November 9, 2013

Flanagin built airstrips, survived Japanese attacks in World War II

Serves as grand marshal in Veterans Day Parade

By Mark Millican

— ELLIJAY — James “J.B.” Flanagin was resting in his tent one night after a scorching day of building airstrips on Macon Island in the Pacific heater of World War II.

“I was lying on my cot in my shorts — it was so hot and we did what we could to stay cool — when the Japanese struck back one night,” he said, explaining that after U.S. Marine infantrymen took the islands his heavy equipment unit followed right behind. “The Japs strafed and bombed the LST (Navy ship) next to the one we had come in on that was carrying ammunition. The explosion threw me off the cot and blew the top out of my tent. I could see the stars.

“The heat was so intense it melted the barrel on my M-1 rifle.”

Flanagin had a 6-foot, 5-inch tall fellow Marine named Lewendowski who grabbed him and pulled him out of the tent, and they went running to another airstrip on the other side of the island.

“On the way we fell into a bomb crater that was still hot from the attack,” he recalled. “I was still in my shorts.”

Later, he “borrowed” some clothes an infantryman had left behind on a makeshift clothesline. The explosion caused a hearing loss that stays with him to this day.

“I didn’t report it back then,” he said. “There were far more serious wounds. You would never go to sick bay and tell them your ears were ringing.”

On Saturday, Flanagin will be the grand marshal in the Veterans Day Parade in Dalton. He is also the featured speaker at the Veterans Day ceremony in front of the courthouse following the parade.

Unit ‘shot all to pieces’

A Pleasant Gap community resident for many years now, Flanagin, 89, said he grew up in Mississippi and signed up for the Marines in 1943 at age 17, but wasn’t immediately called up to serve.

“I had a brother-in-law that said, ‘You can’t join the Army — you’ve got to be a Marine, you can’t be a dogface,’” he remembered.

After being called up, he went to Marine basic training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, Calif., then it was off to American Samoa on a troop ship. After continuing to British Samoa he was assigned to Marine aviation fighter squadron VMF-111 as part of the “replacements” for the unit that was “shot all to pieces.”

Flanagin became a heavy equipment operator building airstrips, and his big friend “Lew” rode “shotgun” on the bulldozer with a weapon, keeping an eye out for Japanese soldiers who had hidden when the island was cleared. Their unit worked with Navy “Seabees” offloading heavy equipment after the heaviest fighting, following the Marines on their “island hopping” campaigns in the Pacific. But oftentimes Japanese bombers would hit the airstrips at night, blowing bomb craters in the runways, and they’d have to start anew the next day.

One of the aircraft Flanagin cleared jungle space for was the F-4U Corsair, a durable workhorse that carried three .50-caliber machine guns in each wing and also had a detachable rack that could carry a 500-pound bomb.

“They could drop their bomb and then dive and strafe,” he said.

‘Wrong branch of service!’

Flanagin was also responsible for driving a tanker truck to a “sub chaser” Navy PT boat that had a water distillery on board that converted sea water to fresh water.

“There was nothing but sea water around some of the smaller islands,” he said. “Those PT boats were loaded with ‘ash cans’ (depth charges for destroying submarines) too.”

“I was waiting while we were pumping the water one day, and some of the crew invited me down into the boat for a snack,” he said. “They had a mound of country-fried steaks on the table, and I’d been eating C-(rations). I thought, ‘Boy I went into the wrong branch of service!’”

Macon Island was next to Tarawa, a fabled island in Marine Corps fighting history. Flanagin said at low tide so Marines could walk between the two isles. He served in the Mariannas, Marshall and Gilbert island groups.

Flanagin retired from Norfolk Southern Railroad in 1985. He and his wife, Pinky, recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.