John Murray Fox
Colonel – U.S. Marine Corps, 24th Regiment,
4th Marine Division, “C” Company; Battalion Headquarters Company; and Headquarters and Service Company
of the 24th Regiment
World War II (1942-1946)
John Murray Fox, 91, of Greenbrae, California is a humble veteran of World War II. You would never know that he was a battle worn veteran of Iwo Jima and three other campaigns in the Pacific. Despite a desire to serve in the Foreign Service upon graduation from Georgetown University, a different plan unfolded for Fox after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Like all young men in the 1940s, Fox joined the military. His survival during World War II can be attributed to Fox’s expert rifle skills honed at Georgetown, superior leadership abilities, and the innate ability to creep and crawl his way through the Pacific virtually unscathed.
Fox was born on September 23, 1920 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Born into an affluent family, Fox spent his childhood in Worcester and on Cape Cod. His father was a prominent doctor and his mother a housewife. As a young man, Fox attended Worcester Academy. Later, he graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. While at Georgetown, Fox joined the ROTC and the Rifle Team. The ROTC training and rifle skills learned at Georgetown, coupled with the diplomacy and leadership skills obtained through his studies, would later be instrumental in Fox’s survival in the Pacific during World War II.
Although Fox initially intended to join the Foreign Service upon graduation from Georgetown, the attack on Pearl Harbor compelled him to join the military. According to Fox, “everything seemed to be in a razzle dazzle mess in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific” at that time. Fox joined the Marine Corps in July 1942 and immediately was sent to Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. Fox joined the Marines because he appreciated the “clean and dirty attitude of the Marines toward the enemy and that was exactly what I wanted”. Fox also indicated that the Marines were a unit trained to “fight, make landings, swim into foreign areas, creep and crawl across varied terrain, and to kill”. He also felt he had a lot to offer in combat to the Marines based on his superior rifle skills. Fox’s father thought his decision to join the Marines was fine although his mother was a little shocked, but encouraging. In his initial training at Officer Candidate School, Fox claimed to have “crept and crawled everyplace…. It was very degrading training”. He explained further that he learned how to survive everything. Once Fox got into combat in the Pacific, he realized how important that training had been. According to Fox, his initial training was very effective and he had great respect for it. He survived the initial training at Quantico through “just plain hard work and personal consideration”.
While at Quantico, Fox also received special training on the operation of an 81mm mortar and the handling and leadership of a mortar platoon. The 81mm mortar was a smoothbore, high-angle fire, muzzle loading weapon that weighed 136 pounds. It was the largest weapon in the arsenal of the Marine infantry and could fire at high angles and at targets in defilade, either under direction of a forward observer, or firing off map coordinates. In the Pacific Campaign, these weapons became an important part of a weapons platoon’s firepower, especially since the men could pack it in to locations that were normally inaccessible to artillery. Fox’s special training with the 81mm mortar would later come in very handy on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima.
After completion of officer training, Fox was sent to New River, North Carolina for his first command with Company “C”, First Separate Battalion in January 1943. Fox became the leader of the company weapons platoon. The initial focus of this platoon was to fight behind the Japanese army lines in China. According to Fox, most of the enlisted personnel were fresh out of basic training and Special Weapons School. The junior officers, like himself, were all fresh out of Quantico. According to Fox, they were sent to North Carolina “washed, dried and trained”. In North Carolina, “we learned how to do what you’re told and that there was no question about what you were supposed to do”, explained Fox. He also explained that they “learned not to be wise guys”. In jest, Fox muttered that “they were all wise guys fresh out of college”. From North Carolina, Fox and his weapons platoon transferred to Camp Pendleton in California where the entire outfit was formed into the 24th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division. After the initial training in North Carolina, with the hot, cold and wet weather on flat terrain, the varied terrain and consistent weather of California was appreciated. At Camp Pendleton, Fox and his men trained across the 25,000 acres of high and low terrain. They trained hard to fight as a team and they became adjusted to the different terrain. However, after the battle in Tarawa, which was fought on very flat terrain on an island, all training tactics had to change. Thereafter, the training changed to meet the new type of hand to hand combat on flat land. In addition, all rifle battalions and companies had to change their attack plans. Fox was selected from his “C” Company to lead a special anti-pill box team. He and his men trained for five weeks to operate as a team to destroy live pill boxes. The training also involved viewing six hours of uncut footage of the invasion at Tarawa.
According to Fox, World War II was a war of huge scale. It involved more countries and men than any other war in history. The U.S. waged two wars, at the same time, on two very different parts of the world. In the Pacific Campaign, the war was fought on foreign terrain never seen before by American troops. The Marine Corps was determined to be the best equipped branch of the military to serve in the Pacific because of their unique blend of training in land to sea combat. In addition, the Marines close relationship with the Navy enabled the two fighting forces to work together and be successful. Fox emphasized, “without the Marines in the Pacific, the United States would have lost the battle against Japan”.
In the Pacific Campaign, a unique strategy was used by the U.S. in fighting the Japanese, known as “Island Hopping”. Both the ground troops and the Navy were choreographed to attack at strategic Japanese strongholds around the Pacific. The beginning of the Pacific Campaign was the Battle of Guadalcanal on August 6, 1942. The U.S. was able to claim its first victory in the Pacific with only thirty five casualties at the Battle of Tenaru River. The next battle occurred on November 20th on Tarawa. Although Tarawa was located outside the main combat zone of the Pacific, it was considered an important stronghold for the Japanese because it was located in the middle of the U.S. supply line. The massive assault was led by a wave of Marines in new assault vehicles, the Amphtracs. The invasion of Tarawa, however, was a disaster because of outdated maps and bad intelligence. The Marines had little information on the terrain of Tarawa or the forces they would encounter. The Amphtracs were unable to make a beach landing because the shore was surrounded by a barrier reef. The Marines were forced to make a 1000 yard trek in the water under open attack by the Japanese. By the end of the day, nearly a third of the troops that attempted to land on Tarawa were dead. After three grueling days of battle and the accompaniment of five U.S. destroyers, the Marines finally captured Tarawa. This battle is considered by many to be the bloodiest battle by the Marines in history. According to Fox, he lost his two uncles in this battle. He was thankful, however, for the intelligence the battle at Tarawa provided. As a result, the scope and direction of his weapons platoon’s training changed to prepare for their first assignment in the Marshall Islands.
In 1944, Fox and his platoon were sent to Namur in the Marshall Islands. At this time, Fox’s rank was Lieutenant. Shortly after landing, he and his platoon were hit with sniper fire. According to Fox, he “was scared as hell”. This fear was warranted because there were many casualties on the day of the landing including Fox’s close friend, Lieutenant Ted Johnson. Fox and his men then moved forward to the front line Japanese trenches. They proceeded to attack against the Japanese pill boxes and were able to destroy two. The platoon also searched the islands for mines and received lots of sniper fire. In the Marshall Islands, Fox and his men slept in dirt fox holes that they dug. They ate sea rations and carried two flasks in their pockets; one with water and one usually with liquor. There was no rest during this battle and down time involved repairing equipment and getting ready for another battle. According to Fox, due to the wet weather and surrounding water, it was all you could do to keep your rifle and equipment from rusting. Fox recalls communicating minimally with his family, but he had to be careful about what he said. Fox also indicated that at the time, “he felt that there was nothing we could get our hands on to satisfy what we really needed”. However, as far as the military was concerned, they were supplied sufficiently to accomplish their mission.
Fox stated, his primary instructions for the Marshall Islands Campaign were to “take the islands given the disaster at Tarawa”. It took almost a week of “snooping, peaking and fighting the enemy”, claimed Fox until they completed their mission. Finally, Fox and his men made it across the bridge from Namur to Roi and joined the 23rd Regiment where they were able to capture the Roi air field. Fox explained that he and his men “felt awful to have to kill people, but it was either them or us”. Overall, he felt his platoon consisted of great guys and their morale was great because it had to be. Although the Marshall Island Campaign was very scary, he and his men just had to shake it off. Fox indicated that he was just thankful for the new training received as a result of Tarawa. He did not receive any injuries during this campaign.
From the Marshall Islands, Fox and his platoon were sent to Maui, Hawaii for further training with the 4th Marine Division. The men trained hard and practiced mock invasions in preparation of the assaults on Saipan and Tinian. The U.S. Army Air Corps needed a landing field close to Japan in order to launch bombing raids and the Marines were ordered to take these two islands and the Japanese airfields. On June 15, 1944, Fox and his men landed on Saipan at the Charan Kanoa sugar mill. Fox noted, “It really hit the fan when we hit Saipan and it was really something else”. According to Fox, “they moved right into the Japanese artillery and they could look right down at us wherever we moved”. Fox and his men were able to survive the assault of the Japanese by constantly moving into Japanese trenches at night, and then back into the area where artillery had just landed when it was light. They moved back and forth throughout the assault which helped them avoid casualties. At this time, Fox was still a First Lieutenant bordering on Captain. Fox explained that he had a rifle company and a heavy weapons company simultaneously, and most of their early duties in Saipan involved very close, man to enemy combat.
After this initial assault, Fox and his men headed for the 0-1 line being defended by anti-aircraft cannon from Aslito airfield and fought side by side with the men of the “C” & “B” Companies. It was very difficult to move in Saipan without getting shot at it. Fox claimed it was very inhospitable, and the Japanese also had a big air force there. Fox and his men then moved to a large sugar cane field to clear the Japanese. They used mortar at 50 feet, and finally 25 feet, coupled with the riflemen, to clear the area. Next, Fox was ordered to break through the Japanese lines to reach Magicienne Bay. The “A” & “B” Companies were located above the “C” Company on the island and advanced at different levels. Communication was lost between the companies and when they arrived at an open spot, they were hit by heavy fire from the Japanese. Many of the men were wounded and killed. Fortunately, Fox was able to crawl safely to the Company radio to request relief which arrived within an hour. However, the wounded men evacuated from the area were later hit by U.S. fire and many were killed.
According to Fox, “C” Company was in constant battle with the Japanese and they were able to successfully push the Japanese to the end of Saipan. The Aslito Airfield was also successfully captured. The success at Saipan came at a great cost to the U.S. According to Fox, he and his men “never got into bed, were awake whenever we could stay awake because the Japanese assault was heavy. We crept and crawled literally to go from here, to there.” Fox also explained that “there was nothing but killing and there was a reason for that, we wanted to stay alive. That was the only reason. There was so much shooting.” Fox further explained that he was “scared as hell”. “There was no living life in Saipan and we wanted those trenches badly. It was the only way to survive and we had a lot of respect, for a lot of things we never thought about before. We finally fought our way out of the trenches and moved our outfit forward while others had to just stand still and wait for us to get that forward movement done”, noted Fox with some weariness. The entire operation was exhausting claimed Fox and everyone felt the same way. However, they were also ready to survive at all costs. One of the tragedies of the battle at Saipan was the loss of Japanese soldiers and civilians to suicide. The Japanese inhabitants of Saipan had been brainwashed that the U.S. was evil and they chose to jump off cliffs and soldiers forced women and babies down the cliffs and drowned them to avoid capture by the Americans. Fox estimated that 2,000 lives were lost in this unnecessary mass suicide/murder. After this horrible end to the Battle of Saipan and thirty days straight of fighting, it took Fox and his men two more days to fight their way back to their assigned rest area.
After Saipan, Fox and his men joined the assault on Tinian in July of 1944. According to Fox, he and his men spent nine days on Tinian fighting every inch of the way. Their primary job was to stay alive. It was a close in fight and Fox’s emphasis was to make sure his men weren’t uselessly used. Again, Fox and his men crept and crawled across the island. Fox exclaimed, “if you wanted to stay alive, you kept your head down and it was kind of scary”. Fox also noted, “there was no opportunity to show how brave you were or anything like that”. His orders were to just take Tinian. During the assault on Tinian, a Japanese machine gun opened fire on Fox and his men while they were in a tractor 100 yards off shore. Two of Fox’s men were killed, and five men including Fox were wounded. Fox was hit in the head and evacuated for treatment. Fox felt the Army tent hospital was not secure and he returned to the front lines to the safety of his Company. Fox returned immediately to patrol duties with the accompaniment of twelve non-commissioned officers. He claims to have regained his confidence and he and these men eliminated twenty three of the enemy on this patrol. Despite his injury, Fox felt the battle at Tinian was less grueling than Saipan because it was a fairly clear island. Fox and his men felt better than they did at Saipan. They were very proud of their operation at Tinian because they lost fewer men. “Everything seemed to work the way it was supposed to”, claimed Fox. By this time in the Pacific Campaign, Fox felt the morale of his men was kind of blah. There wasn’t any get up and go. Fox noted, “there was only just so much you can pull out of a man”. Although Fox and his men were proud of their service and selves, they were sick and tired of fighting. Despite their slight despair, Fox and his men just bore in as tough as they could and forged on. As a result of his injury and bravery at Tinian, Fox was awarded a Bronze Star. After Tinian, Fox was transferred to the Battalion Headquarters Company where again he was made a platoon leader.
The next big battle for the Marines was their most famous, Iwo Jima. While Saipan and Tinian provided the U.S. with key airfields close to Japan, the Air Corps needed to be closer to Japan to limit casualties and expense. Iwo Jima was an eight square mile volcanic island located between Saipan and Tinian and the Japanese mainland. The primary goal of the battle was to capture Mount Suribachi, a heavily fortified part of the island. By February of 1945, the military had 250, 000 U.S. troops set for the invasion and the battle was expected to be the biggest battle of the Pacific. According to Fox, Iwo Jima was his fourth major landing. He was battle weary, but prepared to go on. Fox claimed that by this point in the Pacific campaign, “you are so well trained that you know exactly what you have to do and you have no time to be scared”. Fox and his new platoon trained hard and practiced the invasion over and over again. Fox also knew based on his prior three campaigns that they would be landing much closer to Japan and the stakes were high. Fox felt he had to come up with a plan to fight under conditions that had not been seen before and would most likely be very severe. Fox had several veteran Marines in his platoon, battalion base fire, and 81 mm mortars to back him up. Little did he know, the battle at Iwo Jima would last more than thirty days and would be far worse than anything Fox and his men had ever experienced.
The battle on Iwo Jima began with the Navy bombarding the island with ten days of shelling. The goal was to break up all Japanese defenses before the Marines landed. The shelling did not affect the Japanese and as the first wave of Marines landed on February 19, 1945, the Japanese troops attacked. The Marines made their way through 1,000 yards of defense to the base of Mount Suribachi. By evening, thirty thousand Marines were ashore on Iwo Jima and 2,000 had been killed. The battle was so fierce that the troops could only move 400 yards a day. Fox was part of this first wave and his orders were to take the mortars up to the air strip and start firing in support of “B “ Company. Fox recalls that this first day was tremendous and they had to fight up through five volcanic terraces to the island’s airstrip. Fox must have known his men would need a little extra courage because he had stockpiled his liquor rations to share with his men. As Fox recalled, he and his men arrived at the airstrip and found they were in Japanese territory with no other Marines for help. Fox further recalled that he ordered his platoon to “hit the deck” as twenty Japanese mortar shells rained in on him and his men. Fox claimed, with a twinkle in his eye, that he shouted at his gunnery sergeant, “Gunny, have the men drink the whiskey now!’ The gunnery sergeant shouted back, “for Chrissakes, they drank it before we left the ship!” This “special fortification” was apparently effective because Fox and his men successfully took command of the airstrip.
After taking the airfield, Fox and his men continued to creep and crawl their way across the island. Fox’s orders were to take the island, keep it, and make the airfields available for the Army Air Corps. Fox’s goal was to continue moving forward. “There was no place to hide”, claimed Fox, and “they just had to get the island, kill, or you were dead”. Finally, on February 23rd, the Marines planted an American flag on Mount Suribachi; it was the first sign of victory on Iwo Jima. According to Fox, “he looked up in disbelief at the flag because there was still so much unfinished work to do; the so called mopping up operations”. Unbeknownst to Fox, another 31 days of intense fighting awaited him. Fox was called on to fill in whenever an officer fell and he was easily able to assume command. By the end of the battle, Fox had assumed command of the Headquarters Company and lead them through the remainder of the battle on Iwo Jima. In other areas of the island, the Marines slowly wore down the Japanese defenses that now amounted to small groups of resistance. After six weeks of fighting, Iwo Jima was taken by the Marines. Unfortunately the battle resulted in over 6,000 U.S. deaths and 25,000 casualties. Despite the tragic losses at Iwo Jima, the battle was a huge success. The Marines training in land to sea combat gave them an edge over the land-only combat coupled with the unique strategy of Island Hopping which eventually led the U.S. to victory over Japan.
According to Fox, the battle on Iwo Jima “was terrible and no matter how much experience you had before, you were not prepared for the rocky volcanic island, the tough Japanese defense, and the tremendous amount of casualties”. Fox exclaimed, “the Japanese fought to the death”. In communications to his family after the battle on Iwo Jima, Fox explained that he was “weary of mind and with tears in his heart”. He claimed that “the good Lord watched over him and protected him; … and I feel alone, completely alone”. Fox questioned, “what do men have to do and how much must they give before they have in some partial way done their duty to country and earned a rest….” Fox also stated to his family, “there is no glory in the murder of brave men”. Fox noted with much pain that he had many memories of Iwo Jima and they were horrible. Upon completion of the assault on Iwo Jima, Fox was transferred on March 26, 1945 to the Headquarters and Service Company of the 24th Regiment where he finished out his service. The only injury Fox recalls receiving on Iwo Jima was a broken foot. He was lucky, he survived one of the fiercest battles of the century unlike many Marines. Fox eventually returned to Maui, Hawaii and was discharged in 1946 with “absolute pleasure”. Upon his discharge, Fox’s rank was Colonel and he received a bronze star, two Purple Hearts with a gold star, and numerous citations for bravery in bloody action.
After his discharge, Fox maintained friendships with the men he served with especially those men he served with on Tinian. He married and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area where he pursued a successful career as a shipping executive. Fox is currently a member of the San Francisco Marines’ Memorial Club which is a living memorial to all marines. He regularly participates in Reunions at the club with other World War II veterans. Fox and his wife currently reside in Greenbrae, California. Upon reflection of his service during World War II, Fox noted that the toughest part of his service was actually entering the military and being cut off from his past. After his arrival in the Marshall Islands, Fox also claimed that he seriously questioned what he had gotten himself into. Ever the warrior, Fox turned his fears inward and protected himself from his self doubt. Of all the Campaigns fought, Fox felt the scariest was on Iwo Jima because he was constantly out in the open getting fired on by the Japanese. His most memorable experiences, however, were of his time on Tinian when he was able to fortify his men with ample scotch whiskey. Despite the fear and stress of the Pacific Campaign, Fox felt that his sacrifices during the war were “absolutely justified because we wouldn’t be standing here now”. Fox noted, however, that his experiences in World War II did not change him or impact his outlook on life. Fox felt he was raised very well, and that while his time in the service was a new experience and he met and served with people of whom he was not accustomed; his life during the service was very similar to his upbringing in Worcester, Massachusetts. Fox was raised to believe that you just had to face life and deal with your problems just like he was taught in the Marines.
Fox would like Americans to remember the Pacific Campaign and World War II and “don’t do it again”. He advises that the U.S. should never get drawn into another world war. Fox also advised young men and women entering the military today to “make sure you are going to do, what you want to do, because once you get into a military unit, you have to do what you are told and you may not like it”. Fox further advised that all young people should “investigate what you want to do in life first, before getting into it, and always test yourself”. Fox claims he would rejoin the Marine Corps again because he “knows that it is part of the heart of the machine that was going to protect you and you were going to protect them rather than a sloppy joe deal”. Ever the valiant hero, Fox would gladly return to creeping and crawling his way across the Pacific, as long as he could do it with his fellow Marines and his pockets filled with canteens of the best scotch whiskey.
Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on June 22, 2011.