On September 15, 1944, the men of the 1st Marine Division were fighting for their lives on the craggy coral island of Peleliu. Corporal Lewis Bausell, of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment was a veteran of Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. It was only the first day of the Peleliu campaign and Bausell hadn’t seen anything like it, no one in the 1st Marine Division had. The tenacity of the Japanese defense had given even the saltiest Marine little doubt that the Emperor’s troops were not giving up an inch of real-estate on Peleliu as long as they drew breath.
Peleliu was honeycombed with caves. All of them potentially held a machine gun nest, sniper, or Japanese soldier intent on dying for his Emperor. Bausell, a the former bookbinder from Washington, DC, was tasked with clearing caves. Bausell had what it takes to lead Marines, as the young squad leader was filling the role of a Sergeant. His men didn’t respect him any less because he was a stripe short for the job, all it meant to them was that Corporal Bausell was underpaid.
The Marines found the best method for clearing a cave was to douse the interior with unlit napalm using a flamethrower, giving it a few moments to let the volatile vapors build and permeate throughout the cave, then toss in a satchel charge or white phosphorus grenade to ignite it. In theory and sometimes in practice, the rapid ignition of the napalm completely consumed the cave’s air supply, in turn collapsing the lungs of the Japanese defenders. But in many cases, not all of the occupants suffocated.
Oftentimes survivors of the inferno ran out the cave with activated grenades in hand, making a bee line for the closest Marine in a final effort to kill just one more. The contingency for these Japanese wildcards was to post Marines with automatic weapons near the mouth of the cave to mow down the suicidal fanatics before they could do any more harm.
On Peleliu, though, there wasn’t always enough time to employ the best clearance method. The quickest way was to give the cave a couple of bursts from the flamethrower, and shoot the survivors as they exited the cave. That day, Bausell’s squad was in hurry.
Bausell and several of his men stood near the mouth of the cave, weapons at the ready, as the flamethrower blasted the other end of the cave. With fingers tightly pressed against triggers, the Marines waited to snuff out any sign of life inside.
Like lightning, a charging Japanese soldier emerged from the smoke and headed straight for a group of Bausell’s men posted up on the opposite side of the exit. The Marines fired on the determined attacker, but the Japanese soldier got close enough before his grenade exploded to wound a few of them. Before the Marines could even process what they had just witnessed, a second enemy soldier appeared. He didn’t make it very far before he was dropped in a hail of gunfire.
The third and final Japanese soldier that emerged from the smoky cave tossed a grenade amongst Bausell and his men. Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, Bausell dove on the grenade and absorbed the full force of the explosion with his body. Bausell saved the members of his squad at the cost of his life. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
In World War II, the act of throwing one’s self on a grenade to protect a comrade was nearly always fatal. One of the few who lived to tell the tale was Jacklyn Lucas, another Marine who smothered a grenade with his body on Iwo Jima a few months later. When he passed away at the ripe old age of 80, Lucas still had over 200 fragments of that Japanese grenade in his body.
The point is that diving on a grenade is the ultimate expression of altruistic virtue. That’s probably why more Medals of Honor and Victoria Crosses are awarded for this type of action than any other. What kind of impression would be left on you if someone dove on a grenade to save your life? It’s certainly a debt you can never repay. But it turns out, you can definitely pay it forward.
Robert C. Lyman was standing right next to Corporal Bausell when he threw himself on that grenade and was the primary beneficiary of Bausell’s bravery. Lyman survived Peleliu, and a few months later during the Okinawa Campaign, found himself in Bausell’s former position of squad leader. The Marines were still getting their money’s worth out of corporals. Even after 81 days of fighting on Okinawa, Lyman was still just a corporal.
In fact, Corporal Lyman was a real bargain for the Marine Corps. By June 21, 1945, Lyman’s platoon leader and platoon sergeant had been wounded and evacuated. Lyman was acting as the former and the latter when he was ordered to press the attack against Japanese machine gun emplacements that day. Lyman’s platoon was full of green horn replacements, none of whom had much experience under fire.
Lyman directed his inexperienced Marines to hang back and provide covering fire while he alone advanced and destroyed the Japanese positions with rifle fire and grenades. Lyman repeated this process every time his platoon’s advance was disrupted by enemy resistance. On the last occasion, Lyman was working his way around the flank of a Japanese machine gun emplacement.
Lyman killed seven Japanese soldiers in the position and successfully silenced the machine gun. But in a cruel twist of fate, the last burst fired before the gun fell silent took Lyman’s life. Killed the day before Okinawa was declared secure, Lyman did not receive the Medal of Honor, but was instead awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor. Lyman’s Navy Cross and Purple Heart Medal are part of the National WWII Museum’s permanent collection.
Gift in Memory of Robert Carl Lyman, 2017
I find it fascinating that between the two of them, Corporals Bausell and Lyman’s service span every campaign the 1st Marine Division fought during World War II. From Bausell’s landing on the first day of the Guadalcanal campaign, to Lyman’s last day on Okinawa.
75 years later, I wonder how many people can literally attribute their very existence to Lyman’s bravery. How many Marines from Lyman’s platoon went on to have families… children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren? Who knows? All I know is, before the descendants of those Marines give thanks to Corporal Robert C. Lyman for saving dad or granddad’s bacon on Okinawa, they should probably back it up a bit and start by giving thanks to Corporal Lewis Bausell for diving on that grenade at Peleliu.
This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America.
Larry Decuers is a former Curator at The National WWII Museum and veteran of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division.