Iwo Jima: 76th anniversary of an epic battle in the Pacific

Veterans Voices

Caution: Some of the images and descriptions in this article may be disturbing

NORFOLK, VA. (WDVM) — Young Marines tried to crawl into their helmets like turtles as their landing craft headed toward landing beaches on an island many had never heard of 76 years ago this month, a volcanic island the Pacific Ocean that would become known as “Bloody Iwo.”

“I was scared as hell. That’s the truth,” said Don Luther, then a 20-year-old Marine machinegunner who protected the perimeter around George Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marines as it fired on Mount Suribachi, an inactive volcano which Japanese troops had turned into a fortress.

On June 9, 1994 I had the honor of interviewing Luther and some of the Marines who stormed ashore on Iwo Jima at the 50th Reunion of the Fourth Marine Division in Norfolk, Virginia.

Most of the 80,000 young men who fought on this barren island about 700 miles from mainland Japan are no longer with us, but their voices have been preserved on audio cassettes I recorded that day.

“I was in the first wave on the right flank,” said Corporal John Teuchert, a bazooka team leader in L Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines. “To our left you could see Mount Suribachi 600 feet high, so they were shooting right down us.”

Teuchert said you would see guys one second and in the next moment they’d be gone; vaporized by a direct hit. Teuchert lasted only ten minutes on the battlefield. He and two other Marines were badly wounded when they stepped ashore, stopped to get their bearings and were struck by shrapnel from a Japanese artillery shell that exploded nearby. The fellow on the right of Teuchert lost his leg. It hit Teuchert in the right leg, jaw, left arm and knocked out all of the teeth in a Marine to his left. The man never talked again. “A piece of shrapnel cut his tongue in half,” said Teuchert.

The men I interviewed 27 years ago spoke about “selfless acts of courage” and “unspeakable acts of brutality” that they witnessed on Iwo Jima.

“The first dead Marine I seen, I was scared to death,” said Private First Class Howard Flutter, a machine gunner in the Fourth Division, who lived to celebrate his 19th birthday on Iwo Jima. “Dead Marines washing up on the shore. Floating. It was something to remember,” said Flutter.

There were other gruesome stories told by Marines like Private First Class Paul Maloff, a forward observer for George Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marines.

“A guy was as close to me as you are to me when a shell hit him. His gut was completely open and the last words out of his mouth were, ‘I love you Momma,” and then Maloff said he died. Maloff said he would remember that moment until the day he died.

The Japanese had almost every square foot of the island covered with heavy artillery hidden in caves on Mount Suribachi. They turned Iwo Jima into a lunar landscape with shell holes and the landing beach into a junkyard.

Marines saw very few Japanese soldiers during the battle because they were living and fighting from underground positions and concealed caves. They were able to move from one strong point to another in more than 17 miles of tunnels on Iwo Jima.

Some of the tunnels were 75 feet deep and dust was the only thing that fell on Japanese troops until Marines were able to snuff out their lives with flamethrowers and dynamite.

Sgt. George Barton, a BAR or Browning Automatic Rifleman in L Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, lasted only five hours on the battlefield. Barton who hailed from Rockville, Connecticut was cut down when a Japanese mortar shell hit some scrub brush on Iwo Jima and sprayed him with shrapnel.

“I got it in the back and in the buttocks, but they majority of it was in the face. I lost 12 teeth,” said Barton who spent 14 months at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, recovering from his wounds. Sgt. Charles Hicks who lost his leg, died shortly after reaching Solace, a hospital ship offshore and was buried at sea along with many of the 2,000 Marines killed on D-Day.

Navy corpsman Don Harbin barely had to mark where some of them fell by sticking their bayonet-tipped rifle in the dirt and putting their helmet on the butt plate. “It as pretty hectic, pretty busy, pretty bloody and pretty awful,” said Harbin who was 18 years old when he hit the beach with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines. Caregivers like corpsmen didn’t get a pass from the Japanese. “We had five corpsmen in my company. Two were killed, two were wounded and I was the only one who wasn’t wounded,” said Harbin.

Even though the Battle of Iwo Jima was fought 50 years ago, what happened there haunted survivors like George Barton until the day they died.

“Sometimes it seems as if it were yesterday and other times it seems like it was eight centuries ago,” said Barton.

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