“Marines cleaning their .30 caliber water-cooled machine gun while in reserve [for the] first time since D-Day. Iwo Jima 26 February 1945.” USMC photo by Sgt. Nicholas Ragus, H&S Company, 24th Marines.
First Battalion is now a week into the battle for Iwo Jima; it’s D-plus-6 and they have had a rough time in the Boat Basin and the Quarry. The flag is up on Suribachi, prompting a range of reactions from the ebullient (“Words cannot express the beauty of our flag on ‘Hot Rocks”‘) to the candid (“they should have had a bigger flag,”) to the dismissive (“What in the devil do they have that thing flying for? We haven’t even taken this piece of shit”). Their casualties have been “awesome” in the words of veteran corporal Al Perry, and they are about to receive an influx of about 150 replacements who are brand-new to combat and not prepared in the least for what is coming.
Fortunately, they’ve just been pulled off the line for a spell in reserve – what Captain Fred Stott termed “three unbelievable days and nights.” They have a chance to relax (if they can) go to services (if they want) and eat and sleep as much as they like – unless picked for a combat patrol.
Weapons maintenance on Iwo was a persistent problem – there was little time for it, and the fine volcanic ash worked its way into moving parts and stuck to grease, making jams a major problem. The two Marines above were cleaning their Browning when Sgt. Ragus happened by, and are obviously doing a “warlike” pose for posterity. I’ve skimmed this photo in the past, but part of the recent updates to the Iwo Jima story is adding illustration, so I gave it a second glance. And boy am I glad I did, because these two Marines are from C/1/24.
The ears on Corporal Ottis Oliver Boxx gave it away.
Ottis was a high school football star from Jacksonville, Florida; one of those all-around players who usually filled a halfback slot but was also a punter, passer, and placekicker. “Boxx can do most things in football well,” said a contemporary newspaper. “This lad deserves more praise than he has ever received.” In 1941, he scored two touchdowns to win a season finale game and was headline news the next day. He hoped to join the Air Corps, but his mother thought it was “too dangerous,” so Ottis went to work as a grocery clerk. In August 1942, though, he joined the Marine Corps and was posted to Company D, First Separate Battalion as a heavy machine gunner.
Sitting behind the gun is Corporal Jack Franklin Coutts.
Pennsylvania-born Coutts grew up in New York’s Captial Region, where he attended Albany High School and clerked for the New York Central Railroad. Although separated by the entire eastern seaboard, Coutts and Boxx chanced to enlist on the same day, joined Dog Company on the same day, and were probably closer than brothers after going through three campaigns together.
Three days after this picture was taken, Charlie Company went back to combat and entered “the Meat Grinder” – an aptly-named group of fortifications comprised of “the Amphitheater,” “the Turkey Knob,” and “Hill 382.” It’s hard to find good photographs of this area; it’s so jumbled and confusing that black & white photos look like an optical illusion, and that impression was shared by troops on the ground who struggled to describe what they were seeing. If the beaches and ash fields were a lunar landscape, this was “a mini Grand Canyon” or the aftermath of an earthquake. Making any kind of headway was excruciatingly difficult, and extremely bloody.
On 1 March 1945, C/1/24 had to cross 100 yards of open ground to reach a treeline.
The Japanese allowed the first wave to get across then opened up on the supporting troops, turning the open area into a killing zone and preventing easy reinforcement or withdrawal. Charlie Company went through three commanders during the day; two veteran officers were badly wounded and command passed to a headquarters adjutant, Captain Roy Klopfenstine.
Corporal Glenn Buzzard gathered his machine-gun squad in a shell hole, posting Corporal Boxx behind the gun. A heavy barrage started, and Marines in the open looked for any cover they could find. Buzzard guessed that between ten and twelve men were taking shelter in the shell hole. Bunching up was “a bad thing to do,” he said, “but that’s what we did.” Many of the men were replacements under fire for the first time; the veterans were too shocked to insist on spreading out.
Not everybody made it to cover and the platoon corpsman, Virgil Deets, was among the dead. Jack Coutts spotted a wounded Marine trapped in the open some fifty yards away from the shell hole. He ran out to the rescue, only to be hit by an exploding shell which severed his left leg at the knee. Boxx and Buzzard gathered as many cloth ammo belts as they could to make a rope. They pitched one end towards Coutts, hoping to drag him to safety, but their aim went wide. As they tried again, a mortar shell landed in their midst.
Glenn Buzzard survived, and described what happened to his buddies:
I come up out of the hole, and I was just – blood, everywhere. They thought I was hit worse than I was… I wasn’t really hurt, but my mind was gone. I couldn’t hear.
Ottis Boxx from Florida was my gunner. All that was left of his head was his lower jaw. It was just settin’ there. Never moved. Just settin’ there.
Near as I can remember, I was the only one came out of there alive.
I was pretty goofy, shell shocked, and I had a lot of their bodies on my dungarees…. I can remember scraping the stuff off me.
Ottis Boxx was one of six Charlie Company machine gunners to die on 1 March 1945. Jack Coutts survived because of the failed first throw; had he been pulled into the hole, he likely would have taken the full force of the blast. He was evacuated; surgeons removed what was left of his lower leg, and before the end of the year Coutts was back home in Albany. He was originally decorated with the Bronze Star for his action on 1 March; later, this was upgraded to the Silver Star. He married, raised a family, and died in 1992 at the age of seventy.
You can read the whole story of D-plus-10 and subsequent actions now – it’s just the start of another awful week for First Battalion. (As of posting, updates through D-plus-12 are up; D-plus-13 should follow today if we’re lucky.)
Looking at the photo of Boxx and Coutts, taken seventy-five years ago today, I’m rather struck by the oddity of seeing this moment frozen in time. I’m sure they paid it no mind and went about their daily business, glad of the break and the chance to rest, little knowing that Ottis had only a few days left to live. We, looking back, know what came before and what is still to come for these two Marines, and we must keep the story going.
(The photo of Ottis Boxx and Jack Coutts came from NARA, but I found it scanned in War Paint Vol. IV by Theo Servetas. Mr. Servetas’ relative, Sgt. Theo Hios, was a photographer and combat artist attached to the 4th Marine Division. You can check out the full series on Smashwords – a great collection of official and private photos and artwork – and they’re quite inexpensive, so please support the author!)