PEORIA -- When Harold Berg signed up for the Marines in 1942, the war wasn't looking too good for the Allies.
"After Pearl Harbor, just about every boy my age wanted to get into the war," said the 91-year-old Berg recently. "We were angry for the Japanese killing all our sailors, soldiers and Marines.
"It might not be politically correct, but I wanted to fight the Japanese," he said.
Berg, formerly of Normal but who now lives in Peoria, is one of three surviving men who were part of an experiment by the Marines to create elite Raider units that would lay the foundation for special operations in the U.S. military. Though they were in existence for only two years, the Marine Raiders created a lasting legacy that continues today with the recent renaming of the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations units to Raiders.
Consider this: When the four Raider battalions were folded back into Marine infantry units, the nearly 8,000 men earned seven Medals of Honor, 141 Navy Crosses and 330 Silver Stars. They also earned 2,406 Purple Hearts during their two years.
"Every day I think about it, it's a part of you and it makes you think about what you have done and what you have been," Berg said.
To appreciate how important the Raiders were, one needs to go back to late 1941 and the beginning of 1942. Following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese rolled from victory to victory. The Battle for Coral Sea, the first one where the two sides didn't see each other except by plane, was a stalemate. The Japanese took Bataan, Wake Island and Guam. After years of being on the sidelines, the United States brought its industrial might and its huge population to bear but it would take time.
Enter the Raiders, a new concept for the United States. It was borrowed, in part, from the British, who had their own commando units and was seen as a way to bring the fight directly to the Japanese and to offset their larger numbers and experience. Berg dropped out of Woodruff High School as a junior and enlisted in the Marines when he was 17.
In a video made for the Marine Corps, he said he joined after some "good looking Marines came to my high school and spoke on stage."
"They told us what we 17-year-olds wanted to hear" about being a Marine," he said a few years ago. "We knew as Marines we would have one job -- to fight.
He volunteered for and was accepted into the 1st Raider Battalion, whose mission was to conduct small unit raids. Essentially, they were to land on Japanese-held islands before the main force of Marines, disrupt the beach defenses and to cause as many causalities and destruction as they could. They were on their own, without much support.
"I was proud to get in the Raiders. We Raiders knew we would be the first in and the last out. I went to New Caledonia and then on to Guadalcanal," he said of his first taste of combat. He walked ashore Guadalcanal in early 1943, well after the main battle was over but while thousands of Japanese were still on the island. He was involved, he said, in the "mopping up" process.
But it was brutal. Casualty rates were 50 percent to 60 percent. Guam, he said, was a particularly fierce fight. He was bayoneted in the leg by a Japanese solider, earning him his first Purple Heart.
"We were trying to get the lieutenant back to the beach and thought this Japanese soldier was dead. Well, we shot him after that," Berg said.
He was also involved with the battles for Saipan, Bouganville and New Georgia.
The Raiders were a short-lived group. It lasted two years before they were folded into regular Marine infantry units. Berg went on to join the 4th Marines Regiment, where he participated in the battles for Guam and Okinawa. He was wounded twice and received his second Purple Heart for his shoulder, hand, chest and face injuries sustained from an enemy grenade. The combat was no less fierce after he was out of the Raiders.
A squad leader in Okinawa, he had all 12 men either killed or wounded during the battle.
His regiment, the 4th Marines, was chosen to be the Corps' representative at the signing of the peace treaty with Japan that was held on the USS Missouri. So he and about 900 other Marines stood attention at a nearby parade ground with the massive battleship in their view.
And while the Raiders' experiment ended, their legacy didn't. Their work laid the foundation for special operations here in the United States and that can be seen in the recent renaming of the Marines Special Operations Command from MARSOC to the Marine Raiders. Berg was able to go to the ceremony in North Carolina last year where that renaming was done and where the legacy that he and his buddies earned was passed down to the current generation.
"The new Raiders are like we were; they are anxious for action. I was mighty glad to see MARSOC training. The Marine Corps is the best organization to teach you to fight," he said recently.
Bill Eudaly, a spokesman for the United States Raiders Association, said people like Berg are living treasures.
"Faced with an implacable enemy in the Pacific, these men volunteered for an extremely perilous mission and acquitted themselves with courage, character, and fortitude," he said. "As Raiders, they also pioneered a type of warfare that is a model for special forces in all branches of our service today."
And after the war, he did what many veterans did, come back home, go to work, raise a family and melt back into society. He spent 40 years as an insurance adjuster for Country Companies in Normal and returned to Peoria in 2008.
Oh, and that high school diploma, check that off the list. Berg said he received his degree a "year or two ago."
And while he might be lauded as a hero by others, he disowns that statement, saying softly but firmly: "We know where the real heroes are. They are buried in areas all over the Pacific. Those are the real heroes."