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Friday, August 15, 2003
Ventura County Star
Iwo Jima veteran to regroup his fellow Marines
T.O. soldier heads to San Diego
By John Mitchell, firstname.lastname@example.org
September 1, 2003
Jim Lieberknecht's scariest moments during World War II came in his fifth major battle, the invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1945.
"It was almost like a textbook operation," said Lieberknecht, then a master technical sergeant with the 2nd Battalion, 155 Howitzers, Corps Artillery, U.S. Marine Corps. "We could see the ships firing at the island and at Mount Suribachi, and we could see the landing boats going in to the beach.
"We went in the second day," the Thousand Oaks man recalled. "We could hear small arms fire pinging on (our boat), and we ducked behind the superstructure. We were a little stressed at that, because we were carrying gas and ammunition as well as the howitzers. At the beach we got off as quick as we could; that was the rule of experienced people."
The experiences of Lieberknecht's war, like this one, are buried deep inside his memory. He will talk about them, but often, as he visualizes the men and the unspoken horrors he saw, he will occasionally surrender to overwhelming feelings, and weep.
Later this week, he and his wife, Anne, will travel from their home in Thousand Oaks to San Diego, where they will participate in an annual reunion of Lieberknecht's World War II outfit. The old Marines will greet each other, memories and emotions will be stirred, and stories will be exchanged.
Like Lieberknecht's first night on Iwo Jima.
"Our position, where we would set up the batteries, wasn't established, and we were pretty much on our own," he said. "I was in a foxhole with guys I didn't even know, and we sat there all night. I think there was a light rain. We just wanted to get through the night, not knowing which direction was which. It turned out to be pretty calm but scary."
Before Iwo Jima, there was Tulagi-Guadacanal, Tarawa, Saipan and Guam, all of them milestone assaults as U.S. forces brought the war closer to Japan. Lieberknecht participated in all.
Saipan, in the Marianas, was a monthlong hell hole for the Americans. Near the end of the fighting, the remnants of a desperate Japanese garrison launched bloody suicide attacks, and many civilians leaped to their deaths from cliffs.
Lieberknecht, who was his battalion's communications chief, remembers the two Marines who came back to their foxhole on Saipan to discover it had taken a direct hit and was blown to bits.
And the runner from one of the infantry companies coming through the artillery area. "Suddenly we got hit with mortar fire, and the guy says, 'Damn, I'm going back up to the front. I don't like this at all.' "
Later, a communications officer pulled up in a jeep and told Lieberknecht he was going to show him the front.
"It was amazing," Lieberknecht said. "As we got closer to the front, we'd see more and more (dead) Marines wrapped in ponchos, and Japanese body parts were all over the place. The smell was something like you'd smell nowhere else. It was overwhelming, awful."
Today, Lieberknecht, 80, is far removed from the dangers and horrors of his memories. He and Anne, 65, spend much time in the peaceful ambience and spirituality of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Thousand Oaks. They refer to the church as their "second home." Both do custodial work and care for the church's five rose gardens. Lieberknecht, retired after 32 years as an IBM manager, is the congregation's bookkeeper.
This year, it was his turn to organize his outfit's three-day reunion. With help from Anne, his wife of 39 years, he's done it meticulously.
"Although there's an age difference between us, we share being ever so prideful of our nation and the ground we walk on," his wife said.
"I've had the chance to walk with these guys for 40 years," she said. "I'm walking in history, because they are really historic figures who served their country. I feel I'm a very strong part of them."
This year, 28 veterans have said they will show up, a big drop from the more than 100 who came in 1987. A few are staying home this year because their wives are ill.
"The reunions are an emotional thing for me, sort of a renewal," Lieberknecht said. "It's one of the most important parts of my life. I cry sometimes. The stories get better each year. I love to talk to the guys. Everyone has his own little war he was in, so you pick up bits and pieces and then say, 'I didn't know that!' "
"These reunions are everything to Jim," his wife said. "We go melded together as one, and we stand very prideful, and then are so humbled by the others. We embrace each other and their wives. It's such an incredibly close time, a time to renew friendships and camaraderie."
Lieberknecht told the story of Gunnery Sgt. John Grivich when both were in a camp in New Zealand in 1943.
"Grivich used to drive into town and pick up supplies for us," Lieberknecht said. "One time he comes back holding up a pair of undershorts. He had written on the shorts, 'Are you short of drawers? If you are, I'll buy you a couple.' "
Forty-four years later, Grivich and Lieberknecht met at a reunion. Lieberknecht opened up his World War II scrapbook and there, in all its glory, were the same shorts with Grivich's words intact.
"Grivich was always a very outgoing, extroverted type of guy," Lieberknecht said. "When he saw the shorts, he got very excited and started walking around holding them up for everyone to see. 'Look what Lieberknecht kept; look at this!' he kept saying."
Lieberknecht shed no tears with that story, just a big smile.
On Saturday morning at the Holiday Inn in San Diego, Nelson Roetter, "one of the guys" who entered the ministry, will conduct a memorial.
"He always has a moment in the service where we remember those who went this past year, and we pray again for those who went before them," Anne Lieberknecht said. "After a moment of silence, I sing The Lord's Prayer. Then I say, 'Marines rise.' They stand, and we lift our voices in 'The Marine Hymn.' "
Copyright 2003, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
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