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'Nothing was as bad as Iwo Jima'

Delbert Littrell expected the invasion of Iwo Jima would be a stroll in the park after what his Marine Corps artillery unit had endured in the island-hopping campaign aimed at Japan during World War II.

After all, Pfc. Littrell and his buddies had survived combat in the Marshall Islands, Saipan and Tinian. They were battle-tested veterans of island warfare.

What's more, Iwo Jima was a mere dot in the Pacific Ocean, just 21/2; miles wide and scarcely 5 miles long. Piece of cake.

"We figured with all that shelling, it would be easy," recalls the Medford resident of the invasion set for Feb. 19, 1945. "For 75 days, they had pounded Iwo Jima by ships and planes. There wasn't a building left on that island when we got there.

"Well, they (Japanese) let us get in on the beach before they opened up on us," he says. "The thing about it was they weren't on that island, they were in it. They had tunnels all through there. You'd take a pillbox, think you finished it and move on, but they would pop up right behind you. That island was the worst of them all."

Indeed, nearly 26,000 U.S. Marines were wounded and some 7,000 killed on Iwo Jima after the Allies invaded it 67 years ago this Sunday.

Before the battle, the small island had been largely unheard of beyond the shores of Japan. But it quickly became strategically vital to the Allies. Fighter planes needed to provide cover for longer-range bombers required an air base closer to target areas. Iwo Jima's geographic location was ideal.

Littrell, who participated in five island invasions during the war, will be 88 on Tuesday. He turned 21 on Iwo Jima.

"I was considered an old man," he says, referring to the fact many fellow Marines were younger.

A retired U.S. Civil Service employee from Alaska, he and Gloria, his wife of 57 years, plan to attend the annual state meeting of Iwo Jima survivors in Sutherlin on Sunday. The couple have two grown sons.

The pot luck reunion and luncheon, expected to draw up to a dozen Iwo Jima veterans from around Oregon, will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the senior center, 202 E. Central St., Sutherlin.

Come Feb. 19, Littrell thinks about that distant island where he lost buddies.

"For years, I never thought about it," he says. "But you really can't forget. You try, but you can't. They say a headshrink will help you forget. But what does he know? He hasn't spent days and nights and weeks under fire. He doesn't know how it was."

Hailing from rural Arkansas, he joined the Corps in 1943 when he was 18. By the end of the year, the private had been deployed to the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. He wouldn't return stateside until his discharge at the end of 1945.

"We went straight from boot camp to the Marshalls," he says. "That battle only lasted about three days, but some of us stayed another two months cleaning up a bunch of the little islands."

His primary job was to serve as a cannoneer for a 155mm howitzer, but like all Marines, he also was a rifleman, carrying a carbine.

He also served as a forward observer whose job it was to report the success of rounds being fired by the howitzer.

"You tried to find the highest point you could and get up there," he says. "You see any troop movement or anything like that, you called in the artillery.

"We used mass artillery. When we saw any troops getting ready to attack, we called in every gun we could on them."

By the spring of 1944, his unit was deployed to Saipan, then on to nearby Tinian. A photograph of Littrell and four buddies on Saipan in June 1944 shows him wearing a Japanese helmet. His four buddies are wearing Japanese soft hats.

"We had sniper fire from some trees so we went out around and came in behind," he says by way of explaining how they acquired the enemy headgear.

He wasn't interested in keeping count on the number of enemy he may have killed.

"One lady asked me, 'How many?' " he says. "I told her only flyboys keep track."

Littrell was dubbed "Lucky" on Saipan. The monicker came from an incident in which he dove under a vehicle when his unit was being shelled.

"After the shelling was over, I crawled out and looked in the vehicle — it was loaded with hand grenades," he says. "The guys said, 'You are one lucky son of a b——.' "

He needed all the luck he could summon on Iwo Jima. Before bringing in the big 155mm, his unit had to first go in and secure an area where they would set up the cannon.

"On Iwo, there was 25 of us that started and only 12 of us that made it to the place we set it up," he says of that first day.

The Japanese commander had very skillfully prepared his troops so they had the entire island covered by their weapons, Littrell says.

"He was a genius," he says.

PFC Littrell did not witness the famous flag raising on Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, although he did see Old Glory once it was raised.

"I was on Iwo Jima for 29 days," he says. "We didn't have a hot meal anytime we were there. By the end of it, you were rummy. You didn't get any sleep. You fired artillery 24 hours a day."

Adding to the hellish conditions was the smell of sulphur bubbling up from the volcanic island mixed with the stench of thousands of dead comrades-in-arms laid out on the beach and covered with ponchos.

After the battle, the exhausted Marine was sent to a hospital on Guam for two weeks. A medical doctor told him he was sending him back to the states to recuperate.

Instead, Littrell was ordered to Okinawa to participate in that battle in November 1945, his final island of the campaign.

"But nothing was as bad as Iwo Jima," Littrell reiterates.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Delbert Littrell, 87, is a survivor of the battle of Iwo Jima, which took place 67 years ago this Sunday. Littrell says that of the many campaigns he fought during the war in the Pacific, Iwo Jima was by far the worst.