From Leatherneck: Iwo Jima: A Surgeon's Story

By Ross W. Simpson - originally published February 1990

When 3d Battalion, 25th Marines landed on Iwo on February 19, 1945, Dr. William J. Hruza went into action with another surgeon and 40 corpsmen. By 1:30 p.m. on D-Day, only Hruza and two corpsmen were still on their feet-the rest of the medical personnel were either dead or wounded. Hruza was awarded the Silver Star.

"We were having a terrible time trying to get the Higgins boats to stay on the beach long enough so we could load casualties aboard to be taken to hospital ships offshore for treatment. But, I don't blame the Navy coxswains for pulling back as soon as the last Marine left their landing craft. The Higgins boats were taking murderous artillery and mortar fire."

This was the situation Lieutenant Junior Grade William John Hruza, Medical Corps, U.S. Naval Reserve, 3d Battalion, 25th Regiment, Fourth Marine Division, faced after landing on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945.

Born and reared in Livingston, Mont., and later graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School, Dr. Hruza went into action with another surgeon and 40 corpsmen in his battalion.

By 1:30 in the afternoon on D-Day, only Hruza and two corpsmen were still on their feet. The rest of the medical personnel were either dead or wounded.

Hruza's outfit called itself "The Ghouls of the 3d Battalion." The Marines in 3/25 had even written a humorous dirge which they sang to Chopin's "Funeral March."

The dirge dealt with the cheapness of life in combat, but also expressed the comfort of having a $10,000 government life insurance policy.

"We are the ghouls of the Third Battalion.

One thousand men and one Italian.

We waded through swamps:

The earth we learned to hug.

And all we got was a goddamn dizzy bug.

But ten thousand dollars went home to the folks.

But won't they be happy; won't they be surprised.

When ten thousand dollars go home to the folks!"

The "one Italian" was Captain Sam Pitetti of Rillton, Pa., a well-liked company commander who was killed in action during the first few hours of the inferno on D-Day.

The night before the invasion, Dr. Ken Murray, 3d Battalion surgeon, broke out a bottle of scotch aboard an attack transport as it lay at anchor off the coast of Iwo Jima. Murray asked if his assistant, Bill Hruza, wanted to drink.

"I didn't know you drank," said Hruza. "I don't," said Murray, "but I think I will tonight."

Murray told Hruza about a premonition of his death. "I don't think I'm going to make this one alive."

Hruza, who along with Murray had survived invasions on Saipan and Tinian, tried to comfort his Friend by telling him, "No one on earth knows who's going to live and who's going to die," but all Murray wanted was some company. So the surgeons spent the night numbing their senses.

"About halfway through the bottle, Ken reached into his seabag and pulled out a violin," said Hruza, who didn't know Murray could play. "Nobody does!" said the young surgeon, as he rosined up his bow and began to fill the air with the most beautiful music Hruza had ever heard.

D-Day dawned dark and foreboding, like the black volcanic ash that covered the 5-mile-long island in the Western Pacific, a piece of rocky real estate that the U.S. wanted very badly. The island's airstrips were needed for crippled B-29s unable to make the return leg of a 3,000-mile roundtrip bombing run from Saipan to Japan.

As Hruza and Murray slid over the side of their transport and climbed down the heavy hemp cargo nets to a landing craft that was bobbing up and down against the side of the ship, all hell broke loose.

More than 60,000 Marines of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions, which comprised the V Amphibious Corps, were treated to the heaviest pre-H-hour bombardment in history.

The pre-invasion softening-up bombardment was deafening. Eight battleships-Arkansas, Idaho, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington-were joined by cruisers as they fired broadside after broadside at pre-assigned targets on Iwo Jima, smothering the Japanese-held island with a blanket of high explosive shells.

Smaller warships closed 10 within 1.000 yards of the beach and opened lire. Rocket ships added a sinister sound to the rising crescendo as they sent thousands of screaming missiles arching high into the pale blue sky.

"On the way to Iwo from our staging area on Saipan we were told that since the Army Air Corps had been bombing the island tor 74 consecutive days and the Navy was still shelling it, we should be able to take the island in about three days," said Hruzu. "But were they ever wrong."

It would take 30 days to seen re the supposedly impregnable island fortress at a cost of 5,931 dead and 17,372 wounded on the U.S. Marine side, and about 20,000 dead on the Japanese side. "Bloody Iwo" would become the island's epitaph.

"As we headed toward the beach, carrier-based aircraft swarmed over the island like flies, bombing and strafing everything in sight," said Hruza, as he recalled Iwo Jima being obliterated by smoke and dust from the aerial and naval bombardment.

"We were supposed to land at about 9 o'clock," said Hruza, as he unfolded an aerial photo-map of Iwo Jima that was stamped "SECRET" and pointed to Beach Blue 1 where the 3d Battalion went ashore.

"Off to our left was Mount Suribachi. off to our right was the infamous East Boat Basin with its rocky cliffs, and dead ahead was our objective: Motoyama Airfield Number 1."

Hruza recalled that the route to the airfield was rugged: a series of terraces with steep inclines, 15- to 20-feet-high and about 50 yards wide. A formidable barrier.

"We landed in the sixth or seventh wave." Far enough back from the action, thought the young doctor as his landing craft approached the beach. "But, the Japanese let the first four or five waves land, before they started knocking the hell out of us on the tail end of the assault force."

Some 27 years after they stormed ashore at Iwo Jima, Colonel Justice M. Chambers (then a lieutenant colonel), commander of the 3d Battalion, gave Hruza and other surviving members of the battalion, a typed copy of his memoirs.

Chambers, awarded the Medal of Honor for leading his battalion against the enemy's main line of resistance above the East Boat Basin, knew his battalion was in for a rough time before it hit the beach.

The "Ghouls" were assigned the extreme right flank position, "an unpleasant prospect in any operation," wrote Chambers, "but in this case, one which looked like organizational suicide."

Men on the flank are exposed to anything the enemy wants to throw at them. They have no protection from screening friendly forces. And in this case, the Japanese hurled everything they had at 3/25: artillery, mortars, rockets, machine guns and rifle fire.

According to LtCol Chambers, the battle plan called for the 3d battalion to hit the beach in column of companies. Company "I" going in first to anchor its Hank on the beach and swing to the right for the projected advance to the north. Companies "K" and "L" were to follow, advancing inland a few hundred yards to take up positions to the right of Company "I".

Company "I," commanded by Captain Elwyn W. Woods of Mountain Grove, Mo., made it ashore, hut in the confusion resulting from murderous Japanese shelling and the powerful surf, the other companies landed several hundred yards down the beach in another battalion's sector.

Almost before the battle began. Chambers learned that "K" Company's leader, Capt Tom Witherspoon of Lexington, Ky., had taken a shell fragment in the shoulder and was out of action.

Before nightfall, one of the rifle companies had lost all seven of its officers. Another had lost its commander and two officers, while a third company was missing two of its officers. Casualties were almost as appalling among the enlisted ranks.

The 3d Battalion lost more than half of its officers and nearly half of its enlisted strength on D-Day. But no company commander called hack to Chambers that his outfit was too shot up to go forward.

There was no cover on the terraces approaching the airfield. Nowhere to hide from the hideous gunfire that was pouring into the 3d Battalion.

"The gunfire was so heavy, we couldn't move," said Dr. Hruza, as he reconstructed the death of his good friend, Ken Murray. "The Japs had us pinned down and were grinding us up like hamburger."

Having lost almost all of their corpsmen, Murray and Hruza knew they had to do something, and do it quickly. The wounded had to be carried to landing craft and hauled to hospital ships offshore if they were to have any chance of survival, but there was no one to bear the litters.

After a brief conference on the beach, Murray ran toward a burned out tank about 100 yards down the beach. The shore party, which could round up some volunteer stretcher bearers, had established a command post behind the tank.

"I told Ken I would run down there," said Hruza, "but he overruled me and told me to finish tending to one of the wounded.

"He hadn't been gone but a few seconds when I heard this awful explosion," said Hruza, who ran to where his friend had disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Everyone in the shore party was dead. The tank had taken a direct hit from a heavy mortar.

In the bottom of the crater, Hruza found Murray with both of his legs blown off, face severely burned and clothes shredded.

"I thought he was dead as I scrambled into the smoking crater," said Hruza. But Murray blinked his eyes and said, "Hruz is that you?"

Although Murray had been blinded by the blast, he knew his friend would come to his aid. "I got it pretty bad, didn't I?" asked Murray. "Yeah," replied Hruza, as he tried to tell Murray that he'd be OK as soon as he got off the beach and aboard one of the hospital ships.

Even though Murray had been mortally wounded, he had given himself a morphine Syrette in one of his bloody stumps and was preparing to give himself another injection, when Hruza slid down next to him in that hole.

Hruza picked up his friend and carried him through the pounding surf to a landing craft that was pulling away from bloody Beach Blue. But Murray didn't make it. He died of his wounds at about 6 o'clock in the evening and was buried at sea the next morning.

"It felt like a totally hopeless situation," said Hruza, as he lamented the fact that neither he nor any other battalion surgeon on Iwo was really equipped to take care of the number of casualties that occurred on D-Day.

Only six sea bags of supplies, including two cases of saline glucose and three cases of plasma, were carried ashore by the 3d Battalion. "We could only perform basic first aid on men whose limbs had been blown off, but none of them I treated complained."

Hruza remembered a young lieutenant who, in an effort to halt a Japanese advance, had called mortar fire on his own position. He stopped the Japs cold, but was severely wounded.

"When they carried him into the aid station, he had shell fragments lodged in his spine and paralysis was setting in," remembered Hruza.

"I asked him what happened. 'Don't know, Doc, but I guess this is the end.' Hruza told the young man not to worry about the loss of feeling in his legs, but he said, "Don't kid me. Doc. I know I'm going to die."

Bill Hruza had become the battalion surgeon when Ken Murray died. As a result, Lieutenant Commander Michael Francis Xavier Kelleher, who formerly was battalion surgeon until he was promoted to regimental surgeon, had to come ashore and help Hruza. "But nobody worried about rank. We had a job to do and we did it."

When "Jumpin' Joe" Chambers was shot in the chest, he sent a runner back to the aid station with a message for Kelleher to "get up here on the double."

Both Kelleher and Hruza responded and took care of a sucking chest wound. LtCol Chambers, who celebrated his 38th birthday en route to Iwo Jima, was carried back to the beach where he was evacuated to a hospital ship.

For days, rumors swept the island that Chambers had died aboard ship, but they were only rumors. His wounds, however, were serious enough that he was medically retired from active duty on January 1, 1946.

Because he was specially commended for performance of duty in combat, Chambers was promoted to full colonel upon his retirement.

When the 3d Battalion, 25th Marines stormed ashore, there were more than 900 men in the battalion. When the weary survivors stumbled back to the beach after being relieved a month later, 750 members of the original battalion were dead, wounded or missing.

"Counting replacements," recalled Bill Hruza, "I think our battalion had over 100 percent casualties."

Fourth Division records list 155 officers killed in action on Iwo Jima. Twenty-nine died of wounds and 613 were wounded. Casualties among enlisted personnel included 2,619 killed in action, 495 died of wounds, and 13,811 wounded

The men of the 3d Battalion were recommended for 18 Navy Crosses, six Legions of Merit, 50 Silver Stars and 150 Bronze Stars.

Bill Hruza was awarded the Silver Star for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity. . . ." But, Hruza likes to think he received high decoration for just surviving.

The citation signed by John L. Sullivan, Secretary of the Navy, reads: ". . .With enemy mortar shells bursting in the vicinity of the aid station from the time it was established until it could be moved late in the afternoon of D-Day, Lt (then-LtJG) Hruza courageously administered first aid to numerous troops wounded by the terrific enemy mortar, rocket, artillery and machine-gun fire. During one of these barrages, he worked continuously with the two remaining corpsmen, within a few yards of the front lines throughout D-Day and night, to alleviate the suffering of the wounded. By his courageous devotion to duty throughout, he saved many lives and upheld the highest tradition of the United States Naval Service."

"I don't know about that courageous stuff," said Bill Hruza, as he reached into a footlocker full of war mementos and pulled out a dusty case containing his Silver Star.

"God knows, there are a thousand men who deserve it more than I did. They should have given Silver Stars to every corpsman, 195 of whom were killed on Iwo Jima. Another 529 were wounded. Seven doctors were also killed and 12 wounded before the fighting ended."

As D-Day turned into D-plus 1, 2 and 3, the painful progress of the Fourth Division became more and more heartbreaking. "We gained inches, not yards," said Hruza, "and we paid a heavy price for every inch we gained."

"Heroism was commonplace, no longer awe-inspiring or even surprising," wrote Col Chambers in his memoirs. "There was Sergeant Manuel Martinez of Moses, N.M., who walked erect into a cave full of trapped Nipponese. Blasting them with his automatic rifle, Martinez killed 15, but escaped without a scratch. Then there was Private Delbert Maupin, a kid from Hannibal, Mo., who threw himself on a grenade to save his squad leader who didn't see it fall into their midst."

As his battalion was being chopped to pieces, Chambers ordered his men to assault the source of the murderous fire, which was pouring down in torrents from the rocky cliffs above East Boat Basin.

"Heroes in that initial drive were a dime a dozen," recalled Chambers.

"They died so fast," said Capt Jim Headley, who took over the battalion when Chambers caught a Jap slug in the chest on D-plus 4. "You'd see a man do something almost unbelievable and a minute later you'd see him die."

Ask any other survivors of the 3d Battalion, who attended the Fourth Division Reunion in Las Vegas last June, and they'll tell you about a place called "Grenade Ridge."

They'll tell you how Lawrence Bigler, a 19-year-old private first class from Woodsfield, Ohio, jumped to his feet and continued to pound the enemy with his automatic rifle after being mortally wounded in the stomach.

When Bigler fell, his buddy, Pvt Johnnie J. Turnage of La Grange, N.C., snatched up the weapon and continued to fire at the enemy until he, too, was killed.

"You got a little numb after a while, because you just figured you were going to die anyway. You kind of envied some of the guys who got it quickly, but now that I look back on it, I'm glad I didn't get it," said Hruza, who weighed 180 pounds on D-Day, but only 145 pounds 30 days later when the campaign ended.

"When we were relieved and ordered back to the beach to leave Iwo, we knew we had to cross some country which hadn't been swept for land mines, especially yardstick mines.

"These were pieces of pipe with explosives in one end and sulfuric acid in the other," said Hruza, as he recalled the long walk. "They buried those little buggers a few inches below the sand. Step on either end, and it blew up in your face."

Hruza was apprehensive trying to walk in footprints as the battalion picked its way back to the beach.

"Halfway there, I heard this explosion. A guy had stepped on a yardstick mine off to my right."

Hruza wanted to walk away, but couldn't turn his back on a Marine, who like him, had almost beaten the odds of survival.

"I knew if there was one mine out there, chances are there was another." So, Hruza approached the wounded Marine as though walking on egg shells. The man was so grateful that he lifted his bloody stumps up so Dr. Hruza could tie off the severed arteries.

"I don't know whether he lived or not, but I'll tell you I lived a thousand lives going from there hack to the beach."

Hruza said it was great to be back on ship again-eating hot chow instead of cold rations, sleeping between clean, crisp, white sheets, and taking fresh water, instead of salt water showers.

When William John Hruza went off to boot camp in North Carolina in 1943, he was told that if he served 18 months with the Marine Corps overseas, he could demand any naval hospital duty he wanted upon his return to the States.

"Well, bless my heart, I was sent right back to the place where I started-Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois."

Hruza hated that place because of all the pre-induction physicals he had to give earlier. At the end of 1945, he would be giving separation physicals.

"One of the first officers I separated was Harold Stassen, a man who would become a perennial presidential candidate."

Two days before he was to get married, Lt Hruza received word at Great Lakes that he had been awarded the Silver Star.

"Well, that meant automatic discharge if you wanted it, and working in the officer's separation center, I knew that I could get out in a few hours, instead of a few days, so I was on my way home to Livingston, Mont."

William Hruza and Margaret Harbat, whose grandfathers both worked for the same meat company in Livingston that supplied beef to the soldiers running Yellowstone National Park in the late 1800s, were married on December 24, 1945.

Her parents begged them to spend their honeymoon at the family's ranch and eat Christmas dinner with them, but Hruza, being a hard-headed Czech and wanting some privacy, borrowed his dad's 1941 Studebaker President and drove his new bride to the Baxter Hotel in Billings, Mont.

But to their chagrin, there were no restaurants open on Christmas Eve. They were lucky to find a grocery store open in nearby Belgrade, and they settled for a Coke, potato chips and a jelly roll for their wedding dinner. Even the movie they went to that night was a dud. So the next day, the bride and bridegroom drove back to Livingston and enjoyed Christmas turkey and all of the trimmings with their families.

When Lt Hruza got home from the war and applied for a surgical residency at Minneapolis General Hospital, he was told he had been away from medicine so long, he'd have to take a nine-month refresher course at the University of Minnesota.

Hruza was hot. "This is the reward I got for getting shot at for two years, when I could have stayed at home like my roommate in medical school? It didn't make sense."

So, young Dr. Hruza began what would become a 40-year journey back home to Livingston-a journey that took him to private practice in Mandan, N.D., and Medelia, Minn.

After leaving private practice in 1968, Hruza went to work for the Veterans Administration, a less stressful job, but one that also paid a lot less.

Each of the stops, Sioux Falls and Hot Springs, S.D., and a final stop in Cheyenne, Wyo., put him one step closer to a cabin he built in Silver Gate, Mont.

"Once you're born and raised in these mountains, you never get over loving them," said Hruza, "and I never got over wanting to come back to Montana."

In 1985, his days of practicing medicine behind him, Bill and Margaret Hruza moved back to Livingston into the house her late parents owned.

For William John Hruza whose family was forced to leave Livingston during the Great Depression, this was a real homecoming. He had been gone for more than 50 years.