OKEECHOBEE -- Born in Osceola, Ark., on May 12, 1925, James “Jay” Wigginton worked in a drugstore jerking sodas until he was old enough to join the Marines. He said he kept hearing about the Marines and decided that was the place for him, and when he turned 17, his mother signed so he could join. He couldn’t wait to join, he said, but afterward, he wished he had kept his big mouth shut!
Four guys joined from that area, but they didn’t know it until they ran into each other over on one of the islands. Mr. Wigginton wrote a story for the hometown newspaper about that later in life. He has always enjoyed writing and wrote many stories about his war experiences over the years.
He went to four different bases before he saw combat. His basic training was at Parris Island in South Carolina, followed by Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and then Oceanside, Calif., before ending up at Camp Pendleton. “We had to do a lot of training to be one of the first teams to hit the beach,” he said. He was a member of the 4th Marine Division, which was the first to go directly into combat from the United States. “When you got a battleship slinging shells 16 inches in diameter, you can’t make many mistakes. We needed that training,” he said. He was a gunman and carried a Browning automatic rifle. He said he didn’t miss very often, but sometimes he wished he had.
“The first island we hit was one of the Marshall Islands,” said Mr. Wigginton. “ I told an officer that I heard digging. It was the Japanese trying to dig deeper to get away from the shelling. We had landed right on top of a bunch of ’em.”
One of the worst memories of Saipan was of what happened after they defeated the Japanese there. The Japanese civilians threw their own wives and children off the cliffs and then jumped to their own deaths on Banzai and Suicide cliffs because they were afraid they would be tortured. Over 29,000 Japanese were killed, he said, and America lost almost 5,000. That battle took about 30 days, and they were trying to take Mount Tapotchau, he explained. Another memory of Saipan was of the sugar factory blowing up and how sticky all the streets were, he said.
In between battles, they had a home base on Maui, in Hawaii, and it was beautiful. They lived in squad tents in a pineapple field, and the people there loved them. They practiced their maneuvers there, and he learned some important combat phrases while he was there such as “Boo-kee-oh, oh-toe-say,” which means “Drop your weapons,” and “Toe-mah-ray,” which means “Stop.” They also learned about the Japanese and their methods of fighting. The Japanese were very good at night fighting, he said. They would sneak in and slit a throat without making a sound.
After the battle on Tinian, the Japanese did the same thing they did on Saipan. They threw their wives and children off the cliffs, but then the mayor told them it was safe to surrender , so most of the civilians did.
Mr. Wigginton said he felt that the fighting that went on at Iwo Jima was one of the most important battles fought in the war. Iwo Jima was not very big, he said — 8 square miles. They didn’t think it would be too difficult to take it, but it turned out to be a lot harder than they thought because the Japanese had the perfect spot to observe everything — Mount Suribachi. It was over 500 feet high, he explained, and was on a dormant volcano. They could hardly move forward because the sand was so loose. Marines were being hit all around them. It was very difficult to move through the artillery and mortar fire. “So many men died within the first two hours after we landed on the beach,” he said. “Most of the Marines who raised that flag on Iwo Jima died on Iwo Jima later that day,” he said. They estimated 25,000 Japanese died there and over 6,500 Marines and other U.S. military. The battle had to be fought, though, he said. Iwo Jima had two airfields, and Japanese fighter pilots used them to launch attacks on American bombers.
The island is 670 miles south of Tokyo, and the Americans were determined to capture it so they could use it as a landing zone. Everyone who landed on Iwo Jima in the first eight days was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, he said. “One sight I wish someone had taken a picture of,” he said, “was of one of our bombers that had flown over Iwo Jima. They’d blown it to pieces.
There was a big hole in the side of it, and I will never forget seeing this guy standing in that hole and waving us toward the beach.”
On their way back to Maui, they went through the tail end of a typhoon, he said, and they had to take refuge on Guam. When they finally got back to the ship, he had a meal of beans baked in ketchup, which he said was the best meal of his life. He was so hungry, and he hadn’t bathed in a month, so he stunk — they all did, but they were alive.
When he returned home, he met his wife Wanda, “the Boss,” and he said one day she asked him when he was going to get married. He said, “Oh, I don’t know, as soon as I find someone silly enough to ask me.” And she replied, “I’m asking.” He didn’t answer her then, he said. He went home to think about it, but he went back later and asked her if she would be ready when he got back. She asked him, “Ready for what?” “To get married,” he said. And she said, “Yeah.” So, he went to city hall and asked for a marriage license but was told he would have to wait three days before they could get married. He asked the clerk, “If I give you $10, will you backdate it?” And he did! They were married on Oct. 17, and this year will celebrate their 72nd anniversary. “If I had it to do over, I’d marry her again,” he said.
Although he will celebrate his 94th birthday in May, he hasn’t slowed down at all. It is not uncommon for his neighbors to find him on his roof taking care of some home repair or another. One neighbor threatened to call the police if he saw Mr. Wigginton up there again, but he just replied, “You might as well go ahead and call now, then.” He enjoys buying homes, fixing them up and then selling them. At the age of 90, he was the first heart patient to receive a valve through the groin. He said his bullheaded refusal to undergo surgery saved a lot of future patients from surgery. The Wiggintons have three children — son James Newton Wigginton, who lives in Okeechobee, and daughters Jo Clarisse Lietzke, who lives in South Carolina, and Samantha Lynn Quinlin, who lives in Okeechobee. They have 20 grandchildren, great- and great-great-grandchildren.