PLAIN TWP.: They will always remember Iwo Jima.
Several veterans gathered Tuesday at a First Christian Church to recall the day 68 years ago when the U.S. first landed on the tiny Pacific island in a crucial battle of World War II.
Intense fighting would last more than a month.
“It was nothing but confusion,” said Jonah Greer, 89, of Akron, who landed Feb. 19, 1945, with the 4th Marine Division. “I lasted 15 days.”
A retired brick layer, Greer was awarded two Purple Hearts in the war — one from wounds sustained on Iwo Jima, the other at Saipan. He said he often wonders what might have happened to him had he not been wounded when he was on the island.
“The way it was, you had a 30 percent chance you wouldn’t make it,” he said, referring to Iwo Jima’s fatality rate. As a rifleman serving on the front lines, “You know you were going to get it.”
He said the question was not if, but when.
“Day after day, night after night, you wondered. You wondered,” Greer said.
And when he finally was being flown out after a grenade blast wounded his eye, he said, “I held my breath” until the plane was safely away from the island.
Navy Corpsman Joe Guillod, 90, of Canton, a retired meat cutter who operated his own neighborhood grocery store, said he always has considered himself a Marine more than a sailor because he served with Marines on Iwo Jima as a medic. He landed on the second day of the battle.
“It was not near as bad as Day 1,” he said. “I was on the island for 28 days. I was glad I was able to do what I could to save some of the Marines, but that’s it.”
Guillod said he rarely talks about his experiences on Iwo Jima, his only battle during World War II. Being on Iwo Jima, he said, “broadened my vision a lot.”
To this day, he has only one explanation of how he was able to leave the island unharmed: “It was a miracle. God was with me.”
Emil Graves, 87, of Canton, a retiree from Ford’s Canton facility, landed after the battle started and was a replacement Marine.
“One thing I’ll never forget is I saw a Piper Pacer shot down right above me,” he said.
His time on the island wasn’t long — “I think about three days,” he said — before he received a concussion from a grenade and wound up on a hospital ship.
“I learned a lot being in the Marine Corps,” he said. “You are there and you do your duty. That’s all I can say. They say, ‘Do it,’ and you do it.”
Marine veteran Chris Beebe, a postal worker from East Sparta, arranged the Iwo Jima luncheon.
“I’ve read about this since fifth grade,” Bebbe, 52, said of the battle. “The reason I started is so I can sit down and talk to these guys.”
Missing from the gathering was former University of Akron history professor Noel L. Leathers, of Cuyahoga Falls, who died Jan. 28 at age 89.
A few years ago he wrote a book on his experiences in the Pacific in the Marine Corps as an interpreter. But it was not until the past New Year’s Eve that the book was published and finally arrived at his home.
“He decided he would dedicate the book to the kids of Iwo Jima,” the children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren of Iwo veterans who had never been told stories of the war, his wife, Violet Leathers, said Tuesday.
Her husband “never talked about [the war] to anybody,” then decided to write a book of his experiences, she said.
Reflections on the Pacific War: A Marine interpreter remembers was inspired after attending a commemoration of the 65th anniversary of Iwo Jima, Leathers wrote in his book.
“Most of the men who came back from World War II didn’t talk about their experiences, so it’s only recently that their children are learning about it,” he wrote.
Writing about the day of the landing, Leathers, who also served as vice president for academic affairs and senior vice president and provost at UA, spoke of the firefight U.S. troops encountered when landing on the island.
“The intensity of enemy fire had steadily increased from mid-morning and continued into the evening,” he wrote. As Marines established defense locations, “the Japanese lowered their anti-aircraft guns to fire over their heads. This provided a steady shower of shrapnel on all areas along the beaches until well after midnight. The hissing sound made by shrapnel as it hit the volcanic ash made one feel as if we were targets in a shooting gallery.”
U.S. Navy records put the American casualty count for the 36-day assault on Iwo Jima at 26,000, with 6,800 fatalities. Only an estimated 1,083 Japanese defenders of the island from a force of 20,000 survived.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.