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Monday, Feb. 23, 2015

Survivors recount the bloodiest of battles

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By Martin Kuz

Stars and Stripes Staff Writer

The first time we knew something was happening, the ships all began blowing their whistles. I’m saying to myself, ‘What the heck is that all about?’ And then I turned and saw the flag on top of Suribachi.


There were some young Marines with me — these were kids 17, 18 years old — and some of them began to cry. It was such a sight, such an emotional sight, and a lot of the young guys were overwhelmed.


‘All those crosses’


Joseph Maruca belonged to the 2nd Separate Engineer Battalion that was attached to the 5th Marine Division and helped the Seabees repair damaged airstrips. An 18-year-old private first class from Springfield, Mass., Maruca landed with his unit on the battle’s third day. Now 88, he lives in Longmeadow, Mass.


“We went in on a landing ship and I was thinking, ‘This is the real thing. This is happening — it’s no dream anymore.’ You know you can die. But still you think, ‘It won’t happen to me.’


They dropped the gate right on the beach and we ran through some water onto Iwo. We went past 30, 40, 50 dead Marines, covered with ponchos. It was an awful sight. There was the smell, the feet sticking out, the blue skin. You went up another 50 yards and there were more bodies.


It was about 1 o’clock in the afternoon, and I had no idea what we were going to do. They didn’t tell me I was going to be working on an airfield or what I was going to do. Maybe they told other people. But I had no idea.


The first thing they said to us was, ‘Take a buddy, dig a foxhole and get into it.’ When night came, one of you stayed awake and one went to sleep. We were exhausted. We weren’t doing much physically right away, but we were scared, so once the adrenaline wore off, you felt the fatigue.


The first night, the guy in my foxhole got wounded by artillery or a mortar. He got shrapnel in his rear end. I was right next to him and didn’t get hit. I was thinking, ‘How lucky can I be?’


I remember when the flag want up. We were on the airfield working, and all of a sudden, everything stopped for a moment. People started pointing up at Mount Suribachi, and there was our American flag. It seemed like the whole island cheered, and at that moment, we said, ‘This war’s over. This is all done. It won’t be long before we’ll be off this island.’ Of course, that’s not how it worked out.


We hardly saw any live Japanese. Only dead ones. We blew up some caves that the Japanese were using, but I ended up not firing my rifle on the island. It was more like I was there to take incoming artillery and mortars. My prayer was, “Get me off this island and let me live until I’m 25.’ ”


The three Marine divisions had cemeteries on the island. Someone said, “There’s going to be a ceremony at one of the cemeteries tomorrow.” That was the 16th of March. So we went and we were told the island had been secured. But you could still hear fighting at the other end.


I remember listening to Holland Smith, the general who was in charge of the whole operation, at the memorial. He was speaking about all the thousands we lost there and that they weren’t coming home.


The way they buried the dead was, a bulldozer dug a trench. Then they covered it back up and above each person they put his name on a cross. Seeing all those crosses — that hit you.


We left the next day. It was St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not Irish. But I’m Catholic, and I felt very lucky to get off the island without a wound.”


‘The smell of death’


Dave Severance belonged to the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment of the 5th Marine Division. A 26-year-old captain from Greeley, Col., Severance, who had fought in the jungles of Papua New Guinea during the Bougainville campaign in 1943, led an infantry company on Iwo Jima. His unit landed with the tenth wave on D-Day. Now 96, he lives in La Jolla, Calif.


“To begin with, the landing vehicle we were in let us off in about four feet of water, so we were miserably soaked when we got ashore. The sand that was wet was fairly solid. Once you got on the dry sand, it was one step forward, two steps back.


The order was for us to spread out across the sector of our landing beach. Our 1st Battalion had swept across it earlier. I was supposed to report any wounded and clean out any foxholes they missed. We reported a few wounded, but I didn’t see any emplacements they’d missed until we almost got to the west coast of the island.


There was a big bunker on our left flank. I set up the company on the east side of it and went over to the west side, where 1st Battalion had some people. They had a shaped charge and they put it on top of the bunker and blew a hole down into it. That apparently set something on fire because three Japanese came out. I had a platoon just east of the entrance that wiped them out.


On the evening of the second day, they put my company in the front lines, and we cleaned out all the positions that were on the north side of the mountain. The Japanese had tunnels and caves all over the island, and that’s where they were a lot of the time. So we were fighting through a string of fortifications and trenches that extended across the narrow part of the island.


It was just a matter of rifle shots and covering all the pillboxes to keep the Japanese down in them while our engineer units with flamethrowers went in. We also had explosives to blow up emplacements. You’d make 10 yards at a time, maybe. Some days we’d make 50 yards, some days we’d make 200 yards.


There was the smell of death. The most pungent smell was Japanese bodies burning, because of the flamethrowers.


I was going up one trail and a little lid for a spider trap came up. I saw a couple eyes in there and a guy rolled a grenade out at me. Fortunately, there was a ridge line nearby, and I jumped behind the rocks. The grenade exploded fairly close but not too close. I pumped a whole clip of my M1 into that spider trap. I’m sure I got him.


We had 30 percent casualties by the end of the third day — 60 men. You expect casualties, but we didn’t expect that many. Three of my lieutenants were wounded.


The battalion sent in another lieutenant as a replacement, but unfortunately, he wasn’t around long enough for me to get his name. I was going to assign him to a platoon and I took him forward to show him where the platoon was. As we were running back to the command post, a sniper took a shot. It went between my legs and hit him in the lower part of the leg.


There was a stretcher team about 20 feet away, and they picked him up. Fifteen minutes later, he called me from the battalion aid station and said they were evacuating him. He got a Purple Heart.


My battalion commander told me to get a platoon to take a flag up to Suribachi. We thought it was going to be a suicide mission because we figured there were Japanese in the caves all the way up the mountain just waiting. But it turned out that most of them had already moved to the other side of the island. So they got to the top and raised the flag, the first one. I was down at the bottom. I didn’t even see it.


A little while later there was the order for the second flag. Another group went up, and the photographer went up and got the picture.


My thought was that since we got the mountain, which was the tallest part of the island, we could be leaving. But we got orders to go north and the fighting picked up again. You just have to keep going. You get tired, you don’t sleep at night, you’re eating rations. But the adrenaline is always there because somebody’s trying to shoot you.


We left on March 26th. We walked over to the western beaches. Our company had suffered about 75 percent casualties, including replacements. When I left the island, I had two small, 22-man platoons. One was led by a corporal, the other by a Pfc. I had no other NCOs. About 40, 45 men went aboard ship, and some of them were wounded.


I can remember we went past the 5th Division cemetery before we left. There were a lot of names you recognized. So I was happy to get off the island, but there was sadness, too.”

Silence surrounded the first wave of Marines to wade ashore on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945. For the previous eight months, as World War II intensified in the Pacific, American forces had bombed the volcanic island that lies 750 miles from mainland Japan. U.S. military leaders believed the assault from sea and sky would assure their ground troops of a swift victory.


The men moved up the black-sand beaches until, crossing an invisible threshold, they entered a killing field. The heavy thud of machine-gun and artillery fire broke the morning quiet and the illusion of a weakened enemy. Japanese soldiers hidden in bunkers, tunnels and caves unleashed a barrage that turned the water’s edge red with American blood.


Some 30,000 U.S. troops landed on Iwo Jima that day, and another 40,000 invaded over the next five weeks. Most were Marines, and their battle against 22,000 Japanese soldiers, whose commanders ordered them to fight to the death, ranks among the most renowned in American warfare.


When combat ended on March 26, nearly 7,000 U.S. troops had been killed and more than 19,000 wounded. Almost 19,000 Japanese soldiers were killed, making Iwo Jima the war’s lone battle in which the landing force suffered more total casualties than the enemy.


U.S. forces seized the small, 8-square-mile island and its three airstrips to stage bombing raids on Japan. In hindsight, the strategic value was inflated, yet Iwo Jima has never lost its prominence in the nation’s narrative of war because of a single photograph.


On Feb. 23, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, U.S. troops climbed to the summit of Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest point, to raise an American flag. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the second occasion, and 70 years later, his image endures as perhaps the best-known photo in the country’s history.


For survivors of Iwo Jima, now in their 80s and 90s, the long-ago struggle still evokes daily memories. Stars and Stripes spoke with four men who lived through one of the war’s fiercest battles, and the following accounts, edited and condensed for clarity, offer glimpses of the chaos.


‘I have water’


Sidney Gelman belonged to the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion, better known as the Seabees. Attached to the 4th Marine Division, the 133rd aided resupply efforts during the invasion and helped reconstruct the island’s damaged airstrips. Gelman, an 18-year-old seaman from Pittsburgh went to shore with the eighth wave on D-Day, the first day of battle. Now 88, he lives in Matthews, N.C.


“We had more than 400 ships around Iwo. I remember four battleships — the New York, the Texas, the New Mexico and the North Carolina — blasting away broadside with their big 16-inch guns. The noise was horrifying. I didn’t know what to do, so I said a prayer to myself: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ That sort of gave me some kind of strength. And then we went in.


We came off the landing boat and weren’t too far up the beach. We were still by the water’s edge because we were pinned down by mortar and artillery fire. There were a lot of wounded and some that were dead.


I was with my buddy, Bob Geer, from Jewett City, Conn., and I took a hit in the back of my leg. A little hunk of shrapnel; I still have it in my leg. I said, ‘Bob, I’m hit.’ He pulled himself up to see what he could do to help me. Right then, we got another blast on us.


I felt the heat from the explosion and it kind of raised up my body. I was hit again. Another hunk of shrapnel, this time in my right hip. I didn’t know how bad it was. I looked over at Bob, and he was gurgling. He said something that sounded like, ‘I’m choking.’ And then he just collapsed right there and died. He had been hit in the back of the head by a hunk of shrapnel, just below the helmet.

I got up and, as best I could, started running toward the water to try to get on one of the small boats so I could get myself to a hospital ship.


I managed to crawl onto one, and on the way, someone asked for water. I said, ‘I have water,’ and I grabbed for my canteen, which was on my right hip. There was no water in it. It had got hit by a hunk of shrapnel about the size of a matchbox.


That canteen probably saved my life. It was so hard that first day to evacuate casualties — the Japanese were pounding us. If I had been lying there on the beach, I’m sure I’d have been hit again. That’s what happened to a lot of guys who got killed.”


The shrapnel tore out my back pocket. I had been in some crap games on board the ship when we were on our way to Iwo, and I won some money. That money was in my wallet, and the wallet had been in my back pocket. I never did see it again. Whoever found my wallet got a chunk of change.


Because I was wounded on Iwo, I always say that the Japanese got a piece of tail from me, but I never got a kiss for it.


‘Bodies scattered all over’


Wally Kaenzig belonged to the 3rd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment that was attached to the 24th Marine Regiment for the invasion. A 24-year-old captain from Egg Harbor City, N.J., Kaenzig, who had fought in the battle of Saipan in 1944, led a radio unit and coordinated naval gunfire and air and artillery strikes. His unit landed at dusk on D-Day. Now 94, he lives in Cologne, N.J.


“We were watching through our field glasses from the bridge of a Coast Guard ship as the troops landed. The Japanese allowed the first couple waves to land. Then all of a sudden, they opened up.


They were killing as many as they were wounding. At first, our guys were still able to get the wounded off the beach. But later on, the firing by the Japanese got so intense that we couldn’t take people off.


We weren’t supposed to land unless things were pretty bad; we were going to go the next day. But eventually word came down. Fortunately — if you want to call a landing on that beach fortunate — we landed at dusk. That turned out pretty good for us, because the Japanese weren’t able to see us as well.


The boat touched the beach, the ramp went down and two mortar rounds landed in front of us. The coxswain let the boat slide off the beach, and the next wave brought water in up to our knees, and that killed the engine. So we floated until we were able to transfer to another boat and that boat put us ashore.


The thing that got my attention immediately were the amount of bodies on the beach. Not knowing at first what was going on, I began shaking these guys and saying, ‘Get off the beach, get off the beach.’ After about the sixth or seventh one, I realized they were all dead.


There were bodies scattered all over. I realized we had to get the hell off that beach as quickly as possible. So we went right up into the front lines, which was the safest place because it was inland probably about 500 yards or so. It wasn’t the area the Japanese were saturating with fire.


Every round the Japanese fired hit something or somebody. We tried to bring in radio jeeps, tanks, trucks with ammunition — they would get hit right on the beach and burn. During the night, they were shelling and shelling that beach, and I didn’t know whether they were going to move in and wipe out all of us. So I made my mind up I probably wasn’t going to see the next day.


They kept shelling the beach the next morning. We couldn’t get casualties off. We had two officers who went out to try to expedite bringing supplies in, including ammunition. They got into a landing craft and one artillery round hit them. Both of them were decapitated.


The casualties that were to be evacuated who were inland would say, ‘Leave me here until this quiets down.’ Because if you put them on the beach or put them on a boat, the Japanese would hit them. It was bad. It was a miserable experience. It was not the place to be if you were looking forward to being alive the next day.


We knew damn well we were going to win; there was no way they were going to drive us off. But we knew it was going to be expensive to take the island, and we didn’t know how long it was going to take.