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

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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.

The Japanese were now throwing everything they had at the Marines—big spigot mortars, knee mortars, grenades, Nambu and rifle fire. It all seemed to come at once. Cpl Harold Keller of Brooklyn, Iowa, moved in beside the pillboxes with Platoon Sergeant Thomas and the demolitions men, Jawbone and Hipps. The same little gunner from Company I appeared on the scene, bringing his gun with him.

Mortars were closing in on the reserve squad. Tex sent Sgt Howard Snyder and his men on in to take a pillbox about 20 yards inside the enemy lines, in open sand. Snyder was a former Raider, from Huntington Park, Calif., a cool little man who learned to kill the Japanese in the jungles. He moved up, threw grenades into the pillbox and sent Louie Adrian, the Indian from Wellpinit, Wash., to fire his Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) at the enemy from a Nambu nest on top.

Adrian, a quiet, handsome lad, stood straight up and fired pointblank into the enemy. They were running in all directions, trying to dodge his fire. Snyder, on his fifth operation now, was kneeling beside Adrian on the pillbox, smoking a cigarette and throwing grenades. He and Keller tossed so many grenades that morning they got blisters on their fingers.

The Indian was shot through the heart as he fired. He was dead before he hit the ground, his BAR still chugging. Leo Rozek, the big private first class from Muskegon, Mich., jumped up in his place and kept shooting directly into the Japanese with his BAR. Then the little machine-gunner from Co I moved in on top of the same pillbox.

The lieutenant, lying beside the pillbox now, giving a casualty report to Captain Dave Severance, Easy Company’s CO, sent three men back to get more grenades. Two of them, Edward Krisik of Milwaukee and Wayne Hathaway of Eldorado, Kan., were killed. Things were going badly. An amtrac trying to get in to the platoon had taken a direct hit. The CP [command post] absorbed the full blast of a mortar shell which wounded Tex, Dick White, Robert Lane and Bill Wayne.

After hanging around until the morphine was making him groggy, Tex finally was persuaded by a corpsman to get out of the area. He went reluctantly, his buttocks filled with mortar fragments.

That afternoon Sgt Thomas led the platoon in a drive with the rest of Easy Company to the base of Suribachi. They were the first there and set fire to a huge coastal defense gun, the kind which the enemy defenders held back as a surprise all during the early landing preparations until D-day minus-two.

At the base of the mountain, the 3d Platoon sliced off to the left around Suribachi’s shoulder, neutralizing enemy positions as it went. Nightfall caught it 500 yards on around the base of the mountain. There, bypassed enemy strongpoints cut them off and prevented the evacuation of casualties. Later, they regained contact with other units of the 2d Battalion and wiped out the last remaining pockets of enemy resistance.

In the meantime, a patrol had reached the southern tip of the island, on the other side of Suribachi, and there, working through the soaking rain of D-day plus three, had made contact with the Marines who had come around the other side. The latter had pushed through a Japanese bivouac area on the west coast. Hundreds of enemy were bottled up in caves which honeycombed the slopes.

Early on the morning of D-day plus four, [Sgt] Sherman Watson led a four-man patrol from Fox Co up the precipitous side of the mountain. With him were George Mercer, Ted White and Louie Charlo, an Indian. They went almost to the top and got back to report that the enemy was still holed up. American guns had scoured the slopes with creeping barrages.

The stage was set for the ascent and subsequent flag raising on the top of the mountain, an event which so heartened the Marines on Iwo, the Navy offshore and the people at home. Lieutenant Harold Schrier, executive officer of Easy Co, was ordered to bring the 3d Plt back around to the north side of Suribachi. There, Lieutenant Colonel Chandler Johnson, CO of the 2d Bn, gave them the flag. It was the ship’s flag of USS Missoula (APA-211), an attack transport that had carried the 2d to its staging area at Saipan. The battalion adjutant had carried it onto Iwo in his map case.

Forty men gathered around the CP to hear LtCol Johnson give them instructions. If they reached the top and secured it, he said, they were to call down to him and raise the flag. If they didn’t make it? This wasn’t discussed. No one knew how many enemy had dug into the mountain and were waiting, still alive.

The patrol shoved off in column of files through the debris of the fighting and past gun pits that were grim with the mangled remains of the enemy dead. In places, the ascent became so difficult that the entire patrol had to go down on hands and knees to continue the climb. They picked their own way, avoiding a winding trail leading up the mountain-side. It was mined. At a steep defile, flankers were sent out to protect the main body against ambush.

But save for the occasional whine of a sniper’s bullet, there was no resistance on the way up. The platoon climbed slowly and cautiously, taking frequent breathers, and reached a spot near the rim of the crater. Then it spread out in a semicircle around the ugly edge of the extinct lava pit, every man on his stomach. On a signal from Lt Schrier they charged over the rim and circled the ridge. In that fraction of a minute Suribachi fell to the Marines.

One of the men found a piece of pipe on which he fastened the flag. Sgt Lou Lowery of Leatherneck, who took the pictures on these pages, begged for a little time to put new film in his camera. He had been shooting pictures steadily all the way up. The flag raisers griped at the delay, but they waited. Lowery got his flag-raising picture.

This action photograph of Lowery’s, taken in the heat of battle with the haste that whistling shots from the enemy makes necessary, caught the flag just as it reached the upright position. Among those it shows are Schrier, Thomas, Hansen, Lindberg and Michels. Little Robeson, over covering a cave, refused to be included.

“Hollywood Marines,” he snorted, and waited intently for a chance to catch any Japanese who might try to register his objections to the flag raising.

Chicken didn’t have long to wait. The ceremony enraged some of the diehard enemy garrison into pitching grenades at the flag party. Their commanding officer went farther. He charged, brandishing a Samurai sword. “Snowjob” Garrett shot him down.

Shortly after he had gotten his pictures, Lowery nearly met disaster. A Japanese pitched a grenade at him and he was forced to jump down the side of the mountain. He had plunged and rolled down 50 feet before he could catch himself on a bush.

That night, the platoon watched a great show from its vantage point. The next morning, Lt Wells went ashore against the advice of a Navy doctor and rejoined what remained of his platoon. Lindberg and Robert Good met him at the base of the mountain and carried him to the top. Far to the north, they could see the flash and dust of battle and few realized what it held for them.

When the 3d Platoon had laid down its weapons at the end of the bitter Iwo campaign, not one of all the men who had gone ashore on D-day was with it. Keller and Michels were the only ones who had not been hit, but they had been transferred to another platoon. The rest were replacements. 

Editor’s note: To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Marine Corps Association’s founding by then-LtCol John A. Lejeune and a group of officers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on 25 April 1913, we will be reprinting significant articles from the Leatherneck archives in each 2013 issue.

Many of our readers will know that Leatherneck staff photographer, then-SSgt Lou Lowery, accompanied the “Easy” Co, 2d Bn, 28th Marines patrol that raised the first flag over Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. They certainly did not know if they would reach the top, but Lou Lowery would be along to capture what happened with his two Rolleiflex cameras. We selected this article for re-publishing because of its enduring historical content.


If you want to read more from our archives, they are digitized and searchable online via our website:


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