Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Memories of Iwo Jima

The 65th Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima is taking place. Down below is clip of the ceremony. Also, an interview I did with noted author Richard Wheeler on the 60th Anniversary of the battle is there. Wheeler who passed away in October 2008 was a platoon member of the original flag-raisers. Wheeler was wounded two days before the flag raising but heard the celebration while recovering on a hospital ship.

Pine Grove author recalls 3 harrowing days on island.

This article was published by the News-Item in March of 2005 on the 60th anniversary of Iwo.

February 19th marks the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

This battle has become famous for two reasons. First, the US Marine Corps suffered the most-ever casualties in any battle in it's history. In a little more than a month of combat, the Americans suffered 6,821 dead, 19, 217 wounded and 2648 cases of battle fatigue.

Second, the photograph taken by Joseph Rosenthal of the second flag raising on the summit of Mount Suribachi, which first appeared in US newspapers on February 25th, 1945, became the most reproduced photograph in history.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Richard Wheeler of Pine Grove, who had served in Iwo Jima as part of the 5th Marine Division, 28th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Platoon of Company "E" or "Easy Company".

I had met Wheeler in June of 2004 on a cold call searching for information on an Army unit that my grandfather, Stanley J. Comoss, served with in Guam. My grandfather served with the Army's 77th Division, 305th Regiment of Company "L" and was one of the division's 839 on Guam in the summer of 1944.

Wheeler, 83 has authored three books on the battle including, The Bloody Battle for Suribachi, Iwo and A Special Valor, along with 14 other books dealing with the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. But its the memories of that famous battle 60 years ago that stirs Wheeler's memory. "I would say 99 out of 100 of us were really scared," Wheeler said. Wheeler hit the island with the 11th wave of Marines. Most battle historians concur that the landing was rather uneventful. It wasn't until the Marines were assembled on the beachhead that the Japanese opened fire with ferocity. "The reality of combat hit immediately as the firing started as soon as I was on shore, and the man right next to me was hit with a mortar, but miraculously survived.."

Wheeler's first three years in the corps were rather uneventful. After enlisting six weeks after Pearl Harbor, having just celebrated his 20th birthday, Wheeler drew guard assignments in Keyport, Washington and Alaska and still winces to this day about the stint. Finally, his orders came for combat training in Camp Pendleton, California, then Hawaii for a year in preparation for the invasion.

Prior to his enlistment, Wheeler had worked for a small weekly paper in Reading called the Reading Shopping Bulletin. "I was hoping to live an adventure by enlisting," he recalled. "Diaries that my father kept while serving on the front lines in World War I had always sparked my interest in military writing."

A Bloody Day

Wheeler's platoon advanced across the island on the first day only to come halfway back on the second day, where the troops positioned themselves across the base of Suribachi for an assault that was to occur on the third day.

The Japanese, under the direction of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi--whose widow, Wheeler notes, sent him a postcard after she read Iwo--built a system of trenches and underground tunnels to the extent that 21,000 Japanese soldiers who occupied the island were, for all practical purposes, invisible. The US Navy spent seven months beginning in June of 1944 bombing the island with little of to no affect.

"Morale was kind of low because the Japanese were able to recover their wounded and dead without us knowing it through the system of underground caves and trenches," Wheeler said.

Wheeler's third day on the island changed his life forever. Howard Snyder, Ed Romero, Wheeler and another Marine began their charge for Suribachi by advancing through craters created by Navy bombing. These craters soon became traps as Japanese mortar shells rained down on them.

Romero was mortally wounded by the first shell. The second mortar explosion caught Wheeler in the jaw, causing him to bleed profusely. Corpsman Cliff Langley arrived to aid Wheeler, applying compresses and stopping the bleeding. Minutes later, a second mortar blast ripped the calf muscle from Wheeler's leg. Langley, who was also wounded by the explosion, came to Wheeler's aid once again. The burst also claimed the life of an unnamed Marine. A third shell hit, but never exploded. "That shell would have killed me," said Wheeler of the dud. " I was in rough shape thinking I wasn't going to make it."

"The thoughts of being on Iwo for almost three day and not firing a shot had made me feel like a coward for letting the other men down," he added. "I tried to crawl toward a machine gun position that was close by to get a shot in, but a stretcher arrived and took me back to the beach which wasn't any safer."

Wheeler's stint as a combat Marine had lasted only three days. It was while he was recuperating from his wounds in the hospital of an offshore ship that Wheeler heard the commotion when the first American flag was raised on Iwo on February 23rd, 1945. He remembered the corpsman who came into the hospital yelling that flag had been raised on Suribachi.

Wheeler was eventually evacuated to Guam, a US territory my grandfather help recapture, then on to Hawaii before returning to mainland San Francisco. It was there that Wheeler started to realize his place in history.

"I was looking at photographs that were being circulated and recognized the men from my unit," he said. "I asked for a notebook and immediately started to take notes on my part in the battle."

For the first time in World War II, a US flag would fly over Japanese territory. It was also the beginning of Wheeler's personal literary journey that would culminate with one of his work being accepted for publishing in 1964. "I was rejected nine times by publishers until The Bloody Battle for Suribachi was published," he recalled. To this day, Wheeler is thankful her served on Iwo. An excerpt taken from his book sums up his account of the battle.

As for Death, I had come face to face with that old ogre and noticed he
was mostly a sham. I'd enjoy the truce he granted me, but would live
with the feeling that when he renewed his fight in earnest, I'd be able to
make my surrender without begging for terms."

For Richard Wheeler, it is 60 years and counting since that fateful day on a tiny island half a world away.


A conversation with Wheeler on 2/15/07, discussed the movie, Flags of Our Fathers. Most viewers including myself and Wheeler thought the use of flashback made the movie hard to follow in it's final edit. There was also a note of disappointment with the Hollywood vs. History point. Wheeler spent Veteran's Day in Washington DC at the opening of the Marine Corps Memorial and was honored with 100 or so veterans with a breakfast at the White House. Wheeler was able to get a picture taken with President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. Wheeler noted, "The first lady is very attractive."

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