Iwo: D+20. March 11, 1945.

Bypassed

For the first time since landing on Iwo Jima, Private Harold J. Oberheide felt secure.

Over the past twelve days, his confidence in his abilities had grown. When he joined Able Company of the 24th Marines as a replacement at the end of February, he found he needed to forget his specialized training as a half-track driver and quickly re-learn the basics of infantry combat. Now he was an automatic rifleman – not by choice but by necessity – armed with a BAR that had once belonged to one of the company’s veterans. The weapon had a pistol grip fixed to the forestock, which helped the previous owner to aim but ultimately failed to save his life. Hal was learning to like the complicated weapon and developing his methods – like sighting targets with his pointer finger and squeezing the trigger by the middle. It’s what we call tricks of the trade.

His reflexes were improving, too. Once while listening to his sergeant, Hal spotted a Japanese soldier throwing a grenade. He dodged aside; the missile disappeared beneath one of his buddies. “Roll!” Hal yelled, “Roll! Roll!” and then they were all yelling, and the terrified Marine rolled once and tried to crawl away on his back but was so confused that he crawled back on top of the grenade just as it went off. Fortunately, it went off in his gluteus maximus, and it was very light metal, he got blasted in the rear end but survived. He was OK. If he would have rolled off it, I would have been the one that got it.

He had other close calls he could laugh about, now that they were in his past. The new guy – newer even than Hal – who was scared to cross the open ground and flopped down crying, I’m hit! I’m hit! when it was just water from his canteen. The rocket that clanged through the old radar mount while he and his buddies rested below. And the time he woke up and found he couldn’t move, and heard men debating whether he was alive and whether he should be moved. Two buddies pulled him out, over the protests of others, and Hal found he’d been all but buried alive by a dud rocket. Gee, he thought, kinda scary, but God must want me around.

Today, though, Hal felt secure. His battalion was in reserve, an assembly area a few thousand yards behind the front, and he had a good view of the airfield. The big silver B-29s were a familiar sight by now, especially the damaged ones coming in for a rough landing; they didn’t all make it, and occasionally a pall of smoke over the field marked the demise of a Superfort. Transport planes carrying hospital cases took off when fully loaded – even twenty days into the battle, they did a brisk business. Fragile-looking little spotter planes departed to circle over the northern end of the island, spotting targets for artillery. None of this activity particularly interested Hal Oberheide; he’d seen it all before. He was fascinated by the acrobatics of the 15th Fighter Group, the newest residents of Iwo Jima. “I’ll never forget the P-51s coming in,” he said decades later. “They would circle and line up, and then they’d come in, do a loop, and land. Every one of them. They were really good pilots! And when you saw that, you got a real good charge.”[1]

Iwo_MustangLanding
A P-51 Mustang lands in the shadow of Mount Suribachi, March 1945. US Army Air Corps photo.

The sight of the pretty silver planes was almost enough to take his mind off the fact that he’d eaten a chocolate bar while sitting on top of a partly buried Japanese body.[2]

Iwo_HalfBuriedJapanese
While his buddies relax in the background, a Marine cleans his weapon beside a partly buried Japanese soldier.

After a quiet night, First Battalion busied itself with patrols. Although theoretically in a quiet sector, the axiom “there was no rear on Iwo Jima” proved to be accurate as these patrols “constantly came across bypassed Japs,” alone or in pairs.[3] These encounters almost always went one way, as Sergeant Harlan Jeffery described in his diary.

This morning we had to go out on patrol and make sure no Nips had sneaked into the caves surrounding the CP. We covered about 400 yards and were walking up a draw – we came face to face with a Nip sniper who was hiding just behind the ridge. He just poked his head out long enough for us to see him, we couldn’t get a shot at him at present. He threw a grenade at us but missed. So, we sneaked around the ridge where we could get at him without him getting us. We got within grenade distance and let him have it before he could fire a shot.[4]

One strange event did occur during the day’s operations: a Japanese soldier delivered, alive, to the battalion headquarters.

He may have been the first – and only – POW captured by the Battalion during the campaign. In the entire operation, Regimental Combat Team 24 reported just four prisoners taken by its component units.[5] He did not go willingly, for he arrived wounded, but he did not resist too actively, for he arrived alive. As a corpsman treated his wounds, enlisted Marines attempted to gather necessary information, reading from phonetic cards if their grasp of Japanese was insufficient.[6]

“Shim-pie she-nigh-day,” they said. “Ko-ko-nee; ho-kah no stow iru ka?” Don’t be afraid. Are there other people in there?

Japanese Combat Phrases
This card with helpful phonetic phrases was issued to PFC Bernard Elissagaray for use in the battle of Saipan. Language proficiency was not high on the priority list for front-line Marines, but cards like these saved many lives.

Oscar
“Oscar – the Jap – was a cook for the aviators on Iwo. Majors Schechter, Cokin, and I captured [Oscar] when we were out on reconnaissance one day.” Oscar is being interviewed by the R-2 (Major Hanson), a division interpreter (Lt. Johnson) and an unknown member of the R-2 section. Photo by Major George D. Webster.
If they managed to make their questions understood, they were often unprepared for a spoken response. The extent of language training was a scant eight weeks for selected enlisted men, and they were “trained mainly to aid in the handling of large numbers of civilians. They were to be used on military personnel only to get them to surrender, not for interrogation.” And, by this point in the campaign, most of these rudimentarily trained men were dead or wounded.[7] The amount of information gleaned from this particular prisoner was inconsequential; the battalion’s intelligence section did not even see fit to record their interaction in their report of the campaign. The Japanese soldier’s name, unit, and the circumstances of his capture are sadly unknown.

From the battalion CP, the prisoner was transported to Regimental headquarters for interrogation by the R-2 officer, Major Hanson. With the help of a language officer, Hanson posed questions about the prisoner’s unit, area of operations, and knowledge of the battle. These interviews were also quite brief, especially for a Japanese soldier captured in an isolated position – he had likely been separated from his buddies for several days. “The information was either confirmatory of previous information,” noted Major Hanson, “or of a local nature involving his place of capture.”[8] When Hanson was satisfied, MPs took charge of the prisoner for delivery to the Division stockade. Here, he joined a few dozen of his comrades and received food, new clothing, and a form to fill out.[9] The questioning would continue with nisei officers and, for the most part, the POWs were more than willing to share what information they had available – even sketching nearby defensive positions. “After a day or so in the stockade, all POWs, without exception, volunteered to help us in getting their comrades to surrender,” noted the 4th Marine Division report. “Several were willing to re-enter the enemy lines to help us accomplish this end.”[10]

Except for those involved in the capture of the POW and the ever-present tension felt by those on combat patrols, the Battalion passed the day resting, cleaning weapons, and salvaging equipment. And some, like Hal Oberheide, whiled away their time watching friendly planes come and go from the airfields their buddies died to capture.

Iwo_MustangsOverWreckage
Mustangs in landing approach fly over a scrapyard of wrecked Japanese aircraft, March 1945. US Army Air Corps photo.

 

JOINED / ATTACHED / TRANSFERRED
Action Name From To Duty
Returned
(All C Company personnel to one of the composite companies)
Cpl. James J. Chvatal, Jr.
Cpl. Harvey G. Houck
Hospital
Hospital
A/1/24
C/1/24
Squad Leader
Mortar Squad Leader

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Footnotes

[1] The 15th Fighter Group (the 45th, 47th, and 78th Fighter Squadrons) flew the first P-51s into Iwo Jima on 6-7 March and immediately began support missions for the ground troops. By mid-March, they were flying sorties against other islands in the Bonins Group; eventually, they would escort bombers to Japan itself.
[2] Harold J. Oberheide, interview conducted by Gary Rhay (Harold Junior Oberheide Collection, AFC/2001/001/34224), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Mr. Oberheide does not provide dates for these events; they are presented here as a composite of his experiences on Iwo Jima.
[3] 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), 133-134.
[4] Harlan Chester Jeffery, unpublished diary entry dated 9 March 1945, collection of Domenick P. Tutalo.
[5] “Three were Army personnel; one was a cook from a Naval Aviation unit. Other prisoners captured by component BLTs while they were attached to either RCT-23 or RCT-25 were evacuated through those organizations.” Author unknown, “Intelligence,” in Annex Baker to Fourth Marine Division Report on Iwo Jima: RCT 24 Report (20 April 1945), 56. The entire 4th Marine Division took 44 prisoners.
[6] The battalion did not have any language officers attached for the operation, and only a handful of enlisted Marines had more than the most rudimentary grasp on the Japanese language. Phonetic cards with common phrases were issued before operations.
[7] Annex Baker, 56-57.
[8] Ibid., 56.
[9] “Because of the well-established belief that all Japanese are regimented throughout their lives, an experimental form was devised for the questioning of POWs. The form was printed entirely in Japanese and adhered chiefly to personal and military questions, the answers to which could be easily and concisely filled out by the POW. At the beginning of the stockade questioning, one of the forms was handed to the POW with instructions to fill out the required information. Having been handed a form in his native tongue, which was typical of other forms he had been accustomed to, each POW without exception willingly cooperated. This initial cooperation carried on naturally into his subsequent relations with the interrogating officers and proved of great value.” Clifton B. Cates, “Annex Baker to Fourth Marine Division Operations Report, Iwo Jima: Intelligence” in Operations Report – Iwo Jima, 19 February to 16 March 1945 (18 May 1945), 13.
[10] Ibid., 14.