Vincent Shuttera, 99, vividly recalls the moment he heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A green Marine barely having completed boot camp, he was hanging out at the USO (United Service Organization) in Los Angeles, after a long day on the riffle shooting range and a fun night roaming the streets of Hollywood.
Shuttera knew war was on the horizon when he’d signed up to serve a few months prior. A Modesto native and truck driver by trade, then 23-year-old Shuttera was gung-ho to join the fight and signed up as a Marine in September of 1941. Technically too tall for that branch—the cut off was 6-foot-3 and he had an extra inch on him—Shuttera was waived through with a wink from his recruiter, who told him as long as he could fit in the uniform, all would be fine. Six weeks of bootcamp and a “Dear John letter”—the first in his group, he said—Shuttera was officially in and ready to load up and head to defend the United States holdings at Guadalcanal.
Classified as the driver of a tank destroyer with a .75 mm gun on it due to his area of expertise as a civilian, Shuttera first made his mark in a big way just days before President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. Recently dumped by his girl back home, he took to the pistol range and let out the stress weighing him down, and to his surprise, he was among the top marksmen in his unit.
“Every cloud has a silver lining and well I got that ‘Dear John letter’ and had to fire the .45 pistol for record the next day,” Shuttera said. “I had been firing what you would call mediocre in practice, but out of the 40 or so of us who fired for record that day, I was fourth from the top.”
Full of fire and drive, Shuttera said he assumed after returning to base straight from the USO per orders he would be immediately shipped out to the South Pacific. Instead, he was rerouted from the infantry to the second regimen and spent a couple more weeks in training down in San Diego as fellow Marines sailed out right away to aid in the Battle of Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. Instead of being sent as reinforcements for the latter, Shuttera and his companions went to Oceanside to form a new camp—known today as Camp Pendleton. But as soon as he arrived, the plan changed again.
“We got about half unloaded when the horn came on and said ‘now hear this: load up!,’” Shuttera said. “That is how fast things were moving. We got on a transport ship called the Crescent City and we were in a company called regimental weapons along with headquarters company and we were a target but they [the Japanese fighter planes] didn’t get us.”
Shuttera said no one knew where they were headed, but it turned out to be the island of Guadalcanal, where the Japanese were in the process of building an airbase, which would have cut the United States off from Australia and New Zealand. After winning the Battle of Midway, Shuttera said the Japanese construction of the critical base slowed and it was now time for the Marines to embark on the island and destroy the progress the Japanese had already made.
“We were at sea a month before we finally landed, but my ship didn’t land, we got chased out and came back a little later,” Shuttera said. “Oct. 7, 1942 was the initial landing at Guadalcanal, two strings of islands close together. The Japanese had a sea base over at Tulagi Island, a very small island, and then there were the Florida islands, a little bigger but jammed together … what a lovely sight it was when we cruised into the islands seeing the swaying palm trees. It wasn’t so pretty when you got ashore.”
Shuttera described his duties on Guadalcanal as if they were just cleaning up the place—“we did the mop up”—and after disassembling the potential Japanese stronghold, the Marines began to set up the allies defense. Luckily, Shuttera was never in the line of fire, save for when his whole company was attacked while aboard the transport. However, from his spot on Guadalcanal, he could see all the Naval battles being fought—some of which the United States won and others which is seemingly lost. The devastation along the water was great, he said. In fact, the area was dubbed Iron Bottom Sound after the Battle of Savo Island by sailors because over 50 war ships had sunk in that small area.
On the one occasion when the ship Shuttera was on was attacked—a mere day or two after landing—he said somehow the transport ship was able to shoot down at least four Japanese aircraft that were after them.
“For a transport that’s incredible, a cruiser is lucky if it can shoot down one of them let alone a transporter,” Shuttera said. “One of them we got a direct hit with a 3-inch gun off the starboard bow and hit the plane right in the nose and the plane dropped right beside the ship. We didn’t get a scratch.”
Shuttera’s stretch in Guadalcanal was six months and the entire time, he said it was nip and tuck who was going to win.
“We would start to win and then have some bad luck and the casualties probably averaged 10 to 1 in our favor because the Japanese troops didn’t know how to fight, they were so used to making a big charge and everything thinking we would melt, but the Marines didn’t melt,” Shuttera said. “They came over in droves and we would line up machine guns and .45 mm guns, about a one-inch shell and load it with canisters like big pellets or shot guns so they could use a canister for an explosion and Japanese troops would be piled up like scorched wood after some of the battles and then they’d keep on coming. There were several battles before the Japanese learned how to fight, but the Japanese had not lost a land battle for over 1,000 so they thought they were invincible.
“After the Battle of Savo Island, where we lost so many ships, the Navy decided to really haul. What was important was our aircraft carriers were not in the battle, they were out somewhere out of harm’s way so we didn’t lose any carriers, just lots of cruisers.”
After his six months in Guadalcanal, Shuttera served on the base in New Zealand, where he trained for the next series of battles and reinforced new recruits. Before joining his group in Tarawa, however, Shuttera was sent back to the states to treat a life-threatening case of malaria.
“I got back to the states in July of 1943, so I was in New Zealand about three or four months,” Shuttera said.
As it turned out, Shuttera was deemed too ill to return to the South Pacific and after spending a year in hospitals in Oak Knoll and Santa Cruz, he was honorably discharged from the service.
At that point, Shuttera moved back to Modesto and went to work moving dirt using caterpillar tractors, scrapers and bulldozers, leveling out farmland for irrigation. His work brought him to Fresno in the mid-50s, where he met his later wife at a dance held at Elks Lodge. He had two kids with her and already had two from a previous marriage. Today, Shuttera is a proud grandfather of five and great-grandfather to many more.
A proud veteran, Shuttera has been a speaker at Boys State and regularly attends veterans meetings at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District. His favorite hobby is reading.
At 99 years young, Shuttera said he has to keep socializing and reading the keep his mind sharp as he wants to hang in there until his 100th birthday on April 11, 2018.