e embarked from the Hilo docks aboard a nameless ship. LSTs aren't big enough to get the honor of a name. We shipped out on LST 779. As we headed for yet another invasion, most of the few veteran troops in the battalion who had survived the Solomons, the Gilberts, and the Marianas were no longer optimists. We were certain that Formosa was our target. Then, if we survived that campaign, we would get to make a final glorious assault on the home islands of Japan. I didn't feel invincible anymore... I felt doomed.
We were allowed to sleep on deck instead of in the crowded, stifling holds. We enjoyed listening to the sailor disc jockeys as they played their limited, scratchy record collection over the loudspeakers. We liked the music although it was often interrupted by portentous announcements. "Now hear this! Clean sweepdown fore and aft." or the shrill piping of "General Quarters" when some nervous lookout mistook a flying fish for a Jap submarine periscope. One song has haunted me throughout all these years: Danny Kaye singing something I remember as "The Fairy Pipers". I've never heard it since and have come to believe that I've imagined it.
After several stomach-wrenching days at sea, we were presented with maps of a volcanic island, Iwo Jima, only 600 miles from Tokyo, located about halfway between the Marianas and Japan. Our B-29s had been bombing Tokyo from our new bases on Saipan and Tinian ever since we took those islands in July, and they invariably encountered attacks from the Jap planes based on Iwo. Taking out this little island would end this harassment and our fighter planes based there could provide the bombers with cover all the way to Tokyo.
Iwo is the most barren, desolate, and repulsive place that I have ever had the misfortune to visit. It is almost devoid of vegetation and has no shallow landing beaches where troops could wade ashore. Just a few feet from the beach, the water was ten or twelve feet deep; coarse black sand formed a series of terraces behind the narrow beach. It was impossible to dig a foxhole -- loose sand would sift down into every pit we tried to dig. The best we could do was look for a bomb crater or shell hole that had blasted out enough of the stinking, flea-infested sand to leave a shallow depression. In Japanese, Iwo Jima translates as "sulphur island" . The smell of rotten eggs permeated the whole dismal place.
The 3rd, 4th, and 5th divisions were given the dubious honor of assaulting this miserable hell hole, which resulted in the highest casualty rate of any engagement in over 200 years of Marine Corps history: 7,000 killed and almost 20,000 wounded. I find it hard to believe that I spent over a month on this island and managed to get away unscathed.
Until a secure beachhead was established and enough equipment could be landed to lay a metal link roadway up and over the sand terraces, our heavy 155s could not be brought ashore but had to return to the LST because of the high surf and all the wrecked AmTracks on the beach. We made it ashore the next day. Russ Mitchell was killed in a particularly brutal manner and that memory is still too painful for me to write about.
My recollection of the next couple of weeks contains a vast void. I do remember cheering when the flag was raised on Mount Suribachi. We called it "Mount Sonofabitchi". The actual flag which was raised came from the LST 779 which had transported us there. We thought the sight of Old Glory flying up there meant that we had secured the island... but the slaughter was just beginning.
Our headquarters was eventually set up between the two Jap airfields, about halfway up the island. It was here that I became a civilian for about five minutes. I was formally discharged from the Corps as an enlisted man so that I could be sworn in as a commissioned officer. I was awarded a field commission dated 3 March 1945.
I am still unable to record many details of my time on Iwo... a memory block takes over. There was no way to adequately describe the experience of those days of terror and the expectation of imminent death.
Two weeks later we boarded a Merchant Marine ship, left Iwo, and sailed away from the miserable place.
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In spite of the fact that I was sailing away from Iwo, this was not a pleasant voyage for me. Now, instantly, I was an officer and a gentleman , not supposed to fraternize with enlisted men. I had suddenly gone from being a big-shot sergeant, close to the top of the pecking order. Now I was a brand new 2nd Lieutenant at the bottom of a different pecking order. Up-from-the-ranks officers are called "mavericks" and are often resented by the college graduate ROTC - OCS elite. All I had going for me was a high school diploma and three years of combat experience. I surely didn't endear myself to some of my unfriendly new companions when I was singled out to eat in the Merchant Marine Officers' mess.
Travelling on a Merchant Marine ship is much different than sailing with the U.S. Navy. The Merchant Marine crews were civilians operating under lease contracts with the government. They maintained their independence from naval regulations and protocol as they hauled freight and troops from port to port. One of the ship's officers was originally from Montana and he spotted my home address on the ship's passenger roster. Yes, they really did post passenger lists! He invited me to be his guest and got me assigned to better sleeping quarters and a place beside him in their mess hall. While the other troops -- even the big brass -- were eating baloney sandwiches, I was actually ordering my food from a menu. Choices were limited, but neither Spam nor Vienna Sausages were among the listed options. I wish I could remember this guy's name.
After three days at sea, we docked at Agana, Guam. Soon after we settled in at a big tent city, we were informed that the 2nd 155mm Howitzer Battalion was being disbanded. All the surviving veterans of that old 3rd Battalion who had been drifting around the Pacific for the past three years were finally going to be sent home. We moved into a replacement company area to await available transportation.
I bunked down in a tent in officers' country with two lieutenants, both fresh from OCS. They treated me with wary reserve. I guess they were as much in awe of me in my ragged stained dungarees as I was uncomfortable being around them with their nice clean new uniforms. We didn't have much in common. They did give me some new skivvies and socks. I appreciated that. It was the first time I'd worn underwear in weeks... made me feel almost human and civilized. I spent most of my time in the enlisted area with my old buddies. I was always careful to report these all-day bull sessions as "training exercises".
We had a couple of weeks of this relaxed freedom before Red Brown and I, with about forty of our old enlisted comrades, were loaded on an Army transport plane and flown to Hawaii. There were no seats, so we sat on our packs. There were no complaints. We were finally going home. We hoped that we would all be assigned together in a new outfit but sensed that we were headed for a final farewell. During that long flight we reminisced about our long fellowship and adventures together: "Remember when..." Mostly we laughed and joked as we recalled the experiences and escapades we had shared, but there were long silences as we tried to cope with our emotions when the recollections summoned up fallen comrades.
When we landed at Pearl Harbor, Red Brown and I were transported to a BOQ (Bachelor Officer Quarters) and the rest of my old buddies were put on a bus and transported to a Marine camp. With the exception of Marty Petersen and Jimmy Francavilla, I have never seen any of them again.