U.S. Marines stepped through a layer of ash that went midway up their calves, taking in the ruined landscape in front of them.
Nothing remained standing in the area that had once been Nagasaki, Japan. As far as anyone could see, everything had been pulverized.
Roy Nicoloff, a member of the 2nd Marine Division, was part of the first group of U.S. forces to come to Japan in the days following the end of World War II. As he surveyed the destruction, something caught his eye.
“We’re walking around in the ash and the dust, and there isn’t anything there, except for one Buddhist temple that was standing. Everything else was flat,” he said.
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Nicoloff, now 91, can remember with crisp detail the experiences he had as a Marine during the war. The Greenwood resident recalls the savage fighting at the landing on Saipan, clearing the caves and ravines of Tinian and dodging kamikaze assaults at Okinawa.
He was never seriously injured in battle, though he has scars from wounds that could have been much worse. He was wounded in the leg once during fighting at Saipan, struck by a stray bullet while carrying 500 rounds of machine gun ammunition to a gun pit.
“I got to the pit, and don’t know anything about getting hit. We get the machine gun loaded up, and I started moving around, and felt something. I take my shoe off, it’s full of blood,” he said. “But I didn’t feel it.”
At Tinian, a bullet struck his helmet, and a small piece of metal scratched him on the forehead. Again, he didn’t even know that he had been hit until a fellow soldier commented on the blood on his face.
“Right place, right time. It was just pure luck. An inch here or there, and it’s something totally different,” he said.
Being a Marine has defined Nicoloff throughout his life. He wears a watch with the branch’s distinctive Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem. That same image hangs in his window.
His license plate includes the number 222: a nod to his service in the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division.
Nicoloff joined the Marines in 1943 when he was 17 years old, growing up in the Fountain Square area of Indianapolis. He had a part-time job as an usher at Fountain Square Theatre, where he would watch the newsreels that showed updates from the war effort before each movie.
He listened with fascination to the reports of Marines storming the beaches at Guadalcanal, and resolved that when he joined the war effort, it would be with the Marine Corps.
Initially, he tried to enlist following Pearl Harbor, but at 123 pounds, he was told to put on some muscle and bulk before signing up again.
“The sergeant laughed at me and said, ‘Kid, go home, eat some bananas and drink a lot of water. So that’s what I did, muscling up,” he said.
Nicoloff went through boot camp in San Diego, before boarding a ship for Hawaii. Every Marine, from cooks to telecommunications experts, is trained as a rifleman, and after graduating from rifle school, Nicoloff was tabbed as a machine-gunner.
By early 1944, he was on his way to the battle front.
His unit was bound for the Marianas Islands, a group that included Guam, Saipan and Tinian. The 2nd Marines had suffered heavy loses on a tiny spot of land called Tarawa, and he would be part of the reinforcements as the Marines continued island-jumping through the Pacific.
Even the process of reaching the theater of battle was harrowing. Nicoloff and his division were in Honolulu Harbor, Hawaii, part of a convoy of troop ships. As they loaded up with ammo, food and other supplies, a spark from one of the welding projects on a nearby ship ignited a fire. The subsequent explosion killed about 25 Marines.
His service only got more dangerous. The first engagement that Nicoloff experienced was at Saipan.
“Even today, when I close my eyes, it’s about the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, with the rolling hills and fields of sugar cane,” he said.
The romanticism of the place would quickly change. On June 15, 1944, the Marines faced fierce fighting from Japanese soldiers bunkered into the island, protecting a crucial airstrip. Once captured, U.S. forces could launch bomber raids to pummel the Japanese mainland.
By the time the American flag had been raised on Mt. Tapotchau and the island secured, more than 3,000 U.S. troops had been killed.
“They were sitting on top of that mountain with artillery pieces, shooting at us like sitting ducks on a pond,” Nicoloff said. “They were really dug in.”
Significantly fewer Japanese soldiers were defending the next island, Tinian. A majority of them had been called to be reinforcements at Saipan, so the defending forces were depleted.
“It made it easier for us to take that mountain, because they just didn’t have the amount of people,” Nicoloff said.
The final battle that Nicoloff was involved in was at Okinawa, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater during the war. The island would have been the staging point for a potential invasion of Japan.
With a vast network of caves and underground bunkers, the fighting was again fierce and bloody. But learning from past campaigns, the Marines developed strategies to gain the upper hand.
“They had an awful lot of caves and underground stuff in Okinawa,” Nicoloff said. “But they have the experience that, the best thing to do with a cave was to put a flamethrower in it. Don’t go any farther. If they’re shooting out of the cave, let them shoot, but throw a few blocks of TNT in. That’ll quiet them down.”
With this group of Pacific islands secured, U.S. forces started making preparations for the inevitable invasion of Japan in 1945. But after dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered and the war was over.
Nicoloff and other Marines were instead sent to the country to occupy it, keeping rule and helping stabilize the country in the months following the war.
After returning from Japan in December 1945, he finished earning his high school degree and went to work as a printer. He worked for the Indianapolis Times and later the Indianapolis Star before retiring. He was called back into duty during the Korean War, serving in the Marines for one final year.
Despite approaching his 92nd birthday in July, he remains active around the community. He connects to Marines and other World War II veterans, sharing stories of their military lives and bonding over the service to their country.
Every morning for the last 10 years, he heads to the Greenwood Park Mall to walk for a few miles. He credits it with keeping his mind and body sharp, along with trying to live a healthy lifestyle.
“There’s no special diet or anything else; I’m just one of the lucky ones,” he said.
Branch of service: U.S. Marine Corps
Years of service: 1943-1945; 1950
Unit: G-Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Unit, 2nd Marine Division