The Hutchinson News
One Squad of Marines
This is the brief story of the 13 Americans who walked up Futatsune Beach on Iwo Jima on the 19th of February 1945.What they did there was what Americans had done on many other beaches from Guadalcanal to Normandy. I am writing their story lest Americans forget why these 13, with their thousands of comrades, went to Futatsune Beach that morning. I am writing because I cannot forget.
This little group was the second squad of the third platoon of Eye Company of the Twenty-Sixth Regiment of the Fifth Marine Division. I, the 13th member of the group, was the squad leader.
When the Twenty-Sixth Marines was formed in 1944 at Camp Pendleton, California, these dozen men came under my immediate charge in that mysterious, intimate way that only Headquarters Marine Corps can explain. A year later, the squad no longer existed, having vanished from the battle lines in a manner that can be explained, but hardly, on this side of Heaven, understood. Six men lie under white crosses in the quiet shadow of Iwo's Mount Suribachi. Six were borne slowly back to the Navy's hospitals. One recovered in time to go on to Japan with the Fifth Marine Division.
To call the roll is to reveal the very foundation of America. To put down the home addresses is to cover the face of the nation. There was one from Virginia. That inexplicable urge that takes the plainsman to the sea brought two from North Dakota, two from Kansas, and one from Utah. Farthest from home were the three that had left Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, and Florida.
Jim Buel, Archie Hagemeister, Jack Devers, Leon Gordon, Robert Cavanaugh, Louis Des-forges, Manuel Markos, Robert Lemerise, Stanley Elliot, Ira Giroir, Billy Phillips, Jesus Garcia. All present and accounted for, all Americans, all Marines. A German, two Irishmen, three French-men, three Englishmen, a Scotchman, and a Mexican. And they walked up Futatsune Beach together on the 19th of February.
Behind them, across the vast Pacific, lay their country. It was the reason they had come and the goal toward which they moved. And each one moved up across the gray beach, an equal target. And none thought, on that morning, of the things that were being written and said at home about foreigners and white supremacy.
Manuel Markos died on the beach with the waves rolling against the soles of his boots. Next day, Red Hagemeister died halfway up a sandy ridge, lying amid the scrubby, bomb-blasted bushes and the scattered strands of barbed wire. But the ridge was ours, and from its crest was carried the living, but shaken senseless being that had been rugged, hard-charging automatic rifleman Bob Cavanaugh.
Jack Devers was wounded, evacuated, treated, returned to the lines and died quickly in front of a concrete pillbox. Stan Elliot crawled back from the lines one afternoon with a shrapnel shattered shoulder, and it was days later when Ira Giroir was stopped by a bullet through his right lung.
Leon Gordon became a legend, depleting the Imperial Government's force with flame throwers, bazookas, satchel charges, rifle fire and hand grenades; going forward always, fearlessly, stubbornly, to death finally, standing in the dark mouth of the ominous cave.
Louis Desforges died as quietly as he had lived among us in training days, but only after he had unquestionably won the name of Marine. Before the end of the campaign, Billy Phillips and Jim Buel and Buddy Lemerise had joined the ranks of the wounded.
One late afternoon, after the flag had been flying securely from the top of Suribachi and the gray clouds hung heavily, blending with the gray ash, Jesus Garcia and I were working hurriedly against coming darkness, digging shallow holes in which to crouch for the night. There was no warning, except the quietness, and then the 90-millimeter mortar shell lobbed lazily down and I was lying there wondering where my arm was, and Garcia's side was just an ugly, flaming blotch of red.
I don't know just when Jesus Garcia's parents crossed the Rio Grande or just what hopes or dreams they may have had when found their way to Los Angeles. Perhaps they had dreams not unlike my Grandfather when he abandoned the peat bogs of Ireland and escaped the tyranny of the Crown and journeyed hopefully to the broad virgin plains of Kansas.
And although the Americans from across the Rio Grande and those from County Monaghan may have immigrated for different reasons and may have dreamed different dreams, Jesus Garcia and I stopped the same shell and were carried back together from the western side of Iwo Jima.
Perhaps the Rankins and Bilbos can say why Garcia died from his wound while I survived mine. But I am sure that the grimy doctor in the littered gully on Iwo Jima who watched the plasma bring life to me when it failed to help Garcia would not base his explanation on any theory of white supremacy.
Perhaps, somewhere, there is an answer to explain why the Mexican's price for freedom came higher than the Irishman's. But I doubt we shall find the answer. It is more rational to ponder over the indiscriminate way in which death chooses those he wants. And as there may have been no color or racial requisites for those who died for freedom and decency, how is it that we, who have come back, find that bigotry and distrust still hold so firm a place in American thinking?
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