Iwo Jima vets tour Fort Sill, speak of World War II
February 23, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. -- At the Battle of Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, Marine Cpl. Hershel "Woody" Williams' job as a flame-thrower operator was to burn out caves and bunkers. However, the Japanese pillboxes, or concrete bunkers, were set up in pods of three making them very difficult to assault.
"As were were trying to push toward those, we were just losing Marine after Marine," said Williams, who was then 21.
Williams was the last flame-thrower alive left in his company, and his company commander asked him if he could take out the pill boxes which had stymied their assault.
"I don't remember what I said, but the guys in the shell hole that we were meeting in said that I said, 'I'll try,'" Williams explained.
Williams along with four assistants prepared for the mission.
"I strapped on some flame-throwers and over a period of four hours and six flame-throwers later, we broke through," said Williams, 88, of Ona, W.V.
For his actions Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor.
"It was terrible, but it was essential," Williams said of the battle. "We didn't have the time [to starve out the Japanese troops], we were losing B-29 crews everyday. We needed that place."
Williams was one of 10 veterans from the Iwo Jima Survivors Association, who toured Fort Sill Feb. 16 as part of their reunion in Wichita Falls. Dozens of their family members and friends accompanied them on their visit here.
The 36-day Battle of Iwo Jima involved about 70,000 Marines, as well as sailors, Soldiers and airmen. A famous photograph was taken during the fight showing five Marines and a sailor raising the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi.
Tom Price was an 18-year-old seaman on board the USS Missoula during the battle of Iwo Jima. He remembered a landing craft stacked with dead Marines coming along side his ship to off load the bodies. His ship didn't have the refrigeration facilities to store the bodies. All they could do was give the landing craft crew food, water and fuel so it could steam to other ships, who could take the Marines, he said.
Kimel Brent, 87, of Arriba, Colo., attended the reunion with his wife and three of their grandchildren.
As a young man, Brent tried to get into the Merchant Marines, but because of his medical history they wouldn't take him so he joined the Navy. As a 20-year-old Seabee, Brent arrived at Iwo Jima in March just after the battle. The Seabees' job was to repair the bombed out airfields. He said there were still some Japanese soldiers hiding in the caves.
"One night some Japanese slipped into another camp and cut the throats of a couple guys," Brent said. "When we first got our (pup) tents we slept with our feet in and our heads sticking out, after that they told us we had to turn-around and sleep with our heads in."
Bill Howard was 17 years old when he, too, volunteered to join the Navy. He and a friend went to Dallas to join the Coast Guard, but they had already met their quota and weren't taking more recruits, he said.
He remembered one of his shipmates well -- corpsman Dan Taravalla, of Chicago, a flat-footed volunteer, who had nine children. Taravella was killed on Iwo Jima, said Howard, of Quanah, Texas.
Howard said some of the Marines were buried at sea and then listed as missing in action for one year.
"I'd rather you tell me now that my boy is dead, instead of giving me false hope for a year," Howard said.
Marine Pfc. Nathan Rogers, 19, of Longview, Texas, an artillery student, was one of the many junior enlisted Marines who met the veterans at the Marine Corps Cannoneer School.
"It brings out a lot of pride in me being able to meet people who were in the 'Corps before me," said Rogers, who has been in the service 7 months. "It shows me that I can strive to live up to the legacy."
Sixteen-year veteran Marine Gunnery Sgt. Dameon Hardy, Sheppard Air Force Base Marine liaison, helped escort the group.
"It's awesome. I'm meeting men who served alongside my grandfather -- Soldier in World War Two," Hardy said. "They have so many stories, and I can truly appreciate their service."
At the Field Artillery Museum, Maj. Gen. David Halverson, Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill commanding general, praised and thanked the veterans and their families for their service. He presented each veteran with his coin of excellence.
Many of the visitors were impressed with the reception the group received at Fort Sill. Kellie Brennan, 23, Price's granddaughter from Washington state, said: "Coming here and seeing the respect that was given to the veterans was very moving."