Cousins Become Brothers in Arms
By Samantha L. Quigley
Their lives ran parallel for a while. They were cousins who farmed during the summers, hunted on the family’s land and worked factory jobs during cold Michigan winters.
Both sporting dark hair, they shared the family build—tall enough and big enough to take care of themselves. They had similar skills and interests, and it’s no wonder. From a tight-knit, German immigrant family, they were more like brothers than cousins.
Despite their heritage, George and Russell Gobba shared another very important trait—the collective sentiment of young men in the early 1940s. They were ready to fight for their country.
George was 19 when he enlisted in the Marine Corps on March 20, 1943. After completing basic training, he was assigned to the 4th Marine Division, which fought in the battles of Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. However, pneumonia kept him from deploying with his unit. When he recovered, he was reassigned to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division.
It was with this unit that Private First Class George Gobba saw action on Saipan, Tarawa and Tinian as a BAR man. The Browning Automatic Rifle was a beast to carry, weighing between 13 and 24 pounds depending on the model, but was often the most appreciated member of an ambushed fire team.
Just 10 days before the Battle of Saipan, Russell, 18, enlisted in the Navy, according to his younger brother, Richard. But the Marine Corps, under the Department of the Navy and badly in need of able-bodied men, snapped up all the big farm boys. There were two reasons for this, Richard said. They were used to hard, manual labor and they were good shots. In fact, George ranked as an expert rifleman and Russell a sharpshooter.
Private Russell Gobba was assigned to the 4th Marine Division’s Company G, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines. The division is now part of the Marine Corps Forces Reserve. It wasn’t long before both Gobba boys were in the Pacific theater and fights of their lives.
From April 1 to April 10, 1945, George’s unit was part of the floating reserve for the Battle of Okinawa. He survived Kamikaze attacks that took out several boats in his column, but the Marines of Company G never went ashore, instead returning to Saipan until they were needed elsewhere.
For months before the Battle of Okinawa took place, the American forces pounded Iwo Jima with naval bombardments and air raids in preparation for an amphibious assault by the Marines. The USS Mifflin was among the ships that carried Marines, including Russell, to the island’s shore on February 19. The ship remained for a week, offloading cargo and taking on casualties. Her landing party was hard hit on the first day of the assault, suffering 14 wounded and three missing.
Russell was lucky. He survived the first day of fighting. In fact, he fought for 18 days before he was wounded March 8. Initially, the gunshot wound to his back—which caused grave medical complications beyond the waist-down paralysis he suffered—was treated at a nearby medical facility. Infection and the prognosis of a long recovery prompted his transfer to a military hospital in Hawaii.
Though in an oxygen tent to ease his breathing, he seemed to be recovering when he succumbed to his wounds on July 17, 1945.
Unaware of his cousin’s fate, George was being prepped to participate in the invasion of Japan, officially codenamed Operation Downfall. As the story goes, he was to be the second man off the second boat in the second wave of the invasion if the operation had launched, which would have sealed his fate.
Atomic bombs ended the war in the Pacific and stopped Operation Downfall in its tracks, saving George’s life. But an occupation force was needed and Company G, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division arrived in Nagasaki, Japan, on September 23, 1945.
In a letter to his future wife, George described his unit’s camp near Nagasaki.
“It used to be a [Japanese] officer training camp. Some of the barracks were damaged by the atom bomb,” he wrote on September 28, 1945.
He was promoted to corporal in October and by January 7, 1945, he was stateside, honorably discharged and heading home.
The death of his cousin piled higher the horrors of war, adding a pall of survivor’s guilt. Like many who fought during World War II, he fully never shook the ghosts of his experiences before passing away October 3, 1986. He was 61.
—Samantha L. Quigley is editor in chief of On Patrol magazine and George Gobba’s granddaughter. This story originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
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