‘I was one of the few walking out under my own power’ — 95-year-old Iwo Jima Marine remembers the savage battle

"I remember saying to myself, 'This is no dream. This is for real.'"

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Joanne Kimberlin, The Virginian-Pilot View Joanne Kimberlin, The Virginian-Pilot's articles

Eddie Vincek is a survivor. He's made it to 95. Still stands tall, with remarkably few ailments. Still lives with his wife in their longtime house in rural Chesapeake, where he putters around the flower beds of their 4-acre yard.

Seventy-five years ago, Vincek beat some other odds — surviving the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the last and bloodiest struggles of World War II in the Pacific.

More than 6,000 American troops never made it off that tiny island near Japan. Another 20,000 or so were wounded.

Vincek hit the beach on invasion day — Feb. 19, 1945 — and stayed until the monthlong fight was over, emerging with barely a scratch.

“I couldn't believe it,” he said. “It felt like I was one of the few walking out under my own power.”

Conversation flows easily with Vincek — he's a sharp and sunny guy — but press him about Iwo Jima and you'll encounter a bit of a logjam. His eyes shift away and his words start circling, retreating to a handful of phrases he long ago became comfortable with.

I'm not a hero.

I just did my job.

I was just one of the boys.

I was just another Marine.

Maybe so, but out of the 16 million Americans who served in the military during WWII, only 3% were still alive in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Nearly 300 slip away daily — precious, firsthand reminders that as tense as the world seems today, things have been worse. Much worse. And not so long ago.

A wave of Fourth Division U.S. Marines charge ashore on Iwo Jima as another boatload of Marines approaches, February 19, 1945
(Courtesy U.S. National Archives/U.S. Marine Corps Photograph/Handout via REUTERS)

Raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York, Vincek was 18 when he joined the Marines in April 1943, about a year and a half after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America plunged into a war that was already burning across the globe.

After boot camp, Vincek was sent briefly to Norfolk, where he met a local girl named Mary Roth at a church polka dance. Later she'd become his wife.

But first, he had to get through “Iwo,” as he calls it.

The 8-mile-square island, located about 700 miles south of Japan, was home to several Japanese airfields guarded by 20,000 troops dug into a tangle of caves, pill boxes, bunkers and trenches.

Taking the island would not just dent enemy air operations, but give the Allies a base of their own closer to the Japanese mainland.

Three-quarters of a century later, Vincek has no problem volunteering the basics: “I was a private first class with the 5th Marine Division, 28th Marine Regiment, 1st Battalion, Company A.”

He'll tell you that they trained in Hawaii for the invasion, and that the voyage from there to Saipan, where the assault force gathered, took 42 days and “it seemed like we'd never get there.”

On invasion day, Vincek found himself in a landing craft, rushing toward the shallows at midmorning. Several previous days of bombing and shelling had done little to soften enemy defenses.

When the mouth of Vincek's landing craft dropped open and he caught his first sight of “dead bodies, I remember saying to myself, 'This is no dream. This is for real.'”

Resistance was so fierce that initial gains were measured in feet — how far a squad could manage to crawl forward through the sand that day.

The iconic flag raising over Mount Suribachi took place four days in, but fighting went on for five weeks, with the final vicious stretch marked by hand-to-hand combat.

“It took three Marine divisions to secure that island,” Vincek said. “Afterward, people questioned whether it was worth the cost — the human sacrifice. I just tried to follow orders. Look to my sergeant and stay with my squad. Do my share.”

He lost some buddies. Won't go deeper than saying that. He brushes off questions about fear. Makes light of one of his own close calls, when shrapnel tore though his backpack.

“I had a picture of Mary in there and you should've seen the holes it put in that picture!”

Wrecked U.S. Marine vehicles litter an Iwo Jima beach
(Courtesy U.S. National Archives/U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert M. Warren/Handout via REUTERS)

After the war, the two got married in the same church where they'd met, St. Mary's in Bowers Hill.

They bought some land across from her parent's farm on Shillelagh Road. They built a house, stuck an American flag in the front yard and had three children.

For 42 years, Vincek worked at Globe Iron Construction Company and made a point of being involved in his community.

He and Mary were pillars of the Grassfield Ruritan Club, Meals on Wheels and other causes.

And rarely, in all those years, did he ever mention Iwo Jima.

“We always knew he was there,” said daughter Anne Gwynn, “but we never asked about it — out of respect. It was just something that always seemed private to him.”

That's common enough among war vets. Who could truly understand except those who were there?

But unlike many others, Vincek says, he's never had nightmares about it or felt haunted by what he witnessed or had to do.

“I just never saw any reason to talk much about it, to bring it all up,” he said. “I didn't do anything special. Please make sure you say that. I was just another Marine. Just doing my job.”

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