Remembering Iwo Jima

Although his memories of Iwo Jima are more than six decades old, Bruce Bender remembered the volcanic ash, the pungent smell of sulfur and oppressive heat with vivid clarity as he sat in his Costa Mesa home this week.

Bender was one of the first Marines to set foot on that desolate island in the Pacific in 1945. For those men, things started out calmly enough. But not for long.

The barrage began when the third wave of Marines arrived on shore. After that, it didn't end for two days.

"They were shooting at us — we were digging holes," Bender said with a faint accent reflective of his native Pittsburgh.

Of the 29 men who Bender came with, he was one of three to survive the battle's bloodshed and the only one to leave unscathed.

Sunday marks the 67th anniversary of the storming of Iwo Jima. Bender, now 88, is one of an exponentially shrinking number of World War II veterans still alive to share their memories.

Bender can remember with great clarity the tasks set before the Marines in the days before the attack. Three groups were to ascend Mt. Suribachi, eventually making the island safe for U.S. pilots to land and use as a stop before heading to the Japanese mainland.

As it were, the planned five-day mission turned into a bloody commitment lasting over one month, where more than 6,000 Americans lost their lives and about 18,000, or 90%, of the Japanese defenders were killed, according to the military's estimates.

Despite the tremendous loss of life, Bender said that without the capture of Iwo Jima, more aviators would have been killed.

"Iwo Jima was a necessary battle because it was needed as a safety valve for B-29 bombers," Bender said as he sat at the kitchen table.

As he spoke of his time in the Pacific Theater, Bender reflected that prior to the storming of Iwo Jima was a three-day bombardment by theU.S. Navy. It left the land bleak, with no vegetation and no reprieve from the intense sun.

Suribachi was pockmarked with caves and other well-concealed hiding places where the Japanese would shoot at the Marines, the origin of the shots nearly impossible to determine, Bender said.

With the constant sulfurous gas and heat, Bender said he was amazed that there were Japanese defenders capable of living on the island. He said the Japanese wore gas masks as protection from the fumes.

On the beach, amid the chaos, he was promoted to first lieutenant because of the high number of officers killed — it was a possible flub in bypassing the second lieutenant rank or a necessary measure in such extreme circumstances, Bender said.

Another vivid memory: the smell. Men on the island were barred from using water for anything other than drinking. They faced possible court-martialing if they used valuable freshwater to bathe, he said.

After a month without washing, the men reeked.

But the Battle of Iwo Jima took place just as the war was ending, and before long Bender was recuperating in Maui.

He eventually graduated from USC using the G.I. Bill. While there, he met his wife of 62 years, Jeanette, 83, in what she describes as a "whirlwind romance." The two eventually went on to have three children, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Over the years, like many veterans of his era, Bender has remained silent about his experiences.

"He said, 'Why should I be the one to be here to tell the story?'" Jeanette Bender said.

It wasn't until about five years ago that he saw the value in telling his children his experiences of war. He later opened up enough to write it, and more, all down in a book, typos and all.

Of his inclusion of typos and the book's conversational tone, Bender said: "Well, that's me. ... You know, I'm myself. I'm not perfect. … I just thought it was more homey, if you will. I'm more informal. I hate ties and business suits. I'm that kind of guy."

This past December, his children each found a hardcover copy of his book under the Christmas tree.

"Cause I'm cheap," Bender said joking. "I promised my children over the years that I would have it done and completed, and I finally did. It was just, well hey, instead of buying junky things for our kids, we tried to give something they could pass on to their own children when they have children. We wanted to put money into something that would last."

lauren.williams@latimes.com

Twitter: @lawilliams30

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