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Joseph Keller Interview

Keller: I’m Joe Keller from Richmond, VA. I grew up in Lexington, VA. After the war I went back to Lexington, stayed there for a while, then to D.C. and then came to Richmond.

Triesler: What branch of the service where you in?

Keller: I was in the first Marine division. Drove a tank. I felt very, very secure in there, I really did. I used to volunteer to go and pick up people that were pinned down. Take the trap door down and take him back where I left from. Drop the trap door and straddle some guy that was pinned down. He could crawl up the tank. I’d take him back and everybody cheer and say hooray, you know. I had a lot of fun doing that. I don’t know. I was 17 and 18. If we came to a bridge and they weren’t sure it would hold the tanks up, for some reason they would always ask me to check it out and make sure it would hold us. I never once felt insecure. I think that my mother and father prayed me back because we had a lot of near escapes.

Triesler: What’s it like inside a tank?

Keller: It’s very, very hot, very hot inside a tank and very noisy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s why my hearing is… I have poor hearing now because of the noise in the tank, the roar. Of course you had in the tank all five of us. It was the driver, the assistant driver. The assistant driver used a machine gun. Then behind you and right above you, you had the tank commander and the gunner and loader, so you heard every shell that went off right in your ears there. These were 75mm and tuned in with that was a machine gun, so you had the noise from both of them.

Triesler: What kind of tank did you drive? Was there a certain model?

Keller: A Sherman tank. 33 tons. They weighed 33 tons. And on Okinawa we had pontoons on them, but you couldn’t get to close to the shore because of the coral reef. They had pontoons on the front and pontoons on the back and then they had big funnels that went up so that air could come in to the engine and into the tank. We floated in on those pontoons and the only propulsion we had were the tracks on the tank. They turned and that was the slow propulsion you had going in. And you kept holding your breath hoping that somebody wouldn’t drop a shell on you until you got to the beach and it left quite a few dead. And when you got to the beach, of course you were all taped up in there. You had fuses and you blew the pontoons off and drove around them. They had a guy on the beech that would pull the stuff off so we could get out of the tank. People were always gung ho back then. The tank in front of us, there were five sergeants in that tank, and they blew their pontoons off while they were still floating, but they thought they were on land and they went down in a shell hole and we never saw them after that. They couldn’t get out. They died right there. At least I did the right thing and kept my pontoons until I got to the beach. So it paid off I’ll tell you that.

Triesler: Did you sleep in your tank?

Keller: yes, when you were in combat yes, right in your seat, sure. Of course at night you would come back and load up on ammunition, but sometimes you would sleep in the tank and somebody would have to stand guard up on top inside to make sure the japs didn’t come up on you and drop a grenade in.

Deal: What was your position like in the tank?

Keller: I was a driver and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Back then you had two long handles. I was just 17 years old you know, and when we made a hard right turn I had to put my foot up on it, each pedal was a brake not a clutch, so you’d put your foot up on the tank and pull it and the other side would swing around and that’s how you turned. One time we got into trouble, they had us practically pinned down. We had to come back down this road and make a right turn to get out of the town. They said to never make a turn in the tank unless you’re in first gear because the track would come off. I could see the shells hitting this wall and blowing it up so I kept going as fast as I could and every now and then another shell would go off. I got down to where I had to turn and kept thinking what will I do, what will I do, because I didn’t want to slow down to first gear. I made that turn in the fifth gear and the track didn’t come off. I was pleased. It was a good group of people everybody was young. I go to these things now and they say, “all the army guys stand up.” All the army guys stand up, then the marines and the navy guys. Somebody should stand up for the guys who are still there, just lying on the beach there. I mean all over the place. Somebody had to do it I guess. I went in as a BAR man. See there the Lord was looking out for me again. The BAR man was one of the first guys that the japs would aim for. The BAR was like a little machine gun, the Browning Automatic Rifle. I went overseas as that and I got over there and they told us we were going in tanks and that was wonderful.

Triesler: So you weren’t trained in tanks in America?

Keller: No. I just got over there. I was just in a group. One driver didn’t pay attention and drove a tank right into the ocean so they took him out and put me in. That was the extent of my training. I had some very scary things, one time we ran out of ammunition on D-day in Peleliu. We pulled over into the jungle where they couldn’t shoot us. The next morning we had to change the barrel on the machine gun because it had been burned out from using it too much. He pulled the machine gun out and had it sitting between us. You had to open a hatch to take the gun out. When he opened the hatch some little jap out there threw a grenade in and ironically it landed right on the end of that machine gun that we were taking out otherwise the hand grenade would have landed down in the tank and we all would have been gone. We got a little shrapnel and they put us aboard ship. We weren’t that bad. We watched them it was very depressing. They were burying people over the side at night, which was very depressing. I wouldn’t do it today, wouldn’t have the nerve to, but I went up to the captain of the ship and said that we wanted off. He sounded us off and said, “This is the only two people leaving the ship.” It was a hospital ship. We got back there and we couldn’t find our tanks. So we sat beside the airport right beside an artillery emplacement. They were putting shells up all night on these japs up on a hill. It was kind of like listening to a radio show. It would say here comes a Bonsai group down, and they’d put some shells up there. Early in the morning I told John, I said, “We better move.” Something just told me to move. We hadn’t gone up the airstrip very far and the japs put in a load of mortars and completely wiped out that artillery. I went back latter and there was nothing there, they wiped the whole thing out. Just a little bit after that my tank commander came back and got me. Each company has three tanks and the commander over our tanks, captain Heath, he’s written up in the Marine Corps Book, he got killed up there. He was one of the first ones I’d seen that got killed. I’m very, very fortunate to be here. We all worked together. I don’t know if they’re still doing that, but I’m sure they’re still doing that over there today.

Triesler: Do you remember the names of the fellas that were in the tank with you?

Keller: Yes. Blanco, Buddy. The commander was Capt. Rusty. The Lt.s were all young Lt.s, and this was a bad thing. They would come over and get in the tank. Instead of staying down in the tank, they would sit up with their heads out and we were always losing them, getting killed like that. That’s why I didn’t get out and run around. I stayed in the tank. That’s why I’m here today. I saw a lot of them that didn’t. Rusty, my tank commander, he lived through it all. Buddy was the loader and Blanco was the gunner. John was my assistant driver and I was the driver. Those tanks were 500 horsepower. And if one motor got shot out, you could pull the clutch out and still come in on the other motor. We worked hard. We never really got to sleep that much. One time when we went back from the front line and we went in this tent to sleep, eight of us. This shows how sleepy we were I guess, but this guy in the next cot to me committed suicide with a .45. None of us woke up. You just go and go and go and finally you just pass out. We got up to go eat and we didn’t think about it. We came back and he was lying there still there.

Triesler: Why do you think he did it?

Keller: I don’t know. I’ve seen other guys do it. Did I tell you about Chesty Puller?

Triesler: Not on tape.

Keller: I got out of the tank to look around for a souvenir, and I knew I shouldn’t have, my tank commander told me not to. Then I heard these shells going into this coconut tree in front of me. I remembered our training. A certain shell would go a certain distance through a tree and the only thing I could think of was, “I wonder what kind of shell he’s using.” Isn’t that a dumb thing to think of, but that’s what I thought of. I ran back to get in the tank and this little old man came up to me and said, “son you better get back in your tank. It’s about to get hot here in a minute. Do you want a cigar?” I was 17 and I said, “No, I don’t smoke.” I found out latter when my tank commander came back that it was Chesty Puller. He was a nice gentleman. Eventually he retired and lived in Lexington until he died.

Triesler: You were mentioning something about running out of hand grenades when you were fighting the Japanese.

Keller: Yes. A tank isn’t as well armored on the bottom, so when you get near the top of a hill the infantry always goes over and secures the hill on top and gets rid of the japs on the other side. So we pulled up near the rim of the hill and we sat there and watched our guys, infantry guys, shooting at the guys on the other side of the hill. Sort of like shooting rabbits I’d say. The marines would throw a grenade over and of course they’d get up and run and then you could shoot them. When they ran out of grenades they would pick up a rock and throw it over and they’d think it was a grenade and run. I remember one of those letters I wrote to my father I said, “it’s just like hutting rabbits. You throw a rock at them and they run.” At that same time we were sitting there waiting and I looked over to the tank next to me. We all had five gallon cans of water on the tank. I looked over to the tank next to me and there was a Jap standing up on it emptying the cans. He assumed they were gas cans. He was pouring it on the tank, but it was really water. My gunner, he was from Oklahoma, he swung his gun around and the machine gun cleaned him off. So we took care of each other. I did feel secure. I felt like the good lord was looking out for me I really do.

Triesler: When you were in the tank were you still issued a rifle?

Keller: No you have a .45. We all had a .45. Every now and then somebody would pick up a carbine. You know the short one. Every now and then you’d find a carbine on the back of the tank, but you never worried about somebody taking it because it wasn’t ours anyway. The .45 is what we had but I never had to use mine. Near the end I even wrapped it in cellophane plastic so it wouldn’t get dirty.

Triesler: Did you keep it when you came home?

Keller: Oh no, you turn those in.

Deal: Did you like the .45?

Keller: Oh yes. I liked the Thomson machine guns. This captain, the one that got killed on Peleliu, he would take us out. We trained in coconut groves. As far as you could see there was nothing but coconut trees planted. It was like looking down a railroad track and they finally come together, that’s how it was with those coconut groves. We would go out and practice shooting. You see the japs were great for hiding in the tops of these trees. We would go out and shoot up in those trees with Tommy Guns until you couldn’t hold your arms up. He was a believer in shooting and he made us shoot all the time. I had fun over there. The infantry guys would be standing around you know. “I I’d love to have some coconut juice.” That’s good as long as you don’t drink too much and get diarrhea. They’d be trying to shoot a coconut down, and I’d take my tank and drive up and just push the whole tree down and they’d all cheer, yahhh! One time we were going up to the front. A bunch of marines were pinned down by a bunch of japs in this hut on the side. My tank commander, he was from Texas, said, “Joe lets go over and help those guys out.” So we went over and just drove right through that hut. Little japs ran everywhere and they just picked them off. You had to have fun somehow over there.

Triesler: Were you ever instructed to take any of them prisoner? They were trained to fight to the death anyway.

Keller: No. We were in the tank. We were never in a position to talk to anyone or do anything like that. It would be the infantry guys that would do that. I’ve seen swords lying out there and infantry guys would say, “oh I want that,” and they would go out to get it and get shot. A lot of times they would put things out like that to pull them in. I had very little education when I was young so I listened to my tank commander. What next?

Fenlon: You were telling us about what you would do if you found a sniper.

Keller: We were sitting around just waiting for something to do, and a sniper would be up there shooting the poor infantrymen. Our gunner, he was from Oklahoma, he said, “Lets have some fun.” The machine gun is tuned in with the 75-millimeter gun, so he would put off a shot at the bottom of the tree and then he’d go up a few feet put off another shot. You’re just thinking about what’s going through that little Jap’s head watching that. He ‘d go up to the very top of the tree right under him, then he’d put in a 75-millimeter shell. You had to do something for excitement over there. They would do the same thing to us. We went to China after Okinawa and the kids over there were selling pictures of the Japanese decapitating the Chinese and things like that. Cutting their arms off with a sword, games they would play with them. So I didn’t feel bad about what we did at all.

Triesler: Did you think about Pear Harbor at all and that we had been attacked first?

Keller: Yes. I look at today and see how people say, “bring our soldiers home,” but how would they like it if they came over here to fight us. They wouldn’t want them here. It’s just so good that we were over there. I think that’s the best thing.

Triesler: Did you earn any battle stars or metals while you were over there?

Keller: I don’t know. I never bothered to check. Somebody told me we did, but I never bothered to check. I had a buddy who had a bunch of them; he was in the tank behind me. On Paris Island I got a metal for marksmanship or something for shooting a rifle. I was good with a rifle; I was on a farm and knew how to use one. I always felt bad for the older guys in the service. They couldn’t run as fast, they couldn’t get away; they couldn’t lift those heavy boxes of ammo and things like that that we did.

Triesler: What places were you located?

Keller: I left Camp Lejune and went to Pevuvu.

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