Staff Photo: Erin Evans. Left, Ralph Dunlap shows off a scrapbook of his service in the Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Dunlap enlisted when he turned 18 and serve in Marine Recon throughout the war. He swam or landed on many enemy-held islands and atolls to scout out Japanese defensive positions and potential landing areas for invading forces. Right, Dunlap in an undated photo when he served during the war.
CONYERS -- Pennsylvanian Ralph Dunlap wanted to enlist after graduating from high school in 1943, but at 17 years old he needed his parents' permission. Their reply was a resounding, "No!"
Undeterred, Dunlap became a United States Marine on his 18th birthday. After basic training Dunlap volunteered for Marine Recon training at New River, N.C. He said with a smile, "It was the first, and last time, I volunteered for anything in the Marine Corps."
Marine Recon training required a precise IQ and the physical aptitude to swim at least 100 yards in order to obtain information on enemy beaches and offshore reefs, report the nature and location of beach obstacles, heights of any cliffs behind the beaches, the suitability of the beach for the landing of Higgins Boats, to scout enemy defenses, and do all this without being detected, armed only with a Ka-Bar knife.
"We passed through the Panama Canal enroute to the Pacific for more training in Hawaii," Dunlap said. "On Maui, we were instructed on how to use rubber boats to sneak onto beaches."
Dunlap and his unit reconnoitered the beaches on the island of Tinian for his first assignment, Dunlap said, "There was an airfield on Tinian that we needed to secure for the B-29 air war against the Japanese homeland. It was from Tinian that the B-29 bombers Enola Gay and Boxx Car were destined to deliver the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
The island of Iwo Jima developed into an unconventional assignment for Marine Recon. Normally the first to go in, Dunlap and his fellow warriors didn't hit the beaches until D-day plus two.
"I remember Iwo," Dunlap said. "The beach was black volcanic ash, no white sand. The best way I can describe the ash softness is "coffee grounds" that were impossible to dig into for protection. I still can picture the destroyed equipment all over the beach, and the row after row of bodies. They didn't have time to bury the dead; there was only time for survival."
Iwo Jima was a small volcanic spot in the Pacific Ocean that is 11/2 miles wide and barely 3 miles long and claimed 6,821 American lives. For the Marine Corps the island had the distinction of being the highest casualty rate of any engagement in their proud history.
After two days of remorseless combat, Dunlap and his unit were abruptly pulled off Iwo Jima. For the men of Marine Recon, they thought their war was over. Dunlap clarified the thought.
"The Japanese were hiding in caves and underground fortifications, so there wasn't much to recon on the island," he said. "Plus, with the ferocity of the combat we thought we'd been in the last battle of the Pacific. We figured we were headed home."
Their high hopes were crushed after boarding a naval destroyer. Marine Recon's next port-of-call: Okinawa.
"That ended up a horrific battle," Dunlap said. "We landed on Easter Sunday, the first of April 1945, the first in and the first out, because we still had to reconnoiter numerous smaller islands around Okinawa."
Dunlap and his unit were on Ie Shima off Okinawa on April 18, 1945, the day that "the soldier's reporter" Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by a sniper's bullet.
"The news about Ernie spread like wildfire," Dunlap said. "He was our reporter, the guys loved him."
Dunlap and his Marine buddies hit the beaches in their rubber boats in the dead of night for over two years before the war ended.
Some of the island battlefields are well documented like Guadacanal, Tinian, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. But there are many tropical atolls, coral reefs and jagged rock-strewn islands that are not as well known.
Places like Kuma Shima, Eniwietok, Kangoku Rock, Kutuka Shima, and dozens of other picturesque yet perilous Pacific Isles have gentle winds and balmy climates but also the countless graves of American boys. Dunlap remembers the names; he landed on all of them.
Veterans have a tendency to downplay their heroic contributions in the many conflicts this great nation has endured, and Dunlap is no exception. Armed with only a Ka-Bar knife, Marine Recon fought their way across the Pacific as pathfinders for the fully-loaded Higgins Boats that followed with other 18-year-old soldiers; praying, dreaming of home, thinking of a mother, missing their sweetheart. Dunlap paved their way with 52 beach landings, for a monthly Marine salary of $50.
Retired in 1990 from Ohio Art, the makers of Etch-a-Sketch, Dunlap stays busy at the age of 86 as a local battery representative.
"I've made a good living and I still enjoy working. This country has been good to me," he said.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.