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   Feature Article on Iwo Jima. Topic: WAR
Written by Rich Wallace in March, 1995


In March 1945, many Shelby County, Ohio men were involved in a desperate struggle for survival. In describing these men and their comrades in arms, Admiral Chester Nimitz observed that for them "uncommon valor was a common virtue." This is their story.

It was a strange name, not the sort of one that would draw much attention. The Marines had landed on a small island named Iwo Jima somewhere near Japan. Nimitz reported on the first day of the assault that "resistance was light", causalities "were moderate," and the "operation was proceeding satisfactorily." It would take a while for the grim reality to set in for Shelby County residents, but for the Marines hitting the black sand beaches of the enemy under heavy fire, the understatement of Nimitz's comments was all too clear.

Today, few of the veterans recall even thinking about the purpose behind taking "Iwo," as the West Pacific island was called.

"I was just 19 at the time and all I knew was that we had a job to do," remembers Jim Slater of Sidney. For the Leathernecks who trained at Parris Island, that was the only attitude the drill sergeants permitted.

Although the Japanese were surprised by the American assaults on other islands, they were prepared when the Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions landed to begin the battle. The eight square mile island was defended by 22,000 soldiers who had been convinced by General Kuribayashi that "they all, each and every one, must fight to the death."   That fury was felt first hand by Dinsmore Township resident Pfc. Larry Greve. he landed on D-Day with the Third Marines amid shelling and chaos.

"Trying to dig a hole in that black sand was like digging a hole in a bin of wheat," he recalled. The task of somehow landing all the men and materiel on the jagged beach through heavy surf amid constant enemy fire fell to the amphibious landing teams. For the Fifth marines, the man in charge was Lt. Col. Pete Stephan of Sidney.   Stephan, already the recipient of the bronze star for heroism on Bougainville and the Legion of Merit for his actions on Guam, described Iwo in a letter to his parents as follows: "It's a good thing is was the Marines that came here."  Although he lost over half his vehicles because of the heavy seas, enemy fire and the beach conditions, the men of his division go that they needed to get the job done.

Two days later, the Sidney Daily News reported that the Marines were making a "general advance." Causalities: 3,650.

That is the day that Pfc. Thomas Winemiller will never forget. Winemiller, of Sidney, wrote home that he had landed on D-Day plus two "with the Nips throwing mortars and heavy artillery at us."

As his unit prepared to mount its attack, he recalled thinking: "If a guy doesn't say his prayers more slowly and reverently then, he just isn't human."

After the first four days, the Marines had established a beachhead. However, the Japanese had laid out a well-orchestrated plan of attacking and retreating to a maze of more than 800 pillboxes and bunkers. It was soon apparent to the Marine command that the Third Marine Division which was being held in reserve, would be needed to capture Iwo after all.

The dangerous work of overtaking what appeared to be impregnable enemy positions had just begun. Pfc. Winemiller recalled that one of the platoon officers went into a pillbox to investigate, thinking it was empty. a grenade exploded, seriously injuring the officer. Several hours after four flame-throwers had seared the inside, a Japanese soldier tried to sneak out wearing a gas mask. Although he was killed, many others survived to launch sneak 'banzai attacks on the Americans when they least expected it.

Causalities were high. Pfc. Carl J. Kah of Sidney was wounded in the stomach. In one of those coincidences that seem to happen during war, Kah was on his way to a medical aid station when Pfc. Winemiller saw him. The relief in seeing him was too much, and Kah passed out. Winemiller helped him to the aid station.  Shortly afterward, Pfc. Paul Casper of Sidney was also wounded. Jim Slater still carries shrapnel from the wounds he received.

We now consider the capture of Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima the end of the battle. That accomplishment, reported in the Daily News on Feb. 23, was mostly a symbolic step in a long journey. The fighting would rage for 22 more days. The next day, in fact, news releases reported Japanese soldiers were using V-2 rockets for the first time. Slater recalls that the enemy even used 200 mm naval guns- shells so large that they could be seen coming across the sky toward the Marine positions.

Leadership at the top was important, and the Marines on Iwo had the best. Lt. Gen. Holland M. ("Howlin' Mad") Smith led the way with the "devil dogs," as he affectionately referred to his Marines. Smith declared midway through the battle, "We can take any damn thing they've got! We are just sitting in the Japs' front yard right now."

The hand to hand combat was furious and the progress slow. Living conditions during the 26 day battle were marginal at best. Sgt. Carl Borchers of Ft. Loramie reported to his parents that "I'm living in a fox hole near one of the airstrips. There is no fresh water, so all of our drinking water is distilled from the sea. One blessing is that there are no mosquitoes."  Borchers, a veteran of the Fourth Marine Division, had previously participated in numerous battles on the Marshall Islands, and was also on Tinian in the Mariannas.  Cpl. Levon Stockstill, Jr., was also a veteran of the Marshall Islands and Tinian invasions. He was wounded at Tinian, and afterwards wrote home to his parents in Maplewood that he "{got the Nip that hit me, so I'm happy." That was the last letter his parents ever received from him. Stockstill was killed in action on March 1, 10 days after the battle on Iwo Jima began. His family and friends in Shelby County did not receive word of his death until March 24.

In some areas, each yard of ground was bitterly contested, with possession of it changing hands over and over again. Greve was seriously wounded on March 6 in the attempt to capture Hill 382. The battle lines surged back and forth over the same ground for six days before the Marines prevailed.

Organized resistance ended after 26 days on Iwo Jima, at the cost of 19,938 Marine casualties. The Japanese defenders took Gen. Kuribayashi at his word. There were less than 1,000 prisoners taken out of 22,000 soldiers.

A fitting epitaph for the Marines who perished there could be taken from the grave of a comrade who died earlier on Guadalcanal:  And when he goes to Heaven, To St. Peter he will tell: Another Marine reporting, sir. I've served my time in Hell.


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