My arms, the back of my neck, my legs, and scalp tingled with the cold sensation of sweat and goose bumps. It wasn't hot enough in February to sweat, but I had reason enough to.
I was standing quietly along the port side of an tracked landing craft, standing in agony as it had been nearly an hour and a half. My combat boots were hurting my heels from standing on the metal bottom for so long and my shoulders ached as the slings of my haversack and pack weighed more and more with each passing minute. The M1 Garand standard issue rifle was beginning to feel like a ton in the crook of my right arm so I slung it on my shoulder, only to wince as it added its weight, so I propped it in the crook of my left arm.
We had been waiting in the darkness for an hour and a half, deep in the bowels of an amphibious operations troop ship. We were waiting for H-hour, the moment when the great bow of the vessel would open and allow the small landing craft to roll out and into the Pacific. Two thousand other United States Marines and I had been cooped up on the troopship for over a month now, steaming across the world from Pearl Harbor with the largest fleet ever assembled: two carriers, eight battleships, twelve cruisers, fifty destroyers, and over five hundred troopships. We were ordered to sail to the Northeastern Pacific to take an island no more than two miles wide and five miles long: Iwo Jima.
There was nothing to do but wait, so I listened intently to make sense of what was happening outside. I could hear the water lapping at the hull of the troopship, the jingle of gear and squeak of leather gun slings, the scraping of boots as men shifted their weight, coughs, the hollow clink of helmets, the flick of a Zippo lighting a smoke… but that's what didn't catch my attention. I was listening in gut wrenching anxiety to the sharp thunder of the Navy's big guns as the battleships pounded the Japanese-held island with everything they had. The salvos were constant and rapid, the magnitude dulled because we were inside the troopship… but I knew what power they had… you could feel the shockwaves of each salvo making the ship shudder. One would wonder if the troopship wouldn't fall apart from all the stress it was taking.
A bell started its shrill ringing and everyone in the tractor was jerked from their thoughts as the large halves of the troopship's bow slowly screeched open. The sudden light of day was blinding and I shielded my eyes with the back of my hand as the tractor's engine was started and the craft began to shake. My buddies next to me rolled their shoulders and straightened up with anticipation as the landing craft lurched forward and suddenly lurched down and into the ocean. The spray shot up and hit us hard as the landing craft bobbed and leveled again, slowly puttering away from the troopship as the rest of the tractors followed suit. The spray had snapped me from my daze and I was now fully alert, looking about in shock at the scene around me. We slowed down and finally stopped dead in the water to allow the other craft to exit the ship and gather with the rest of us, making twenty tractors in all for our ship… five hundred other troopships were doing the same all around us.
I felt a sickening thud run through every fiber of my body as the battleship Texas fired another salvo with its dozen sixteen-inch guns. The discharge was so deafening that for a moment the only sound I could hear was the crisp, internal sound of my breathing and the ringing in my pounding ears. I almost lost my balance as a wave that fanned out from the blast's shock wave tossed the landing craft and looked over at the towering mass of metal, still enshrouded with brown smoke from the guns. Then I heard the streaking sound of the shells and caught a last second glance of the shells and their trails before they slammed into Mount Suribachi at the far end of the island. I looked in awe at the hulking remains of the volcano as it was being annihilated by almost every vessel that mounted a gun and wondered how we were supposed to take it from the Japanese. It wasn't a question of how we would take it, but if there would be anything left of it to take once we got there.
I started to feel the Pacific sun on the back of my neck and turned my collar up for fear of burning, though that was the last thing on my mind. A shout was heard and the tractor's engine revved up again, the treads throwing up spray as it slowly made for the ominous sight ahead of us. It was a low black smear a half mile ahead - the black volcanic sands of Iwo Jima. The sight was hardly pristine like those of landings in the South Pacific where tall, luscious palms overlooked clean white beaches… this was black, foreboding sand made even more daunting by the hundreds of pillars of smoke that spewed up from bomb craters. I tried to take my mind off my fears and looked over at the other landing craft, all of them in a ragged line across the ocean, all of them silenced by the sight ahead of us.
A few of the men around me looked up as the deep and powerful roaring sound of an engine approached and a navy blue Corsair screamed over us. I hardly flinched like the others did. What difference did it make if it was only twenty feet above us… it couldn't be as bad as what awaited us on the beaches. The Corsair peeled right and joined up with a wingman before speeding up and banking left to follow the length of the beach, now appearing to be one of the models that my kid brother had hanging in his room back home. Only it wasn't a model; the trails of gun smoke that jetted out from under the wings with the falling brass and the tracers confirmed that as they smacked into the inland beach head.
The beach was closer now, and as I looked at the beach head that the Corsair had strafed I began to wonder in confusion. I saw nothing there… no pillboxes, bunkers, trenches, barbed wire, radio posts, tanks, men… not even a tuft of sea grass. I heard the lieutenant call out his last minute reminders and licked my dry lips as he wished us luck. Luck wouldn't get us out of this… it was in God's hands now. I felt the safety on my M1 but didn't switch it off yet. I wasn't thinking about shooting any Japs now. I had read about the Normandy landings in Life magazine and how our boys had been met with a shower of lead before the ramps had even fallen, and these weren't even the Jerries… the Japs were unanimously declared the worst of the two. The Japs didn't surrender, and if they were to die, they would make sure that they killed twenty of us before we killed them. No, shooting was the last thing on my mind… it was then that I wished I were a football running back or track star in high school, so I could hit the beach and find cover before the lead tore me apart.
The tractor slowed and I felt it jolt as it touched bottom. I felt like throwing up. The pilot blew his whistle and yanked out the ramp pin, letting the thick steel door at the rear of the craft fall open. At least we had some cover in exiting to the rear, but I wasn't taking any chances. All of us leapt out and into the knee deep water, frantically sloshing around the sides of the craft and dashing out onto the sand. I saw a large dune and sprinted for it the best I could with all my gear on, splashing the water up in all directions. I panted as I tried to get out of the water and nearly died of shock as I hit the black sand. It was so fine that it was hardly any better than running through water and I knew that right then I was going to take a bullet.
Somehow I managed to cover the distance in a matter of seconds, which seemed like an eternity. I threw myself into the dune and sputtered to get all the blackness out of my mouth. It ran into my cuffs and down my sleeves as I used my elbows to pull myself up with the other leathernecks. I got right up to a guy and buried my head, a hand over the top of my helmet as I listened for the sounds of war.
There were none.
I slowly looked up and peeked over the top of the dune as the guy next to me spat out his smoke and pulled back the action on his BAR.
"Why ain't they shootin?" he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders in awkward silence. Another hollered that they could be dead, especially if the Navy had been shelling them for that long. I hoped he was right as I took a handful of the nasty sand and let if sprinkle between my fingers. It left black smears on my grimy hands and I cursed it, my eyes still focused on the landscape before me. The island stretched out ahead of us for two miles… two miles of nothing, not a soul nor scrap of vegetation. Two miles to my left Mount Suribachi loomed ominously and the rest of the flat, barren island stretched for another three to my right. A captain ordered for men to move out and take point, stepping carefully to detect mines.
He pointed to me and spat, "C'mon kid. Move."
I stood and slowly began to trudge up the dune and out into the jaws of this black, sandy hell, switching off the safety of my M1. I listened and heard nothing, not a single shot. This was starting to freak me out, especially after expecting something else… this was almost worse than being met by bullets. I put one foot out in front of the other, feeling my feet slip in the fine sand as my eyes darted over the landscape. I saw nothing, not a single foxhole, trench, or sandbag. Were the Japs even on the island? Or had they somehow pulled out before the fleet arrived three days ago?
My questions were answered as a horrific sight came to us. Mount Suribachi suddenly lit up with millions of flashes and the deep thuds of distant emplaced artillery with the chatter of machine guns came to my ears as the world was torn apart. Almost every man on point a dozen yards ahead of us was either incinerated by a shell or shot to bloody shreds by bullets as the Japanese poured every ounce of their munitions onto us. Geysers of black sand exploded all around and the clouds of it fell back to the earth on my head and shoulders. Helmets, arms, legs, and droplets of blood rained down amongst us as the officers stood and began screaming orders.
"Ohhhhh, shit…" my mind went nuts.
The men around me responded to the Japs' decisive massacre by firing blindly with their weapons, shooting at any dune of sand that could be concealing a pillbox or sniper. The Navy fired its guns up again in an attempt to flush out the hidden gun installations that seemingly made up the entire volcano and the Corsairs dropped down onto the island in swarms. Hidden anti-aircraft guns peppered the sky with flack as the fighters' rockets hit the black island again and again.
I threw myself into a bomb crater and rolled onto my side as other marines joined me. Everyone was frantically trying to get as low as possible, some openly pleading to God while others just stared in shock.
"Where the hell are they?!" a platoon sergeant snapped.
I shook my head and trained my M1 over the top of the crater, sweeping the dunes in front of me, searching for the pillboxes that had to be camouflaged out there. The sand drifting down from explosions and the blowing wisps of smoke made it hard to see and breathe. I coughed and wiped the sand off the tops of my hands, squinting to see anything. I put my finger to the trigger and aimed down the sight, ducking my head as a bullet hit the sand next to me.
"There it is," the BAR gunner shouted, "look for the flashes!"
I trained my rifle to the right and caught a glimpse of a muzzle flash, watching it as the others poured their clips into it. I rolled onto my back and looked at the sergeant, who stared back at me as if he were asking why I was looking to him for an answer.
"Can't we get some armor up here?!" I asked, "We can't even look up without getting scalped!"
The sergeant pointed to a tank that was struggling to top the fine dunes along the beach head where the rest of the men… those who were frozen in fear or dead…lay flat as they watched us in amazement. I nodded and waved my arm at it, hoping to get the driver's attention. He gave me a thumbs up from his covered hatch on the tank's body under the turret and one of the treads reversed to turn the vehicle towards us.
Just as the tank crested the dune a heavy shell from a field piece hidden in the volcano completely blew it apart, sending scraps of jagged metal and sparks over our heads as we shuddered in defeat.
"Forget it," the sergeant yelled, "We move without em!"
He came up on one knee and fired the remaining rounds in his M1A1 before launching from the crater and throwing himself into another about ten feet ahead. The rest of us jumped up, blindly popping off shots to cover our advance as the hidden pillbox happily chowed down. When I fell into the crater next to the sergeant, only one other kid jumped in with us.
"Damn thing is killing us," he gasped, "we can't move!"
"Hold on," the sergeant shook his head, "wait 'till they change out their barrels. Anybody got a grenade?"
"I got 'em!" I croaked, snatching one of the grenades off my webbing.
We lay there as the machine gun swept the area with a steady burst. Tracers shot over our heads and another jarhead slammed down into the sand with us.
"Hey buddy..." the sergeant called, "hey!"
I took him by the shoulder and rolled him over, the three of us pulling back as he rolled onto his back and his face… or what was left of it… rolled down to our feet in a bloody mess.
The pillbox fell silent and we heard the muffled sounds of Japanese jabber and the clink of the barrel being pulled out of the stock.
"Wait here!" I coughed as I stood and pounded towards the dune of sand. I fell onto my stomach next to it and saw a slit that was neatly covered with camouflage netting. I squirmed closer and brought out the M4 grenade, pulling the pin and flicking off the clip.
One, two, three! I cooked it off and tossed it in, rolling away and covering my head for the blast. I heard the scrambling of boots from inside and a couple of frantic words before the dune shook and smoke spat out from the opening. I rolled over the side and dropped into a trench that led to the rear entrance, slowly shuffling towards the opening with my M1 shouldered as I aimed down the sight. A hand shakily reached out and clawed at the black sand. It was wretched and bloody. I scampered up to the pillbox and stared at the beaten body of a kid that seemed to be no more than my age. He was murmuring something in Japanese, maybe a last prayer, as he wheezed and coughed. His chest was riddled with shrapnel so he laid on his back and stared at me in shell shock as I backed away and lowered my weapon.
I killed him.
I raised a brow in disbelief, "I, I killed him…"
The ground shook with another series of bomb blasts and I snapped out of my trance, turning away and running for another crater. A pair of marines were waving for me to get in but I veered off as a shell hit them. I saw the platoon sergeant ahead and I headed for him.
"I owe you one!" he shouted over the din as I landed on my back beside him, "That pillbox could have taken out another fifty of our boys if you hadn't made it!"
I shook my head, "No problem!"
"Right, let's go!" the sergeant spat.
We both stood and sprinted ahead, heading for another crater ahead.
The sergeant sat in his wheelchair, his eyes scanning the landscape around him.
The island had changed in the sixty-seven years since he had last seen it. Shrubs covered the ground and there were even scraggly trees clustered around the base of the dormant volcano. However, the scars of war were still there. Empty and weathered pillboxes, rusted tanks, and fading craters still covered the island – reminders of what had happened there long ago. The wind blew across the sand, stirring it up just a little. The sand was always the same... black, volcanic, staining the hands of those who stooped to touch it reverently. It was unnaturally quiet. The din of war was absent; it made the sergeant almost uncomfortable... it was the same silence that had greeted them when they crawled onto the beach as the Japanese held their fire.
His thoughts turned to the moment everything changed. He remembered being in the bomb crater with that kid... oh, what was his name? He couldn't remember. His memory was beginning to fail him, but he still knew the boys of his squad like the back of his hand. Then that kid had jumped into the same crater. He could still see his face. It had been full of youthful energy, just like his... but it had been innocent. The sergeant had been in the Marines since '40 and was among the first to deploy after Pearl Harbor. That kid... he had just turned eighteen and joined up to make sure he didn't miss the fight. Iwo Jima had been his first taste of combat... and his last. He didn't even last into the first thirty minutes of combat. The sergeant never forgot those... the greenhorns who were the first to take a hit.
Everyone has a past, a history, a story... memories of their childhood... birthday parties, that summer evening at the river... they went to school, church, made friends, got into trouble with their partners in crime... fell in love, went on dates, kissed, held hands. Everyone is human, has life, a personality, soul, and is worth just as much as you. Most people live their lives in happiness, comfort, and safety... but some... some are faced with immense challenges. Sometimes, terrible things happen... countries go to war and men take up arms to kill one another. They are dark times, yet it is in these dark times that the brightest lights a human could have shine. Some men stand up and take up arms out of love, zeal, patriotism, a sense of honor and duty. These men are heroes, from the instant they commit to face that danger, to stand in its way and guard those at home from it's darkness.
This is an homage to those heroes, especially the unsung ones. Most people hold their breath and wait for the troopship or airplane to come home, bringing back those boys who fought over there who are festooned with well-deserved decorations and honors. However, the heroes among heroes are those who don't come home. Someone has the be the first one to die, the one who never made it out of the landing craft or transport plane. Someone has to be the one who made it all the way through and took the last bullet fired as he was moving to get back on the helicopter and leave the LZ. Some will never come home... remember them.