United States Marines,
(I Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division)
There were good strategic reasons for the decision to invade the island of Iwo Jima. It was central to the overall plan to eventually invade the Japanese homeland and to end the war. However, the degree of difficulty in capturing the island was seriously underestimated. Estimates of Japanese strength on the island were 70% low. Changes in Japanese tactics were not anticipated because of earlier invasions on Saipan, Tarawa and Peleliu where early Banzai (suicide) attacks were easily defeated and turned the tide of each invasion. This would not be the case with Iwo Jima. No one examined the nature and difficulty of the soil on the island. U.S. casualties were underestimated by 80%. What was to be a quick operation turned into a bloody and costly battle lasting over a month.
One third (23,573) of the 70,000 U. S. Marines involved were casualties. Total U.S. casualties numbered 28,686 including 6,821 killed, 19,217 wounded and 2,648 with combat fatigue. An estimated 20,000 Japanese troops were killed and 1,083 were taken prisoner. United States naval invasion ships were hit by intense Kamikaze attacks. It was America’s first landing on what was considered traditional Japanese territory and it was a strong indication of what was to come on Okinawa.
During World War II, there were a total of 138 Navy and Marine Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. Actions during the assault on Iwo Jima account for 23% of the awards. Twenty seven Marines and five Sailors received the Medal of Honor for their actions on Iwo Jima.
Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue. – Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (March 16, 1945)
The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years. – James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy (February 23, 1945)
PFC Henry Koellein wasn’t thinking about medals on the morning of February 19, 1945 as his convoy pulled up to the shores of Iwo Jima. He thought it would be tough, but he and his fellow marines, including many veterans of earlier actions on Saipan, Tarawa and Peleliu, had no idea how tough. They would soon find out.
Born April 2, 1926 in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of German immigrant parents, Henry needed his father’s permission to join the Marine Corps. He was not yet 18 years of age and he was still in high school. “He didn’t want to give his consent but I think that he had a secret motive. He didn’t want me going to Germany and killing my blood (relatives). Everyone knew that the Marines operated in the Pacific.” Henry told him that if he didn’t give his permission he would do it without his permission in about six months when he turned 18. “I told him that I would do it and that I would go away and wouldn’t come back no more. I was always kind of pushy that way” he says with a grin. His father had come to the United States prior to WWI because his grandmother “did not want that Kaiser to get my only son.” Henry’s mother, grandmother and sister all died before he reached the age of five. His father married another lady with six children. “I became the baby of the family. That’s where I learned to fight”.
When asked why he enlisted, he answered “Our country was attacked while we slept on a Sunday morning. I thought it was a dastardly situation.” There were so many volunteers that Henry had to wait in line at the recruiting office and then wait another few months until there was space available for his platoon to enter basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina in March 1944. “Everybody wanted to be a Marine.” He didn’t like boot camp and said that “I wanted to run away at first, but then I got into it and finished up.” He claims to have been “the tallest and prettiest guy in the class.” He enjoyed 10 days of leave and then reported to basic combat training where he learned how to use all the weapons of war except the one that he would ultimately use, the flame-thrower. When asked if he volunteered for the flame-thrower he replied “No, you didn’t volunteer for anything. They just came around and said you, you and you. I was a big guy and the flame-thrower weighed 67 pounds.” He didn’t learn how to use it in his basic training. That came later, but he did learn the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), the 60 and 81 mm mortar and various other small arms.
He was fascinated by mortars primarily because he trained under Master Sergeant Lou Diamond who was a legendary mortar man who “could drop a mortar shell down a chimney. I was really getting into that, and being the biggest guy, they usually gave me the biggest pieces to carry.” He was 6’ tall and weighed 167 pounds when he entered the Marine Corp. When he was discharged two years later he was 6’ 3” and weighed 205 pounds. “I grew up in the Marine Corps” he says with a grin. The last 6 months were spent in hospitals due to his being “shot up pretty bad on Iwo Jima” and then the war ended. “That’s why I loved Harry Truman” he joked. “He dropped that damn bomb and they (the Japanese) would have used it if they had it.”
After training he spent five very hot days on a train across the southern United States to San Diego where he stayed for a few days prior to boarding a ship for Hawaii as part of a Marine replacement battalion. His outfit was slotted into the 4th Marine Division which had suffered a lot of casualties in the eight to ten months they had been in the Pacific at
both the Marshall and Marianas Islands. It was while he was training on Maui that his colonel decided that he was tough enough to be a flame-thrower operator.
In early January 1945, his division boarded ships and stopped briefly in Pearl Harbor to rendezvous with another Marine Division prior to departing for the western Pacific. He had no idea where they were going. After 31 continuous days at sea on an LST (Landing Ship Tank), they arrived at their destination.
At dawn on D-day, he and his fellow Marines saw Iwo Jima for the first time. It was unlike any other island they had ever seen. Instead of palm trees and a white ribbon of beach which had first met their gaze at Roi-Namur, or the green cane fields of Saipan and Tinian, they saw an ugly lump of volcanic sand and clay, which was treeless, craggy, and blistered with endless sand hummocks. Mount Suribachi, at the southern tip, loomed like something out of the Inferno; the plateau at the north was a series of ridges and hills. In the center of the island lay two air fields. The beach was not white, but black, and the sparse vegetation was wilted, burned out and colorless. It was as if, prophetically, Iwo Jima was meant to support not life, but death.
H-hour was 9:00. By 7:30 the ships were lying to, and troops were going over the side. The plan of the landing called for the Fourth and Fifth Divisions to land abreast on a beach 3,500 yards long. The Third Division would land on call, as reserves.
At 7:56 AM there was encouraging news: very light swells; boating, excellent; visibility, excellent. Waves of B-29s roared overhead to drop bombs. A record number of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers systematically shelled every target area. Hellcat fighters, sweeping in at treetop height, riddled the beach and airfields; LCI’s (Landing Craft Infantry) close in to the shore poured forth a continuous barrage of rocket and mortar fire. From all directions, from ever type of weapon, molten steel rained on the island. At that moment it seemed that taking Iwo Jima would be easy.
And, for a short time, it appeared that it might be. When the first waves left the line of departure at 8:30, there was no sign of life on the island. At 8:49, eleven minutes before the first waves were to land, aerial observers reported: “No counter fire as yet.” The island was strangely, frighteningly quiet.
As the first wave of armored Amphibian Tractors (amphtracs), spouting fire from their cannon, neared the beach, enemy mortar and artillery shells began landing in the surf. A few tractors were hit and a few planes went down from anti-aircraft fire. As the first wave poured ashore at 9:02, the Marines encountered surprisingly little fire.
Then, the Japanese defenders came to life. Machine guns began to chatter. Dual purpose guns, on the edge of the airfield, were depressed to deliver plunging fire on advancing Marines.
Artillery fire began to comb the beachhead in increasing intensity. Even in demolished pillboxes and blockhouses, Japanese troops were alive and fighting. From that moment, until the end of D-Day, Marines clung to their beachhead by their fingertips. True to their “Courageous Battle Vow”, the Japanese defenders fought wildly, without organization or leadership. The battle raged bitterly all morning. The Japanese fought from trenches and half wrecked pillboxes. Nothing but well aimed grenades, flame-throwers, and bayonets routed them. Part of the reason for the fierce resistance put up by the Japanese was the “Battle Vow” disseminated by General Kurbayashi, the Japanese island commander, to raise and unite the spirit of his troops. It was found on the bodies of the majority of dead Japanese and posted on pillbox walls. The document read in part as follows:
Above all else we shall dedicate ourselves and our entire strength to the defense of this island.
We shall grasp bombs, charge the enemy tanks and destroy them.
We shall infiltrate into the midst of the enemy and annihilate them.
With every salvo we will, without fail, kill the enemy.
Each man will make it his duty to kill 10 of the enemy before dying.
Until we are destroyed to the last man, we shall harass the enemy by guerrilla tactics.
Henry’s outfit landed on the extreme right flank of the invasions beach as part of the first wave. “I didn’t know enough to be scared. It was a nightmare. I sank into the sand up to my knees.” Three of his buddy’s were killed right on the beach; Joe H. Kelly, Walter Winemiller and Frank Urso. “Frank Urso was our lieutenant and he didn’t get 100 feet before he was cut in half by a machine gun. Kelly was blown to smithereens by a mortar shell.” All are memorialized with bricks at the Worcester County Veterans Memorial at Ocean Pines, compliments of Henry.
On the afternoon of the first day, Henry, who was carrying a carbine in addition to the flame-thrower, took a shot at a Japanese soldier in some rubble. That apparently drew the attention and ire of a Japanese artillery spotter because mortar shells began to land around his position. “They nailed me. A mortar shell went off right next to me. The flame-thrower on my back saved me. I was hit in the right hip and buttocks and the right hand where I still have some of that black sand under my skin. A corpsman came over and cut half my clothes off, bandaged me up, stuck morphine needles in me and told a couple of Marines to take me down to the aid station because ‘he’s no more good here’”.
The battalion surgeon at the aid station gave him more morphine and he was loaded aboard a Higgins boat and taken out to a hospital ship. “To this day I don’t know how I got aboard that ship but I woke up in a bunk among a lot of other wounded Marines.” Since his wounds were not considered life threatening, the more seriously wounded were treated first. “Marines were dying all around me.” There were many burials at sea as the ship traveled to Guam where he was hospitalized for about a week prior to being put aboard another ship and taken to Pearl Harbor. He underwent surgery to remove the shrapnel. “I asked the surgeon to save some of the shrapnel for me so I could make a key chain out of it but he later told me that he forgot so I never did get my souvenir.” He turned 19 in that hospital.
He was taken to another hospital and started physical therapy. The medical pipeline was filled with wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen returning from the Pacific. The hospitals on Saipan, Guam, and Tinian received over 18,000 battle casualties from Iwo Jima within a single month. Every hospital bed was needed. Henry was taken to Hickam Field, placed aboard a transport aircraft and flown to San Francisco where he entered Oak Knoll Naval Hospital for more therapy. He was able to walk with the use of canes. He was then transferred to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. He had temporarily lost the use of his right leg. His hearing had been badly damaged by the mortar shell blast and he wears hearing aids today because of it.
He was transferred to the Quantico Naval Hospital in Virginia for more therapy and eventually assigned to the Marine Barracks at 8th & I in Washington, DC. He never told anyone about his hearing problem but one day during drill he didn’t hear the “To The Rear, March” order. “I was the only dummy who continued on while the rest of the formation reversed direction.” He now wears hearing aids provided by the Veterans Administration.
One day, a Navy Chief Pharmacists Mate told him to apply for a “C” number. It was a compensation number for persons with service connected disabilities. He was not interested but the Chief prevailed on him and completed the application. He was discharged on April 1, 1946 just one day prior to his 20th birthday. “Thank God the war ended or I would have been sent back to another replacement battalion and eventually assigned to one of the 6 Marine Divisions preparing for the invasion of Japan. Nobody wanted to go back into that hell but if the man said ‘go’, you go.”
He took a job as a Baker’s Apprentice and soon received a letter advising him that he was receiving a 10% disability. He began receiving a monthly check for $11.50. After one year, he was reevaluated and his disability was increased to 30% and $44.00 per month. Another year passed and another reevaluation reduced the disability to 20% ($33.00 per month) and made permanent. His back pay amounted to $500 which he used to buy a 1937 Plymouth. Henry now receives $240 per month and he has been receiving it for 60 years thanks to a Navy Chief Pharmacists Mate who realized that Henry would probably suffer from his battle wounds for the rest of his life.
Reflecting on his service, Henry thinks that “there are great opportunities in the military” but realizes that times have changed. “Then it was the thing to do. I saw 15 and 16 year old Marines in the south Pacific that lied about their age to enlist.” He scoffs at the idea of being called a hero. “Those guys that died on Iwo Jima, they were the heroes. I’m not a hero, just another Marine.”
He has no second thoughts about what he did. “If I had the chance, I would do it all over again. I would go in place of one of these young guys. I’m 80 years old and I would like to give one of them a chance to live that long.”
~ GEORGE REISWIG