Joseph Tachovsky knew that his father, Frank Tachovsky, was a Marine who served in the South Pacific during World War II. Beyond that, his dad remained secretive about his time leading a Special Operations platoon in Saipan’s Northern Marina Islands.
“Dad was very quick to squash any questions that might be asked about World War II,” said Joseph. “As Bob Smotts [a fellow member of Frank’s platoon] said to me, ‘Killing is nothing to brag about.’”
But after his father’s death in 2011, Joseph discovered that Frank could have done plenty of boasting if he wanted to. His father received the Silver Star Medal from the President of the United States, presented by Adm. Chester Nimitz, for leading his team of “40 Thieves” during the Battle of Saipan and contributing to the V-J Day Japanese surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.
And learning about these accolades was just the beginning. Joseph eventually uncovered so many stories about Frank and the elite members of his platoon, that he decided to write a book. After years of research and documenting undercover operations, he and author Cynthia Kraack recently released “40 Thieves on Saipan” to coincide with the 75th Anniversary of V-J Day (Victory over Japan).
The journey to publication began at Frank’s funeral. After hearing in a eulogy that his father saved the lives of everyone in his platoon, Joseph decided to open a footlocker he once considered “just another box in the garage,” and it exposed an abundance of significant military memorabilia — personal letters, medals, photographs, and more.
“It was like a Christmas present,” recalled Joseph. “It was like time travel. It was like watching ‘From Here to Eternity,’ only it’s your parents in the movie. The more I found, the more I learned, and the more I wanted to find out and discover.”
So, his quest continued, as Joseph traveled the country to conduct extensive interviews with the surviving members of the 40 Thieves. Over nine years, 600 pages of oral histories ultimately turned into the 300-page book, and the men became so close to Joseph that he began to consider them family. He said he was able to develop a sacred trust with the war heroes, even though opening up wasn’t always easy.
“All of the men suffered nightmares and PTSD, and talking about it is a trigger,” explained Joseph. “That made it one of the difficult things about talking to these fellows. They were so ready, willing, and able to open old wounds and discuss their service, and I was certainly more than grateful and wanted to hear the stories.”
As they relived the Battle of Saipan once again, Joseph learned of the platoon’s legacy, including how they earned their nickname.
“The Marines of World War II in general were notorious for being thieves,” he said. “They were the poorest-equipped branch of service. In fact, when they [the 40 Thieves] went into Guadalcanal as the first ground troops in the Pacific, they were given uniforms, rations, and weapons left over from World War I.”
Joseph described how the men had to use 1901 Springfield rifles with a six-cartridge clip and bolt action.
“So, every time they needed to fire, they had to slide the bolt and reload and then replace the clip every six shots. And they won.” To make up for their subpar supplies, these Marines had to scrounge, improvise, and find whatever they could to use as a weapon — from crushed glass to two-handled piano wire — and became notorious thieves that achieved a victory.
These tales of spirited innovation can now be found in Joseph’s documentary-style book that also depicts other challenges, the important women in their lives, and historic black and white photographs.
Despite his years of silence, Joseph said he thinks his father would be proud to see his men being recognized and remembered for their service and important place in history.
“Even though my dad never spoke about it, I think he’d be pleased because I wrote the book basically for the men,” he said. “I never really wanted it to be a book about me and my dad. I wanted to tell their stories — and not just about World War II but the aftermath and how it affected them for the rest of their lives.”
“40 Thieves on Saipan: The Elite Marine Scout-Snipers in One of WWII’s Bloodiest Battles” is available for purchase at all major book retailers.
You can find this story and more in our March issue of Military Families Magazine. Download it here.