February 2009

How One Squad Fared on Iwo Jima

Battlefield recollections
Volume 93, Issue 2

LtCol Michael D. Grice

Mark Elfers

At the time of the assault on Iwo Jima, 19 February 1945, I was a corporal leading a squad of machine gunners with a Marine Corps rifle company, Company G (Co G), 23d Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division (4th MarDiv). We were in the second wave of troops. No other amtracks landed near us.

When our tractor reached shore, it bogged down in the soft volcanic ash and barely cleared the water's edge. The rear ramp dropped, and the rifle squad that shared the amtrack with my squad exited the vehicle first. When the squad leader, CpI Paul Langford of Belle Glade, FL, went out to the left, his entire squad followed rather than alternate right and left as they were trained. I led my six-man squad out to the right. My number one gunner, PFC Wesley Sloan of Newburgh, NY, was close by when I reached the top of the first rather steep slope about 15 yards up the beach. We dropped to the sand, and I looked back as my men were leaving the tractor. I could see machinegun fire hitting the water about 10 feet to their right. I waved them down, and they dropped immediately. It was strange in that I had heard no sound of machinegun fire. There was no zing of bullets passing overhead and no snap or pop of bullets passing nearby.

Later that morning, a single rifleman of Langford s squad joined up with my squad. He was very nervous. He told me that Langford s squad was just about wiped out as soon as they left the tractor. I assumed that the machinegun that delivered fire close to my men had already taken out Langford's squad.

We moved ahead and somewhat to the right. After moving a short distance, I saw the body of a Marine face down in a shallow ditch. I went to the Marine, but he was already dead. "Lt CL. Hill" was stenciled on the back of his pack. I knew Hill, having served with him when he was a corporal back at Camp Lejeune in the spring of 1943. He was one of several Guadacanal veterans who joined us in Co H, a so-called "heavy weapons" outfit. When Co H dissolved in 1944, Hill went into Co F and I went into Co G. Charles L. Hill received a field commission to second lieutenant.

PFC Sloan and I continued up the beach, still moving toward the right, and before long stopped in a shell crater. Looking back, I saw a bazooka man approaching. When he was about 25 feet from us, a single enemy shell landed very close to him. We ducked down, and when no other shells fell, I looked back to find nothing but a large crater where the bazooka man had been. That eliminated the only live Marine I had seen in our area of the beach other than my own men.

Continuing forward, we later came upon a huge, elongated shell crater, possibly formed by one of the Navy's big guns. Lt Finney and several of his 81mm mortar men were in the crater. Finney called out "Mac, don't come in, we're too crowded." I yelled back that we were just moving through, and with no further words I moved to the far end of the crater, and Sloan joined me. That morning, Lt Finney and several of his men were killed, including PFC Frederick Sponable. We were in the same platoon at boot camp in early 1943.

We moved ahead again and joined up with men of Co G. It was there on the third terrace of the black beach that the company commander, Capt Carl "Gus" Grussendorf, was in the process of reorganizing the company. In late afternoon the company dug defensive positions far short of our D-Day objective, the O-l line, at the first airfield directly ahead of us. The volcanic ash tended to collapse when a hole was dug. My machinegunners and I each carried three empty sandbags on a loop at the top of our backpacks. While the sandbags helped in construction of a machinegun position, it wasn't nearly as deep as we would have liked. The first night on Iwo Jima was generally quiet except for occasional enemy shells along the frontlines, as well as the usual bright flares overhead fired from 5-inch naval guns offshore.

The battalion had suffered heavy casualties on D-Day and the second day went into reserve. When some units crossed the first airfield, we moved up to the edge of the airstrip and dug positions. I was surprised to see our regimental executive officer, LtCoI Edward J. Dillon, coming back from across the airfield. It certainly wasn't secure over there. I noticed that his runner carried a shotgun. I had found a Winchester shotgun on the beach, but had no ammunition. I called out to the runner to ask for some ammunition. He cursed and continued on. Dillon heard my request and stopped. He ordered his runner to give me all the ammo he had except what was in his gun. Dillon had been our battalion commander in the states and through our first three battles.

The second or third night, some units of Co G were ordered to cross the airstrip at night to relieve Marines on the far side. My machinegun squad crossed the field and climbed a large parapet, a scooped out area of the hill at the far edge of the field probably used as a shelter for aircraft. The parapet was about 20 or 25 feet high, and we relieved a machinegun squad at the top. As the squad leader was leaving, he warned us to stay down in the morning because the enemy had spotted that position. We improved the gun position to some degree using our sandbags.

In the morning our particular position was the first in our area to receive mortar fire. A shell landed close to the front of our gun position and PFC Alan Locke of Upland, PA, was hit in the back with several shell fragments. He had been sitting up facing me when the shell exploded. Al was rather stocky and the fragments apparently did not penetrate to any vital organs. He refused medical treatment and, to my knowledge, did not receive a Purple Heart. From the same shell, several small fragments lodged in my right elbow. Minutes later, air burst shells exploded above us. Pellets pounded the ground all around us, but none of us were hit. One pellet, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, split my rifle stock and lodged inside.

We were pulled back into reserve again, and the next frontline assignment was on Hill 382, one of the highest hills on Iwo Jima and part of the enemy's main line of defense that ran across the island. Hill 382 and two other landmarks, the so-called Amphitheater and Turkey Knob, formed a complex of enemy defenses that the Marines named the "Meat Grinder." We climbed the side of the Hill 382 in the dark. My machinegun squad relieved a similar squad at the edge of a ravine out of sight of the rest of Co G. At least part of the company was around the side of the hill to our left. I never knew whether any units of the company were beyond the far side of the ravine. Again, the squad leader of the unit we were relieving advised us to stay down in the morning.

We knew we were at one of the most dangerous spots on Iwo Jima, and we took care to build the best possible gun position in the dark. We filled our sandbags, but this time it was dirt, like clay, and not the volcanic ash. With our so-called "light machinegun," the Browning Ml 919A4, we constructed a low position with a small firing port facing across the ravine. There was no field of fire up the hill. We covered the sandbags with dirt, and I was convinced that if the enemy had not spotted this position, it could go unnoticed. A second hole was dug for squad members about 8 or 10 feet behind the gun positions.

During the night, I heard what I believed to be our own 81mm mortars landing some distance behind us. They were the type of shells that were intended to penetrate enemy positions before exploding. I heard the thud, a pause, and then an explosion as each shell landed. They were landing so far behind us I didn't worry about it. I didn't attempt to notify anyone because we were out of touch with the company.

At dawn I told everyone to stay down. I took my helmet off and cautiously peeked around the right side to the gun position. I was just beginning to look across the ravine when there was the rather loud pop of a bullet that just missed my head. After dawn a burst of machinegun fire came right through our machinegun firing port. It came in under the gun and damaged the traversing mechanism. That was a very tight burst of fire, fired from close range, almost certainly from a large structure directly across the ravine from us no more that 40 or 50 yards away. Because of heavy casualties, the company withdrew from Hill 382 in less than 24 hours.

The next venture on the frontline came when a major assault was to be launched, preceded by the most intense preparatory fire by artillery that I had ever witnessed. Some of the shell fire came close to our frontline position, and a large chunk of the spent shrapnel hit Russell Malotte, one of my men, on the back of his hand which just happened to be resting over his private parts. He had a bruised hand, but it could have been much worse.

We had received an unusual order that morning before our attack began. Units that could advance were to do so even it if meant leaving the flanks open and unprotected. That was new to me. For the first time on Iwo Jima we had a few tanks in front of us as we were about to begin our drive. The tank directly in front of my squad had gone less than 100 yards when it was knocked out, possibly by antitank fire. I could see the tank crew evacuate by way of a trap door in the belly of the tank.

We followed the 1st Platoon riflemen as they advanced past Hill 382 on our far right. There was only occasional sniper fire, and Co G gained 200 or 300 yards, a major advance on Iwo Jima. We were well out in front of other companies and held up in late afternoon. We were on level ground with some rough, rocky areas to our immediate left. We dug foxholes, but for some strange reason did not dig machinegun positions. PFC John Fedorowicz of Cleveland, OH, had almost finished his foxhole when a snipers bullet hit his elbow. That elbow was the only part of his body above ground level when it was hit. John yelled out, "I'm goin' home," knowing he would be evacuated.

The next morning we moved out again into an area of crisscrossing corridors. The riflemen climbed to the top of a cliff and we followed, stopping on a ledge just below the top. I looked back and saw that one of our tanks was approaching. When 70 or 80 yards away it stopped. The turret began to turn in our direction. I assumed that the tank crew would not necessarily know that Marines were that far out front. I had the men take out their entrenching tools, stand erect facing the tank, and slowly wave the shovels over their heads. I did the same. The turret stopped and the 75mm cannon raised until it was pointing directly at us. After a long pause, the gun lowered and the turret turned away.

We moved up to the top of the cliff where the company spread out. Looking across the corridor to the opposite cliff, we saw enemy troops scampering back in retreat from advancing Marines. We set up our machinegun, but were ordered not to fire. It was quiet where we were, and it was felt that firing our machineguns would draw unwanted attention to our zone. Then someone spotted the flash of an enemy mortar far in front of the Marines on the opposite cliff. I heard that an attempt would be made to get a mortar or artillery observer up to our area to direct fire on the enemy mortar. Before that happened, however, we were hit with a barrage of large mortar shells. When the first shell landed, I leaped into a large crack in the ground. Sgt Howard Tipton, Sgt Jack Powers, and SSgt Stephen Jabo joined me. Jabo, one of our Guadacanal veterans, was platoon sergeant of another platoon, and I don't know why he was in our area. He mumbled something about his "new shavetail lieutenant" who he said was going to get everybody killed.

When the incoming barrage stopped, someone yelled that Sloan had been hit. Tipton and I were close friends of Sloan. We climbed out of that crack in the ground and saw that Sloan was leaning back against a large chunk of earth. Before we reached him, I saw that he had already turned yellow. There was no pulse, and Sloan was cold. Tipton ripped open Sloan's jacket, and we saw no wounds on his body. When I attended Sloan's funeral in Newburgh, NY, I learned that he had been awarded the Silver Star. He had remained exposed to the enemy fire to help direct return fire on the enemy mortar.

We dug defensive positions on top of the same cliff. During the night, Tipton woke me and said that Malotte, who was on gun watch, was sound asleep. I looked toward the gun position and said, "There he is, and he isn't asleep." Tipton repeated, "Malotte's asleep." I climbed into the gun position and found Malotte kneeling on the ground with his body up against the forward wall of the position. His head and upper body were upright but he was, indeed, sound asleep.

The next day, the company moved across the plateau we were on and soon came to a deep corridor that ran directly across our front. We stopped at the edge of the cliff. Someone noticed a cleverly camouflaged spider trap position. A tunnel went down about 6 or 7 feet and turned toward the face of the cliff. Small firing ports opened on the face of the cliff enabling an occupant to fire with little chance of being detected.

When it came time to move out, the 1st Platoon was to lead an advance across the corridor. There was a single steep path down the face of a cliff. We were to follow the riflemen as usual, and we spread out on the top of the cliff to get the men into normal squad order. Tipton was 6 or 7 feet ahead of me and was straddling a narrow trench, no more than 1-foot wide that had been used as a "head," or toilet. It had been filled with loose dirt. One of our 60mm mortar shells came from the rear and landed just behind Tipton's feet. It landed in the soft dirt of that narrow slit trench, but did not explode. The fins were visible above ground. Tipton glanced down, saw the fins of the shell and moved forward with no comment.

Lt William Watkins led what remained of the 1st Platoon down the narrow path. I immediately led my own squad down to the corridor floor and followed the riflemen toward the opposite cliff. On the way, a corpsman was treating a wounded rifleman. When near the far cliff, I came up behind a flamethrower operator just as he was about to fire. He aimed at a narrow tunnel at the base of the cliff. There was something unusual about that particular tunnel. Instead of going straight into the cliff, it sloped downward. When the flame reached the tunnel it turned and looped back over our heads. We were both flabbergasted. A little lower and it would have burned both of us to a crisp. The tunnel apparently had a strong outflow of air, perhaps part of a ventilation system. The enemy had not only a vast network of caves and tunnels, but we learned later that some caves had electricity, and there were hospitals underground.

We followed the riflemen as they proceeded along the cliff to the right. They blew tunnels and caves as they went. The cliff dwindled as we moved along. Lt Watkins called for me to meet with him and Cpl Steve Kosek who was one of the few remaining 1st Platoon noncommissioned officers. Watkins said they were out of demolitions and were low on grenades. He wanted two of my men to return to the company for replenishments. Watkins and his remaining men and my squad were the only ones to descend the cliff that morning. The rest of the company had been held up by intense fire from the front of the cliff. I learned later that Henry Schneider of Long Island, NY, was awarded the Navy Cross for descending that cliff on a rope to blow caves and tunnels as he went. In spite of his efforts, the company was still held up.

Art Livesey of Middletown, NY, and Alan Locke were given the task of going back for demolitions and grenades. When they left I wasn't sure I would ever see them again. Much later they returned on a dead run, carrying satchel charges and with their jackets bulged out with hand grenades.

Not far from where I had met with Lt Watkins, there was a rectangular room that had been carved into the side of the cliff. It was about 15 feet deep and about 12 feet wide. There were two grass mats on the floor, apparently to serve as beds. A bugle hung on a peg in the wall. I thought it might have belonged to a headquarters unit. There were several rectangular notches in one wall and there I found a letter. The envelope and the two pages of stationery were on this paper that resembled our onionskin paper used for mail during the war. Both the envelope and the stationery had images of children. Back on Maui I had the letter interpreted by one of my several Japanese friends. The letter from the soldier's home said they missed him in particular that time of year because he was the one who took the children to buy things they needed for the new school year. It made me realize that those tenacious fighters were human after all.

Later in the day, the company joined up with us and dug in for the night. When Capt Grussendorf saw our gun position, he suggested we fix it so we could also fire to the rear because a lot of Japanese had been bypassed. At night Malotte said he could see movement some distance to our rear. I looked to where he was pointing and could see a ditch but no sign on life. During the night when I was manning the machinegun I heard a noise to our rear. I decided to toss an illumination grenade, and I alerted Sgt Romanski of Detroit who was in the next hole to my right as I faced the rear. When the grenade exploded and lit up the area all hell broke loose. Enemy soldiers had been in the process of setting up a machinegun about 25 yards behind our gun. That gun crew as well as other soldiers to their right, perhaps 15 in all, quickly scrambled for cover, but they had no place to hide. Romanski and I, as well as other Marines along the line, sent a barrage of fire into the enemy. Soon it was quiet.

In the morning, Sgt Tipton started to get out of our gun position to square away his gear, and I pulled him back in again. Just then a badly wounded Japanese soldier rose up and tossed a grenade. It didn't go far and caused no casualties. Someone along the line finished him off. Later Steve Kosek and I went back to check for enemy survivors but found none. Inside an overturned helmet I found a Japanese flag, the type with the red ball on a white field with considerable Japanese writing.

From our positions we could see the ocean, the end of the 4th MarDiv zone of responsibility. A patrol of riflemen was given the mission of investigating the area all the way to the sea. I volunteered to join the patrol. We reached the sea with no enemy in sight and with no resistance. At the shore we stood on a cliff about 15 feet high overlooking a tiny beach. At our feet there were quite a few enemy mines scattered on the ground, both the cone-shaped mines and the large dome-shaped variety. They had never been used. We learned later that some other unit had reached the far shore before us.

That day or the following day we went into reserve and never saw action again in World War II, although we did train for the invasion of Japan. After the Japanese surrender, a Marine officer from Oahu visited our camp on Maui and revealed in some detail the plans for the assault on Japan. At that time there were six Marine divisions, and all six would have led landing forces in a two-pronged attack.

On Iwo Jima the Marines had suffered heavy casualties with about 6,000 killed and over 17,000 wounded. Most of the 20,000 Japanese troops on the island were killed there or took their own lives. They had followed an order from GEN Tadamichi Kuribayashi to "make your place your grave and take ten lives for one." They had made us pay dearly for every inch of that small island.

There were 134 Co G casualties on Iwo Jima, of which 52 were killed or died of wounds. My squad's casualties were very light with one killed (Sloan) and a few wounded, none of whom required evacuation. Such light casualties were most unusual on Iwo Jima. A slight difference in events at any given time could have been disastrous for the squad. The best example was the way we exited the amtrack upon reaching shore. Had the rifle squad exited to the right, we would have gone to the left and would have been immediately cut to pieces the way they were. And had the mortar shell that landed just behind Tipton's feet exploded, both Tipton and I would have had it. And had that tank that zeroed in on us fired, the whole squad would have been dust. We were extremely fortunate, and perhaps that is why I remember it so vividly.

The 4th MarDiv was the first to depart Iwo Jima, and we boarded ship on or about 19 March, 1 month after landing. The 3d and 5th MarDivs had a couple more weeks of fighting in their sectors. The ship that took us back to Maui was overcrowded. There were just two meals a day for the enlisted men, and the menu was quite limited. Walter Olander, the battalion's chief baker, had been assigned to my squad on Iwo as an ammo carrier. Back aboard ship, he volunteered to work in the galley as a baker. He told me to find a hiding place for the squad, and he would bring us coffee and baked goods, which he did.

Read more about squad leaders on Iwo Jima at www.mca-marines.org/gazette/iwojima.

Mr. McConnell was a corporal during World War II and participated in combat operations in the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima as a member of machinegun platoons in Companies G and H, 2d Battalion, 23d Marines. He currently resides in Titusville, FL.