February 19, 1945
As documented by Arthur W. Rodriguez
My name is Arthur W. Rodriguez. This story is the way I remember it happening back in February 1945.
During the battle of Iwo Jima I was a Browning Automatic Rifleman, a B.A.R. man, of the rank of PFC. I was in the First Squad, First Platoon of Rifle Company C (called Charlie Company), part of the First Battalion, 23rd Regiment, Fourth Marine Division. Each squad was led by a sergeant and consisted of three groups, each group had a group leader, a BAR man, a BAR assistant, and a rifleman. My group was led by Corporal Lloyd Prevatte; in the other two groups were Corporal Morris Fusco and BAR man Richard Grider; and Corporal Ed Rajkowski and BAR man Ward. (After so many years, I'm afraid don't remember any of the other names.)
It has taken me many years to accept that I, as a veteran from the Fourth Marine Division, can add to our part of the overall picture of this historic battle and not leave it all to the historians.
I now believe that anyone that took part in this battle should tell their story in writing. This way we can better understand the pain, suffering, and death; also, why we had so many casualties.
I was born in the small copper mining town of Morenci, Arizona. When I was born the mine was an underground mine, but it has evolved into one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. My mother died when I was 2, and my father left my four brothers and sisters and me to be raised by Gramma. I was good at sports, carpentry, art, hunting, hiking, and wrestling.
Morenci had good schools, but I had a learning disorder, now called dyslexia, which made school very hard for me. I didn't finish high school, but I was born with lots of curiosity and natural talent.
When World War Two broke out, I was living in Los Angeles with my Dad and cousins. I was ready to enlist, but there was one small problem: I was only 15 years old and couldn't enlist until I was 17. So, the minute I was old enough, I enlisted in the Marines on August 10, 1943. I was sent to boot camp at a Naval base in San Diego, California. Training went well for me in the 788th training platoon, and I became an expert rifleman with a PFC stripe.
We were then sent to Camp Pendleton, outside Oceanside in California, September 18, 1943. Here we became part of the service battalion of the 4th Marine Division. I enjoyed the excitement and adventure of this large combat force. There was no need for additional training, since we were to use our muscles loading and unloading cargo from ships in support of the combat troops on shore and doing whatever we needed to keep them supplied. We also would work to evacuate the wounded and the dead back to the transports.
The 4th Marine division's invasion of Kwajalien Atoll in the Marshall Islands was the only time in WWII that American troops boarded transport vessels in the United States itself (not a territory or another country) and went straight to landings on enemy soil. Before the transports arrived, the Navy had blasted a hole in the coral reef between two of the islands so the ships could enter the lagoon.
4th Marine Division captured Roi Namur and several other islands. Two of the islands were big enough for airstrips. We of the service battalion came ashore after these islands were secured.
We saw the dead Japs that were still lying around, and we had to live with the dreadful smell and the swarms of flies. There were many American casualties from Dengue Fever. Our regiment was left behind to occupy the islands and take care of the sick.
Maui, Hawaii, became our home base for rest and training. There was little time for training, however, because we were soon loading transports with supplies for the next campaign. My buddy Richard Grider and I began talking about wanting to be a part of a rifle company and getting involved in combat. Yes, we did "Remember Pearl Harbor".
Several days before the invasion, as we rode our transport ships towards Saipan and Tinian, we were shown a map of the islands. This time we had company; the 2nd Marine Division and the 27th Infantry Army Division, so we know that Saipan and Tinian were going to come at a high price. On Tinian, I became sick with Dengue Fever and convalesced on Saipan.
Our division was soon back on Maui, training for the next campaign. Grider and I got together and decided to ask for a transfer to a rifle company. To my surprise, our buddy Ward wanted to join us. We agreed that we wanted the Browning Automatic Rifle (B.A.R.) for our weapon. (The BAR is an automatic, heavy rifle, with a sling that allows the user to support its weight on his shoulder and fire it from the hip.) We volunteered and, after training, were accepted as replacements for Company C ("Charlie" Company), First Battalion, 23rd Marines. We all ended up in the same squad.
When it was time for our next campaign, we boarded our LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank). Everyone bedded down where they could. Our squad bunked on the deck. We placed our canvas folding cots in the space between the deck of the LST and LSM (Landing Ship, Medium) which was strapped on the LST. The LSM looks like a smaller version of the LST. It was designed to slide off the LST onto the water. It would then maneuver to take on tanks and trucks and other cargo. Because of its shallow draft, it could ram the beach, where the big doors would open and the tanks and trucks could just drive out onto the beach.
We were given our first briefing two days before landing. Several officers, including our Company commander, Captain Stanley McDaniel, outlined the day-to-day objectives. We were shown a scale model of Iwo Jima. As I recall, my first impression of Iwo Jima was that it looked like a termite nest in the shape of a turkey drumstick with Suribachi as its kneecap. They pointed out the many underground fortifications with connecting networks of tunnels. We were also made aware of the strategic importance of securing this island and its airstrips for the use of fighter escorts for our B-29s bombing Japan, and for emergency landings for the bombers on their return from bomb runs over Japan.
In the briefing, we were instructed that the island would be cut in half; that the Fourth Marine Division would swing to the right across the first airfield through the rest of the island. This meant that the Fifth Division would have to take Suribachi.
Captain McDaniel narrowed down our platoon's role. We were to be first to land, First Platoon would be part of the first wave, with First Squad as the extreme left flank of our division. My job during the landing was to lead our group and make contact with members of K Company, 5th Marine Division, to our left.
I don't remember if we discussed what was on our minds about the coming battle. I couldn't help making mental notes comparing Iwo Jima to Saipan, Tinian, and the Marshall Islands, where one could see that some of the enemy's big gun emplacements had survived even direct hits from the 16-inch naval guns.
What became obvious to me was that the naval air and sea bombardment would have to concentrate on all the areas that made up the high ground. The high ground to our left on Suribachi was an ideal spot for the enemy to place their target spotters. The first airfield had high ground on the opposite side from where we were to attack.
High ground on the Fifth Division side gave the enemy the advantage of looking down on us as we would try to cross the open ground at the second airfield. This high ground I assumed would be as difficult to take as Suribachi because it was a steady rise that dropped off straight down as cliffs. It looked like the rock of Gibraltar.
If the bombardment didn't do its job we would be in for a very difficult time crossing the two airfields. I kept my thoughts to myself.
On the right hand side as we would approach the second airfield there was a heavily fortified small hill. It was a command post with a radar installation, which I later learned was called Hill 382. Across the second airfield from the hill there were rocky rugged cliffs. My thoughts were that we shouldn't try to take this section on foot but that it should be covered over with napalm. All those high ground areas were ideal for observation posts and for anti-aircraft weapons that could also be used on incoming ground attacks.
Up until five days before the briefing I was sure we were going to invade Okinawa. Afterwards, I understood why we needed to secure Iwo Jima. Here again, I had not given up on Okinawa, because if it was going to take us only 5 days to secure Iwo Jima, as they had told us in the briefing, I was sure that they were not going to send us back to Maui, Hawaii so quickly.
I soon realized not to let my imagination dwell on what might happen. Instead, I turned my thoughts on my darling Sally. It was easy to focus my thoughts on her when I needed a morale boost.
I remember the night before our landing, sitting on my bunk on the deck looking out to the horizon. It was still very dark, but I could see the silhouettes of destroyers, cruisers, battleships, and many other ships. I couldn't help feeling a sense of pride to be a part of this very large task force. I believe that I can say for myself, and my two buddies Grider and Ward, that we shared the same feelings.
I remember thinking to myself that no matter what happens, I am glad to be here and I will survive!!
We had finished with our breakfast of, as best as I can remember, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, and ham, and were getting our gear ready. It was still dark when the word came for us to go below and start boarding our Amtracks. We were soon aboard and the conversation that followed was low key.
I heard our squad leader yell to our platoon commander that we were all accounted for. The lieutenant climbed aboard the Amtrack I was on. He told us that it would be a long ride to shore, so we could take off our packs until he gave the word to put them back on. He said to make sure not to take off our life belt. It was a rubber belt that had two compressed air cylinders. All we had to do was pull a little cord and tubes in the belt would inflate. He also said that as soon as we reached dry land we could discard the belt.
There wasn't much we could do while waiting for the big front doors of the LST to open up, but we didn't have long to wait, the doors opened up and the ramp came down into the ocean. The morning light would soon let us see what was ahead of us.
The first Amtrack rolled down the ramp into the water. I heard someone say, "Yeah, they DO float." Next, I could hear one motor after another turned on.
Down the ramp we followed, one Amtrack behind the other. My thoughts turned to my brother Frank. I was wondering what his submarine was doing at the time. Oh well, it was more fun to think about my sweetheart Sally. I had never had a girlfriend before. The day I left for Camp Pendleton, she was sitting on the porch. I asked her if I could write to her and she said yes. After a while we were both in love. We then started to plan our lives for after the war.
The landing craft were soon under way in column formation. We could see from the flashes of gunfire the silhouette of two large battleships. All of a sudden, there was a flash of light from one of the battleships, firing a broadside at point blank range at Mount Suribachi. For a moment, all we could see was the silhouette of the two battleships. Yeah, we were going to pass right between them!
Just as we were passing the battleship on our left there was another blinding flash of light, lighting up the billowing clouds of smoke, followed by a thundering, reverberating sound from the 16-inch gun salvo. I still remember that the guns were nearly horizontal. It was an awesome sight.
We were a short distance past the battleships when we heard the loud screeching sound of an incoming shell. It hit short of the ships and there was a loud explosion with a towering waterspout. The enemy repeated this action. My heart fell to my feet, for I remembered that at Saipan, Tinian, and the Marshall Islands some of the enemy gun emplacements had survived almost anything except a direct hit by a 16-inch shell. Again, I kept my thoughts to myself.
Way over to our right were two LCS (Landing Craft Support) ships firing a steady stream of rockets. Never saw anything like it -- it was awesome.
We were now in formation for landing. It was very quiet because the shelling from both sides had stopped. We were ready, our packs on and our weapons ready.
When the ramp went down we all ran out of our Amtrack. We rushed up and crowded behind the terrace about 100 yards from the water's edge. We were all aware of the soft sand and that we had not received any enemy fire. We unbuckled our life belts and started to try and dig foxholes in the soft sand. I wondered if the Marines to my left were from K Company, Fifth Division.
We were very crowded on the beach waiting for the word to move up to the airfield. The enemy opened fire again on the beach with mortars. One of the Amtracks was hit and set on fire but was still afloat. One of the crew was on fire. He jumped into the water and was yelling for help. He was in the Fifth Marine section. There was no one going after him. I told my group leader, Cpl. Prevatte, that I was going out there and bring him in. He stopped me and said the shells coming in were large and the concussions would soon kill the man who was on fire. I just had to turn away. I looked back in time to see an LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) landing craft slow down, perhaps to pick him up. Then there were more big shells coming in that just missed the LCI. I told Cpl. Prevatte that we better get out of here because the LCI must be loaded with ammo and if they hit it, well...
Still no word to move up. It was at this moment that the real taste of war became evident. There was a large mortar explosion down to my left with devastating effect. A mortar squad was there, then all of a sudden, they were gone. Their body parts came raining down on us. I saw a head, still in a helmet. I didn't want to look; I didn't want to believe that this had just happened. I think that I went into shock.
Finally, I heard Fusco say, "Let's move up to the airfield." He was now our new squad leader, since our original squad leader had been wounded during the landing. So we all got up and started moving up. I was on the extreme left flank. I could now see Marines from K Company, Fifth Division, in a large crater. I asked them "Who are those guys over there?", as I pointed with my hand. They told me "They are part of our platoon, but they are dead. We think a sniper got them." I just told myself that this was not supposed to happen; it's not going the way it was planned.
As we moved up to the first airfield, we received some machine gun fire, No one in my squad was hit, but, as I found out later, we had also lost our platoon leader when he was wounded in the landing.
I heard my group leader, Cpl. Prevatte, call to me; he was up ahead waving for me to get up where he was. To my left there was a battery of 155 howitzers pounding Mount Suribachi. I could also see aircraft strafing and dropping bombs and napalm on the slopes of Suribachi, and of course the Navy and their big guns were also shelling Suribachi. The smoke and noise from so many explosions was awesome and more than anything I had ever expected to see.
It was about this time that I heard a new sound, a thump; then I saw what looked like a barrel tumbling high overhead going down to the beach. I knew right away what it was, a large depth charge. I was right; moments later we heard a loud explosion. Again, I didn't let myself think about what was happening to the Marines bringing all the supplies onshore.
We had reached the edge of the first airfield where it met the land that sloped down to the ocean. First Squad was given the word to dig in on the flat surface of the airfield. I am glad that we didn't have to charge across the airstrip. It was at this time that I became aware that our original squad leader and our original platoon leader, were no longer with us because they had both been wounded in the first two hours of the attack and had been evacuated.
We heard the noise of our tanks before we saw them, coming up to pass by near where we were digging in. At first I was happy to see these four tanks coming our way. But the enemy was not. The tanks were halfway up the hill when mortar shells started to rain down on them. There were no hits on the tanks as far as I could tell, but I knew we would be in for it when the tanks got up near where we were.
The lead tank climbed up to the airfield; at that moment there was a big explosion. Yep, the lead tank was hit. The second tank started to move around the lead tank, which was on fire, when it too was hit, in the tracks that drive the tank. I knew then it had to be a "line of sight" weapon, perhaps a 75mm or an 88's antiaircraft battery. To my surprise, both tank crews were able to escape through the bottom hatch of their tanks. I thought to myself that I was sure glad that I was not in a tank battalion; they were easy targets in this invasion.
The other two tanks stayed down below the surface of the airfield. The enemy knew where they were because they kept up the mortar fire, hitting all around them, including our area.
We found dead Japs and trenches leading to underground bunkers -- the smell was terrible. We had to make sure they were really dead. We poked them with a bayonet and threw grenades into the bunkers.
After securing our area, my group leader, Cpl. Prevatte, sent me to check with K Company of the Fifth Marines to make sure that they knew where we were. I thought to myself that I didn't know where the rest of Charlie Company was located if they asked me. All I knew was that we must be stretched along the edge of the first airfield.
I had no trouble finding K Company. I talked to a sergeant and told him we were the left flank of the Fourth Division. I just pointed to the area where our front line portion was located. He said, "No problem, we know where you guys are." He asked if we had many casualties. I told him that our mortar platoon had been hit hard down by the shoreline and we had lost our sergeant and our squad leader. He told me that they were also hit hard on the beach. I said, "Good luck, you guys," and walked back to my squad.
I assured our squad leader that K Co. knew where our area was. Prevatte told me that they had used a lot of grenades to try and secure the many holes that were connected with the trenches. He also showed me a Jap sword and Luger pistol that he found on a dead Jap officer and said he didn't know if he could carry the sword with him.
We were spread out to cover any enemy attack that might come in the night. We had some water-cooled machine guns in place. I wasn't concerned because I knew we had the firepower to stop any frontal attack. Here at the edge of the first airfield was where we were going to spend our first night. Prevatte and I shared the same foxhole. We all took turns staying awake in each foxhole, four hours on, four hours off.
There were so many shots being fired back and forth I wondered how anyone could sleep. The sky all around us was lit up with mortar flares and flashes of light coming from our guns and the sound of our own guns pounding Mount Suribachi and the high ground across the airstrip where we were. We had 75, 105, and 155 Howitzers; Suribachi was getting clobbered. We could still hear and see the tumbling sound of enemy depth charges as they passed over our heads and exploded on the beach.
It was during my watch in our foxhole, during the wee hours of the morning, that I saw a fighter plane with its landing gear down that looked like it was trying to land. The plane as it passed by was not more than 100 yards away. I thought it was one of ours until I saw on the fuselage the big red sun of the Japanese flag! It caught everyone off guard, for no one took a shot at this plane.
We held our position all through the next day and night. There was sporadic mortar fire hitting our area, but First Squad did not get hit. We received very little enemy fire that night. Most of it was going down on the beachhead.
We were holding our position. I could see with borrowed binoculars that the Fifth Marines were having a hard time trying to take the high ground that was across and to the left from where we were. I was glad that we hadn't charged across the airstrip. I had thought that we were going to cut across the long narrow airstrip and take the high ground that would be in our sector as we drove onto the second airfield. Instead, we were instructed that we were now in reserve, as we had taken too many casualties. The 25th and the 24th regiments were on the line. But, because of the small area that we were in there was no place that was not under enemy fire.
That night the right flank of our shelter was heavily bombed, but because they were so deeply fortified they were not completely destroyed. In between the naval salvoes we were being fired on by an enemy flat trajectory 88's antiaircraft battery. This went on all night long.
I think it was the on 6th day that a group of us was sent down to the beach to pick up food and water, and also grenades. I left my heavy BAR and ammo behind and borrowed a carbine.
Just as we were walking by a large crater, halfway down to the beach, I heard a corpsman call for help. A wounded Marine had his intestines sticking out and the corpsman was trying to push them in. He told me to hold them in while he put some strong bandages around the wounded Marine to hold them in place. First he put Medicaid powder on my hands. I was in shock, holding my breath; I was holding live intestines in my hands. Somehow the corpsman managed to wrap the bandages around the large wound.
As I got up to leave, I saw the corpsman grab the wounded Marine in his arms. I just closed my eyes and, as I turned away, I said I'd send someone with a stretcher. I just couldn't face the wounded Marine and believe that he was going to make it; my heart went out to him. I was thinking that I was glad I was not a corpsman; I think they had the toughest job.
As we walked back with our supplies, I saw the corpsman again. He told me that the Marine didn't make it and thanked me for sending the stretcher.
On our way back to the squad I couldn't help but take notice that what, on the way to the beach, I thought were Marines in their foxholes I could now see were dead bodies, with body parts missing. I now confirmed that all the shelling that had passed over our position had been a deadly barrage. I realized how lucky we were to be next to the airfield. I felt then, as I do now, that it was a mistake to put so many non-combat units on the beach at the time. If it hadn't been for the soft sand I'm sure the casualties would have been even higher.
You've heard of the Code Talkers? Well, they were dug in near our position. They had their ponchos up like tents. (Since Day One we had had light rain from time to time.) They seemed to be busy so I didn't stop to talk to them. I was wondering if they were from Arizona like me.
The next big surprise was when I spotted a Doberman Pinscher, next to a Marine covered with his poncho. As I looked around there were others, I don't remember how many. I felt sorry for the Marines and their dogs. I just didn't think that they could be used at this time in the fighting that had been going on. Oh, well, what did I know?
When I got back to the squad some of our guys were shooting up in the air. I asked Cpl. Prevatte what the hell was going on and he pointed to Suribachi. Yes, there was a USA flag flying on the top! It felt good because we didn't have to worry about weapons spotters looking down on us, and also knowing that the Fifth Marines was making progress.
Here we were on our sixth day, and we hadn't seen the enemy to shoot at, and we were still on the beach. We couldn't help feel frustrated and angry because we seemed to have very little to show for the high casualties within our ranks, not to mention the service battalions on the beach, mostly the 24th and 25th Battalions.
We finally got the word that we were going to replace the 24th Regiment on the line the next day. I am glad we didn't know how deadly the Amphitheater, better known as the Meat Grinder, was going to be to secure.
As the night closed in on us, the sky was lit with the flaming light of flares and the flashes of light coming from our own 155 and 105 howitzers. My group leader, Cpl. Prevatte, and I dug our foxhole and were ready to try and get some sleep, but that wasn't going to happen. There was an enemy line of sight weapon, perhaps a 75, that was firing right over our foxhole. We could feel the shock wave as shells passed by. All they had to do was to lower the barrel a couple of degrees and we would have been history. This gun kept it up for at least 4-5 hours. By morning, we had dug our 3-foot deep foxhole down to 6 feet, and we were badly shook up with fear and the ringing in our ears.
In the morning, it became apparent what the enemy had been shooting at. Our Regimental and Battalion headquarters were devastated, with many killed and wounded. I think that the tall antennas through the camouflage were what gave their position away. Our counterfire must have finally knocked out the enemy weapon because we never heard from it again.
Our platoon had not gotten much sleep. My foxhole buddy and I didn't get any sleep at all. And now we were getting ready to move up to the front line. We didn't have any info on what to expect, except that it was going to be rough.
Our company formed a single column and our platoon was at the head of the column. As soon as we passed the area marked with red flags we knew we were clear of the mine fields. Some of the mines were big, designed to blow up tanks.
All of a sudden, we started taking enemy mortar fire that released yellow smoke that had the smell of sulfur. The wind was in our favor. Next, to my surprise, we started to receive shell bursts of white phosphorous, a deadly weapon when used on exposed targets like us. Again, we were lucky because they were overshooting our position.
We scattered in all directions. There was a large crater to our left. It seemed to me at the time, that everybody wanted to jump into this crater. I made it a point not to jump into a crater that had more than 3 Marines. I still have memories of seeing 10 Marines killed by a single round. So I stayed on the edge of the large crater. We started to get machine gun fire; it was coming from a nearby underground bunker. Our guys quickly put it out of action with grenades.
I spotted Cpl. Prevatte waving at me to join him. Two other guys from our group quickly joined me as we crouched down and ran to where the rest of our squad was, in a large trench. I stopped because I saw too many guys in the trench. A moment later two mortar shells hit the edge of the trench. When the dust settled, I saw Prevatte just sitting there with his left arm dangling by the skin. He just grabbed it with his other hand, pulled it off, and threw it away.
Our acting squad leader, Sgt. Fusco, was also wounded, and as I looked around there was Grider, my buddy since basic and a fellow BAR man, blown out of the trench but still alive, though badly wounded. I think our lieutenant (the one who had replaced our lieutenant wounded in the landing) was also wounded here. I don't remember; I didn't find out about it until the next day. There were a number of other casualties. Our corpsman took charge and we helped. We were very busy taking care of the wounded and carrying them down to the beach for evacuation to the hospital ships.
We soon got all of our casualties down to the beach. Before they carried him away, Prevatte said "Good luck, Art," then held his right arm over what was left of his left arm and said, "This is my ticket home."
Some of the Marines carried the dead and wounded to the beach while the rest of us continued forward. We managed to make it to the slope on the near side of the second airfield, where we were told to dig in. I dug in right on the edge where the ground sloped down from the airfield; I wanted to see across the landing strip. One of the men that was helping to evacuate the wounded to the beach was my assistant, I'll call him Jack. (He helped me by carrying a bandolier of ammo in case I ran out.) I made the foxhole big enough for the two of us.
Jack finally came back from the beach, along with the other Marines that had helped carry the wounded and dead. They brought with them some replacements. Jack asked, "Do you know what they named this area where we are?" I said, "No." He said, "Well, it's a very descriptive name. They named it the Meat Grinder."
We were both in our foxhole as we watched the rest of Charlie Company dig in. Jack then started to tell me what he saw down at the beach. He described the wrecked landing craft as far as the eye could see along the beach. He said that he saw many dead covered with ponchos. He told me they helped get all the wounded aboard LCMs and that he saw 2 LCMs that were partly submerged in the water. They had been hit by powerful mortar shells. He went on and on, telling me the many things that he had seen. As he was talking, I was watching two rocket trucks come up into the Meat Grinder and stop about 200 yards from where we were. It was too late to warn them about the minefield but nothing happened. They got through it and were in position. It happened so fast.
Moments later there was this tremendous sound of rockets being fired within seconds of each other; they made so much noise we had to cover our ears. Just as fast as they finished launching their rockets, the crews jumped in their trucks and took off, and not a moment too soon, because moments later there were shells coming in, hitting the area where the trucks had been. They escaped just in time being hit by the salvo of enemy mortar fire.
We were now in position, stretched out the full length of the second airstrip on the slopes facing the beaches. There were still a few hours before nightfall, but we were told that this was our position for our seventh night. I was surprised not to see our water-cooled machine guns in place. I could see that we were all out of sight, just below the flat surface of the airstrip.
It was then that I remember the pain in my guts. I was sick and tired of seeing so many of our guys torn apart by shrapnel. This feeling was also related to being scared on and off for so long. Yet I was glad that tomorrow we would face small arms fire instead of the shelling.
There were only three of us left from the original squad. Ed Rajkowski, better known as 'Ski, was now our squad leader and acting sergeant. He came up to my foxhole with one of the replacements that had just joined our unit. He told me that I was to be Group Leader and acting corporal (so was Ward), and the young man was to be a part of my group. I don't remember his name; I'll call him "Al". (I had two men in my group and, at this point and time, I can't remember their faces.)
I was also told that we were going to charge across the airfield to the embankment on the other side early in the morning, then if things went well we would keep moving about a thousand yards. This was for the most part open ground and at the end of the objective the flat surface dropped off. I never got a look to see what it looked like but I knew that many of their long range weapons were over there because we could hear and sometimes see the shells coming over.
Here we were getting ready to attack and we didn't have the experience for this kind of hand-to-hand combat. 'Ski was the only experienced man. As for Ward and me, even thought both of us had been involved in the battles for the Marshall Islands and for Saipan and Tinian, we were in the service battalion then. Even though we were not part of the combat units then, we had been shot at by snipers, and sometimes mortars, and we had a few casualties among the service troops.
I found out that Al was just out of boot camp, so he would just have to learn as we did, from day to day. I explained to my new men that they were to shoot at anything that looked suspicious or anything that moved so long as it was in front of them. I made my group understand that we had to take care of each other, to not bunch up when we charged across the field (I realized that there is a strong desire to be next to someone in a battle situation, but it was wrong to bunch up), to shoot first at anything where there might be a gun in place, to drop hand grenades down any hole you see. One very important thing is never hold your head above where it can be seen more than two seconds.
We didn't get much sleep because the Navy battleships were firing their salvoes right over our position. We could feel the wrath of the screaming shells and the sound of the heavy bombardment.
Flares lit up the sky as the night darkness came down on us. I needed a morale boost, so I started to brag to Jack about my beautiful sweetheart, Sally. She had beautiful green eyes, light skin, and dark hair. I told him how we met, that we were in love, and that after the war we would get married.
That night I was worried about the next day. I was sure we would be facing machine gun fire when we charged across the open field. I thought, "This is crazy, just like the Civil War. But at least we won't be bunched up." Yeah, I didn't feel invincible any more.
The morning came like thunder -- we all woke up to the thunder of a group of Corsairs strafing, bombing, and firing rocket salvoes on the area around Hill 382. We were delighted to have this kind of air support.
My group had hot coffee and K rations. I had learned on the second day on Iwo how to heat a canteen of coffee by using a pinch of the clay-like explosive named Composition C2. You had to be very careful, because if you used too much, it would explode!
We were all standing on the airstrip waiting. As we waited for the signal to charge, I had to try and teach them what to do in case we got fired upon with machine guns. They were to take cover and hold position until we got a signal to either move back or go forward. One reason was that the enemy were masters in the use of camouflage. Before I finished my instructions we got the word to "fix bayonets" and we were told to make a lot of noise as we ran. I checked my BAR and made sure I had a full magazine.
The distance across this airfield, my guess, was about 200 yards, where there was an embankment about five feet high. I thought that if we could make it to the embankment we would be in good shape. We heard the word to charge, so we all started to charge and yell. To me this was like a Banzai charge, so that's what I was yelling. I heard some Rebel Yells. We made it across without a shot fired at us. There were a lot of shell craters in the ground beyond the airstrip and I shot down the holes as we were running by, always with an eye on what crater to jump into if the enemy started firing.
I almost forgot to mention that there was one of our tanks in the middle of the airstrip. It had been hit and put out of action. It looked to me that the crew may have been able to get out through the hatch in the bottom of the tank, because the damage was to the tracks.
Now we were told to keep on going to the main objective, a ridge about 500 yards ahead. All I could see was scattered rocks and dirt -- a perfect place to camouflage pill boxes or blockhouses for machine guns.
We were walking standing up. We shot into the openings in the trenches and dropped grenades into the dark holes to the underground bunkers as we passed. When we were about 50 yards from the ridge I turned my BAR sideways and started strafing it. I was sure the enemy would open up with machine gun fire at any moment. My group also opened up on the ridge. Jack said, "I don't see anything, so why are we shooting?" I told him I didn't have time to explain.
As we got closer I could better see that my imagination was a little over active. I could see that the ridge was the work of bulldozers piling rock and other trash left over from building the airstrip we had just crossed. I told my men that it is always better to be safe than sorry. Well, I was so relieved I just slumped down on the ground next to some big rocks. It was there that I became aware that my legs were shaking. I wondered if my group noticed.
Jack was breathing hard and I asked him if he was all right. He could barely talk. He said, "I'm O.K." and turned to "Al", Yeah, he was O.K.
A company runner made his way to our section and gave us the word that we were to move to the right, all the way to Radar Hill, Hill 382.
Before we could get started, I spotted another company runner, coming from our reserve platoon. He was crouching and zig-zagging as he ran in our direction. I could see that a sniper was trying to hit him. I stood up and waved with my hands for him to go back. I don't know if he saw me waving at him to go back, maybe he didn't understand. Anyway, he kept coming.
He was only about 50 yards away when he was hit. He went down, but he didn't stay down, he got up and kept on coming. He was hit again, this time in the head; he was only about 25 yards from us when he was shot. He turned over on his back and covered his face with his hands, then he held them as if he was praying. He died slowly. We couldn't tell where the sniper was shooting from. I think back trying to figure out why he kept coming. My guess is that he didn't know that a sniper was trying to kill him.
We were stunned to see one of our own shot down before our eyes.
Before we could get started to move, our unit started to receive sniper fire; we couldn't tell if it was the same sniper. After a few shots, I could tell that the shots were coming from the high ground to our left. I could see that the cliffs there had been hit with the Navy's heavy guns, exposing some caves. I thought that this would have been an ideal target for our tanks. This section was way over to the left in the Fifth Marine Division section. I could see that their men were moving back away from the cliffs. I think that they were getting small arms fire.
I got down in a prone position and set my BAR sights for about 500 yards. I fired a short burst at the three caves. My group also fired at the caves. I don't know for sure if we did any good, but the enemy sniper stopped. We could also hear gunfire hitting the cliffs that must have been coming from Marines in the Fifth Marine Division. Maybe they were able to spot the sniper and put him out of action.
I could hear tanks moving somewhere with K Company of the Fifth Marine Division. I wondered why we didn't have tank support. For a few minutes I thought that they were coming our way. No, I could now see a tank as it turned toward the cliffs and fired.
From where we were I could see that there was a big gap between our First Platoon and Second Platoon. There was also the problem of the sniper that shot our Company runner -- where was he? So we followed one at a time, taking cover where we could. We all made it over to the base of Hill 382. I told my men to keep an eye open on the ridge that we just left, that the enemy might come from there.
There were clusters of boulders all around the base of Hill 382, where we all managed to take cover. I realized when we got there that we were pinned down although we were out of the line of fire. I went over to where most of the other men were sheltered around large boulders. When I located our squad leader, Sgt. Rajkowski, that was the first thing I asked. He said, "Yes, but don't you worry, we will make it out of here."
I started to tell him about what we had done in our area. I also let him know that I could hear the sound of a large mortar being fired and because they would have that weapon covered from all angles. He said that he would pass the word to our new company commander -- he told me that our captain had been wounded, so had our platoon lieutenant. I asked him if we were going to take the hill. This was the first time I heard it called Hill 382. He said no, that Second Platoon had tried hard and lost a lot of men.
I looked around and there were three or four dead, covered up, and about six wounded. I went over to talk to one of the wounded (a guy that I had made friends with earlier) and I couldn't believe what I was looking at: he had a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead! He was quiet and didn't say much, but he let me know he could think, move around. He said that the bullet had passed between the two halves of his brain. Someone figured out that they were using armor-piercing bullets and that the bullet didn't expand, just passed right through, and that is why they weren't killed. I was shocked; I didn't know what to say.
When I talked to some of the other men, they said that they had tried to get artillery or mortar support from our guys. It was not to happen because we were too close to the enemy. I guess that's why we weren't getting any enemy mortars either.
Here we were, 8 days on Iwo Jima, and I had yet to see the enemy. I was feeling angry and frustrated. We had a lot of casualties and not much to show for it. I thought "What the hell kind of war is this?" I kept my thoughts to myself.
I watched as one of our men placed his rifle on a large boulder, took careful aim, and fired again and again. I looked to see what he was firing at. There was a machine gun sticking out of a horizontal slit in a concrete bunker. I asked him about it and he said that they had been watching it since they arrived and that there seemed to be no one there. I asked if anyone had tried to pull it out. He said, "See that open trench in front of it, leading up the hill? It could be a booby trap."
I thought that there must be some way that we could destroy that machine gun if we had a flamethrower, a bazooka, or one of our tanks. I was again getting a feeling of frustration when I spotted one of our men from the reserve getting ready to use a bazooka. I asked, "Where did you find it?" He said, "We got a call from your sergeant to get a bazooka up here. The problem is, I only have 2 rockets."
He got himself set up about 25 yards from the target. He fired and the rocket hit the concrete, missing the opening where the gun was. So, he got a little closer and fired again; this time the rocket exploded inside the bunker. I didn't think the machine gun had been destroyed; it was still sticking out of the bunker. So I zeroed in on the target with my BAR and fired a short burst. At the same time, another Marine opened fire with his submachine gun. I knew I hit it, but it still looked like it could be used. I thought, "I guess all we can do at this time is just keep an eye on it."
As I looked at the cliffs of Hill 382, I was sure I knew what had happened to our men when they tried to climb it to secure it. On the left side it looked easy, also on the right. I believed that the Japs expected the attack to come on those sides. This may explain why our wounded were shot at close quarters, maybe within 10 or 15 feet and the bullets went right through them. Our dead I didn't look at. So I thought, "They don't expect anyone to climb the cliffs in the center of Hill 382."
I told our squad leader, Sgt. Rajkowski, that I could climb the cliffs and see what this hill was all about. I would just raise my head for 1 or 2 seconds and repeat it several times. I'd be able to tell if napalm, bombardment, or our 155mm howitzers could do the job. 'Ski and I talked to each other from time to time, and I had the feeling that he respected my judgment. Of course, I had a lot of respect for him. I just needed someone to watch my left side and someone on my right, to cover me. My assistant Jack would be just below me where I climbed, holding my BAR for me in case I needed to use it.
There were a lot of loose rocks. I was surprised to see that this hill was made up of sedimentary rock. I expected it to be volcanic in nature. After getting around a few large boulders and some loose gravel at the base of the cliff, I was then able to climb the 8- or 9-foot cliff. I stopped near the top because it sloped. I had to drag myself up the slope on my side. Now here is where I had a real problem, I needed to figure out how to brace myself. I had to put my weight on my knees then I raised up. I was just going to take a quick look-see and pull my head back quickly. I was now in position. Everyone was watching; I think that they all expected me to be shot.
I raised my head up and very quickly brought it down. I couldn't believe what I saw: it was a sniper, in the prone position, about 20 feet away, getting ready to shoot. His back was to me. I turned around to the guys and with my finger I pointed that there was one Jap that I saw. I very quickly used my hands to signal to Jack to hand me my BAR. I managed to grab it by the barrel; at that moment I noticed that the magazine was missing. I didn't have time to think why it was missing. I was worried that if I slammed the magazine and bolt into place the Japs might hear me.
Anyway, I loaded up quickly and was ready to shoot before they knew where I was. Sure enough, when I raised up again, this time with my BAR ready to shoot, the sniper was still there, getting ready to shoot again. I fired a short burst and he just slid down into the trench and that was the last I saw of him. I almost went down with the recoil. I lowered my head and body just below the skyline. I turned and made the sign across my neck indicating one down.
I rose up again. There was a trench right in front of me. To my surprise, no more than three or four feet away, there were two Japs crawling to the opening of the bunker on their hands and knees. I fired point blank. Again I ducked down, turned around, and made the sign with two fingers across my neck.
I asked Jack to hand me his grenades. All he had was two and he gave them to me. It was then that he told me that "Whitey" Havener had been shot through the head. He pointed to where the machine gun was sticking out. I looked over to my left, where Whitey was flat on his back on a big flat rock. I could see that he was still breathing. He must have tried to pull that machine gun out of the concrete bunker. He must not have known that it was a booby trap.
I couldn't let myself think about Whitey just then. I had two grenades that I was going to throw down the hole where I had just killed the two Japs. I decided to hold the grenade in my hand for one second after I released the handle of the grenade because I was concerned that they might be able to throw it back out before it exploded. So I positioned myself where I was able to raise myself just high enough to see the hole. I released the grenade handle, counted "One thousand," to myself, then threw the grenade in the hole. I heard a noise, then a moment later the grenade exploded. I did the same with the second grenade.
Just as I heard the second grenade explode, I heard someone yelling, "Grenades!" I looked up and sure enough, there were five or seven grenades flying over my head. Everybody scrambled to take cover. I jumped down behind a large boulder, then I heard the grenades exploding. Most of the grenades landed among the rocks and the shrapnel went upwards, except for one that wounded two men. I was devastated, feeling the pain of guilt for being indirectly responsible for the death of Whitey and the wounding of the two Marines. If I had known what Whitey was up to I could have warned him, because I now believe that he went up to the machine gun to try to pull it out. Since all of this was happening behind me somebody else should have told him. I never did find out who was wounded; I hope it was their ticket home.
As I looked around I could see that everyone seemed to be on the alert. Before I climbed the cliff, some had been taking naps. I tried to describe to Sgt. Rajkowski what I had seen. Hill 382 was circular in shape, about two stories high, about 300 yards in diameter, and flat on top with a lot of trenches and entrances to underground bunkers. (He could see the shape and size of the hill and was only interested in what was on top. I included the description of the shape because I want my readers to know what this hill looked like.)
As far as I could tell we were loosely organized. My concern at that time was that they might try a Banzai attack. I was worried that we could be overrun because they knew where we were at and they knew the terrain. They could come at us from both sides of the hill and from the top. I had no doubt that we would fight to the death if it should happen. I checked to see if I still had my grenade. I kept one grenade just in case; I was not going to let them take me alive.
(I don't know who started it, but at this time some of our guys were yelling out obscenities like, "Hirohito, eat shit!" and the Japs responded in English, "Roosevelt, eat shit!" and so on.)
We got the word that near sundown our mortar platoon was going to lay down a smoke screen so that we could withdraw back to the airfield. It would be about 500 yards of crossing no-man's-land to get back to the embankment that had been our first objective when we charged across the airfield that morning. When they laid down the smoke screen it spread across the area like a fog. The no-man's-land was covered with tree stumps and brush that stuck up above the smoke screen. The smoke gave the area a spooky look that reminded me of a graveyard in a spooky movie.
We were now ready to withdraw. Our squad would be the last. The wounded and dead were first to go. My buddy Ward (another BAR man) and I would be last so that we could cover our withdrawal by firing short bursts up on the hill. There was only one effort by the enemy to try and slow us down. As soon as we saw the flash of the machine gun, Ward and I zeroed in on the target and it stopped. I think that we killed the gunner. Anyway, we managed to withdraw with no further incident.
That night was our eighth night under fire. Our position was well defended. We had some water-cooled machine guns in place. We had also laid down some colored ribbon about three feet wide about 300 yards in front of our front lines. This was so that our air support could see where we were.
It soon got dark. I shared a foxhole with my assistant Jack. I could see that we had a good defensive position. Our machine guns and their crews were in place and our mortar platoon fired flares to light up no-man's-land in front of our position. I was hoping the enemy would try a Banzai attack. We would be ready for them. It would give us a chance to get even for our losses.
Instead, we started to receive enemy mortar fire. It was then that I first felt that something was wrong in my head. It didn't seem to matter how far or close by the shells were, they all seemed to be coming down on my head. I thought I was going nuts! I wondered if this was what they called shell shock. I covered my ears the best that I could. Nothing seemed to help. I thought to myself that when morning came and we attacked the enemy positions that I could deal with that a lot better than receiving mortar fire.
Jack and I both stayed awake all night. I thought to myself that when morning came we would attack their position, and if I didn't get killed maybe I could get wounded bad enough for a ticket home.
Morning came and there was no word as to what we were going to do. By this time our division commander had called in the reserve combat troop from the Third Marine Division. They were placed between us and the Fifth Marine Division. We had just finished having coffee and rations. It seemed to me that it was very quiet. I knew that something was wrong with my ears, perhaps it was the blast from the submachine gun that fired near my head when we were firing at the machine gun sticking out of the bunker the day before. Who knows?
We checked on each other to see who was still around from our original squad. We had the squad leader from the Third Squad, Sgt. Rajkowski, who had taken over as acting Squad Leader of First Squad, Ward, my assistant Jack, and me. We also had some replacements, I don't remember how many. I was thinking that the new men would have to learn everything in real combat and come out alive.
We finally got the word that we were going to be replaced. I don't remember who took over our position on the far side of the second airstrip. My guess is that we were replaced because we had lost most of our leadership and the new men we had were not properly trained. I don't know but that was my guess. I was sorry to leave at that time because going back to a reserve position meant we would be under mortar and artillery fire. Two regiments from the 3rd Marine Division would be placed between the Fifth Marine Division and the Fourth Marine Division. We got orders to withdraw to our old position across the airfield, right back to where we started yesterday, the slope on the edge of the second airstrip facing the beach area. My guess was that the Fourth Division regiments were all in bad shape.
I found my old foxhole where I could look across the airfield. Just as we got settled down, I saw some Marines coming towards us carrying their wounded on stretchers and with one "walking wounded" being helped. Their wounded looked like they were in bad shape. They passed by my foxhole and I asked them what outfit they were from. They said they were from K Company, Fifth Marine Division. I said that I hoped they made it home, the wounded that is, and "good luck, watch out for the mines, stay on the road." One of the Marines said that this was his second trip so they knew about the mines.
From here we could look down to the beach where we could see many of our landing craft that had been destroyed. The beach was still being shelled but the enemy couldn't stop our supplies from coming in.
It was still morning when I heard three or four tanks coming from the first airfield. I thought that if a rifle company from the Third Marine Division was going to attack Hill 382, they could sure use a flame-throwing tank. I hoped so, they'd need it. They would be able to succeed where we had failed.
One of the tanks was coming to the airstrip near where we were. There was a Marine on the phone in the rear of the tank giving directions. Then, all of a sudden, enemy shelling started coming in. They were hitting nearby, but missing the tank. They all seemed to be coming into my head. I could hear the buzzing sound of shrapnel all around. I couldn't watch to see what was happening. I turned over on my back and raised my knees.
Then, all of a sudden, dirt covered my chest and face and my left leg felt like it had been hit with a hammer. A piece of shrapnel had penetrated the mound of dirt in front of my foxhole. I was hit in the inner thigh. It started to throb but there was no pain. My guess is that the shrapnel ricocheted off the side of my foxhole and slowed down; otherwise it would have been a lot worse. I knew the wound was not serious enough for a ticket home.
I removed the shrapnel from my wound. It was the size of my little finger. The wound didn't look bad but I was bleeding and it didn’t seem to be stopping. I had to go see our corpsman. He and our lieutenant were at the bottom of the slope where it connected with the basin we called the Meat Grinder. I called to one of my men, whose name I don't remember anymore, and I told him that I was hit and that I was going down to see the company corpsman.
The corpsman checked my wound and quickly put some Medicaid powder on it and bandaged it. He said it could be a bleeder and that I should have it stitched at the first aid station down by the beach. He called a Marine to help me down. I told him no need to place anyone in danger, that I could walk by myself O.K. I didn't think it would be a good idea to risk two men because they were still under fire down there by the beach. I got up and started making my way down to the beach.
I was thinking of what I might find down at the beach and completely overlooked where I was walking. I couldn't believe where I was! Yeah, I was in the middle of a minefield! I could see the big prongs sticking out from the ground. I knew right away that these mines were designed to destroy tanks, trucks, well, anything big and heavy. But they also planted personnel mines around the big ones. I could see a red flag that marked the edge of the minefield about 6 feet away, so I walked in that direction and was soon safe.
I was angry with myself for being so careless.
As I got near the beach, I could see that whole area was covered with wrecked LCI tanks and supplies all over the place. Before I could say anything about my wound, a corpsman asked me to give him some help. There were three other Marines helping, and we got all the stretchers of wounded aboard an LCM. No sooner had we gotten everyone on board then a large mortar shell slammed near by. I dropped flat on the sand and a small wave washed up against me, getting me wet. I am almost sure that the corpsman noticed me go down, maybe that's why he told me to stay on board the LCM, that they would fix me up on the ship and I could come back on the next boat.
I stayed on board with the other wounded Marines. When we came alongside a big cargo troop ship we were told that if we could climb up the net to go ahead. I was soon up on the deck. We were all told to follow this sailor down below. We were all given bunks. The sailor said that a doctor would see us in a little while. I was so exhausted that as soon as I put my head on the pillow I just passed out. I was half asleep when they worked on my leg; they didn't try to wake me up. I went into a deep sleep. The next thing I remember, the ship was moving.
I asked the sailor "Is the ship really moving?" He said, "Yes, we are on our way to Pearl Harbor." I knew that it was too late to say anything about going back on the front line.
Pearl Harbor rest camp was very nice. We had shrimp, crab, and fish, freshly cooked. But I had this guilty feeling for being there while my Company was still on Iwo Jima. Finally, after about a month, they sent me to Maui to rejoin Charlie Company after they returned from Iwo Jima. I knew that I would have to answer to our Captain about why I didn't return.
I stood at ease in front of him, but, to my surprise, after reading the report on my health, he just smiled and said, "Welcome back! We need you. You will be acting corporal until it becomes your rank." I was dumbfounded. I came to attention, saluted, and was dismissed.
We were now in serious training for the next invasion, and this time it would be Japan.
I knew that the invasion of Japan would be long and costly, with loss of lives on both sides. So you can well imagine the happiness I felt, and of course everyone else in the unit, when the atomic bomb brought the war to an end. I couldn't have been happier -- I am sure it saved my life.
I was discharged on November 17, 1945. I was so happy to be sent home and to see my beautiful darling Sally. No, we didn't get married. It wasn't Sally's fault. I had this problem of no job skills -- no trade that could support us. So, I used the GI Bill and went to Woodbury College in Los Angeles to learn Commercial Art. Well, two years' education was not enough to compete for a job in commercial art, so I joined the Air Force in 1948 and got some good training in Drafting and Photography.
While I was serving in the Air Force the Korean War broke out. Except for the Chinese artillery bombardment, it was a good experience. Yes, the same thing happened to me that had happened at Iwo Jima -- the terrifying experience where every shell sounded like it was going through my head. I knew that I had to stay away from the front lines.
I was one of four airmen selected for assignment to Headquarters Far East Air Forces as a combat artist in Korea. I managed to do about 12 paintings. I had no experience as a painter and had to learn while doing it. My public relations officer was quite pleased with my work.
At the end of my enlistment in the Air Force in 1952, I was a sergeant. I was feeling confident, for I now had some skills: artist, photographer, draftsman. When I applied for work as a graphic artist at North American Aviation I was accepted, even though I didn't have any training in technical art.
The doctor that examined me for my employment at North American pointed out that I had a problem with my hearing. He said that due to some damage to my right ear I had poor perspective of sound, which meant that it was very difficult for me to tell where a sound was coming from.
A light bulb went off in my head. I told him about my experience in combat and about the muzzle blast from a sub machine gun that had gone off very near my right ear. All I could hear for a while afterwards was a ringing in that ear. I asked him if this would explain why I had felt that very high velocity mortar shells were aimed at my head. "Yes", he said "Very definitely." He said that he could well understand what I had been through. He told me I was not cracking up.
I now know that because of my hearing problem I would have failed Charlie Company as a group leader if we had invaded Japan, without knowing why.
On the third day of combat on Iwo Jima I received word that the submarine my brother Frank was serving aboard, USS Scamp, had been reported missing. It had been on patrol somewhere between Japan and Iwo Jima. It took years to sink in that I would never see him again.
PFC. Arthur W. Rodriguez
© 2009, Arthur W. Rodriguez