Veteran recalls struggle for Guam

Tom Strickler was a combat medic during World War II. He saw action in Guadalcanal, the Marshall Islands and Guam. Photo courtesy of Phil Fravel

STEPHENS CITY – Tom Strickler experienced the island of Guam in a way that few Americans will ever know.

Guam’s website promises tourists immaculate golf courses, stunning sunsets, majestic ocean views, and friendly inhabitants, all at a distance of almost 4,000 miles west of Hawaii.

But Guam, 32 miles long and 12 miles wide, was also and remains to this day a strategic military and economic crossroads between Asia and North America. In 1944, it was the only U.S. territory occupied by Japanese forces, an occupation that ended after Strickler and thousands of his fellow Marines stormed the picturesque beaches on the morning of July 21, 1944.

Strickler climbed down cargo nets on the side of a troop transport ship and descended into an amphibious landing craft that took him ashore.

“It was a noisy time, I can tell you,” Strickler recalled of the cacophony of weapons around him.

“The heaviest fire was several hundred yards ahead of us,” he added. “As we went across the beach, there were mortar shells exploding but they were small and sparse. They were spaced a lot. You could hear the Japanese machine guns, which had a distinctive sound and you could hear our 30-caliber water-cooled machine guns answer them.”

Strickler, a Front Royal resident, was a combat medic. A Navy draftee, he was later transferred from a Boston hospital into the Marines, which proved to be his ticket to the Pacific war.

Strickler survived fighting on Guadalcanal and the Marshall Islands unscathed. The struggle for Guam, which lasted roughly three weeks, was a sterner test.

A combat medic may be called upon to provide emergency medical treatment to the wounded, sometimes under fire in open battlefield spaces.

“There were a lot of cries for help,” Strickler said. “You didn’t have much time to think.”

Strickler was born in Richmond in 1924 and moved to Front Royal when he was 11. He was working at a gas station at the time he was drafted into the Navy. He enjoyed his stint as a nurse at the Boston hospital more than anything else he did in the military.

“I did everything a nurse does, but I didn’t have as much tender loving care,” he quipped. “It was a good experience. I really enjoyed that.”

In Guam, he remembers tending to “a few” wounded Marines on the beach.

“Most of them had been brought back to the ships on stretchers,” Strickler recalled. “They didn’t leave them on the beach very long.

“I remember when we went across the beach that morning, we stopped to tend to a wounded Marine. The stretcher bearers had brought him in and set him down temporarily and, after we had gone 100 yards or so, we heard a big explosion behind us, and we looked back, and there wasn’t anything but disturbed earth where the Marine had been.”

Three or four days later, Strickler received a head wound that he downplays but it was deemed serious enough to end his military career a few months later.

“We were inland quite a ways from the shore, and there was an explosion,” Strickler said. “A piece of shrapnel hit me in the helmet, but it was small. It didn’t make a dent or scar.

“But after that, the next thing I remember, I was on the beach briefly, and I don’t remember anything, but they put me on the hospital ship, and that was the end of my combat I’m glad to say.”

Strickler was sent to Hawaii for further treatment before he was cleared to return home, a voyage he recalls with great fondness.

“The best sight I remember in my career was when we got back toward the United States, and we could see this glow on the horizon, and it was San Francisco,” Strickler said. “And in another hour or so, you could see the lights, and in another hour we were under the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Soon he was back in Front Royal where he entered the electronics business, selling and repairing televisions and other merchandise for 35 years.

Strickler and other World War II veterans will be part of a living history event planned for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 11-12 at the American Military Heritage Museum, formerly Sandy’s Implement Service, 811 Fairfax Pike east of Stephens City.

World War II re-enactors and museum displays will be featured all day June 11. A display of military vehicles from the era is scheduled for 2 p.m. June 12. Veterans in attendance are invited to sign the museum’s roll of honor.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com