Skip to comments.Ivan Thunder: World War, Iwo Jima and the way we were
Posted on 02/09/2013 6:03:54 PM PST by robowombat
Ivan Thunder: World War, Iwo Jima and the way we were A marvelous memoir by Ivan Thunder recounts how it really was on the sand of Iwo Jima, a tiny island drenched in the blood of Americans and Japanese fighting for supremacy during the Second World War.
In the 1973 movie The Way We Were, starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, Redford, as Hubbell Gardiner, recites the opening lines of his novel: In a way he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him. This teaser always made me want to read more, but of course there was no more.
In one sense, moviegoers who had grown up in the 1950s, the 1960s and the early 1970s could relate to everything coming easy. There was no foreign competition and there were just a couple minor recessions. The United States was at the forefront of all technological change; the United States was the dominant economic power globally. Domestically during those years, there was an explosion of housing developments in suburbia; an explosion of tall buildings throughout the country; cities grew -- like Phoenix from some 65,000 to 1.5 million; there were jet airports; the interstate highway; the growth of Florida, Texas, southern California, Hollywood; new and enormous state universities; and on and on.
At the same time, however, the period of American history between 1962 and 1974 is marked by the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Kennedy; the killings of the Birmingham girls by bomb; the killings of the civil rights workers; the Selma march and its police dogs; the confrontation with Governor George Wallace; the Vietnam War (58,000 Americans dead); Kent State students shot by the National Guard; Jackson State students shot by city and state police; the Watergate hearings and Nixons resignation; Roe v. Wade; the Cold War and the missile crisis of 1962. So, given these circumstances, how could a moviegoer who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s or early 1970s relate to Hubbell Gardiners novels opening lines how did they or the country have everything come easily?
Maybe those lines werent meant for the young moviegoers seeing the film in 1973 but for those of fictional Hubbells generation. Hubbell had been an officer during World War II. So he, like Ivan Thunder (1913-2010), the author of the recently posthumously released The Pacific War and Battle of Iwo Jima -- Recollections & Essays by a Seabee Lieutenant (see here) grew up in the Great Depression and the Second World War. Lets reflect a moment on those two periods.
The Great Depression was so bad that, in late 2008 and early 2009, the American population and politicians greatly feared that the Great Recession would degenerate into another Great Depression. This fear resulted in Congress appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts and still more hundreds of billions of dollars in (supposed) stimulus. In American history, economic recessions used to be called panics as in the Panic of 1792. Future historians might say that the 2008/2009 Great Recession was indeed a panic. My purpose here is simply to remind us of how great the Great Depression was to have instilled such fear, such panic. Readers can look to other sources for statistics concerning the length of the Great Depression, the percentage of unemployed adults, the depth of the contraction of business, and importantly, firsthand accounts.
And then there was World War II. Not Vietnam, not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not Libya, but a world war, one that commenced just 20 years after the previous world war. Again, readers can look to other sources for statistics regarding its length, the number of countries involved, the number of military and civilian deaths, etc. As for firsthand accounts concerning World War II, readers can check out this new book by Ivan Thunder as well as his previous book. Readers can assure themselves that neither the fictional Hubbell Gardiner nor the very real Ivan Thunder could relate to the opening lines of a novel stating that the country and its World War II warriors had had everything come to them easily.
A tribute to Ivan D. Thunder was published on these pages shortly after his October, 2010, death and can be found here. Let me say here that Thunder grew up in San Francisco. His first name was chosen at his 1913 birth before the Russian Revolution of 1917 and reflected the importance of Russian commerce in California at the time. He used to tell of meeting in San Francisco circa 1920 a Union veteran who had served as a drummer boy during the Civil War. And he would also tell of seeing the celebrations in 1925 of the 75th anniversary of Californias admission to the Union.
He was 16 in 1929 when his family moved from San Francisco to Chicago. You can take the boy out of California but you cant take California out of the man. He loved redwoods, the California missions, artichokes and tamales, the first names of Latinas, and the story of the engagement of Concepción de Argűello, the most beautiful young woman of Alta California and Russian count Nikolai Rezánov. (The story is told in a ballad by Bret Harte, a book by Gertrude Atherton, and, in 1979, in a Russian rock opera by Alexei Rybnikov and poet Andrey Vozneseknsky.)
Soon after their arrival in Chicago, the stock market crash occurred. His eldest sister continued with her wedding plans and got married the Saturday after the crash. A couple of years later, because of the financial hardship caused by the Depression, this young couple and their two young children moved in with her parents.
A family friend paid for Thunders tuition at a Catholic high school, Loyola Academy, and Thunder graduated on time in 1932. He was even able, by working various jobs, including those with the Chicago Transit Authority and the 1933 Worlds Fair, to attend college (Armour Tech, now Illinois Institute of Technology), graduating in five years from a four-year program.
In Thunders first book, Her Last Letter (2005), under the pseudonym Michael Dalton (see link here), he incorporated many pictures to tell the story of his working life, including his years in the Panama Canal Zone, his joining the U.S. Navy Corps of Engineers, his military training, and his courtship and marriage. The book ends on the eve of the Iwo Jima landing on February 19, 1945.
In 2006, the year after this first book was published, the Battle of Iwo Jima received a great deal of national publicity. Two movies about Iwo Jima directed by Clint Eastwood were released. One was from the American perspective, Flags of Our Fathers, and one from the Japanese perspective, Letters from Iwo Jima. (Before that, there had been the 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne.) There had been a number of books about the battle, most notably Richard F. Newcombs Iwo Jima (1965), but the greater impact of a film is obvious.
But, as Thunder would tell grade school, high school, and college audiences, I lived it. His new book, The Pacific War and Battle of Iwo Jima -- Recollections & Essays by a Seabee Lieutenant, was finished shortly before his October 2010 death and was just published in December. The book includes many photos, 50 eyewitness vignettes, an English translation of a never-before-published Japanese Marine officers diary, as well as historical narrative and analysis.
People would ask Thunder if he saw the flag being raised on Mount Suribachi? No, he responded in his usual quiet manner, We were all busy working a mile away. His book describes a number of projects upon which the Seabees were busy working. The most important of these was the very purpose of taking Iwo Jima, namely, for the Seabees to build an airbase close to the Japanese homeland. This work on the landing strips was commenced before the island was secure, that is, before Japanese resistance had ended. As Thunder describes, he and his construction crews were under attack even after the island was deemed secure. Furthermore, before the landing strips were finished, American pilots made emergency landings on them. As unfinished as they were, it was better than crashing into the sea.
Not only did the taking of Iwo provide a base for American bombers, but it terminated the islands use as a base for Japanese fighters. Before the taking of Iwo, Japanese fighters from Iwo would attack American bombers as they flew past Iwo on their way to the Japanese mainland. Beginning April 13, 1945, it was American fighters, not Japanese fighters, that took off from Iwo -- and they escorted American bombers to the Japanese mainland. As it turned out, on that day, one navigator/bombardier on a B-29 of the 873rd Squadron was on the first of his 26 missions. His son would marry Ivans eldest daughter 26 years later.
On the day of the Iwo landing, Thunder was 31. The 18, 19 and 20 year old men under his command respected him. This was evident when they reunited 58 years later in February of 2003 in Biloxi, Mississippi, where they had returned for the first time since the war to one of the places where they had undergone training. The young men were now in their late 70s and Thunder was 89. In his two books, Ivan Thunder wrote about the way they were.
Spero columnist James M. Thunder is a Washington DC attorney. He is the son of Ivan Thunder.
What is telling that the majority of the events talked about between 1962 to 1974, times I lived through as a child and a young adult happened when Democrats were in the White House and held majorities in both the House and Senate.
One Marine, One Ship
by Vin Suprynowicz
Oct. 26 falls on a Thursday this year.
Ask the significance of the date, and you’re likely to draw some puzzled looks five more days to stock up for Halloween?
It’s a measure of men like Col. Mitchell Paige and Rear Adm. Willis A. “Ching Chong China” Lee that they wouldn’t have had it any other way. What they did 58 years ago, they did precisely so their grandchildren could live in a land of peace and plenty.
Whether we’ve properly safeguarded the freedoms they fought to leave us, may be a discussion best left for another day. Today we struggle to envision or, for a few of us, to remember how the world must have looked on Oct. 26, 1942. A few thousand lonely American Marines had been put ashore on Guadalcanal, a god-forsaken malarial jungle island which just happened to lie like a speed bump at the end of the long blue-water slot between New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago the very route the Japanese Navy would have to take to reach Australia.
On Guadalcanal the Marines built an air field. And Japanese commander Isoroku Yamamoto immediately grasped what that meant. No effort would be spared to dislodge these upstart Yanks from a position that could endanger his ships during any future operations to the south. Before long, relentless Japanese counterattacks had driven supporting U.S. Navy from inshore waters. The Marines were on their own.
World War Two is generally calculated from Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. But that’s a eurocentric view. The Japanese had been limbering up their muscles in Korea and Manchuria as early as 1931, and in China by 1934. By 1942 they’d devastated every major Pacific military force or stronghold of the great pre-war powers: Britain, Holland, France, and the United States. The bulk of America’s proud Pacific fleet lay beached or rusting on the floor of Pearl Harbor. A few aircraft carriers and submarines remained, though as Mitchell Paige and his 30-odd men were sent out to establish their last, thin defensive line on that ridge southwest of the tiny American bridgehead on Guadalcanal on Oct. 25, he would not have been much encouraged to know how those remaining American aircraft carriers were faring offshore.
(The next day, their Mark XV torpedoes carrying faulty magnetic detonators reverse-engineered from a First World War German design proved so ineffective that the United States Navy couldn’t even scuttle the doomed and listing carrier Hornet with eight carefully aimed torpedoes. Instead, our forces suffered the ignominy of leaving the abandoned ship to be polished off by the enemy ... only after Japanese commanders determined she was damaged too badly to be successfully towed back to Tokyo as a trophy.)
As Paige then a platoon sergeant and his riflemen set about carefully emplacing their four water-cooled Brownings, it’s unlikely anyone thought they were about to provide the definitive answer to that most desperate of questions: How many able-bodied U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill against 2,000 desperate and motivated attackers?
The Japanese Army had not failed in an attempt to seize any major objective since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Their commanders certainly did not expect the war to be lost on some God-forsaken jungle ridge manned by one thin line of Yanks in khaki in October of 1942.
But in preceding days, Marine commander Vandegrift had defied War College doctrine, “dangling” his men in exposed positions to draw Japanese attacks, then springing his traps “with the steel vise of firepower and artillery,” in the words of Naval historian David Lippman.
The Japanese regiments had been chewed up, good. Still, the American forces had so little to work with that Paige’s men would have only the four 30-caliber Brownings to defend the one ridge through which the Japanese opted to launch their final assault against Henderson Field, that fateful night of Oct. 25.
By the time the night was over, “The 29th (Japanese) Infantry Regiment has lost 553 killed or missing and 479 wounded among its 2,554 men,” historian Lippman reports. “The 16th (Japanese) Regiment’s losses are uncounted, but the 164th’s burial parties handle 975 Japanese bodies. ... The American estimate of 2,200 Japanese dead is probably too low.”
Among the 90 American dead and wounded that night were all the men in Mitchell Paige’s platoon. Every one. As the night wore on, Paige moved up and down his line, pulling his dead and wounded comrades back into their foxholes and firing a few bursts from each of the four Brownings in turn, convincing the Japanese forces down the hill that the positions were still manned.
The citation for Paige’s Congressional Medal of Honor picks up the tale: “When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, P/Sgt. Paige, commanding a machinegun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded. Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire.”
In the end, Sgt. Paige picked up the last of the 40-pound, belt-fed Brownings the same design which John Moses Browning famously fired for a continuous 25 minutes until it ran out of ammunition at its first U.S. Army trial and did something for which the weapon was never designed. Sgt. Paige walked down the hill toward the place where he could hear the last Japanese survivors rallying to move around his flank, the gun cradled under his arm, firing as he went.
The weapon did not fail.
Coming up at dawn, battalion executive officer Major Odell M. Conoley first discovered the answer to our question: How many able-bodied Marines does it take to hold a hill against two regiments of motivated, combat-hardened infantrymen who have never known defeat?
On a hill where the bodies were piled like cordwood, Mitchell Paige alone sat upright behind his 30-caliber Browning, waiting to see what the dawn would bring.
One hill: one Marine.
But that was the second problem. Part of the American line had fallen to the last Japanese attack. “In the early morning light, the enemy could be seen a few yards off, and vapor from the barrels of their machine guns was clearly visible,” reports historian Lippman. “It was decided to try to rush the position.”
For the task, Major Conoley gathered together “three enlisted communication personnel, several riflemen, a few company runners who were at the point, together with a cook and a few messmen who had brought food to the position the evening before.”
Joined by Paige, this ad hoc force of 17 Marines counterattacked at 5:40 a.m., discovering that “the extremely short range allowed the optimum use of grenades.” In the end, “The element of surprise permitted the small force to clear the crest.”
And that’s where the unstoppable wave of Japanese conquest finally crested, broke, and began to recede. On an unnamed jungle ridge on an insignificant island no one had ever heard of, called Guadalcanal. Because of a handful of U.S. Marines, one of whom, now 82, lives out a quiet retirement with his wife Marilyn in La Quinta, Calif.
But while the Marines had won their battle on land, it would be meaningless unless the U.S. Navy could figure out a way to stop losing night battles in “The Slot” to the northwest of the island, through which the Japanese kept sending in barges filled with supplies and reinforcements for their own desperate forces on Guadalcanal.
The U.S. Navy had lost so many ships in those dreaded night actions that the waters off Savo were given the grisly sailor’s nickname by which they’re still known today: Ironbottom Sound.
So desperate did things become that finally, 18 days after Mitchell Paige won his Congressional Medal of Honor on that ridge above Henderson Field, Admiral Bull Halsey himself broke a stern War College edict the one against committing capital ships in restricted waters. Gambling the future of the cut-off troops on Guadalcanal on one final roll of the dice, Halsey dispatched into the Slot his two remaining fast battleships, the USS South Dakota and the USS Washington, escorted by the only four destroyers with enough fuel in their bunkers to get them there and back.
In command of the 28-knot battlewagons was the right man at the right pla4ce, gunnery expert Rear Adm. Willis A. “Ching Chong China” Lee. Lee’s flag flew aboard the Washington, in turn commanded by Captain Glenn Davis.
Lee was a nut for gunnery drills. “He tested every gunnery-book rule with exercises,” Lippman writes, “and ordered gunnery drills under odd conditions turret firing with relief crews, anything that might simulate the freakishness of battle.”
As it turned out, the American destroyers need not have worried about carrying enough fuel to get home. By 11 p.m. on Nov. 13, outnumbered better than three-to-one by a massive Japanese task force driving down from the northwest, every one of the four American destroyers had been shot up, sunk, or set aflame, while the South Dakota known throughout the fleet as a jinx ship managed to damage some lesser Japanese vessels but continued to be plagued with electrical and fire control problems.
“Washington was now the only intact ship left in the force,” Lippman writes. “In fact, at that moment Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet. She was the only barrier between (Admiral) Kondo’s ships and Guadalcanal. If this one ship did not stop 14 Japanese ships right then and there, America might lose the war. ...
“On Washington’s bridge, Lieutenant Ray Hunter still had the conn. He had just heard that South Dakota had gone off the air and had seen (destroyers) Walke and Preston “blow sky high.” Dead ahead lay their burning wreckage, while hundreds of men were swimming in the water and Japanese ships were racing in.
“Hunter had to do something. The course he took now could decide the war. ‘Come left,’ he said, and Washington straightened out on a course parallel to the one on which she (had been) steaming. Washington’s rudder change put the burning destroyers between her and the enemy, preventing her from being silhouetted by their fires.
“The move made the Japanese momentarily cease fire. Lacking radar, they could not spot Washington behind the fires. ...
“Meanwhile, Washington raced through burning seas. Everyone could see dozens of men in the water clinging to floating wreckage. Flag Lieutenant Raymond Thompson said, “Seeing that burning, sinking ship as it passed so close aboard, and realizing that there was nothing I, or anyone, could do about it, was a devastating experience.’
“Commander Ayrault, Washington’s executive officer, clambered down ladders, ran to Bart Stoodley’s damage-control post, and ordered Stoodley to cut loose life rafts. That saved a lot of lives. But the men in the water had some fight left in them. One was heard to scream, ‘Get after them, Washington!’ “
Sacrificing their ships by maneuvering into the path of torpedoes intended for the Washington, the captains of the American destroyers had given China Lee one final chance. The Washington was fast, undamaged, and bristling with 16-inch guns. And, thanks to Lt. Hunter’s course change, she was also now invisible to the enemy.
Blinded by the smoke and flames, the Japanese battleship Kirishima turned on her searchlights, illuminating the helpless South Dakota, and opened fire. Finally, standing out in the darkness, Lee and Davis could positively identify an enemy target.
The Washington’s main batteries opened fire at 12 midnight precisely. Her new SG radar fire control system worked perfectly. Between midnight and 12:07 a.m., Nov. 14, the “last ship in the U.S. Pacific Fleet” stunned the battleship Kirishima with 75, 16-inch shells. For those aboard the Kirishima, it rained steel.
In seven minutes, the Japanese battleship was reduced to a funeral pyre. She went down at 3:25 a.m., the first enemy sunk by an American battleship since the Spanish-American War. Stunned, the remaining Japanese ships withdrew. Within days, Yamamoto and his staff reviewed their mounting losses and recommended the unthinkable to the emperor withdrawal from Guadalcanal.
But who remembers, today, how close-run a thing it was the ridge held by a single Marine, the battle won by the last American ship?
In the autumn of 1942.
When the Hasbro Toy Co. called up some years back, asking permission to put the retired colonel’s face on some kid’s doll, Mitchell Paige thought they must be joking.
But they weren’t. That’s his mug, on the little Marine they call “GI Joe.”
And now you know.
The Seebees performed miracles that won the war.
From story 1, above: “this work on the landing strip was commenced before the island was secure”
... not just on Iwo, but on island after island all throughout the Pacific. Emergency construction under battle conditions. (Damn, if only the Occupy crowd would consider what that means for one second.)
From story 2: “the Japanese opted to launch their final assault against Henderson Field, that fateful night of Oct. 25”
— coincidentally — or not — that is the date immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry V speech on “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . . “:
“This day [Oct. 25] is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
. . .
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
A salute to all the heroes in the stories above.
My step-father was one of the Sea Bees who built Henderson Field.
He was there that night. Awake, he never talked about it. But, sometimes, he screamed in his sleep. And, once, he tried to strangle my mom.
That night never left him..until the day he died.
Thanks for the posting the comments and replys following are some of the reasons FR is invaluable.
The captain of the Kirishima, Capt. Sanji Iwabuchi, was commander of the Manila Naval Detachment three years later. He had been denied any more seagoing commands over his loss of the Kirishima, and it’s been suggested that his humiliation that night was the reason he chose to make his Naval forces hold the last-stand battle that turned Manila into such a bloodbath.
Ironically, legendary Japanese Army General Yamashita was hanged for war crimes connected to the Manila battle, even though he had withdrawn his own troops into the mountains of northern Luzon and had no governance over Naval forces.
Met his wife in the hospital, talked to me because I was a Vet, never talked about his experiences to his family, knew his son well.
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