By Grady T. Birdsong, USMC Vietnam Veteran ~
19 February 1945, D-Day Iwo Jima
“Dawn broke for us favorably on D-Day. The weather, after several stormy days, was clear; the rough seas subsided; surf conditions were as good as could be expected on an exposed rock. Iwo Jima had only two beaches, one east and the other west of the narrow isthmus connecting Mount Suribachi with the broader part of the island. Both beaches – coarse, black volcanic ash, like gravel – made for poor landing conditions but we made the best of two bad choices when we selected the eastern.” The words of then-Lieutenant General Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith, USMC recalling the arduous hours of planning on this day of decision to release his Marines and Sailors into one of the most epic Pacific battles of WWII.
Reveille sounds at 0400. As they sat for the standard Navy breakfast of ham, eggs, and coffee most wondered about the enormity of what was about to happen…how many would survive the day? Would they make it through the day?
Hundreds of assembled naval vessels anchored off the coast of the tiny volcanic island in the Pacific begin the task of readying their crews and Marines for the coming battle. Several of the large battleships and many other smaller vessels continued shelling the entire expanse of the island. The bombardment had been going on for the last two days without pause. B-29s dropped their bombs on Iwo Jima the previous days in preparation for the impending landing.
Everyone could smell the acrid scent of expended ordnance. Mount Suribachi, protruding upward on the southern tip of the island stood out above the dense fog of explosions. Drifting clouds of smoke covered the entire five-by-two-and-a-half-mile wide landmass, hovering and floating above the surface. The impression to many of the combatants, an eclipse.
The landing boat engines hummed throughout the immediate area making it hard to hear above the obnoxious and continuous din of the imminent invasion. At 0725 hours the “Go” signal is given, with 482 amtracs ready to carry the first eight infantry battalions ashore. The bow doors of an LST open up, and the ramp lowers, launching the first wave of steel LVTs (Landing Vehicles, Tracked), filled with nervous Marines and Navy Corpsmen. Some were veterans of previous campaigns and others were brand new draft replacements. The drivers of those landing craft scared and nervous as the men they carry ashore.
The landing boats will begin their forming maneuvers. The plan is to assault the beach in two-minute intervals, online with a second wave. After staging completes, the first wave begins their preplanned movement crossing the Line of Departure 1500 yards out. The overall plan calls for the Marines to establish a beachhead and sit up a hasty defense. Then will come support personnel, supplies, and medical units, the liaison between the beach and the supporting naval armada offshore. The frontal assault units are to continue their objectives inland once the beachhead is secured.
Upon reaching an estimated 400 yards offshore, naval gunners adjust their shot further inland. Simultaneously, and on schedule at 0859 hours the naval guns cease firing and two waves of fighter aircraft roar over the landing craft armada to strafe, rocket, and napalm the entire landing area and beyond. Nothing will survive, so it is hoped.
The landing craft pilots as they near shore try hard to synchronize with cresting strong waves. This will assist their final thrust onto the beach. Some of the landing craft swamp and become sitting targets for enemy gunners. Some take direct hits from mortars. The sand-black volcanic ash does not allow running, walking, or crawling; it hardly supports the weight of anything, jeeps, tanks, humans, or the like.
The various steep terraces along most of the beach area, a result of waves pounding them since the beginning of time have to be climbed by crawling, slipping, and clawing to the top. The chosen eastern side of the island for the beach assault has fewer obstacles as opposed to the western side.
We members of Cooper’s Troopers, a Veteran luncheon group are blessed to know living members of Iwo Jima who volunteered to serve our nation in WWII and survived that epic battle. I write this to honor their deeds of so many years ago…
The war in the Pacific was one of the most brutal in the history of warfare. Little did the men who survived know until later in life what their actions meant. Those actions recognized by their Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm Chester Nimitz later became known to the world, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Joe Roesenthal’s iconic photograph of Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi became the worldwide symbol of America’s fighting spirit and catapulted the United States Marine Corps to world-renowned status. At the time that photo sent a message not only worldwide but also to the Japanese war machine that the United States would settle for nothing less than victory. Capturing Iwo Jima paved the way for bombers and fighter aircraft with an airbase on their way to and from Tokyo. The battle for Iwo Jima was the beginning of the end of the war in the Pacific.
One longtime Cooper’s member, Sergeant Jack Thurman of Longmont, now 98 years old, served with the 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, and participated in the assault on Red Beach #1 at Iwo Jima. To his unit’s left on Green Beach, the 28th Marines also of the 5th MarDiv charged ashore to begin their tedious assault toward the summit of Mount Suribachi where men of Easy Co 2/28 raised the U. S. Flag, on 23 February.
In Thurman’s book, We Were in the First Waves of Steel Amtracs… he describes the landing and initial push inland, “Chills ran up our backs when we first laid foot on that black sand, sinking to our ankles…we were to keep moving in and take ground…we had about a twenty-foot embankment in front of us to climb with more black sand on top…Just as I reached the crest, I was hit, knocking me to the ground. I felt a sharp pain in my hip…a piece of shrapnel the size of a golf ball had hurtled into my canteen stopping before it reached my hip…I was lucky.” Later while on the summit of Mount Suribachi Jack (with the 27th) and men of the 28th Regiment Marines posed for the second flag-raising photo shown above taken by Joe Rosenthal. Jack is on the extreme left waving his helmet. His buddy Ira Hayes was sitting below him. Jack retired from the Denver-Boulder Metro area after a long career as an architect. He is a long-standing member of Cooper’s and assisted in the original design of our USMC Marine Corps Memorial (1977) located at 6th & Colfax Avenues in Golden, CO.
Carron Barrella, a Woman Marine and a current member of Cooper’s Troopers writes in her award-winning book, More Than 36 Days about two living Iwo Jima veterans who still grace our monthly lunches. The first story in the book is about Pastor Don Whipple, 99 years old and currently an Arvada resident. He served as an Artillery Forward Observer with the 13th Marines (Artillery unit) attached to the 28th Marines (Infantry). Don was in the second wave two minutes behind the first wave on Green Beach. Once ashore he and the others became mired in black, volcanic ash sinking to their ankles. The telephone equipment and wire spools they carried used for spotting targets and firing artillery rounds were in the cart they pulled but soon became immovable in the black sand. The men tied ropes to the cart and tried dragging it some pushing from behind…
So focused on the task, Don was not aware of the mortar round exploding nearby until he went down in the sand. Dazed by the concussion, Don tried standing. He had to be helped into a shell crater. His Captain coming to his aid explained that he had been hit and was bleeding. Blood began to envelop his entire combat boot…
Later finding himself in a beach aid station he and many other badly wounded Marines were transported by landing craft out to the makeshift hospital ships offshore. As they approached the first ship, a sailor yelled down that they were full and could not take on more WIAs. Maneuvering and approaching several more ships, each vessel gave the same response. Desperation grew as precious time slipped away for the grievously wounded in the Higgins boat.
Finally, a Navy Lieutenant on their landing craft shouted up to the ship they had come abreast with that they were not moving until that ship agreed to take all the wounded aboard… Don recounted this event with silent tears remembering that he was forever grateful to this brave, compassionate young Lieutenant for standing defiant until those wounded men were taken onboard and received the aid they needed.
Further into Carron’s book, she lovingly covers Jim Blane’s story. She rightly tells of the father figure he has become to the members. A regular attendee of Cooper’s Troopers, Jim, now 99 years old retired from a prominent Oil Field Supply Company in the multi-state Rocky Mountain region as a Senior VP in 1985. After his retirement, he remained on several boards and became President of the Denver Petroleum Club.
The 4th MarDiv was two weeks into the battle when Jim and his buddy Art Godfrey began their watch one evening in a perimeter fighting hole they had dug earlier. As they peered into the foggy dimness, Jim spotted five or six infiltrators approaching their position. At night the Japs made determined forays into Marine lines to inflict as much damage as possible. Reacting, he ducked through the perimeter wire and pursued the Japs engaging them in a firefight. As a result, Jim was hit. His buddy Art backing him up called for a Corpsman. Dazed and limping, Jim assumed he had tripped over a rock. He looked down to see abundant bleeding and that a round had penetrated his foot, boot and all. As they were inspecting his foot another round dinged his helmet with a loud “ping” leaving a measurable memento in his headgear.
Hobbling down to the aid station Jim was unprepared for the gruesome carnage that met his weary eyes at the aid station. There were dozens of fallen Marines covered with ponchos and many more waiting for treatment, some barely clinging to life… This scene, a death knell in his mind would stay with Jim for the rest of his life.
Al Jennings, 98 years old and a long-time Cooper’s luncheon member, born in Oklahoma entered the Marine Corps toward the war’s end. Al went onto the beaches that fateful day 19 February 1945 with Company I, 3rd Bn, 26th Marines of the 5th MarDiv landing on Red Beach 2. By luck, his brother, also serving in the Marines, was on Iwo Jima serving with the 9th Marine Regiment, 4th MarDiv. The two happened to meet during a lull in the fighting. It was what each other needed for morale and to know that they each had endured the battle up to that time.
Al pursued a career in truck driving after he was discharged and in retirement, he became one of the early leaders of Ed Cooper’s luncheon group. He served many years as its program emcee meeting at various restaurants in the early years of Cooper’s Troopers and at Wilmore-Richter American Legion Post #161 where they now meet.
Tom Ramm, now 99 years old who never misses a luncheon meeting became a Navy Corpsman in 1943. He first served at St. Albans Naval Hospital in Long Island, NY, and then transferred to Camp Lejeune, NC. While there he requested orders for Corpsman training with the Marines. After completion, he shipped out for Hawaii where he joined 28th Marines, 5th MarDiv at Camp Tarawa readying to set sail for Iwo Jima.
Tom tended to the wounded coming out of the many battles that took place on the island. He saw all the horrors of war working with other Corpsmen to do any and everything they could to save lives.
After Iwo and the new replacements arrived, his unit deployed for the pending Invasion of Japan. He exclaimed as they sailed to Japan that it appeared the largest invasion fleet that anyone would ever imagine. He told me, “At times, one could barely see the horizon for all the Naval vessels.” Finally, VJ day was announced, and they did not have to invade but became occupation troops. Sent to Sasebo in the southern part of Japan, they served there for nine months until the 5th MarDiv disbanded.
We are lucky to know these men. We are truly inspired by their deeds in WWII. Most of us younger veterans at Cooper’s have fathers who served. Like them, we who volunteered for the military were influenced by the values that they had lived by and so dutifully performed for our great nation during WWII, that of honor, courage, and commitment.
In closing as quoted from the New York Times, on 26 February 1945 after the Secretary of the Navy had personally gone ashore (imagine that) on Iwo Jima with LtGen Holland M. Smith during the battle, “The 24 Medal of Honor awards for valor during the campaign reflect the high level of individual and collective heroism characteristic of that action. Countless other acts of selfless bravery went unnoted in the holocaust of Iwo, but Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, expressed his “tremendous admiration and reverence for the guy who walks up beaches and takes enemy positions with a rifle and grenades or his bare hands.”
Grady T. Birdsong, Vietnam 1968 – 1969
Coopers Troopers (meets third Thursday of every month)
Wilmore-Richter American Legion Post #161
6230 W. 60th Ave, Arvada, CO 80003 – (303-466-6491)