North Coast Journal

Feb. 1995 - COVER STORY

Humboldt Remembers Iwo Jima

by Wally Graves

Young Joe Borges had given up herding his dad's cattle east of Fortuna with their sheepdog Old Blue, and Joe had joined the U.S. Marines. Now, after boot camp and assault training, on an overcast Monday, Feb. 19, 1945, in a mild 68 degrees Fahrenheit, Joe was landing on a Japanese island 650 miles south of Tokyo.

Never in history had foreign soldiers invaded Japan. Kublai Khan had tried in A.D. 1281, but a "divine wind," a kamikaze, had arisen to destroy Kublai Khan's fleet.

The Marines had planned that Joe's outfit would take quick control of this Japanese beach. By sunset they would be a third of the way up the island.

That was not to be.

Heavy artillery and mortar fire from carefully concealed Japanese caves and bunkers kept Joe and his buddies pinned in their shell holes on the shifting sands all that day.

And the next.

Then, on Dog-Day plus two, an exploding mortar caught Joe in the chest and killed him.

Joe was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart, the medal for the wounded. He was 20.

Among the Navy boys who took Joe and the others ashore that morning bucking a 12-knot northwest wind was another North Coast lad, 18-year-old Motor Machinist Mate Third Class David Lancaster.

David grew up with his family on I Street near Henderson Center in Eureka, working as a youngster for Art's Barber Shop and Graham's Dairy. He transferred to Arcata High so he could focus on Future Farmers of America, and was one of nine Arcata seniors who joined the service in a group prior to their 1944 graduation.

David now found himself the engineer of a three-man-crew landing craft assigned to take Marines to the beach. His boat went in with the second wave. It broached under mortar fire.

David didn't realize he'd been hit till he tried to hop out. He couldn't run. Among the dead and wounded, the Navy hospital corpsmen loaded David into another boat and returned him to his ship.

To this day, airport metal detectors pick up what remains in David Lancaster's leg of the 22 pieces of shrapnel he took at Iwo Jima that Monday morning.

Two days earlier, on Saturday the 17th, a dozen Navy gunboats had been ordered dangerously close to Iwo's shore. Their rockets were to make the landing easier for boys like Joe Borges and David Lancaster by blasting gun emplacements tucked into the steep slopes of an old volcano called Mount Suribachi.

On one gunboat 20-year-old Seaman First Class Ray Ramos felt his ship shudder under exploding shrapnel. Ray had quit Eureka High to work in the North Coast shipyards, but he'd tired of dogging it in the yards where the rule was to "hide instead of work," so he left his draft-deferred job and at 18 was in the Navy. He'd bid his mother goodbye at their house near 2nd and F streets in Eureka, and had sailed from San Diego to see action in the Palau Islands east of the Philippines, and at Guam.

Now, at Iwo Jima two days before Dog-Day, his little flotilla was methodically being gunned down from Suribachi. Ray's ship took a hit in the bow, another in the engine room, a third in the skipper's quarters. His ears rang with the din of steel against steel. He smelled the alien stench of gunpowder, then blood.

Beside Ray a shipmate collapsed with fatal shrapnel in his belly. Another's arm had been blown away, and the kid didn't even bleed because of shock. Within minutes half the young crew lay dead or wounded. Ray took shrapnel in his hand and leg.

The skipper requested permission to "Get the hell out of here." But the ship was dead in the water. She was towed far to sea by a small boat. They stuffed mattresses in a hole in the hull.

Ray returned with his ship to Hawaii. His combat on Iwo had lasted 40 minutes.

"All the dummies go in first," Ray told me. "They kill the dropouts. That way, they don't lose anybody important."

Ray had suffered a "million dollar wound" which let him escape honorably from battle without dying, or being permanently maimed or disfigured. He was among more than 46,000 young men on both sides who died or were wounded on a pork-chop shaped volcanic island smaller than the city limits of Eureka.

More men went down on Iwo's D-Day than had been lost at Normandy's in France.

From time to time one hears of America's "bloodiest battle," like World War II's Battle of the Bulge, or Utah Beach at Normandy. Invariably the "bloodiest battle" is compared with Gettysburg.

During the Civil War it was fashionable to get in one's carriage and go see such a battle.

And at Iwo Jima I was such a spectator. I was aboard a tiny vessel called a "control ship" which went close to shore and set up an imaginary "line of departure" from which the boats loaded with Marines whined toward the beach, wave after wave, dispatched at our command by bullhorn and signal flag.

Our little wooden ship, built in Tacoma, Wash., had been alerted far at sea by the thunder of naval guns blasting the little island, which had been under serious attack by air and sea for five weeks.

Dawn revealed an armada of transports, landing ships, cargo vessels, and men of war ranging in size from massive, armored battleships and heavy cruisers to something as insignificant as our minuscule control ship.

We crept toward a dark, shell-scarred remnant of ancient volcanic origin. A steep, rounded hump rose to the left, and craggy hills were scattered among ravines to the right. Between them lay an airstrip on a flat man-made lowland guarded by three terraces of black sand rising from the sea.

In the ensuing hours and days our little ship dispatched half of all the Marines and the Navy's construction batallions (Seabees) who went ashore.

During those days and flare-lit nights we kept underway, struggling to hold position in the heavy swells and constant current, dodging from time to time shells which sought our range.

During the rare air raids we threaded our way among larger ships laying down smoke screen.

On the fourth day of carnage, we saw, unbelievably, the American flag go up on Mount Suribachi. We shouted and cried with the rest of the fleet and with the men ashore.

"That flag was the only thing that gave me guts to go ahead. I tingled all over," said Kenneth Lemster, who with his wife Patricia owns the Lazy-L Ranch up Fickle Hill Road back of Arcata.

Fifty years ago 19-year-old Cpl. Lemster had gone ashore on D plus 2. Like Joe Borges and the others, Lemster had been pinned down shoulder to shoulder at the beach, watching the enemy mortars lobbed and falling, and seeing so many bodies blown up.

He'd made it without sleep day or night through sniper and machine gun fire "scared, and sick, urinating in my pants, daydreaming, moving automatically."

Then the word was passed that a flag flew on Suribachi. Everyone could see it. "There she goes!" he cried.

He told me, "I became a Marine that day."

Soon after, Lemster was burned and hit by phosphorus and shell fragments. He was sedated with morphine, evacuated, and recalls little of his four days' sleep on the hospital ship Solace, en route from Iwo south to the safety of Guam.

Lemster's buddy, 18-year-old Private First Class Cliff "Cap" Kramer, who now is a retired construction man living on Fickle Hill and married to Lemster's sister Adele, lasted a few days longer. Kramer had gone ashore toting a Browning automatic rifle on a trip that was promised as "merely banker's hours" because it would just be mop-up. But the volcanic dust of Iwo made the Browning impossible to clean, so he and others had shifted to a slower firing M-l rifle.

Kramer, the young infantryman, searched out the concealed, low-ceilinged Japanese concrete pillboxes in the protective company of a Sherman tank. Shrapnel ricocheted off the tank and struck him down. A Navy corpsman rushed to his aid. Shrapnel from a second blast tore the corpsman's face away. Kramer was pinned down by shellfire for hours before he was taken to the safety of Guam.

Two flags were raised on Suribachi. The first was a small flag carried by a platoon from the 28th Regiment's 2nd Battalion's Easy Company. The Marines climbed the 550-foot slumbering volcano past Japanese bodies, and past Japanese caves and emplacements, and raised the flag on a short pipe.

A second, larger flag was commandeered from a beached landing ship, and when it went up, San Francisco Examiner photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped unrehearsed what became the most famous picture of World War II.

Easy Company's 17-year-old Private First Class Les Swanson, the son of Leslie and Lauradale Swanson of Hoopa, scaled Suribachi that day, and was standing just beyond his six comrades whom Rosenthal's camera made famous.

Swanson had enlisted out of Arcata High. (Three of his brothers had joined the Army.) His sister Arlene Box, who runs the Post Office at Korbel, told me, "Every time I see that picture, I think of my brother Les."

Swanson survived Iwo till the end of fighting and now lives near Redding. "He got an infected toe and could have claimed the Purple Heart," I was told by his buddy, Thurman Fogarty, now a retired veteran of 25 years with the Eureka police.

Fogarty, a burly kid of 17, had left Eureka High for the Marines. Because of his strength he was assigned to the mortars. He didn't scale Suribachi, though he, too, was in Easy Company with Swanson and Navy Corpsman John Bradley who gained fame for being in Rosenthal's picture.

"I was lying alongside Bradley, who'd already been wounded in the leg, when the guy on my left had his arm blown off. Bradley gave him morphine, and sent him back," Fogarty recalls.

"Then we got it again. Another guy beside me was -- well, I just got the dry heaves looking at him, and Bradley thought I was wounded. 'Where are you hit?' Bradley asked, and I told him, `I'm not hit. I'm just sick.'"

"I was just scared," Blair Graham, who lives in Eureka with his wife Ruth, told me. "I was in a daze, just hoping to get out."

Graham grew up south of Ferndale, and went to the Bear River School until the enrollment fell below the required six. He finished his education in Ferndale.

Graham had meant to join the Navy, but a Marine sergeant at the recruiting office changed his mind. At age 33 on Iwo, going ashore on the sixth or seventh wave with the howitzers, Private First Class Graham was considered an old man. He was one of the few locals who made it through to the end unhurt.

Most of the "old" men among the troops on the island were construction battalion Seabees, who went ashore virtually with the first assault to build support facilities. "Protect the Seabees," the Marines used to say, "one of them may be your dad."

One of the Seabees in the shadow of Suribachi was Lawrence "Jack" Risling, born at Hoopa. Risling is now a retired carpenter living on Pine Hill in Eureka, a brother of David, who was a Navy lieutenant, and Baron, an Army Air Corps lieutenant who died when his plane crashed during training.

On Iwo, Risling wrote to his wife Joy, "I'm living in fox holes and eating field rations, heating it with canned heat. A kitchen is being set up, so we'll soon be eating real food again. Don't worry about me as I am okay. My mail hasn't caught up with me yet as I was at sea two months before landing here."

Risling went ashore on D plus 2 as a carpenter's mate first class, at 28 a "father figure" whom the younger men wanted to be near for safety. He recalls diving into a shell hole for protection and emerging a "stinky mess," having fallen on a rotting Japanese corpse.

His wife remembers that Iwo cured Risling of walking around with his shoelaces untied. During an air raid he literally jumped out of his shoes, "And I've kept the laces tied ever since."

Risling remained on Iwo long after the war ended, working with Army garrison troops.

On Iwo, the primitive walkie-talkies worked poorly, so the Marines ran thousands of yards of telephone wire. Skillful at this perilous task was 22-year-old Private First Class Edward Walsh. Small and quick, Walsh had learned his trade on Bougainville and other now near-forgotten Pacific islands.

Walsh lives in Eureka with his wife Cordelia. He was honored last Veterans Day (the Walshes' 48th wedding anniversary) at the Adorni Center for his labors under fire in the Pacific. His wife said, "Isn't he wonderful? I never knew all these things about him."

He told me privately, "When I walked out of Iwo I just cried when I saw those graves in the cemeteries. I asked myself, `How come I got outta here, and not them?'"

The answer for Walter Bennett, a soft-spoken retired head millwright for Louisiana-Pacific, is "Jesus."

Bennett went ashore on D-Day as a 20-year-old corporal in a regiment of some 2,000 infantrymen, and when the battle was over, Bennett recalls, he "stood roll call with only 18 of the original 2,000."

An American flag flies on a white pole beside Bennett's tree-shaded house off Campton Road in Eureka near the Moose Lodge. His car carries an Iwo Jima memorial license plate.

Bennett writes poetry. In his comfortable living room, adorned with his careful cabinetry, he showed me his Purple Heart, with its surround of gold, and George Washington's profile in the center.

"This government should be ashamed," he said. "Look how this gold has worn off."

Bennett's regiment stormed the island at its narrowest, cutting off Suribachi to the south. As they worked their way north their losses were enormous. It was "every man for himself, the officers and the coordination were gone. I'd no sooner stepped off the boat when I saw a dead colonel and a dead captain."

Days later three young replacements "just out of boot camp" tried to take out a pillbox, but they were killed, so Bennett ran to the box and stood against a rock.

"A shell hit the rock and blew my pack off. When I came to, my left shoulder burned. I moved my fingers, my feet, so I figured I wasn't hurt too bad."

Bennett showed me how he forced his right hand across to feel the back of his left shoulder. "I grabbed mush," he said.

The shell had pulverized Iwo's sulphur rock, and driven it into Bennett's wound. Iwo's curative sulphur, along with Bennett's faith in Jesus, had saved him. He stayed in battle.

He says, "As I walked and I crawled, my mind went back to Calvary, where Jesus said, `Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend,' and those men at Iwo were the men who would lay down their lives for the one at the left or the right of their hand.

"Of all the folks that I know I would rather speak to Marines that I have served with, for I have felt their pain. Men calling out to God was a common virtue."

Iwo, according to the admirals and generals, was to have been secured in four days, with an absolute maximum loss through death, wounds and combat fatigue, of no more than 4,000 Americans. It was assumed that the 21,000 Japanese hidden in their miles of tunnels would fight to the death (1,083 were eventually captured, including some teen-age schoolboys who had gone on a botany trip to Iwo and were stranded. Each had been given two hand grenades - one for the enemy, one for himself).

Among the Americans 6,812 died, 19,217 were wounded and 2,648 suffered combat fatigue, a total of 28,677 among some 70,000 who went ashore. For every square mile of the island, 850 Americans died, and 2,500 were wounded. Nearly one out of every three Marines killed in World War II died on Iwo Jima:

There was Private First Class Elmer Allen, 25, son of William and Georgianna Allen of Eureka. After Eureka High, Allen drove a truck and married. He left a 2-year-old son.

His sister Gladys Cole of Freshwater remembers her parents' phone call. Allen died "in the first big group," she said, but remembers no details.

There was Sgt. Max Wagner, son of the superintendent of Eureka Woolen Mills, whose handsome face under a Marine pith helmet made him look invincible. His brother Robert had died a year earlier over France.

There was Private First Class Eugene Lewis, 19, of Weitchpec, whose family now lives down the Klamath, and whose cousin Pete runs the Lewis Union Service Station in Hoopa.

There was Private First Class Warren Smith, who died one week before his 24th birthday, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Smith of Arcata. Smith left two daughters, ages 2 and 3.

There was Raymond Viale, whose survivors to this day do not know how he died. He was simply "Missing In Action" with the regiment which crossed the island to seal off Suribachi.

"When we heard of the Iwo invasion," Viale's sister Margaret Halkades told me (the family was living next to Redwood Acres Fairgrounds), "my mother said, 'Oh, my God, that's Raymond.'" Within days the Humboldt Times' banner headline reported 2,050 Marines and 13,000 Japanese dead. The same issue announced that Raymond's brother, Lt. Robert Viale, had been killed in the Philippines.

Today the two Viales are memorialized in the name of their nephew Robert Raymond Viale of Fortuna.

There was, finally, at the closing days of combat on Iwo, Robert Taylor, a 6-foot 4-inch newspaperman nicknamed "Tiny" who had worked the presses for the Humboldt Times in Eureka.

Taylor, a firm-jawed, intense-eyed corporal, had joined the Marines with his Doberman pinscher dog Prince, and for 15 months the pair had searched out Japanese caves and tunnels on Pacific islands.

The death toll on Iwo had risen so fast that the Navy stopped giving numbers. President Franklin Roosevelt, it is said, had literally gasped at the count. The Navy simply declared Iwo "secure" so the true totals would be ferreted out only by later historians.

Taylor died 11 days after Iwo was "secure." Prince survived.

It was a sad lot of Marines replaced by the Army's garrison troops toward the end of March.

Twenty-year-old Private First Class Kenneth Smith, now a retired timber faller who lives near Ninth and K streets in Eureka, had long since been evacuated after going down under mortar fire. When I asked Smith whether his few days on Iwo, or a lifetime in the North Coast woods, was more dangerous, he had no hesitation. Iwo.

Private First Class Jonathan Webb was wounded three times in a single day: a bullet in his left shoulder, another in his left leg and a mortar concussion which stripped him naked except for his right shoe. Today, Webb, with his wife Anna who herself served in the Navy during the war, divides his time between their house on E Street in Henderson Center and their antique store at Alton.

Retired banker Charles Harris lives in Eureka on Russ Street with his wife Aris. Harris, as a 26-year-old sergeant, went in on the first wave and survived unwounded to the end. He took command of an entire company after they "ran out of everybody else."

He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the field. His battalion commander, Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson, had ordered Harris and the others to carry the flags up Suribachi, and Harris had been about 20 feet to one side when the famous picture was taken.

Col. Johnson was no "rear echelon" commander. His roving headquarters were only a few feet behind the lines, Harris told me. Johnson moved with his troops. Such courage, which inspired his men, made Johnson's death by enemy artillery especially shocking. One moment the colonel was there, near Harris.

"The next he was in pieces scattered all over the place," his men recalled. "The biggest piece we could find was a rib cage." They recovered a shirt collar, neatly cut off and free of blood. They found a fragment of the colonel's wrist with the watch still ticking.

Otto Bauer lives in Fortuna with his wife Barbara. He is reluctant to talk about Iwo, where he served as a squad leader and sergeant of riflemen in heavy fighting till he was blinded. To talk war with a veteran, he commented crustily, usually leaves the impression that the veteran "won the whole battle by himself." Bauer regained his sight on board a hospital ship. He stayed in the Marines.

Howard McLaughlin, a volunteer reserve officer for the Fortuna police, has written a long personal history for his grandchildren titled "Iwo Jima, or 35 Days of Hell." Of all the veterans I talked with, he alone identifies himself as leaving because of "combat fatigue."

McLaughlin, a retired highway engineer, went to Iwo as a diesel mechanic in a reserve unit. Their assurance that the unit would not be going ashore was shattered on the forenoon of D-Day when "they needed warm bodies." So McLaughlin, after a stint with special weapons (machine guns, flame throwers), became a demolition man working his way up the island detonating land mines and blowing out pillboxes and caves.

In his attractive house overlooking the valley east of Fortuna, where he now lives with his wife Helen, and hybridizes fuchsias as a hobby, McLaughlin recalls vividly the first night of mortars and gunfire on the beach, followed by days leading to weeks of inching his way north from Suribachi. He recalls his buddy in the same foxhole dying of a bullet through his helmet.

"God smiles on those who die instantly," he observes.

"In combat, doing ordinary or normal things was in itself heroic. All of our Marines died highly visible, but the Japs died underground. Only later did we realize what a heavy toll they took."

McLaughlin recalls the stench of burning bodies and rotting corpses that carried from Iwo out to sea; the land crabs crawling noisily in the night sounding like enemy infiltrators; the volcanic heat rising from underground as the cold rain drizzled from above; the huge flies, the filth, the crud.

He recounts the story of a Marine veteran of Iwo reporting for duty in Heaven and telling St. Peter that he's "already spent his time in Hell."

In a final blast, McLaughlin was knocked unconscious. His eyes were glued shut with blood, so someone bandaged them.

McLaughlin eventually came to on a stretcher. He wept, and his moist tears softened the blood, which had been splattered from dead companions. He could see light through his bandages. He was taken to a hospital ship, not wounded, just "another raggedy-ass Marine wearing the thousand yard stare."

Why did America invade Iwo Jima, knowing full well that it was the "Gibraltar of the Pacific"?

The Japanese on Iwo deep in their network of tunnels and caves were starving, and dying of dehydration, and literally being eaten to death by lice. Other bypassed islands in the Pacific held half a million Japanese stranded and starving. Was it worth 26,029 U.S. dead and wounded to conquer Iwo?

An answer was given most dramatically on D plus 13 when a former Humboldt State College student, Army Air Corps Sgt. Allan Hill, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Chester Hill, living on Arcata Road, put down on Iwo with nine other crewmen in his disabled B-29 Superfortress bomber.

Iwo lay midway between the Superforts' base to the south, and Tokyo to the north. Hundreds of airmen had died on those 2,400-mile round trip missions of holocaust. Many of the planes which ditched at sea could have been saved by a safe haven on an American-held Iwo.

At 11:30 that morning of D plus 13 over Tokyo, Hill's B-29, Dinah Might, at 30,000 feet, turned for home. In the 30-below temperature the bomb bay doors froze open. The plane ran low on fuel. If they ditched, the expression went, they had two chances to survive: "`Slim,' and none at all, and `Slim' has just left town."

No Superfort had yet landed at Iwo. Hill's captain asked permission and was told, "We'll clear the bulldozers off the strip for you. But watch out for enemy anti-aircraft and mortar fire."

On Iwo the eyes of the Marines and Seabees followed the plane's sweeping circle past Suribachi. Less than a 100 feet above ground, Hill's captain lowered the flaps and landing gear. Japanese mortars lobbed ineffective fire. Sgt. Hill and the others leapt from their plane and kissed the ground that had become a nightmare to the people on it.

Half an hour later, repaired and refueled, Hill and the other crew members declined an invitation to "spend the night on lovely Iwo Jima." Over Japanese anti-aircraft fire Dinah Might flew safely out.

A month after its first landing, Dinah Might, heavily damaged, put down a second time on Iwo, and was abandoned there. Crew members were reassigned to new B-29s, and within six weeks Arcata's Sgt. Hill had perished.

By war's end - if one can believe the official figures - 2,251 such landings at Iwo had brought safety to 24,761 American airmen.

Perhaps even more significant, Iwo had served as a terrifying test of the determined resistance Americans could expect in their final invasion of Japan, code named OLYMPUS, for which we in the Pacific were staging within weeks after Iwo's fall. The image of Iwo Jima must have loomed large in President Truman's mind as he rationalized that the atomic bomb should replace amphibious invasion as the final weapon of choice.

The Japanese surrendered in August 1945.

In 1968 Iwo was returned to Japan. Upon hearing this, one Marine said, "Don't ask me to take it again."

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