Seventy years ago today, the U.S. 5th Marine Division hit the beaches of Iwo Jima. My father, John Waters, was in the first wave to land and almost immediately took a gunshot to the shoulder. Back on the hospital ship, he was given the choice of going to Guam with the ship or going back to the island. He chose to go back to the island to be with his buddies. They had been told Iwo would be a three day operation, so he figured it would be over before he got back. Little did he know that he would be on Iwo for more than thirty days, and live through one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corp history.
Iwo Jima really wasn’t a battle so much as a slaughter house. The Japanese under General Kuribayashi weren’t trying to deny the island to the Americans. With overwhelming American firepower, air cover, and superior numbers, and with no hope of reinforcement, the Japanese defeat was inevitable. Their goal was to kill as many Marines as possible. “Die after killing ten men and yours is a glorious death on the battlefield,” Kuribayashi ordered. And in this the Japanese nearly succeeded. In thirty-six days of fighting on the island, the Marines suffered 27,000 casualties, including an astonishing 7,000 killed. Of the 22,000 Japanese defenders, only 216 were taken prisoner; the rest were killed in action. It was the only campaign in which the Marines suffered more casualties than they inflicted. They didn’t fight a battle as much as they hacked their way through an abattoir.
My father rarely spoke of the war, but it haunted him in ways he rarely showed anyone. My mother once told me that for the first five years of their marriage he would wake up screaming every night, dreaming that he was back on the island. But like so many of the men who fought WWII, he put the experience behind him and moved forward, raising a family of five children, and building a successful career as a civil engineer. Near the end of his life he agreed to be part of an oral history program at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. But before his turn came to be interviewed he left, saying he didn’t feel like waiting. It was obvious that nearly sixty years later, he still didn’t want to revisit those memories.
I’ve read all I can on the Battle of Iwo Jima over the years, including Osprey's Campaign title on the battle, but I can only dimly imagine what that boy must have gone through on that island back in 1945. But every February 19th, I stop for a moment and think, Semper fi, Dad. Well done.