The Moultrie Observer
If you know where to look, you can see Bill Ubertacci’s medals when he opens the front door of his Southwest Moultrie home. They’re displayed in a handsome frame along with a World War II-era photo of him in his Marine Corps uniform and other memorabilia of his time in the Corps.
Ubertacci, who turns 91 in December, waited a long time to get those medals.
The Morristown, N.J., native joined the Marines in 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor. He was 21 years old, one of seven children of an Italian immigrant.
Asked why he enlisted, he becomes emotional. “My father came to this country …” his voice trails off in a sob. “We just had to go.”
His four brothers also enlisted — Pete and Ralph in the Navy and Ignace and Rocco in the Army.
Ubertacci trained at Parris Island and Camp LeJune — which was then called “Tent City.” After that he was off to Camp Elliott and the newly opened Camp Pendleton, both in California. More training followed in New Zealand before his unit — G Company, 2nd Battalion, 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division — headed for a place called Guadalcanal.
Allied forces took the island of Guadalcanal from the Japanese in February 1943. The 3rd Marine Division landed there later in the year and received more training before being thrust into the war.
Ubertacci and his comrades charged the beach on Bougainville Island in November 1943. As one of his company’s scouts, Ubertacci was the absolute “point of the spear” for the invasion.
“In front of me was the enemy and nobody else, not even my company,” he recalls.
Although there were Army troops on Bougainville, the bulk of the fighting fell to the Marines.
“We saw our first action at Bougainville Island,” Ubertacci says. “After we secured the island, we went back to Guadalcanal for rest and more training.”
Ubertacci celebrated his 23rd birthday on Bougainville Island. The Army relieved the Marines a few days later, on Dec. 28, and the 3rd Marine Division prepared for the next jump in the “island hopping” campaign, Saipan. But the military’s plan changed, and the 3rd Marines were routed to the island of Guam instead. Once again, Ubertacci’s company was among the first Marines to hit the beach in July 1944.
“We were able to see them [the Japanese defenders] after we landed, after we dug in,” he recalls. “And naturally they saw us too. That night all hell broke loose.”
The Battle of Guam lasted less than three weeks but resulted in 1,747 American deaths and more than 18,000 fatalities among the Japanese, largely because the defenders refused to surrender; fewer than 500 prisoners were taken.
Ubertacci produces a newspaper article by Tech Sgt. Jeremiah A. O’Leary, a combat correspondent, who wrote about one incident on Sugar Bluff during the Battle of Guam.
“The Marines on No. 1 machine gun didn’t have a chance, and they knew it that night on the ridge,” O’Leary wrote, “but they manned their guns one after another until 10 of them were hit …”
Of those 10 Marines hit by mortar fire, snipers or Japanese machine guns, O’Leary reports six were killed.
“These Marines were in my company,” Ubertacci says. “They were all my close friends. We got Margolis away from there, but he was dying. Before he died, he asked us to sing the national anthem to him before he died, and we did the best we could with it.”
Master Gunnery Sgt. Israel Margolis was the last of the machine gun’s crew to be killed or wounded, but O’Leary’s account continues with other Marines taking their place.
“The company’s first sergeant, Herbert Sweet of Troy, N.Y., who didn’t have to do it, darted up the ridge, threw himself down behind No. 1 and put her back in action again,” O’Leary reported. “He and Margolis had been friends.
“More mortar shells rained down and 1st Sgt. Sweet was wounded by a shell which should have demolished the gun but, miraculously, didn’t.”
Ubertacci was one of the Marines who brought Sweet down from Sugar Bluff as two other Marines, PFCs John J. Doerr and Albert J. Newby, dashed to the machine gun. A mortar shell landed atop the machine gun, O’Leary reported, killing Doerr, wounding Newby and destroying the gun.
Sweet survived the war and went on to become sergeant major of the Marine Corps, the Corps’ highest noncommissioned officer rank.
It wasn’t long after the battle at Sugar Bluff that the war ended for Ubertacci. Shrapnel from an explosive — a mortar shell, hand grenade, who knows? — ripped into his back.
“I don’t know how it happened,” he says. “It happened so fast.”
Ubertacci underwent surgery for his wounds and was discharged. Years later, he would need another surgery to finish the job and save him from paralysis.
After his discharge, Ubertacci returned to New Jersey. He had been working in the clothing industry before the war and he had intended to return to it, but an opportunity arose to manage a shoe store and he took that job instead. He worked to put the war behind him.
Another soldier, with whom Ubertacci had graduated from high school, returned from the war somewhat later. Because the other soldier had worked with the shoe company before enlisting, he went back to work there.
“When he got out of service, he got priority,” Ubertacci recalls, “so they made him manager and I became his assistant.”
While Ubertacci and his new boss got along well, the incident warned him that running a shoe store might not be his best career choice. He went to school to be a clothing designer, the job he’d wanted before the war began. It was a field he’d been working in for years, ever since he got a job sweeping floors at a garment factory.
“I started when I was 11 years old,” he recalls. “I was spreading cloth at 11. At 13 I was making marks for the cutters, and at 15 I was cutting. I started at the ground floor, spreading, marking and cutting.”
He went to work for MacGregor, a major clothing line, and later became head designer at Manhattan Shirt Co. In 1969 he was lured to Riverside Manufacturing, where he spent almost 20 years designing uniforms for the likes of Pepsi, United Parcel Service, Miller Brewing and others.
“All of the uniforms you see today, nine out of 10 of them are mine,” he says. “It was my initial pattern, my grading of the pattern for all sizes. … They’re still using my patterns because they’re all in the computer. The only thing that changes is the piece goods.”
Immersed in his work, Ubertacci seldom talked about his war experiences.
“The war is the last thing on my mind,” he once told a reporter. “I didn’t carry it with me, and I don’t speak much about my time in the service.”
After his retirement, though, he had time to go through some of the stuff he’d accumulated in seven decades of living, and he found a letter from the U.S. Navy, dated 1946, that said he would be issued the World War II Victory medal, the American Campaign medal, the Asiatic/Pacific Campaign with two bronze stars and the Purple Heart. He had never received the medals, so he took the letter to the Veterans Administration office in Moultrie and got help to make an inquiry about them. A second inquiry was required, but in August 2000 he received the medals he had earned more than 50 years before.
Honor delayed, but not denied.