Bob Gasche: Remembering Iwo Jima, nearly 70 years later
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 18, 2013 at 2:42 p.m.
It was Feb. 19, 1945, when 70,000 Marines stood poised to storm the beaches of Sulfur Island, more commonly known as Iwo Jima.
Why assemble a huge armada of 800 naval vessels to invade a tiny eight-square-mile Central Pacific island dominated by a dormant volcano called Mount Suribachi?
Iwo Jima became a necessary object due to its two airfields, capable of providing a haven for crippled bombers returning from raids on Japan. In addition, with the existing Zero fighter planes and the early radar warning station eliminated, these fields would provide a base for our fighter planes, which were equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks to enable them to escort bombers to and from their targets in Japan.
Iwo Jima was defended by 22,000 well trained soldiers and Korean laborers. They were armed with an ample supply of cannons, tanks, mortars, machine guns and rifles. In addition to this hardware, the island held 13 miles of tunnels, caves, bunkers, pillboxes and strategically placed mines
It was possibly the most heavily defended island in the world. Hospitals, communication centers, ammo dumps and a huge command post had been built deep underground; many reinforced by steel and concrete. This defense system was one of the most formidable ever faced by the U.S. Marines.
D-Day morning brought an unexpected treat aboard ship as the galley was opened up for our traditional steak-and-egg breakfast. Unfortunately, it was the last meal eaten by hundreds of these mostly teenage young men. Shortly after chow, we received word to stand by to debark. In a way, it was a relief to leave the smelly troop quarters, long chow lines, sticky saltwater showers and the piled-five-high canvas bunks.
Waves of armored boats churned towards the ominous black sand beach, bringing Marines closer to a destiny of death, valor and victory. In the boats, saltwater splashed taut faces that did their best to conceal inner feelings: young and in love with life, were their histories to end here or were there still pages to be written?
A 550-foot Mount Suribachi, honeycombed with caves containing machine guns and cannons, loomed in the distance even though debris from exploding shells hid much of the island from our view.
Tension heightened as enemy shells splashed in the sea around us. Then the boat ramp crunched the soft black volcanic sand amid bursting mortar rounds, exploding artillery shells and a deluge of machine gun bullets.
Since our craft was not in the first wave, the beach we encountered was crowded with mired jeeps and trucks, broached landing craft, bodies and body parts. Enemy fire had rained down with impunity, causing many casualties.
By 10:30 D-Day morning, survivors of one regiment had fought their way across the 700 yard strip in front of Mount Suribachi, thereby isolating the volcano from the rest of the island. The other two regiments also fought across, then pivoted north to attack the Japanese airfield where there were many more defenses.
On Feb. 23, a small patrol of four men was ordered to climb Mount Suribachi and report back. Their climb met with little resistance so a short time later a 40-man patrol was directed to ascend and hoist and American flag atop the mountain. As the flag was raised, it caused a wave of elation, evidenced by cheers, tooting horns, bells ringing from the ships,and weapons fired into the air.
Seeing the Stars and Stripes waving aloft on that mountain peak is a sight I shall never forget as long as I live. A second flag was raised a few hours later. An Associated Press photographer took the iconic photo that resonated around the world.
The fight was not over. Night was a particular time of terror as the enemy infiltrated our lines under cover of darkness and slithered along the ground seeking opportunities to toss a grenade into our two-man foxholes, or jab us with bayonets.
Let us reflect on the fact that 26 Medals of Honor were awarded, many of them posthumously to young Marines brave enough to protect their buddies, even if it was by throwing their own bodies on an exploding grenade.
The 36 days of combat came to a close but the price of victory was high: more than 6,000 Marines and Navy personnel killed, with more than 22,000 wounded on this one, small volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean.
Their sacrifices saved the lives of hundreds of pilots and crews who flew the many sorties over Japan that helped win the war. We must never forget the Valiant who gave their lives in this battle and others during World War II, that America remain free.
We must also be vigilant to maintain the effective deterrent forces that sustain our way of life, offering freedom and hope to millions.
Bob Gasche lives in Gainesville.
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