Half a Century of Perspective on Iwo Jima


Fifty years later, Jim Weiry still feels remorseful over something he did during the battle for Iwo Jima.

The determined Japanese defenders, manning the last island bastion between advancing U. S. forces and the Japanese mainland, were putting up fierce resistance, exacting a terrible toll on the American invaders, whose daily progress across the eight-square-mile Pacific island was measured in yards.

Weiry, then a 19-year-old rifleman with the 3rd Marine Division, was directing a flamethrower inside a cave occupied by Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender. Suddenly, three enemy soldiers ran out.


“They were on fire and screaming. I kept the flame on them and laughed. I quickly realized what I was doing, and turned around to see if anybody saw me laughing,” said Weiry, now 69 and a Placentia resident. “I was ashamed of my conduct, and it embarrasses me to this day. I’m not apologizing for killing my enemy. But laughing while I did it. . . .”

Weiry and dozens of other veterans of the bloodiest battle ever fought by the U. S. Marine Corps gathered in this San Diego County coastal community over the weekend to reminisce about their fallen comrades and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landing on Iwo Jima.


The barren island, honeycombed with natural caves beneath a layer of volcanic rock, was the most heavily fortified island assaulted bS. forces in World War II. Located 660 miles from Japan, Iwo Jima--which means sulfur island--was symbolically significant for the Japanese, because it was within the city of Tokyo’s jurisdiction.

For America, capturing it was of immense strategic importance. The island had three airfields, which could be used by B-29 bombers and accompanying fighters for raids against the Japanese mainland.

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, an armada of U. S. Navy vessels launched the attack on Iwo Jima. For Marines and their Navy comrades, the ensuing battle became a 36-day-long walk through hell.

Iwo Jima produced the most celebrated combat photograph in U.S. history--the raising of the Stars and Stripes on Mt. Suribachi--and it moved Adm. Chester W. Nimitz to offer an eloquent tribute to the Marines and sailors who fought for the island:


“Among the Americans who served on Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Consider that:

* The valor of the U. S. combatants produced 27 Medals of Honor, the highest number for any World War II action. Among those honored were one 17-year-old, one 18-year-old and three 19-year-olds. Four of those so honored were Navy corpsmen who exhibited extraordinary bravery in tending to the wounded.

* U.S. casualties totaled 28,686, including 6,821 dead. The Marines suffered 2,420 casualties on the first day alone.

* Of an estimated 21,000 Japanese defenders, only 1,083 survived the battle, and many of those were wounded. The Japanese military’s code of conduct forbade surrender.

* Before the U. S. landing, the island was barraged with naval gunfire and aerial attacks for 74 straight days, the longest pre-invasion bombardment of World War II.

* A total of 650 ships took part in the battle. Today’s Navy numbers only 373 ships.

* 75,144 Marines fought on Iwo Jima--equivalent to 41% of today’s Marine Corps strength.

Marine and Navy brass had predicted that the island could be taken in a week, or less. Two entire Marine divisions, the 4th and 5th, were sent ashore at once, while the men of the 3rd Division, with Weiry among them, were held in reserve aboard ship.

Japanese artillery was zeroed in on the invasion beach and began pounding men and incoming landing craft with deadly efficiency. Shattered equipment and debris littered the beach. American dead were being piled near the water’s edge, while corpsmen tended thousands of wounded.


On the fifth day, the 3rd Division was thrown into the battle. But the day before his unit waded ashore, Weiry, now a retired construction company official, remembers seeing the raising of the U. S. flag over Suribachi.

“We knew the first day of the battle that casualties were terrible. I was on the ship when the Stars and Stripes were raised on the island. It was an emotional moment,” Weiry said.

Lawrence Miller, now 72 and a retired elementary school teacher from Rossmoor, was a 22-year-old quartermaster aboard LSM 46, which stands for Landing Ship, Medium. His vessel, carrying six tanks, lurched onto the beach in the first wave. Most of the tanks, he remembered, were quickly disabled by Japanese antitank crews firing from the slopes of Suribachi.

Miller described a scene of carnage and confusion on the beach.

“You could hear an awful lot of gunfire and the smell of cordite was heavy and pungent. The smoke from the gunpowder lay a hazy, fog-like cover over the island,” he said. “There was shattered equipment and bodies littering the beach. If you were there, you can’t forget the sight of our bulldozers digging long trenches to bury our dead. That was very disturbing.”

Miller’s ship was partly disabled by Japanese mortar shells, which killed and wounded several crew members. But LSM 46 continued to ferry supplies to the beach, and wounded men back from it, for the duration of the battle.

John Armendariz and Luis Escalante are also Iwo survivors. The two retired Los Angeles Department of Water and Power engineers are lifelong friends who grew up in the same Boyle Heights neighborhood. Armendariz, 69, and Escalante, 70, both went ashore with the 5th Division but never saw each other during the battle.


Armendariz, who lives in Whittier, remembered that the Marines were ordered to paint their faces white, to deflect the heat from gasoline drums that the invasion planners expected the Japanese to ignite on the beach. That never happened.

“None of us really thought we were going to die,” said Armendariz. “But all that changed very quickly. . . . As soon as we hit the beach, my lieutenant was cut in two by a Japanese machine gun.”

“I saw more dead and wounded Marines than I did Japanese,” said Escalante. “The Japanese suffered four times as many dead, but most of them died in caves and gun emplacements.”

During most of the five-week battle, advances came at a very slow pace.


“We had a daily routine: Every morning, the order was to fix bayonets and move out,” Armendariz said. “You knew that as soon as the order was carried out, somebody was going to get hit; somebody was going to die. We’d carry out the order, but move only 25 or 50 yards all day.”

Armendariz and Escalante had belonged to a Reserve Officers Training Corps group at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. Many of the group’s members joined the Marines about the same time and fought at Iwo Jima. Escalante, who lives in Montebello, remembered Fernando a la Torre, who came ashore with the 3rd Division.

“He knew I was there, and looked for me. He finally found me, and we spent about 20 minutes together, before he had to return to his company. Fernando was killed a few days later. I still visit his grave at Calvary Cemetery” in East Los Angeles, Escalante said.


Oscar Morales, who lived in the same Boyle Heights neighborhood, was in Armendariz’s company. Morales, whose nickname is “Loafy,” was wounded twice during the battle for Iwo Jima, said Escalante.

“Both times that Loafy was wounded, he had somebody from his company come get me so I could comfort him at the hospital,” he said.

Over the weekend, some conversations turned to Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, the first enlisted Marine to earn the Medal of Honor in World War II. Basilone was honored for his actions at Guadalcanal in October, 1942. As a Medal of Honor winner, he had the right to stay in the rear for the remainder of the war.

But Basilone chose to return to combat, and landed at Iwo Jima. He was killed on the first morning of the battle.

Time has tempered the bitter feelings that the Marines had for their old enemy. Many at this weekend’s reunion remembered the Japanese soldiers with respect and admiration.

“They were damned good fighters, very disciplined and very determined,” said Escalante.

“I have no animosity against them,” said Jack Claven, 70, of Glendora. “They were fighting for their country like we were fighting for ours. We were just better.”