t make it. I was very lucky. The 36 guys I had in my boat, we all got in alright, and of course probably what happened, maybe the guy did in fact train the gun to another direction or maybe he ran out of bullets at that time and he had to reload or whatever. For me, I did four invasions and I came out without a scratch so I was one of the lucky ones. All I can say is they were very poor shots because it wasn’t like they didn’t get a chance to take me out.
Hit me! On my first trip into the beach that morning I had 36 soldiers and as we’re going along I’m real busy. I mean I’ve got these four or five boats to my right, four or five to the left and everything, and for whatever reason these 36 guys are standing there and instead of looking out front; out the iron ramp where they’re going, every one of them are in the boat staring me down eyeball to eyeball not saying a word to each other. They’re not telling me anything and it kind of unnerved me because I didn’t know what was going through their minds. And finely one of them piped up and said, “Look Cox, we landed at Sicily and Salerno a few months ago and the coxswain put us off in about three or four feet of water, and we’re telling you, you better not do that today.”
“Oh man, hey, you’re not going to get an argument out of me.” I’m no fool. That guy’s standing there with a loaded Thompson sub-machine gun and I’m going to get in an argument with him. I told myself, “There’s no way”. So I assured him I’d give it my best shot. Well as we are going along they had an Army lieutenant standing right in front of me and he was a Chaplain no less, and every once in a while in the heat of battle I’d notice his face was white as a sheet so I figured, “Boy, does he have a bad case of nerves but don’t we all.” But what I should have known, the poor guy was seasick and of course being jammed in there as he was he did the only thing he could do. He just stuck his head out over the side of the boat, up to the wind, and of course as you might imagine it was the windward side and I caught it all in the face, and the problem was I couldn’t see how to drive the boat and I didn’t want to loose my position because that could cause all kind of problems. So my trusty Motor Mac, seeing my dilemma he reached over and got a bucket of seawater and said, “Close your eyes Boats”, and I said, “They’re already closed. Man, hit me!” So, boy, he hits me with this bucket of seawater and he said, “Do you want another one?” I said, “Yes, that was strong medicine.” So he hit me a second time and with this all these kids in the Army, they bust out laughing and it was the thing that it took in the heat of battle for them to probably dispel their fears to the thought that, “Well if the kid can take this I guess he’ll get us in safely.” And it came to pass that I did get them in, no problems or whatever. Now once doing that . . . and to deploy the 12 boats, what would happen, we were trained that six of them were deployed to the starboard, the other six would deploy to the port, and making room for the other . . . as quick as we got away there was another 12 boats right behind us and all the way out to sea.
It was then I saw the two stars on his shoulder So as we’re going back to the ship . . . I have a confession to make. I know now I’ve got to go 12 miles to find the Bayfield. I didn’t hurry. I took my time because in those few short hours I’d come to realize that as soon as I get back to the ship it’s another load of whatever and it’s back to the beach again, and I thought, “Man, I’ve done my part for the day. I don’t want to push my luck anymore. Let somebody else take a shot at this.” It was to no avail because it was my luck when I got back to the ship they promptly hailed me to go back to the after starboard boom where arriving there….they were loading a vehicle down into my boat, and of course with three foot seas it would kind of bounce around. Well I get this thing onboard and I kind of like turn to the sergeant and say, “Okay Sergeant, what’s the game plan”, and he said, “Well just go around over to your loading gangway and we’ll go pick up the boss.” I said, “Okay, that’s fine.” I said, “Pick up who?” “Well you’ll find out when you get there.” “Okay”, big deal. So I go around and as I approach the gangway they’ve got this little fellow, kind of short in statue. It kind of reminded me to this day of Clark Gable. He had a mustache sort of like Clark. But he’s standing there, man, and he’s jiggling around on this wooded platform from the ship’s gangway, paused to jump onboard and join up with whatever; just that vehicle, so fortunately my three-man crew did their job well because they went back there to catch him as he jumped into the bouncing boat in three foot seas, and to catch this soldier so that he wouldn’t fall and get a bloody nose or fall over the side or whatever, and I m so glad that they did their job so well because when he bent over to jump on the boat it was then that I saw the two stars on his shoulder. He was Major General R. O. Barton, the commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division, and I’m proud to tell you that Marvin Perrett, U.S. Coast Guard, brought him ashore safely on D-Day in my New Orleans made Higgins landing craft bearing my numbers; PA-33-21.
And then at Iwo Jima, he lost the boat that he had safely coxswained through landings at Normandy and Southern France:
So anyway, the Lieutenant tells me, “Okay. Well Marvin, you’ve got to go topside and report to the skipper the loss of the boat”, and this is like at midnight. So I said, “Okay, fine.” So I worked my way all the way . . . and I go all the way up on the flying bridge. He’s standing at the railing by himself watching the war in progress.Q: Had you been up on the flying bridge before?
Mr. Perrett: Maybe to paint the railing or something, but never in any other fashion. In fact it was interesting. They had one of the areas of the ship which was called “Officer’s Country” and you weren’t permitted there unless you were on some sort of a special assignment like polishing the brass or whatever. So no, this was new to me. So it was just the Captain and myself, man to man. So I walk up here, and like I say, he’s leaning on the rail watching the war in progress. So I walk up to him and I respectfully reported that I lost my boat and he said, “Well okay son, I’m now aware of that”, and I’m expressing concern that I had lost this vital piece of equipment because I figured then and there he was going to probably tell me I’m going to spend some time in the brig to think it over, you know, what happened, or maybe, “Were you Coxswain? Okay, you’re a Seamen 1st Class.” I thought I was going to get busted. But in any event, to my surprise, he kind of like turned and said, “Well okay son”, he said, “Don’t worry about.” He said, “We’re going to probably loose some more of these boats before it’s over.” I said, “Aye aye Sir”, and he said, “All I want you to do now is just go down and get some rest. Your crew is alright?” “Oh yes, we came out without a scratch.” “Well okay, that’s fine.” He said, “All I want you to do is go down, lay below, get some rest and be prepared to relieve other crews as necessary.” I said, “Aye aye Sir.” “Carry on.” That was it. And that was Iwo Jima.
Marvin Perrett died peacefully at home. Fair winds and following seas, shipmate.
Thank you for sharing his story.