February 16, 1945. Iwo Jima
The last letter I have from my father to my mother was one she carefully copied, word for word. It is not his usual love letter, but a blow by blow first-hand account of the battle of Iwo Jima, a moment which changed the course of the war in the Pacific.
I am writing this more than seventy years later, passing on my father’s blow-by-blow account of Iwo Jima, one of the war’s bloodiest battles, but one which changed the course of history. His comrade Harry Gustafson died at age 97, one of the last of the “greatest generation,” a lifespan nearly double that of my own father’s. His wife managed to call me to tell me the news since we had miraculously stayed connected. His wife said, “He considered your father his best friend,” which surprised me. But theirs was a friendship made in war, and thus, I suppose, was ours.
Why were some of those old guys still doing nine one-arm pull-ups into their eighties while the others were slipping away quickly? I remember visiting my stepfather, Elmer, in a nursing home a decade ago, where old men were parked in wheelchairs in front of a screen featuring a World War II film. Some paid rapt attention, and others sat with heads down, like wilted flowers. My mother used to say that she felt so sorry for the young boys who had never been off the farm or away from their small towns before they were shipped overseas, to places like steamy faraway Guam, where her brother Marvin was sent, or places like Iwo Jima, where my father was. That generation is barely here now.
My mother married my father before he shipped out, and characteristically, he wrote this letter to her, and she re-copied it, word for word, in her own hand because the ink was fading. And here I am, both of them gone, typing, hoping that my own will know and remember who they were.
In terms of history, the war in the Pacific was not going well. The Japanese, having dominated China and the entire South Pacific, even dared enter Australia in their quest to gain oil and other resources. Pearl Harbor, on December 6, 1941, changed all that and the lives of people just like my parents. But up until this moment, the Americans were taking a beating. The tiny island of Iwo Jima was 750 miles from Tokyo and was considered strategically important. My father and 200,000 other American men had a chance to change the game.
He was a Chief Petty Officer on a minesweeper, the YMS 193. He wrote that the ship was too small to even merit a name. Then came February 16. The story begins to change.
My mother saved a Navy newspaper photo of the small island called Iwo Jima bearing the caption: “The biggest battle ever fought,” along with a page from his notebook, which she re-copied, knowing that time would steal the fading ink. She wrote, on a separate page, to us, her five children:
The pages are now yellow and brittle with age. I have copied all the pages without changing any words. However you will find not all words were discernable to me. We have always been proud of dad. His bravery we will always remember. After World War II veterans came back home and said very little about their lives in the service. We can’t blame them for wanting to forget. Love you dearly, Mom
Like most people whose lives were shaped by World War II, she remained deeply respectful because they felt the sacrifices, fear, and frustration so deeply. What we remember of Iwo Jima is the iconic photograph of the Marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi. Marines fought a particularly bloody battle, whereas my father, Robert, found himself strangely untouched but with a ringside seat. It must have been terrifying, being the first Chief Petty Officer, from what I have heard, the youngest one in the South Pacific.
On February 16, 1945, his ship, the YMS 193, is headed from Saipan toward Iwo Jima. Robert Potter MoMM1. He writes:
Evening before our arrival—executive officer gave us a ‘lil’ talk—warned us to get all the sleep we could—no reading, letter writing or “bull” sessions. Had general quarters. At 11:00 went to bridge and found out [we are] only 60 miles from I. J. Got to bed about 24:00 hours and got up again to have another look at Margaret’s picture and wrap my wrist watch up in water proof wrapping.
Feb 17, 1945 4:45 Got up for General Quarters. Was still dark so couldn’t see Island but could see a few lights (fires and shell bursts) also saw flashes from guns and could follow the red hot shells through the air and see them burst. 0500 Had General Quarters 0700 They let a few of us off (from our stations) at a time to go and eat breakfast. Just getting daylight. Had my first look at I.J. The tiny island of Iwo Jima is topped with a plateau. It looked to be a pear-shaped island about 5 mi long and 2 mi wide—at the widest place. The highest elevation on the island was at the stern end where a volcano rose like a fortress to a height of about 250 feet [actually 500]. The plateau was high enough that we couldn’t see on top of it very well but we could see that it had been leveled off for airstrips. There were three airfields up there and also several buildings, AA gun replacements, etc. but because of the height ad a very expert job of camouflaging, they couldn’t be seen. It looked from here that the island was completely deserted—but oh brother, looks are so deceiving. All the sweepers are steering their gear. 07:15 We could see our big stuff (several battle wagons, heavy and light cruisers) moving in closer, they were throwing a continual barrage of shells on the island. As far as we could see, they (the Nipps) weren’t throwing anything back. …One heavy cruiser was in very close, about ¾ mi, then all of a sudden three water spouts leaped up in the water about 25 yards off her port bow—and believe me she sure got the hell out of there. They all moved back and continued to shell it for another 30 min, firing everything they had salvo after salvo of 16-10-8 and 5 shells. There were fires and great columns of smoke on the island from one end to the other. A great gray pall of smoke hung over the whole island. 0800 We (13) of us YMS minesweepers and three A.M.’s started in towards the island on our sweeping runs in perfect formation. The good old 193 was last [therefore] right next to the beach…. After the 3rd sweep, we made the turn and started along the coast on our own. Boy, this is a beautiful war—we just sail right by the coast and nothing happens—but—what’s this—then two 5” shells breezed in one side of the first ship and out the other and they are still throwing it at us. It’s too darn hot—so all immediately turn and head out to sea and fast. Well, as fast as a YMS sweeper can go. We are a perfect target for their shore batteries—regular sitting ducks for them to shoot as slow as we move.…they couldn’t miss a target like that! So we get out to sea and just circle in formation—mostly get out of the way. The heavy cruisers go in again and work it and then….on the way out, one cruiser took a bad hit right in front of us. I have never seen or heard of it before, but this ship got mad….Before she was hit she was steaming away from the island, exchanging shells with a heavy camouflaged shore battery which was hidden in a stone cave in the cliffs. Then one of the shells hit the after deck of the cruiser and immediately a large fire broke out and black smoke towered above the ship. This is where she got really mad. A damage control crew got busy and put the fires out in a few minutes. About ten seconds after she was hit, she [moved] to get away fast.
But here’s the part that struck me. Before, she was lobbing shells at the shore battery—but inside of a few seconds, she wasn’t just casually lobbing them anymore. Every gun on the ship was putting out shells like an automatic. Even through the smoke of the fire that was still burning on her after deck, you could see every gun on her blazing. Boy, what a ship! She finally retired, out of range, to repair her damage. We saw her again (back in battle) later in the day, though.
09:00 Now we’re moving in to sweep the coast again. This time, though, we have more support. The big stuff laid right out away from shore beside us--several battle ships, some destroyers etc. and they also sent in about 30 carrier based dive bombers to help us. Everything we had was concentrated on the shore battery-- machine guns, explosives etc. along the coast that we were sweeping. They even sent over about 50 B-29 heavy bombers (from Saipan) to bomb the coast. The way they poured it on the coast you just couldn’t see how a thing could be left…They (and we) shelled it steady with big 16 in (and smaller) guns. They dive bombed it from the air, bombed it with high level bombers, fighters, strafed it from the air, they threw rockets in there and all of us sweepers shelled it with our 3” guns and machine gunned the pill boxes, machine gun nests etc with everything we had. We were so close that we raked the whole coast with machine guns, 20 inch mm? AA guns and rifles and sub-machine gunfire and still the Nips returned fire. They were so well dug in and in caves and cement pill box and carefully fortified that after we got through, we found out we had barely scratched them [there were about 20,000 Japanese soldiers dug into the island]...All of us got through and I don’t believe we lost a man.…We were as close to the beach as could be without going aground and that was close because we only draw a few feet of water. Ours is an old ship—for a mine sweepers…our three inch guns were firing just as fast as the crew could put the shells through it. Our heavy 20mm AA Norke??guns were firing so fast and steady that twice they had to turn a fire hose on it to keep it from burning up. Every 30 caliber rifle and sub machine gun was firing, even the 45 automatic pistols. I would never have believed that this old tub had so much firepower in her. Gus [Harry Gustafson] and I just stood by the engine room hatch. We had our 30 cal rifles and about 1000 rounds of ammunition and as we couldn’t be below--nothing else to do so fired the guns steady during the run. Yes, I’ll admit I was plenty scared like everyone else but it was still a field day. I have really developed a deep love for my rifle. It was hard to see your own results because everyone else was firing at your targets, too. We finished our sweep past the volcano end of the island and out to sea again…just cruised because we had to sweep again after dinner [meaning lunch] on the other wide of the island. …We had sandwiches. …time to reload….etc and get ready for the afternoon run. It turned out later that the Nips were so dug in and their coastal guns so well concealed in caves, underground fortifications, that our ships had to move in right on top of them to see them. Nothing but a direct hit from point blank range would shake them loose. We started in again about 13:00 and by this time the Nips really threw those nasty old shells at us. The 5” shells were dropping around us like hailstones. One came across our bow so close that believe if we had had another coat of paint on there would have been friction. …Undoubtedly the Nips are just naturally poor shots because none of us suffered any serious damage. I forgot to say that we dug up only one mine in the whole area---so that undoubtedly accounted for the reason the Nipps let us sweep through without any more trouble than they did. They could have got every one of us if they had wanted to and given all their positions away. Later in the afternoon we mostly just stood by and watched the show and what a show it was. Of course all the cruisers and battlewagons had spotter? planes flying back and forth and over the island and volcano to help direct the fire of the ship’s batteries by radio. So we tuned in on the frequency with our ship’s radios and listened to the conversation between the flying guns and their ships. It was really good. One observer would report the bearing and approximate range of a gun hidden in the volcano side in relation to the ships and they would throw up a bunch of shells at it. Then the observer would correct the range (so many yards, up, down right etc) from the shell first to the target. There were so many targets and they were so well dug in the giant caves and fortifications that sometimes it took a half an hour and 20 or 30 bursts. Nothing but a direct hit with the big shells going right in and exploding in the small caves would get them. We could hear the spotter say, “That burst was right on their doorstep only ten feet below them but you didn’t get them” Then he would say “Up three yards” and add in a very pleading tone “Come on boys; please put one in there.” I’ll have to give them credit they have plenty of determination, for no matter how inaccessible the plane was, or how long it took, or hard it was, they would stay right by it until they dropped a salvo right in the cave and leveled the position out. When they finally did go in the spotter would shout over the radio, “A direct hit—that’s all, brother!
Here I must interrupt my father—something he never allowed us to do—with some logistical notes. How the letter he wrote at the moment came to later includes the longer time frame, I do not know. But he is right about the way it dragged out—it took something like a month. It took five days to clean out the volcano alone. They were still digging the Japanese out of there three days after the Marines landed, but they took out the biggest majority of them before the landings were made.
That night and for the next six to follow there was a continual barrage over the island. They fought and shelled the place by the light of stars? Shells at night and by day. Of course, by night you can see the gun blasts and can follow the red hot shells from the time they leave the guns until they burst against the volcano. What a sight. I’m sure glad I wasn’t one of the back garrisons on the serving end of it all. There was a continual run of explosions and gun bursts to be heard all the time and sometimes when several would fire at once, the concussions would flap your trousers against your legs and rattle the pans in the galley—but still the Nips didn’t give up although they knew that they had no chance for escape and that we would eventually land and take the island. We heard several short wave radiobroadcasts (from Taiwan) that said, of course, what a terrific beating they were giving the enemy at Iwo Jima and one broadcast said that the garrison commander there had given his troops “special” orders—one of which was that every Jap was to take at least 10 American lives before he died. We had an air raid about 8 o’clock last night. One lone Nip came over eager to be expended on the way to his Nip heaven and we surely wasted no time in obliging the little fellow—for he made the mistake of coming right over one of our battleships. It was all over so quick he didn’t know what happened.
Seventy years later, in 2015, a BBC journalist Rupert Winfield-Hayes filed a report from Iwo Jima, which is open to visitors only one day a year, and only to veterans and descendants, at that. I guess I’m one of them.
The piece features Hershel “Woody” Williams, a ninety-year-old Veteran wearing the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1945 Woody was assaulting Japanese bunkers with a flamethrower, perhaps the most dangerous job in the Marines. A very old man is playing “From the Halls of Montezuma” on the harmonica as they raise the American flag over the island. Mr. Williams says: “I am thinking of the heroes who died here. I lost three of my closest friends here. I am not a hero, they are.”
But on that day, Woody looked up through the smoke and saw the Marines raising the US flag for real. He says: “A cheer rippled through the US lines. The ships offshore blew their horns.”
My mind’s eye sees the tall skinny sailor on YMS 193 wild with joy, the joy of winning.
“It was the flag that made the difference,” says Woody. “It was the first time we had taken Japanese territory. This was the first time in all the fighting that we got part of their country. That said to us, and to those back in America, we are winning this thing. Up until that point there were a lot of us who didn’t think we were.”Woody
There is one man there with a different story. He is the only non-American. A small man in a suit and tie is Tsuruji Akikusa, one of the 1000 or so Japanese survivors out of 20,000. He was an 18-year-old radio operator. He went through unspeakable suffering for two months until he was dragged from a cave, barely conscious, two months later.
Mr. Akikusa turns to the journalist with tears in his eyes and says, “It is very hard….In my mind images of what happened then have suddenly come flooding back. I feel very, very sad.”
When he looked out on that February morning in 1945 and saw the American invasion, he could not believe his eyes. “I was overwhelmed,” he says. “How could they have so many ships? There were more than the entire Japanese Navy. It was then I realized we were going to lose the war.”
Lose the war the Japanese did. The decision to fight so hard to gain Iwo Jima, now returned to its original name–Iwo To–is controversial, as are so many aspects of the war. Ours is a different time, and wars are different now. And the same. The cultural glue was very different then, and my father’s, let’s reflect that time. The old men are gone. Women, too. Those of my own era—Vietnam, slide off the planet too. On my way to write this today, the radio talked of Rumsfeld, who lived in Taos his later years. I walked to his house here in protest, once, in yet another war, another time.