From June 15 to July 9, 1944, a deadly battle waged on the island of Saipan. Considered Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s “treasure”, this WWII conflict in the Pacific theater became the site for one of the most critical battles of the war.
Crucial to the campaign were 40 highly skilled Marines whose expertise in hand-to-hand combat gained the United States its ultimate victory over the Island. Their willingness to defy the rules for the good of battle, to create clever new tactics to gain the upper hand, and to best all odds turned these “thieves” into legends.
Joseph Tachovsky knew his father had been a Marine. Until his father’s funeral, though, he had no idea that Frank Tachovsky had been the top commanding officer in charge of this band of elite scout-snipers. After one of his father’s friends gave a eulogy recounting when Lieutenant Tachovsky saved their entire unit, Joseph Tachovsky set out to discover the truth behind his father’s military history.
In 40 Thieves on Saipan, Tachovsky weaves a moving and exhaustive tale about his father’s days in battle and the men who saw each other through the war.
We caught up with Tachovsky ahead of Father’s Day to speak with him about how writing the book impacted his own life and his view of his father’s. While we may never know everything we want or need to know about our fathers, Tachovsky’s work has illuminated the brave and courageous experiences of his own father.
Meet the courageous 40 Thieves.
How did writing about your father change the way you view him?
I had always revered my father. I was quite proud of him being a colonel in the Marine Corps. But as a child you only really know a parent from the moment you become aware and from then on. I really had no idea of who he was as young man or how he became to be Colonel Francis J Tachovsky, USMC.
The names of the islands that he fought on, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, were just names of places to me with no other meaning other than a battle had been fought there. Attaching names and faces of his friends who were killed in those battles, and the names and faces of the other men from the 40 Thieves who watched friends die while in combat, made me grow a greater respect for my father and all of the men from his platoon. And the word “respect” is not a strong enough sentiment.
Has diving into this topic changed the way you think or write about history?
What was eye-opening was to first read the historical accounts of Guadalcanal or Tarawa or Saipan that detailed generic troop movements and the battles that were waged on those islands. After speaking with the surviving Thieves, those battles became much more personal knowing what those men went through and what they sacrificed for the United States. It was no longer Guadalcanal, it was Dad’s buddies Bill Jewell and Larry Le Sage getting killed, one by a sniper’s bullet the other by a land mine. On Tarawa, it was his best and most respected buddy from Officers’ Candidate School, Pappy Morehead, whose landing craft hit an underwater mine. On Saipan it was another OC buddy Joe Dulcich having his spine severed by shrapnel, his company Captain Harry Edwards dying when the Navy mistook a campfire at his company HQ and dropped a 500lb bomb on it….and five boys from his platoon dying in combat. And not only the names, but those names were accompanied by faces in sepia-toned photographs.
Was there anything you discovered that was difficult for you to digest or confront?
The hardest thing to digest was the damage done to these 18- and 19-year-old boys. In two brief years, they had lived a lifetime. I suppose it’s no different for the brave young men and women who serve our country today.
All of my old Leathernecks would suffer nightmares even into their 90s. That made this project a double-edged sword—knowing that interviewing these men and them telling of their war experiences could spur recurrences of their terrible nightmares. Nonetheless, the surviving Thieves were undaunted in the opening of old wounds to share their stories despite the nightmares, whether it was Roscoe Mullins’s of the officers tomb, or Bob Smotts chasing Japanese through the elephant grass, or Marvin Strombo’s and his first banzai.
And these young men had to come home after the war and pretend like nothing happened. There was no one to talk to who could understand. Roscoe Mullins told me that when he came home and he tried to tell people what it was like and how he had to live, “No one believed me.”
Drinking became the only way of coping. Roscoe thought that he might have to spend the rest of his life as a drunk. Fortunately, he did not. After Saipan Dad’s letters to his wife focused on his drinking escapades. In one letter from his wife, she expressed concern about his drinking. His reply: “Don’t worry about my drinking. If we didn’t drink out here, we would all be mental cases. It helps us get through this.”
Upon coming home, some could not adjust. One member of the platoon’s demons were so great, he drank himself to death by the age of 40.
Did you learn anything new and more personal about your father while writing and interviewing for this book, and what was that experience like?
Everything I learned about my father while researching the 40 Thieves was a revelation, because he rarely spoke of his experiences in the Pacific. I learned more about my father from the men with whom he served then I ever did from him. Bob Smotts put it best when he said, “No one ever talked much about the war. Personally, I never did because I thought I was beyond redemption for the things that I had done. Killing is nothing to brag about. And I’ll tell you one thing that you can take to the bank - those that brag the most about the things that they done, did the least.”
What was it like reconnecting with your father through others’ memories of him?
Meeting all the old members of my father’s platoon was something I will cherish for the rest of my life. They were amazing men with amazing stories. With every one of them I feel that they are “my boys” in proxy and think of them only as a “crazy bunch of kids who could give a damn.” I have developed many second families.
Why do you think your father never told you about his experiences in the military? Do you wish he had?
It is now evident why my father never spoke of the war. In a letter home to his wife Roxie, he said “No one knows what it’s like to be in direct contact with the enemy. To lose an arm or a leg is something that you can learn to live with, but the loss of your soul is something you never may recover. You won’t know until the day you meet your maker.”
I believe nightmares were another reason why no one ever wanted to speak of their war experiences. To wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with your heart thumping away…it’s nothing you can explain to a wife or a child.
I do regret every moment that I didn’t find out about this before my father’s passing, because there are more pointed questions I would’ve liked to ask him about the various stories that his men told, for clarification, to get his input from their lieutenant’s point of view.
I hope that 40 Thieves on Saipan has done my father and his boys justice.
Itching to learn more? Read Tachovsky's 40 Thieves on Saipan now!
Featured photo courtesy of Regnery Publishing