Leaving a Mark on History

Author: Matt Davison

In serving incarcerated veterans, I formed bonds with warriors who took part in wars spanning Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. One vet, who is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island, California, precedes all these wars and has become a valued friend over the past five years. Because of confidentiality issues, I will not give his complete name, but will refer to him simply as Rene. This is his story. 

Rene is a World War II veteran, a Marine, and one of the many Marines who took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima under the leadership of General “Howlin’ Mad” Smith on February 19, 1945. Rene was part of the 5th Marine Division that was there on the first day — when U.S. Marines took 2,400 casualties and 600 dead. Historians agree that the invasion of Iwo Jima was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific. During the entire operation, Marines and sailors suffered 6,800 killed and more than 18,000 wounded. Japanese soldiers fared far worse. Of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers entrenched on the island, 20,000 were killed. 

Rene was born in upstate New York in 1924. He and his family lived through the Great Depression. They were a close-knit and loving family. He was in the 10th grade when a radio news flash announced the attack on Pearl Harbor. He recalls all the students being called to assembly to hear President Roosevelt’s remarks, including “a day that will live in infamy.” A conscription would soon be instituted to draft all high school graduates and men from 18 to 27 years of age.

For Rene, it seemed that life had been forever changed and was now full of uncertainty. He graduated from high school in 1943, moved with his family to California, and volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps. Rene took his boot camp training in San Diego. He became an expert with the M-1 rifle and graduated Private First Class. From San Diego, he was shipped out to Camp Pendleton where the 5th Division (Spearhead Division) was formed.

Gary Seas

The Story in Rene's Words

After six months of intense training, our division was shipped out to Camp Tarawa on the Big Island of Hawaii. Another four months of vigorous training followed. 

Finally, in January of 1944, the division sailed out of Hilo. We had no idea what our final destination would be. Some 800 vessels of all types made up the invasion armada, and after several days at sea, we were finally told that the target was a small volcanic ash island just 350 miles southwest of Japan, called Iwo Jima. 

We were also told that the island was made up of earth-covered structures with connecting tunnels that ran from one end of the island to the other. At the left end of the island stood Mount Suribachi, where defenses were coordinated. The division was briefed by intelligence and told that the operation could probably be accomplished in short order. It soon became evident that support — such as battle wagon guns — was lacking, and that Admiral Spruance, chief of our task force, had decided that the attacks on Tokyo took priority over Iwo Jima. 

The main objective for taking Iwo was to destroy the Japanese radar station that alerted antiaircraft stations on the mainland and seize the airfields there. Japanese fighter planes, attacking from the Iwo Jima airstrips, were shooting down too many American B-29s returning from bombing runs over Japan. General Curtis Lemay wanted those airstrips for his B-29s and P-51 Mustangs. 

U.S. forces dropped 5,800 tons of bombs in over 2,700 sorties. This bombing only seemed to strengthen the enemy’s fanatical will to defend Iwo at all costs. Each Japanese soldier was instructed to kill at least six or seven Marines before dying. 

We were awakened at 3:30 a.m., served a breakfast of steak and eggs, and given a “good hunting” message from our commanding officer. The first wave of the attack hit the beach around 9 a.m. Climbing down the cargo net was a tricky maneuver with full packs and weapons. One missed step would result in being tossed into the churning ocean. There were 40 men per landing craft. 

As we neared the beach, we observed devastating gunfire coming from the island and blanketing the beach, blowing up landing craft on either side of us. It was the most frightening moment in my life. Our training paled in comparison to what was actually happening. 

As we hit the beach, the ramp was dropped and we dashed through raindrop-like barrages and explosions, trying to get to some protected coverage. I ripped my pack off to move faster and dug in. When I went back to retrieve my pack the only thing that was left was a crater hole from where a mortar had hit. The landing beach was a mass of Marines being put ashore and having almost no place for cover. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. 

This lasted all morning and intermittently throughout the day and night. Our landing on the Red Beach 2 location was about 500 yards from Iwo’s number one airfield and about 2,000 yards from the base of Mount Suribachi. During the devastating barrages from enemy weapons, we attempted to dig our foxholes. My buddy and I, along with the rest of our troops, were taking sniper fire from the airstrips in front of us. Hidden behind a wrecked Zero aircraft above our elevation, he had good cover. The sniper was eventually silenced after an hour or so, after taking his quota of young Marine lives. The Japanese had the advantage of directing gunfire from Mount Suribachi. Our commanders considered withdrawing us from the battle because of the great losses we incurred through our first day. 

Everything had been stalled on the beach. That night, we finally started to slowly move inland. The constant rain, along with the volcanic sand, caused our heavy equipment to be bogged down, making it difficult to move off the beach. This amphibious landing was a nightmare, but we were to prevail in spite of the odds. How did any of us survive the beach landing? This is a question that I have asked myself over and over again. It’s a very haunting memory that I have carried — and will carry — with me for the rest of my life.

Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington D.C.

Picking up Where Rene Left Off

Rene was unable to share the rest of his Iwo experience because of the distress and anguish these memories evoked. He tells me that he feels guilt because he was able to come home when his buddies didn’t make it through the battle. I’ve heard this sentiment many times from veterans of all wars. At one point in his life, Rene made a wrong turn — a mistake, and he was incarcerated. Now, he would become just another forgotten veteran, joining the many others incarcerated or homeless out on the streets. But an unexpected phone call changed all that for Rene. The curator from the LA Veterans History Museum called me to say the museum had just dedicated a section to the Battle of Iwo Jima; she was given a lithograph of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi to hang in the museum — the original is in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. She asked if I knew any veterans of this battle wanting to put their signatures on the lithograph before it was displayed. 

Yes, I knew one man, explaining that he was incarcerated at Terminal Island. She asked if he’d be able to sign the lithograph; I promised to find out. To my surprise, the administrators at Terminal Island gave permission for the curator to enter the facility and have Rene sign the lithograph. Arrangements were made, and a date was set. 

On the day of the event, my team and I, the museum curator, and Rene’s 85-year-old sister (to whom he was devoted) gathered at the institution. We were led into a special room and joined there by prison administrators and the warden. Then all the veterans we served were led in to witness the event. The lithograph was unrolled and Rene signed it. Recognition filled the room in the form of applause, hugs, handshakes, and some tears. The institution even provided refreshments for attendees to enjoy after the ceremony took place.

Rene signing the lithograph

UPDATE: Since this essay was written, the LA Veterans History Museum closed its doors. While this is unfortunate, the lithograph did have its moment in the sun, and Rene was not just another forgotten veteran. Rene was released from prison in 2007; I never asked him what he was convicted of. I didn’t care. I only cared that he was a beautiful soul and brave warrior. Like the museum that held his Iwo Jima lithograph, he has since passed, leaving the battlefields of heroes, and I miss him still.

Matt Davison is a U.S. Air Force Veteran. Rene is a World War II veteran, a Marine, and one of the many Marines who took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima.

Photos: Pexels, Matt Davison