Lt. Harry E. Richter, 24, squinted uneasily across the sparkling Pacific waters toward the hazy island that loomed ahead. He watched his men, their faces smeared with white anti-flash cream, and wondered how many would return alive.
Charles Ray Barnes, 19, considered himself a lucky man. When Uncle Sam called, Barnes had requested the Navy. He never wanted in the Marines, but that’s where he went. And he had never backed away from duty.
Jesse Earl Long, Jr., 19, joined the Marines June 16, 1943. After his cousin, Macon Lamon, 3rd Marine Division, was killed by Japanese on Nov. 29, 1943, on Bougainville, he had one burning mission in life: to fight the Japanese.
IWO JIMA Feb. 19, 1945, Harry Richter, with the 5th Marine Division, had sailed from Pearl Harbor in late January. Their mission: Take Iwo Jima and save 20,000 airmen from ditching at sea on return bombing missions from Japan. They made it sound important.
The 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, 50,000 Leathernecks, watched the island take shape. The Navy had been bombarding the volcanic island for three days, keeping up a drumbeat of fire. Big guns on the battleships North Carolina, Washington, New York, Texas, Arkansas, and Nevada belched sheets of fire, making a moonscape of the Japanese stronghold. "Nothing could survive there," someone said. "It'll be a walk-on."
Richter "Second Louie" of the 3rd Platoon, Company D, 27th Regiment, slung his M-1 over his shoulder and ordered his men to check out their gear one final time. He watched them, their faces smeared with white anti-flash cream, and wondered how many of them would return alive. The sky was clear and the weather a warm 68 degrees. From ship deck, he watched as the first wave of Marines streamed toward the beach. Four minutes later, Richter's vessel lurched forward and the second wave headed for the island. The noise was deafening as six-inch naval guns thundered away, hurling tons of steel onto the island. Overhead, planes dropped napalm and strafed the beach. Richter studied the approaching landscape as his men sat quietly, some with heads bowed.
To his front, looming 554 feet over the small end of the island was extinct volcano, Mt. Suribachi, honeycombed with gun emplacements and pillboxes. The 28th Regiment was to take Suribachi and Richter's 27th was to cross in front and isolate it from the rest of the island. Then they were to move northeast and take Motoyama Airfield No. 1.
A 90-millimeter shell fired from Mt. Suribachi barely missing Richter's vessel, creating a water geyser. The Amtrak (amphibious tractor) jerked to a stop, the ramp lowered and Richter and his men splashed through knee-deep surf onto the volcanic ash beach. The first wave had just reached a high terrace created by a tropical storm. The third wave was about to land. Still no Japanese resistance. Richter remembered what an officer had said: "You might just be able to walk in and that's it."
Burrowed into volcanic caves, pillboxes and bunkers, were 20,700 Japanese soldiers with barely a headache after three days of bombardment. They were patiently waiting for the third wave to get ashore. General Kuribayaski's strategy was simple: Permit the Marines to land, then annihilate them.
Iwo Jima would become the site of the Marines most heroic and bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. Twenty-two of the 80 medals of Honor awarded Marines during WWII were earned here.
The third wave landed and mortars and machine gun fire rained down on the exposed Marines.
"They were killing those people... we knew them... it was terrible," Richter says.
Richter and his men crawled inland about 200 yards. "I kept hearing bullets whizzing over my head - phewm, phewm, phewm.” From their position on Mt. Suribachi, the Japanese were slaughtering the luckless Marines like flies. Richter and his men slithered across the hot sand on their bellies, digging a hole under them when the firing became too intense to move. They were supposed to establish a straight line across the island by nightfall, but it became impossible. "There were sand dunes in front of us that were actually fortified pillboxes," he says. "We were pinned down and couldn't move." Richter was up front, at the point. He saw some movement. "Get down out there!" he yelled, thinking it was Marines. It was Japanese soldiers! Pinned down by machinegun fire coming from the pillboxes, Richter and his platoon couldn't move. They dug holes beneath them and waited for morning and help. Richter didn't know it at the time, but 566 Marines had already been killed and 1,755 wounded -- approximating two of the eight battalions, which had landed that day. Richter dug in about five yards from two guys near the point. The night was moonless and cold and seemingly unending.
Richter was brought to full attention by the crack of rifle fire. Two quick shots. The firing came from the two men near the point, five yards away. Next morning, Richter saw two dead Japanese soldiers. "They had been shot in the middle of the forehead," he says. "It looked like they had been standing behind each other and hit by the same bullet, but they hadn't."
Tanks were brought up later in the morning and blew the pillboxes out of the sand. Later that afternoon, they moved up behind another outfit and dug in. They were told to prepare to move forward again at a minute’s notice and plug the gap in the line. They did, jumping in holes with Marines already in place. "They were all down," Richter says. "No one was looking to see what was going on out front." Next morning, the unit Richter's platoon had come to help was pulled back. "Some of them were going by our foxholes and they were getting shot." Richter's platoon was near Motoyama airstrip, which was elevated by pillboxes along the side of the embankment. "We were pinned down," Richter says. "They were firing machine guns and mortars at us. It was almost unbelievable at the people being killed.” Richter's platoon was ordered to move forward, but they kept getting flanking fire on their right and waited for the unit on their right to move up in place. When the other unit moved, they ran into a wall of fire. "My men saw how many of them were getting shot and we moved up to help them."
Richter and his Leathernecks routed the Japanese from their reinforced sanctuaries one pillbox at a time. Someone would crawl close to the opening, toss in a white phosphorous grenade, and when the Japanese soldiers emerged, they were shot. Hardly any surrendered.
On the fourth day of fighting, the 28th Regiment took Mt. Surabichi and hoisted the flag. Richter didn't see the famous event, now immortalized by the bronze monument in Arlington Cemetery, but he remembers his first glimpse of Old Glory fluttering triumphantly over the island. After several days of bloody fighting, Richter's tattered platoon was pulled back for rest.
After a day or two of rest, Richter was back up on the front line trying to blow Japanese out of their caves and pillboxes with satchel charges and flame-throwers. The tops of the bunkers and pillboxes were impervious to satchel charges. One of Richter’s men found an entranceway, tossed in a satchel charge and out came a grenade from the same hole. "We called for flame-throwers. They came and sprayed and a minute later out came another grenade."
On March, 1, Richter was standing behind a rock when he heard "Kaploop - kaploop." Someone yelled, "Watch out for those mortars!" Richter looked up and saw a round coming toward him. "It didn't arc," he says. "When it reached it height, it turned and came straight down hitting the top of the rock I was behind." Flying shrapnel tore into his right leg and ankle. Corpsmen evacuated him to an auxiliary hospital ship. The war was over for Richter.
Iwo Jima fell on March 26. Of the 20,700 Japanese on the tiny island, all but 200 were killed. Marine casualties were 5,888 killed and 17,272 wounded in action - over 33 percent of the landing force. Richter's platoon had been practically annihilated. Of the original platoon of 40, only 10 men were left.
"I still mourn for the boys that were in my platoon..." His voice breaks with emotion. "I think about them on Armistice Day. For years I've tried to forget the bloodshed -- the youth of the boys -- can you imagine almost 6,000 getting killed on that little island?"
In June 1944, Charles Ray Barnes, 19, considered himself a lucky man. When Uncle Sam called, Barnes had requested the Navy. And he got it. He glanced around at the group of young men surrounding him at the Induction Center in Birmingham. Some had opted for the Army, some for the Navy, like himself, and some of the more daring had joined the Marines. They could have the Marines.
Barnes eyeballed the officer with the clipboard standing in front of the formation.
“Seventeen of you fellars will have to go to the Marines,” the officer said. “Any volunteers?”
Silence. Barnes was young, but Sally Hightower Barnes hadn’t reared any fools. The officer shrugged and looked down at the clipboard and started calling out names, skipping around as he did. Barnes kept count in his head. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen - his luck was holding.
“BARNES, CHARLES RAY!” Barnes felt his stomach plunge to his bowels. It was worse than the electric chair. Dear God, why do I deserve this?
“Gentlemen, welcome to the Marine Corps.”
Barnes was assigned to the Fourth Marine Division, veterans of Roi-Nemur and Saipan. Barnes, unaware of what lay ahead of him, sailed for Iwo Jima. En route, he studied a map and plastic model of the tiny volcanic island. Barely five miles long and shaped like a pork chop, Mt. Suribachi loomed over the small end. Plateaus and ridges were carved in the northern end. There were no trees. It was hot, black and lifeless. Tunneled under this inferno were approximately 23,000 Japanese soldiers.
Early morning, Feb. 19, 1945, Barnes looked out across the blue Pacific. There were ships from horizon to horizon. Battleships, cruisers and destroyers pounded the island with their big guns. H-Hour was 9000. Barnes watched as Marines climbed down nets and into landing boats. Airplanes flew in low over the island, strafing the beaches. “I could see flashing in the sunlight.”
Barnes’ outfit remained onboard ship as replacements, waiting innocently to be fed into the human meat grinder. On the fourth day the 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division, captured Mt. Surabachi and raised the flag. Barnes didn’t see Old Glory go up, but he remembers his feeling when he first saw it fluttering in the distance. “It was a great sight. Those of us aboard ship didn’t know no better. We thought the whole thing was over.”
A day or two later, Barnes prepared to climb down the ship nets and into a landing craft. It was gut check time. He never wanted in the Marines, but he had never backed away from his duty. Anyway, over the months of hardship and training, he had grown to like the Corps. He was proud to be a Marine.
Barnes recalls landing on Iwo Jima: “Wrecked landing craft and vehicles were turned upside down. The beach was a mess and they were trying to get supplies unloaded. Everything was mired up in the sand”
Lugging their 30-caliber machine gun, dubbed “The Widow Maker,” Barnes and his squad were sent to the frontline as replacements. “When we got there, they didn’t have any officers, they had already been killed. A buck sergeant was leading the outfit.” That evening Barnes, scared and miserable, dug into the volcanic sand and waited. “The sand was so hot, you’d have to turn over every few minutes to cool.”
Next morning, at dawn, he heard what he thought was a rooster crowing. “It was the lonesomest sound you ever heard in your life. I lay there listening and I couldn’t hear nothing. I rolled over on my back toward a shell hole behind me and saw a helmet, just the top of it. I figured it was some of our bunch,” he says. “Suddenly, a Japanese solder jumped out with a rifle in his hand. I made a dive for my carbine. Two riflemen in a nearby hole opened up on the Japanese soldier. They put ‘im on the deck and put some more in ‘im just for good measure.”
American strategy was to cut across the small end of the island and isolate and capture Mt. Surabachi. That had been done at great loss on the fourth day. But the fight had hardly begun. Lying to the north was Hill 382, which comprised the backbone of the Japanese defense. Intelligence reports described the hill as “a complicated mass of crevices, 15 to 20 feet deep which covers its surface, making it a bastion of defense capable of receiving an attack from any quarter.” On top, buried several stories down in the volcanic rock, was a reinforced blockhouse. When the firing became too intense for the Japanese, they would move downward, then come back up to fight again.
On February 26, the assault on Hill 382 began. It would be the bitterest and costliest battle of the whole Iwo Jima campaign. Barnes’ 25th Regiment played an important role in taking the hill. Official records state: “Both flanks (25th Regiment) received a murderous concentration of heavy mortar fire which was extremely accurate.”
Barnes remembers the battle: “We went up there twice, maybe three times,” he says. “We’d get up there and have to leave because it would get too hot. The Japanese were down in holes and caves and the engineers got most of them out with explosives and flame throwers.”
After Hill 382 was finally taken, Barnes and his outfit dug in on top. “Everybody had them a nice deep hole and stayed in it.” One night, Barnes and his platoon were asked to help flush out some Japanese hemmed up below them. “We heard shooting below us and heard somebody running toward us. Sounded like a running horse. Joe hollered ‘HALT!’ A flare went off. I heard Johnny holler ‘Shoot ‘em Joe!’ I heard screaming and hollering. Next morning, Barnes and his buddies inspected the dead soldier. He was shot in the center of the heart. Lying beside him was an American carbine, without an ammo clip. Barnes says, “He had a folding cigarette case made in the shape of a dollar bill with dollar bill signs on it. He got it off some American the same way he got the carbine, I guess.”
Later, that evening, Barnes and a buddy were digging a hole for the night and accidentally struck a lead-covered telephone cable buried in the ground. “We chopped it in two and bent it out of the way,” he says. “And we didn’t tell nobody about it. I didn’t think much about it until later, but it could have been tapped. Anyway, we messed up the Japanese communication.”
Next day, another outfit moved up to the front and set up a machine gun near Barnes’ platoon. “They started shooting at something across there,” Barnes says. “Directly, a sniper got the man on the machine gun. The next man took over and he was shot. Then the third man crawled up the machine and the sniper got him. The sniper shot three of ‘em.”
The Japanese were masters of camouflage. “They hid everywhere,” Barnes says. “They would come up behind you, in front of you, it didn’t seem to make any difference.”
On March 16, after 26 days of battle, Iwo Jima was secured. No quarters had been given. The losses were horrendous. Approximately 23,000 Japanese had been killed, of which the 4th Marine Division claimed 8,992. They took only 441 Japanese prisoners. As for Barnes’ Company C, all of the officers were killed and wounded except one. Rifle platoons were commanded by enlisted men, one a Pfc. “It was a slaughter house,” Barnes says.
The 4th Marine Division’s next objective was Japan, but the war ended early August 1945. Barnes was lying in his bunk. “It was daylight and I wondered what was wrong. No reveille blowing nobody hollering ‘fall out’. Nobody saying anything. Directly, some guy come running down the street hollering ‘the war’s over the war’s over!’ You’d thought everybody would have been jumping up and down singing and having a big time. They seemed unconcerned about it."
Barnes had a recurring dream. “A Japanese fellar would be after me in a small airplane. I’d be working on my pasture fence and I’d hear an airplane and look up and it would be him. He’d dive at me. Same airplane, same Japanese pilot, same everything. It went on for years. I told somebody about it. He asked if I’d brought anything back from the war. I told ‘em about the hand grenade and he said get rid of it and you won’t be bothered again. So I did, and I never had anymore dreams.”
World War II had shaped Jesse Earl Long, Jr.'s life. From the beginning, he was destined to be a Marine. James Daniel, his uncle, Assistant Farm Agent in Madison County had joined the Marines at age 32, reasoning that his enlistment might save some young father from having to serve. Daniels was killed on Guadalcanal, the first Limestonian to die in the war. Long was 18 at the time and a senior at Tanner High. He wanted to join the Marines immediately, but his mother had insisted he finish school. His cousin, Macon Lamon, had already joined the Leathernecks and was serving with an elite Raider Battalion somewhere in the South Pacific. His uncle had forfeited his life for his country and Long was prepared to do the same.
Long joined the Marines June 16, 1943. After his cousin, Macon Lamon, 3rd Marine Division, was killed by Japanese on Nov. 29, 1943, on Bougainville, he had one burning mission in life: to fight the Japanese.
Long, assigned to the newly formed 5th Marine "Spearhead" Division, 5th Engineer Battalion, headquartered at Camp Pendleton was soon training in the southern California canyons and deserts. On weekends, Long and buddies sometimes hitchhiked to Los Angeles and hung out at the Hollywood Canteen and rubbed shoulders with film starts such as William Bendix on one occasion, he snagged a dance with Shirley Temple.
While at Camp Pendleton. Long's mother mailed him a "Heart-Shield Bible" -- one with a gold plated steel cover that fit snugly in his dungaree pocket over his heart. Engraved on the steel cover was a mother's wishful prayer. "May this keep you safe from harm.”
The 5th Marine Division sailed out of San Diego in August 1944. Rumors abounded among the Leathernecks. Some said they were going straight to Tokyo, others said San Francisco. Neither was correct. They landed at Camp Tarawa, Hawaii, their new home where they trained for their first combat mission - "Island X". There was liberty for the men in Honolulu, then the Division slipped out of Pearl Harbor. Two days out to sea and "Island X" was officially identified: Iwo Jima. Plans were to sweep across the island in two or three days and move on to Okinawa where the real fight would take place.
The battle for Iwo Jima, a volcanic island five miles long would become one of the epic struggles of the war. Approximately 46,000 men, Japanese and Americans, would be killed or wounded on the eight-square miles during 26 days of fighting. "Taking Iwo Jima" someone wrote afterwards, "was like throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete."
The Navy pulverized this spit of land for days and planes bombed and strafed from above. It didn't seem possible that any Japanese could be alive. Yet, hardly any were killed.
Long's job was to drive a bulldozer ashore and push aside land mines, clearing a path for tanks and infantry to follow. Steel armor one inch thick that would deflect .50 caliber bullets was constructed around the dozer with an exit door on top and a peep hole in front for Long to see out.
Monday morning, February 19, was lovely. At 8:59 a.m. the first wave of Marines hit the beach, followed closely by the second wave. Long climbed inside the armored dozer and drove onto a landing craft. "Don't drop me out here in the middle of the ocean," Long joked with the operator, "because this tractor can't swim." The third wave of Marines landed. All hell broke loose. The Japanese opened up with machine guns, mortars, and artillery from high on Mt. Suribachi. Marines were being mowed down like grass on the volcanic ash beach. The landing craft operator veered off course, putting Long ashore at the wrong place. It would be a week before he hooked up with his company.
Long drove his armored dozer ashore onto a beach clogged with disabled landing craft and dead and wounded Marines. He lowered the blade and began pushing up land mines, being careful not to run over dead Marines. There were three airfields on Iwo Jima. Taking Motoyama Airfield No. 1 was the first objective, but it was an inch by inch slugfest. At nights, Japanese soldiers walked through the Marine lines, trying to draw machine gun fire thereby locating their positions. Marines were under orders not to shoot. They quickly dispatched the Japanese with sharp knives and bayonets.
Long, like a turtle hunkered inside his armored shell, cleared a path of mines enabling tanks and riflemen to move up from behind. Mortar rounds dropped all around him and machine gun bullets hitting the steel armor sounded like popcorn popping. Some luckless Japanese attempted to disable the dozer with explosives but were shot.
One night, the Japanese penetrated the American lines and blew up a huge ammo dump. Long, a hundred yards away, felt the earth tremble. Long and his dozer were out front in the heat of the battle. He knocked out more than one machine gun emplacement by lowering the blade and pushing a mound of sand into the pill box opening, burying the Japanese. While they were digging out, another Marine would toss a grenade or satchel charge inside.
On the fourth day of battle, Long was near Airfield No. 1. "Look!" A Marine pointed toward Mt. Surabachi. "What is it?" Long asked. "See that flag?" Long looked up at Surabachi and saw the Stars and Stripes, a small one, fluttering over the island. "Yeah." He shrugged. It was no big deal since it wasn't any help at the moment to Long and his hard-pressed buddies. Later, a second flag, a larger one, was raised on Surabachi, the photo of which, when it appeared on front pages back home, electrified the nation.
During the last days of the campaign, at the north end of the island where the Japanese were fighting tenaciously, Long was asked to gouge out a path down to the sea so that the tanks and infantrymen could advance. Long responded. He squinted through the peephole and gave the dozer throttle. The big machine crawled forward into an area where no American had gone. Long was greeted by a hail of bullets. Two tanks covering Long from the rear were drawing intense fire from mortars, and round began dropping, each one moving closer to the dozer. Long heard a loud explosion. The dozer lurched and wouldn’t move. He figured his truck had been hit. The official Marine citation tells what happened:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while attached to a Marine Engineer battalion on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, March 12, 1943, Pfc. Long was operating an armored dozer forward of the front lines through a deep ravine leading to heavily fortified enemy positions. Despite heavy fire he was successfully completing his mission when a land slide caused his dozer to slip too far over an embankment making it impossible for him to move either forward or backward. Without a moment’s hesitation and with total disregard for his own personal safety and despite the heavy enemy fire, Pfc. Long climbed out of his cab, raced back to the tank which was supporting him, unfastened the tow cable with which the tank was equipped, carried it forward, attached it to his dozer and by so doing saved his dozer and was able to complete his dangerous task enabling the tanks and infantry to advance. His prompt and heroic action was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
For his heroic action, Long was awarded a Silver Star.
While the dozer was being pulled from the ravine, Long spotted two Japanese soldiers hiding beside a big rock. Long ran for his carbine and yelled to other Marines. “Hey! We’d better get them or they’re going to get us.” Several Marines ran over to the Japanese and one blazed away with his .45 pistol. A tremendous explosion ensued. The Japanese were holding live grenades with the pins pulled. Several of the Marines were gravely wounded.
Iwo Jima was officially declared secured on March 16. Almost 6,000 Marines had been killed and over 17,300 wounded. Most all of the 23,000 Japanese had been killed. “Among the Americans who served on Iwo Island,” remarked Admiral Nimitz, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Long sailed for Hawaii where the Division was to rest and make ready for the coming invasion of Japan. The Division, reoutfitted, sailed for Japan. Long was aboard ship in combat formation when the skipper came on the loud speaker and announced that a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a second bomb leveled Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on August 15. “Beware of treachery,” warned Admiral Nimitz when he ordered a cessation of operation against Japan.
A great armada of ships sailed into Kyushu. Long, not knowing what to expect from the Japanese, went ashore. Snipers killed two Marines, otherwise there was little resistance.
Later, one night as Long drove a Jeep down a winding road, he hit a land mine, apparently planted by unforgiving Japanese. The Jeep blew up, tossing Long out and down an embankment. He couldn’t move his right leg. Transferred to a make shift hospital, Long lost consciousness. When he came to a week or so later, he was in a body cast and bleeding internally. Plans were made to evacuate him back to the states. He was moved like cargo onto a Merchant Marine ship and had just settled down when the captain came in and asked if he had a passport. “I didn’t have one when I came over,” Long answered. The captain, nearly in tears boomed Long back on shore, where he convalesced in a wooden warehouse, passing his days watching gopher rats run the rafters.
On November 26, he was finally loaded aboard a hospital ship and sailed to Oakland, California, then on to Memphis for twenty-one (21) months of hospitalization. While convalescing, in Memphis, Helen Keller, the world famous blind, deaf, and mute author from Tuscumbia, came by Long’s bed, visiting. He was still in a body cast. Her interpreter said, “Helen can tell which branch of service you’re in.” She gently felt of Long’s head. “You are a Marine,” she said through her interpreter.