Known for his heroics as “One Man Army Klein”, or OMAK to his buddies, Artie Klein served in the 106th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division for all of its Pacific War campaigns. Klein was recommended not once, but twice, for the Medal of Honor for acts of conspicuous bravery during the battle for Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands, and again at Okinawa. The reason why Artie Klein was not awarded the Medal of Honor was due to anti-Antisemitism pervasive in the US Military at the time. Klein was a professional enlisted man who joined the Army during the pre-war years at the age of 14. After the attack on Pearl Harbor he was made sergeant, and was later forced to accept a commission. Over the course of the fighting across the Pacific he rose in rank, and at the time of the Okinawa Campaign was a captain – company commander of ‘B’ Company, 106th Infantry. An experienced soldier who rose through the ranks from private soldier to captain, Klein was very much well-liked and respected by his men. The account that follows about Captain Klein and Baker Company’s incredible attack on Machinato Escarpment was written by Edmund G. Love, a friend of Klein, and US Army combat historian who authored the official divisional history of the 27th Infantry Division in WW2. The article that Love authored is significantly longer and documents Klein’s entire Pacific War service, but only the portion concerning the Battle of Okinawa (and some brief background information about Klein) is reproduced here.
In the 30 years or more since I served as a combat historian in World War II, the question most frequently asked of me is, “Who was the best soldier you ever knew?” The answer is easy: Artie Klein.
I first met Artie Klein at the battle for Eniwetok. He was then 33 years old, a veteran of 18 1/2 years of service in the U.S. Army. He stood five feet, 11 inches tall and was squarely built with narrow shoulders and narrow hips. The beginnings of a beer belly bulged over the top of his pants. He had wide, soft brown eyes, almost doe eyes. He had a slightly hooked nose and skeptical smile that he bestowed on very rare occasions.
He walked with small, mincing steps and wore his overseas cap perched just over the right eyebrow, the way a tough would wear it. And make no mistake about it, Artie Klein was a tough in spite of that innocent pair of eyes. There was something of the clown about him. He had a sardonic sense of humor and was prone to making wisecracks which displayed the worldly wisdom he had picked up in the old regular Army.
Artie Klein was a Jew. He was born in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the son of an immigrant father and mother. Shortly before World War I, Artie’s father joined the New York National Guard and served in France with the 106th Infantry, a Brooklyn regiment. During his overseas service, the older Klein was promoted to sergeant, an honor of such magnitude for an immigrant Jew that it could not be ignored.
He was proud of those stripes and grateful to the country that bestowed them upon him. He reenlisted after the war and stayed in the Army for 20 years. He moved about from Army post to Army post, spending his furloughs with his wife and son in the little flat that nestled under the Williamsburg bridge.
The result of his long absences from home was a son who was largely undisciplined. Artie ran loose in the Brooklyn streets. He was a leader of street gangs, a brawler and devoted to petty crime. He quit school as soon as it was legally permissible. When it became apparent that he was going to be sent to reform school, he took the only step he could think of: he lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army. He was just 14 years old.
…The 27th Division went into the attack on Okinawa on the morning of 19 April, 1945. The division’s objective was to capture a ridge line known as the Machinato Escarpment, the northern anchor of the main Japanese defensive position on the island. In a complicated maneuver designed to take the escarpment from the flank, it was necessary to send a rifle company along the face of a sheer cliff to clear out a network of cave and pillbox positions so that the rest of the division would have room to deploy.
It was an action that would have to be accomplished without any heavy support. All the men would have to work with were rifles, grenades, and bayonets and a few satchel charges. Baker Co., 106th Infantry, was chosen for the task.
On the day before the attack, I went up to a forward observation post to look over the situation and found Klein there with two of his sergeants. I sensed at once he was a different man. His little potbelly was gone and the cocky belligerence was no longer there. He was all business and I didn’t hear him say “youse men” once.
When I turned to leave he came over and shook my hand and thanked me. When I asked him what he was thanking me for, he just shrugged and said, “Well, for being a friend, I guess.”
Beginning at dawn the next morning, Baker Co., with Klein in the lead, began moving along the cliff face. For two days, sometimes clinging to rocks or bushes, at other times moving hand over hand, they scrambled along. In the end they had wiped out a whole Japanese battalion. Gen. Simon B. Buckner Jr., the Tenth Army commander, later characterized this movement along the escarpment as the most masterful infantry action he had ever seen.
During that long and arduous attack down the cliff, virtually the whole attention of the 27th Division was focused on Klein and his men – not only because the attack’s success depended upon them, but because by this time Klein’s reputation was well known, and so were the dire predictions that had been made concerning his future.
There was, therefore, a general sense of relief when, on the evening of 20 April, Artie himself picked up his radio. “Sir,” he said to his regimental commander, “Baker Co. is on its objective as of this hour.”
He was ordered to dig in for the night and hold his ground. Baker Co. would be relieved at ten the next morning.
“Quite frankly,” the colonel told me afterwords, “I was relieved that Artie had gotten out of it again safely. I’d already talked it over with Gen. Hodge, the corps commander, am I intended to recommend Artie for the Medal of Honor and to relieve him of his command and get him out of there to where he’d be safe.”
The capture of Machinato Escarpment had endangered the Japanese Shuri defensive line. During the night of 20-21 April, the enemy committed a fresh battalion with the express mission of driving Baker Co. back over the cliffs. Counterattack followed counterattack all night long. Baker Co. held, strewing the ground in front of it with Japanese dead.
At about quarter of ten in the morning, regiment called Artie Klein to tell him that his relief would be a little late.
“That’s all right with me,” Artie said, “we need a little more time anyway. These jokers have been running at us all night, and some of them have got into the caves and rocks around here and they’ve got us pretty well pinned down. We know the terrain pretty well by now and we know where these clowns are. In about an hour we should have the place cleaned up.”
It was not that easy. Not long after his report to regiment, Klein called Oscar Vigan, his executive officer, over to him and pointed at a high pinnacle rock 50 yards to the front. “They’ve got good observation on us and I figure that’s where the suckers have to be,” Klein said. “What we have to do is get them busy watching something while the rest of us go get him. Somebody’s going to have to go after that rock.”
“Artie,” Vigan said, “anybody who goes after that rock is a dead man.”
Vigan said that Klein smiled and nodded. “I’ll take the rock. You get everybody ready and move in on whoever is up there when I give the signal.” And then he stuck out his hand. “Thanks.”
“For taking good care of the company.”
Klein borrowed an automatic rifle (BAR) and six grenades. He talked briefly with his sergeants, telling them what he wanted them to do. Klein was no blessed martyr. He moved forward from rock to rock, never giving the enemy a good target. Every few feet he would stop and throw a grenade off to one side or the other and then squeeze off a burst of fire from his BAR.
Somehow or other he got within five yards of the base of the pinnacle rock and he was in a position from which he could toss a grenade up into the opening he had discovered. By then the only way the Japanese could get at him was to expose themselves in the opening and fire straight down at him. He pulled the pin on the grenade and straightened up and threw it.
The Japanese were ready for him. Four or five of them showed themselves in the opening and fired straight down at him. And every man in Baker Co. was ready for them too. The Japanese soldiers were cut to pieces. In the few seconds that it took them to tumble down the face of the rock, Baker Co. let out a small cheer and then they looked for Artie Klein.
He was sitting there at the base of the rock. Twice he tried to get up and then he sank back and slowly rolled over on his side and was still. Ten minutes later Oscar Vigan called regiment on his radio.
“You can move the 3rd Battalion in now,” he said. “There isn’t a live Jap within 200 yards of us. By the way, colonel, Artie Klein is dead. He died at five minutes of 11 this morning. He was a good man, colonel. So help me, I never saw a better one.”
They brought Artie Klein’s body out two days later. They found 24 bullet wounds in it. He must have suffered most of those wounds before he tried to throw that one last grenade.
Artie Klein was buried in the 27th Division cemetery on Okinawa with full military honors. When I last visited his grave his battered old helmet still hung from a prong of the Star of David. After the Okinawa fight was over, Artie Klein was again recommended for the Medal of Honor, the only man I ever knew who was recommended twice for it. There was no one to follow up on it, and Artie was presented posthumously with something less.
Artie Klein is long forgotten now. Some years later I went to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and made a few inquiries. I found no one who had known him, but I did find his father’s grave in a cemetery. Inscribed above were the words, “Anything is possible in this country.” One set of sergeant’s stripes was painted on either side of the inscription.
The article ‘OMAK’ by Edmund G. Love was originally published in the September 1981 issue of ‘Army Magazine’, as well as in the November-December 1981 issue of ‘The Jewish Veteran’.