|Letters from Iwo Jima
Veterans Day is November 11, and this month we are replacing our usual fiduciary content with a salute to the men and women of America’s armed forces. There have been thousands of battles and millions of combatants throughout U.S. history. Many families have a story of how wars past or present have touched someone close to them. This is mine.
- Mike Montgomery
Iwo Jima, Japan, February 19, 1945 – Eighteen year old Marine PFC William P. Montgomery jumps off a landing craft and onto the black volcanic sand of a small Pacific island. It is only three hours into the battle, and already the beaches are littered with men and machines that will move no further. The landing zone rises steeply up to the hills where the enemy has dug in, and Montgomery begins the slow climb uphill and to the south toward Mount Suribachi. The loose volcanic ash makes it difficult to scramble up the slope under fire. His initial trepidation soon fades into the grim resolve of a thirty-six day battle.
His Fifth Division cuts across the narrow neck of the island. The 28th Marines then turn left and will raise the flag five days later over Mount Suribachi, a scene captured in an iconic photo. Montgomery’s 26th Marines move to the right and begin a slow uphill assault over the five miles leading to the north end of the island. Montgomery later reflects, “Little did we know that this carnage would continue for more than another month!”
Days later, he finds a moment to scratch out a letter to his family. Selected excerpts are reprinted here.
28 February 1945
I guess you know by now from reading the papers that our outfit is fighting on Iwo Jima. I hope that by the time you receive this letter we will be off this God forsaken rock. You don’t know how thankful and lucky I am to be writing this. Many was the time when I thought I wouldn’t see the night again. There is still a lot more fighting to do and it will be a happy day for all of us when we are able to stand up straight without fear of being shot or of a shell dropping near us. Our best friend next to our rifle is our entrenching shovel. Here we learn to dig foxholes deep and narrow.
So far I am unscathed and am well. The worst thing here is not the snipers, machine gun fire, mortors or artillery, but seeing dead marines lying around.
I love you all more than I can say. I have your pictures here with me in my pack.
Much love, Bill
It takes over a month to cover the five miles to the north end of the island. The tunnels and fortifications are so well hidden that the enemy is rarely seen. At night, the Japanese pull most of their casualties back into the caves, and it is demoralizing to see dead Marines and so few of the enemy as the Americans move forward.
6 March, 1945
Here it is the sixteenth day of fighting on little Iwo Jima (it doesn’t seem so little to me) and we still haven’t secured the island. I am still alive and unhurt (I’m knocking on wood) but lots of guys are still getting killed. The (enemy) are really dug in. There are caves and dugouts chiseled out of solid rock all over this north part of the island.
I thank God every night for letting me live through the day. I love you all more than you know and think of you always.
The fight drags on, and thousands of Marines have already sacrificed their lives. When it is over, American casualties (killed and wounded) will be by far the highest in Marine Corps history, roughly one-third of those who landed on Iwo Jima.
14 March, 1945
I was standing in a shallow foxhole the other day with 5 or 6 other fellows, all standing close together when a machine gun opened up on us. That’s one of many close calls I’ve had. Too many haven’t been so lucky.
Love to all and don’t worry.
Late in the battle, he stands at the edge of a newly created cemetery, his clothing caked with a month’s worth of grime and blood as he gazes solemnly at thousands of crosses and stars of David. Each marks the resting place of a young American who just thirty days before had shared his dreams of family and future. One day a painting of this cemetery and a battle-worn Marine will adorn the wall of his home.
21 March, 1945
The Fifth Division Cemetery was dedicated this morning. There were a lot of little white crosses and more to be set up. They had church services afterwards.
There are just a few of the fellows that went through scout-sniper camp with me that came in this outfit, who haven’t been wounded or killed.
I hope we get off this rock soon. It ought to be over in a few days
Iwo Jima, Japan, March 6, 2013 – After sixty-eight years, Bill Montgomery stands again on the landing beaches of Iwo Jima, this time with his daughter Melinda and a son. Father and son gaze silently across the beach and up the slope at the now-silent battlements, one trying to remember the carnage of so long ago and the other trying in vain even to imagine it. “I think we landed a little closer to Mount Suribachi, maybe down the beach past that big rock”, the elder Montgomery says. We walk down the beach a bit and gather some sand – sacred ground. Someone finds a piece of shrapnel uncovered by the surf after almost seven decades.
|The return visit is bittersweet. Like most that have endured real combat, he has spoken little of his experiences over the years. Some memories emerge only after he has raised his family and retired. He is deeply proud of his service to his country and the noble cause which he served, but is not prone to displays of emotion. Before the trip, he had worried that the pilgrimage might stir up strong feelings. It did not, but it stimulated a somber reflection upon the experience of intense combat. He has described the island variously as “Dante’s inferno” (referring to the volcanic, sulfurous fumes) “hellish”, “ugly”, “desolate”, and “God forsaken”. His return trip doesn’t change this view. He later recaps the visit by saying, “The thing that still struck me after all these years, it still exuded death. It is still a deadly, evil island and I could feel that”.
This material is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice and is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified attorney, tax adviser, investment professional or insurance agent. Montgomery Retirement Plan Advisors does not warrant and is not responsible for errors or omissions in the content of this newsletter.