The Case for Thomas Underwood: Part 1
Author’s Note: Several months ago, an editor from Military History Magazine contacted me about a discussion among his readers concerning the identity of a man on a magazine cover.
In recent years, the identity of the man in this iconic World War II photograph has caused a bit of debate. Some now believe that the warrior, captioned as a war-weary Marine on Saipan, is in fact an Army sergeant named Angelo Klonis. In my opinion, this is incorrect for a number of reasons. In the following posts, I will explain my reasons for stating that the man pictured is PFC Thomas E. Underwood of B/1/24th Marines.
Seven months after this photo was taken, Underwood was killed in action on Iwo Jima at the age of twenty-two. His untimely death likely meant he never knew how his chance encounter with W. Eugene Smith would live on; he had no wife or children, and whether his family ever recognized their son and brother in the photograph is also unknown. If Smith’s original notes are correct, as I believe they are, the three photographs are the only remaining legacy of Thomas Ellis Underwood.
I do not intended to tarnish the service of Sergeant Klonis or censure the efforts of his family to honor their hero. I simply wish to recognize the sacrifice of the correct young man. Part 1 will focus on the story of “Ellis” Underwood himself. Part 2 will address the specifics of the analysis.
In a fraction of a second, the man became immortal.
He trudged up the hill, the latest in a long string of hills he’d scaled since landing on the island of Saipan twenty-three days ago. He was tired. Hungry. Haunted by the things he’d seen. He’d been evacuated on the first of the month, then talked his way back to the lines to celebrate Independence Day with his comrades. The weather was dry and hot, the carbine he carried thumped against his back, and the snapping of rifle fire not far away told him this eighth day of July, 1944, was far from over. As he reached for the canteen at his belt, he caught the attention of a cluster of photographers.
The man took a swig of tepid water, stolidly ignoring the snapping shutter as he passed the newsmen. One shot in three-quarters, another in profile, and the moment passed.
Then, finally, the man reached for the other essential of life on Saipan—a cigarette. He lit. Inhaled. Perhaps the photographers called out to him, or perhaps he merely glanced back to check on his squad, but something caused the man to glance back over his right shoulder. The shutter clicked a final time.
Suspecting that he’d taken a good shot, one photographer asked the man’s name and hometown, for the record. Then they parted ways, never to meet again.
The photographers were Stanley Troutman and W. Eugene Smith, both shooting for ACME Newspictures. In his notebook, Smith jotted:
“…the images 6-8 on Roll 10 on July 8, final days of Saipan Invasion, were 4th Division Marine PFC T. E. Underwood (24th Bat.) of St. Petersburg, Florida. A portrait of a weary warrior who has been through one of the toughest days of his life. And still at the moment the picture was taken under fire.”
Troutman, writing his captions more poetically, noted:
“Hot and weary after fighting on the western beaches below Saipan’s Mt. Marpi, marine PFC T.E. Underwood of St. Petersburg, Fla., takes a long, cool drink of water from his canteen. Beads of perspiration glisten on the weary leatherneck’s unshaven face.”
Saipan was declared secure the following day. The negatives traveled to publishers in the United States, where Smith’s photos of the tired man on Saipan were met with widespread acclaim—and would, in the end, outlive a young Marine named Thomas Ellis Underwood.
Thomas Underwood—“Ellis” to his family – was born in Parker, Florida on May 16, 1922.
He was a late addition to the family of George Alpheus and Cora (Crosson) Underwood, following Iva (1909), John (1911), Hazel (1913), and George Washington Underwood (1915); only Alpheus Edison Underwood (1924) arrived later. In 1925, the Underwoods relocated from Bay County to Pinellas, and settled in St. Petersburg.
The solidly blue-collar Underwoods were a fairly typical family of the era. George supported his family by working as a mechanic, while Cora kept house. Iva married a man named John Wagner and moved to Texas, but following his death in 1931 returned to the family home with her daughter Isabelle. Hazel married and moved out in 1933. The large size of the family put greater emphasis on employment than education for the Underwood boys; John, George W. and Ellis averaged a year or two of high school apiece before going to work as carpenters, bakers, or laborers.
Even in the Depression years, Florida was a haven for recreational fishermen and professional anglers; St. Petersburg, located conveniently between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico was something of a sportsman’s Mecca and a series of bait and tackle shops sprung up to cater to the demand. One of the most popular was the Florida Fishing Tackle Manufacturing Company, founded in 1923 and acquired in the 1930s by brothers Jack, Carl, and B. T. Reynolds. In the late 1930s, the shop gained fame for their handmade Barracuda brand lures, which came in distinctively printed boxes. The Reynolds brothers expanded into a complete line of equipment that made Florida Fishing Tackle a household name among Sunshine State fishermen.
George W. got into the lure-making business at around this time, and in 1940, eighteen-year-old Ellis became the newest Florida Fishing Tackle employee. For the sum of eighteen dollars a week, Ellis toiled over machinery making fishing rods and winding block line. His home was five miles from the factory, but only one mile from some of the best fishing in Tampa Bay, and it can be supposed that the Underwood brothers spent a good deal of their free time contemplatively casting their lures.
By the summer of 1941, Thomas Ellis Underwood was a grown man. Although not exceptionally tall or brawny (he stood 5’9” and tipped the scales at 140 pounds), he was extremely athletic; during his short tenure in high school, he managed to participate in baseball, softball, football, basketball, and boxing. His short black hair offset a pair of piercing blue eyes set in a ruddily complexioned face, which was constantly tanned by the Florida sun as Ellis pursued his favorite leisure time hobbies of swimming, hunting, and horseback riding. Yet there were clouds on the horizon, and the first hint of the coming storm arrived in August 1941: George Washington Underwood resigned from his job at the tackle factory to enlist in the U.S. Army.
Four months later, the United States was at war.
In the fall of 1942, Ellis and Alpheus made their way to Orlando, parting ways at the recruitment office. Alpheus stood on line to speak to a Navy recruiter, while Ellis joined the group waiting for the United States Marine Corps. He was poked and examined, fingerprinted and questioned, sworn in and told to remember his service number (486672). Within days, he was on his way to Parris Island.
Photograph provided courtesy of Golden Arrow Military Research.
One year later, PFC Underwood was a proud member of Company B, 24th Marines, part of the brand new Fourth Marine Division. He could march for miles, live outdoors without complaint, maneuver a rubber boat in heavy surf, camouflage a position, lead a fire team, and had appeared as an extra in the Hollywood feature film Guadalcanal Diary. He was capable with a rifle, dangerous with a carbine, and deadly with a bayonet. His disciplinary record was clean (he carried three copies of the New Testament in his pack) as was his health (although he also carried a pair of glasses). He was, by all accounts, an outstanding young Marine and ready to be tried in combat.
PFC Thomas Underwood, photographed in the fall of 1943. Photo appears in the 24th Marines “Red Book” published in that year.
PFC Underwood first saw combat on the island of Namur when his company faced down a Japanese banzai attack at dawn on February 2, 1944. No accounts of his actions in this fight are known to survive, but the destruction of an entire platoon—nearly a third of his company—meant many vacancies on the promotion list. PFC Underwood was examined for promotion, and re-graded with the MOS of 737 (rifle platoon NCO) at Camp Maui on April 1, 1944. Although he was not given the second stripe of a corporal, T. E. Underwood could now be counted on to lead a squad—and by the time he encountered the photographers on Saipan, that’s exactly what he was doing. And he was doing it well; on July 18, he was awarded his corporal’s stripes and a commendation from his division commander, General Clifton Cates.
For excellent service in the line of his duties while serving as a squad leader of a rifle squad during the invasion and capture of Saipan, Marianas Islands, from 15 June to 9 July, 1944. His courageous leadership, initiative, and devotion to duty were an inspiration to those in whose charge he had been placed and his willingness to give battle aided materially to the success of his organization.
From July 24 to August 5, Corporal Underwood fought through the battle of Tinian; he posed for a photograph with his comrades following this third campaign. In high spirits, Underwood donned a civilian hat and held up a Japanese flag for the camera.
At Camp Maui that winter, Ellis Underwood hoped fervently for the chance to go home or transfer Stateside. It was not to be: the veteran corporal was needed to train the influx of new replacements. Underwood savored the two Christmas cards he received that year; rumors about another big invasion were already swirling, but the experienced hands scarcely needed to be told something was up. Training facilities at Camp Maui had been expanded, allowing for extra emphasis on practice with demolitions. Whatever lay ahead wasn’t going to be pretty.
Back in Florida, George and Cora Underwood anxiously followed the news from the Pacific.
They had last seen Ellis in February of 1943; two years later the newspapers were carrying reports of a major battle at a place called Iwo Jima. The Underwoods knew that Ellis’ regiment was involved in the fighting—and having sweated out three campaigns already, they realized their son would have little chance to write until the fighting was over. As February became March, the newspapers continued to report the battle’s unprecedented fury and still there was no word from Ellis.
Finally, on March 27, a letter arrived for the Underwoods. The return address was a Marine Corps unit, but it wasn’t from their son.
This and all following records provided by Golden Arrow Military Research.
George and Cora’s reaction to this news can only be guessed at. Certainly they were relieved that Ellis hadn’t been seriously hurt, and may have assumed that his lack of communication was due to his injury. The news that he had been returned to the fighting instead of taken to the safety of a hospital was far less welcome. They awaited the promised communication “at his earliest opportunity.”
It never came. Two days later, a Western Union telegram crushed the family’s hopes.
Corporal Underwood had indeed been wounded in action in February 1945,
when a blow to the head caused a serious contusion. He was evacuated to the USS Lenawee for treatment; whether he was fully healed or snuck back to shore is not known, but soon he was back with his unit—just in time to begin the attack on Iwo’s infamous “Meat Grinder” complex.
On March 4, Underwood’s platoon ran into fierce opposition from Japanese troops holed up in a fortified trench. The Marine attack faltered, and as Underwood quickly deployed his squad to assault the position, a bullet shattered his trusty carbine. Throwing it aside, he picked up a discarded BAR—there were plenty, casualties had been heavy that day—and, in the words of an officer, “valiantly led a spirited attack against the fiercely defended hostile emplacement” as shells rained down on 2nd Lieutenant Charles Anderson’s platoon. Replacements and veterans alike were hit; some fell wounded, others died.
A shrapnel fragment tore Corporal Underwood’s back apart. One hopes that his suffering was brief, but in the end Underwood did not live long enough to see his squad destroy the enemy position, or his platoon advance through the area and on to the next objective. He was twenty-two years old.
Ellis Underwood was buried with as much dignity as possible.
Shortly after his death, he was laid to rest in Row 29, Grave 1406 of the Fourth Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. His personal effects were carefully catalogued and sent to his parents.
Over the next year, the Underwoods received a series of letters from the Marine Corps, informing them of the decorations their son had earned: the Victory Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Purple Heart (with gold star; one for his head wound and one for his death) and the Bronze Star with V device for his bravery on Iwo Jima.
Cora Underwood never fully recovered from the news of her son’s death; she died in December 1946, at the age of sixty. The surviving Underwoods would have to wait two more years before they could finally bury their fallen Marine beside his mother in Sunnyside Cemetery.
This article appeared in The Independent, St. Petersburg, Florida on Thursday, October 14, 1948.
Ellis Underwood’s journey had come to an end. His haunting face, however, would live on.
 Stanley Troutman would later become known for his photographs of Hiroshima.
 A third Underwood daughter, Cora Evelyn Underwood, was born in 1917 but died in infancy.
 Underwood’s Marine records are not entirely clear as to his level of education. He appears to have left high school in 1940, having completed two years.
 George served from August 16, 1941 – January 3, 1946 with the 1047th Engineer Gas Generating Detachment.
 Alpheus served on the harbor tug USS Tuscarora for the duration of the war.
 It is possible that Underwood was serving as an assistant BAR gunner on Namur. Underwood had the MOS 746 (automatic rifleman) on the battalion’s muster roll for February 1944. Although his records don’t show any specific training with the notoriously complicated Browning Automatic Rifle, subsequent events on Iwo Jima indicate that he was familiar with the weapon.
 The dates of Underwood’s wounding conflict in the records I examined. Battalion muster rolls state he was hit February 22 and evacuated to the USS Hocking, while the letter received by the Underwood family noted February 25. Company B was in heavy action on both of these dates, so either is plausible. Similarly, muster rolls report Underwood returned March 1, while the USS Lewanee claimed he was released from their care February 26. Given the nature of head wounds, it’s possible that Underwood had light duty on the beach from February 26-28 before being allowed back to the front lines.
 Charles Renwick Anderson, Jr., a collegiate football star from Brule, Nebraska, had only joined Baker Company a few days before the attack; normally he served with the battalion’s Company C. His posthumous Silver Star citation suggests that he led the platoon involved in this maneuver.
 In all, Baker Company lost 6 killed and 27 wounded on March 4. Two of the wounded would die aboard hospital ships in the days that followed.
 Today, visitors to Sunnyside Cemetery in St. Petersburg can visit most of the Underwood family. George Washington Underwood was killed in a car wreck in 1957. George Alpheus, the pater familias, passed on in 1959, followed by Hazel (Goss) in 1966 and Iva (Wagner) in 2000.