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Judges and Judiciary

Dec. 5, 2017

Judge Harry Pregerson was an American hero

His extraordinary legal career and life in the service of others reflected the great courage with which he served as a United States Marine in World War II.

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Harry Pregerson around the end of WWII.

Judge Harry Pregerson was a model judge for more than fifty years. His judicial service as a trial and appellate judge was exemplary. He served on the Los Angeles Municipal Court (1965-1966), the Los Angeles Superior Court (1966-1967), the US. District Court for the Central District of California (1967-1979), and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (1989 to his passing on November 25, 2017). His extraordinary legal career and life in the service of others reflected the great courage with which he served as a United States Marine in World War II.

No person who has ever served in the military has been more proud to wear the uniform of his country than Harry Pregerson. During the battle for Okinawa in May 1945, he sustained severe gunshot wounds to both thighs when hit by "dum dum" bullets. He was awarded the Purple Heart Medal. His wounds and the scars that he bore from them reinforced his determination to lead a purposeful life to assist others.

Judge Pregerson learned the meaning of patriotism from his father, Abraham Pregerson, a World War I U. S. Army soldier, who fought in three major battles against the German army. In October 1918, infantryman Abraham Pregerson was gassed and severely wounded by shrapnel that hit his right shoulder and neck in the decisive Meuse-Argonne campaign that ended WWI. He was awarded the Purple Heart Medal.

As he was growing up in East Los Angeles, the Judge Pregerson's father took him to the annual Armistice Day parades on Nov. 11 on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, celebrating the end of WWI. After the parade, the father and son would walk to the American Legion Post at Patriotic Hall on Figueroa. Abraham Pregerson's pride in country and service were well-imparted to his son Harry.

That tradition continued. In the fall of 1941 as a freshman at UCLA, Harry Pregerson joined the NROTC and drilled constantly, even as he worked washing dishes at night to earn his college expenses and served as student body president. He was activated as a Marine Corps 2nd Lt. in 1944. In the spring of 1944, he reported for six months of grueling training at Quantico, Virginia.

In November 1944, in San Diego, he was aboard a troop ship loaded with replacements heading into the Pacific. In his own words, he told what came next.

As the ship was at sea and as the view of the California coast receded, a voice on the PA system said, "Now hear this. Now hear this. All of you -- take a good look at Point Loma because this could be the last time that you will see the United States again because some of you will be coming home in a box."

"After we crossed the equator we arrived in time for Thanksgiving at Pavuvu, an island in the Pacific, the home base of the First Marine Division. We were there as replacements for the heavy casualties suffered by that division a month or two earlier at Peliliu."

"While awaiting word on the next landing, intense training and exercises continued for the next several months. Then the word came down. We were loaded on ships together with our gear and sailed to a destination known only to a few. The invasion of Okinawa was scheduled for April 1, 1945. For that invasion, the U.S. Navy gathered the largest armada that our country had ever assembled."

"The Japanese commander on Okinawa was a master of defensive warfare. He had positioned his army on ground where there were parallel ridges one after the other that formed ideal defensive positions. Each ridge was connected by underground tunnels. The face and rear of each ridge held weapons that were almost impossible to locate. Those weapons delivered heavy cross fire. As a consequence, we suffered heavy casualties. Thousands were being killed."

"On May 3, 1945, we were ordered to take a hill. We seized that hill and immediately came under heavy fire. I'm on the side of the hill, crawling, seeking cover. Suddenly, I felt as if someone had hit me in the right thigh with a 10-pound sledge hammer. I 'm shocked. I'm bleeding. There is total chaos. Everyone around me is pulling out. A Marine shouts that he'll get stretcher bearers to move me out. I find cover in a shell hole. I'm alone. I reach in my left front pocket for my soap box where I keep cigarettes. There's a bullet hole through it. I notice that my left forearm has been grazed by a bullet. I don't feel it. I know the situation is bad."

"I think to myself, help will come. The one thing you know about the Marine Corps is that someone will come to get you out. No one is left behind."

"I realize that I am in a dangerous situation. I try to patch myself up as best I can. From my first aid pouch I sprinkle sulfur powder, bandage my wounds, and make a tourniquet. I wait. Mortar men start dropping smoke shells to shield stretcher bearers. The crossfire is intense."

"You are in a euphoric state. You tell yourself that everything is going to be okay. Both my legs are hit. I can't move. The firing from the enemy is continuous. Time passes. The mortars are still spreading smoke to give cover to stretcher bearers. When are they coming?"

"Finally, two Marines rush up the hill with a stretcher. They are the Martinez cousins from Texas. They quickly lift me onto the stretcher. The smoke is starting to clear. The bullets are still coming at us. It is rough going. Finally, we are down the hill and behind our lines again."

The badly injured Pregerson was transported to a battalion aid station and taken to an Army field hospital that night. In the morning, he was hoisted aboard a ship and taken to a hospital on Tinian where he received treatment. One month later, he was shipped to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego where he underwent a year and a half of surgeries and rehabilitation. In December 1946, he was retired from active service.

Judge Pregerson was eternally grateful to those Marines -- the Martinez cousins -- who risked their lives under heavy fire to rescue him from the hill on Okinawa. Without their selfless efforts in saving a fellow Marine, our country would have been deprived of the tireless service that Judge Harry Pregerson rendered as a jurist and humanitarian for over five decades. His committed efforts in establishing affordable housing, child care centers, homeless shelters, and job training programs have benefited countless veterans, homeless people, children and others in need of a helping hand.


Ben Armistead

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