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Iwo Jima Story (1 Viewer)


Senior Member
This is one of my favorite assignments from when I worked for The North Platte Bulletin. It was our cover story and it was featured on Aaron Brown's NewsNight.


Fifty-nine years ago, Nebraskans Glenn Chase and Vernon Combs joined 70,000 other U.S. Marines as they ran headlong into hell.

Thirty-six days later they marched out, after achieving victory in one of the most significant battles of World War II.

The hell they marched into, and fought their out of , was the island of Iwo Jima.

It was the second-bloodiest battle of the war, after that on the island of Tarawa.

In all, 23,000 Marines were killed or wounded. Of the island's 22,000 Japanese defenders, only about 1,000 survived.

On Feb. 19, 1945, all around Lt. Glenn Chase, 5th Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, there was nothing but chaos.

Chase, a 27-year-old Hastings native – a husband, father, and future North Platte businessman - was appalled at the confusion reigning on "Blue Beach," the landing site for the Marines' invasion force.

The amphibious landing vehicle Chase was driving moved sluggishly up the soft sands, and heavy enemy fire was quickly overwhelming Chase's fellow Marines.

"The Japanese were buried inside Mount Suribachi," Chase remembered, 59 years later.

At 550 feet, Suribachi was the high ground that dominated tiny Iwo Jima. Blockhouses, pillboxes and other gunnery emplacements were built into the dead volcano. Enemy gunners were secure inside their fortifications.

"We Marines weren't," Chase said. "The Japanese had every single one of us in their sights."

It was impossible to establish a front line on Blue Beach.

"The sand was soft – way, way too soft. We couldn't dig decent foxholes," he said. "Marines were running around, losing their footing, falling down. My unit lost five or six tractors."

The soft sands also made it hard for Marines to move about in their 100-pound packs, and for medical corpsmen to carry off the wounded.

Chase could see enemy fire blasting away at the other AmTracs like the one he was driving, as well as Higgins landing craft and PT boats. AmTracs and tanks had wheels and tracks shot out from under them. Rockets and artillery shells blew apart the landing craft. He heard PT boat pilots yelling at the Marines, telling them to bail out..

The first wave of 30,000 Marines stormed Iwo Jima's beaches at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 19. By day's end, 560 Marines were dead and more than 1,700 had been wounded. The survivors were hot, tired, frustrated, and doing their best to hold.

The battle for Iwo Jima had begun. .

It would last 36 days.


The force that gathered to invade Iwo Jima consisted of one of the largest fleets ever assembled in the Pacific Theater during World War II. It contained more than 880 naval vessels, including battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, troop transports and support vessels. Hundreds of thousands of sailors and combat pilots joined 110,000 Marines -- the greatest number ever assembled for a single operation. It took the armada 40 days to journey from Hawaii.

Their objective, the island of Iwo Jima, is a spit of volcanic rock and ash five miles long and about two miles across, located 650 miles away from Japan.

America needed to seize the island and its trio of airfields and establish a base for B-29 bombers and their fighter-escorts.

Besides the strategic aspects, American commanders knew the loss of Iwo Jima would deal a severe blow to Japanese morale.

For five thousand years, no foreign army had occupied Japanese soil.

The U.S. Marine Corps was determined to change that.


In preparation for the invasion, the U.S. Army Air Forces launched its longest sustained aerial offensive of the war Feb. 16, 1945. More than 100 bombers swarmed over Iwo Jima, dropping tons of ordnance on the tiny island.

"It was like watching the Fourth of July," recalls Vernon Combs. He was then 19 and a private first class in the Marines, just a kid from the Nebraska Sandhills. Like his fellow Nebraskan Chase, Combs had joined the Marines to serve his country and to protect it from the likes of Hitler and Tojo.

"It was just the right thing to do," he explained.

While Combs, Chase and their fellow Marines watched the bombing runs and anxiously awaited H-Hour, the Japanese were sitting out the bombardment.

Many military historians have acknowledged that Japanese Gen. Kuribayashi Tadamichi was a genius in his defense of Iwo Jima. The main fortress was built entirely underground. It consisted of more than 1,500 chambers scattered throughout the island, connected by more than 16 miles of underground tunnels, along with small bolt holes with trap doors and sniper nests.

Kuribayashi's command bunker was a cement capsule with 5-foot-thick walls and a 10-foot-thick ceiling, buried 75 feet deep into solid rock.

The general and his force of 22,000 men planned to fight to the death.

In a letter to his wife, Kuribayashi wrote, "You must not expect my survival."

Kuribayashi's plan also called for each of his soldiers to kill at least 10 Americans.

For three days and nights, American bombers relentlessly pounded the tiny island.

The bombardment, while merciless, wasn't nearly enough. The entrenched Japanese defenders were barely shaken.

Kuribayashi and his men were calmly waiting for the invasion to begin.


At 2 a.m. Feb. 19, U.S. Navy battleships fired their main guns. For an hour, the naval bombardment lasted. Then it stopped.

When the smoke cleared, Chase and other Marines gasped at what they saw.

Iwo Jima was engulfed in flames.

The American bombers filled the skies again, swooping in low for more attack runs. The bombers completed their runs and the battleships resumed their shelling of Iwo Jima.

A few hours later, the Marines invaded.

The Japanese responded with heavy defensive fire.

After that, it was hell on earth.


"I was part of the 15th wave," Combs said. "We were crammed into this PT boat and it zoomed up to the beach. Sailors were screaming at us to jump overboard as fast as we could."

Shells were exploding all around him. Saltwater stung his eyes as Combs sloshed his way through the water. Enemy gunfire sounded like thunderclaps.

To his dismay, Combs saw that many of the Marines were still scattered along the beach, with no signs of having made a push inland.

"Those Imperial Marines were good marksmen," Combs said, shaking his head slowly.

"Too good. They were hidden everywhere and they were picking us off one by one."

He still remembers seeing blasted AmTacs and tanks. Their burning armored hulks dotted the beach.

Chase said makeshift ramps were used to get some of the armored fighting vehicles up the sand dunes.

Both Chase and Coombs remember the Japanese counterattack.

The Imperial Navy launched more than 700 fighters. The American armada responded, deploying its own protective screen of fighters. Only a small number of Japanese fighters had gotten through, making a few strafing runs before being shot down by Navy and Marine fighters.

Some of the enemy warplanes launched kamikaze-style suicide attacks on U.S. vessels.

"I can still see it in my mind, those Zeroes slamming into some of our ships," Coombs said.

But the Marines had to deal with suicide attackers as well.

Shouting "Banzai!" at the top of their lungs, Japanese soldiers would charge headlong into the Marines, firing their weapons the whole time.

"We used to call them 'bonanza' attacks," Coombs said. "Some of them would come out of the ground, just like a jack-in-the-box."

During one such banzai attack, the Imperial Marines jumped out of a trapdoor in the ground, charging Combs and others.

"One of my guys had a flamethrower," Coombs said. "He aimed its snout at the Japanese and pulled its trigger."

A huge fireball slammed into the Japanese banzai attackers.

"Boom! Bodies went flying up into the air, twisting and burning. Just like that, they were gone."

Combs and other Marines found a Japanese soldier hiding in a bolt hole. One of the Marines knew how to speak Japanese. Combs had him talk to the enemy soldier in an effort to get the man to surrender. Despite that, the Japanese soldier refused to give up and vowed to fight on.

"After that, we didn't have a choice. We used grenades on him," Coombs said.

Combs knew the brutal reality of the situation. Any enemy soldier left alive would do his best to kill Coombs or one of his fellow Marines.


The Americans took control of an Iwo Jima airfield. As fierce, desperate fighting waged all around, American B-29s landed and took off even while the Japanese still held most of the island.

On Feb. 23, when members of Easy Company raised the Stars and Stripes over Mount Suribachi, it gave Chase, Combs, and their fellow Marines a much-needed morale boost. Redoubling their efforts and resolve, the Marines stepped up their offensive.

Many Marine units were decimated by enemy assaults. Survivors quickly fell in with other Marines.

Combs' unit had one such survivor.

"I don't remember his name," Coombs said. "Redheaded kid. Good kid. But he was sure that something was going to happen to him. He knew he was going to die."

One night, Combs and others had managed to dig a shallow foxhole and, using chisels, built a wall of small volcanic rocks around them for extra protective cover. The Marines were huddled inside when an enemy sniper fired upon them.

Combs heard a bullet whiz by and felt somebody slump against him.

"It was Red. He just knew that it was his time. He knew that he was going to die."

On March 22, Combs was adding a few more rocks to the wall around his little foxhole. He remembers moving his head to one side, holding up his chisel, hearing a gunshot and then feeling a searing white-hot pain.

A sniper's bullet had gone clean through his neck. A Navy corpsman tended to the wound the best he could. Then Combs was transferred off the island to a nearby hospital ship.

A few days later, on March 25, after 36 days of pitched battle, Iwo Jima was declared captured.

After he returned home, Combs learned his mother had prayed for him ceaselessly while he was fighting on Iwo Jima.

Combs traced the bullet's path along his neck.

"All that praying worked," he said.


The Americans suffered 25,851 casualties. One in three Americans who fought to take Iwo Jima was wounded or killed.

Easy Company, the group of Marines who raised the flag in the famous photograph, started the battle with 310 men. By the end, only 50 were left alive. Of Easy Company's seven officers, only one survived.

In all, 6,825 Americans died in the long, bloody battle.

Of the 22,000 Japanese defenders, only a thousand or so survived. True to his word, General Kuribayashi died as well, on the last day of the battle.

That battle waged during February and March was only one in which American casualties exceeded Japanese deaths during the Pacific Campaign.

Using Iwo Jima's airfields, more than 2,400 B-29 bombers -and more than 27,000 airmen – took the war to the Japanese home islands.

Iwo Jima was invaluable to bomber pilots, who routinely flew 12-to-15-hour sorties from Guam over Japan. If their planes were hit or malfunctioned, the airfields at Iwo Jima were their only refuge.

By the time the war ended, about 2,500 planes, with 11 crewmen per plane, had found refuge on Iwo Jima - a potential of 27,500 lives saved by the sacrifices of U.S. military invaders.

Fifty-nine years ago, Chase, Combs and hundreds of thousands of others willingly went into hell. They did so because they believed it was the right thing to do.

They had to go, both men said. Their country needed them.

The men who survived the Battle of Iwo Jima are now in their late 70s or older, and their health is declining.

Chase is now on oxygen and is bedridden most of the time. Combs is still going strong, despite two strokes.

Nevertheless, both men remember the 36 days they spent on Hell's Island, and they're still proud of what they accomplished there.


Mr. Chase lived long enough to read this article--then he passed away a few days later.

It should be noted that I believe the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were both mistakes. I believed that then, I believe it now.


Senior Member
great piece, lensman!... and kudos to you for making it to cnn... btw, i agree with you on the A-bomb... i was asked to read a poem of mine at a hiroshima/nagasaki day commemoration ceremony a few years back... i was glad to see it got a standing ovation from an audience in tears... not because of my poetic expertise, but from the sad realization that our mankind is far from 'kind'... thought you might appreciate it:

Motherly Love: Exercises in Futility

Each motherless child,
every childless mother...
I clutch you all to my ample breast
when war’s winds blow wild
and you have no other
soft place for your head to rest.

Each poor butchered bone,
every eyeless socket...
I wash you all with my endless tears,
would happily loan
what you need from my pocket,
but it’s been empty for years.

Each blackened tree limb,
every dying river...
I do what I can to restore your life
but I can’t stop him..
“man,” that Indian-giver,
from putting you all to his knife.

Each love that ends,
every heart that’s broken..
I gather up in these mother’s arms
as my own heart rends
wishing words, just spoken,
could save you from his cruel charms.

Each of you dies
holding hands or alone...
I’m beaten down,
my soul rage fills
when I hear your cries,
know no love of my own
can match man’s need for thrills...
so he kills... and he kills...
and he kills...

...thanks for sharing your article... sadly, it wasn't 'the war to end all wars' after all, was it?

love and hugs, maia


Senior Member
Thank-you, MM. Good poem, too. I enjoyed working on the article and it meant a lot to me, because, as my editor always told me, people and their life stories anchor a good article. Both men had great stories to tell and I was happy to help them share it with others.