EUGENE, Ore. — It’s been 69 years ago this week since the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima in World War II.
But for two veterans from the Willamette Valley, their experience on the island seems like yesterday.
It all started at 8:59 a.m.–one minute ahead of schedule. Thirty thousand Marines wading ashore on the tiny island of Iwo Jima.
The island was considered a strategic target in the Pacific Theater, just 700 miles south of mainland Japan.
One of the Marines who hit the beaches that morning was an 18-year-old kid from the streets of LA. Before dawn, back on the troop transport ship, he’d eaten what they called a warrior’s breakfast–beef and powdered eggs. As they motored toward the beach, his boat came under fire from Japanese machine guns.
“Forty Marines went (whistles) just like that…So we knew we were in combat before we hit the beach,” said Tom Williams, Iwo Jima veteran.
Williams was on the front lines for five days during one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Sixty-eight hundred Marines were killed and almost 19,000 Japanese. American wounded numbered almost 20,000.
“Your life wasn’t worth much,” Williams said.
Also on that beach was Lt. Craig Leman, a young officer from Chicago. For four days they slogged it out against the Japanese, who were fortified in caves and bunkers on the side of Mount Suribachi, a gigantic rock on the south tip of the island. On Feb. 23, the mountain would become permanently etched in American history.
“It had been rainy and cloudy for two days before that, but that day the sun came out and there was this marvelous sight of the stars and stripes over this big rock.” /// “and i knew then that we were not going to get kicked off the island,” said Dr. Craig Leman, Iwo Jima veteran.
Leman lasted two weeks before getting shot in the head.
“Next thing, I was on my hands and knees, and I could see blood dripping on the rocks,” Leman said.
Williams was hit by mortar fire on his fifth day.
“I can still see that mortar shell going off, and that’s the last I remember,” Williams said.
Now, nearly 70 years later, Williams and Lehman come together once a year on the anniversary of the invasion. They eat their own version of a warrior’s breakfast–steak and eggs from the Ye Olde Pancake House. They surround themselves with fellow marines and their families, and they talk about their experience.
Leman, now 91 years old, said his experience led to him becoming a surgeon. He wanted a life with positive values.
“One of them is taking care of people who are hurt and relieving suffering of any kind. That’s something that is real,” Leman said.
He says he still thinks about the men under his command who didn’t come back.
“Last night I thought about them for a couple of hours. That’s frequent,” Leman said.
Williams also thinks much about his week in combat.
“The experience I had on the island in just a few short days was terrifying,” Williams said. “You try and forget, but there are moments when you don’t.”
It was a battle that lasted days, but changed their lives forever.
The United States returned Iwo Jima to the Japanese in 1968. Dr. Leman has visited the island twice since the war.