Iwo: D+10. March 1, 1945

Meatgrinder

Iwo Jima’s strongest defenses were not on on beaches, atop Mount Suribachi, or in the plains leading up to the airfields. They were in a jumble of foothills and little mountains, crevices and caves, scrub woods and rocky cliffs. In the years before the war, miners eked out a meager living in the steaming sulphur pits around tiny Minami Village; they were long since evacuated, and their town demolished by Japanese engineers and American bombs. In the hills and valleys around Minami, General Kuribayashi’s troops constructed a maze of interlocking, camouflaged, and heavily reinforced positions, ranging from lowly rifle pits and sandbagged caves to an enormous communications center with reinforced concrete walls four feet thick. The only real strategic value of the place was the crippling difficulty of navigating through it – and this is what the Japanese wanted.

The Fourth Marine Division's zone of operations on Iwo. The "Meat Grinder" complex incorporated part of Charlie-Dog Ridge, and the entirety of Hill 382, the Amphitheater, and Turkey Knob.
The Fourth Marine Division’s zone of operations on Iwo. The “Meat Grinder” complex incorporated part of Charlie-Dog Ridge, and the entirety of Hill 382, the Amphitheater, and Turkey Knob.

Some places seem to defy description. Maps do not capture their confusion, photographs do not do them justice, and those who were there were too focused on survival to note precise locations or more than a few landmarks. The memoirs and recollections of those who fought here share a similar tone of terror, confusion, and fear. Much of Target Areas 183 and 184 were leveled after the war, leaving only these remnants of memory and disjointed photography to describe them. In this confusing, indescribable hell, thousands of men lost their lives.

Lieutenant Colonel Whitman S. Bartley tried describing the area in Iwo Jima: Amphibious Epic, and landed on the following few lines:

…General Cates’ 4th Division turned to the right to clear the one-third of Iwo lying east of Airfield Number 2 and south of Hill 362C. In this fantastically rugged area the Japanese had strengthened the natural defenses by digging and building, transforming the entire sector into a mighty fortress.

The stoutest defenses in the area were at terrain features called Hill 382 (which the Japanese called Nidan Iwa), the Amphitheater, Turkey Knob, and the smashed village of Minami. During the days of desperate fighting required to seize and hold this incredible stronghold, these several closely related positions become known collectively as the “Meat Grinder.” Nidan Iwa, 382 feet high, was located 250 yards northeast of the east-west runway of the airfield. The top of the hill, surmounted by the stark remains of a Japanese radar station, was hollowed out and rebuilt to contain field pieces and antitank weapons. Each of these concrete gun housings was in turn protected by as many as ten supporting machine-gun emplacements. The rest of the hill was honeycombed with the same elaborate tunneling that characterized other major installations on the island. In addition, crevices and ridges crisscrossed the entire surrounding area. Light and medium tanks, armed with 57mm and 47mm guns, parked well back in these crevices, commanded the length of the main (northeast-southwest) runway of the airfield and approaches from the southwest.

From Hill 382 the land dropped to the south and east in a semicircular series of ridges and draws leading down from the plateau like giant steps. Six hundred yards south of 382 rose the ugly looking rock that came to be called Turkey Knob. Though not very high it housed a reinforced concrete communication center, and served also as a strong observation post overlooking the entire southern end of the island.

High ground in the vicinity of Turkey Knob fell away sharply to the southwest to form the bowl known as the Amphitheater. The enemy had strengthened the natural defenses in this area by constructing three tiers of heavy concrete emplacements in the south-slope hill faces. He had also installed an extensive communication system and electric light circuits. From these positions, antitank and machine guns swept the southern approaches to the Knob.[1]

Colonel Bartley chose this image to accompany his description of the Meat Grinder. USMC photo.
Colonel Bartley chose this image to accompany his description of the Meat Grinder. USMC photo.

It is impossible to say where the name “Meat Grinder” originated, but it stuck. The first units of the Fourth Marine Division entered the unholy arena on D+6 and spent the next three days flinging themselves headlong into the teeth of General Kuribayashi’s strongest defensive line. Hill 382 changed hands a number of times. Marines repeatedly conquered the summit and in doing so outpaced their flank support; when they withdrew to consolidate at night, the Japanese moved back in, and the process repeated ad infinitum. By D+9, enough of an advance had been made to outflank Hill 382 and bypass the Amphitheater. Neither position could be taken just yet, but both could potentially be isolated.[2] The Division planned to send a battalion through the gap between Nidan Iwa and the Amphitheater; they would break through the weaker center, take the high ground and the Turkey Knob complex, and thus crack the defensive line and possibly reach the long-desired O-2 line. So hoped the authors of Operation Order 10-45, which instructed the 24th Marines to relieve the 23rd Marines and spearhead the assault.


To The Lines

Guides from the 23rd led 1/24 into position. It was a familiar route: 2/23 used it the previous day to relieve 3/23. They’d made about 350 yards in the face of unbelievable opposition. Captain Fred Stott, whose Company C was relieving Fox Company, 23rd Marines, remembered his first steps into the Meat Grinder: “The holes into which we filed just prior to dawn of “D plus 10” were in terrain which had more level space, fewer woods and caves. Two hundred yards to the front was a wooded area which contained all the varieties of defensive emplacements with which we were familiar. Here, as in our former zone, troops had pushed forward more than once, only to be thrust back.”[3]

Scouting the way ahead in the morning haze. Still from USMC combat camera footage.
Scouting the way ahead in the morning haze. Still from USMC combat camera footage.

Stott hunkered down in a foxhole with Fox Company’s skipper, 1Lt. Charles J. Ahern.[4] Ahern described the ground ahead; a “flat corridor interspersed with many camouflaged pillboxes and bunkers… emplacements concealed by heavy brush at ranges of fifteen to twenty-five yards… intense plunging machine gun fire from the left flank… attached tanks limited in operation due to mines, obstacles, and impassable terrain….”[5] Not far away, Captain Carl Gussendorf of G/23 was having a similar conversation with First Lieutenant Roy I. Wood, Jr. of A/24. Behind them, their company NCOs hissed instructions as squad-sized groups of Marines traded positions and whispered advice of their own—much of it gleaned from the men they were relieving. Keep your heads down. They’re good shots. They have artillery and mortars. Don’t move unless you have to. “The outgoing troops cautioned us about certain known enemy gun locations, telling us that daylight would be sure to bring Jap fire. Then they left,” wrote Stott. “Their prophecy was correct, for we ducked from a mortar salvo shortly after sunrise.”[6]

PFC Arthur LaPorte got a stark warning from a Marine whose name he never knew. It was coming up on daylight, and the last few squads were hustling to get under cover. “So I started into a foxhole, could see the guy’s legs, I followed his body up. I was going to tell him I was going to share his foxhole…. I think probably that a Japanese officer got him with his samurai sword. Just chopped his head off.”[7] And an eighteen-year-old PFC, Claude L. Godwin, Jr. of Company A, was the battalion’s first casualty of the month. Godwin, a veteran of Saipan and Tinian, was shot in the back and instantly killed at 0530.

The relief was completed by 0630. Able Company was on the left of the battalion front, along the southern slope of Hill 382, sharing a flank with G/2/24. To their right, Charlie Company peered cautiously at the flat, open ground before them; they would aim their advance on the Turkey Knob, while hoping their comrades in A/1/25 could clear out the rest of the Amphitheater. Baker Company, having absorbed the largest number of replacements, was detailed to remain in reserve and hopefully turn their new men into effective fighters instead of cannon fodder.

Some of the replacements in Charlie Company couldn’t control their curiosity and popped their heads up to try and spot a Japanese soldier. More seasoned Marines yanked them back under cover, but not before “incautious exposed Marines drew immediate small arms fire.”[8] With two hours to go before King Hour, Charlie Company checked their weapons, gave last minute advice to the replacements, and finally settled in to await the signal.

Two Marines waiting for the signal to advance. Still from USMC combat camera.
Two Marines waiting for the signal to advance. Still from USMC combat camera footage.

The bombardment would be heavy but short; starting at 0820, two battalions of the 14th Marines, plus heavy mortars and ships offshore, plastered targets in a stand of shattered trees not 100 yards from 1/24. The infantry would move forward starting at 0830, at which point the artillery would shift fire “by concentrations,” preceding the infantry with a wall of steel reminiscent of the barrages of World War One. But by advancing on the heels of the barrage, the Marines hoped to reach the woods before the Japanese got back into position.

The most dangerous part of the first assault would be getting to the wooded area. For nearly one hundred yards, a “wilderness of rocky, cave-studded terrain,” confronted the Marines.[9] The enemy could be anywhere, as a Fourth Marine Division intelligence officer wrote:

The volcanic, crevice lined area is a tangled conglomeration of torn trees and blasted rocks. Ground observation is restricted to small areas. While there are sundry ridges, depressions and irregularities, most of the crevices of any moment radiate from the direction of Hill 382 to fan out like spokes generally in a southeasterly direction providing a series of cross corridors to our advance and eminently suitable for the enemy’s employment of mortars. The general debris caused by our supporting fires provides perfect concealment for snipers and mortar positions. From the air, caves and tracks are observed everywhere, but the enemy’s camouflage discipline is flawless…[10]

The assault companies could be targeted by riflemen, machine guns, and spotters from the left (Hill 382), the right (the Amphitheater), and the front (Turkey Knob). The success of their advance would depend heavily on their flanking units taking out defenses on the hill and the Amphitheater.

Surveying the way ahead. The large mound in the distance is likely Turkey Knob, one of the principle features of the Meat Grinder. Photo from the Lloyd Abbott collection.
Surveying the way ahead. The large mound in the distance is likely Turkey Knob, one of the principle features of the Meat Grinder. Photo from the Lloyd Abbott collection.

At 0830 the fire lifted, right on schedule. Roy Wood and Fred Stott gave the orders. Able and Charlie Companies stepped out of their foxholes and into the Meat Grinder.


Hill 382
Able Company

Able Company’s advance was over almost before it began. As G/2/24 struggled up the slope to their left, Lieutenant Wood’s veteran company was to skirt around the base of Nidan Iwa and get around to the rear, hopefully to trap any Japanese fleeing from the hill. Instead, they were hit almost immediately by plunging machine gun fire from hidden positions on the hill – positions they couldn’t reach without getting in George Company’s way. Both American and Japanese mortars were hammering the hill, so Able Company did what they could from the base of the hill. The battalion’s AAR reduced Able Company’s daily contribution to the war to a single line: “Unable to move any great distance as Hill 382 and the surrounding area was under heavy mortar fire.”[11]

Tanks were used as pillboxes to guard the approaches to Hill 382. Photo from the Lloyd Abbott collection.
Japanese tanks were used as pillboxes to guard the approaches to Hill 382. Photo from the Lloyd Abbott collection.

Few stories survive of the company’s first day in the Meat Grinder.[12] However, a look at the casualty list reveals the intensity of the day’s fighting. Platoon Sergeant Kermit Shaw, one of the company’s most experienced NCOs, was hit and evacuated. Less seriously wounded were Platoon Sergeant Sink Sizemore and Sergeant Kenneth Gray. No fewer than seven veteran corporals—among them Al Perry’s foxhole buddy, James W. Jackson — were evacuated. The combat careers of Privates William Liess, Robert Miller, and Earl Nichols lasted just a few hours. Liess would recover from his wounds and return to the Regimental Weapons Company later in the war; Miller spent months in hospitals before his discharge; Nichols died aboard a hospital ship that night. And machine gunner Robert “Lank” Langner was killed outright. When night brought a pause in the fighting, and Company A was still stuck to the base of Hill 382, it was difficult to convince their buddies that Godwin, Langner, and Nichols had not died for nothing.


The Wilderness
Charlie Company
A squad of machine gunners from Company C. Standing: Frank Zebley, Harold Bowman, Sandy Ball. Kneeling, Art LaPorte, Harvey Williams.
Art LaPorte (kneeling at left) with his squad.

After ten days in action, PFC LaPorte could easily identify the sounds of different machine guns. The light, clip-fed Japanese Nambu had a breathless high-pitched “ta-ta-ta” stutter;  the heavier, tripod-mounted version had a distinctive, deliberate “bup-bup-bup.” And splitting the difference was the rattle of his squad’s own .30-caliber, air-cooled, belt-fed M1919 Browning. In an assault, the gunner and his assistant had to tote the gun and its tripod in addition to their own personal weapons, a punishing weight that made carrying extra ammunition impractical. And while some gunners adopted the “Mickey Mouse” solution of feeding their weapon from a belt slung around their neck — burly Corporal Glenn Buzzard favored this method, which allowed him to fire his machine gun from the hip — the Browning would chew through a belt of 250 rounds in thirty seconds of sustained firing. Someone had to hump the extra ammo.

This was LaPorte’s job on the crew. Ammunition carriers were usually the younger, less experienced members of a machine gun unit; there were three of them in each squad. In each hand, they carried a weighty metal box with a 250-wound belt, and it was not uncommon to see carriers festooned with extra belts hustling towards a heavy firefight. They had M1 carbines for self-defense, though many shared LaPorte’s low opinion of the weapon and opted to “lose” theirs in favor of an M1 rifle. Because their loads of ammunition prevented quick access to their weapons, they were usually stationed some distance to the rear. “An ammo carrier didn’t stay right up on the line,” explained LaPorte. “There wasn’t that much room.”[13] An efficient gun position made for a happy gunner, so when the call came for another belt, the ammo carrier would scurry forward, sling his boxes to the assistant, and then get out of the way.

ammo_man

0830:
Stott’s Attack

LaPorte watched part of his squad move out with Charlie Company’s King Hour attack. Small groups of men moved across the open ground in quick rushes, taking cover where they could. Captain Stott, the eternal advocate for infantry-tank cooperation, arranged for Sherman tanks to rumble along each of his company’s exposed ends.[14] The men on foot kept pace between the “flanking forts” of the Shermans and, to Stott’s pleased surprise, “two platoons managed to cross the open ground to the nearest woods without casualty” – a gain of about one hundred yards.[15]

From his shallow foxhole, LaPorte could see his squadmates hit the deck and deploy their gun, providing cover as Charlie Company reorganized itself on the edge of the woods. A good ammo carrier never let his squad get too far away, and LaPorte took his cue. He slung his carbine, grabbed his ammo boxes, took a deep breath, and stood up.

With his first step, a shot ripped by his head. Then another. This guy can’t shoot. And then a third; he felt the breeze on his face and his ears rang from the sudden sonic boom. Maybe we’d better run. The orderly line devolved into a mass of hunched, zigzagging, stumbling Marines. The hundred yards of open ground had become a perfect killing field of interlocking fire.

LaPorte was surprised to find himself flying through the air. His precious boxes of ammunition were gone, along with his hated carbine. As the world turned upside down, he saw his destination: a shell hole made by a five-inch naval gun. That’s lucky, he thought, then slammed to the ground and tumbled to the bottom of the crater. Something was wrong, very wrong with his leg. My leg’s been hit. A heavy bullet punched a hole through the limb; another grazed his thigh. Is that my bone? God, you could put your fist in that hole.

He heard his buddies yelling and guessed they were in a crater nearby. “You okay, Art?” one called. “I’m hit!” was all LaPorte could say. He was rapidly sliding into shock, could feel no pain, could hear the Japanese gunner firing and firing, and then suddenly his section leader was there in the hole with him.

“How bad you hit?”
“Pretty bad.”
Well, he saw the graze on the upper part and says, “Aw, that’s just a scratch!”
And I said, “Take a look below.”
I think he said, “Jesus!”

The sergeant scrambled out of the hole; LaPorte could hear him slide into the larger crater, check on the men there, and then keep running as the Japanese gunner tried in vain to bring him down.

Other men were out and about, and soon LaPorte had another visitor – his platoon corpsman, Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class Virgil D. Deets, one of the battalion’s most experienced “Docs.” Deets was having a busy morning, made worse by the fact that Navy corpsmen were high-priority targets for Japanese gunners. LaPorte’s tormentor was determined to take Deets out too, and the corpsman’s every movement was met by a hail of gunfire. The hole was suddenly too shallow for comfort.

deets“I can’t work on you here,” yelled Deets. “I haven’t got room enough. Do you want to take a chance? We can push you across to the other hole.”

Shock and morphine made LaPorte amiably agreeable. “Sure,” he mumbled. “I gotta get patched up.” With Deets pushing against his good leg, the wounded New Yorker crawled up to the lip of his crater and scuttled across the ten feet of ground to the next hole. As friendly hands reached out, the frustrated Japanese gunner cut loose with one final burst. A Marine yelped as a bullet grazed his wrist, but the gunner did no other damage. “He wasn’t a very good shot,” LaPorte chuckled many years later. “I know if I had someone in a position like that, I’d have got him.”

The larger shell hole gave Deets the space he needed to patch LaPorte’s wounds. Then he was off again, going for the next wounded man. One by one, the men in the crater scrambled up over the lip and disappeared, heading forward. “They had to go to Hill 382,” LaPorte said simply. Within a few minutes, he was alone. It was just after 0900.


Trapped

It was a typical Japanese tactic, a localized version of the trap sprung on the landing beaches, and the same one that mauled the 23rd Marines in previous days. Let the first group cross and then, once the reserves are committed, open up and cut them off. A unit thus separated could be destroyed piecemeal. Even veteran leaders like Fred Stott could run afoul of such a trap: it was the infantry officer’s worst nightmare. “Once there [in the woods] it was the same old story of knee mortars, rifles, and machine guns, all unseen,” he wrote of the sudden fury that sent his carefully planned attack collapsing into chaos. In thirty minutes, Charlie Company lost ten irreplaceable Marines.

That they did not lose any more was thanks in part to the redoubtable Corporal Franklin Robbins. The wily Marine from Connellsville, Pennsylvania was one of the company’s foremost problem solvers when it came to blowing up blockhouses or “borrowing enough gas and gear to keep your [expletive] bellies and guns full!”[16] He wore a Silver Star for a daring assault on Namur, and after the Marianas campaign volunteered himself out of a quartermaster’s post and into the dangerous work of demolitions. With his company halted by a heavy bunker, Robbins decided the situation could not be solved with guts and demolitions charges alone. He went looking for a tank.[17]

The view from inside a tank. Shot by Norm Hatch, February 1945.
The view from inside a tank. Shot by Norm Hatch, February 1945.

A Sherman tank in combat moved like a blind elephant. When “buttoned up” for action, the tanker’s world was restricted to the dark, deafening interior of their vehicle. The crew sat within feet of an 18-liter V8 engine and within inches of a powerfully noisy 75mm gun. A hull-mounted machine gun added to the din. Tanks drew fire like a magnet and small-caliber fire, while not dangerous, made a nasty-sounding rattle as it ricocheted off the armor plate. Tankers endured stifling temperatures, minimal ventilation, and saw the world through slit-sized viewports. Under such conditions, it was very difficult for a tanker to figure out what was happening outside. He relied on cooperative infantrymen to spot obstacles, targets, and threats; in return, the tank acted as movable bunker that protected the man on foot. The Fourth Marine Division stressed this cooperation in their training, and were among the first to incorporate a handy telephone headset mounted on the tank itself, providing a direct link to the tank commander. In training, this made communication quite simple.

But in combat, sometimes the phone was broken, or shot away. Heavy fire might make it impossible to reach the tank or, once you were there, spook the driver into reversing the tank and crushing you beneath the treads. Then you had to do things the hard way. Climb up on the tank, bang on the hatch, and hope they don’t think you’re a Japanese trying to open their hatch. Or stand out in front, directly in their line of sight — which is also their line of fire — and jump up and down, holler, wave your arms. Be as conspicuous as you can. And remember that tanks always draw fire, and every Japanese in the area is trying to take the thing out, and now you’re making yourself a very obvious target, because you want the tank to do something. And if the Japanese can’t take the tank out, they can simply take you out instead.

So when Robbins ran out in the open, got the attention of one of the flanking Shermans, and physically led it into position to provide protection  for the wounded and get a killing shot on the bunker, it was a miracle that he was only painfully wounded and not utterly obliterated.[18] The tank banged away; at least one shot hit home, and demolitions men swarmed over the structure, sealing the fate of the Japanese inside.

Captain Stott watched Robbins’ adventure with admiration – the corporal was a favorite character of his – and was mentally composing a medal citation when an explosion bowled him over. One look told him all he needed to know. A knee mortar shell had fractured his leg, and Charlie Company was down another skipper. Enemy fire was still too heavy for stretcher bearer; one of Stott’s final acts as a company commander was to call for artillery smoke to cover the evacuation of the wounded. It was a hell of a way to end a distinguished combat career, but Stott still hoped his efforts made an impact. “I thought our advance had carried us to a spot from which a successful penetration of the enemy line could be effected,” he wrote from his berth aboard a hospital ship.[19]

Once again Charlie Company was leaderless, and once again Major Paul Treitel refused to entrust the company to one of its second lieutenants. Instead, he sent for Captain Joseph Swoyer. The Baker Company exec reported to the command post just before noon, and was told to get  Charlie Company ready for a renewed attack by 1300 hours. Swoyer, a veteran of three previous campaigns, must have been aghast at this request. Although highly experienced, he had never led a company into combat before; now he would have to take a badly mauled and disorganized group of strangers into some of the most difficult terrain he’d ever seen, without even a chance to reconnoiter for himself.[20] He gamely accepted the challenge, though: Fred Stott was one of his oldest friends.

How Swoyer managed to pull off this impressive feat isn’t known. He had two platoons fighting for their lives, a stream of wounded men stumbling back through the smoke, either alone or helped by buddies, and the company aidmen were stretched to their limit. He barely knew any of his subordinates; some of the older NCOs might have been familiar through long association, but he had never worked with them in combat before. Swoyer had to decide whether to withdraw the company to reorganize, and evidently decided not to – it would save time and lives, but mean he was attacking truly blind. The battalion managed to arrange for another barrage to hit the positions spotted in the woods and beyond, but the artillery would be firing uncomfortably close with no room for error. In the end, however, they had no choice. As the appointed hour came, Charlie Company ducked behind boulders and stumps to let the cannon-cockers do their work.

 


1300:
Swoyer’s Attack

The second artillery barrage did little more than raise the dust. Charlie Company grimly started forward at 1300 on the nose and the Japanese opened fire immediately. One of the first men hit was Captain Swoyer, whose tenure as Charlie Company’s commander in combat lasted exactly two minutes.[21] Nineteen-year-old Private Walter Spellman saw his platoon “mown down” before being shot through the neck, across the shoulder, and twice in his spine.[22] “Doc” Virgil Deets couldn’t stand to watch and, brushing off restraining hands, went racing out to help a wounded Marine lying out in the open. The corpsman was just beginning to administer first aid when his luck ran out; he fell across his patient, mortally wounded.[23]

News of Deets’ demise spread rapidly through Charlie Company’s machine gunners. Much later, Corporal Glenn Buzzard would remember how his finger, “torn up somehow,” earned him a daily visit with Doc Deets. “They dressed us every day if you were wounded,” he said. “They checked you every day; they’d get behind a stump where you couldn’t get shot, and looked at you and put sulfa powder on and kept us going.”[24] Until a replacement corpsman could be summoned from the battalion aid station, Charlie Company would be shorthanded. Fortunately, there was a ready supply of stretcher bearers — the wide-eyed replacements, experiencing combat for the first time, were pressed into service.[25]

A single reinforcement arrived at 1345: Captain Roy Klopfenstine, erstwhile commander of Headquarters Company, would be Charlie’s third skipper in as many hours. Klopfenstine was coming up on four years in the Marines, and had some training as a company commander in 2/23—but had spent the past year with the division’s Service and Supply Company as a liaison. Taking charge of a company with an attack in progress was no small feat, especially for an administrative officer, so Klopfenstine wisely decided against making any drastic changes in the plan. Over the next two hours, Charlie Company inched its way through the tangled trees north of Minami Village.

They seemed on the verge of a breakthrough – but the Japanese still held the high ground.


1600
Barrage
The face of a man under mortar fire, captured by Joe Rosenthal.
The face of a man under mortar fire, captured by Joe Rosenthal.

Mortar fire had been conspicuous in its absence throughout the day; all wounds thus far “were being caused by rifle or machine gun fire” since the Japanese spotters were focusing all their attention on Hill 382.[26] Having effectively stalled the Marine advance in that sector, the spotters were free to drop shells where they pleased. Marines in the open were a tempting target; Charlie Company heard the unwelcome sounds of incoming rounds just before the sky fell in.

Private Robert Owensby, one of Charlie Company’s brand new replacements, thought of stacks of dead Marines he’d seen during his first day on Iwo. He was quite pleased to be back some distance from the very front lines, at least for now, and hoped that his buddies were all OK. Owensby knew none of the company’s old timers – had he been asked to name his squad or platoon leader on March 1, he likely could not have done so – and the guys from the replacement draft quickly bonded together, because there was nobody else to bond with.

Jim Parker was a genuine friend, though, and Owesnby was happy to share a foxhole when the Japanese shells started falling. Parker was one of the few Marines from the 24th Replacement Draft who had any sort of advanced infantry schooling; as a qualified machine gunner, he was immediately snapped up by a shorthanded squad to carry ammunition. It was his first chance to prove himself in combat, too, and the young Mississippian was not going to pass up the opportunity. “I’ve got to join my machine gun group,” he shouted over the din of the barrage. Owensby watched as his buddy crossed fifteen to twenty yards of open ground to a large crater where a number of Charlie Company Marines were taking cover.

This was Corporal Glenn Buzzard’s hole. He’d set up his squad to provide covering fire for the advance, with his trusted friend Corporal Ottis Boxx behind the gun. Without direct orders to advance and zero desire to try their luck in the field, Buzzard concluded they were in reserve – or what passed for reserve. “They kept two platoons on the line, and [we] just happened to be in there getting a rest,” he explained. “Give you a little chance to do what you wanted, sit down and cry, or smoke, whatever.”[27] The sizable crater attracted more Marines who needed a break; the onset of the mortar barrage made it more attractive still. By the time Private Parker tumbled in, Buzzard guessed there were ten or twelve men in the hole — most of a machine gun section. “We were in there grouped up,” the corporal remembered. “You didn’t group up because it was a bad thing to do, but we did.”[28]

Bunching up was a natural reaction to being under fire. In the face of sudden oblivion, physical proximity to buddies was an addictive reassurance – sharing the suffering and knowing you weren’t alone. In training, a corporal’s boondocker to the butt was enough encouragement to keep spacing and intervals intact, but instinct took over once the bullets started flying, and more so when cover was limited. Veterans who had seen entire squads placed hors de combat by a single shell knew the dangers firsthand; the disaster that killed “Black Mike” Cusimano a few days ago should have been warning enough to the rest. By D+10, men either clustered together because they had no other option, because they were replacements who knew no better, or they were veterans too tired and numb to care.

Buzzard’s crater held a mix of both. The ranking man, Sergeant Philip R. Baldwin, was a replacement. Baldwin was used to exerting his authority as a drill and weapons instructor, but this was his first time in combat. Either the order to disperse his section did not occur to him, or he thought his men would be safer under cover. The two squad leaders, Buzzard and Corporal Jack Coutts, were experiencing their fourth battle and knew better, but evidently said nothing. Corporal Boxx, the gunner, was absolved of making decisions as he covered his sector. With the exception of Private Harold O. Davis, the remaining mix of privates and PFCs lacked the combat experience or authority to make such decisions. They just wanted to stay safe.

As one rifle platoon tried gamely to make some headway in the face searing gunfire and accurate mortars, one of their number went down wounded and screaming, fifty yards from the questionable safety of either side. His buddies and the stretcher bearers couldn’t reach him; a brave corpsman might have made the run, but Deets was dead and the rest were busy with other emergencies. The wounded men howled as Japanese shrapnel tore up the ground all around him. He may have been deliberate bait: Japanese troops were often instructed to maim, not kill, a man in the open, in hopes that his cries would draw out his buddies. The trick was well-known to 1/24 as well – in fact, it was a standing order that corpsmen were to arrange covering fire before rescuing a wounded man. But now there were no corpsmen, no stretchers, and no covering fire.

Jack Coutts.
Jack Coutts.

Suddenly Jack Coutts was up on his feet and dashing across the shell-torn ground. The wounded man might have been a close buddy, a passing acquaintance, or just a luckless gyrene; either way, he was the last straw for Coutts, who was sick of seeing men die and decided he’d save one if he could. He covered fifty yards and was hit just as he reached the wounded man’s side, sliding over the prostrate form to make himself a human shield. Having rendered what little help he could, Coutts began inching his way back across the field, dragging a shattered leg behind him.[29]

In the shell hole, the gunners grabbed up empty ammunition belts, knotting the canvas ends together to make a lifeline. Ammo carriers broke open their boxes, sacrificing additional belts still filled with rounds. A Marine with a strong throwing arm whipped the makeshift tether around his head and flung it towards Jack Coutts; the throw was short. As he hauled in the line, they could see Coutts stretching out his hands for a next attempt that never came.

Perhaps a talented Japanese spotter saw the scurry of activity around the shell hole, and called the coordinates back to waiting gunners. Or perhaps it was simply dumb luck, a random shot that happened to strike home. A single heavy mortar shell whuffed down from above, its pressure-sensitive nose burying itself in the midst of the Marines for a split second before it exploded.

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.

At least six men were killed in the blast. The former drill instructor, Sergeant Baldwin; the former football star, Ottis Boxx; the teenaged draftees, PFC Richard J. Miller and Private Karl Watcke; the reformed brig rat, Harold Davis; and the brand-new replacement, Jim Parker, who braved open ground to get to his team. Not a single man in the hole escaped unwounded.[30]

shellhole_dead

Glenn Buzzard was “pretty goofy, shell shocked, and I had a lot of their bodies on my dungarees…. I can remember scraping the stuff off me.”[31] Corpsmen stripped him of his bloody rags right on the spot. Buzzard carefully entrusted his beloved .38 revolver to his buddy, Elmer Neff, before he blacked out. Stretcher bearers carried him away to the beach.


1700:
Rescue

Art LaPorte was getting concerned.

When his buddies climbed out of the hole to continue the attack that morning, LaPorte figured on a short wait. They knew where he was, and once they’d taken out some of the Japanese, someone would send the stretcher bearers, or at the very least would help him back to the aid station. He was well bandaged, and his hole was eight feet deep. Someone would be back for him eventually.

Time passed. He could hear the volume of fire increase and decrease, and a few times he shuffled up to the lip of the hole to peep over the side and see how things were going. He couldn’t stay long; he didn’t want to put too much pressure on his one good leg, and he was directly in the line of fire from Hill 382. He looked back towards the rocks and saw Marines crouched there, some with stretchers, and concluded they weren’t coming to get him just yet because there was still too much firing and it didn’t make sense to risk four men to save just one, safe as he was. So he’d slide back to the bottom of the hole to wait some more.

Stretcher bearers await the word to advance.
Stretcher bearers await the word to advance.

He knew it was important to hydrate, but water made him sick; he knew he should eat something, but food made him sicker. There was the sound of yelling and feet running past, and the volume of fire decreased a bit. And nobody came. Even his nemesis, the Japanese machine gunner, had forgotten about him. Or maybe the man was dead.

Maybe his buddies were dead, too.

Maybe he was dying.

He noticed a funny sensation at some point in the afternoon. Something wet. He knew Deets’ bandages were holding, but this was something else. He rolled up the leg of his blood-soaked dungarees and discovered “a fountain of blood, about an inch or two high, coming out of my kneecap.” Shrapnel had nicked a major blood vessel. LaPorte was out of bandages, but did have one luxury item: clean toilet paper. He wadded this up, put pressure on the wound, and the bleeding slowed. Then the second attack kicked off, and the mortars started falling, and he knew that the stretchers wouldn’t be coming for another little while. So he settled in to wait some more.

It wasn’t until the evening that he began to really worry. He’d been there since daybreak — almost eight hours — and it had been “a long daylight.”[32] “I heard firing start to pick up a lot going by me, people were going by me,” he recalled. “I was concerned that they would go back to the rocks and leave me there, and the gooks would get me.” He didn’t want to end up like the Marine he’d met that morning, beheaded by a Japanese sword.

Then, suddenly, someone was standing over his hole. “LaPorte? You still there?”

The section leader had returned for his missing Marine. He hauled LaPorte out of the shell hole in a fireman’s carry and, despite a last burst of Japanese gunfire, both men made it to safety.[33]


Evacuation

The route that led from the Meat Grinder to the aid station was a well-traveled one, the system for processing casualties a well-oiled machine.

By D+10, the rear area was reasonably secure. Combat engineers had finished the bulk of the mine removal and demolition work, and along with the hardworking 133rd Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees) could turn their attention to improving Iwo’s road network. While most of 1/24s Quarry casualties were hand-carried to the beach, those hit in the Meat Grinder could hitch a ride. The seriously wounded, like Art LaPorte and Glenn Buzzard, were loaded onto jeeps for their trip to the battalion aid station (still located in the Quarry), then to one of the casualty clearing stations that now dotted the invasion beaches.

On the beach, corpsmen sorted casualties by type. Some could be treated by the division’s medical team; a quick patch up and a night of rest was enough for those with superficial shrapnel wounds or shaken nerves. More serious cases were slated for evacuation. The fully equipped hospital ship USS Solace was taking on casualties, and transports were available to handle the overflow; some had surgeons specializing in stomach wounds, eye injuries, or shock trauma, and it was the job of the shore parties to sort out those who needed special care.

Wounded Marines receive cigarettes, canteens, and compassionate care. Stills from USMC combat camera footage.

PFC LaPorte recalled being driven back to the beach, past a unit whose rocket trucks fired right over his head, and then carried onto a landing craft for transport to a ship offshore.[34] “It was full of wounded,” he later recalled. “Had a guy that had completely cracked up. He had gone insane, they had to put him in a straight jacket. He was really gone.”[35]

Aboard the ship, a new nightmare awaited the wounded men.

The guy next to me had gotten an infection in his leg. He had gotten gangrene. I was lucky I had not gotten it down in the hole there.  Down in the heat all day, the heat was really bearing down on it. So anyways, they took him away; when he came back he was missing the leg from the knee down. They say when you lose a leg you may still feel it. I guess he didn’t know he was missing it when he came to he went to feel it, I guess feeling pain, and he realized it wasn’t there. He went right out of his head, yelling and screaming.

From where I was I could watch the doctors operate. It was a table and around the table was a trough. What fascinated me was when the trough was filled with blood, and when the shop would rock, the blood would go back and forth. 

When his turn on the operating table came, Art LaPorte showed the same remarkable calmness he’d displayed all day. The man before him screamed and thrashed, but LaPorte could see the weariness etched into the faces of the surgeons. They look awful tired. Well, I’m not gonna give them a hard time, they’ve had enough trouble. “I’ve got a good one for ya, Doc,” he quipped as, numb but conscious, he watched the surgeons snip away at the ragged edges of his wound. Didn’t feel any pain. Didn’t give them no trouble. Back at his bunk, a buddy stopped by, displaying a wrist wound. Got this tryin’ to help ya, Art. He tried to sleep, kept waking up, there’s a Jap under my bunk and he’s gonna come out and kill me. The worry would persist long after his physical wounds healed.

Glenn Buzzard regained his senses, aboard a hospital ship, snapping back to reality mid-conversation with a corpsman, suddenly realizing he was unclothed. The corpsman promised new, clean dungarees. “Well get ‘em for me. I’d like to get some clothes on,” grumbled Buzzard before the room started spinning and he passed out once again.[36]


Consolidating

Gradually, the rifle fire sputtered out. Machine gunners fired one last vengeful burst before the darkening sky betrayed their muzzle flashes. The Japanese sent over a few last mortar salvos and touched off a few massive rockets which sailed harmlessly off into the sea, save the one that landed in Charlie Company’s sector and buried several men alive. Their buddies quickly dug them out and, sputtering and shaken, they prepared their night defense. From their new vantage point—they’d finally taken at least some of the high ground—Charlie Company could look down and see the ruins of Minami Village. To their right loomed the bizarre edifice of Turkey Knob; to their left was Company A at the base of Hill 382. In less than 24 hours, Charlie Company alone had lost 27 Marines, and they did not need another operations order to tell them that the following day would be just as bad.

The Fallen

hq_mitlehner godwin_CL xz_nopic xz_nopic hq_deets
2nd. Lieutenant
Albert B. Mitlehner
Age 24
Liaison, HQ Co.
Cause unknown
PFC
Claude L. Godwin, Jr.
Age 18
Mortarman, A Co.
Gunshot, back
Pvt.
Robert E. Langner
Age 19
Machine Gunner, A Co.
Cause unknown
Pvt.
Earl E. Nichols
Age 18
Antitank Gunner, A Co.
Of wounds,
aboard USS Solace
PhM2c
Virgil D. Deets
Age 25
Corpsman, C Co.
Cause unknown
c_baldwin c_boxx miller_RJ c_hdavis xz_nopic
Sgt.
Philip R. Baldwin

Age 23
MG Sergeant, C Co.
Mortar shell
Cpl.
Ottis O. Boxx
Age 22
Machine Gunner, C Co.
Mortar shell
PFC
Richard J. Miller

Age 19
Machine Gunner, C Co.
Mortar shell
Pvt.
Harold O. Davis

Age 21
Machine Gunner, C Co.
Mortar shell
Pvt.
James R. Parker
Age 19
Machine Gunner, C Co.
Mortar shell
c_uricchio c_watcke
Pvt.
Frank R. Uricchio
Age 19
Rifleman, C Co.
Cause unknown
Pvt.
Karl N. Watcke
Age 18
Machine Gunner, C Co.
Mortar shell
WOUNDED
COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Headquarters GySgt. Stephen J. Vinczi, Jr.
PFC LaVerne L. Johnson
PhM3c Joseph E. Miller
Gunnery Sergeant
Unknown (replacement)
Corpsman
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Not Evacuated
Not Evacuated
USS Solace
Able PlSgt. Kermit Shaw
PlSgt. Sink Sizemore, Jr.
Sgt. Kenneth R. Gray
Cpl. Lee R. Anderson, Jr.
Cpl. Kenneth L. Boylan
Cpl. James W. Jackson
Cpl. Marion E. Lyon
Cpl. Glenn Marshall
Cpl. Prentis M. Parsons
Cpl. George F. Svoboda
PFC John A. Casale
PFC James C. Fields
PFC William F. Marcus
Pvt. William J. Liess
Pvt. Robert E. Miller
Pvt. Condon A. Raxter
Platoon Guide
Platoon Sergeant
Rifle Squad Leader
Fire Team Leader
Fire Team Leader
BARman
Fire Team Leader
BARman
MG Squad Leader
Fire Team Leader
Mortarman
Rifleman
Machine Gunner
Antitank Gunner
Antitank Gunner
BARman
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Shrapnel, left leg
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Shrapnel, leg and hip
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown

USS Solace
Not Evacuated
Beach
USS Fremont
USS Whiteside

Unknown
USS Fremont
USS Solace
USS Solace
Unknown
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace

Baker Cpl. Robert W. Swanson
Pvt. Michael R. Pukanic
Messenger
Machine Gunner
Unknown
Unknown

USS Solace
USS Hamlin

Charlie Capt. Frederic A. Stott
Capt. Joseph D. Swoyer
PlSgt. Philip E. Fagan
Sgt. Frank J. Burgess
Cpl. Glenn L. Buzzard
Cpl. Jack Coutts
Cpl. Willard J. Klopf
Cpl. Franklin C. Robbins
PFC Roy H. Bishop
PFC Harold A. Bowman
PFC Paul E. Claffey
PFC William F. Grant, Jr.
PFC Arthur T. LaPorte
PFC Francis Ostapkowicz
PFC Frank F. Zebley
Pvt. Edward J. Derzawiec
Pvt. Richard H. Kelly
Pvt. Dewey A. Marston
Pvt. Walter W. Spellman
Company CO
Company CO (acting)
Platoon Sergeant
Rifle Squad Leader
MG Squad Leader
Machine Gunner
Fire Team Leader
Demolitions
BARman
Machine Gunner
Machine Gunner
Rifleman
MG Ammo Carrier
Rifleman
Machine Gunner
BARman
Machine Gunner
BARman
BARman
Fragment, fractured leg
Gunshot
Unknown
Unknown
Mortar shell, concussion
Mortar shell, lost leg
Unknown
Mortar shell
Unknown
Gunshot, right chest
Unknown
Unknown
Gunshot, leg
Unknown
Combat fatigue
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Gunshots, multiple
Unknown
Unknown
USS Solace
USS Solace
Unknown
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
Unknown
USS Solace
USS Solace
Unknown
USS Solace
Beach
USS Solace
USS Solace
Unknown
USS Solace
NON-COMBAT EVACUATION
COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Able Cpl. Robert M. Walter Rifleman “Sick, whereabouts unknown” Unknown
Charlie PFC Joseph B. Coyle Rifleman Sick Unknown 
JOINED / ATTACHED / TRANSFERRED
Action Name From To Duty
Returned Cpl. Thomas E. Underwood Hospital B/1/24 Fire Team Leader
Returned Pvt. Kenneth R. Cassel Hospital HQ/1/24 BAR
Transferred Capt. Roy F. Klopfenstine HQ/1/24 C/1/24 Company CO

 

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Lt. Col. Whitman S. Bartley, Iwo Jima: Amphibious Epic (Historical Section: Headquarters, USMC, 1954), 149.
[2] Ibid., 159. This is a classic Marine tactic, performed on a larger-than-usual scale. Strong points were to be bypassed by the main assault if necessary. Thus surrounded, the Japanese could be dealt with by dedicated “mop-up” units or (ideally for the Marines) by the Army. The point was to maintain the momentum of the attack and secure the greater objective as quickly as possible. As was the case with the Meat Grinder, though, even going around obstacles like the Amphitheater and Hill 382 was an extremely difficult and bloody proposition.
[3] Frederic A. Stott, “Ten Days on Iwo Jima,” Leatherneck Vol. 28, No. 5 (May, 1945); 18.
[4] Fox Company’s original commander, Captain Lawrence Snoddy, had been wounded and evacuated at 1330 the previous day. Snoddy later changed his last name to Lawrence F. Snowden, and retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant general in 1979. He served as the president of the Fourth Marine Division Association for many years before his death in early 2017.
[5] Author unknown, “Annex George: Battalion Landing Team 2/23 Operation Report” in Annex Fox to Fourth Marine Division Report on Iwo Jima: RCT 23 Report (9 April, 1945), 24.
[6] Stott, “Ten Days,” 18.
[7] Art LaPorte, oral history interview conducted by Matthew Rozell, The Hudson Falls High School World War II Living History Project, October 1998.
[8] Stott, “Ten Days,” 18.
[9] Bartley, Iwo Jima, 150.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Major Charles L. Banks, “Final Report on IWO JIMA Operation, Battalion Landing Team 1/24,” in Annex George to Fourth Marine Division Report on Iwo Jima: RCT 24 Report (20 April, 1945), 126. Hereafter “Final Report.”
[12] This is unusual given the day’s casualty rate.
[13] LaPorte oral history.
[14] Stott’s liaison work earned him a Navy Cross on Saipan.
[15] Stott, “Ten Days,” 18.
[16] Frederic A. Stott, “Saipan Under Fire” (Andover: Frederic Stott, 1945), 11.
[17] Strangely, while the 1/24 AAR specifically mentions a coordinated attack made with two tanks, the report of the 4th Tank Battalion reports that “Company B was attached to RCT 24 [on D+10], but no tanks were called for, or used, due to the extremely rough terrain.” However, “Six [tanks, from Company A] operated with the left BLT of RCT 25 against the strong block house encountered the previous day.” The “strong blockhouse” is probably Turkey Knob. Immediately to the left of RCT 25 was C/24th Marines—so possibly Robbins “borrowed” one of these six tanks for his own mission. There is no indication in the 2nd Armored Amphibian Battalion report that any of their vehicles was engaged on D+10, so the vehicle involved was probably a Sherman from A/4th Tanks.
[18] Robbins would be awarded a second Silver Star for this exploit; later, it was combined with his bunker busting on February 23 and the award upgraded to the Navy Cross.
[19] Stott, “Ten Days,” 18.. He was disabused of this notion “back aboard the hospital ship the next day, later casualties told of being forced to drop back at nightfall with a total cost of close to 40 men in the one company alone.”
[20] Swoyer was a popular and extremely competent young officer who had led machine gun platoons for Dog and Baker Companies since the invasion of Namur. Again, Major Treitel made the most logical choice given the circumstances.
[21] With unusual detail, the battalion AAR notes that “At 1302 Captain SWOYER was hit by an enemy rifle bullet and was evacuated.”
[22] “The Jackson Herald: World War II Military Service News from the Years 1943, 1944 and 1945,” transcribed by Betty Kessell McIntyre and Betty Briggs, page 92. Available online. Spellman was “shot once through neck, another bullet had cut a large gash across his shoulder and two other bullets had entered his right shoulder and ranged downward and came out near his spine.”
[23]
Virgil Deets was awarded a posthumous Silver Star for his actions on March 1, 1945.
[24] “Cpl. Glenn Buzzard” in Gail Chatfield, By Dammit, We’re Marines! (San Diego: Methvin, 2008), 65.
[25] This appears to have been a means of introducing the new men to combat conditions, and seems to have worked extremely well: out of all the day’s casualties, only three were replacements.
[26] Final Report, 127. The mortar fire on Hill 382 was devastatingly accurate; as stated, Company A could barely move at all for fear of the deadly weapons.
[27] Glenn Buzzard in Larry Smith, Iwo Jima (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2008), 88.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Coutts won a Silver Star for this feat. In his citation, Coutts was “Seriously wounded himself while attempting to rescue the casualty, he flung his body over the Marine to shield him from further wounds until the enemy fire was lifted and he could be evacuated.” It’s unclear what happens in the next few minutes. Perhaps a stretcher team came out and took the other man first, leaving Coutts to work his way back alone. Or perhaps the other man was beyond help and Coutts was forced to leave him. Either way, Coutts evidently managed to cross most of the fifty yards back alone and under his own power, with a wound that would eventually cost him his leg.
[30] Ironically, Jack Coutts survived this close call by not being in the “safe” shell hole. Glenn Buzzard credited the fouled first throw with saving Coutts’ life.
[31] Buzzard in Chatfield, 65.
[32] LaPorte, oral history interview. The timeframe is LaPorte’s own estimation and makes sense if he was hit early in the attack, around 0900, and retrieved when the battalion consolidated for the day, around 1700.
[33] The identity of this sergeant is unknown.
[34] The name of this ship is unknown, but it was likely the USS Solace.
[35] LaPorte, oral history interview.
[36] Buzzard in Smith, 88.

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