From Semper Fi to Santa Claus | NevadaAppeal.com

From Semper Fi to Santa Claus

Jarid Shipley
Appeal Staff Writer

DAYTON – After five weeks of fighting and the deaths of more than 7,000 American soldiers, the island of Iwo Jima was finally under Allied control. To commemorate the event, a group of U.S. Marines raised a small flag.

Cpl. John Bailey was a member of the regiment that marked the island with the U.S.’s colors.

Soon after, officers requested that the small flag be replaced with a larger one.

“To put the larger flag in they needed a heavy metal pole that required three or four guys to put it in,” Bailey, 84, said. “We didn’t know until months later that it had become famous.”

Bailey joined the U.S. Marine Corps with his twin brother, Joe, on Aug. 10, 1942. They were 20 years old.

“I wanted the Marine Corps. It seemed like the best branch to be in and see the most action,” Bailey said.

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The young Marine was stationed in the Pacific Theater, based in Hawaii.

“On Dec. 24, 1944, they told us we were going into combat and we were leaving Dec. 26. That’s a great Christmas present, now isn’t it,” Bailey said.

After months hopping across the Pacific, Bailey was part of the force sent to invade a small island called Iwo Jima.

“It was eight square miles and had about 20,000 Japanese soldiers. It took us five weeks to take the island,” Bailey said. “There was no ‘behind the front lines.’ Everywhere was the front line.”

Bailey was in D3, meaning he landed on the island on the third day, Feb. 19, 1945.

“It was a little scary but not too bad. All along that beach for about a mile there were wrecked vehicles that had been shelled by the Japanese guns,” Bailey said. “I saw this guy laying there in a dirt field. He looked like he was asleep. I tried to take his rifle, but he had such a hold on it that I couldn’t get it.”

His job on the island was to collect and repair damaged weapons from the different areas of the island. During the course of the battle, Bailey collected and repaired more than 300 firearms.

“We were driving and a Japanese soldier threw a grenade under our jeep. It blew the right front tire completely off,” Bailey said. “I walked away without a scratch on me, I don’t know how I managed that.”

While he said he has no lingering phobias or fears from his service, he can still vividly recall several incidents from the island.

“There was this Japanese soldier who just ran up to one of our tanks and began attacking it with a sword. The tank operator swung it around and ran him over,” Bailey said.

Bailey was discharged on Dec. 7, 1945, and returned to the states.

He was serving as a member of the 11th Tank Battalion Reserves in San Diego when he was given the opportunity to attend the premiere of “Sands of Iwo Jima,” the John Wayne epic about the battle.

But, as Bailey puts it, that was a long time ago.

Bailey, who lives in Dayton, is currently a tour guide at the Ponderosa Mine in Virginia City and was the founding commander of the Dayton Valley Post 8660 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Yet most people know him for his boisterous laugh and long white beard, instantly making him recognizable as Santa Claus.

Surveying Bailey’s home, there are few reminders of his three years, three months, three weeks and one day in the Marine Corps, just a Marine Corps blanket, a few medals and an engraved silver fork.

“I make sure that fork gets put away, so that only he gets to use it. It’s the only one of the set that we have left,” said Nina Bailey, John’s wife of 40 years.

• Contact reporter Jarid Shipley at jshipley@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1217.