‘We thought it was over’ — Marine veteran recalls the flag raising on Iwo Jima and the harrowing days that followed
"It’s over. It’s through, we thought. But it didn’t work out that way after all.”
Leighton Willhite thought it was all over but the shouting when he watched the first flag raised over Mount Suribachi.
Four days of hell behind them, Willhite and his fellow Marines on Iwo Jima thought it wouldn’t be much longer before the remaining Japanese force was whipped on Feb. 23, 1945.
“We thought it was over. When you raise a flag over something, it’s yours,” the now 95-year-old Willhite said in his Rockville home.
“And then we raise the second, bigger flag and everybody went wild. It’s over. It’s through, we thought. But it didn’t work out that way after all.”
In the month following the flag raising, the battle for Iwo Jima would become the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history, with more than 7,000 Marines killed in action and another 22,000 injured.
And while perhaps the most enduring moment of the battle for Iwo Jima — and maybe of the whole of World War II — came just four days after it began, Willhite can’t help but remember all 36 days he spent on the island.
Not too worried
A poor kid from Montezuma, Indiana, Willhite was drafted in October 1943 out of Montezuma High School at 18 years old.
Willhite joked that he’d never heard much about the Marine Corps before leaving his rural Indiana home, but soon found out all he needed to know after reporting to recruit training in San Diego, California.
After his abbreviated boot camp, seven weeks compared to the standard 13, Willhite was assigned to tank school where he learned the ins and outs of Sherman tanks.
“Although it wasn’t my first choice, being a tanker didn’t sound so bad at the time,” Willhite said. “At least it meant I didn’t have to walk as much or carry an 80-pound pack for 20 miles.”
From tank school he was assigned to the 5th Tank Battalion of the newly formed 5th Marine Division. The division shipped out in January 1945, headed for its first assignment — Iwo Jima.
Willhite said he doesn’t remember there being too much worry about when it came to Iwo Jima, as the volcanic dot was tiny relative to other islands Marines had already captured to that point.
“We were told the island was defended by 2,000 old men and young boys and that we wouldn’t be there two days,” Willhite remembers being told of Iwo Jima.
With that being all he knew about the place, Willhite said he wasn’t too concerned as he headed for the beach on Feb. 13, 1945.
“I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking, but it would have been wrong,” Willhite said. “They told us it wouldn’t take long and we didn’t have any reason not to believe them.”
Willhite said 5th Tanks was tasked with helping the 28th Marine Regiment establish a beachhead and then push to staging areas at the base of Mount Suribachi. From there, the infantry elements of the 28th could start assaulting the mountain’s fortified defenses.
But almost as soon as the landing ship reached the beach and the tracks of the tank began digging into the island’s now-famous black volcanic sand, whatever notion he had of the operation ahead gave way to a gruesome reality.
“The first thing I saw was some Japanese on fire from our flamethrowers,” Willhite said. “It hit me hard. I saw one go down, the flames were stuck to his back from the napalm. It opened my eyes to what was ahead.”
Ahead was an enemy force 10 times larger than what was predicted — 20,000 Japanese soldiers, each instructed to kill 10 American soldiers. They had spent weeks preparing fortified defenses across the island’s blasted volcanic landscape.
Miles of underground tunnels provided a natural defense that days of near-constant naval bombardment and aerial strafing couldn’t dent, and the tunnel network allowed the defenders to move about as they saw fit.
The island was of strategic value to the island-hopping Americans who hoped they could use it as a another launch pad for aerial strikes against the Japanese main island.
Mount Suribachi, John Basilone
For four days after landing, Willhite and his tank crew helped push the 28th Marines forward and up Mount Suribachi. It was on that fourth day, Feb. 23, that five Marines and a Navy corpsman would be immortalized in Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s famous flag-raising photo.
Willhite said no one knew what that moment and that photograph would go on to mean. But he knew it meant the Marines were winning and hoped that it would all be over soon.
But it was later that evening he realized it wouldn’t be over so soon.
After getting orders to establish a bivouac site near Airfield 1, Willhite said he then knew the command had come down to settle in for the long haul.
But that wouldn’t be his worst realization of that fourth night on Iwo Jima. With the bivouac established, Willhite’s lieutenant told him to go help a corpsman struggling to load dead Marines onto a truck to take to the cemetery.
The corpsman and Willhite stopped as they began to hoist one of the bodies onto the truck.
“It was Sgt. John Basilone. That hits you pretty hard when you see that,” Willhite said, his voice trailing off.
Sgt. John Basilone, as he is most famously known, or Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone as he was on Iwo Jima, was the first person in World War II to be awarded a Medal of Honor.
In Oct. 1942, Basilone led a machine gun section in the battle for Guadalcanal. After days of battle, only Basilone and two Marines in his section remained to fight off thousands of assaulting Japanese troops.
Risking his life time and again, Basilone manned multiple machine gun positions over the course of the battle and constantly ran between the front line and a rear ammo depot for more ammunition. He is credited with killing hundreds of Japanese soldiers and successfully holding the Marines’ defensive line.
Historians believe Basilone was killed by small-arms fire on the first day of Iwo Jima, but not before leading an attack on fortified Japanese positions that allowed his Marines to establish a beachhead and push inland.
Already a Medal of Honor recipient, Basilone was awarded a Navy Cross, the second-highest award available to a sailor or Marine next to the Medal of Honor, for his actions on Iwo Jima.
“He is one of the best Marines the Marine Corps has ever had,” Willhite said of Basilone. “I don’t know of anyone that has done more for the Marine Corps than he.”
Valor in action
Willhite, too, was honored for his valor on Iwo Jima.
Working to clear Hill 362-A of Japanese holed up in a cave near the hill’s base, Willhite and another tank crew in his platoon tried to maneuver in a way that would flush the hiding enemy.
What they didn’t see until too late was a hidden pit before the cave’s entrance that nearly swallowed the only other tank left in Willhite’s platoon.
“Japanese came pouring out of everywhere when that happened,” Willhite said. “The lieutenant got a lot of them with the .30 caliber [machine gun], but some were hiding on the other side of the tank where we couldn’t get them.
“So the lieutenant asked for two volunteers to go with them to pull our guys out of the [disabled] tank. No one wanted to go, so the lieutenant asked again. I grabbed my .45 [caliber pistol] and told him I would go.”
Willhite said the pair rushed for the disabled tank where the lieutenant extricated the crew and Willhite stood guard.
“Two Japanese came out of nowhere with their rifle and bayonets,” Willhite said. “I shot them, but I don’t know if I killed them. And I take no satisfaction in that at all.”
Willhite was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions.
And so it went for the rest of Willhite’s time on the island, sidestepping danger and being ahead of the enemy enough to stay alive.
Willhite credits his lieutenant for his making it off Iwo Jima and for helping the crew keep a positive attitude in the face of the worst circumstances humanity has to offer.
And while he acknowledges how fortunate he is to have made it off the island — and to still be alive at 95, he jokes — he remembers well those who weren’t so fortunate.
Just before leaving the island, Willhite remembers visiting the 5th Marine Division cemetery where so many of his friends were laid to rest.
But when he’d look on the field of small white crosses, it wasn’t the names of the men he’d see.
“We went to say goodbye to our buddies, the ones who weren’t coming home. But when I’d read a name, it wasn’t the name I’d see, it was a face. Every time.
“After we were about through with our last visit, a general told us this, ‘I don’t just see heroes out there, but every Marine standing here is a hero too.’”
And while Willhite eschews that title like a four-letter word, he one of the Marines who fought on Iwo Jima of whom fleet admiral Chester Nimitz later remarked, “Among the Americans serving on Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
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