When Rodney Earl Walton first laid his hands on a copy of his book Big Guns, Brave Men: Mobile Artillery Observers And The Battle for Okinawa, it was the ultimate ending to a journey that began in graduate school at FIU.
Walton first began his research on the Battle of Okinawa as a master’s student studying under History Professor Darden Pyron in 1999. At this time, he had already traveled to the Japanese island twice, met with former soldiers and explored military records about the battle which his father served in. Years after graduating with his master’s degree, his sights were set on his Ph.D. In the summer of 2007, he attended a “How to Graduate” seminar hosted by Maureen Donnelly, the College of Arts & Sciences’ associate dean of graduate studies. Two years later, he submitted his dissertation for its defense.
“Dr. Walton’s document was one of the first that I ever processed from the history department. It was also the first that was ever submitted to me inside the box of a ream of paper,” Donnelly said. “At first, I was very intimidated. I ended up spending hours in a chair in my patio with my feet up becoming fascinated by the men who operated these massive guns. The fact that his dissertation was inspired partly by his life and his father made me feel a connection to the history of World War II.”
Walton, now an instructor at FIU, turned his dissertation into a book, which was published this year. Big Guns, Brave Men focuses on the vital role played by the U.S. Army’s forward artillery observers in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. For three days, the forward artillery observers would direct artillery fire against the Japanese at the front lines, while also making sure American artillery fire did not fall within U.S. lines. They would then rotate back to the artillery battery behind the lines for another three days and supervise the operation of the howitzers, a cannon-like artillery piece.
“I wrote this book to fill a niche. There isn’t another account that traces the history of front observers to this extent,” said Walton, who currently teaches at FIU. “These men have a role that needs to be recognized. I think that, almost 70 years after the war ended, we could afford to have another look at these troops who played such a pivotal role in our success.”
Walton’s father, Lt. Ray D. Walton, Jr., served in Okinawa as a forward artillery observer in 1945. During the American assault against Kakazu Ridge, he and two of his men were wounded by Japanese mortar and machine gun fire, but he still managed to administer first aid and evacuate his fellow soldiers. Despite his wounds, Walton took up his duties as an observer. He received the Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart that same year.
“The fact that my father was involved in the battle was definitely a factor in my interest on the topic,” Walton said. “My dad and I had both gone to Okinawa in 1993 and 1995 to visit the battlefields. His memory was quite good for early encounters in the battle, but as the days on the battlefield passed, his memory faded and details were very vague. To fill in the story, I searched for other soldiers to help me tell the story through their eyes.”
To mark the end of World War II’s 50th anniversary, Lt. Walton, Jr. had written numerous letters recounting his experience to each of his six children, some of which are published in Big Guns, Brave Men. Lt. Walton, Jr., a chemical engineer by trade, passed away in April of this year at the age of 92.
“I see this book as a tribute to my father and the brave men who fought alongside him, very much so,” Walton said. “It is dedicated to the U.S. Army forward observers who lost their lives in Okinawa. In a broader sense, it is a tribute to America’s ‘greatest generation’: the men who were born in the 1920s, came of age during the Great Depression and then fought World War II. They educated themselves using the GI Bill, they ended legalized racial segregation in the South and they built the interstate highway system.”
Military service is a long-standing tradition in Walton’s family, with ancestors having fought in the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Walton is a military veteran himself, having served in the Vietnam War with the U.S. Army.