Richards Lyon: The Surgeon on Iwo Jima

“They knew their business and rules for survival….”

Lieutenant Richards P. Lyon, 1945.
Lieutenant Richards P. Lyon, 1945.

Doctor Richards Parker Lyon served as the assistant surgeon for First Battalion, 24th Marines during the battle of Iwo Jima. His story has been compiled from a series of emails, and his memoir A Process Mind.

With my entry into the Marine Corps came [a] surprise. Instead of getting into the rigorous training I had expected (and was a little anxious about), twenty-five other medical recruits and I were gathered around a table to receive some news. Half of us would be on our way west immediately, still fresh and untrained, to fill spots as Battalion Surgeons making ready for the next invasion. Next question: “Is there any reason anyone of you are not ready to go?”

“Is he kidding?” I whispered to [colleague ] Roland French. It wasn’t a matter of “being ready,” it surely had to be “Get Going!” The officer went around the table. There were more than a few that had answers so nebulous as to be funny: “I need to take my wife home,” and the like. I turned to Roland and said, “Is this guy serious? We’re at war aren’t we?” My answer was, “Sir, I can’t think of a single reason not to go,” believing this was all a show.

Roland and I were chosen, with a few others. I went to the PX and outfitted myself in the real thing, a Marine Uniform. Then I went to the dispatcher, who inquired, “How would you like to go?” I replied, “Do you have a wagon train available?” He laughed and said, “No, but would you like to take a route to, say, see a girl friend?” “Good idea. I’ll go by way of New York.” I did just that, stayed overnight, then landed in [Camp] Pendleton, California, the next day.

That was when the fooling around stopped. I was promptly assigned to the 4th Marine Division, training on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Hours later, I was on my way via an APA (Attack Personnel Transport) to the First Battalion, 24th Regiment, 4th Marine Division FMF (Fleet Marine Force), there to meet my new boss, Dr. Dick Porter, and be his assistant in the invasion moments away.

Our time in Pearl Harbor was just a ball for the new docs. Daily tennis at the Officers’ Club seemed like a dream, so I made the most of it, and I remember the Company A commander was a fine golfer—at my expense. After 3 weeks of watching our men’s months of conditioning go to pot, our convoy sailed west. These were dull days at best. There were always the givers and the takers—the takers were usually sergeants whose card games were professional, and their choices of low-danger service equally so, for they were in the backup echelons. By the end of the voyage, these guys had cleaned everyone out, and would bring their winnings to the officers for safekeeping. They stopped bothering me when I always said, “Get lost.”

Our destination, we were told, was a tiny island, Iwo Jima, well fortified and manned by seasoned troops. My comrades had been in three previous invasions, so I believed that I, the neophyte, was in the best hands possible. This proved to be so.

We doctors really blew it, for our C Company Captain [William Esterline] was seasick from day one. When he was finally discovered, he was so emaciated and dehydrated that he went to a hospital ship and not the beach on D-Day. And there was the officer who was so proud of his sexual prowess. As he talked about his conquests on the way out, I had a feeling he didn’t think he would survive. He didn’t.

Our turn to disembark and jump into landing craft occurred about 2:00 p.m. [on D-Day, February 19 1945]. It was a melee as we tried to keep units together as we jumped from ladders into the whirling landing-crafts. The number of battlewagons around us was dense and hard to believe, and the firing noise constant as shells hit the island. I remember well our group, but for the life of me cannot name anyone, though they were our corpsmen. I thought, kind of crazy to have us all together, for it would take just one hit and the greatest damage would be done.

Finally, about 3 PM we hit the beach, and my men seemed to disappear as they spread out. I wandered about between vessels discharging tanks and munitions, but aware that being on the beach was a bad idea. All I remember is standing on sand at the water’s edge in the midst of landing craft and looking for someone familiar. The beached ships were trying to deliver their goods as mortar blasts chipped away, the island’s defenders having perfected their aim on the beaches. The death toll was immense, for our positions could be anticipated by the enemy, and easily “zeroed in.”

[Major Irving] “Buck” Schechter found me, grabbed me and yelled, “Doc, let’s get out of here. Follow me!” We scrambled up over the dunes to the vicinity of our battalion, about 300 yards, seemingly out of the mortar fire that concentrated on the beach. All I can remember is digging my hole. No Spam or C-rations for the moment. The sky was alive with bright, whistling shells, thundering as they hit the sand and its occupants. That is all I can remember, except a young Marine, afraid to the point of tears, who I held in my arms until we moved out, somewhere, the next morning. The night was one of fireworks, making the 4th of July celebrations since then hardly a joy.

The next morning we got our boys together and worked our way north, with our combat platoons out front, from foxhole to foxhole away from Surabachi, where all hell was breaking loose. We could see giant bulldozers working at the airfield to ready it for incoming planes, and often doing heroic work just piling sand on the enemy as bullets bounced off their windshields. Those Seabees were something.

I lost track of time and can only remember six days of inching toward a prominence that turned out to be a quarry on the east side. Our only danger seemed to be the mortar shells flying towards us, and I, the engineer, solved that problem by using sticks to triangulate their direction. They could be in front or behind, so that with a threatening sighting, I would say “go,” and our corpsmen would then move and dig in again. As I was in my hole with three others, a man next to me suddenly keeled over, a bullet hole in his forehead. It must have been a stray, and it could have hit anyone of us, so silently and decisively it acts.

There are a few things that stick out in my mind. One was the day when a Navy torpedo bomber were called into to barrage the enemy just beyond the blockhouses. They made a mistake, and hit the blockhouses directly. Someone said, “There goes [Captain] Bill Eddy and his [Baker] Company.” I remember responding with, “Not likely. Bill is too smart and experienced, and taking nothing for granted, would take cover.” And he did.

We finally reached the quarry as our companies took over the blockhouse directly above. The enemy moved north, treacherous cave to cave, being driven towards the end of the island. Two of our best officers, one with a family at home, lost their lives at cave mouths. The quarry would be our home until our 26th day, when the island was finally secured and we departed.

Strangely, I wasn’t afraid. I was fascinated. Perhaps it was my acceptance of whatever might come as I devoted every moment to doing my job. My duties were just those of admiring the actions of our seasoned corpsmen. I must have done something for sure, but can’t remember anything heroic, besides stopping bleeding and applying the wonderful new plywood leg splints, in place of the horrible traction devices used until then. If at times we needed more help, any Boy Scout was effective. The designation “Battalion Surgeon” was impressive, but in fact it was “first aid” all of the way.

Our medical unit and its docs, Dick Porter and I, was fortunate to have very likely the lowest casualty rate on the island. I think we were just plain lucky. Also, Big Dick Porter (all of 6’5”) and most of the corpsman were seasoned veterans of three previous landings in the Marshall Islands [and Marianas] invasions. They knew their business and rules for survival, not the least of which was, “If someone calls for help, call for rifle cover, because the enemy marksman will be zeroed in on his hit and waiting for you.” Think and act.

We lost one of our prized corpsmen who had planned to go to medical school. He broke Big Dick’s rule. [HA1c Billie Lee] Leavell was lost to a sniper in the manner just described [on March 8, 1945]. Danny Danhauer, also on his way to med school—a green corpsman without front line platoon experience—was was next in line to go up [to the front line] and find himself with strangers in a platoon. It was much too dangerous for him, so I took the bull by the horns. I asked my most experienced and reliable corpsman, [PhM2c Ben] Flores, who knew everyone in the platoons, and wouldn’t make mistakes after four landings, to “go up.” Flores said, “I’ll go,” picked up his carbine and disappeared over the brim of the hill into the valley of possible death. This was to me the ultimate bravery, based on the love that permeated our team of Navy Marines. My story of his Bronze Star tells the tale, although by then he and I would have agreed that such had little meaning.

As now, Marines in those days were the cream of the crop. Our Navy corpsmen were sent out into the boondocks, and got the same challenges. They could handle a BAR as well as any Marine. I hated the small carbines we were given, for while working we would always put them down and lose them. Before leaving Maui, I wrote Dad to find a .45 if he could—lo and behold, a friend had his from WW1, so I received it just as the big decision to give Docs 45’s was made. So I had at least one if the enemy should surprise us.

I became concerned about the rapid Jeep evacuation that placed “battle fatigues” on hospital ships—to live that down the rest of their lives, forever tagged with guilt. I have always been a “long haul” doc, and this seemed wrong—these episodes of terror were short and reversible. It was understandable that these Marines had to be evacuated so as not to put their platoons at risk. One day, most of one platoon of Latinos (about 12) came in helpless and crying. I sedated them heavily with barbitals , awakened them 12 hours later, and sent them, happily, back to their buddies. From that point on, almost every likely “battle fatigue” went back to his platoon, some becoming heroes, for all I know. The fallout was that as we prepared for the next invasion, where I would be boss, I pilfered a case of sodium pentathol from the regiment stores. I would then have the means to be truly effective.

We did send our battalion commander, [Major Paul] Treitel, to a hospital ship. Even when in the defilade position in the quarry, and safer than most, I would find Treitel huddled in my fox hole, which I seemed to dig deeper than others. Schechter then took over.

As the fighting ran down, our losses made it necessary to combine the three companies into two. Schechter and [Milton] Cokin, both majors, took command. In the dead of night, they walked alone out ahead, not surprised to find the enemy gone. Their battle sensitivities were higher than others. And the next day we moved out as the enemy threw themselves from the cliffs, doomed by Bushido no matter what they did, because “failure” means death one way or another. So sad.

Buck’s humor was rich and available. In the last few days, about midnight, a giant rocket [320mm “spigot mortar”] would light up the sky as it went over Suribachi, to land in the water beyond. It cost the Navy at least one destroyer to get the message; these rockets flew with little purpose, but were so powerful they couldn’t be kept in island range. Buck showed me one—made of three 3′ diameter canisters, stuck together at the last moment—and said he saw three Nips, one each canister, trying to guide it.

We were told not to take cameras into combat. I understood this rule for, although my camera was my log, I had no desire either to have a camera’s eye recording the trauma I would see, or even to think about anything that would take my mind off my job, if just for an instant. But it did occur to me that as we completed our mission, there might be a time when photos of our men might be worthwhile. Therefore, I placed my prized Contax camera in the safest place I could think of, the Exec’s desk, hoping it might come ashore at a quiet time. On Day 20 or so it was in direct view, 25 yards from the beach, when a mortar shell made a direct hit. I can still see the craft and its contents bubbling slowly as it descended to the bottom. I have to smile, though, for all that was lost could be replaced, and the boat master swam safely to shore. (This photographer was crying about Rosenthal getting all the publicity, for I was up there on Day 1, but absent the camera which had been blown out of my hands. Must have saved my life. Joe’s photo was [taken later], but it was still hot and heavy, and his artistry with the photo speaks for itself.)

This led me again to be the tinkerer. I recalled the original Eastman box camera with its single exposure shutter and no lens. Why not make a similar “pin hole” camera? I scrounged a roll of film, probably from a Marine cameraman, located a small box; made my pin hole, and took a dozen shots. This camera and its photos would today be in a museum, but that was not to be. Again I tried to find the safest place for my treasure. It ended up in the stores on my medically-loaded jeep, to be transported in the hold of our return ship. I still had a lot to learn. My jeep was empty when we recovered it on Maui. My Marine buddies had a good laugh. Didn’t I know that anytime there were goodies not locked up securely, especially coming home from combat, the “swabbies” would steal us blind, and then sell to starry-eyed recruits, even our C-ration utensils, as captured Japanese souvenirs?

The final danger came as we boarded APAs for Maui. For raging seas made the jump from boat to vessel ladder, with cumbersome packs on our back, a final challenge.

I can never forget my mail the day we anchored in Honolulu. The last letter from Mom and Dad said Bruce was “missing in action.” Quite by myself on the bow, I cried, and cried, and cried. As the pilot of his B-24 on his 32nd mission, and with a new crew returning from a successful raid, a defective bomb in his own bomb bay (or one dropped from a plane above) took the lives of all but three. I took no joy in assessing blame, and this would be a lifelong principle, for to me it was only this day and the day ahead that could make a difference. So, get on with it, adjust, regroup, and move ahead. Do I still grieve? Of course, and he is a vital driving part of anything I might have achieved.

For the rest of Doc Lyon’s story of life before, during, and after the Pacific War, please continue to A Process Mind.

One thought on “Richards Lyon: The Surgeon on Iwo Jima

  1. How wonderful to read such a detailed and honest account of Doc Lyon’s experience. As a member of Danny Danhauer’s extended family, it is great to learn more about Iwo Jima. Thank you for all the work you do in maintaining this website.

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