Former Marine recalls Iwo Jima 65 years later by JILL SCHRAMM, Staff Writer for the Minot Daily News
It's been 65 years since U.S. Marines invaded the tiny island of Iwo Jima to wage one of the most costly battles of World War II. Memories of that battle still can bring tears to former Marine Fred Schmidt of Minot, who carries remnants of a Japanese grenade in his body from his short time there.
About 110,000 Marines arriving on 880 ships stormed Iwo Jima, an island only about 5.5 miles wide, 65 years ago today.
Schmidt, who was in the first wave of about 30,000 Marines of the 3rd, 4th and 5th divisions, recalls landing at 7:30 a.m. onto a beach of volcanic ash that made it difficult for soldiers to get a footing.
Schmidt said he did better than most and was able to take off running toward the air field that was their target. They wanted that air field, one of three on the island, to be able to bring in planes for support.
Schmidt said he reached the air field only to find himself all alone. He saw the other Marines far behind him and turned back to join them.
On the ship, Marines had been instructed as to what to expect once they landed.
"But we never thought that it would be that bad," Schmidt said. "We didn't realize that they (Japanese) were really dug in as they were."
An account of the battle at (www.iwojima.com) states that previous air bombing of the island had little effect on Japanese defenders burrowed into the island's volcanic rock. That's why the United States turned to the Marines.
The account goes on to say that shortly before 2 a.m. on Feb. 19, Navy gunners began a land attack. Later, 110 bombers added to the smoke and fire. When they flew off, the Navy opened fire again.
When the Marines finally landed, it was under heavy fire. The Marines, battling an underground enemy, rarely saw a Japanese soldier. Liquid gas, napalm and hand grenades were their more useful weapons.
That's how Schmidt remembers it as well.
"The artillery was so powerful, we just didn't know when the next shell was going to drop next to us," he said.
Having fought through fields littered with broken bodies, watching friends fall next to him, Schmidt often wondered why he was spared.
"We were just like brothers so it was hard when you would see one of them go down," he said. "It really hurt. We tried to protect one another and watch over one another."
Schmidt was attempting to take out a Japanese bunker when he was hit by a grenade.
"They couldn't get me off the island at all right away because it was getting toward dusk. They pulled me into a shell hole," he said. "I stayed there all night, and I was in such pain."
He remembers lying with dried blood on his face, grateful to the other wounded soldiers with him who shared their canteens.
"That was the only thing that helped to cut the pain was drinking water," he said.
The next day, he was carried on a poncho to a ship converted to handle the wounded since the hospital ship was full. What he saw of the beach reflected the horror of the battle.
"Even the water was bloody from the casualties," he said.
Schmidt celebrated his 22nd birthday on Feb. 21 as the ship sailed away.
Schmidt spent time in hospitals in Saipan, an island in the west Pacific, and Honolulu before returning to Saipan on military police duty until his discharge in January 1946.
Although the surgeon removed shrapnel from throughout his body, he still carries small pieces of the grenade that doctors weren't able to remove from his forehead, hand, ankle and behind an eye.
It took 36 days of fighting for the United States to gain the victory in Iwo Jima on March 26, 1945. The American death toll was 6,825 soldiers. Nearly all the Japanese, numbered at 18,000 to 22,000, died.
Iwo Jima was valued for its strategic location, about 700 miles from Tokyo. The U.S. victory is immortalized in lasting images of the flag raising by a group of Marines.
Schmidt notes that there actually were two flag raisings on Feb. 23, 1945, on Mt. Suribachi that were taken by photographers. Schmidt said he knew most of the soldiers in the first photo, although the second one is the one most famous.
Schmidt, who had enlisted in the Marines at age 19, fought in the Marshall Islands, Saipan and Tinian before Iwo Jima with C-123rd of the Fourth Marine Division.
After the war, he joined the North Dakota Iwo Jima Association and has been active in the American Legion, serving five years as state chaplain.
A native of Fessenden, Schmidt sold cars and farm equipment and retired as a rural mail carrier. He and his wife, now deceased, raised two children. He has six grandsons and a great-grandson.
For the past 20 years, Schmidt has been a lay pastor, currently serving a Lutheran congregation at Harvey. He has lived in Minot since 1993.
He sees his story in a poem written by an unknown author and published this month in the newsletter of the C-123rd of the Fourth Marine Division:
"He that outlives the battle and comes safe home will stand a tip-toe when this day is named ... Then will he strip his sleeves and show his scars and say, these wounds I had on Iwo Jima. Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot but he'll remember, with advantages, what fetes he did that day.
"This story shall the good man teach his son; and Iwo Jima Day shall ne'er go by from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered; We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."
Schmidt received a Purple Heart for his service in Iwo Jima, although he considers the true heroes to be the men who died, including many whose bodies remain buried on the island.
"They were the ones who deserve all the honor," he said. "I was there and did what I could, but I didn't do as much as any of them."
Reprinted with permission of the Minot Daily News