THE STARS AND STRIPES
Monday, Feb. 23, 2015
Select the buttons above to see how the island of Iwo Jima was taken.(Sources: Navy.mil, The United States Marines on Iwo Jima: The Battle and Flag Raisings, History and Museums Division, pub. 1995, The Battle of Iwo Jima, Rutgers 2010 and Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima by Col. Joseph Alexander ,U.S. Marine Corps, (ret).
back,and Guam was still mostly jungle. Once we got off of the beach and over the first ridge line, we began encountering really thick jungle fighting. And that’s the way it was until we got to the other shore.
But Iwo ... none of us, of course, had ever heard of it; they didn’t tell us that’s where we were going until they got us aboard ship and they brought out this board with a diagram on it that showed what Iwo Jima would look like. Guam was 19 miles from one shore to the other. This one, 2½ miles. It looked awful small, compared to what we had just been through. And of course, the officer during the briefing said we would probably never get off ship.
We’d be gone about five days, as a reserve. Probably would never need us, never use us, but we were there, in case. So none of us were very anxious about this thing, ‘cause we’re just going for a boat ride.
But after the first day, and the loss of casualties on that first day, they decided they were going to need some more Marines, and we were ordered then to prepare to go in.
The second day, they didn’t have enough room for us. They hadn’t taken enough ground that we could get in behind them, so we went back aboard ship and spent another night. Then the next day, they did have enough ground. By that time they were surrounding Mount Suribachi, and there was enough beach area to get us ashore. And then we became the spearhead for the island. Our job was to go up the center and split it, drive them in each direction toward the other two divisions that were on there.
And on the 23rd, I was a flamethrower operator, demolition individual. I was in charge of six Marines. I was a corporal. We had what we called a special unit, a special weapons unit. So we’d been trained to either blow something up or burn something up, and we could do either one. We could be an operator for the flamethrower, or we could be a demolition person.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine CorpsHershel Williams, posing with the Medal of Honor he received for his actions during the battle of Iwo Jima.
But by the 23rd of February, five days in the campaign, those guys ... I’d lost them. They’d either been wounded or killed. I didn’t have anybody left in the company. So we had lost a great number of our squad leaders, all but three of our officers. We were just ... it was devastating.
So our commanding officer called a meeting. Wanted all the NCOs there. And as a corporal I was not classified as an NCO. But I was told because ... they didn’t say because, but I was told I should go to the meeting simply because there were so few of the NCOs left. So I joined the group and we huddled in a great big shell crater.
Probably a bomb crater. But it was big enough that all of us could get below ground so that we couldn’t be shot at with grazing fire. That’s where we met, and of course the commanding officer was looking for ideas or ways in which we might be able to break through a series of reinforced concrete pillboxes that we’d encountered, and they were self-protecting.
If you were to visit Iwo Jima today. you would find that they’re built in pods of three, and you can’t get to one without one of the other of them being able to see you. And that’s the way the general wanted it to be. But he asked me if I could do anything with a flamethrower, knock our some of those pillboxes, because they were reinforced with what we call rebar today. In those days we just called it iron rods.
But they were reinforced with that, and bazookas and artillery -- even mortars dropping on the top of it -- that didn’t do anything. So the only way to eliminate it was, burn it out with a flamethrower or blow it up with demolition.
I’ve said many times, I don’t know my response to him when he asked me that question: could I do anything with a flamethrower? Some of the men who survived said that I said ‘I’ll try’ ... so, I went to work.
He gave me four Marines. ... As I would pick out the pillbox that I’m going to work on, their job was to shoot at that aperture in front of it, because that was their field of fire. That was their only field of fire, but it covered the whole area. That aperture was about eight inches wide, and across the front of the pillbox.
So they could stick their rifles out, or machine guns, and have a whole field of fire out there. But their job was to fire at that, try to keep the Japanese from being able to fire at me. I would pick the pillbox and start toward it, and that was their job. Two of those Marines got killed that day, because the Japanese were shooting at them.
One of them was an automatic weapons man, and the other was a rifleman. Automatic weapons, they didn’t like those any more than they liked flamethrowers, so we lost a couple of those guys. So actually they gave their life protecting mine. There’s no way I could ever repay that.
You go in automatic drive when something like that happens, I think. Much of that four hours, I don’t remember. I attribute that to fear. Because to say I wasn’t scared would be the biggest lie that’s ever been told. Because you do experience fear.
But one great experience -- I guess you could call it a great experience, certainly one of the more scary experiences — I was crawling up this ditch, trying to get to a pillbox that was shooting at me with a nambu machine gun. And their nambu was like our .30 caliber, but it had a very distinct noise. You could distinguish a nambu ... any time it fired, you knew that was a nambu. It was a .31 caliber, ours was a .30 caliber. Ours fired about 750, theirs fired 1000 rounds a minute.
They were firing at me with that thing. And I’m crawling up this ditch, and all of a sudden the guy with the nambu lowered it to the point where he was ricocheting bullets off of my air tank on my back. It was just ... we didn’t know jackhammers back in those days; they didn’t have such a thing. But as I got older it kind of reminded me of a jackhammer because it was “brrrrrrrrrr,” you know? Real fast. I mean, a thousand rounds a minute is pretty fast. And it was ricocheting off my air tank, and fortunately, they went up instead of down.
Fortunately ... and I don’t think I had anything to do with this in the way of conscious thought, don’t back up. Go forward. Because if I’d have backed up, I would’ve brought myself more into the field of fire, because he could’ve lowered his nambu a little more. As I went forward, apparently he had it down as far as he could get it, and when I went forward, I got out of his field of fire. Do I have any explanation for that? Not in the world.
The Master took care of that. So we don’t ... there is no explanation. Facetiously, I’ve said those other Marines back there, where the supplies were, and where they were sitting in holes and other than the four guys protecting me, waiting for me to do something out there, I’ve said “I don’t think they liked me.”
Because not a one of them ever said -- after I expended a flamethrower and rolled out of it, because once you expend it, you just drop it, forget it -- I said they didn’t like me because not a one of them ever said “hey, wait out there, I’ll bring you another one.
No, I had to go back and get my other one. So I made six trips back ... well, five trips, really, to get flamethrowers that were already serviced. We always kept a whole bunch of them serviced and ready to go, so that when you needed them they were ready. And that was part of my job as the person in charge of this group. And we had lots of flamethrowers -- 25, 30 flamethrowers all the time, sitting around, ready to go.
Killing the enemy
They were not “people.” I think if you had thought of them as a fellow human being, for me it would have been very difficult to shoot to kill, even though that’s what the Marine Corps said you are going to have to do ... if you are going to survive this thing, you are going to have to get them first.
But they just became an object ... something that was restricting, something that didn’t want you to do what you wanted to do. You lose the sense of a person being another human being. I think you have to do that, or you can’t take the life of that person. So where that comes from, I have no explanation for that, except over and over we’re told and we’re firmly convinced that if you’re going to live, you have got to kill him first.
Whatever he is. You’ve got to kill him first. And it loses that identity as another human being. The Japanese — and there’s a little bit of, I suppose, I don’t like to think of it as hate, certainly resentment ... but when we went to Guam, we were told before we got there that the Japanese, when they took Guam in 1942, they killed every American on the island.
Well, that builds up ... I don’t like to think of it as a hate, I don’t even know these people. But it certainly builds up a resentment, and to the point where you’re not going to give him an opportunity to do to you what they did to them.
And one of the other things about the Japanese that we resented very strongly is that they would trick people, particularly corpsmen, into thinking they were wounded or needed help, and you’d try to help them, and then they would take your life, and yours, too. Because their philosophy of dying was an honor. Our philosophy of dying is not an honor.
We’ve never thought of it as an honor. So as I said, you just look at them as an object that keeps you from being able to do what you want to do, what you’re supposed to do, so you have to eliminate that object. I tried not to think of it as a person.
Did the Navy stop shelling
That’s not true. That really isn’t. For the last three days before they hit the beach, it was almost 24-hour, around-the-clock bombing and strafing, and there was nothing left on the top of that island. They had obliterated bushes or trees or anything else. And the Japanese were underground in caves, so it didn’t really affect them a great deal. But for three days they really blasted it. And it had been bombed and strafed a number of days before that, because they were flying from carriers and bombing it and strafing it and that sort of thing.
Sometimes they would catch Japanese running between holes or on the ground, and they would strafe them, but I have no idea how many tons and tons and tons of ammunition was expended before we got there. Some of the 12-inch shells that the battle wagons in those days were firing ... whether they were so far that they couldn’t get elevation, nobody knows, or at least I don’t know. But some of those 12-inch shells had never exploded.
They were just laying there. Some dumb Marine would get up there like he’s riding a horse. So no, they really did pour the metal to that thing. You read different things, but somewhere around 19 miles of tunnel that had tunneled out of that thing, and some of it down as far as 32 feet below surface level, bombing didn’t do anything. Rattled their ears, maybe, but it didn’t do anything. And they had really prepared. He knew we were coming a long time before we ever got there. Because that was in the route. You almost had to go by it to get to Japan.
They had holes between pillboxes. They had caves that you could come up in this pillbox and get back in the cave, and go to the next pillbox and come up. So it was just tunnels everywhere.
Medal ceremony at the
Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine CorpsHershel Williams, shakes hands with President Harry S. Truman after being awarded his Medal of Honor for his actions on Iwo Jima.
“I’ve said many times, I don’t know if I was more scared then than I was in combat. I know my body shook more. I was so frightened that my body would not be still. I’ve had this experience a couple of my times in my life when I had a near-accident or something. After it’s over, your body shakes. That’s the way I was when I went up to the president (Harry S. Truman).
Shaking so that my body wouldn’t stand still, and I’d roll up on my toes to try to keep it quiet, and back on my heels to try to keep it quiet, and they read the whole citation. It seems like it’s forever and ever and ever that you’re standing there. But when they finish with the citation, someone brings him over the medal, and he takes the medal, and ... he did it differently then than they do today.
Today the president stands behind the person and puts it on. That didn’t happen there. He pinned it from the front. Well, if you’ve ever seen the Medal of Honor hook, finding that little hole to put that little thing in is a very difficult thing in the beginning. When you’re doing it behind someone’s back, it’s even more difficult. So he had quite a difficult time trying to find that little hole in that ribbon.
But eventually he did, and when he got it pinned, why of course he shook hands and he said to me, as he said to every one of us -- there were 13 of us there that day -- and one of his standard statements was, ‘I would rather have this medal than to be president.’ And he said this over and over to the people who received it. He said that to me. I made no response. I was so scared I couldn’t even think, let alone respond.
One of the fellows receiving the medal the same day I did was a 17-year-old Marine, Jack Lucas, and Jack never had a bashful day in his life, I don’t think. And the story is that when he said that to Jack -- and we went alphabetical, so I was next to last. A guy named Zimmer was last of the 13. So Jack was about halfway through. When he said that to Jack, Jack’s response was, ‘I’ll trade you.’ (laughs) I could’ve never done that. That’s not my nature.
Medal of Honor recipient Hershel Williams, an oral history
By Joe Gromelski
Stars and Stripes Staff Writer
3rd Marine Division
- 1/9, 2/9, 3/9
- 1/21, 2/21, 3/21
4th Marine Division
- 1/23, 2/23, 3/23
- 1/24, 2/24, 3/24
- 1/25, 2/25, 3/25
5th Marine Division
- 1/26, 2/26, 3/26
- 1/27, 2/27, 3/27
- 1/28, 2/28, 3/28
After 70 days of aerial assaults and three days of naval bombardment, 30,000 Marines and sailors stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima.
The primary object was to secure the three airfields that would later serve as an important staging ground for aerial bombardments of Japan.
On Feb. 27, the 9th Marines captured the hills north of the second airfield. Almost half of all the Marines' artillery fire was used during this assault. The following day, the 21st Marines captured the hillsides that surrounded the still unfinished third airfield.
On March 10, the 4th Marine Division captured the "Turkey Knob" and "Amphitheater" hills, the last in in a series of heavily fortified points that the Japanese held for weeks. The capturing of this area known as "The Meat Grinder" was the turning point of the battle for Iwo Jima,
Though Japanese resistance was scattered, pockets of defenders remained in northern reaches of the island. One of the last enemy bastions was Kitano Point, which fell on March 25 after two weeks of combat. After an all-night counterattack on the 25th was repelled the island was finally declared secured.
Killed in action
Feb. 23, 1945
The 3d Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines clear the summit of Mount Suribachi, raising the American flag atop its peak. Thirty-two more days of bloodshed would follow.
Though Mount Suribachi was captured the day before, the Marines faced increasing resistance in the northern reaches of the island. The 26th, 21st and 24th Marines, bolstered by an enormous contingent of Sherman tanks, spearheaded the assault across Airfield 2.
During the battle for Iwo Jima, more than 6,800 U.S. troops were killed and another 19,000 were injured. The bloodiest battle in the Pacific Theater during World War II, tens of thousands of Marines stormed the island, which was seen as pivotal to the success of defeating the Japanese military.
In the end, 22 Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the month long battle.
Only one, Cpl. Hershel Williams, is alive today.
Service as a demolition sergeant with the 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, Williams “daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine gun fire from the unyielding positions,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.
“Covered only by 4 riflemen, he fought desperately for 4 hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out 1 position after another.”
Stars and Stripes interviewed Williams last year. Here is his story:
“Iwo Jima was a different kind of a combat. I’d been in a previous campaign, when we took Guam