Iwo Jima: The Marines’ fiercest battle, 75 years ago
Nevada News Group
KANEOHE BAY, Hawaii — Veterans who served during World War II and the Korean War knew their visit to Marine Corps Base Hawaii on the windward side of Oahu would become solemn once they finished lunch and walked to several memorials recounting two monumental events.
Accompanied by active-duty Marines assigned to the base at Kaneohe Bay, the Honor Flight Nevada veterans walked first to a memorial honoring the sailors who died on Dec. 7, 1941, when the installation was a naval air station.
After looking at the list of names, the veterans, along with their guardians, also visited a memorial similar to one in Washington, D.C. The replica — albeit a slight difference than the one in the nation’s capital — shows Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi. Thirty days later, though, American forces successfully captured the western Pacific island that provided three airfields for the United States to launch air strikes against Japan.
For the seven Marines and one Navy corpsman who served with the Marines in Vietnam, the inscriptions retold the heroics of three Marine divisions battling the Imperial Army 75 years ago from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945.
HEROES ON IWO JIMA
Gardnerville resident Bayne Stevens, who traveled on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. in 2018, was part of the 4th Marine Division that hopped from island to island, defeating the Japanese in brutal battles. As he sat in his wheelchair with his guardian kneeling by his side at the Iwo Jima Memorial at Kaneohe Bay, Stevens called his fellow Marines heroes for twice raising the flag twice and also defeating the Japanese.
Stevens, who was near the iconic location 75 years ago, said Associated Press photographer Joseph John Rosenthal snapped a picture of the second flag raising on the high and windy mountain. Soon, Rosenthal’s photo appeared in hundreds of publications, and people in the states considered it a symbol of victory.
Within a two-year span, Stevens, the recipient of a Bronze Star for heroic service, also fought on Saipan and Tinian before landing on Iwo Jima. Historians have referred to the fighting on Iwo Jima as one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific and the bloodiest battle the Marines have fought in any war. More than 26,000 Marines and sailors were injured, and 6,800 died out of a ground invasion force of 70,000 men.
The Silver State’s namesake also played a role in the six-week battle. Retired Lahontan Valley News publisher David C. Henley, who wrote a book on the USS Nevada, said the storied battleship returned to the Pacific after spending 1944 on convoy duty in the Atlantic Ocean and participating in the Normandy landings and allied invasion.
“Returning to the Pacific in 1945, the Nevada supported the landings at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and was hit several times by Japanese ‘kamikaze’ or suicide planes that crashed on her decks, killing 14 and injuring 48 crew members,” Henley wrote.
Jon Yuspa, executive director of Honor Flight Nevada, assembled all veterans near the base of the Iwo Jima Memorial and presented them with little containers of sand courtesy of fellow Marine and Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams, a young man who grew up in West Virginia. Williams showed his heroism on Iwo Jima as a flamethrower trying to stop Japanese machine gun fire directed at the Marines.
“Mr. Bayne was there, and we have heard the stories, but we have something to take home,” said Yuspa, as he handed out the sand.
Many in the group know of Williams. He attended the dedication of the Gold State Families Memorial in Sparks in late June 2019. Williams, a corporal serving in the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines, also used his flamethrower to kill charging Japanese riflemen.
On the same day the six Marines raised the flag, Williams said he wasn’t more than 1,000 yards away when he witnessed their bold action, placing him and Stevens near the event.
Williams said he wears the Medal of Honor with pride.
“I made it possible,” he said after he landed in Reno. “I was doing a job the Marines trained me to do. The Marines made this possible because it is recommended by an officer, and witnesses are asked for their accounts.”
RECALLING THE BATTLE
Over the years, other veterans interviewed in the Nevada Appeal and Lahontan Valley News told of their remembrance of the pivotal battle on Iwo Jima.
Others who were not on the Honor Flight but fought on Iwo Jima recalled the intensity of war when the U.S. Navy decided to modify its fleet with LSMs (landing ship medium) — building 558 ships between 1944-45 to transport Marines to different islands in the Pacific. The LSMs were small, 203-feet in length, and could travel 13.2 knots (15 miles) per hour.
“At Iwo Jima, the first ship to hit the beach was an LSM,” sailor Charles Kramer said a decade ago at convention in Fallon.
The first troops stormed onto the Japanese stronghold in mid-February 1945, and for the next month, both sides suffered staggering losses.
Jake Jacobsen, a sailor on LSMR (landing ship medium-rocket) 409, said at the same convention he felt the war was going to become costlier with the loss of sailors, soldiers and Marines.
Robert Kizer saw action in the South Pacific during the final two years of the war in a TBM avenger. His squadron was attached to the aircraft carrier USS Admiralty Islands. A crew of three flew the Avenger: a pilot, turret gunner and a radioman/bombardier/ventral gunner. In the bomb bay the Avenger carried one large torpedo or a single 2,000-pound bomb. Sometimes, crews would swap out one large bomb for four 500-pounders.
Kizer, the rear-gunner, said four years ago USS Admiralty Islands became involved in support carrier operations to seize Iwo Jima in early February and left the Task Force Group later that month.
Marine veteran Nate Cerniglia of Carson City, a Purple Heart recipient, said in a 2012 article he remembers the events of Iwo Jima when his unit, the 5th Marine Division, landed on the island during the first day of fighting.
Time and distance have blurred some of his memories of the war, he said, but there are some things he can never forget like landing on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.
“Everybody was being slaughtered,” said Cerniglia, now 93. “I went down, too.”
Cerniglia’s division incurred more casualties than the other two Marine divisions of the V Amphibious Corps (invasion force).
Glen Rigdon, who grew up in Douglas County and graduated from high school in Minden, first served in the Navy and then with the Nevada Army National Guard as an officer in Afghanistan in 2011.
“While in the Navy, I was sent to Iwo Jima many times on detachment,” Rigdon said. “There is nothing like visiting a battlefield preserved as it was during the battle. All your senses are engaged and you gain a new perspective on what transpired.”
An active-duty Marine put the veterans’ visit to his base in perspective. The lance corporal shook hands with the Marines when they arrived on a bus at Kaneohe Bay ago and reflected on their service not only during World War II but all wars that followed.
“I had the honor of meeting my heroes who pursued me to join,” he said.