Norman Baker arrived at Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, the first day of the invasion. It was clear and sunny.
“It was a beautiful day,” he said, recalling his time as an 18-year-old Seabee. “Then the mortars started in, and the artillery.”
That day turned into World War II’s bloodiest battle in the Pacific. The dwindling group of American survivors gathered this weekend — 60 years later — in this Louisiana city and at reunions around the country.
Most are now in their 80s; some lean on canes or their wives for support. They reunite every year to remember friends they lost, to share recollections of battle and to connect with the few who can comprehend what Iwo Jima felt like.
'Men died horribly'
“It was only after the battle was over that we realized how horrible it was,” said Baker, of Delaplane, Va., now 79. “The casualties were terrible casualties. Men died horribly.”
He and thousands more Americans were unloaded on Iwo Jima’s black-sand beach, then faced a blistering assault from the entrenched Japanese. It took the Americans 36 days to take the island. The dead: 6,821 Americans and 20,000 Japanese.
The battle has become an iconic one in the Pacific. The heroism was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, in a shot of Marines raising the U.S. flag — an image later turned into the National Iwo Jima Memorial in Newington, Conn.
But veterans don’t have starry-eyed memories.
“It was an unpleasant place, I can assure you. After that, I decided not to make my career in the Marine Corps,” said Melvin DeFleur, 82, of Baton Rouge.
The first Americans to arrive at Iwo Jima were unpleasantly surprised. The tiny island had been bombed for three days before the invasion. But the blasts had little effect on the Japanese, whose troops were hidden in deep tunnels.
A relentless, invisible enemy
American veterans recall their enemies as relentless. But the Japanese on Iwo Jima also were nearly invisible: Their machine gunners were hidden inside small, well protected bunkers, known as “pillboxes,” which the Marines could flush out only with well-aimed hand grenades or blasts from flame-throwers.
Jim Westbrook was a Marine who carried his unit’s radio on his back. The radio had a 6-foot antenna pointing at the sky — a target the Japanese found easy to spot.
“I had a Japanese machine gun trying to cut me down, tracers within a couple of inches of my eyes,” said Westbrook, 81, of Vicksburg, Miss. “We underwent artillery fire, mortar fire, sniper fire, machine gun fire, and the Japanese had some kind of crude rocket they were firing at us. I had a lot of close calls.”
The rocket, nicknamed an “ashcan mortar,” was a bomb shaped liked a garbage can. Baker said it issued an eerie, metallic sound just before impact.
“They were crude, they were a sort of terror weapon. But if one landed close to you, it would kill all of you,” he said.
The veterans’ eyes fill with tears as they remember friends who were killed by Japanese machine guns and artillery shells. Many saw their best friends blown apart.
“I’ve tried to kind of put that part of it out of my mind,” Westbrook said. “I also saw combat fatigue: big, strong, hairy-chested men just crack up and go to pieces.”
There was determination on both sides. The commander of the Japanese at Iwo Jima told his troops that they’d done their duty if they died after having killed 10 Marines.
American veteran William J. Hodge, then a 25-year-old Marine captain, said he’ll never know how he escaped the battle without getting shot. But he always knew that the Americans would take Iwo Jima.
“I’ll tell you this: There was never any doubt,” said Hodge, 84, a pastor in Houston. “It was our job to take that island.”