Jim is an Iwo Jima Marine. He never knew his mother – she died when he was only two years old. His father was left to raise him; but as Jim put it his dad was “kind of an alcoholic”. His father was an oil field worker who spent a lot of time in Oklahoma and Texas. Jim says he “was handed around until I was old enough to take care of myself. I spent a lot of time by myself, often weeks at a time, going to school on my own and so forth.”
When Pearl Harbor happened Jim was only 15 years old. He and a couple of buddies tried to enlist in the Marine Corps, lying about their age. They were turned away by the Oklahoma City recruiter.
Six months later in mid-1942, after Jim had turned 16, he gave his father an ultimatum and told him that he needed to help lie about his age to the Marine recruiter or Jim was going to run away and join the Canadian Navy. His father reluctantly agreed and seven months later Jim found himself in the middle of Pacific island-hopping campaigns of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and eventually Iwo Jima.
Of all the Marine battles, Iwo Jima is held in special awe and reverence. Iwo Jima is a small speck in the Pacific; it is 4.5 miles long and at its broadest point 2.5 miles wide. Iwo is the Japanese word for sulfur, and the island is indeed full of sulfur. Yellow sulfuric mist routinely rises from cracks of earth, and the island distinctly smells like rotten eggs.
The Battle of Iwo Jima (19 Feb – 26 Mar 1945) was one of the bloodiest in WWII. The island was defended by 22,000 Japanese and it took more than 70,000 Marines to take the island.
Out of the 70,000 Marines there were 26,000 casualties (6,800 killed & 19,200 wounded).
Out of the 22,000 Japanese all but 216 were killed on the island.
To put this in perspective, this one battle produced more US deaths (6,800) in 45 days than the entire last ten years of fighting in Iraq & Afghanistan (6,600).
On the first day of the battle, Jim was now an 18 year old Corporal; a machine-gun squad leader in charge of 12 men. As the transport hit the beach Jim told his best friend, “See you later tonight.” Jim went left, his friend went right and Jim never saw his friend again. He never knew what happened to him.
The man in front of Jim was hit in the neck with a bullet the moment they stepped on the beach; as Jim put it, “I don’t remember who he was, but I had to step over him and keep going. It was total chaos.”
For 19 days Jim fought in this living hell, witnessing unspeakable death & destruction, never once seeing the face of a living Japanese soldier (the Japanese were entrenched in 11 miles of underground tunnels and bunkers). Not until the 10th of March when he climbed out of a shell hole to be faced with a Japanese machine gunner about 30 yards away. “I sure remember his face!”, Jim told me.
Jim turned to get back into cover and remembers having a feeling like “a hot red poker going through my back and out my stomach.” Jim tried to get up a run after he was hit, but it was no use; his legs gave out on him.
Fortunately Jim fell back into a shell hole and had cover from his attacker. As he lay there on his back, looking up at the sky and feeling the seeping wetness, he was sure that this was the end for him.
At that moment a Navy corpsman came running by and triaged his wounds, gave him a shot of morphine, and evacuated him back to the beach.
Jim had escaped sudden death, but was nearly killed again with a morphine overdose once he got to the aid station. Another corpsman was about to give a second (lethal) dose to Jim because the first corpsman hadn’t marked Jim’s forehead with the letter “M”. Jim was fortunate to be lucid enough during his current morphine stupor to stop the second assuredley fatal dose.
When Jim was finally on a transport to the floating Hospital ship, Jim felt optimistic and hopeful that maybe he was going to be ok. Yet he was completely dejected and demoralized once reaching the ship when they told him they had no more room.
Jim was sent back to the beach where a doctor crudely put him under the knife in a make shift operating room on the sandy beach head; examining all of his internal injuries and eventually removing five-feet of damaged intestines.
Eventually Jim made it off the beach and back to Guam and Hawaii for five months of rehabilitation; the war was finally over for him.
I’ve seen the scars on his back and stomach; the letter with the bullet holes and brown stained blood he was wearing in his blouse pocket; the letter from the doctor who performed the surgery on the beach – expressing amazement and joy that Jim was recovering well; and I’m humbled and utterly amazed by his story.
I have to constantly remind myself that he experienced all of this between the ages of 16 and 18. Then I think about what I was doing when I was that old; where my biggest stress in life was if I had to work at my part time job on a Friday or Saturday night.
Every time life gets stressful or frustrating, I try reminding myself of Jim’s story. Put into perspective, nothing compares to what he went through at such a young age.
A couple of weeks ago I was visiting with Jim and I asked him how all of these experiences defined him and his life. He answered that it didn’t so much define him as it refined him. He learned how to appreciate every single moment, that life is truly a gift. Most importantly he said he learned what love was really about; the love he feels and felt for his foxhole buddies is something he said is hard to describe.
We owe a lot to Jim and for the thousands like him who have served; each having their own unique and memorable story. If you met Jim on the street, you would never know the amazing back story that is his life. Jim’s request for all of us is to make sure we get those stories from our grandparents, parents, & neighbors; before it’s too late.
Jim didn’t start telling his story until about ten years ago; I’m so glad he decided to share.