By Cyril J. O'Brien
For all who bear its scars, the battle for Iwo Jima, 58 years ago (February 19-March 26, 1945), still looms gargantuan, unbelievable, devouring; not measurable by Guadalcanal, Peleliu or Belleau Wood, but by its own arena, complexity, ferocity and the character of its combatants, whose American casualties were one third of all Marine Corps casualties in the war.
Major General Fred Haynes, Manhattan, NY, who has been back to Iwo Jima three times, will return again in March with the Combat Veterans of Iwo Jima, which he heads, to understand it and why and how much the battle for Iwo Jima stood apart from the wars he experienced later in Korea and Vietnam.
Of the 3,400 coming ashore with the 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division, then -- Captain Haynes recalls only 600 were standing when the battle closed. Yet, it wasn't ferocity alone -- certainly Korea and Vietnam had that -- but a dedication on either side giving the Marines an enemy so resolved, inventive and so masterful as to make the ground itself a powerful ally.
For the 70,000 Americans, Iwo Jima was the step to the Japanese heartland and to the end of an awful war. For the 22,000 Japanese defenders, Iwo Jima was the defense of their very hearths and homes as it was part of the Tokyo Imperial Prefecture (county). It was assaulted by the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions of the Fifth Marine Amphibious Corps, which included supporting sea and air units.
Iwo Jima was the only Marine battle where the American casualties, 26,000, exceeded the Japanese -- most of the 22,000 defending the island. The 6,800 American servicemen killed doubled the deaths of the Twin-Towers of 9/11.
The Japanese defense was headed by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, resourceful, resolute, much admired by his men and respected by the Americans. LtCol Justice M. Chambers (Medal of Honor) commanding 3rd Bn, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division, recalled how General Kuribayashi ordered each soldier to kill ten Marines -- "for a while he was beating their quotas."
Four miles long, shaped like a pork chop, covering eight square miles, Iwo had no front lines, no rear, every inch a battleground. "We were confronted with defenses being built for years," explained Captain Haynes, who later commanded the 2nd and 3rd Marine Divisions. "There were complex, subterranean levels, some two stories down. From these the defenders could approach the enemy on the surface virtually anywhere through warrens, spider holes, caves, and crevices.
"At great cost, you'd take a hill to find then the same enemy suddenly on your flank or rear. The Japanese were not on Iwo Jima. They were in it!" Colonel Thomas M. Fields (USMC Ret), the University of Maryland's memorable public affairs officer, has already revisited the ankle-deep black sand around Mount Suribachi. "I'd known combat in the Solomons with its sly ambushes and jungle firefights," said the former Captain, "but Iwo was another kind of war. On Iwo by the 8th day, only two officers of my second battalion (26th Marines, 5th Marine Division) were standing ... We had one prisoner -- unconscious, his clothes blown off."
For then Pfc. George Gentile, Newington, CT, the enemy was nowhere and everywhere, especially at night. "All around you, talking, moving. Only hand grenades you trusted, one after another. But now there's something bright on Iwo Jima - green. It is pushing up through the black volcanic sand and paints the leaves of spindly trees. I saw that when I was back to Iwo Jima a few years ago. There are birds, too -- I heard them singing. But we'll see this spring if Iwo can soften its past." Dr. Gentile, retired Connecticut State Dental Commission, and NE Regional Board of Examiners, is President and Founder of the Iwo Jima Survivors Association, originating in Connecticut.
"I want to see Iwo Jima one more time," says 81- year-old Corporal Robert Hall, Batavia, IL, a retired pipe fitter who will join the 12,000-mile journey. "I left some good friends there. It was a battle with no front line -- all man-to-man, inch by inch." In a pioneer (construction and support) battalion in the 5th Marine Division, Hall on the assault could hardly believe that any Japanese could have survived the American bombardment. "One Japanese soldier blew up in front of me. My M-1 round must have hit a grenade he was carrying." Son, Robert Jr., will return with him.
"Of course, going back better organizes your thoughts and memories," says Corporal Edward Mortimer "Mort" Denell, 84, a retired Oscoda, MI automobile technician. "I do want to see where I fought." A machine gunner with the 1st Bn, 26th Marines, Mort is still deaf from a shell blast that shattered every one of his teeth and cut in half six Marines opposite him. He can still grimace at the thought of mortar rounds, "faster'n you could count. I crawled -- scraping my belly -- to a hole, but a round followed. It cut in half the six Marines opposite me."
A telling note in Mort's war diary reads, "I can't believe how 24 hours ago, we entered through the gates of hell. I've lost quite a few buddies. The worst part is to see them blown to bits right in front of you. You're talking to a friend and right in the middle of a sentence a bullet tears through his head." Mort will return with nine members of his family, including wife Theresa and grandchildren.
Sgt Charles A Bateman, Cooperstown, NY (the baseball capital) -- his daughter, Carol, is mayor -- got himself listed as missing in action. Slammed by a 320 mm spigot mortar, Sgt Bateman woke up on a hospital ship with a tag on his big toe that said "Concussion." "Didn't look serious to me so I jumped ship, went ashore and rejoined my unit. So, I was missing then, officially MIA. Sorrowfully, a telegram saying that got to my family. You can imagine their relief when they found the message was wrong." Bateman can pick out the very spot where he landed. He'll walk on it again on this second return with a grandson. He went back to Iwo Jima with another grandson two years ago.
It was at the terminal quadrant at the bitter end of the island that the enemy exhibited uncommon desperation and ferocity. The terrain too was a nightmare. Then Captain Haynes surveyed it in a cub observation plane -- ravines, ledges, and ridges -- and "wondered how his Marines would ever get through."
In that amphitheatre PFC Louis R. Machala, Dallas, TX, was with his machine gun unit in F Company, 2nd Bn, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. Under cover of darkness, the company had slipped unto the rock-stubbled areas to find at first light that they were facing a low ridge infested with enemy. Machala and his crew were able to get the wounded out on ponchos, while others managed to escape through the bottom hatches of rescuing tanks, which Machala had hazardously stood up to hail.
Casualties propelled 2ndLt Robert E. Cudworth, Camillus, NY, from platoon leader to commander of A Company 1st Bn, 9th Marines. All battalion officers above him were casualties. "Not surprising," explained Bob. "Some companies got commanded by Sergeants."
As in recent years, Kiyoshi Endo, Yokosuka City, Chairman of the Survivors of Iwo Jima will execute the ancient water ceremony at the granite memorial to the dead at the base of Mount Suribachi. From the dim ages of Samurai the water ceremony has washed the souls of dead heroes. But, can an enemy be a hero to Americans casually wondered Kuribayashi, 80, oldest son of the General, at a recent reunion. His mother, the General's widow had returned as well. Retired Marine Colonel Warren H. Wiedhahn, helping arrange the Iwo Jima return, explains that a mortal foe once defeated, wounded, dead or prisoner can remain a brave soldier.
One Japanese soldier who did survive was Masaji Osawa (109th Infantry Division) -- enlisted, chubby faced, affable, who has been back. In labored English he explained how American bombardment followed you wherever you went. And it was deafening, he said, by cupping his ears.
But, neither Osawa, Hall, Denell nor the others were there because they wanted to be. Retired Lieutenant General Lawrence F. Snowden, USMC (Ret) (in 1945 a Captain), former Marine Corps Chief of Staff, told American and Japanese veterans at the Iwo memorial dedication, "We were here because our respective government ordered us here. Those of us who stood on this island in 1945 might find it almost unbelievable that we stand here together once gain to honor our fallen comrades. While we mourn their loss, we also celebrate the lives we shared with them."
Colonel Edward F. Danowitz, USMC (Ret), Altamonte Springs, Fl says, "These were the most important days, moments, seconds in their lives... We, who are Marines, who lock arms and embrace today, are not friends, not neighbors. We are brothers of combat. For those who fight for it, life has a special flavor the protected will never know. That is what ties Marines together, and those that were there can savor the flavor that only combat veterans know."
As General James L. Jones, 32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, said, "The valor and sacrifice of the Marines and Sailors who fought on Iwo Jima is, today and forever, the standard by which we judge what we are and what we might become."
Thanks to Marine Ken Zalga for Sharing