Leisure World resident recalls the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima

This historic photo came to symbolize the U.S. victory in the Pacific and the courage and pride of U.S. servicemen who courageously captured the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in World War II. Rosenthal photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives

Editor’s Note: Perhaps no battle in the history of the United States is more iconic than the victory over the Japanese in Operation Detachment on the island of Iwo Jima. This bloody, five-week battle eventually captured the island that was critical to the Allies as a staging area in the march towards the Japanese mainland. Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers on the island, only 216 were taken prisoners as U.S. forces had to literally fight for every inch of the small island.

In the end, the combined forces of the Army, Navy and U.S. Marines captured the island as Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the moment six U.S. Marines raised an American flag on Mount Suribachi. The moment is memorialized with the Iwo Jima memorial statue in Washington DC, a stamp and numerous other representations.

Leisure World resident James Gay was there. He survived the battle and recently shared some of his reflections and photographs with Michael H. Pazeian, a retired Los Alamitos High School History teacher, whose passion is collecting the memories of World War II veterans. Here is James Gay’s story as we celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the Iwo Jima victory in the Pacific as the battle raged from February 19 to March 26, 1945. There were more than 26,000 American casualties in this battle, including 6,800 servicemen who lost their lives taking the island.

James: We trained on Maui until we boarded ship for the next battle. It took approximately five days to get to Iwo Jima by ship. We were on an LSM (Landing Craft Mechanized), LSM 106. We were more than a mile offshore. We had front seats for the show. Ariel bombardment and shelling from our heavy ships. The USS New York, the USS Alabama. and other ships shelled the island for three days prior to the landings. Our planes bombed and strafed the landing zone. We could see the shells flying. It was like a picture show for us. The Marines didn’t go in until 9 a.m., we followed 20 minutes later. The LSM goes right up to the shoreline, and the front doors open. Hitting the beach was not easy. The Sargent said, “run as fast as you can.” I was a young kid, and I could really run. Couple of my buddies were with me. I might have gone 100 yards on the volcanic ash. Oscar Hildebrand was on my right. The Japanese were throwing mortars at us. We jumped down lying as flat as we could and stayed in place until one o’clock in the afternoon. Never moved. Oscar got hit with a mortar fragment.

Another guy got hit in the back by shrapnel and was bleeding like crazy. I took my combat knife and cut up his jacket and shirt to make a tourniquet and bandage. I put some sulfur drug on the wound and called for a medic. There was a hospital ship right off shore for the wounded.

Michael: You saved his life!

James: No, it had missed his spine, and that is just the way it was, we were buddies.

It was a trying day. Some guys got under our big trucks filled with ammunition. After they were driven off the LSM on the beach. A Japanese mortar hit the truck, and all were killed. Some of our corpsmen (medics) were killed.

Then they tried to get the tanks in, but they bogged down in the volcanic ash. This friend of mine, this big (native) Indian, a big guy, had experience with a D8 Kat (an earth mover). He hooked up to the tanks and pulled them inland. He got a Bronze Star for that. His last name was Nottingham. The bullets were flying at night. We slept there that night. We had rations to eat. We had 10 in 1 rations – 10 guys to eat for one day, or one guy for 10 days.

Michael: Let’s talk about Mt. Suribachi. How close were you?

We landed on Red Beach. Close to the mountain.

Second day (February 20th) in the morning we moved to the left more towards Mt. Suribachi. We watched Navy bombers bomb the mountain, and the Marines were ahead of my group. We stopped again for night time at the base of the mountain, just above the beach. Again, in fox holes for the night. We still had our K-rations.

(James recalls the flag going up on the 3rd day. The flag went up on the 5th day of the battle. James agrees his unit must have been on or near the beach for 5 days.)

Mount Suribachi was just over 500 feet high. It was the 3rd day of the battle. Still in the morning and near the beach, we watched the flag raised. We could see the men raising it. We saw the flag and it meant a lot.

(Most of the Japanese stayed underground in a series of tunnels. An American rifle patrol was given a small flag and told to take the top of the mount. They encountered only a small amount of small arms fire on the way up the mountain, found a piece of metal pipe and put up the flag. It was the first American flag raised on any foreign territory during the War. The commanding officer aboard his ship saw the flag and ordered a larger flag to replace it. It was this larger flag going up which is depicted in the famous photo. Possibly the most reproduced photo ever and the basis of the Iwo Jima memorials in Washington D.C.)

The flag raising was not an end to the fighting on the island. The Japanese didn’t live above ground on Iwo Jima. They had an amazing network of tunnels. They had been digging holes for 20 years, holes large enough for trucks. The Marines and our unit slowly searched every inch of the island above and below ground for the Japanese. The shooting on both sides continued for weeks.

We moved off the beach and up over a hump (a small rise) and stayed there.

There were combat photographers with the Marines and with us. We built our camp there. I did a lot of guard duty. Night guard. One night I was with a guy in a bunker. He was a blabber mouth. I told him if he doesn’t lower his voice we will be heard. Sure, enough some Japanese soldier tossed a grenade at us. It landed in front of the bunker and exploded. He learned his lesson. I was always afraid. I was afraid to sleep too.

We moved to the airfield once the Marines captured it. We helped get it ready for our planes. The P51 started using the airfield almost immediately.

They flew in support of our B29 bombers. Later they built shelters for the men (tents), mess hall, showers, and more. One day they had us use our combat knives to carefully search an area for landmines. We didn’t find any, but we found out this area was for the P51 pilots. For their tents. No metal detectors back then.

A few times a Japanese plane come over to bomb.

Thereafter we still searched for the Japanese hiding in the tunnels all over the island. That is how I found the Japanese flag. And I found some Japanese photos in their caves. Other guys got a lot of stuff from the caves.

The Japanese would come out at night to try to find food and water.

(The last of the Japanese soldiers surrendered four years after the battle in 1949).