'We knew we were going to die'
Abe "Murph" Rosenstein's platoon was next in line, and its prospects weren't good.
After weeks of aerial bombing and three days of naval shelling of Iwo Jima's rocky surface, the first waves of U.S. Marines landed on a narrow strip of beach. They encountered little resistance at first, but as the Americans moved beyond the beach they were ripped apart by snipers, machine-gun fire and artillery that rolled in and out of caves.
Rosenstein and the 4th Marine Division already had been part of the Pacific Island fight for Saipan and Tinian, but the carnage that commenced 70 years ago this week — and lasted from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945 — was unlike any encountered by American troops. It was the costliest battle in the Pacific Theater during World War II, with 6,821 Marines killed and 19,271 wounded, along with more than 22,000 Japanese who died.
The U.S. decided it needed the eight-square-mile island where the Japanese had constructed two airstrips and were working on a third. Iwo Jima was considered a sort of stationary aircraft carrier where B-29 bombers could land if they ran out of fuel or were crippled.
Rosenstein was going ashore on the seventh wave, and it didn't take the 20-year-old private first class from Philadelphia long to size up what waited ahead.
"You couldn't put your head above ground, because you'd get hit by body parts," recalled the retired 90-year-old businessman, who has called Medford home for more than 20 years. "We were on the beach for two days and two nights before moving on to the first terrace. The sergeant said, 'We're not going to die on the beach, so let's go.' You couldn't dig a foxhole because the volcanic ash would collapse around you. You'd step into it and go up to your knees it was so soft. The only holes we had were from the huge naval shells."
As his platoon moved forward, the picture grew clearer and more horrific. Japanese Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi had ordered his men to allow Americans to come on shore without opposition. When Marines, tanks and equipment began sinking into the ash, the Japanese unleashed torrents of lethal fire. During the first six days, 1,605 Marines died.
"Of the 45 in my platoon, maybe six or seven survived," he said.
American dead were carried to the beach and covered with ponchos, because there was no time to bury them. At night, Japanese snipers would sneak in among the dead and crawl under the ponchos. At daybreak Marines would make the rounds, shooting the dead in order to take out snipers, Rosenstein recalled.
As the battle wore on, it became apparent the Japanese had carved out miles of tunnels 40 feet beneath the surface, housing everything from barracks and hospitals to mess halls.
"You could put your ear close to the ground and hear the noise underneath, but you couldn't get to them," Rosenstein said. "We'd throw in grenades and go in with flame throwers, but we didn't know how many tunnels there were."
While clearing a cave en route to airstrip No. 2 on Feb. 26, a flamethrower ignited a gas tank, and the ensuing explosion set off grenades.
"Everybody got hit," he recalled.
Rosenstein was severely burned and pierced above the left eye by grenade fragments. He was evacuated to the USS Solace, a hospital ship that was quickly filled. He was transferred to a naval hospital on Guam for six weeks and then on to Honolulu for a month.
He found himself back in Maui, where he had trained in June 1944 before going to Saipan. He was boxing up machine guns and other equipment in preparation for an invasion of Japan when news came of the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
"We knew we were going to die," said the Purple Heart recipient. "You couldn't believe the joy and tears flowing. Then you wondered why it didn't happen earlier, before we lost our buddies. The significance of taking Iwo Jima was that it saved thousands and thousands of lives.
"The reason we won that battle was because Marine Corps training is absolutely brutal. You would not believe the brutality and misery. You'd get so mad during training that you would want to kill one another. That's the spirit that keeps the Marine Corps going."
Time has taken most of those who survived the bitter struggle.
At Iwo Jima's 50th anniversary reunion at Camp Pendleton, not far from San Diego, where Rosenstein shipped out to Hawaii, he was with close friends and comrades.
Among them was Allen J. Striffler of Rye, N.Y., who died last June.
"I'm still in mourning," Rosenstein said. "I lost my best friend."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/EconomicEdge