Bob Gasche: A story of American sacrifice, courage and commitment

Published: Thursday, July 4, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at 10:29 p.m.

On Independence Day 2013, it seems appropriate to relate a story of American sacrifice, courage and commitment that should buoy our spirits in this time of uncertainty, national dismay and global turmoil.

This is a World War II account of a young man who gave his life while providing comfort to a fellow Marine he had never before met. He was a tall, lanky and quiet private first class serving with the 5th Marine Division during the battle of Iwo Jima. Bill Topham and his squad had just fought their way through a devastating barrage of mortar and artillery fire enveloping the invasion beach, now littered with debris and dead or wounded Marines.

As his squad cautiously advanced over the narrow shell-pocked neck of land, they found themselves subjected to withering gunfire from the 550-foot, menacing Mount Suribachi, from which enemy soldiers belched hot lead on the Marines positioned below. It was a veritable killing field. Seeking some refuge from this deluge of death, Marines tried to dig foxholes in the loose volcanic ash. It was a futile effort, as the ash mixed with black sand poured back into the shallow depressions as soon as they began to dig.

By early afternoon of the first day (Feb. 19, 1945) most of the 5th Division had fought its way across the narrow end of the island — a distance of 700 yards — then pivoted right and began a hazardous trek toward the north end of the island, called Kitano Point. Casualties continued to mount as the enemy, positioned in pillboxes and caves, spit steel and lead at the advancing Marines. They had dug 13 miles of interconnected tunnels that allowed them to disappear before they became a target for American weapons. They were in Iwo Jima; we were precariously on it.

Our Sherman tanks, nicknamed “Zippos,” were used to eject long tongues of fire containing napalm that torched dozens of caves, bringing a pyrotechnic end to the enemy troops stationed inside. To assist in the destruction of these caves and tunnels, K-9 Corps dogs were sometimes employed to ferret out the enemy. As soon as the caves were cleared, bulldozers — when available — finished the job by sealing them with Iwo Jima soil.

In the area of Moto Yama No. 2 (Japanese airfield) Bill's squad was ordered to dig in. It was mid-morning on Feb. 27 when one of the riflemen from an adjacent regiment advanced about 50 yards into a shallow valley, where he was struck by a storm of bullets from a Japanese Nambu machine gun. He collapsed under the impact, gushing blood from several holes in his torn body. Unable to move out of the deadly line of fire, he cried out, “Someone help me, I need water.” Bill Topham was dug in on a nearby ridge and upon hearing this plea, ran to the side of the fallen Marine without considering that he was putting himself in the same line of fire.

He tenderly cradled the wounded man's head in his arms and slowly poured water from his canteen into the dying Marine's parched throat. Once again, the machine gun chattered, shredding Bill's body with 25-caliber bullets. The canteen slowly slipped from his lifeless hands, spilling its contents into the bloody soil of Iwo Jima. I shall never forget seeing a smile on Bill's face as his riddled body collapsed in a heap, meeting death in the final embrace of a fellow Marine. It seemed his very soul was released the moment that smile creased his lips: a final gesture as he completed his earthly mission.

This exemplar of humanity is the essence of American spirit that allows us to honor Bill and others who have given their lives while serving our country in a time of need. We are their spokespersons for they can no longer share any hopes or dreams. Their journey was over as they helped to shape and protect the structure of freedom called America.

As we embrace Independence Day 68 years after this iconic battle, let us all fly our Stars and Stripes proudly to show the world we can and will make whatever sacrifices necessary to preserve our freedom now and in the future.

Bob Gasche lives in Gainesville.

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