Combat Zone: The ‘Hell on Earth’ That Was Iwo Jima

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins September 15, 2009 08:00

Roberson with early 1945 photo taken on Guam shortly before he went to Iwo Jima

On a wind-whipped morning in February 1945, 24-year-old Marine Sgt. Harry Roberson hunkered in a half-track churning across a black-sand beach at the base of Mt. Suribachi, his pulse racing.

He and fellow soldiers in the 3rd Marine Division had already fought the Japanese on Guam, 700 miles to the south. But for Roberson, that jungle fight would pale in comparison to what lay ahead on the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima – “Sulfur Island.”

The Marines’ mission: seize the island and its three airfields from the Japanese, who used it to launch kamikaze raids. In the critical final months of the war, the newly captured Iwo Jima would prove to be a strategic U.S. base for attacks on mainland Japan and serve as a lifesaving landing site for crippled U.S. bombers.

Over the next 36 days, U.S. forces killed most of the more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers dug into a heavily fortified network of underground tunnels and bunkers. Of the 70,000 U.S. Marines who invaded – from the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions, and other units of the Marines’ V Amphibious Corps – more than 6,800 died and 19,000 were wounded. Of the Japanese soldiers, only 1,083 survived.

Roberson’s unit’s first job was to help secure the heavily fortified “Airfield Number Two” at the center of the eight-square-mile island. The Marines met with intense resistance for three days, a period he describes as “hell on earth” – a waking nightmare amid the stench of sulfur and death and a nonstop battering of bullets and bombs.

Long before that surreal scene, there had been another turning point: when a young man saw the Marine Corps as a way out of the farm fields.

A hint of glamour

Roberson remembers the recruiting posters of 1940: Images of khaki-clad and helmeted Marines in full battle charge, weapons forward, a hint of the cerulean sea behind. The life of these “Soldiers of the Sea” struck the 19-year-old field worker as action-packed and tinged with glamour, unlike the daily drudgery of his own life – picking fruit in southern and central California.

Yet the orchards had saved his family during the Depression. In 1932 they’d left Elden, Missouri, parents and four children living for years in a trailer that his jack-of-all-trades father built. They moved seasonally with California’s oranges, apricots, pears, peaches and nectarines. But by July 1940, Harry had had enough.

“I wanted something decent to wear and to eat, and I was tired of working in the fields for 25 cents an hour,” he recalls. “Of course, I only got $21 a month when I went in the service, but I got all my clothes and meals, and everything else.”

While the glamour those posters hinted at never materialized, the promised action did. In his six years with the U.S. Marine Corps – a period in which, after the U.S. entered the war, the Marines’ duty roster jumped from 55,000 to more than 475,000 – Roberson fought in several key battles and saw history made.

After three months of boot camp in San Diego where fierce drill sergeants “called us everything but gentlemen,” he was tapped for sea school and trained for Navy ship duty.  He served for two years aboard the USS Idaho, a 32,000-ton battleship that left its Pearl Harbor homeport in October 1941 to escort Liberty ships to Iceland, past an invisible yet deadly gauntlet of German U-boats.

For Roberson, several incidents from that time stand out. The convoy that the Idaho was part of picked up survivors of the Oct. 31 sinking of the destroyer USS Reuben James, the first U.S. Navy ship sunk by hostile action in the war. Then there was that epic North Atlantic storm with 100-mph winds and 150-feet high waves that pitched the Idaho and other convoy ships up vast mountains and into cavernous valleys. Though all survived, “It seemed impossible,” he recalls, “the most terrible storm I’ve ever seen.”

A military photographer's shot of Harry (left) and his older brother, Joe, studying a map. The brothers, both in the 9th Marines, met up on Guadalcanal in 1943 and were stationed there together before Joe returned to the states and Harrry went to Guam.

He also remembers the heart-wrenching notification over the ship’s loudspeaker on December 7: the U.S. fleet in flames in the Idaho’s homeport. His reaction: “Let’s get at ’em.” The ship was regunned and made ready for battle, then journeyed back through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast to the Aleutians to shell Japanese. Its stop in San Francisco marked an end to Roberson’s sea duty: Men were needed for ground combat in the Pacific. He was assigned to the 9th Marines.

While on leave, he met and briefly dated Lois Uhlig, an attractive USO hostess and Modesto native. And then, victim of a war that wouldn’t wait, the young romance fell to the wayside for a half-century.

In the jungles of Guam

Roberson shipped out to New Caledonia, then Guadalcanal in the Western Pacific, and in July 1944, the 9th Marines and their 3rd Division colleagues landed in Guam, where more than 1,700 among them would die in combat.

“Everybody’s afraid, scared,” he says, “but it’s taught to you in the Marine Corps that you have to move forward, drive yourself forward. Esprit de corps … Of course you’re young then, and don’t know much better … I just remember a lot of noise, sniper fire, mortar fire and machine-gun fire. This was my first real experience in combat.”

Once the island was secure, the Marines began preparing for the next target: Iwo Jima, located 660 miles south of Tokyo. Roberson’s training was interrupted in late 1944, when a Jeep crash left him in a coma. His parents were notified that he “probably wouldn’t make it.” Despite the head injury and a broken arm and ribs, he woke up nine days later and went on to fully recover.

By early 1945 preparations were under way for a full-scale invasion of Iwo Jima. Bombing to soften resistance had begun, and on February 19 in rough surf the first Marines landed, suffering heavy casualties in the fierce fight for Mt. Suribachi. AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s famous shot of the flag-raising forever marked the costly victory. Five days later, in high seas amid days of kamikaze attacks that claimed several ships, Roberson’s unit landed.

Most of the bodies of the Marines who had died in the days prior had been removed, Roberson says, but the beaches were still littered with blown up equipment and bomb debris. On land he shed his 90-pound pack for a lighter load, an M-1 rifle, 45-revolver and bandoliers that held 150 rounds of ammo. Tucked safely on his person were two lockets: one held a photo of his brother, the other of a San Diego girl named Dorothy Brunson with whom he imagined a future. In the days ahead, that future – hinging as it did on Harry’s survival – began to seem less and less likely. Here, in Roberson’s own words, are his memories of Iwo Jima.

It’s a volcanic island, and Mount Suribachi is on the narrow end of it. The island is shaped like a pork chop; it’s an old volcano but still alive. You’d sink halfway to your knees in the black sand, and if you dig down in there six or eight inches the ground’s hot.  We used to put our C rations in there to heat them up. Then we’d open them up and eat them, have a hot meal.

We were waiting on ship for four days prior to going in, and they were bringing casualties out to the ship, out to all the ships, in large numbers. Several ships around ours were sunk by kamikazes while we waited to go in…

The Navy shelled the island for days ahead of time, but it didn’t do much good because the Japanese were dug in their caves. They had hospitals underground, all the living quarters, everything. Like a bunch of moles. … Our military thought they had destroyed most of the tunnel system in the pre-landing bombardment. I’m sure it was a shock to determine the true extent of it.

But the bombardment did give us a place to get in under cover, in the bomb craters. They used five-inch guns from the ships, and 16-inch guns, and all kinds of bombs and rockets that left craters about 20 feet across and five feet deep.

We went ashore to relieve the 21st Marines. We saw all the torn up equipment, blown up equipment – the beach was covered with it. We saw a few casualties but they had removed most of the bodies by then … The Japanese used these big mortars, almost as big as a barrel and those shells were all full of nails and glass and everything … They caused terrible casualties. The first one I saw was when I was going across number one airfield in the half- track. It landed about 200 yards from us, made a big noise. A different noise than any other shell, kind of a hollow sound.

The firefight intensified dramatically as the Marines inched their way toward the second airfield, from rock crevices to foxholes to bomb craters.

For three days at the center of the island we had very heavy losses. It was just hell on earth. It was bad. Fire everywhere, shooting, and all the Japanese were dug in, with connecting tunnels from one end of the island to the other …

You had this volcanic rock around, and you’d get as much cover as you could. There was very little brush on the island; it had all been burned off. We’d move up, dig in, find someplace where you think is safe where you can fire.

You hardly ever saw the Japanese. They were camouflaged, but you could see where their fire was coming from – the dust would raise from the muzzle of the gun so you could see where they were, and you’d try to send some mortar shells that way … I only saw them when they were giving up, burned out of their holes. They’d come with their hands up, sometimes they’d have something white in their hands …

We used flame throwers, we had a lot of those, and a few of the Marines were specially trained to use them. They would get up to a cave somewhere, up near a bunker, and then they would turn it loose down a tunnel or a cave to roust them out … They’d shoot about 100 feet of liquid … It would get on the Japanese and burn them, and then we’d close up the tunnels with bulldozers. If there was anyone in there alive, well, they died.

Once in awhile they’d pull a banzai, come out in a heavy bunch and try to run you over, which was pretty much a suicide mission … The bodies of the Japanese we’d push in a trench with bulldozers and cover them up …

The nights were punctuated by firefights, and the blinding flashes of flares sent up by both sides to assess troop positions.

All night long, you got these flares going in the air that light up the whole area like daylight. We’re shooting them off, and the Japanese did too, so you could see each other’s movements, and it would light it up as light as day …

The nights were the worst, the longest nights you’ve ever seen … If there was four or five of us sleeping in a foxhole or bomb crater, we had to have a machine gun set up and have a couple of men looking out while the others slept, then trade off. You can’t sleep, and you’re laying there in the ground, a foxhole or bomb crater somewhere…

A couple of times I thought I wasn’t going to make it through the night. I decided I probably wouldn’t get out of it in one piece … but there’s so much going on when you’re in combat, you don’t dwell on it – that’ll get you in trouble.

There was the stench of dead people and sulfur … The flies got so bad, big old blowflies, that they sprayed the whole island with DDT about midway through our time there. DDT raining down on us, but of course they couldn’t warn us when they were about to do it …

Finding purpose

His unit continued its push northward. By March 26, the island was secured. More than a third of the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima were killed, wounded, or suffered combat fatigue; “Their minds had taken all they could,” Roberson says.

Asked how he survived, Roberson thinks for a moment, working to recapture 64-year-old memories. His answer: “Keep your head down, don’t take any unnecessary chances, and just do your job.”

How did the war change his life? When he joined the Marine Corps, he recalls, “I was just kind of loose at both ends, wasn’t doing much of anything, didn’t seem to have any purpose in my life.” Six years later, he was a different person – grateful to be alive, unwilling to dwell on the horrors of war, ready to get on with his life.

“From that point on, I wasn’t afraid of adventure, or business, or anything like that … I just went forward … I don’t know just how to say it, but it made me my own man. It made me proud. And it helped me, I think, to be successful in business. I know the Marine Corps had a lot to do with how I’ve lived my life since that time.”

In 1946, Sgt. Roberson married Dorothy Brunson, left the service, and trained as a plumber. They moved to Twain

Dorothy and Harry's 1946 wedding photo

Harte in 1954 and raised four children while building his business. They experienced great joy over the years – 11 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and now six great-great-grandchildren – and also great sorrow. One of their twin sons, Bill, survived two tours in Vietnam only to die in a car crash near Sonora at the age of 25. And on Jan. 4, 1998, Dorothy died of cancer after 52 years of marriage.

After her death, Roberson reconnected with Lois, the USO hostess he’d danced with so many years before. Her family had a cabin in Tuolumne County, and they had occasionally spotted each other around town. Ten years ago, the couple married.

A few years ago, Lois and Harry took a veterans’ cruise to visit the part of the world where Harry once fought as a “soldier of the sea.” Leaning over the ship’s railing, he looked long and hard at that now-silent and greener Iwo Jima, wishing he could claim some of that fabled black sand. Instead, under sunny skies on a cloudless day, he threw a wreath in honor of friends who’d died there a half-century earlier.

Like many World War II veterans, Roberson hasn’t shared his war experiences much over the years, and he holds his emotions firmly in check in the retelling. One senses that he has made it through difficult times since the war in the same way he survived on Iwo Jima in 1945: Keep your head down, do your job. Ever practical, he points out that most Marines who fought on Iwo Jima survived.

“Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima,” Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz said after the island’s capture, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Roberson is simply grateful to have been a Marine and to have survived. “I feel pretty lucky,” he says. “I’m 89 and I’m still alive.”

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins September 15, 2009 08:00
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1 Comment

  1. cindy holm January 12, 19:24

    Harry, How did I know you so long and never have any idea of where you have been? I am so proud and grateful for your life and the example you have set for all of us. thank you and God’s speed in all you do and have done
    all my love
    Cindy

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