Battle in Context: 'Lucky to Be Alive' : Iwo Jima: Flag-raising lifted morale, retiree says, but 'then the killing really started.'


He was running for his life. But during those slow-motion seconds scrambling across the dark pumice-sand of Iwo Jima, Bill Bryan also was thinking.

He was measuring in his mind as he ran: Could he could make it to that shell hole up ahead before being hit by the Japanese machine-gunner's bullets tearing up the ground between his feet? Visualizing his dive into the hole, he reasoned it couldn't be a straight plunge or the bullets would "stitch me all the way up."

So he tried throwing himself sideways as if vaulting a fence, his right arm flying outward. A 25-caliber bullet found the arm, shattering the bone just before he hit the floor of the crater.

And for Marine Pfc. William Jennings Bryan Jr., age 19, that was the end of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Eleven days before, on Feb. 19, 1945, he had landed on the beach during the first morning's assault. Japanese gun emplacements that studded the eight-square-mile island opened up.

"We piled out, and mortars were falling and the machine guns were coming down the beach," Bryan said. "The whole world was being blown apart."

He was in D Company--Dog Company--2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division. Three days into it, their alphabetical neighbors in Easy Company raised the famous flag on Mt. Suribachi.

"Morale went up tremendously," Bryan said. "But that was when the killing really started."

He saw buddies become gruesome casualties--one already wounded man hit in the groin while waiting to be evacuated, another friend with half his face torn away.

Americans suffered 26,000 casualties in their yard-by-yard assault against Iwo Jima's dug-in Japanese, an official Pentagon history states. "Throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete" was one apt description, it says.

Bryan, who will turn 70 this year, retains much of the bearing of a Marine: trim, boots shined, even the teeth-gritting smile from his wartime photos. His jacket bears the patch of a disabled veterans' group.

Friends died on Iwo Jima--among them a kid in the landing craft with white "flash-burn powder" on his face whom Bryan would have kidded afterward "but he got killed," and another friend with an Irish name and a wild spark, suddenly extinguished.

With the mention of each, he moves on determinedly to another topic.

"We were taught to move forward, move forward, move forward. That's what we were supposed to do. And I think that's probably what. . . . " He stopped and started again. "We could have become pretty well demoralized."

Bryan fired at least one fatal shot himself. "I know," he recalled 50 years later, his voice going flat at the thought of the dead Japanese soldier, " 'cause he was there the next day."

Later, as he himself was evacuated for treatment of his wounds, complex emotions arose, mixing the natural question, "Why was I spared?" with the Marine code of faithfulness, Semper Fidelis. "You can't let your buddies down," Bryan said.

At the same time, he said, "I felt extremely lucky to be alive"; 2 1/2 years after enlisting at age 17, he was en route home to a U.S. military hospital.

After his discharge, Bryan drifted for a while, but "somebody was watching over me," he said. He met his wife, Bobby, and his life gained direction.

The G.I. Bill paid for a college education, something Bryan says he wouldn't otherwise have pursued. He then worked for the U.S. Forest Service in his native Colorado and around the South for 32 years.

"My perspective is family," he said, looking over a shelf lined with photos of several generations, from his Western pioneer great-grandparents to his four sons and his grandchildren.

His father was his strongest influence and his wife saved him, he said. But a battle half a world away--the ducking and then going forward, forward, forward; the grudging respect for an enemy; the closeness and loss of friends--did as much as anything else to shape his perspective on a puzzling world.

"I see a lot of grays," he said, summing up. "There's nothing really black-and-white to me."

Bryan's Purple Heart, the medal for combat wounds, is packed away. But he keeps handy a small library of books and articles about Iwo Jima. Photos show the barren plateaus and cliffs, and the faces of young Marines, including himself.

One group photo he has marked with stick-on stars, their different colors denoting those killed, wounded or decorated. Almost every face has at least one.

Among the special keepsakes is a signed copy of "Iwo Jima: Why and How," by a poet in the ranks, Frank Gardner. The poem begins with a young student's question: "Why take so small an island, isolated, far at sea?"

It explains the crucial value of its military airfields, deemed worth the tremendous casualties, "one for every minute."

Marines fought, Gardner wrote, for four weeks, "some places more like five; and we survivors, boarding ship; thanked God to be alive."

Lives to live, that's what the lucky ones had. That and a permanent bond.

Pulling another page from his trove, Bryan displayed a letter from a buddy he'd lost track of since the war. The man quickly retold his two-year recovery from a wound that left him walking with a cane. He told of a career, start to retirement. He told of a son living in Alaska.

"That's my life," the friend wrote. "Semper Fi."

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