Iwo Jima - More than just a rock in the ocean
|Stirling Wilson is an active veteran in the Carbon County community.|
Iwo Jima is a piece of land that sticks up out of the Pacific Ocean about 660 miles south of Toyko, Japan. It is the center island in a string of three land masses called the Volcano Islands. It was volcanically formed and is about 5.5 miles long and only 2.5 miles at it's widest point. It has a total surface area of 8 square miles. It's highest point is Mount Suribachi, a 548 foot semi-active volcano situated on the tip of the island.
This dry geographical information would be fairly unimportant to most people, but if one knows the history of this small island, the perception changes. For those that spent time there in 1945, it is much more than an island. It is a graveyard, a place of grief and pain.
While there were many tough island campaigns fought by American forces in the Pacific during World War 11, few conjure up images of death and triumph like Iwo Jima. It wasn't the longest battle and it wasn't the biggest, but it was, arguably, the most vicious. In 36 days of fighting there were 28,851 American casualties with 6,825 killed. Nearly all 22,000 Japanese defenders were wiped out.
For Carbon County resident Stirling Wilson it was his first, and last beach landing as a young Marine.
Stirling, who was born in Sunnyside, joined the Marine Corp in 1943 at the age of 17. To legally join a young man had to be 18, but Wilson was able to get in because he fooled his father into signing the paperwork to let him go early.
"My father was a coal miner and that's what he knew, but he had the most beautiful handwriting you ever saw," said Wilson as he sat in the dying afternoon sunlight at the Peace Garden in Price on a cool early winter afternoon earlier this week. "I and two other guys went up to Salt Lake and tried to join when we were 15 but they wouldn't let us in. So we got the paperwork and when I was 17 I spent some time practicing my father's signature. One night I was doing that and showed it to him and told him I could sign his name as good as he could. He told I was full of it, so I shoved a piece of paper in front of him and told him to sign it so we could compare signatures. It was the release form to let me in the Marine Corp early. He was pretty mad at me when he found out."
Nonetheless, young Wilson was shipped off to Camp Pendleton in southern California for training. During that training he ran into a fellow Carbon County resident, but in an unusual way.
"I had a brother named Woodrow and he used to hang around with this Japanese American kid from Hiawatha," says Wilson. "Before the war this kid moved away, but I didn't know where. Apparently his father wanted to go back to Japan so they went back there. When war broke out this kid was put in the Japanese Army and later he left his unit and surrendered to Americans on some island in the Pacific."
Apparently after capture the young man tried to convince his captors he was an American, but he had no paperwork or any identification. He was a judo expert, so because he could speak English so well and he seemed decent, they shipped him to Pendleton to train Marines on how to use judo.
"We were standing in line and they brought these four Japanese guys out onto the field," says Wilson. "I took a look at him and knew who he was. I turned and said something to another guy in my unit from Carbon County and an officer heard me. He went and talked to a captain, the captain told a colonel and the colonel told the general. The general walked up to me and asked me if I knew one of the Japanese trainers. I told him I did. They made me turn around and then they mixed those guys up and turned me around and told me to identify him. I picked him out again."
|One of Wilson's fellow Marines pours flame onto an enemy position. Wilson is the man closest to him in the crouching position.|
It had been years since Wilson saw the man, so he knew the young man might recognize him. Wilson told the captain that the man might call him Woodrow if he talked with him, because he guessed the kid would think he was his brother.
"The first thing out of the kids mouth was 'Hi Woodrow.' Years later the young man opened a Judo School in Salt Lake," explained Wilson.
A few weeks later Wilson was shipped to Hawaii and then put on a transport toward the Western Pacific. He first ended up on Guam as part of the Fifth Division of the Marine Corp. There his unit was doing "clean-up" work; the dangerous job of rooting out enemy soldiers still residing in caves and other places, despite the fact the Americans controlled everything on the island.
"We had a Catholic chaplain named Father Redmond," he said. "That guy often went into the mouths of those caves and talked the Japanese soldiers out so they wouldn't be killed."
But the stay on Guam wasn't long lasting because an important invasion was coming up; the assault on Iwo Jima. Wilson's unit was loaded on a transport ship and sent north toward their destination.
"Those ships were very crowded," says Wilson of both the trip to Guam and the one from it to Iwo Jima. As a rifleman and a machine gunner, Wilson knew he would be one of the first to hit the beach when they arrived.
American Navy ships and aircraft bombarded Iwo Jima for days before the invasion, hoping to wipe out most of the opposition. Wilson observed a lot of this and hoped for the same thing.
On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945 he and his fellow Marines were being loaded on landing craft. Once again Father Redmond appeared, blessing the young men as they were loaded on the boats.
"One guy in our unit who was very religious went to the Father and told him that he believed in the Ten Commandments and that the first was "Thou shalt not kill," explained Wilson. "The Father looked at him and said to him 'Look, you either kill or be killed."
The boats were launched and shells were falling all around them from the defending batteries on the island.
"We were lucky we made it all the way to the beach," says Wilson. "Mortar shells were landing all around us. In fact one landed in the craft next to us and as it went up in flames an arm flew into our boat from the other landing craft."
The softening up the American forces had been doing for days had done little good. The Japanese had honeycombed the island with trenches and had dug caves all the way through Mount Suribachi. When the shelling stopped they came out to defend the island.
For the Japanese this was home turf, which made them fight harder. After the war the Americans would administer that piece of rock until 1968 when it would be turned back over to Japan.
The beaches on the island were killing zones with the height of the mountain acting as a tower for the Japanese to direct their fire down on the invading forces. Pill boxes and machine gun nests were everywhere.
"Our flame throwers were what helped us get inland," said Wilson of the devices that threw pressurized napalm into enemy fortifications. "There was this Marine name Vogoli from Kansas who could hit anything with his flame-thrower. He could shoot a fly off a guys shoulder without burning him. He would shoot that stuff right in through the narrow slit where the guns from those pill boxes stuck out. Once he did that we could hear the soldiers inside screaming for a while."
Wilson said Vogoli passed away just last year. But most of the Marines that arrived on Wilson's landing craft didn't even make it up the beach. Wilson did, but four days later, he was loading a grenade on the launcher attached to his rifle and a mortar shell exploded behind him. It took medics four hours to reach him and the other young man with him, who eventually lost his leg in explosion. They were shipped off the beach and then eventually back to Pearl Harbor. Later Wilson was moved to a hospital in California where he remained for almost a year, recovering from his injuries. He was then discharged and came back to Carbon County.
From 1946 until 1955 he worked at Besso Shoes in downtown Price. Then he went to work at the Price Post Office where he was employed until 1991, when he retired.
One of the things that Wilson also remembers was his association with one of the great and most famous war correspondents of World War II; Ernie Pyle.
"He was a good guy," says Wilson. "He was on the beaches with us at Iwo Jima and then later they moved him to Okinawa to cover the landing there."
Pyle, to many American's shock at the time, was killed on Okinawa when the jeep he was riding in was ambushed and the occupants dived into a ditch. He was hiding in the trench and the troops thought they had driven away the enemy. Pyle stuck his head up above the trench and was instantly killed by a snipers bullet.
Today Wilson enjoys retirement but he also remembers those who served besides himself. The day he was interviewed by the Sun Advocate he had attended two funerals as part of his American Legion commitment. He always remembers those that gave their all and particularly their lives in defense of America.
And he has a special feeling for those that claimed that piece of rock a few hundred miles from Tokyo nearly 60 years ago.