The Black Sands of Iwo Jima
The Black Sands of Iwo Jima
February 19, 1945. At 8:59 am, one minute ahead of schedule, United States Marines stormed ashore on the black sands of Iwo Jima. The first moments were eerily quiet, but the calm was not to last. Iwo Jima would become a hell on earth, where a great many heroes were made, and a great many brave men were lost – nearly 7,000 Americans killed and 20,000 wounded. It would go down as one of the great and tragic battles in history.
At the 10th Annual Conference, three of the battle’s survivors, who witnessed the horrors and heroism that was Iwo Jima, recounted their experience. Chuck Tatum, Donald Mates, and James White were just three of the thousands for whom “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Chuck Tatum: Hello, I’m Chuck Tatum, and I was a member of B Company, 1st Battalion of the 27th Marines at Iwo Jima. And as I look in the audience, I see an awful lot of young people here, some of whom don’t look any older than I was when I was at Iwo Jima. Well, some people haven’t heard of Iwo Jima; it’s been over 60 years, and has started to fade into history. Why was I there an Iwo Jima? It’s just eight square miles of volcanic rock out in the middle of the ocean. And its only value was that it was big enough to build a landing strip big enough to land a B-29 on, and if you had a place to land B-29s, you could fly it all the way to Tokyo and hit it with the big bombers.
I don’t know how many of us invaded on that first day, but in the first wave, there were 9,000 Marines involved. By this time in the war, we had captured the islands of Saipan and Tinian, and from there you could fly the B-29s and bomb Tokyo. But there was one flaw in the plan: Iwo Jima was halfway between Saipan and Tinian, and 600 miles from Tokyo. And on Iwo Jima, the Japanese had fighter planes that could rise up to fight the B-29s as well as radar which could alert Japan that the bombers were coming. The losses of the B-29s were astronomical; they were losing more than 30 percent of flights. So somehow or another, Iwo Jima became the most valuable piece of real estate in the world at that time. The orders came out from Washington to capture Iwo Jima by force of arms. And this meant sending in the United States Marines. The Marines had fought in a number of battles already, but Iwo Jima was to turn out to be one of the greatest battles in history.
Iwo Jima was more than just a battle; it was actually a 36-day descent into hell. Hell on earth. We lost 8,776 American lives. There were 21,000 Americans wounded, 1,500 suffered from combat fatigue, and 22,000 Japanese Imperial soldiers and sailors lost their lives defending Iwo Jima. So it became a very pivotal battle in the Pacific, and with Iwo Jima in our hands, we would control the bombing of Tokyo, which would culminate in the B-29 that dropped the bomb. That’s why we had to have Iwo Jima. Other than that it was useless. Eight miles of sulfur, volcanic ash.
My personal experience there happened on the morning of February 19, 1945. We landed in the first wave, and immediately we started climbing these sand terraces you might have seen in the pictures. And when I looked back at the beach, I could see one solitary Marine standing up. This was Marine Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, the Medal of Honor recipient at Guadalcanal. He could see that the invasion had sort of ground to a halt, so he was motivating everybody by cuss words and kicks to the seats of the pants to get them underway. Well, my position was about three or four terraces up. I was a machine gunner, and when Basilone came to my position, he pointed out a target, and by looking down his arm I could see a giant Japanese pillbox, and he indicated I should start firing on it.
When I pulled the trigger, the gun wouldn’t fire; it had been fouled by the black sands of Iwo Jima. So at that point my assistant gunner had to take a toothbrush out of my pack to clean the breach and blow the sand out of it. He stuck the belt back in, and I could see the tracers hitting close to the pillbox. And Basilone didn’t like that, so he indicated I should move obliquely to my right to fire at it, which we did. But then they closed the steel doors, which left the bullets merely bouncing off of it. Basilone then found a demolition man, who handled the explosives. As I was firing at the pillbox, he walked up the line of fire, and about ten feet from it, he tossed the composition of C2, about ten pounds of it, and it blew the doors off. Basilone indicated that I should commence firing into the aperture.
At this time, he found a flamethrower man, and the flamethrower man walked up the line of fire and when he was almost there, Basilone whacked me on the helmet to tell me to quit firing. He inched the last few feet, and shot three bursts of napalm into the Japanese pillbox. You know, that turned it into a giant inferno right there, it looked like the beginning of hell. Basilone then reached down and unhooked the machine gun from the pin hook, and he grabbed it and put his arm through the belt, and he screamed at me to get the belt. So I got the belt, and he ran up the front of this pillbox, looking over the back where they had entered, and out the back of it came seven or eight Japanese defenders on fire, napalm all over them. And Basilone mowed them down, shooting his machine gun from the hip, and they all fell dead. Later on, I figured that it was probably a mercy killing, because those men were already dead.
At that point, he handed me back my machine gun, and gave us the signal to follow him. And 18 or 19 of us followed Basilone from the beach across the lowlands through an area of scrub brush until we hit the Number One airstrip. We had hoped to catch the airstrip that day, but we were out there by 10:00 that morning. And now we were receiving fire from Mt. Suribachi, from the mortars on the other side of the airstrip, and worst of all we were receiving fire from the United States Navy. We were too far advanced, and they were putting the rolling barrage over us. I thought we should have gotten out of there, really. But Basilone stopped that, and said, “You’re staying here come hell or high water! I’m going back to get more Marines, and we’re going to fight our way across this island!”
And he left us there, and he went back to the beach. Now, I couldn’t tell you in real time how long he was gone. Because when you’re in combat, there’s no recognition of time. And pretty soon, we looked over where we had come from, and Basilone was leading a group of Marines across the same way we had come from toward the airstrip. And all of a sudden, you could hear the shrill sound of incoming mortar rounds. And you could see the mortar hit right amidst Basilone and the C Company Marines. Nobody moved. America, at that moment, lost its number one hero, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone on the shores of Iwo Jima. It wasn’t 10:30 in the morning, and this caused a shockwave throughout the troops because if John Basilone could get killed, we all wondered what was going to happen to the rest of us. We lost our hero, his wife lost her husband, his mother, father and brother lost their son and brother, and America lost its number one hero. John Basilone had already received the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal for the elimination of a Japanese regiment. And he later received the Navy Cross for his exploits on Iwo Jima in knocking out the Japanese pillbox. Thus, he became the only Marine enlisted man in World War II to receive the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor.
That was the first hour and a half on Iwo Jima, and the rest of it only got more intense.
WATCH THE STORY OF DON MATES
Donald Mates: Jim White, who’s sitting next to me, and I served in the Third Marine Division. We belonged to a special platoon, it was the Fourth Platoon. And to get into that platoon, you had to be a graduate of the Combat Intelligence School in Camp Lejune. Combat Intelligence School taught you a little Japanese, nighttime patrolling, rubber boat reconnaissance, map reading, demolition, and how to operate a 300 or 564 radio. In our platoon, there was one man that didn’t go through that school, and that was Jim White. The reason why he made the platoon was because he was the only person I know who, as a fact, captured a Japanese soldier. I know people who have talked to them and brought them out of caves, but he actually went in and captured somebody, and it happened on Guam. Plus, he was an outstanding scout on Guam, and they changed his MOS and they moved him into our platoon, and thank God.
Also in our platoon was a young man from Washington, DC. His name was Jimmy Trimble, and he went to St. Albans School. He was an outstanding baseball pitcher and had signed with the Washington Senators, receiving a $5,000 bonus, a lot of money in 1943. However, instead of sending him to a farm team, the team’s owner, Clark Griffith, sent him to Duke University to go to college and play on their baseball team. Jimmy Trimble, in turn, left Duke and enlisted in the Marines, went through Combat Intelligence School with me, and we ended up in the same platoon with Jim White. We left Guam, where I had been a replacement, for Iwo Jima on February 8, 1945. On February 10, I turned 19 years of age.
We were told, our platoon and our company, that in all probability we would not go ashore. It would be over in 72 hours. Well, that was b.s. In 48 hours, I was climbing down the side of the ship with 84 pounds of material on my back and heading toward the beach, and all that food that I was eating didn’t stay down. I got seasick, and so did everyone else on that Higgins Boat- it was just a mess.
When I landed on Iwo, it was D+2, and I was in for the shock of my life. I had never seen anything like it, and never expect to see anything like it again. There were bodies all over. There were pieces of bodies. There were bodies without heads, without arms. There were bodies that were completely eviscerated. They hadn’t started to bury the dead, and it was just one holy mess. There was equipment all over, much of it broken. There were dead Japanese, and dead Americans floating in the water. The odor of a decaying body you will never forget. And there’s an odor that, when you first smell it, you don’t know what it is. But once you do smell it, you will recognize it immediately. It is when someone is hit in the neck artery, and you smell the fresh blood. It is one of the most absolutely stressful things to watch happen to a friend of yours, and you can do nothing about it.
I was with an eight man squad, and we went to go ashore to clear a 200 by 200 area for General Erskine, our commanding General, to set up his sleeping quarters and his command post. And as we walked into this acre, south of the first airfield on D+2, Jimmy Trimble was with me, and he looked off to the left and said, “If we’ve got to go up that mountain, we’re going to die.” He was pointing toward Suribachi. Thank God the Third Marine Division didn’t make a left turn; we made a right turn and the Fifth Division, 28th Marines went up that mountain, and some of those boys are here with us today.
We knew we were in trouble when I took a phosphorous grenade and I threw it into a pillbox. And a fella by the name of Rodney Harm turned around and said, “Donald!” And I turned around, and smoke from the grenade was coming out of a hole, pluming 30 feet behind me. We then realized that there were tunnels throughout the island. There were 17 miles of tunnels. All the bombing, all the strafing, all the shellfire – all it did was rearrange the volcanic ash on this island, and the Japanese I don’t think felt one concussion – they were all underground.
After we went ashore, and the headquarters was set up for the General, I did guard duty with Trimble. We guarded the General’s tent for three days, and that was good duty. But our lieutenant called for eight volunteers to go out on a patrol, and this patrol was to find out where the spigot mortars were. Now, a spigot mortar is the size of a 55 gallon oil drum. It’s rocket propelled, and 168 mm. Years ago, and maybe they show it now on TV, there were the Bugs Bunny cartoons with the Road Runner and the coyote. The coyote is always looking up to watch as a piece of furniture was falling on him, or a car or truck comes at him to lay him flat. Well, when you see a spigot mortar coming at you, that’s what happens to you. They can’t aim them, but they can lob them into you. After the rocket fires burn out, it tumbles, and you can see it tumbling. And it would clear out an area the size of this room. Erskine wanted to know where these spigot mortars were coming from, so he sent out an eight man patrol at night, so he could see them better.
I’ll never forget them, the eight of us that went. There was Cpl. Reed, who was married and been stationed in Cuba. Joe McCloskey, who that night just disappeared, and they found him in pieces later on. Warren Nietzel who was wounded. Garrett, the old man of the outfit, with three children – he was 26 years old. There was Jimmy Trimble and me, and we were in a foxhole, and behind me, thank God, were two guardian angels: Jim White and Lee Blanchard. We set up on Hill 362A. The hills had numbers because that was the elevation above sea level, and we sat up there to see if we could see the Japanese mortars before they were sent out.
At exactly midnight, we were overrun by the Japanese. Now, I’ve been criticized in the past about what I’m going to say, but will say it anyway: the Japanese were absolutely fearless fighters. You never, ever saw anything like it in your life. At night, they’d come right at you. No monkeying around, you knew they were there. They were called “Kuribayashi’s Roving Wolves.” There were no banzai charges – they came at you with hand grenades, bayonets, mines strapped to their bodies, rifles, and they were after food and water, and out to kill us. I knew we were in trouble, because as the Japanese came towards us, on the back of their necks they had a little phosphorous pin that they wore. And as they came forward, you could hear their officers from behind, giving them instructions, telling them to go to the left, to the right, and to stop. When a star shell went over one of our flares, you could see them drop to the ground. When I turned around, and I looked back, I could see the phosphorous buttons, and I knew we were in trouble. From midnight until about 2:30 in the morning, there was a really heated pitched battle. If it hadn’t been for hand grenades on our side, we would have been completely wiped out. We almost were.
About 2:30, the Japanese got close enough to bayonet Trimble. He didn’t make a sound. He turned to me, and the only thing he said was, “Grenades!” I was laying prone. The Japanese grenades have to be hit against something – they don’t have a pin like ours do. You hit them to ignite them, and then throw them. They lobbed two grenades into our shell hole; one landed between my legs, and one landed up near Jimmy Trimble. He turned, and felt the full blast of the hand grenade. The one went off between my legs, and broke both of my legs. I pulled myself out of the hole, and was bleeding profusely. And I reached in to give Jimmy Trimble a hand. He turned, and at the exact same time, a Japanese had jumped in the hole with a mine strapped on him. He wrapped himself around Jimmy Timble, and the two of them just evaporated. Just before that, a Japanese had crept up to the hole, and he was holding what looked like a stick of dynamite. And I killed him, took the stick of dynamite which turned out to be a wooden box, and stuck it in my pocket.
The password that night was “Presidents.” I named every President of the United States from George Washington to Roosevelt, and Jim White and Lee Blanchard came out of their foxhole to get me and drag me about 50 feet back to safety. Jim did a magnificent job in stopping the flow of blood, and put on a tourniquet. My bandages were blown off, so he took his bandages, which he wasn’t supposed to do, took his sulfa drugs, and bandaged me up and packed me real good. That was about 3:00 in the morning. In the meantime, Reed, the fellow who had been stationed in Cuba, was dead. Garrett was dead. McCloskey was missing. Nietzel was wounded. Trimble was dead. And in the hole was Jim White, Lee Blanchard, and me. By the way, the only two survivors today are Jim and I. If I wasn’t there, what Jim White is going to tell you, you wouldn’t believe. But I know for a fact, because I saw it. We were ahead of the lines, and behind us were the mortar platoons. He hollered out for them to move up and join us. He got a halftrack to come up and fire on the Japanese, and held them at bay. And in from the left came a Marine from the 5th Division. His name was Brown. At the same time he came in, machine gun fire came flying across and hit me in the foot, fracturing the bone, going through and killing Brown. A hand grenade came in, but was a dud – thank God. It took 57 years before Jim White was recognized for what he did, and he was the first recipient of the Chesty Puller Award from the World War II Veterans Committee. Anything that I have today, I owe to Jimmy and Lee Blanchard. There’s no way I can pay them back. We’re the best of friends, and we have a pact that we’ll go to each other’s funeral, whoever goes first – he’s older than I am!
From March 1, 1945 until August of 1946, I was in Naval Hospitals. The problem was not with the healing of my legs, it was that I wasn’t evacuated until the morning of March 3, and gangrene had set in. I’m allergic to penicillin, and it took years to clear up. There are a lot of questions that people ask me. There is one question people invariably ask, and I tell them I have three children and seven granddaughters, and none of them are adopted. So things worked out in that department!
Fifty-five years later, I was invited back to Iwo Jima by the History Channel. They were doing a documentary, and they asked me and other Marines to meet with the Japanese Iwo Jima survivors. Before that, I wouldn’t eat Japanese food, or go to a Japanese restaurant. My wife belonged to a hospital auxiliary and they were having a fundraising event, and there was a Japanese theme to it. But I wouldn’t go. Before going back to Iwo, they asked if you had any personalized souveniers. Remember that box that I took from the dead Japanese? It was a mahogany box, which you slid open, and inside were a set of ivory chopsticks and a little gold Buddha. And his name was etched into it. I took a picture of it, and gave it to the tour managers, and lo and behold, the fellow’s grandson came and presented it to him. I met 11 Japanese survivors, and I saw that they were human, old, nice gentlemen. And I had some closure. People ask me if I would go back and do it again, and I say, “Yes, I would.” They ask if I would let my son do it, and I say, “Absolutely not.” I was on Iwo Jima for ten days, and there isn’t one day that goes by that I don’t think of Iwo Jima and Jimmy Trimble.
Jim White: When all hell broke loose on the night of March 1, 1945, it was a little after midnight. The Japanese came at us, a big group of them from straight ahead. They came over the ridge and out of their caves up the paths, and right over the top where we were. They were shooting flares to see where they were going, and one of our guys who was shooting at them was killed right away. We had no officers around, so I just tried to use my head. I yelled for anybody who could hear me to contact our mortar men and send them up. I gave the password, said it three times, and said that if there was no answer, I would shoot anything that moved. I said it three times, and nobody gave the answer, so I started blazing away. All I had was an M1 – eight shots. Blanchard, who was with me, didn’t have his rifle, only a .45 that he had picked up off a dead officer, but that was it. So I was practically alone.
We picked out a shell hole to jump into, watched as I saw the Japanese coming at me. I wasn’t really afraid – I had seen combat in Guam and it didn’t bother me, so I started shooting. I used Blanchard’s ammo, and he’d hand me a clip which I’d have in there in about two seconds. It was a good thing we had a lull every once in awhile, though, because the rifle got so hot that the metal was expanding and it was getting hard to pull the trigger. From time to time, they would stop, which would give us a breather, but pretty soon they started coming at us again. This went on all night long.
In the course of the fighting, I heard the sound of one of our guys. He was howling, and giving the cosign to the password. I said to Blanchard, “I think that’s one of our guys! We’d better go get him!” So we crawled over, and there he was. He was a bloody mess – a hand grenade had landed right between his legs. Blood was all over his trousers, and just everywhere. When I finally did see him again, it was at a reunion in 1997. And I had a lot of things to say to him, because I didn’t know what had happened to him after that night.
I patched him up as best as I could, and saw two corpsmen coming up – but they both, separately, got shot by the Japanese. They could tell they were a corpsman because they didn’t carry a rifle, but instead carried this little bag that was a first-aid kit. Finally, the third one who tried to come up got through. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to shoot, as fast as I possibly could, and the Japanese just seemed to drop. A couple of them got right up to the side of the hole before I got them – right up on top of us. When the corpsman got to us, the first thing he did was give Don a shot of morphine, and that calmed him down. Before that happened, I had told him he either had to be quiet or I would knock him out! He had done his best to keep quiet, though.
I had forgotten about this until Don reminded me, 50-some years later, that the last thing he remembered was me telling Blanchard to save three cartridges in that .45, because we weren’t going to be taken prisoner. Well, I never would have done something like that – I’m quite a religious guy and it was against my principles to commit suicide, especially in front of the enemy. But he was able to keep quiet until the corpsman got there. I just couldn’t figure out how he lived through that, he was so shot up. I found out that he wrote a letter to the officer in charge, but he never told us about it, so we never knew that he was still alive.
Iwo Jima: Red Blood, Black Sand by Charles W. Tatum can be ordered by calling 209-478-2790 or Amazon.com.