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Sunday, November 02, 2003
Sunday, November 02, 2003
Iwo Jima survivors recount battle
Seven Marines who fought for control of Japanese island live in area
Of the 70,000 men who fought on Iwo Jima during World War II, 62,000 survived. Now only 94 of those former U.S. Marines are alive. These seven Iwo Jima veterans live in the tri-state area. From left to right are: William Smith, Dale Schaidt, Bert Mulligan, Billy Menges, P.M. Parsons, Jim Nave and John Dick. (Photo Credit: Wesley Haines/Times-News)
CUMBERLAND — They stormed the beaches of hell and lived to tell the tale.
On Feb. 19, 1945, about 30,000 Marines landed on Iwo Jima and fought a 36-day battle for the 2-mile wide by 4-mile long island.
As the naval gunfire from 450 ships surrounding the island subsided to allow the landing Marines to advance, the Japanese emerged from their fortified positions and unleashed a heavy barrage against the Marines.
“A mortar shell hit a man next to me and half buried me in the sand. I said to myself, ‘Man, this is the real thing,’” said Jim Nave, then 17 years old.
Machine guns protected in cement bunkers raked the beach, knocking soldiers down as if they were a row of dominoes. Mortar rockets fell like deadly raindrops.
Dale Schaidt, then 18, dropped for safety into a hole in the beach and found himself surrounded by dead Marines.
“A bomb must have landed right on them. It was just too much for me. I had to run to another hole, even though I could have gotten myself killed doing it,” said Schaidt.
The object of the attack was to take Mount Suribachi and the two Japanese airstrips that the Americans wanted to keep the Japanese from launching Kamikaze air strikes. The island was protected by 20,000 Japanese who could move among a fortified network of underground bunkers.
Nave said, “Most of the time, you didn’t get too far before you had to retreat. You might go a couple hundred feet before you had to dig in. It would take about three tries to finally advance.”
As darkness fell, 40,000 more Marines reinforced those on the island.
Nave said that the Japanese snipers liked to target BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) men like himself. He would sit in his foxhole and he could hear the bullets thumping into the ground.
“Shrapnel would be falling all around you and you would wonder how it all missed you,” said Nave.
The terrain was inhospitable and made of rough volcanic ash, which made it nearly impossible to find places to dig foxholes.
John Dick, then 17 years old, said, “It was hell. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t do anything. ... There was a constant hum of bullets overhead.”
Schaidt turned 19 during some of the heaviest fighting on the island. “I think they must have thrown everything at us that day.”
Despite the danger, he said, “After awhile it gets a little monotonous as you get used to it. You were always on the lookout, though.”
Schaidt said that he didn’t sleep well either. He once went three days without sleep during the fighting.
Mount Suribachi’s summit was reached on Feb. 23 and a group of Marines raised the U.S. flag. They were actually persuaded to re-enact the event shortly afterward by an Associated Press photographer in what would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo.
Bert Mulligan, then 24, said, “We saw the flag raised and thought it was over. Hell, it was just the beginning.”
Iwo Jima was declared secure on March 26. Of 20,000 Japanese defenders, only 1,000 were taken prisoner.
When it was over, 7,000 Americans were dead and 18,000 injured. Approximately one-third of all Marines killed in action in World War II died on Iwo Jima, making it the battle with the highest number of casualties in Marine Corps history.
Schaidt said, “There just weren’t many of my division left.”
Was the sacrifice worth it?
More than 30,000 American airmen’s lives were saved when more than 2,400 disabled B-29 bombers were able to make emergency landings at the Iwo Jima airfield after making bombing flights over Japan. Over one-quarter of the Congressional Medals of Honor given in the war were for actions on Iwo Jima.
What the enemy could not conquer, time has. Today only 94 Iwo Jima veterans still live, according to Vic Ryan, commandant of the Mountainside Marine Detachment.
Of that elite group, seven live in the area. They are: Billy Menges, P.M. Parsons, William Smith, Schaidt, Mulligan, Nave and Dick.
“They are seven miracles you are looking at right there. I have no idea how anyone could have come off that island alive,” said Schaidt’s grandson, Nathan Schaidt, a former Marine himself.
Dick said, “I can’t say that I’m back to normal yet. You can fix a body, but sometimes it’s harder to fix a spirit.”
James Rada can be reached at email@example.com.
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By R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)