Story of Iwo Jima brings flood of memories

Story of Iwo Jima brings flood of memories By Bob Karolevitz You'll have to excuse me for being a bit serious this week because I've just finished reading Flags of Our Fathers, the story of the six young Marines who raised Old Glory on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi.

Like most Americans, I had been satisfied with the romantic version of the event. I never knew it was the second flag-raising that day. The first flag was too small; Joe Rosenthal's photo was a lucky shot; and the men involved "just happened to be there."

I also didn't know the full details of the battle for "sulfur island," one of the bloodiest of the Pacific campaign. Three of the six Marines in what became known as The Picture died in action before the fight was over.

The invading force suffered an estimated 26,000 casualties, including some 6,800 killed, on smelly, volcanic Iwo Jima, just five and a half miles long and two and a half miles at its widest part � much smaller than a South Dakota county. More than 21,000 Japanese died in the suicidal attempt to defend the stepping stone to their Imperial homeland.

My State College roommate � Eugene Drier � lost his life heroically on Iwo during that fateful month. We had served Mass together and played basketball at Yankton High School. Later, from Brookings, we had hitchhiked to Minneapolis to take a physical for the Marines.

I was rejected, and Gene went to Quantico where his officers' class apparently was wiped out because they needed more non-coms than second lieutenants. In my case the Army was less particular; his final destination was Iwo Jima. There, posthumously, he earned the following citation for gallantry:

"Drier's rifle squad, in the death struggle around Turkey Knob, was ordered to advance 500 yards. After advancing 250 yards, they were pinned down by intense small arms fire. While Drier was consolidating his position and planning his next course of action, he noted two of his squad were 40 yards ahead of the rest, having advanced too fast. The enemy was but 25 yards away from them and subjecting the pair to terrific fire.

"Disregarding his own safety, Drier crawled out in front of the lines to rescue the men. He crawled as close as possible, and then spotting the enemy, threw hand grenades at their position. His accurance (sic) enabled the two Marines to withdraw, but Drier, in attempting to get back himself, was killed by Jap rifle fire."

That was my first indirect tie to Iwo Jima. Little did I know that the remote island would one day, in effect, save my own life.

I considered myself lucky when I was chosen to go home by plane from the occupation of Japan. Unfortunately, the Air Corps mechanics had more service points than the pilots, so many of them had already returned to the States.

That meant, of course, that plane maintenance suffered, but that didn't mean a thing to us infantry guys who had a chance to fly to the U.S. instead of going by troopship.

As we climbed aboard the lumbering C-54, we were told we'd reach Guam about 7 a.m., so we settled down in our bucket seats for the long flight. It was several hours later that we were awakened and told to put on our "Mae Wests" for a possible ditching. As I recall, we could smell smoke.

We looked at our watches which showed it was only 1 a.m. Down beneath us in the dark was nothing but the Pacific Ocean, we thought. That's when the pilot made an emergency landing on that tiny speck called Iwo Jima.

The smoldering fire was put out; and like good soldiers, we scrambled back into the patched-up plane to continue our trip. There was no time for me to search for Gene's grave, but he � and the fateful bounce of our service lives � were definitely on my mind.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. They told me that our ailing aircraft was just pushed into the jungle of Guam, in too bad a shape to be fixed up. Another plane took us to Kwajalein, Hawaii and Sacramento.

All of those memories came flooding back when I read Flags of Our Fathers. Until then, Iwo Jima seemed so far, far away.

© 2001 Robert F. Karolevitz

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