First Hand Account – Iwo Jima

 

The 31st Naval Construction Battalion on Iwo Jima

This account was submitted by: John Ratomski

A Seabee on Iwo Jima: They Also Served Who Drove Cranes and Cats -62nd SeaBee Battalion

BY:  JACK CORNWELL

 

ON D+2 WE WERE JUST OFF THE SOUTH END OF THE ISLAND, in a Landing Ship, Tank. At about 5 p.m. we were told to report to our equipment. We started our engines, the LST opened its bow doors, and the ramp dropped. We were at Red Beach. A Caterpillar bulldozer went first, to build a dirt ramp. Once that was ready we moved out—trucks, more Cats, and my Northwest 25 crane. The noise was continuous. Wreckage was everywhere. It was getting dark when I got to shore, close to Mount Suribachi.  There was a 30-degree slope up from the beach; I barely made it to the top of that volcanic sand.

My partner Red and I were to share a foxhole. Trying to move that sand was like digging flour. I took the first watch and let Red sleep. When it was his turn, he woke me up every time he heard land crabs. Finally I gave him my bolo knife and told him that only after he had shot the carbine and stuck the enemy with the bolo could he wake me.

Seabees unloading cargo on Iwo Jima’s Red Beach

We were issued D rations, bars about two-and-a-half by five-and-a-half inches that looked like chocolate but were grainy, not sweet. Three bars was one day’s supply. Navy guys on the ship had gotten into the canned goods we had stowed on the crane, but they hadn’t fooled with the five-gallon can of water we had hidden in the boom. We were thankful to have that, since we were allowed only two canteens of water a day.

On D+3 we woke at dawn but couldn’t leave our foxholes until we had clearance from security. Finally we got up, relieved ourselves—no toilet—and saw men from our battalion. Cats went to clear the beaches. Dump trucks were hauling supplies. After we hung the crane with a clam bucket—the Marines needed a water point dug across the island for distributing fresh and desalinated water—Red and I split up.

I started for the beach in the crane. A Northwest 25 was a big, slow thing on treads with a rotating cab and long boom; even with its big diesel engine it only did about two miles an hour. It was going to be a while before I could dig that water point. All around me were Marines trying to get somewhere. Right in the middle of the road some of them had dug a hole and were setting up a 105mm howitzer that they pointed at Japs a hundred yards away on some rocks. After they shot five rounds that killed everyone on the rocks they moved the gun and I filled in the hole and went down to the beach. Far enough up from the sea to avoid the tides, I dug five holes, each 20 feet in diameter, down to the water table. Other Seabees and Marines set up evaporators, pumps, and storage tanks for the water point.

SeaBees constructing the Iwo Jima command post.

I was told to go to the battalion’s new bivouac, below the old Japanese airfield nearest Suribachi. I left my machine there at the strip. At the bivouac two guys from my company and I remodeled a shell crater for our quarters. I stole a tarp to cover it. For sanitary facilities we had slit trenches we squatted over.

Around D+5, my company commander, Lieutenant Pond—I don’t think I ever knew his first name; we generally called him “Mister Pond”—told me my mother had died. There was no way he would be able to get me home to bury her. We couldn’t even move wounded men off the island. I wanted to send money for the funeral, but the paymaster was out on the ship. Lieutenant Pond loaned me $100 and took care of sending it home. He was an outstanding officer. I didn’t mind calling him “Mister.”

This piece of art was created by the Navy Seabee Waldon T. Rich, a few days after the Battle of Iwo Jima to pay tribute to the flag raising on top of Mt Suribachi.

I needed to work on the airfield, so the mechanics changed my rig over from a bucket to a shovel. I put in 9 or 10 hours a day extending the original airstrip to make it big enough to accommodate B-29s. Marines were fighting for the very piece of ground where we were trying to enlarge the strip. We had to watch out for sniper fire and mortar fire and live ammunition and mines. One evening after I finished my shift the first B-29 landed.

ON D+6 THE MAIN BODY OF THE 62ND CAME ASHORE. By D+7 the cooks and bakers had the cook tent erected and we got our first hot meal with baked bread. Marines didn’t have chow lines, just K rations, so whenever they had a chance they got into the Seabee chow line. We got water for showers from underground. It smelled like rotten eggs but it was hot enough. We made the pipes out of shell casings. The showers were out in the open with no covering. Slit trenches got upgraded to four- and six-holers.

Finding Japanese booby traps

After working about 10 days I was sent to Airfield 2, half a mile north, to help extend that strip. I had to walk the crane with the shovel on it uphill past a B-29 in a gully with other abandoned equipment. I noticed a bottle of sake and had gotten down to fetch it when a passing Marine said, “I wouldn’t handle that if I were you.” His face was bloody from hundreds of tiny holes made by a grenade. He explained that it was a booby trap and showed me the wires inside the bottle. I gently put the bottle down. He was waiting to be treated nearby at an evacuation center that was also identifying the dead. They had men going through pockets and checking dog tags and clothing and then stacking the bodies four or five high at an old Japanese revetment. It was awful gruesome.

There was a 105mm howitzer behind our bivouac. The Japanese tried to knock it out with eight-inch guns. The first shell hit about 20 feet from me and killed two of my buddies. The Japs were also using giant mortar shells that tumbled end over end in the air, making a frightening screaming noise. But they usually landed in the water. We figured they were launched from a trough, like Fourth of July skyrockets.

One day a Marine crawled up into my crane’s cab. He pointed to three guys about 100 yards away and said one was a lieutenant colonel who wanted to talk to me. I hurried over. The colonel asked how far down I could dig. Twenty-six feet, I told him.

“That ought to do it,” he said. “Can you move the rig?”

When I said yes the colonel told me I was temporarily relieved of my duties. His sergeant drove me about three-quarters of a mile to a rise called Hill 382. At the foot of the hill he showed me a flat area covered with dead Japs, big mines, and shell casings, then he drove me back to my machine. It took an hour to fuel the crane and return to the work site.

Marine flamethrower on Iwo Jima

The sergeant was waiting there with 40 Marines who spread out on either side of me. The sergeant had me move the crane forward to a cave, which the colonel told me to dig out. I dug all day. We found supplies and living quarters, but no people. That evening the Marines dug foxholes; they were on the fighting line. One drove me to my bivouac. The next morning, when we realized we wouldn’t find anything more, the Marines burned out the cave with flamethrowers. Then they sealed it. I found out later we had been looking for the Japanese commander of the island. Hill 382 became known as Meat Grinder Hill.

For 20 days I dug out caves. At some we pulled out dead Japs and rifles, pistols, and ammunition. I sold souvenirs, mostly to air force fighter personnel. One day I found a bail of tube socks. From then on I never washed socks. Every morning I would put on a new pair. I took a gun rack off a wrecked jeep and mounted it on the nose of the crane cab, which seemed a better place to keep my gun than the floor of the rig. The front windows of the cab were hinged so I could get hold of my weapon in a hurry.

For the continuation of this story and other first hand accounts about the SeaBees contributed by John Ratomski, they appear in the comments at this post – Click Here!

Click on images to enlarge.

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Military Humor – SeaBee Style – 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Farewell Salutes – 

This week the U.S. Air Force lost 10 Great Men

Andrew Becker – Novi, MI; US Air Force, 318th Special Operations Squadron, Captain, pilot, KIA

Dashan J. Biggs – Port Jefferson Station, NY; US Air Force, Iraq, SSgt., KIA

Missing Man formation

Kenneth Dalga – Union, KY; US Air Force, 318th Special Operations Squadron Combat Systems, Captain, KIA

Frederick Dellecker – Ormond Beach, FL; US Air Force, 318th Special Operations Squadron, 1stLt., pilot, KIA

Carl P. Enis – Tallahassee, FL; US Air Force, Iraq, SSgt., KIA

Andreas B. O’Keefe – Center Moriches, NY; US Air Force, Iraq, Captain, KIA

William R. Posch – Indiatlantic, FL; US Air Force, Iraq, MSgt., KIA

Christopher J. Ruguso – Commack, NY; US Air Force, Iraq, MSgt., KIA

Mark K. Weber – Colorado Springs, CO; US Air Force, Iraq, Captain, KIA

Christopher T. Zanetis – Long Island City, NY; Iraq, Captain, KIA

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on March 19, 2018, in First-hand Accounts, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 90 Comments.

  1. Thank you for your story. My father was US Army 20 years, two deployments to Korea, two deployments Vietnam. He passed in 2008. Going through some of his stuff I found pictures where he and others are on the island of Iwo Jima. They appear to be cleaning up the beaches, hauling away Howitzer 105 cannons on amphibious “DUCK” boats and clearing tanks and other stuff. Also a photo of perhaps the original American memorial which consist of concrete structure with bronze plaque in the center showing the raising of the flag. There is a flagpole in the center of the memorial. This is located on Mount Suribachi. In the ocean are a few ships including a hospital ship with two large red cross markings, the USS Consolation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Julia C. Tobey

    Fascinating. Thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for posting another first hand account. They fill in what the history books don’t tell us.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. An unusual tale as I never thought carefully about the difficulty of heavy machinery on the beaches. Made me smile about his new pair of socks each day. My son has always thought that would be a great feeling for his feet. But not in a war zone!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The island mud, like in Leyte, literally ate away the socks and the humidity did a good job of it on the uniforms. I think I’d rather keep my old socks and be in a cooler climate!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. An excellent post– full of good information and quality photos. Keep up the great work–I have learned so much from your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear GP Cox,
    there is nothing better than an eyewitness account. We didn’t know what CBs are, now we know. And we really liked to read that there is a place for kindness in a war as well.
    Thank you very much.
    With lots of love
    The Fab Four of Cley

    Liked by 1 person

    • It certainly seems strange discovering that I taught you something, but I’m thrilled you found it interesting. I am always so impressed by the unique and ingenious posts my Fab Four are always displaying. I thank you very much for your kind compliment.
      Thinking of you all quite often,
      GP Cox

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wat hebben deze mannen belangrijk en baanbrekend werk verricht.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting to read this first hand account. My husband and I are attending a local lecture series about the war in the Pacific, so your posts tie in well. What those fellows went through…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Absolutely nothing better than a primary source. I wonder what happened to Lieutenant Pond? Hopefully he survived the war and is still in the bosom of his family, waiting for his hundredth birthday.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Goodness me — I just figured out that Seabees is a reference to CBs, or construction batallions. Some things make sense, once you stop to think about them. This was quite an entry, GP. Like others, I found it terribly sad that his mother died while he was there, but it’s great that the officer helped him get a message and a bit of money home.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What back breaking work. And to lose his mother in the middle of it all. Just hard to imagine.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. There is nothing more moving than the missing man formation.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. What a story, GP. Those SeaBees were the bravest.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I lapped up this write-up, GP.
    Always enjoyed reading the work of engineers and CBs – the behind the scene guys but not really behind the scene. Very enlightening.
    Thank you,
    Eric

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Those first-hand accounts always get me…

    Liked by 1 person

  16. There are many who have never heard of the SeaBees and their allied equivalents but these men were in a sense the backbone that made the successes achieved during war times possible.

    The 10 KIA this week is missing one sad fact I feel, the ages of these men.

    Looking at their names and rank I imagine that most, if not all, were young men, late 20’s early 30’s, no more, which is doubly sad.

    Gone in the prime of their lives on a thankless task.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True, about it all Beari. I’ve always said it takes an army of troops to keep just one combat soldier at the front – and I wasn’t exaggerating.
      The Farewell Salutes was a rougher one to write than usual. Yes, they were young, in their primes and being successful in their careers – it’s heartbreaking.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I really enjoy the first hand accounts. These are the necessary jobs that didn’t make any of the history books or movies.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Incredible story, G. All I could think of was “large target.” I laughed at the marines lining up for the Seabees’ chow. I’ll bet. Also got a chuckle over the selling of the souvenirs he dug up. Not Myrtle Beach-type stuff, I’m guessing. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Wonderful memory. It’s easy to forget that D-Day was followed by D+1 and D+2 and so on.

    I think one of our strengths as a military is the logistics–that those crane operators and bridge builders do their jobs so well.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Love first hand accounts, this was fascinating, but sad that his Mom died whilst he was away.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I enjoy reading this first hand account of Iwo Jima. Those men were unbelievably brave to fight, survive and tell their part of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Be interesting to know if that artwork still exists to this day.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Pleased to learn about the Seabees. Had no idea about their role. Once again, fascinating. Thankyou.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Totally authentic, and vividly descriptive. The ‘hard slog’ of war indeed.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Thank you for another great story. Thank you for sharing this information, GP! Have a great week ahead. Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Excellent post gp, historical first account story’s are priceless.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. What dedication, committed troops

    Liked by 1 person

  28. I know very little about the Pacific theater and your posts help me understand….I appreciate your hard work….kudos my friend….chuq

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Like the best written eye witness accounts, this takes us there

    Liked by 2 people

  30. Thank you. You sure have been busy reading here!!

    Like

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