World War II

John J. Duane

World War II Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps, 1st Marine Division
Date: August 7, 2001
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: John Heilmann
Veterans History Project


John Duane

A Jersey City native, born in 1922, Jack Duane was employed at several odd jobs after high school before beginning work for his father as an apprentice steam-fitter. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps one month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on his 20th birthday, completing basic training on Parris Island, South Carolina in 1942. Duane commented that his training was much less comprehensive than the modern version, concentrating on marching in formation and weapons training. He only had one day of amphibious operations training, which did not include instruction on how to disembark from a transport ship to a landing craft. Following his stint at Parris Island, Duane and his fellow Marines were shipped to New Zealand, where they remained for ten days before moving on to Guadalcanal.

Duane served on Guadalcanal in the 1st Marine Division’s 11th Regiment’s 3rd Battery “G” Company as a machine gunner (The 11th Regiment was the USMC artillery unit) from August 7 through December 15, 1942. The initial Marine invasion of Guadalcanal had encountered minimal resistance from the Japanese; but, that resistance had steadily stiffened, and Japanese aircraft frequently strafed the static anchored transport ships. Duane recalled that one enemy plane flew so close that he could have thrown his helmet and hit the pilot as he flew by. After their ship’s landing, the Marines were stationed at the recently captured Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal—later renamed Henderson Field—to protect it from a Japanese counter-attack. The airfield was subject to frequent heavy bombardment from the air as well as naval gunfire. The only form of protection that Duane and his company had from these attacks was an earthen barrier that they had constructed when they arrived. Despite the constant danger, Duane considered his assignment to be safer than that of other Marines in his division, who had to fight in the jungle, since he had better access to food and water.

Flag of the 1st Marine Division’s 11th Regiment.

One of Duane’s recollections of his service on Guadalcanal was of a prank he and other Marines played on an unsuspecting friend. A peacefully sleeping Marine awoke terrified when Jack and the others began shouting at him in faux-Japanese. Reacting on instinct, the disorientated Marine quickly reached for his rifle, only to have it kicked away from him by a Corporal who possessed more sense than Duane and his friends did at the moment. By December, the Marines were replaced by US Army units, and Duane remembered his feelings of pity for the soldiers, as many them were older than he was and likely had families waiting at home. After leaving Guadalcanal, the 1st Marine Division was stationed in Australia for five months, and the men were treated to exceptional hospitality from a grateful people.

Following its sojourn in Australia, the 1st Marine Division was shipped to New Guinea for additional training prior to the Cape Gloucester/New Britain campaign. Duane served on New Britain from December 1943 to May 1944. As at Guadalcanal, his artillery battery was among the last Marines to come ashore. By the time the unit joined the rest of the division, Japanese forces had already withdrawn to their base at Rabaul. Duane’s unit was ordered to set up a defensive line to protect the artillery and fend off any potential enemy counter-attack. The campaign occurred during the region’s rainy-season; on New Britain it rained nearly every day for five months. Duane only fired a weapon twice during his time at Cape Gloucester. The first time was a negligent discharge, which happened after a fellow Marine returned Duane’s carbine with the safety off. The second time was when Duane shot a hole through a spare helmet. After the island was finally declared secure, the division had a brief respite and then headed to Peleliu.

Marine machine gun team on Peleliu.

The battle of Peleliu began on September 15, 1944. The first troops to hit the beaches were subjected to heavy mortar fire and suffered serious casualties. Duane’s unit had its landing delayed longer than usual, as the beach was not yet clear. The waiting loaded landing craft soon become prime targets for Japanese mortar and artillery fire. Under heavy fire, Duane and his comrades decided to jump out off their boat and try their luck at wading ashore, rather than be killed. Duane recalled that, upon reaching the shore safely, he was dumbstruck by the number of dead and wounded Marines on the beach. Once the beach was cleared, the Marines pushed inland towards Peleliu’s airfield. Although supported by a few tanks, Marine infantry suffered heavy casualties while fighting their way across the airfield with little to no cover.

One detail of the battle that Duane remembered graphically was the geology of the island; Peleliu was composed of hard coral that was next to impossible to dig into with standard entrenchment tools; thus, the Marines could not dig-in for cover during the airfield fight. It seemed that every inch of the island was defended by Japanese pillboxes and concealed firing positions. Without cover or the ability to create it, the advancing Marines had no choice but to continue the assault. The infantry would fire a few rounds or lob in a grenade into enemy bunkers, often not clearing them before moving on. Duane’s unit was assigned to double-check these emplacements to ensure that their occupants were in fact dead. The Marines’ orders were simple – take no prisoners. There was nowhere on the island suitable for holding prisoners; and, it was Duane’s impression that there was nothing new that could be learned from interrogations. The Japanese, however, were just as adamant not to be taken prisoner. Duane considered himself lucky, as all the emplacements he checked only contained dead Japanese soldiers.

Marines in the muck at Cape Gloucester.

The only moment of possible levity during the fighting came when Duane and a buddy were setting up their machine gun to fire upon a bunker; and, when he opened an ammunition box he found several cans of peaches rather than belts of ammo! Fortunately, the bunker was cleared by a passing Marine who wasn’t carrying produce! Its lightheartedness short-lived, Duane’s memory turned dark. In searching for a place to sit and eat their newfound peaches, he and his friend sat down on a tarp that they assumed was covering equipment. To their horror, they discovered that it was being used to cover the remains of their comrades. The memory haunted Duane for the rest of his life, and would resurface every time he was watching a baseball game and the Yankees had to cover the playing field with a tarp when it rained.

The Peleliu airfield secured, Duane’s company established a defensive line with three machine-gun positions in case the Japanese launched a “banzai” counterattack. The hills overlooking the Marine position were honeycombed with hidden Japanese firing positions, some hiding anti-tank artillery, which would occasionally pick off passing trucks. Despite having a clear view of the Marine artillery, the Japanese never fired directly at Duane’s position, which was something that puzzled him for years to come.

The fighting then moved into the hills. The Japanese had tunneled through the entire island like a colony of ants; they would pop up everywhere, often behind advancing troops before scurrying away underground. The only way to neutralize the enemy combatants was to throw grenades into every hole and shoot whoever came out. Duane’s unit was assigned to guard an inlet the Japanese would occasionally cross. After some enemy soldiers were shot, they stopped using that trail, and Duane seized the opportunity to jump into the water and bathe away thirty-three days of accumulated grime.

Jack Duane’s service on Peleliu lasted over a month, and it was the last combat he participated in. He recalled that it was the fiercest fighting and the most awful overall experience of his life. The average temperature on the island was 110 degrees. To make matters worse, the Marine Corps had a difficult time getting fresh water to the island, leading the entire division to suffer from dehydration. On October 21, 1944, Duane and his unit headed back to the United States. After landing in San Diego, he and his fellow Marines boarded a train headed to the southwest for additional training. During the train ride, however, Duane began displaying symptoms of malaria, and he was given permission to return home to Jersey City to recover. He then spent the remaining months of the war on guard duty in the Brooklyn Naval Yard.

After the war, Duane took advantage of the GI Bill to acquire a Bachelor’s degree from Montclair State College, and then a Master’s Degree from Rutgers University. He subsequently taught and coached basketball in the Asbury Park school system and then the Deal school system, retiring in 1984.

John J. Duane passed away on February 1, 2010.