Scanning the beach for footprints, 2nd Lt. James J. Ahern couldn't hear the shouts of alarm from his men atop a cliff as a barefoot, shirtless Japanese soldier clutching a saber charged at him across the sand.
A brisk April wind blew in from the Pacific, muffling the frantic calls. The sun shone, but it was cool enough in this rocky, northernmost section of Iwo Jima that Ahern wore his field jacket. He had told the men of his Army platoon that he would check the beach alone. But the wet sand was smooth, revealing no telltale signs of the enemy.
At the water's edge, he turned toward a cave in the rock face 150 feet away and saw the Japanese man racing toward him, both hands gripping the hilt of his saber.
Though surprised, Ahern reacted coolly. He had time to get off a shot with his carbine. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
His heart pounding, he pulled back the bolt. A live round ejected from the chamber. He had ammunition. Why wouldn't the gun fire?
The safety was on!
He'd always kept it off. It was a rule the 23-year-old officer followed and that he impressed on the men. In combat, you have to expect the unexpected. You have to be ready to shoot at a moment's notice, or it could mean your life.
The Japanese was almost upon him, poised to swing his saber. Precious seconds had passed.
A fireball on a ledge
Ahern had faced death before on this tiny island, where he was leading a rifle platoon of the 147th Infantry Regiment.
The Marines had landed on Feb. 19, 1945. Ahern's unit arrived on March 21 to help secure the island from what initially were thought to be a few hundred Japanese.
But there were far more than that, hiding in tunnels and caves, and their resistance proved intense. In two months, Ahern's regiment alone would kill 1,600 and capture 800.
Danger was everywhere. One day in mid-April, a few weeks before the sword-carrying man came at him on the beach near Kitano Point, Ahern was firing a flamethrower into a cave from a ledge on a steep ravine.
A Japanese soldier inside tossed a concussion grenade that landed at Ahern's feet. When it exploded, the blast knocked him off- balance, jerking him around so that the stream of flame shifted from the mouth of the cave to the rock wall beside it.
The terrific force of the flame striking the wall created a fireball that whooshed back at Ahern and set his legs and chest ablaze. He tumbled headfirst down the slope, his back and arms slamming into rock, and landed on a ledge 20 feet below on his head and back. His helmet and the flamethrower still strapped on him blunted the impact.
He was hurt, in shock and still burning. Some of his men clambered down the precipice to reach him. They beat out the fire with their hands and splashed water onto him from their canteens. Using a poncho as a stretcher, they carried him to the battalion surgeon's tent. The burns blistered, keeping him out of action for a week.
Now on the beach, backed up to the ocean's edge so that water covered his shoes, with the safety preventing his carbine from firing, Ahern had to save himself.
The Japanese reached him and swung his saber like a baseball bat.
A saber and a fireball
On dangerous Iwo Jima, Army officer battled Japanese on a beach and outside a cave.
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