Marion Haywood “Gib” Gibson Class of 1943
Alumni Profile from the ORMA Archives Written by William Northrop, class of 1962
Company D in most Marine line battalions was a machine-gun company, but this particular outfit of the 3rd Marine Division was a technical unit and was transferred to 5th Marine Division for the invasion. They were map makers, specifically photo topographers and more engineers than infantry, although all Marines are trained as infantrymen first.
Marion Haywood “Gib” GibsonFor this invasion, their primary mission was to map Sulfur Island located some 600 miles from the Japanese mainland and about equidistance from the great American advance bases in the Marianas (Saipan, Guam and Tinian). The volcanic island was also about 400 miles past the sign that reads: End of the World. In fact, ancient cartographers would have probably left their maps blank … except perhaps for the caution, “Here be dragons.”
Twenty-two year old “Gib” Gibson, ORMI Class of 1943, was feeling pretty lucky that morning in February 1945. It was D-Day plus one and his outfit had not gone in with first assault waves the previous morning. He had watched and heard the invasion on the 19th and clearly it was not going to be the 3 to 5 day exercise Marine and Navy Intelligence had predicted before they left Guam. Now it was their turn to join the fight and ostensibly map Sulfur Island, soon to be better known by its Japanese name: Iwo Jima.
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Marion H. “Gib” Gibson was born and raised in Gibson, North Carolina, then a prosperous, rural, farming community located down on the South Carolina line. “We had two banks, five grocery stores, four dry goods stores, a post office, three doctors and a dentist,” Gib remembered. Cotton was the primary crop.
After graduating from Gibson High School in 1940, Gib’s father decided he needed to “learn how to study” so, he spoke with the local dentist, Dr. Gardner. The dentist’s son, John M. Gardner (ORMI Class of 1942), had done well at Oak Ridge Military Institute and dentist swore by it. So, that September Gib Gibson reported to The Ridge, which, in the 1940s, had a strong junior college program and was particularly known for its athletics.
Gib roomed on Whitaker Hall during his three years at The Ridge and was spotted early by Captain J. Roy Prince, the legendary coach of the ORMI tennis team, which included such greats as Cadet Jim Turner, the Georgia state champion. Young Gib developed into an outstanding tennis player, starting at the number 6 position his first year, he moved to the 2nd position behind Jim Turner or sometimes the 3rd position behind Brooks Webb by his senior year. They played all the junior colleges, East Carolina, etc. and they were unbeatable.
Gib enjoyed his years at “The Ridge,” but fate quickly caught up with him and his generation. He distinctly remembers that infamous Sunday, 7 December 1941. Major Richard Larkins and his wife had taken Gib and one other cadet to attend a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in High Point. When they heard about the attack, the cadets did not even know where Pearl Harbor was, but Larkins, did and explained it to them. The Commandant of Cadets further predicted that a lot of the cadets would be called into service during the next year and he was right. Pearl Harbor and the war that followed would become the first dominate event in the lives of Gib and his school mates. The forty-two alumni names on the memorial plaque in front of Alumni Hall attest to their sacrifice.
First, the Army recalled all the 1903 Springfield rifles, which the cadets were issued at school. Then, at graduation in 1942, most of the boys left for the armed forces. But, Gib’s luck held and with a high draft number, he managed to secure a deferment until 1944 when he was slated to be commissioned in the Army.
Like numerous, impatient cadets before him, Gib was not satisfied to wait for his commission, which would have required an extra year at The Ridge. While he had his additional year of deferment, he made his way to the Fort Bragg Induction Center a couple of months after his graduation in June of 1943 to enlist.
He did not set out to join the Marines, but in September of 1943 found himself at the Fort Bragg induction center. There another former cadet from ORMI named Krause clued him in. “The Army quotas were filled,” Gib remembered, “and I was told that the only services open were the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Marine Corps. My Oak Ridge training would do me very little good in the Navy or the Coast Guard.” The following day, Gib Gibson reported to Raleigh and was sworn into the United States Marines.
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When Gib asked the Marine recruiter where he would be sent for basic training, the sergeant replied, “San Diego.” Instead of heading for the more familiar Parris Island in South Carolina, Gib was heading to the west coast. Worse, those “Hollywood Marines” were doing all the fighting in the Pacific. Thinking he might not get another chance, Gib managed an immediate three week leave.
Gib left North Carolina in September 1943 from Hamlet. He had never traveled on a “sleeper” train before and he spent five days and nights enroute to San Diego. When he arrived, a Marine Sergeant awaited him. He joined the other recruits “from all over the county” and they were bussed to Camp Pendleton.
At the end of his basic training, which was not the horror for an Oak Ridge boy it was for a “normal civilian,” Gib was offered a new advanced training course. He qualified for the school because unlike most of his fellow Marines, he had studied Trigonometry under Captain Weaver back at The Ridge. It was designated an Aerial Photo Topography course and it was conducted at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He jumped at the opportunity and was soon making his hegira back home for another three week leave. (Six weeks of leave before he had clocked his first six months in the Corps could have only been pulled off by a former Oak Ridge cadet. It should be noted that in addition, he enjoyed two 7-day liberties and a 3-day emergency leave for Christmas 1944.)
Gib’s Photo Topography course qualified him for the second highest Marine Corps rating, right behind radar. Many of the islands the Marines assaulted in the Pacific had no topographical maps, making tactical planning and operations almost impossible. Gib and his fellow cartographers converted aerial photographs into tactical maps for the maneuver battalions tasked with the assaults.
Having completed his initial cartography course at Camp Lejeune, Gib was selected for an Army advance course at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. In addition to his courses and although it was an Army base, Gib became the ranking NCO overseeing 30 new Army recruits.
After his training, Gib was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division and he soon shipped out to the Mariana Islands. They landed on Saipan initially and were welcomed by a Japanese air raid their first night on the island … his actual “baptism of fire.” After moving from Saipan to Guam, he was assigned to Delta Company, which was soon transferred to the 5th Marine Division for the invasion of Iwo Jima.
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His first memory of the island was the body of a dead Marine in the sea and just a few yards inland was a large foxhole that contained the bodies of six Marines and the Navy Corpsman who was treating them when the Japanese shell landed. Iwo Jima was a long way from Oak Ridge.
His first night on the island was scary and a bit bizarre. They were told “Don’t leave your foxhole.” Japanese infiltrators were coming into the Marine lines at night, so anyone seen walking around was immediately fired on … not to mention the almost continuous artillery fire and flares from the Japanese.
Gib and his squad dug a suitable foxhole to pass the night. A buddy in his outfit found shelter in a hole with another Marine. It was only in the morning that it was discovered that Gib’s buddy had spent his first night on Iwo Jima in a hole with a dead Marine. Matters went downhill from there.
Unknown to Marine or Navy Intelligence, the Japanese had dug down into the island to a level of two to four stories underground. At night when things got quiet between Japanese artillery attacks, Gib could hear machinery running underneath his foxhole. Young Gibson had found himself in some black-humor cartoon where the term surreal does not really cover it.
Delta Company was assigned a position about fifty yards behind and supporting a battery of 105mm howitzers. They dug in using shell casing, which they filled with volcanic ash, as wall supports. For overhead, they scrounged up several sleds used to transport ammunition to the guns.
Gib had many adventures and several close calls on the island. One involved his unit’s search of the international elevation marker left on the island by the Coastal and Geodetic Survey. They eventually found it along with some hornet-mad Japanese infantry. “It didn’t do us much good anyway; the marker was written in Japanese. But, we copied it and brought it back to the Captain.”
What was predicted to be a three to five day battle turned into a thirty-five day fight “to the knife, the knife to the hilt.” Out of over 22,000 Japanese soldiers entrenched on the island, only 1083 POWs survived. Over 6,800 US Marines died taking it, but only one of those was from Gib’s outfit. Like most combat veterans, he does not like to dwell on the fighting.
Other incidents, he likes to remember. On his fourth day on the island, he vividly recalls the flag raising on Mount Suribachi. “The first flag was small; you could barely see it.” Still, everyone cheered and the ships offshore began to sound their horns, sirens and whistles. It was in the raising of the second, larger flag that Joe Rosenthal accidently shot his famous picture that has come to epitomize the Second World War.
The main reason for taking Iwo Jima was because of its location. It was roughly halfway between the air bases in the Marianas and their targets in Japan. The B-29s making the long flight had no alternate landing field in between when they sustained battle damage during raids. The landing field on Iwo Jima saved literally hundreds of American lives. A little later, long-range fighters were moved to the island and began escorting the bombers on their raids.
The fighting was still raging when the first damaged B-29 made an emergency landing on the island. “We were told that a B-29 with wounded aboard was coming in,” Gib recalled. “He circled the island and came in right over us, so we watched him make a belly landing. All of the crew survived.”
Another time, a B-29 returning from Japan flew over Iwo and was abandoned by its crew. As the aviators parachuted to safety, the bomber continued to fly in circles around the island. Finally, it was necessary for fighter aircraft to be sent aloft to shoot down the errant bomber.
In late March or early April when the island was finally secure, Gib’s outfit got orders to redeploy back to Maui in the Hawaiian Islands with the rest of the 5th Marine Division. Before leaving, he policed up a Japanese rifle and bayonet as a souvenir, which he donated to the ORMA Museum.
Once again, their luck held and they were transported aboard the President Monroe, one of the luxury liners of the Presidential Line. “It was wonderful,” Gib remembered. “I had not shaved since landing on Iwo. It took me a whole pack of razor blades, but I got a shave and a salt-water bath. They treated us royally.”
Enroute they also heard about the invasion of Okinawa and a few days later, the death of President Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia.
Those and only one humorous incident marred their otherwise idyllic voyage back to civilization. A Navy seaman decide to see what would happen if he slapped the wooden deck with a slat from an orange crate. It sounded like a pistol shot and a nearby Marine instinctively jumped for cover … over the side. The liner had to stop and send a boat back to recover the wayward Marine, who managed to stay afloat without a life preserver. This put the President Monroe behind its convoy and it only caught up shortly before they landed in Maui. “That Marine never did find that swabbie. If he had, he would have killed him,” Gib reflected with a smile.
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Back at the Marine base on Maui, the Iwo Jima veterans of the 5th Marine Division continued their training for the invasion of the Japanese home islands. But, in August, they heard about the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which negated the need for landing on Japan and ended the war.
The word soon came down that the entire division, including Gib’s outfit, was slated for occupation duty and they soon embarked for the Imperial Japanese Naval base at Sasebo, on Kyushu Island, near the city of Nagasaki. Gib and the rest of the division landed there on 22 September 1945.
Once in Sasebo, Gib was appointed to head the division payroll section. One of his detachments was in Nagasaki and he visited them at least two times per month on official business. He got a good look at the results of the atomic bomb attack and is probably the only Oak Ridge graduate who did. “I saw the terrible devastation made by the atomic bomb and yes, it was a mess,” he recalled.
He noticed that by and large, the Japanese were starving. He paid one family to do his laundry and smuggled food to them in spite of orders to the contrary. “I couldn’t abide by this when the people needed food. I’d go by the PX, buy some food and deliver it to them when I picked up my laundry,” he said.
He spent Christmas of 1945 in Sasebo and in January 1946, Gib finally got orders home. Asked to reflect on the war, Gib, in typical Marine fashion answered briefly, “Grateful” … and all that implies. Still, even now after 63 years, he never speaks lightly about “the worst thing in the world.”
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Like all veterans, Gib was anxious to get on with life. He was not sure what he wanted to do for a living, but he had an uncle who was very successful in the insurance business, so Gib joined Pilot Life and it was a good fit. He retired in February 1985, almost 40 years to the day after the fight for Iwo Jima.
He met his wife, Betsy, his first year in the insurance business. Betsy Hobgood was from Greenville, North Carolina and they were married in October of 1947. They had three children, Woody, Wayne and Elaine, and a good life together for almost 60 years. Sadly, he lost Betsy in 2004.
Although Gib Gibson is 86-years-old now, he’s still one of the boys; one of us and like all of us, he remembers his good ol’ days at “The Ridge.” He is one of our “Greatest Generation” and lost a lot of friends and classmates in the war. But afterwards, life was good, pretty much all gravy … a successful career, a wonderful wife and great kids. There were low points, of course … sending his son, Woody, off to Vietnam, the flood of 1999 that left four feet of water in his home (Hurricane Hugo), and the loss of his beloved Betsy in 2004. But, on balance his luck has held and he keeps his accomplishments hidden behind a life well lived.
(The Marion Gibson Collection is available for review at the Oak Ridge Military Academy Archives and his Japanese rifle taken on Iwo Jima is on display in the museum.)
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