GILBERT G. RICKMAN
Master Sergeant | Marine Corps
In his last few years of service in Hawaii and Camp Pendleton, a weathered first sergeant embodied the image of the old Corp, adorned with campaign ribbons topped by a pair of jump wings and sleeves of stripes and rockers. He was present for the infamous and bloody battles that became glorified in comic books and John Wayne movies. Years at sea and on shores of Pacific islands had tanned him permanently and one wondered if he ever smiled or if he was always a cool professional. In just over twenty years of service, he had indeed “fought in every clime and place where he could take a gun - In the snow of far-off northern lands and in sunny tropic scenes,” upholding the very lore of the Marines.
For the first three years of his service, Gilbert Rickman was at sea patrolling the Atlantic coast on the U.S.S. Wichita. A goodwill cruise to South America took the young Marine to exotic locations including Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. It was the sort of romantic duty suited for seagoing Marines who thrived onboard a ship. The steel walls, bulkheads, salt spray and harsh sun became his entire universe until an escape on liberty. He was interested in service ashore and just before the ship departed for the Caribbean in April 1941, Rickman applied for the Paramarines and was accepted to begin training in May. He was one of few bold men who qualified as a parachutist in the beginning days of the new and daring branch of the Corps. Many were eager to volunteer for the increase in pay, but the drop-out rate was threateningly high.
A year later, he was in New Zealand with the 1st Marine Division preparing for the invasion of the Solomon Islands. Only eight understrength platoons constituted A Company, 1st Parachute Battalion, about half the strength of a typical line unit. The paras were light on equipment, sacrificing heavy mortars and machine guns for mobility and a high proportion of individual automatic weapons, predominantly the Reising submachinegun which would prove to be unreliable. Despite their shortcomings, the parachute battalion was much better trained than the rest of the division that struggled during seaborne landing rehearsals in the Fijis at the end of July.
When A Company landed on Guadalcanal in the pre-dawn darkness on August 7th, they faced little opposition from the Japanese defenders dazed from preparatory bombardments. They quickly recovered, however, and unleashed a sheet of fire against A Company after advancing only 75 yards. For much of the day they inched slowly toward Hill 184, ultimately working from dugout to dugout up the eastern flank with B Company and succeeding in raising the United States’ flag at the summit by evening, but not without an extreme cost. In their first day in combat, the battalion lost 28 killed and 50 wounded, most requiring evacuation; the dead included four officers and eleven NCOs. It was a staggering twenty percent casualty rate and the highest of any unit, followed by the raiders who carried ten percent. To compound their losses, they found that the weapons, ammunition, equipment and rations they stored on landing craft were now at the bottom of the sea after the Navy personnel dumped everything overboard, a decision that baffled the Marines.
After establishing a bivouac on Tulagi and going into reserve in a coconut grove near Lunga Point, a number of parachutists were struck with tropical ailments and evacuated, bringing the battalion strength down to about three hundred under command of a captain. To help bolster both the paras and the raiders, General Vandegrift attached the parachute battalion to Edson’s 1st Raider Battalion to bring the combined strength of the two elite units to about that of a standard infantry battalion, but still without heavy weapons.
On the evening of September 7th, native scouts reported that the Japanese forces at Tasimboko had grown significantly, and it was believed that these numbers were exaggerated. When the raiders landed the next morning, they found intelligence had underestimated and the natives were accurate. The paras, numbering only 208, joined the raider’s D Company ashore as rear guard in the late morning and after Edson insisted they push through Japanese resistance, Rickman’s experience at the raid of Tasimboko was rather uneventful. Captured papers, however, revealed thousands of Japanese were cutting through the jungle and Edson was assigned to defend the airfield on the grassy ridge to the southwest.
The slopes of Lunga Ridge were barely fortified and shallow due to coral beneath the soft earth surface. Thick growth melded quickly into jungle making visibility and field of fire difficult. Rickman’s A Company held the left flank to the rear. When the Japanese attack commenced with green flares, naval fire soared over the Marines’ heads and into the jungle beyond. This lasted for about 20 minutes before a confused ‘attack’ by the Japanese, but they never made it fully to the ridge and A Company was untouched until the morning when Edson ordered them to recapture C Company positions.
The Japanese struck after dark under a moonless sky illuminated only by the eerie glow of their flares. For about three hours they surged into Marine positions behind barrages of mortars and grenades. The Paramarines fought with fixed bayonets, reclaiming lost positions and forcing the Japanese out. Rickman was among those fighting hand to hand, piling enemies on top of one another as they fell in the trenches. With savage ferocity, he managed to heap five on top of one another before a burst of fire struck his arm from his shoulder to his forearm. Wave after wave poured into their positions without pause until sunrise when their forces were dwindling and it was clear they would not take the airfield. Dawn revealed the masses of dead left lying among the thick grass. Edson’s small force managed to repel a determined enemy numbering in the thousands, a feat that became a legend of the Marine Corps.
Marines oblige to pile up as Sergeant Rickman demonstrates how five Japanese he killed in a dugout hand-to-hand battle looked after he was finished.
Rickman returned to the states to instruct at the Parachute School before transferring to the all-black 9th Ammunition Company as a platoon sergeant. The idea of the ammunition company was to be a hard-working asset to the white ordnance companies in the base and field depots. For two months at Montford Point, all ammunition companies trained on loading, unloading, sorting, stacking, handling and guarding ammunition; moving from ship to shore, under fire, and to line troops and batteries. Handling was heavy labor, but also required keen supervision from NCOs who were always white ordnance specialists, unfortunately preventing any colored troops from promotions into those ranks. Regardless, most of the black Marines found their white superiors to be fine leaders who, whether they saw their subordinates as equals or not, led with a team mentality. In September 1944, Sergeant Rickman filled one of these billets as NCO in charge of company headquarters and sailed with the 9th Company to Fourth Base Depot. The depot was split between Pavuvu and Banika, the latter being the better of the two islands due to the base facilities. Luckily, that was the island 9th Company intended to occupy.
Both were predominantly rain forest and overgrown coconut plantations, but Banika was better drained along the shore with deep water, safe harbors, and lower risk of malaria. It was also the primary supply base and outfitted with more 20th century affordances to soften the unending routine of twelve-hour work days stretching six days a week. Nightly air raids and bombing runs punctuated the grueling days, but the men did not suffer much from them. It was certainly not as thrilling as Rickman’s time with the paramarines, but he embraced the responsibility. After his initial assignment in Headquarters, he moved to assistant platoon leader of Second Platoon in January and then to assistant NCO in charge of the ammunition dump and shipping section in June. When the time came for the 9th Company to dissolve and return home, Rickman had worked up to the rank of gunnery sergeant and had the fitting appearance of an old salt with piercing eyes and bronzed skin.
When the Marine Corps scrambled to send a force to Korea in 1950, 4.2” Mortar Company was attached to the 5th Marines, the foundation of the Provisional Brigade, and in days was on board to ship to Korea. The Corps had been drastically reduced during the post-war years and was unprepared to send more than the provisional force to Korea. The entire existence of the Marines was in question by the joint chiefs and it would take another war to prove their value. They sent was the best they could muster on short notice and began rebuilding the 1st Marine Division.
Sergeant Rickman was one of three technical sergeants in First Platoon under command of Lieutenant R. M. McCarthy. They were the first platoon to depart on July 13th and the rest of the company followed across the Pacific, bypassing Japan to reach Pusan in haste where they debarked and dispatched immediately to the support the regiment. The same day, Rickman took five men as a forward observer and liaison party to 3d Battalion and reached Chingdong-ni three days later.
The terrain was steep and mountains, bare of significant vegetation, and the North Koreans were well dug into the hillsides. It was perfect shooting for the giant 4.2” mortar. The weapon behaved more like an artillery piece in its size and operation, complete with a lanyard and trigger like the beloved 75mm howitzer it replaced. The equipment was so large it typically required vehicles to move, which would prove to be difficult in the Korean terrain. The guns themselves quickly proved their value at Chingdong-ni where the high angle offered the ability to touch the enemy on reverse slopes and white phosphorous rounds quickly ignited villages. At the first and second battles of the Naktong, the North Koreans almost always placed their 120mm mortars in wide, flat valleys leaving them vulnerable to attack. Their lack of cover was baffling, but the Marines took advantage of their odd tactics and demolished them in every engagement.
For the month of August, Sergeant Rickman worked closely with Colonel Taplett’s 3d Battalion, 5th Marines. While it was up to the regimental commander to place the mortar company, the battalion commanders had to understand the support they need and where company was – this was the job of the liaison NCO. Rickman maintained constant contact between the forward observer and the mortar company to inform the commander, organize and provide immediate support for the battalion and forward companies. When Lieutenant McCarthy was evacuated for wounds on September 5th, the role of platoon leader fell on Sergeant Rickman and his duties as observer and liaison party leader subsided as he focused on leading the platoon. After the Brigade contributed to the defense of the Pusan Perimeter and fought north to the Naktong in the debilitating heat of a bloody summer, the provisional unit was deactivated and 5th Marines reverted to control of the 1st Marine Division as they reformed in Korea and prepared to assault Inchon.
The platoon landed with the eleventh wave on the afternoon of September 15th and followed 2d Battalion in march formation until just after midnight. Without resting, they immediately jumped into action on the Seoul Highway toward Kimpo airfield. Under Rickman’s command, First Platoon mounted tanks and struck off to Objective 3 to set up on a ridgeline. They sat quietly through the night listening to the sounds of 2d Battalion clashing with North Korean forces ahead of them, but the radio stayed silent of fire missions.
When Recon Company crossed the Han River, the 4.2s bombarded enemy positions throughout the day and remained on call throughout the night. Their own crossing planned for the next day was held up due to the massing of North Koreans beyond the opposite banks, but on September 21st they boarded LVTs and sloshed north, adding the 1st Korean Marine Corps to their supported units for the period and retiring back to Inchon in early October. After crossing the Han, the Marines embarked for Wonsan to chase the North Koreans up to the Manchurian border where a sharp Korean winter bypassed autumn and temperatures dropped well below zero in late November. Challenges resulting from the freezing weather became apparent when they reached Koto-ri. Radio batteries began to drain quickly, misfires became common, and mortar baseplates had to be chipped into the icy ground. Two or three crew members then had to hold it down for the first few shots before the plates fused to the ground, becoming frozen themselves. Misfires began occurring when the cast steel ignition cylinders cracked when shells dropped down the tubes and it seemed that half of the ignition cylinders would break once the temperature passed below 28 degrees.
4.2 Mortar in action by 21st Infantry Regiment, 1950 SC343361
The 5th Marines first traveled up to the east side of the Chosin reservoir, then withdrew to the west to join the 7th Marine Regiment at Yudam-ni. Once there, the mortar company left their surplus ammunition and vehicles and hiked to Roise’s 2d Battalion at the front. The company placed an observer with F and D Companies, registering their weapons in front of F Company on November 28th. By the crash of cymbals and blare of bugles, the Chinese swarmed F Company that night. The trip flares they triggered illuminated the valley casting eerie silhouettes over the endless lines of Chinese troops. F Company was overrun and the observer team destroyed in the first attack. Another attack followed as milky night faded into a grey dawn, and the mortars were able to fire directly by the light of day.
For two days and two nights the regiment was under constant attack. The mortar company supported all battalions, specifically 1st Battalion which had a narrow gulley leading up their positions which kept getting swarmed by Chinese. Groups of fifty or a hundred attacked through the gulley multiple times, each time getting annihilated by 4.2” mortar fire. The company began running short on ammunition and could not retrieve more after their dump with the 7th Marines was cut off. They had to make it out with what they had available on hand. No air drops delivered ammunition for the 4.2s even though it was desperately requested multiple times by different officers. They had only three hundred rounds and no resupply.
On the third day, they started the withdrawal to Hagaru-ri at the southern tip of the reservoir. The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines was assigned rear guard and the 4.2s protected their movement. Second Platoon remained with the battalion for the entire trek and Rickman moved with his First Platoon to the main body of the regiment pushing against the roadblock between Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri. The cumbersome mortars were hand carried during the march, an exhausting and demanding task, but granted the luxury of firing missions as the opportunity appeared.
They moved over the pass at Sinhung-ni in heavy snowfall and made it to Hagaru-ri before another leg of withdrawal to Koto-ri. With a large dump of ammunition at Hagaru, the company was liberal with their expenditure before pulling out and fired about two hundred rounds in support of 2d Battalion, resulting in over eight hundred Chinese dead between their mortars and air strikes.
After the successful breakout and evacuation, the Marines returned to south of the 38th parallel to chase scattered guerillas over a vast expanse of territory beginning in Pohang. The 4.2s covered company sized patrols, splitting platoons into sections with two mortars each for smaller operations. They were road bound in vehicles when able, but much of the patrolling was done in the hills rising away from the roads. The approach to the Wonju Line was a rapid dash over a hundred miles of rough mountainous terrain that limited artillery support. The infantry battalions pushed far ahead of their artillery once again, so the mobile mortars kept up with the infantry to meet fire support needs.
For the entire Korean campaign since August, the 4.2s were able to support the 5th Marines in all movements and terrain. Despite the dark summer along the Pusan Perimeter and staggering casualties at the Chosin, the company kept a high morale throughout the period that Lieutenant Lucy attributed to his outstanding noncommissioned officers. The pride that Rickman and the others of the ‘old breed’ instilled at Pendleton never faded and once the company witnessed the capabilities of their unique weapons, they were thrilled to be a part of the unit.