On February 19, 1945, the big guns of U.S. Navy battleships signaled the beginning of one of World War II’s bloodiest battles.
Recently memorialized in the movie “Flags of Our Fathers,” the Battle of Iwo Jima, known as Operation Detachment, was one of the final major conflicts of the second world war, and later found to be one of the most controversial.
Batavia resident Robert Hall, 85, was one of the 70,000 marines to land in the battle that has been remembered from the famous photo of six marines raising a victory flag during the conflict on the island’s Mt. Suribachi.
“We landed on Iwo Jima Feb. 19, and I went in in the eighth wave and landed on green beach,” said Hall. “I landed right below Suribachi. I was a .50 caliber machine gunner. Three of us had to carry the gun in. It takes one for the tripod, one for the barrel and one for the receiver, which is the heaviest part, which I had. We hit the beach, and there were three terraces of black sand. You sank down a foot every step you made. The machine gun fire and mortars just poured down, they never let up on us. I had to make it to the third embankment of sand, where I was supposed to set up. You didn’t want to stand up to run, if you did you were gone. You crawled, and I was dragging the receiver, and we finally got to a shell hole. We set the gun up, but it was full of sand, and we were a half hour cleaning it and an hour before we could fire it.”
Toward the end of the war, the U.S. armed forces turned their attention to Japan, which involved taking territories and bases controlled by the japanese military throughout the pacific. Generally referred to as an “island hopping campaign,” the goal was to work through islands controlled by Japan until the island of Japan was itself open for invasion. Iwo Jima would prove one of the final, and most contested islands in this chain battles to defeat Japan.
“There were 70,000 marines who hit that island,” said Hall. “You can imagine 70,000 marines on a tiny island less than five miles long. It was practically shoulder to shoulder. We lost 7,000 marines dead and 22,000 wounded. We killed 22,000 japanese. There were 485 ships surrounding the island, you couldn’t believe it. This is the most fortified piece of property in the world, it still is. I flew back three years ago, and it’s still like we left it, except for some growth.”
Earlier in the war, Japan realized the importance of the island, which offered little more than a stop off point for supplies and a small airfield. Secretly, Japan began fortifying the island with bunkers, guns, mines and over 30 miles of tunnels that were dug by hand in the volcanic rock. When the invasion drew near, relentless shelling from U.S. warships and wave after wave of bombers pounded the island, but the japanese defenders were able to survive without difficulty while they waited for the Americans to land.
“There are 30 miles of tunnels that was all done by hand,” said Hall. “They had been fortifying this for years, getting ready for this. When we got some of them out of their caves, they swore they were korean slaves, but they could have been. They had been there for years fortifying the island.”
The battle began and ended in a surprising fashion. Generally, enemies trying to land and take a beachhead against an entrenched force are attacked from a distance in an effort to stop all landing attempts. This was not the case. Wave after wave of marines were allowed to land under the watchful, if hidden, eye of the japanese defenders without a shot being fired. Then, when the beaches were full of targets, the hammer fell.
“We was worried about they guys going in,” said Hall. “But they got in, the first wave, second wave, fourth wave, fifth wave, and nothing was happening. Finally, in the sixth wave, when the beach was just loaded with men, that’s when the mortars started. When I got in with the eighth wave, they were set up real good and waiting for us. The mortars and machine gun fire, you were lucky to survive. The flag went up on Feb. 23 and oh what a celebration that was, with all the ships blowing their horns.”
The flag raised over Mt. Suribachi was meant to be a symbol to raise morale for the marines fighting below. However, the picture taken of the raising went beyond that by capturing the imagination of the United States. In all, three of the six flag raisers died shortly after the flag was planted on Mt. Suribachi, but the other three were shipped home to promote the war and raise money for the war effort. One of those, Ira Hayes, was stationed on Hall’s ship and was an acquaintance.
“All day long, it was machine gun fire and mortars,” said Hall. “The flag went up on Feb. 23. I knew Ira Hayes, not real well, but he was a real quiet guy, he never said much. After he got out, he was in all kinds of trouble. He finally died of exposure by a railroad track. They say he froze to death.”
For all of their work fortifying the island, the japanese defenders fell quickly to the American invasion, if at a heavy cost to both sides. The U.S. was unaware of the work done to fortify the island, and so had planned for a three-day invasion. In all, it took 30 days to complete. However, most of the major fighting ended quickly. Hall said that, as part of the Fifth Pioneer Battalion, company C, fifth division, they formed one line while another group of marines surrounded the remaining japanese and pushed them toward Hall and the other marines. That, they thought, had ended the battle.
“We were the last ones to fight,” said Hall. “On March 26, we had the last battle. We thought the island was secured, but there was a cave right beside the airfield with 300 japanese holed-up in it. We didn’t think anything would happen, we thought it was all over. These japanese came out through the airfield where the air force was setting up, getting ready for the invasion of Japan. Most of the air force guys were in pup tents and the japanese came through with their swords and grenades, I don’t know how many they killed. After they left there, they came down through our area. The day before, we had been packing up and loading the ships – they didn’t even know we were in the area.”
Had they waited only a little longer, the small force of japanese would have been left without serious opposition. Hall said that they were preparing to move back to their ships, but after killing around 100 unsuspecting air force personnel and engineers at the airfield, they ran into the marines who were biding their time until departure.
“We were all in our fox holes,” said Hall. “We discovered they were there about an hour before daylight. In fact, I had to relieve myself – we were in a fox hole, and I got out and could see some heads moving around. We were playing cards at the time in our hole. We had little lights from our life jackets hanging above us, and I jumped in and said ‘I think there’s japs out there.’ They just said I wanted to quit because I had all the money, and I said ‘you can have the money.’ About that time, they (the japanese) saw me dive into the hole – we had a cover over the hole, and a grenade exploded against it. That woke everybody up and that’s when it started. They were doing pretty good until it got light, but then it didn’t take us long. We wound up with about 196 of them in about an hour. That ended the fight right there, that was the last of the battle.”
The fight took the marines by surprise. According to Hall, they had already turned in their ammunition. However, they were able to hold the japanese off until more arrived, which effectively ended the battle for Iwo Jima. It was during that last battle that Hall was wounded, for which he later earned a purple heart, and also where he recovered some japanese weapons, including two swords, a pistol and a rifle.
“I got these in the last fight when they killed our officers,” said Hall. “This sword here, when I got it, it had blood on it from where they came through the airfield. I got this off an officer, who got two shots off at
me before I spotted him laying in the sand. When I shot, I must have hit a grenade, because it blew him in half and up in the air. I was hit by shrapnel in the ear and had four pieces in my leg. I felt real lucky to get off of there.”
Three years ago, Hall returned to the island as part of an anniversary tour. Hall was one of 17 U.S. survivors to attend the ceremony, which also had one of the few japanese survivors of the battle present. While there, Hall was able to return to the spot where he first landed, and was presented with something he left behind.
“They (current marines present during the tour) had those Hummers and could drive you all over the island,” said Hall. “They couldn’t get on the beach though because of the sand. I told them where I had my machine gun, and I was the first and only with a .50 caliber. They went down in there, got us some sand from the beach…and found one of my shells. You can dig in the sand and find all kinds of stuff. They got me an empty cartridge, and it had to be mine because I was the only one there.”
In the 61 years since the battle, Hall has experienced his share of encounters that began from his involvement in the battle. Jean, his wife of 67 years, said that a woman who was married to an air force officer who died in the surprise attack contacted them recently to learn more about what happened to her husband.
“She’d waited all of her life to talk to someone who had actually been in that battle,” said Jean. “Her husband was an air force officer who was set there to set up the air field, and he was killed when they came through. She was a navy nurse stationed on Guam and she and her husband had been married for about three months. He volunteered for it.”
As did her husband, said Jean, who enlisted for service even when he was exempt. For his part, Hall said that he feels lucky to have survived, and is still sad when he remembers what happened there.
“We left the island about the 28th of March,” said Hall. “That was kind of sad too, looking back. The further out we got, looking back at that island, the farther away you got the smaller it got. Everyone was laughing and joking, but that all stopped. Everybody looked back, thinking about the 7,000 men laying there, and we were all thinking the same thing. That was the hardest part for me, of all the horrible parts I saw, thinking about all of your buddies laying there on a little black island out in no man’s land. I was glad to go back, I always said I wanted to go back and, instead of crawling over it, to walk over it.”