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Iwo Jima: A Personal Remembrance of My Uncle Bill on the 75th Anniversary of the Battle

By Philip R. Devlin.

Iwo Jima is shaped like a pork chop. It is a small, volcanic island 750 miles due south of Tokyo. Its name translates into English as “sulphur island,” as the smell of sulphur from occasional, small volcanic emanations even today continues to linger on the island.

During World War II, Iwo Jima assumed great strategic importance for the United States military. This importance centered around capturing the Japanese airfields located there. These airfields could then be used by P-51 fighters to escort B-29 bombers which were attacking Japan; furthermore, disabled bombers returning from Japan could now land there, thus saving many lives. As a result, American military planners decided to invade Iwo Jima 75 years ago this week on February 19, 1945. It became the job of the United States Marine Corps to take Iwo.

As my father, six uncles, an aunt, and most of my neighbors, teachers, and coaches had been on active duty in World War II, I became aware of the major battles of the war at a very early age. My father, for example, had been in the Battle of the Bulge and had brought home a pair of German binoculars from that engagement. However, no relative of mine had been in more significant and dangerous battles than my mother’s younger brother, William Cooper, of the 4th Marine Division. Uncle Bill was a radioman in the Corps—a forward spotter who used his radio to call in artillery and airstrikes on Japanese positions. He carried a map of Iwo that was gridded out into numbers. He would use his binoculars to spot flashes of artillery, locate them on his map, and then call in the coordinates to the Navy for a barrage.

The 4th Division was in the vanguard of invasions at the Marshall Islands, Saipan, and Tinian. All of these battles involved hard-fought struggles by dug-in Japanese defenders who fought to the death rather than surrender, but all paled in comparison to the five-week Battle of Iwo Jima, where the Marines incurred over 26,000 casualties, including over 6,800 dead. Iwo marked the only battle in the Pacific where total American casualties exceeded Japanese casualties (21,000+).

Uncle Bill landed on Iwo on the first day of the invasion and was there for the entire duration of the battle. He told me once that he was the only forward radioman attached to his battalion to survive the battle, as Japanese soldiers made a priority of targeting radio operators. Since the long, flexible antenna of a radio glimmered in sunshine, those guys were easy to spot. He also told me that he carried a carbine, not an M-1, as a carbine was lighter and the burden of carrying a big box radio was heavy.

Uncle Bill also said that the Japanese were not so much on Iwo Jima as they were in it. For months the Japanese had dug a network of tunnels in the island that exceeded 11 miles in length! During the pre-invasion bombardment, tens of thousands of artillery shells and bombs exploded on the island, mostly to no avail as the Japanese were largely underground and survived the shelling.

Other surprises awaited the Marines. The Japanese allowed the landing craft carrying the soldiers to land and allowed the soldiers to disembark and to proceed slightly inland. Their artillery had been pre-sighted to cover the disembarkation area, and they waited for the area to fill before they opened up with a withering artillery barrage that killed and wounded thousands of Marines. Uncle Bill told me that during this attack he had actually felt the wind from a large mortar round pass just over his head. The shell landed in a foxhole just behind him and killed four of his friends. He chain smoked double cigarettes to calm himself down before returning to the fight. He said that fighting on Iwo Jima was exhausting. The Japanese would often conduct suicide raids in the middle of the night; thus, constant vigilance was necessary to survive.

On the fourth day of the fighting, photographer Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press took a photograph of the American flag-raising on Mount Suribachi on the south end of Iwo Jima. Rosenthal, who had arrived on the beach on the same landing craft as Uncle Bill on the first day, won the Pulitzer Prize for the photo, certainly one of the most famous battle photos of all time. That photo of six Marines raising the flag is duplicated in the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. A smaller version of that can be seen next to Route 9 in New Britain—a road also known as the “Iwo Jima Memorial Highway.” The Connecticut memorial was dedicated 25 years ago on the 50th anniversary of the battle. 100 Connecticut men died on Iwo Jima.

Fortunately for my family, Uncle Bill survived. My mother told me that her sister, my Aunt Barbara, was stationed with the Coast Guard in Honolulu during the war. She would visit Navy hospitals where wounded 4th Division Marines were recuperating and ask them about her brother. She would then write home and tell my grandmother that as of a certain date she knew her brother was still alive.

A few months later, Bill’s future brother-in-law, my Uncle Erwin, landed on Iwo in a B-29. Erwin was a tail gunner in the 20th Air Force on a B-29 stationed on Guam. He took a photo of Japanese General Kuribayashi’s cave at Iwo and developed it himself in his makeshift dark room on Guam. Kuribayashi probably committed suicide there rather than surrender. Below are the six “Courageous Battle Vows” published by Kuribayashi and distributed to his men before the battle:

  1. We shall defend this island with all our strength to the end.
  2. We shall fling ourselves against the enemy tanks clutching explosives to destroy them.
  3. We shall slaughter the enemy, dashing in among them to kill them.
  4. Every one of our shots shall be on target and kill the enemy.
  5. We shall not die until we have killed ten of the enemy.
  6. We shall continue to harass the enemy with guerrilla tactics even if only one of us remains alive.

PFC William H. Cooper received the Bronze Star for his exemplary service in the 4th Division: “For Heroic achievement as radio operator in an artillery forward observer team …With complete disregard for his own safety, PFC Cooper went forward to a bare ridge ahead of the friendly front line, exposing himself to heavy enemy fire in order to maintain communication with his battery.”

Uncle Bill lived on 76 North Main Street in Windsor Locks for most of his adult life. When the movie The Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne debuted at the Rialto Theater in Windsor Locks in 1949, Uncle Bill was asked to talk to the audience about his experience there. He did so briefly, as he was not inclined to talk much about the war. He put his Marine Corps skills as a radio operator to use for many years at SNET as a lineman and telephone installer. My brother Bill, named after him, summed up his uncle’s life succinctly by saying, “He was the nicest tough guy I ever knew.”

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