Guns and Gear

Iwo Jima: The Whine of Snipers’ Bullets Comprised the Only Opposition

From the Leatherneck Archives: September 1947. Courtesy of the Marine Corps Association

Story by Bill Miller

Photos by SSgt Lou Lowery 

This is the story of the 3d Platoon of “Easy” Company, 2d Battalion, Twenty-eighth Marines, and how it raised the colors on Suribachiyama, the grim, strange volcano fortress that frowned in deadly menace over Iwo Jima’s ashy battleground. The 3d Plt didn’t do it all alone, and those very few of its members who survive would be the last to say it did.

When the assault regiments of the Fourth and Fifth [Marine] divisions hit the beaches of Iwo, all but the 28th swung right to take the major part of the island. The 28th turned left to attack the mountain and still its guns. This story starts as dusk fell on the night of D-day plus one [20 Feb. 1945]. The whole Marine line facing Suribachi was still out in the open and the Japanese on the high slopes were looking down their throats.

It made the Marines jittery to know that their every move was being watched from above. They couldn’t see quite well enough for accurate rifle fire, but machine-gunners exchanged harassing bursts as the enemy prepared positions in the belt of shrubbery ahead and higher up the sides of the old volcano. A destroyer pulled close in to shore and did a beautiful job of bombarding the crater’s snarling lip.

First Lieutenant John K. [“Tex”] Wells of Lake View, Texas, the platoon leader, ordered his men to clean their weapons, three at a time. Then he and little Jim “Chicken” Robeson, a 16-year-old Chewelah, Wash., lad, and Ed Christian, a deeply tanned Californian, went out to string wire 50 yards ahead of the Marine lines. The enemy positions were 50 yards beyond that. William “Jawbone” McNulty from Stillwater, Minn., and Clarence Hipps, Brownwood, Texas, set up trip flares. Donald Ruhl, a rawboned, reckless Montana rancher, and Corporal Everett Lavell, Bellingham, Wash., were over on the right flank, in a deserted Japanese coastal gun pit of concrete and concrete-filled oil drums. 

That gun pit had been a great menace for two days, and the company on the right had had seven men killed trying to take it. The enemy had it covered with mortars from the volcano.

Ruhl and Old Man Lavelle had scouted it out that day. They had found a cave leading out from the back of the pit toward the mountain. Tex sent back for demolitions to blow the cave, but before they arrived, Ruhl managed to crawl the full length of the dark tunnel by himself and came back to report there were no Japanese in it.

Shortly after the flag is raised atop Mount Suribachi, around 1020 on 23 Feb., PFC James R. Michels, foreground, checks out Japanese activity.

He and Lavelle had orders that night to shoot anyone who tried to jump in with them. Somebody tried it—somebody who turned out the next morning to be a very dead Japanese.

All the men were tense. They weren’t hungry, but they started asking for food and water. Tex and the platoon sergeant, Ernest Thomas, passed out what they had, and it helped to get through the hours. Actually, everyone ate little and drank little for the first three days of the battle.

Then the Japanese, with their bent for breaking monotony, threw down a mortar barrage. It seemed to come spewing right out of the volcano’s mouth. Tex thought it was getting his men. Actually, it did nothing more than bury them deeper in volcanic ash.

That silly “knock-knock, who’s there” game made the rounds about that time. The lieutenant and his men played it to assure each other they weren’t afraid.

“Come in or stay to hell out,” they yelled at mortar shells splattering around their foxholes. After the shelling, a little machine-gunner in Item Company climbed out of his hole and shook off the dust.

“How do you suppose your dancin’ girl is doing about now?”

“I don’t rightly know,” Wells said, “but, by God, she better be thinking of me.”

Darkness fell and the men stretched out on their ponchos. Nobody slept. They just lay there at the ready, watching the greenish glare of flares creasing the wrinkled face of Suribachi.

The Japanese were out bright and early on D-day plus two, swarming like bees around their caves and trenches at the foot of the mountain. The Marines could see them moving along the trenches, a whole squad or gun crew at a time, each man stooped over, running like hell and holding on to the belt of the man in front of him.

Before jumping off, Tex asked for support. The tanks which were back refueling couldn’t make it, but air promised a strike on call. Not many Japanese earned the Purple Heart in that strike. It hit high up the side of the mountain. The enemy, by then, had moved farther down.

From where it was lined up for the assault, the platoon had to cross a wide open spot and get through its own wire. Tex ordered the right flank up on the abandoned gun emplacement to cover the attack. Eddie Romero, an ex-paratrooper from Chicago, was downed by rifle fire, and Robert Blevins of Galesburg, Ill., took a mortar hit. Clifford Langley, a slow, imperturbable Missourian who seemed especially cut out for the job of corpsman, hurried out to give a hand. A second mortar shell exploded in the midst of them. Romero was killed, but Blevins and Langley survived.

The platoon rushed the Japanese line before the enemy had a chance to get set. Ruhl and his buddy, Sergeant Henry Hansen of Somerville, Mass., whom everybody called the “Count” (he was a suave lad with a good education) took rifles and grenades and ran up to the top of a pillbox. A grenade fell between them. Ruhl, who sincerely believed that the whole world was stark raving mad, covered it with his body. Hansen picked him up, looking at Tex who was crouching close to the pillbox. Tex shook his head and Hansen laid him down again.