This story originally ran in the Tribune on Feb. 19, 1995, on the 50th anniversary of Marines landing on Iwo Jima. H. J. “Jay” Williams died in 1999, George E. Haas died in 2004, and William E. Thosath died in 2008. This is a longer version of this story than what appeared in Wednesday's Tribune.
It was an island not big enough for 6,000 men to live on.
But there was room enough for them to die.
In truth, close to 30,000 men died on the barren volcanic island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific Ocean 75 years ago.
More than 6,000 were American, most of them Marines, part of a force of about 60,000 thrown into an all-out battle against the 23,000 Japanese who were literally dug into a network of tunnels beneath the island’s surface.
Virtually all the Japanese whose choice was to win or die chose death.
The island displaced only about 8 square miles of Pacific Ocean. The smell of sulfur hung over it, and little grew there even before the bombing started.
But it lay approximately halfway between Japan and the Marianas. It could remain a haven for the Japanese to pick off American aircraft returning from bombing runs to the Japanese mainland, or it could be a safety net for those same aircraft and crews.
On Aug. 9, 1944, the softening-up process began. Bombers pelted the island on an irregular basis. Ships occasionally threw a few shells at it. On Dec. 8, 1944, the attacks escalated and continued once, twice, several times a day for 72 days.
Through it all, the Japanese only rarely fired back. Instead, they dug deeper, more far-reaching tunnels, installed more guns, more mines, more booby traps.
By Feb. 19, 1945, it seemed the island must crumble into the ocean and disappear from the sheer weight of the ordnance, one observer wrote.
That morning, the first U.S. Marines went ashore.
Fifty years ago today.
H. J. (Jay) Williams, of Clarkston, was in the first wave with the 5th Marine Division.
George E. Haas, of Lewiston, was with the 3rd Division Marines who landed four days later.
“You relieved us on the line when you went in,” Williams told Haas when the three veterans met for the first time at the Tribune.
The third man, William E. Thosath, of Lewiston, went in March 14 with the 26th Marines to replace battle-weary, casualty-depleted units. He wasn't too late for the battle. The fighting would continue for another two weeks.
By the time Thosath arrived, neither Williams nor Haas was on the island. Both were on their way to hospitals. Haas would stay there for a year before he was well enough to go home.
They didn't expect it to be that way.
Williams remembers the quiet aboard the landing craft as the men, many of them youngsters like himself, checked their gear and waited for the order to move in the last mile. He doesn't remember fear.
“Like most 18-year-olds, you're immortal,” he said.
The beaches on the southeast side of Iwo’s rocky shoreline had almost disappeared in the smoke and dust of the shelling. The ocean waves had formed a natural embankment of volcanic sand a dozen feet high. It was like millions of tiny BBs that sunk men to their knees and ground the amphibious tractors, called amphtracs, to a halt until metal mats could be laid down for them to run on.
The sand probably saved his life, Williams said. His amphtrac stalled just before running over the top of a big sea mine, its horns sticking out, waiting.
The first person in his outfit to die was a medical corpsman who didn't recognize a mound of sand as a Japanese soldier in a rifle pit. They buried themselves in the pits and shot through tubes made of 6-inch boards.
“It seemed to really make Christians out of them in a hurry when you see our buddies stacked up,” Thosath said. “That's when you think, ‘Hey, that could be me.’”
They learned quickly to knock down every small stick or flag, anything that could be a landmark for the Japanese gunners who had divided the island into grids and covered every inch of it with their weapons.
Wreckage piled up in the water and on the beach until paths had to be blasted through the boats and equipment to let more Marines land.
The Japanese dropped mortars in 12 out of 18 foxholes early one morning. Williams was the only one left alive at platoon headquarters.
His company had 128 percent casualties, counting the Marines who were replaced two and three times. Three of 45 men in his company made it through Iwo Jima without being wounded or killed.
He remembers a private first class getting a Navy Cross for leading a company — a captain’s job. But by the time the PFC took over, the company was probably down to a dozen men from its full complement of 150, Williams added.
Haas was made assistant platoon leader on his third day. “It used to be a joke that if you stayed with it, you'd be a general.”
Replacements were assigned alphabetically. Haas got five Johnsons all at once, and they already had one. But it didn't matter, he said, because you didn't have time to get to know them.
“Do you guys remember a fellow ...?” Haas asked. They did.
Almost everyone knew John Basilone, the first living enlisted Marine to win a Congressional Medal of Honor. He got it for killing 38 Japanese in a night fight on Guadacanal, and was sent home to sell war bonds and recruit more men.
Only Basilone couldn’t stand a steady diet of politicians and movie stars and rejoined the 5th Marines, Williams said proudly.
“I remember going up the beach and there was his pack,” Haas said.
Williams nodded. “He was killed the first day. He and eight Marine gunners were killed at the same time with one shell.”
As a replacement, Thosath found himself far down the line, replacing men who were replacements ... and so on.
They could land on any beach by the time he came in, but it was still chaotic. "You never knew when you went back where to go as far as supplies or ammunition.''
But Allied planes already were using one of the airstrips, and the battle against Tokyo was escalating.
The invaders made slow progress because the Japanese were in bunkers protected by pillboxes that were protected by rifle pits, Haas said. Gains were measured in feet. “If you could find the bunker that was pinning you down, you could call for mortar or air strikes.”
He remembers most clearly the “star shells” that lit the night sky so it was like daylight all the time.
“One night I think the Japanese got hopped up on sake.” They charged across open ground, Haas said, and when they hit the barbed wire, the machine guns opened up and mowed them down. The attacks stopped for a while after that.
“I can still see those flares up there at night and they were yelling. You could hear them. Trying to get their courage up, I guess. And there they came.”
Toward the end, the suicide charges got worse, Thosath said. “Every night they would just come out of their holes and just keep coming.”
The food, the weather, lack of simple things made the ordeal worse.
Haas came from the jungles of Guam, where it was in the 70s. Iwo is close to Seattle in latitude. “One night it even tried to snow.”
They huddled in sulfur pits under their ponchos. “Steam-heated foxholes, boy,” Haas said, grinning.
Most of the K-rations were inedible. They searched abandoned packs and those of men who had died for candy and ammunition.
When he ran out of clean, dry socks, Haas cut lengths of a tubular bandage, folded one end over and slipped them on his feet. When those wore through, he cut another pair.
He and an Irishman, a squad leader, were crossing an open place when the other man was killed. “He had a BAR ammo belt with 120 rounds, and we needed it,” Haas said. “And it really bothered me to go back and take that off of him, to take it off my own buddy.”
Williams saw the American flag flying the afternoon that a young photographer named Joe Rosenthal took a photograph of Marines raising it on top of Mount Suribachi. They could see it from a mile away, he said.
That photograph and Iwo Jima have become synonymous.
Then, all it meant was that maybe the 28th Marines could get down off the mountain and help them, Williams said. “But there wasn't enough of the 28th left to do much.”
“I don't think in combat there's any such thing as inspiration,” Thosath said.
“I think it's the guys who stay at home who make it such a good deal,” Haas added.
“It gets a helluva lot of recruits,” Thosath agreed.
Sometimes it seemed as if there was no reason why they lived or died.
Williams and a friend tried to get a sergeant out of a pit after he was paralyzed by a grenade. The friend took the full force of a second grenade. Williams, right beside him, was untouched.
It was the 13th day, and Williams found he was too tired to haul the wounded man out of the pit by himself, so he covered him and left him there to play dead. It took four days to get him out. He lived to get to Hawaii, but died a couple of months later, Williams said.
Haas was in a big crater with five others when an antitank mortar dropped on top of them. "It killed three of us and wounded the other three.''
Corpsmen shot them full of morphine and covered them as though they were dead. Haas recalls drifting in and out of consciousness and finally waking up to voices, uncertain whether they were friendly until he heard them cussing in good honest American.
He yelled and they got him to the hospital ship.
The next day, Williams stood up behind a rock to look around. A bazooka man yelled at him, and he turned. The bullet caught the edge of his helmet and split, half of it going inside his helmet liner and half outside.
It split his ear and left him with a scar on the back of his neck instead of hitting him square between the eyes.
“I can remember saying to myself, that's how it feels to be dead.”
It was the kind of mistake you make when you're tired, he said. He should have known there was a sniper, because of the three dead Marines already laying nearby.
Haas lost the sight in one eye, perforated an ear drum “and a few other little things.”
Thosath figures he was headed for China and Williams was loaded for the invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped Aug. 6 on Hiroshima and Aug. 9 on Nagasaki. The surrender was signed Sept. 2, 1945.
They came home heroes, with the bands still playing and crowds cheering when they landed in 1946.
Haas, a retired psychologist with Columbia Basin College, was veterans affairs officer working with Vietnam vets for several years until he burned out.
“I heard an awful lot of their stories and they went through the same things we did,” he said.
“The difference was we knew within inches where the front line was,” Williams added.
“And we got more glory for what we did than they did,” Haas said.
They left their war behind a long time ago.
It's good to see Japanese students at Lewis-Clark State College, said Williams, retired executive director of Opportunities Unlimited at Lewiston.
The Rotary club Haas belongs to sponsors Japanese students each year.
But what struck closest to his heart, Haas said, was on a trip a few years ago to the memorial of the battleship Arizona sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The only person crying was a Japanese.