Japanese soldiers wore gas masks to suppress the nauseating smell of sulfur as they dug deep into the bowels of Iwo Jima. Eventually, an 11-mile maze of tunnels would connect underground barracks, hospitals, ammo dumps, water supplies and foodstuffs. Above the tunnels, bunkers and pillboxes by the hundreds awaited the American assault that was inevitable.
The Japanese commander, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, 75 feet beneath the ground in a reinforced bunker, scanned the most recent intelligence report transmitted from Chichi Jima: “170 American ships moving northwest from Saipan.” Kuribayashi understood the implication and was prepared to defend Iwo Jima to the last man.
Japanese intelligence was wrong. The American armada approaching the black sands of Iwo Jima was gargantuan: over 450 ships including transports loaded down with three Marine Divisions. Combat veterans of the island-hopping Pacific campaign plus raw recruits who had never fired a shot in anger nervously anticipated boarding their assault boats. These Marines, both tested and untested, would die by the thousands securing three airfields on an island scarcely eight miles in size.
Capt. David Severance, a veteran of jungle fighting on the island of Bougainville, commanded the Marines of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. Severance and his men would be in combat for 33 days of the 36-day conflict. He came ashore on Feb. 19, 1945 with 240 enlisted men and six officers. Casualties were so horrific that by the time the guns fell silent, Severance’s casualty rate was 130 percent, taking into account the steady supply of raw replacements. All his officers were either killed or evacuated with terrible wounds.
Severance received one replacement officer, a young lieutenant. The lieutenant lasted 15 minutes. Severance’s seven corpsmen were all killed. He received seven replacement corpsmen; all seven were either killed or gravely wounded. He requested more, only to receive the only medical people Command could tender: two jeep drivers with first-aid training. Both were killed.
Col. Dave Severance, now retired, lives in La Jolla, Cal., and is still active at the young age of 95. Through research and personal correspondence with Severance, I have been given the honor to pen his story, a story of one of the few surviving military officers of a bloodbath in the middle of nowhere called Sulfur Island, better known as Iwo Jima.
From one of the letters I received from Severance: “We landed on D-Day, 19 February 1945. Personnel from my Company took the summit of Mt. Suribachi on 23 Februay 1945 and raised a small American flag. Two hours later, after the Secretary of the Navy (Forrestal) requested the small flag as a souvenir; my Company replaced the smaller flag with a larger flag to be given to the Secretary. The event, photographed by Associated Press Photographer Joe Rosenthal, inspired the sculpting of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, DC.”
Modest words from a modest Marine. More specifically, the Secretary of the Navy had arrived on the beach with Marine Lt. Gen. Holland ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Smith. Upon seeing the smaller flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Forrestal remarked to Gen. Smith, “Holland, the raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.”
Secretary Forrestal also wanted the flag as a souvenir. His request did not sit well when it reached the 2nd Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Chandler Johnson, who stated, “Hell no, he can’t have our flag! We put it up there, and we are going to keep it!” The larger flag, found aboard LST-779 and destined to be unfurled in the famous Rosenthal picture of the flag raisers, replaced the smaller flag.
Over a year later the six flag raisers were accurately identified: Michael Strank, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, Ira Hayes, John Bradley and Rene Gagnon. Hayes, Bradley, and Gagnon were the only flag raisers to get off Iwo Jima alive.
Before the photo, before the beach was reasonably safe for a Secretary of the Navy, Capt. Dave Severance and the Marines of Easy Company were assigned the task of securing Mt. Suribachi. After battling off the death-trap beach, Severance and his men pivoted left to take Suribachi. His words paraphrased from “Into the Rising Sun” by Patrick O’Donnell: “The base of Suribachi was ringed with bunkers and machine gun nests, and to make matters worse I lost radio communications with battalion HQ. That proved a problem when our own planes started bombing us instead of the Japanese.”
Mistaken for the enemy, Navy F-6F fighters began dropping bombs on the American positions. Severance recalled, “We’d had 30 percent casualties the day before so I was out of red flares to warn-off the planes. I did the only thing I could … switch to my Regimental Commander’s radio frequency and ask for help.”
“Redwing Six, this is Bayonet Easy Six, over.”
The regimental radioman answered, “Bayonet Six, this is Redwing Six, over.”
“Redwing Six, this is Bayonet Easy Six. Friendly planes are bombing our position, over.”
“Bayonet Easy Six, this is Redwing Six. Say again your last message.”
“Redwing Six, friendly planes are bombing the hell out of us, over.”
After a long pause, most likely while the radioman ran to someone of authority for a decision, the preposterous reply came back, “Bayonet Easy Six, this is Redwing Six. You are not authorized to come up on this frequency, over.”
Luckily, Severance’s battalion commander was visiting the regimental commander and overheard the radio exchange. The Navy planes were called off.
On D-Day plus two, Severance faced another glitch. “At 8 a.m. we were ordered to assault Mt. Suribachi with tank support, but no tanks showed up. We waited, but at 8:30 a.m. we received the order, ‘Go without tanks.’ So we did.” Facing murderous enemy fire, Severance and his marines moved from shell holes to bomb craters, attempting to breach the Japanese defenses. Two hours later, around 10:30 a.m., the tanks showed up.
Fast forward to April 13, 2014 — during an Honor Flight Conyers ‘meet and greet’ at the American Legion, this journalist overheard a member of the Greatest Generation mention his combat on Iwo Jima. His name is Jim Stockton. His business card claims his status as: Chairman of the Board for ‘Doolittle, Livwell, & Sitmore.’ Marines, ya gotta love them.
Stockton was a gunner on one of the Sherman tanks that provided the cover fire for Severance and Easy Company as they assaulted Mt. Suribachi. Math was never my forte, but I’d like to calculate the odds of penning a story on one of the few remaining officers who led the attack on Suribachi, then by a quirk of fate as a board member of Honor Flight Conyers, meet the marine gunner on one of the supporting tanks in the same week. To use the old cliché ‘it’s a small world’ doesn’t even begin to conceal my amazement, nor my good luck.
Stockton fired over a hundred rounds at dozens of targets on Suribachi, survived a hand-to-hand encounter with a Japanese soldier, survived a mine explosion, yet humbly offered praise to an undervalued group of heroes: the maintenance crews. Under enemy fire, these brave men repaired damaged tanks so Marines had a fighting chance. The tanks averaged being knocked out of action five times.
Mt. Suribachi fell. Severance and the remainder of Easy Company held the left flank on the final assault to the northern tip of Iwo Jima. After the war Severance attended flight school and flew 69 combat missions in both propeller and jet all-weather/night fighters during the Korean War. Combat decorations include the Silver Star for service on Iwo Jima plus the Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals for his service in Korea.
During the dedication of one of the massive cemeteries on Iwo Jima, 3rd Marine Division Cmrd. Gen. Erskine solemnly stated, “Victory was never in doubt. What was in doubt, in all our minds, was whether there would be any of us left to dedicate this cemetery.”
The United States Marines sailed to Iwo Jima crammed aboard 22 troop transports. After the battle, those still able to board a ship sailed home comfortably on eight vessels.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.