Marvin Keith Jensen
Private 1st Class – U.S. Marine Corp,
USS Mississippi – Anti Aircraft Gunner & Guard
World War II (1942-1945)
At an early age, Marvin Keith Jensen was earning the respect of his fellow cowboys and ranch hands in Williams, California. Born in 1923, he grew up on a ranch. He went to school by day and worked on the ranch after school and during his summers, bailing hay, herding cattle and trail driving. His work ethic and ability to hold his own amongst the toughest of men may have been the perfect preparation for what was to come and for becoming a United State Marine.
His father was a blacksmith and ran their farm. His mother was a Cherokee Indian and also worked on the ranch, cooking and cleaning for the ranch hands, cowboys and Indians. Some days she would cook for as many as forty to fifty men. He grew up during the Great Depression and reminisces about his youth, doing what had to be done, to get by: “We had to work because there would be no food to eat. It was a miserable period in history … but we got along. We’d shoot jack rabbits and deer and things like that.” He graduated high school and enlisted in the Marines right after the Pearl Harbor attack. He was still seventeen, so his mother had to sign release papers. At this time, they had so many enlistees to process, they told him to go home and wait until they called for him.
He chose the Marines because he had a girlfriend in Long Beach, California. The closest Basic Training Camp was a Marine Base in San Diego. He joined, so he could visit her. He remembers his Boot Camp, “When you’re trained, you’re trained in general. You’re not trained particularly for any outfit or any specialty. You’re trained to just go out and fight, and one of the things they do to you is to really indoctrinate the message that, a Marine won’t retreat, and a Marine can’t be killed, and so forth.” Back in 1941, corporal punishment was acceptable, and he remembers, “The sergeant was there. He carried what we would call “Sticks”, a little cane he carried under his arm…I was never hit, but I saw other people get hit, being maltreated. They were pretty rough on us.” They would rise at four a.m. and began work. They trained in calisthenics, arms routines and weaponry. They made it very clear never to call a rifle a gun. If you did, you were reprimanded. He chuckles as he said, “They make you stand with one foot in a bucket of water and do about faces and say ‘this is my rifle, and this is my gun’ (grabbing your groin) …it was kind of silly in a way.” He was quite proficient with a rifle, as he hunted all his life for food. The Marines saw that and sent him to rifle school. He remembers, “They would drill constantly; when there was nothing else to do, they’d make you drill. You’re always sleepy. You never had any sleep, and you’re always hungry, never had anything to eat, you know, …and we trained. …They trained us in everything. They picked us out, and they picked the people who could walk and train in a formation, who could drill the best. They picked those men out and sent them to a special school called C School.” Jensen was chosen for C School and became an orderly for important military men. In his position, he was at their beck and call and stood guard in front of their barracks. He said it was a very interesting position.
After C school, he was given six weeks leave where he went home, caught up on his sleep, ate mass quantities of food and suddenly realized his parents liked him after all. He returned to San Diego, but by then, the base was getting crowded, and he was sent to Treasure Island as a guard to the Brig. He was then assigned to the USS Mississippi and boarded it at Hunters Point. The ship was in San Francisco getting updated and then went on to Honolulu, Hawaii for more repairs and modernization. Aboard this battleship, he was a gunner. He was in Tarwave in the Gilbert Islands and worked on bombardments on Kwajalein and the Gilbert Islands. He remembers, “We saw for the first time these huge shells…They come out of the guns, and you’d think you don’t see them, but you do. They’re wobbling through the air, they hit the water, and they skip like rocks. It’s dangerous being around those guys.” He did the same thing in Peleliu in the Palau Islands. Jensen states, “On occasion they would take us off and send us somewhere to oversee something or to guard something or to maybe even do a little fighting, but we saw very little, very little fighting, actual fighting. Peleliu was really ….a very bad situation for the soldiers and Marines that went ashore. The Marines went ashore first of course, and as usual, all of our information was wrong. The islands were just ridden with tunnels and caves and so forth that all connected, very scientifically done, and the guns were placed exactly where our intelligence said they wouldn’t be, and so it was a pretty rough hassle.”
He describes the evolution of the Kamikaze pilots; “They would dive on you and just keep coming after they dropped their bombs. This was later in the war. In the beginning, they didn’t do that. They were like regular pilots, like the American pilots, and they tried to survive, but when things started getting tough, and their aircraft started being shot down and minimized, then they started the suicide tactic.”
In the Lingayen Gulf, Jensen’s battleship, the USS Mississippi, was hit by a Japanese suicide plane on the port side navigation bridge. It bounced off his gun mount and went over the side. Twenty-two men were killed that day, and eighteen men were injured including Jensen. He remembers, “We had been in ten or fifteen engagements there, and these were the Japanese coming in. We’d try to stop them from crashing into us. The suicide planes were deadly. They’d come out of the sun, and you can’t hear them until you see the water right beside your ship go up in a big geyser. Then you’d hear the roar of the motors and. …When the roar of the motor started, you’re all over. You didn’t know what to do because you couldn’t see anything, and you actually never saw the plane. You’d just see a dark shape going there and up, that big geyser of water would go up, and then the roar of a plane would come catch up with it, catch up with the plane much faster than sound, and it really scared you. But we survived. There were many that did not; I think fifteen men were killed on my gun. I was on it…” Jensen received a Purple Heart for this. He was burned in the explosion.
He reflects on his feeling for General MacArthur; “The Marine Corps tries to think they are the best in the world; there is nothing, nothing, you can’t tell me that I can’t do… that’s the way they were. We were not only effective; we won the war. I mean, that’s all there is to it. MacArthur was hated by most of the Marines… Ernie Piles asked him, and it was never put in the paper or never written about…Why did he always use Marines to make the landings, the dangerous landings and so forth instead of soldiers? He said, ‘Well, Marines and toilet paper are the two things I have the most to dispense with.’ So, no Marine liked MacArthur, and I hated him, even though we won the war for him. Literally…. He was a great general; I would have to admit it…you can’t put him down, but he shouldn’t have made that remark.”
Though he was far from home, he was able to correspond with his family and kept a diary of his time away. The letters were small, only about three by four inches in little envelops. He still has them as well as sketches in his diaries.
Jensen received his second Purple Heart when, as he describes, “our turret blew up … we were bombarding in the Philippines in Leyte Gulf, I think, and that’s the only time that battleship that I was on fired a full broadside. They fired them at the Japanese, who were actually coming at us, and I was on my way to go inside. I think the Sergeant told me to go batten the hatch or something. So, I went in to close the door and put the cogs down. They were big, big screws you turn, and I got to the door and shoved it closed and just started to batten it down. Then the guns went off and …. I don’t remember anything other than that… a explosion blew the door open, which was steel, about 4 inches of steel, and it hit me in the face and knocked me down. Half off the ship and I came to and guys were pulling me off the side of the ship. I was falling out, out off the gun deck. But then afterwards, they just patched me up. I went back to the gun, and for years, my ears rang from that, and I couldn’t hear. The explosion was horrendous, and it was a mistake that the managers on the ship made. They should have told us all to go inside.” Jensen feels the Navy should have warned his captain. He feels his injury could have been avoided with better communication between our own Armed Forces.
Also, during his tenure, he witnessed General MacArthur ‘s famous speech on Red Beach during the height of the Leyte invasion. His ship was anchored right next to the beach, and he watched all the soldiers go ashore. He recalls, “There’s a famous photo of MacArthur walking out of the landing craft. …into the water and going up the beach, making that speech about people in the Philippines, ‘I have returned…’ and we were right near him. We saw him do that, and we jeered at him.”
The USS Mississippi was soon ordered to leave the Philippines and deployed back to Honolulu for modernization. Jensen went through further training and was made a Military Policeman to guard prisoners. His prisoners were murderers that had killed other soldiers. The prisoners had the duty to clean the Officers Club. Over time, Jensen and the prisoners became friendly, and one morning, they were cleaning up after a big party for the General. They left out some hard liquor, and he and the five prisoners swiped it. He was an enlistee and was not allowed hard alcohol. Jensen figured it was an island, so where could the prisoners really go? So, they went to the sand dunes and drank it. He heard the bugle and knew he had to get the prisoners back to the brig. He got every-one up. They were all wobbly, and he pulled them together and herded them to the brig. By the time they got there, he had them marching. He remembers: “We stopped as we’re supposed to. When you come back to a brig, you stop at the bottom of the stairs; then the sergeant checks you out, and then he gives you permission to go, to run up the stairs. The chasers, that’s what you’re called, the chaser, prison chaser. So, we all run up behind, up those stairs, and I go up behind the prisoners. They got to the top step, and one guy went down; the rest of us went over him.” Jensen was given only ten days of bread and water for this episode. But this time, it was not so bad. The prisoners slipped him sandwiches and candy bars, things you are not supposed to have. They even offered him beer one time, which he declined. He did not know how they had access to everything or where they stashed it. He conducted searches every day and never saw it.
He was decorated with two Purple Hearts with an area ribbon, a Pacific Campaign medal, American Campaign medal, Victory WWII medal, and Honorable Service and Discharge, Marine.
After his release at Mare Island, he was relieved of duty. He was tired of the discipline and took advantage of the GI bill. He attended art school. He remembers the first thing he did when he came home was to have fresh produce. He and some friends went to a restaurant and ordered big salads with a big platter of tomatoes. He describes, “It was so good, but our systems were not use to it and we all got so sick.” His homecoming was reflective of his no nonsense life he lived on the ranch. He recalls, “I went to the ranch, between Williams and Colusa… and when I walked up to the door and started to walk in, my mother was there. She knew I was coming, and she said, ‘Oh, hello honey, come on in.’ That’s it. I didn’t expect anything else, and in a way, it sort of hurt you know… We were told not to expect anything great.”
After graduating from college he became a house painter then a journeyman in the carpenters union. He was building an art gallery in San Francisco when he met his wife, Shawn. She changed his life for the better, and he is very happy now.
When asked what was the toughest part of his service, two incidences came to mind. The first was a Dear John letter he received from a gal he was madly in love with. He remembers that he couldn’t do anything about it. The second was when he accidentally shot down an American plane. He painfully remembers that he was operating a 20-millimeter machine gun, anti-aircraft, which fires pretty large shells. He was engaged in a battle, and planes were coming in. The Japanese suicide planes had a trick. They would get in the formation of the American planes, which were coming in, and just as they were going over an airfield, would drop out and suicide. Jensen saw this plane come up, and then it turned and came down toward him. He didn’t spend any time trying to recognize him; he looked like he was going to suicide. Jensen remembers, “So I was back there shooting like crazy at this guy, and he wobbled, he was wobbly, and I was going to try to bring him down before he hit us. I saw him coming closer; I took my earphones off so I could get away from the gun. I unstrapped myself from the gun, and I kept pouring those shells right into the cockpit and right into the motor. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Boy, I got to get out of here,’ and just as I was about to get out, the plane was fifty feet from me. I saw it turn on its side and go into the water. I saw the stars on it, and I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’ve had it’… They had been yelling cease fire, cease fire, but I couldn’t hear them; I had taken my phones off and they said, ‘Jensen, report to the gunnery office,’ and that was it. …. They took my stripes away from me, and they made me a private again. You don’t make mistakes in the Marines, you know.”
When reflecting about the war and if he would have done things differently, he is not sure if he would do it all over again, but, he was very young and did what his country asked of him. He states, “I was good at what they told me to do… I did it and was proud of what I did.”
Interview by Peter Jake Daniels on June 23, 2014