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HBO series ‘The Pacific’ stirs Marine’s memories

Vancouver man endured decades of nightmares

By , Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
Published:
3 Photos
Rudy Podhora, sitting in the living room of his Vancouver home, still has the .45 pistol his father bought and sent to the young Marine more than 65 years ago.
Rudy Podhora, sitting in the living room of his Vancouver home, still has the .45 pistol his father bought and sent to the young Marine more than 65 years ago. Podhora used it during the Battle of Okinawa. Photo Gallery

o There were almost 40,000 American casualties during the Battle of Okinawa, including more than 12,000 killed. It was the costliest battle in U.S. naval history, with 36 ships lost and 368 damaged.

o Rudy Podhora was known as Rudy Clark when he enlisted in the Marines. His father had changed the family name to Clark in 1932; the family restored it to Podhora in 1968.

Rudy Podhora has relived images of World War II combat plenty of times over the last 65 years.

The former Marine is seeing those scenes again, but without the anguish. A television show is a lot easier to take than decades of nightmares.

On April 1, 1945, the Vancouver native was part of the invasion of Okinawa, which set the stage for almost three months of fierce combat on the Pacific island.

o There were almost 40,000 American casualties during the Battle of Okinawa, including more than 12,000 killed. It was the costliest battle in U.S. naval history, with 36 ships lost and 368 damaged.

o Rudy Podhora was known as Rudy Clark when he enlisted in the Marines. His father had changed the family name to Clark in 1932; the family restored it to Podhora in 1968.

When the battle for Okinawa was winding down, the war in Europe had been over for a month.

In the last couple of days of combat, Podhora was part of what he thinks was the final infantry charge of WWII.

Podhora traces his nightmares back to that event.

The 82-day battle for Okinawa also is part of a television series from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Their earlier collaborations — “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” — explored the war in Europe.

Now, “The Pacific” is looking at Podhora’s war.

It’s a pretty good look, says Podhora, who has been watching the HBO series.

“I’m trying to make sure they don’t mess up,” he said. The characters “are careless about keeping their helmets on. But with a helmet liner and the full steel helmet, they’re heavy,” Podhora said in the home he shares with his childhood sweetheart, Betty May.

They were married in 1946. Betty May says she can’t remember when she didn’t know Rudy, even though she grew up in Portland. The Podhora family had a farm near what is now the Five Corners area. Betty May’s family ran a Portland restaurant and came to Vancouver to buy vegetables for their kitchen.

Rudy left the farm in 1943 to enlist. He was part of the invasion of Peleliu, another battle shown in “The Pacific.”

“I was throwing up on the way in,” he recalled.

The invasion of Okinawa with the 1st Marine Division has a special place in Podhora’s combat résumé. Victory meant the Allies could establish a base less than 350 miles from the Japanese mainland.

Podhora has written about the closing push in a memoir he calls “Okinawa, the Last Charge.”

Podhora was a forward observer for an 81 mm mortar platoon and part of a Marine assault on the rugged southern end of the island, where defenders dug in for a last stand.

On his way up a hill, Podhora saw a Japanese machine gun emplacement dug into the rise. Two Japanese soldiers were sprawled on the ground.

Podhora wriggled through an access trench and crawled inside the bunker, where another Japanese soldier appeared to be dead.

There was no sign of blood on any of the three Japanese soldiers, Podhora realized later.

When he started to search the bunker, the enemy soldier kicked him in the face. Podhora pulled out his knife and stabbed him, tried to cut his throat, and then hurried back out the trench to join several other Marines outside the emplacement.

A grenade popped out of the bunker, exploding in the trench just after Podhora jumped out. Podhora then aimed his .45 caliber pistol into the bunker and emptied the magazine into the Japanese soldier.

He doesn’t know what happened to the two Japanese soldiers he’d seen sprawled outside the bunker.

Even though much of that day is a blur, it has haunted him for years, Podhora said. He went right past three enemy soldiers — “Why didn’t I realize they were alive?” — who were waiting for the chance to kill him.

And that’s how Podhora’s nightmare kept playing out.

“It was the same dream, four or five of them with drawn bayonets, and I could feel the bayonets go into my stomach,” he said. “That lasted a long while.”

A couple of Podhora’s comrades never made it off the hill alive. As the attack continued, Podhora heard the sound of a light artillery piece returning fire and he hit the deck. The artillery shell didn’t explode, but it went right through the guy who’d been standing next to Podhora.

“His head was missing,” Podhora said.

Another Marine was sent up to serve as the platoon’s forward observer later that day. Defenders shelled the area where Podhora had been, and his replacement was killed when a shell fragment sliced through his throat.

The battle ended a couple of days later when the Japanese general who commanded the island’s 120,000 defenders killed himself. About 110,000 of his troops fought to the death.

An estimated 100,000 Okinawan civilians also died.

Podhora still has a leaflet telling enemy soldiers and civilian residents how to surrender: “Come slowly with your hands raised high above your head and carry only this leaflet. Come one by one. Men must wear only pants or loin cloths. Women and children may come dressed as they are.”

Other keepsakes include several black-and-white postcards, portraits of pretty young Japanese women. He found them in that machine-gun emplacement.

Podhora still has that .45 Colt pistol — and the documentation proving it’s his weapon.

“Only officers were issued pistols,” Podhora said.

He wanted a sidearm, too, so his father bought one for $50 — almost two month’s wages for the young Marine — and mailed it, along with the bill of sale.

“I kept the receipt with me all the time,” he said, “so officers wouldn’t think the pistol was theirs.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; tom.vogt@columbian.com.

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

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