A Bronze Star for Idahoan's golden years

Lewiston TribuneApril 29, 2013 

It was 68 years ago this month, as clear to Dwight Staley as though it was yesterday.

He speaks simply of the violence and the death he saw on Okinawa during the final months of World War II’s battle for the Pacific, and of the actions that entitled him to the Bronze Star medal that was finally presented earlier this month at an American Legion Post No. 27 ceremony.

More than a quarter of a million people died on Okinawa between April 1 and June 21, 1945, including about 150,000 Okinawans, a third of their population and most of them civilians. About 110,000 Japanese died, many of them by their own hands rather than surrender, including the general in charge of the land battle.

“On Okinawa, we saw Japanese run into caves and blow themselves up,” said Staley, now 87. “On Saipan, they jumped over cliffs. They had been told we didn’t take prisoners, but we did.”

Staley, a native of Lapwai, and operator of the Tip Top Cafe in North Lewiston for 45 years until he retired in 1999, was drafted in December 1943. When school was out the next spring, he was sworn into the U.S. Army and eventually assigned to the 96th Infantry Division, the “Deadeyes.”

He downplays his own part in the division’s battles on Saipan and Okinawa.

It was just one of those things, Staley said.

He doesn’t like to talk about it, said his son-in-law, David Morton of Lewiston. “I think with him, a lot of his buddies died. He doesn’t want to celebrate it because of them.”

But Morton had checked, and knew Staley was entitled to the Bronze Star, a Presidential Unit Citation and other service medals he had never received.

Morton, a 21-year Air Force veteran, wrote to the national records center in St. Louis. He was told many WWII records were destroyed in a fire in 1972. He was referred to someone at Army headquarters. Finally, eight months later, the medals arrived.

He was luckier than many, Staley said.

The Allies threw some 200,000 men at Okinawa, intending to use it as a base for the invasion of Japan.

Staley never even got a nick in all that fighting that went on, said his companion of 35 years, Rita. She tells him that the only reason he survived is because he’s short and slender, “not tall and broad and more of a target.”

Maybe his luck was foretold, he said.

They were on a boat, waiting their turn to land. “I had a deck of cards. I said if I’m going to live through this, I’m going to get an ace.” He cut the deck and turned over a big red one.

After that, the bullets might hit the guy next to him, but he was untouched, even while they cleared fox holes and spider holes, the latter, shallow one-man excavations where a sniper would hunker under a lid, waiting for his chance to kill.

Staley said he saw one that had been abandoned and he was about to put his pack down, intending to clean out the tumbleweeds and take shelter there himself. Something made him hesitate, he said. There was a screeching sound, a shell hit the hole squarely, “and it wasn’t there anymore.”

“It scares you more after, what I didn’t do.”

A medic was wounded by their own fire when an artillery shell was dropped behind the front lines. There’s no explaining that kind of accident, he said. “Those boys might be having a beer or two.”

However it happened, the medic was wounded, and two men picked him up, one on each side, and Staley grabbed their rifles and they hustled through the dark to help, yelling, “Hold your fire” all the way, he said.

The British and American Navy, Army and Marines suffered 50,000 casualties on Okinawa, one in four of them deaths, according to military accounts.

Allied commanders said the island battles were keys to the eventual planned invasion of Japan, providing harbors, staging areas for ground troops, and perhaps most important, airfields just 350 miles from the Japanese mainland.

Staley disagrees. They knew the atomic bomb was coming, he said. The Allies should have sat back and not attacked Iwo Jima in February or Okinawa in April.

“That would have saved 20,000 lives plus the ones that were injured. That’s too many American boys to lose for those cotton pickers. All those big wheels sitting in Washington, D.C., they don’t have to fight the war. You let the guys in the trenches decide what to do.”

The atomic bombs were dropped within weeks of the end of the fighting on Okinawa.

The first explosion, a test in the New Mexico desert, was July 16, 1945, a little more than three weeks after the surrender on Okinawa. Hiroshima was three weeks later on Aug. 6, and three days after that on Nagasaki.

“Hey, that was the best news we ever heard. We don’t know how much casualties there would have been. We would have had to kill all of them in Japan.”

Everyone had heard stories of the underground bunkers and a nation of people ordered to never surrender. “You can’t blame the Japanese people,” he said. “It was the leaders that were bad.”

He smiles at one last memory before his ship left Yokohama Harbor in Japan on the journey home. The ship was crowded and everyone was confined on board when a small boat pulled alongside. It was full of women, waving and yelling as they circled the big ship. The ship rocked from side to side as the men raced from one railing to the other, trying to keep them in sight.

When guys have been overseas a couple years, they get a little excited, Staley said.

He came home and went to work for Potlatch Forests Inc. until 1954. When he finally closed the Tip Top in 1999, he and Rita continued to live in their small home behind the drive-in, where his paintings, done in the style of TV artist Bob Ross and others, and Rita’s wind-chime collection fill it with color and music.

Lee may be contacted at slee@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.

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