On February 19, 1945, 20-year-old Bill Young of Mooresville, North Carolina, disembarked an LST while landing upon a miserable hunk of black rock somewhere in Asia called Iwo Jima. He was part of a 75-mile-long convoy of ships preparing to dislodge the Japanese from this volcanic remnant of an island. The territory was formally part of Japan, meaning it was considered literal sacred ground to the Japanese soldiers burrowed inside the ugly terrain.
Just how many Japanese soldiers were there, and where, was a mystery to Bill and the approaching Marines. It had taken his crew six weeks to arrive at their destination, having left the base at Camp Tarawa in Hawaii, where Bill had lived in a tent camp the previous two years. It had been a long six weeks, with only two stops for maintenance and resupplies, one of them in Saipan. Bill and other shipmates slept in cots under a tarp erected on the deck of the ship; all the beds below were taken up by as many men as the U.S. military could jam on one boat. But that little bit of discomfort was nothing compared to what was unexpectedly awaiting them in Iwo Jima.
“The plan was to be at Iwo Jima just a few days to mop it up—less than a week we were told,” Bill told me recently, just a few weeks before his 90th birthday. They would tidy up things and then move on to Okinawa to take care of business there. The Japanese, however, had other plans.
“I ended up there for 37 days,” says Bill, who stayed for the full duration of the unforeseen hell that lay ahead. “We ran into more resistance than we ever thought imaginable. It was a real killing field.”
It sure was. It degenerated into the bloodiest, deadliest battle for American troops during all of World War II, with nearly 7,000 killed and 20,000 casualties. Bodies everywhere. Bullets everywhere. The stench of death everywhere.
“You could just shoot into a crowd and kill someone, there was so many people,” says Bill of those first waves that stormed the beaches at Iwo. He went in 45 minutes after the first wave, which was no calmer. “We lost one Marine every 45 seconds, more than one per minute, for the first three days. We didn’t have anywhere to bury them. We laid them out side by side, put a raincoat over them until we could build a cemetery once the fighting was over.”
I asked Bill about those early, awful moments. In his low-key, gentle voice, he recalled that things were happening so fast he didn’t have time to dwell on the calamity. In between firing their weapons, he and the others tried to make foxholes but couldn’t because of the odd lava rock all around them. Their instinct was to simply try to survive.
The Japanese weren’t on the island, explains Bill, they were in the island. They were hidden in a wild labyrinth of caves, intricate tunnels, and camouflaged concealments. He estimates that they encountered some kind of gun or artillery emplacement every 50 square feet. “They had it well-fortified. They were really tough.”
The Japanese dead numbered around 19,000, with only about 200 being taken prisoner—that is, those too injured to do what the others did: kill themselves with their grenades. The Japanese homeland was only 600 miles away. There was no surrender. They would (and did) fight to the death. And they took a lot of good American boys with them.
As for Bill, he survived without a scratch. The closest he came to injury was a bullet that lodged in the hickory handle of a pick-axe he carried with him. “If that handle hadn’t been there, that bullet would have got me right in the back, through my lungs and shoulder blades,” says Bill. “The good Lord just looked after me.”
Victory was hard, and most men weren’t nearly as fortunate. Of the six men who raised the famous flag photographed atop Mount Suribachi, only three left the island, with just one or two (John Bradley and Rene Gagnon) going on to lead normal lives. Bradley is the subject of the superb book-turned-film, Flags of Our Fathers. The third of the renowned flag raisers who left the island was Ira Hayes, a Native American.
Bill Young knew Ira Hayes, riding home with him on the ship. They talked a lot. He vividly remembers leaning on the ship rail and shooting the breeze with Ira for several hours. “They didn’t think nothing of it,” says Bill of Ira and the boys who raised the flag. “They just grabbed a pipe, put a flag on it, and raised it.”
But everyone else thought something of it. The moment was captured by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, and it immediately became a national sensation. Indeed, Ira’s time with Bill and the others on the ship was cut short when a helicopter nabbed the instant celebrity to rush him off to sell war bonds. He and John Bradley and Rene Gagnon became a huge hit, touring the country in city after city selling war bonds with tremendous success.
The adulation, however, couldn’t heal Ira Hayes, who used alcohol to cope with the horrors he experienced in the killing field. He died a lonely, sad death not long after returning home.
Bill Young didn’t get home right away. He and his fellow soldiers readied for an even worse dénouement with the devil: an invasion of the Japanese mainland. They were spared when President Harry Truman dropped the atomic bomb, at last compelling the Japanese to surrender.
“When they dropped the bombs, our ships were loaded and ready to go [to Japan],” recalls Bill. “I’m glad we did it. [Had we invaded,] we would have lost millions of men, and they [the Japanese] would have too.”
Of all places, Bill ended up in Nagasaki anyway, spending six months there in a post-war reconstruction assignment, a job he actually enjoyed. He remains thoroughly impressed by the discipline and honesty of the Japanese people he met in his community. “You could leave a wallet or any valuable out in the open on the side of the road and none of them would even think of stealing it. That kind of thing wasn’t part of their culture. They were very moral people.”
Bill Young eventually made his way home, the first time since he left for boot camp three years prior. He married his sweetheart, Arvelle, a “wonderful gal.” They were together for 58 years before her death a decade ago.
At age 90, Bill today lives next door to the house where he grew up and a block from where he was born. “I’ve never been very far away, except for when I was in the service,” he says with a laugh. He’s as sharp as a tack.
I asked him the secret to his longevity. He says he never smoked or drank—well, just one time each, one cigarette and one shot of whiskey. He marvels that he spent six months drinking cesium-contaminated water from the reservoir in Nagasaki, which (he jokes) must have only made him stronger.
Asked how he feels today about his time as a Marine in World War II, Bill recalls the entire experience, beyond just Iwo Jima, and says simply: “I’m glad I did it. I enjoyed it, as much as you could something like that.”
Yes, as much as you could enjoy something like that.
And Iwo Jima was really something else. It was, says Bill Young, a real killing field. And he was one of the few lucky to leave without a scratch. On the anniversary of that ferocious battle, let’s remember Bill Young and all those who sacrificed so much.
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