I know my father did his part to secure the freedom I now enjoy — with the 23rd Marines, 4th Division, and the battles to secure Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima.
What I don’t know is what it cost my father. Dad, like many vets, didn’t talk much about his experience. This week I learned a little more when I received a copy of my father’s citation for his efforts on Iwo Jima. It arrived as part of a thick bundle of papers from the National Personnel Archives that I requested a year or so ago… and promptly forgot about.
What Dad had shared came out in fragments. I’d done some research to learn what he couldn’t tell me. But the citation, which explains what Dad did to earn a gold star in lieu of a second bronze star, helped me piece together more of his story. (Excerpts from the citation appear in italics to differentiate them from Dad’s few quotes.)
…Having assumed the duties of operations officer in an infantry regiment during the planning phase, Major Campbell, although confronted with many difficulties incident to the absorption of a large number of replacements and the indoctrination of inexperienced staff officers, placed all units in a high state of readiness for combat….
The “incident… of a large number of replacements” understates the reality. By the end of the second day of battle, the “Fighting Fourth” alone had lost more than 2,000 men. By the end of the second week, half the American forces were dead or wounded. The men who were sent in to reconstitute platoons, including “inexperienced staff officers,” died even faster than the men they replaced. But Dad didn’t talk about that.
…Embarking on a control vessel during the initial stages of the landing attack, he supervised the transmittal and execution of numerous orders issued during the ship to shore movement. With only a limited beachhead established and with the beach area practically untenable as a result of heavy and accurate enemy fire, he landed with the command echelon of his unit and quickly obtained contact with all units ashore, thus rendering invaluable assistance to his regimental commander….
My father began to talk about the war when he was in his 80s, but he was the storyteller who couldn’t get much past the “once upon a time.” The story began with D-Day, when he stood in his roiling landing craft with his first view of the beach:
“From up on the deck of the landing craft, the light was growing. We saw this ungodly ghostly tower rising six to seven hundred feet in the air. It was a volcanic spire, the goddamnedest thing I ever saw.”
Although he’d been ordered hold off by the Beach Master, he saw an opening in the boat traffic and ordered his landing craft to go for it.
“The island was shaped like a pork chop – a volcanic mound with steep sides, honeycombed with caves. It overlooked the beaches we landed on — the Japanese had perfect visibility. Down at the far end was another escarpment looking the other way.”
It was eerily quiet when the Marines began to land. One of the things that intelligence didn’t know was that the beach was composed of volcanic ash. Small landing craft foundered; men sunk in the quagmire that sucked at their boots.
Then the island came to life. Mortars, rockets, machine guns and artillery cut the men on the beach to ribbons. A Saturday Evening Post headline dubbed Iwo Jima “the Red Hot Rock.”
Foxholes collapsed. There was no cover.
Dad said, “We had one fine officer who took a posthumous award for scooping up men without leaders and taking the key point. They got all shot up.”
…Throughout the following twenty-five days, Major Campbell was required to assume progressively greater responsibility because of many casualties among leaders and staff personnel….
Dad never mentioned that. But it makes sense. More than a quarter of the original men of the Fourth who sailed out of San Diego in January 1944 became casualties (killed, wounded or missing in action). Iwo Jima was the only WWII battle in which overall American casualties exceeded those of the enemy.
…He made frequent visits to forward areas where his demonstration of coolness and courage under fire served as an inspiration to those who observed him….
Dad did tell one story that supports this assessment, but he told it as an amusing anecdote: “Some days later, maybe D+4, I went down to Division HQ. My job was to prepare to take over and I needed to know where everyone was, their weaponry, etc.. Enough of the island had been taken by then that you could move around. I had to walk about one mile to the other end of the island. In the command post, the situation map was surrounded by officers and I couldn’t see anything. Then, the Japanese started firing high velocity rounds from their position on a cliff. Division HQ staff bailed out and I took all of the information I needed and walked out.”
When my father told this story, he smiled that wry smile of his — one lip rising higher than the other.
…His unselfish devotion to duty and superb judgment contributed to the success of the attack and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. — Roy S. Geiger, Lt. Gen., USMC
Like many vets of his generation, my father minimized his role. He turned the spotlight on the front lines.
“Iwo Jima as an overall operation was absolutely petrifying. No doubt about that. But I was not a front line trooper although there were some near misses, but the near misses are a little different. They’re come and gone before you think about it. The danger’s over from that immediate thing, or you’re dead, one of the two. Either way it’s not a problem, I guess.
“It went on a long time….I was not down on my belly in the sand taking fire from some unseen joker a hundred yards ahead. I had enormous respect for the kids that did it. I’m not a hero. But I knew some that were. If there were heroes at all they were the line troopers that actually took the brunt of this thing. That has to take enormous guts and will to go day after day after day of this stuff and your friends getting killed around you. Bad. Really bad.”
It was only when my father uttered these last two fragments that I had a sense of what the war cost him. He closed his eyes and paused. His throat tightened when he said, “Really bad.” The memory, decades later, was still too hot to touch.
4 responses to “The Price of Freedom”
Betsy, your Dad was like mine. Both served in the Pacific and neither spoke much about what they did. Quiet heroes to whom we owe our freedom.
Like so many of those guys. For my not-yet-complete memoir about my seven years with him (and of course about his past and mine), I did a lot of secondary research. Basically had to fill in the blanks of what his experience might have been like. Horrific. Learned a little more from the “honorary” historian of the 23rd regiment. Still learning… Thanks for stopping in.
Once again you bring tears. My dad wasn’t in the Pacific, he was in Europe at the battle of the bulge. Like your dad, he rarely talked about his experiences. I remember one story he told as a humorous antidote, but it was in fact quite dangerous. Our fathers were great friends who shared similar experiences and the depth of their friendship was built on mutual respect and admiration. They couldn’t talk about the horrors of their war, but I believe that knowing the other understood without words was a bond strong enough to help them cope.
Yes, for my father and yours, just being with others who knew what it was like was a comfort. Dad wrote a letter to Mom that she read on the air of a Boise broadcast, in which he said that it was as if there were two of him — the one there, and the one she loved and knew. He tried to assure her that he would be the same Henry when he came home. Though, of course, I am sure he changed on some level. They were amazing men, an amazing generation. And I’m proud to say that I still have family and friends who are serving. WWII was a war with a set of obvious threats, and clear objectives. The ambiguity of conflicts in our era is tough on our men and women in the service.