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James E. Cashatt, USMC

By Charlie Knight, Military Curator for the North Carolina Museum of History

Image: Lt. James E. Cashatt.

James Cashatt was the star of the football and baseball teams at High Point College in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The oldest of 11 children, he grew up on a farm near Trinity in Randolph County. After graduating from High Point, he went on to teach and coach football at Staley High School. Then World War II intervened.

Cashatt wanted to enlist, but as he was colorblind, he failed the Army’s vision test; however, he not only passed the Marine Corps test, he was accepted into Officer Candidate School at Quantico, VA. After OCS he was sent to Camp Lejeune for several months in early 1943, then across the county to Camp Pendleton, CA, where he was assigned to the 24th Marines of the newly-formed 4th Marine Division. From there, it was on to the Pacific to fight the Japanese.

Cashatt and his comrades in the 4th Marine Division first experienced combat at Roi-Namur in the Marshall Islands in February 1944. That summer, US forces moved northwest to attack the Marianas Islands. In June, the division fought at Saipan, then in late July went ashore on the neighboring island of Tinian. As Lt. Cashatt made his way along the beach soon after landing on Tinian, he was very nearly killed when the soldier beside him stepped on a land mine; Cashatt was blown several yards back into the surf by the explosion, which rendered him unconscious and wounded his hand. But rather than seek medical treatment in the rear, Cashatt rejoined his platoon in combat on the island. He received the Purple Heart for his wounds.

After clearing the Japanese from the Marianas, planning began in earnest for the final push against the Japanese home islands. Attention focused on a small volcanic island known as Iwo Jima, to serve as a staging area for both the invasion force and the supporting air units. The resulting battle for the island produced some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire war.

Image: Japanese Goggles from Iwo Jima.

As the initial waves of Marines went ashore at Iwo Jima in February 1945, Cashatt oversaw the unloading of supporting weapons and equipment on the black sand beaches. When the battalion quartermaster was killed, Cashatt was tapped as his replacement.

In many instances, he served as his own courier, running messages between battalion and company command posts; in doing so, he risked not only enemy fire, but friendly fire as well from nervous new recruits who fired at any movement or sound near their foxhole. At least one man in Cashatt’s unit was killed by such friendly fire. “They had just brought in replacements, fresh from training, only about 18 years old or so and they were scared to death,” he remembered. “It was unfortunate, but that was war.”

American losses exceeded 26,000 at Iwo Jima, approximately 1/3 of those engaged and more than the total number of Japanese troops stationed there. Admiral Chester Nimitz famously spoke of those who fought on Iwo, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Cashatt received the Bronze Star for his actions on the island.

He was discharged from the Marines soon after Iwo and returned home to North Carolina where he saw his now 2 ½ year old daughter for the first time. He remained in the Marine Corps Reserves until 1958, retiring with the rank of major. After the war, he joined Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company and retired as a regional manager in 1972, but – like many veterans – he seldom spoke of his wartime experiences: “I don’t talk about it much because I don’t even like to think about it.”

James Cashatt passed away in 2014 at the age of 95 and his family recently donated to the NC Museum of History many items from his time in the Pacific, where they help to honor and remember not only his service, but that of everyone who has served in the American military.