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Iwo Jima: July 1965 to July 1966
My Time on Iwo
while attending Weather Observer School, near Champagne, Illinois in November 1962
Joseph L. Richard
Detachment 12, 20th Weather Squadron,
July 1965-July 1966
United States Air Force
1962 -- 1966
Iwo Jima: My Story
"After basic training , I was sent to school in Chanute AFB, Illinois to the Air Force Weather School, for enlisted service men. The courses of study lasted about six months and then was assigned to Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas.
the 'weather tower' My first assignment in early 1963
Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I following a wave of patriotic fervor, decided to volunteer for overseas duty -- namely Viet Nam. The position offered was that of Combat Air Traffic Controller and after tentatively accepting the proposed offer for training, I went on a six month regime of physical training in preparation for school.
When I again got back with the department handling orders, I was matter of factly told that because of the proposed assignment, I would need to extend my current enlistment by 24 months. This was news to me, for at the time I had about 13 months remaining on my current enlistment. I turned down the assignment and was told that I would receive orders the next morning for Viet Nam, anyway.
This was fine with me, for I told the Captain that in any event, I would be home in a year anyway -- on my feet, in a wheel chair or in an aluminum box -- but I would be home when my enlistment ended.
The next morning, via Teletype, I received incomplete orders for the island of Iwo Jima instead of Viet Nam. At the time, the name meant but little to me other than I had heard it somewhere as being the site of a World War II battle in the Pacific. I did not even know the location other that 'somewhere in the Pacific'.
The orders were incomplete and I was given a 30 day leave prior to reporting to my assignment. I was to receive additional orders at home which were to instruct me as to where and how I was to report for my travel overseas.
When home, I enjoyed the freedom of being home and seeing my girl and just enjoying being with ordinary folks and away from the regime of military life. After two weeks at home, I went to Alexandria (Esler, AFB) to pick up my pay and report in to the duty officer.
I asked about if they had received any orders for me and discussed my current incomplete orders. No orders were waiting for me and I was instructed to return home and await my orders. I did this and repeated the process for TWO months awaiting my orders.
Needless to say, I became quite nervous and finally decided it was time to contact the officer who had signed my original incomplete orders.
It was the same Captain who I had originally had the conversation with that began this journey and he was upset to say the least. He wanted to know where I was and why I was still there. He also told me that he had listed me as AWOL for a month now. This scared the hell out of me.
I was instructed to wait by the phone and he was going to call me right back. That was one of the longest waits I have ever had until the phone again rang. He was on the line and surprisingly was quite subdued in his demeanor -- almost apologetic!
He told me that a telegram was on its way and it would serve as my ticket for a flight out of New Orleans to San Francisco where I would be processed to go overseas.
I caught the flight and reported to Travis AFB where there was large numbers of military servicemen being processed to go over seas as well as returning from overseas.
Within a few hours, I had complete orders and instructions to board a flight to Japan. The flight was aboard a Boeing 707 Pan Am jetliner and we went via Anchorage, Alaska to Honolulu, Hawaii, Midway Island and from there to Japan landing at a base north of Tokyo. From there were bussed to Tachikawa AFB for further processing.
Upon arriving for further processing, I was told to report directly to the Legal Officer. Again, I was scared out of my mind, but did as I was told.
The Legal Officer was a brand new, fresh 2nd Lt who greeted me with a smile and a handshake! He sat me down at his desk and proceeded to tell me that 'we had them by the b----' and that I was in NO trouble with the Air Force. This was because, while on leave with incomplete orders, I had done everything necessary and made regular trips to the local base, reporting in and inquiring about forthcoming orders. They had duly noted my activities in writing. I had done my part. The officer in charge of cutting my orders had not and the problem was his and not mine.
I had used some 63 days of leave while home and he further informed me that because of the Air Force foul-up, I would not only get paid for the 63 days leave taken BUT be granted an ADDITIONAL 63 DAYS LEAVE on top of that!
Needless to say, I walked out of his office on cloud nine.
The next day, I was on a C-54 flight out of Tachikawa for the long flight to Iwo Jima. This was a biweekly flight which went to the island and continued on to Okinawa. The flight was uneventful and coming in over the island, I had my camera and snapped a few pictures as we approached. It looked so small and isolated.
Arrival on Iwo via C-54 from Tachikawa AFB, Japan
We arrived and taxied to a location next to some quonset huts (which turned out to be my barracks).
Upon arrival, I went to look for the commanding officer to report in. He was in another quonset hut a few buildings down. He was a 2nd Lt! and in charge of all Air Force activities on the island which turned out to have about 150 men total including about 60 U. S. Coast Guard inhabitants on the northeast corner of the island.
He was very laid back and told me to go report to my detachment commander, a sergeant who actually at that time was flying a kite! Talk about laid back!
Sure enough, there was a group of men flying a large handmade kite and I went over to join them. The kite was made of wood and brown wrapping paper and the cord used to launch it was bailing twin and the kite was huge -- as tall as a man!
Propps and Olsen flying a kite
The island had ongoing and continuous breezes coming up from the ocean -- with the island sloping up from the beaches at a fairly steep angle towards the interior of the island.
Iwo measured about a mile at it's widest point and was about 5 miles long at it's longest and shaped very much like a pork chop. The most outstanding feature, as most folks know, was the volcano at the narrow tip of the island -- Mt. Suribachi, of World War II fame. The view from our base was tremendous and you could see almost completely around the island. The water of the Pacific was the most beautiful blue I have ever seen and the breezes coming ashore made a sound that still to this day stays with me the rustling of vegetation and and the feel of the breeze on your face. Quite a wonderful site. This opinion would eventually change as my time on Iwo Jima extended into the upcoming months. But for now, it was a tropical island though NOT complete with brown skinned bare breasted beauties -- unlike Mutiny on the Bounty!
There were NO women on Iwo -- period!
Regular USO tours came to the island -- about every month or so and these women did not mingle with the common troops there.
After my arrival one of the first things to do was the 'island tour of new arrivals' which was conducted by a couple of the old hands (names escape me) and we all hopped into the back of the base pick up truck (I believe this was the only one assigned to the air force base) and off we go.
Rock formations at base of Mt. Suribachi.
The tour consisted of the first stop -- a spiraling road up Mt. Suribachi and to view the monument where the famous flag raising occurred and John Wayne got shot -- oops, that was another story and maybe another movie. Anyway, off we go to Mt. Suribachi and the view is breath taking! The island is laid out before us and the sky is crystal clear except for a little mist caused by the continuous breaking waves on the beaches as well as on the coral reefs surrounding portions of the island.
Looking into the mouth of the volcano is something to see and is overpowering in its scope -- huge and smoking from a few places. We were cautioned not to descend into the mouth, for the surface was fragile and could easily collapse with a persons weight.
A section of the volcano had years before been blown away by engineers to effect lava being directed into the ocean should the volcano erupt (it is considered an ACTIVE volcano). The colors were vivid and not like anything I had ever seen in my life. Everything about the volcano and the island for that matter was all new and exciting to the senses. What spectacular views -- everywhere!
Image of me at the Marine Monument.
After visiting the top of Suribachi and having pictures taken at the Marine monument, we headed down and continued our tour of the island. Of course, one of the high points of the tour was the landing beaches where the 5th Marine Division stormed ashore on February 19, 1945 and were decimated by the dug in defenses of the Japanese.
An unexploded bomb on invasion beach
View up towards Mt. Suribachi
from Invasion beach.
Sample of black Iwo Jima sand from the invasion beach designated as Green-1 which was the beach closest to Mt. Suribachi.
Walking the beaches was quite an experience and the on shore breezes were strong, the mist being whipped up by the winds and the sights sobering. You could feel history here and you could feel the tug of the infamous black volcanic sand that wanted to pull you down. In some locations, you had to struggle to walk and it was a strain -- even for a fellow who was in good condition at the time. The beach angled very steeply at the water line and angle up from there to a small plateau of sorts and then leveled off for a short distance where again, it angled fairly steeply to the next plateau which was the main level of the island which gradually steepened as you went inland.
The beach contained artifacts of the tremendous battle that occurred on that fateful time back in 1945...and parts of wrecked equipment were in locations that you could inspect close up. There were also some gun emplacements near Mt. Suibachi that were visible. There were other emplacements that we also viewed as we worked our way inland. A large concrete bunker was visited, and it as expected was bullet riddled and full of debris. We also visited a couple of machine gun nests that survived to this day (1965) and one was most interesting -- a Japanese Betty bomber fuselage was used with large rocks cemented around it to protect the gun crew. Other positions were visited and many looked like just holes in the surface of the island until you looked closely -- peering in and seeing remnants of machine gun parts still in position where they had been left after the attacking Marines neutralized the position -- obviously at a very high cost to the attackers.
Another location we visited was a sheer rock face carving [sandstone] that had been carved by Mr. Waldon T. Rich, a member of the 31st SEABEE Battalion, attached to the 5th Marine Division. Mr. Rich carved his tribute to the fighting men of Iwo Jima while he was stationed on Iwo during and following the battle for the island. You can read all about the "1st Iwo Jima Memorial" and see many images of the carving and Mr. Rich at Waldon T. Rich's Photo Album Page. The rock carving was of the famous Joe Rosenthal flag raising image and was in high relief -- quite well detailed.
Still another visit nearby was that of a cave where many Japanese had holed out and was eventually used by future generations of American servicemen as a typhoon shelter until another location was utilized.
Then the tour took us to a location where the 5th Marine Division Cemetery was originally located -- in the shadow of Mt. Suribachi. There is a monument located there with the simple words stating 'That These Men Shall Not Have Died in Vain' which was taken from the Gettysburg address and was also used when the cemetery was dedicated. Recently, this web master has learned that the original monument's plaque was produced with the guidance of Mr. Waldon T. Rich. The plaque was constructed using spent brass shell casings and forged into a dedication plaque. The monument was simple and in my opinion not kept up well by the current troops stationed on the island. It was somewhat overgrown by the ever encroaching jungle.
The tour of the island took us to different locations around the island, including the western side of the island [Purple 1 beach] where the remnants of concrete landing docks are located.
We took a tour of them and of course, this was fun and exciting. I believe these served a similar purpose as the concrete docks served during the Normandy invasion -- taking the place of a natural harbor.
Riding in the pick-up along perimeter road.
We then drove around the island on the perimeter road and passed the U. S. Coast Guard station located on the northeast corner of the island. For some reason, I never did come and visit these fellow servicemen during my tour -- even though I had intended to do so on a couple of occasions.
Coast Guard LORAN tower
We were told later that one of fellows there had the duty of replacing the large bulbs located up the length of the LORAN tower there which rose about 1,350 feet. We were also told that he took an 8mm camera with him once and while strapped to the tower at the top, pivoted around the tower hanging upside down and filming the island and surrounding ocean. This was supposed to be a very dizzying film to watch. I can imagine that it was a bit dizzying for him!
We also visited some other sites around the island including the eastern beaches, which were rocky, and loaded with vertical walls of rock with in a number of cases, caves dug into the upper portions of some of these heights.
While there, I found and collected my first 'beach ball' -- a ball of varying size made of usually green colored glass and could range in sizes from about 8 inches to about 24 inches in diameter. These came off of Japanese fishing nets and washed ashore on a fairly regular basis.
Heading towards the interior of the island, and closer to the air base, we inspected a cargo plane (C-124) which had crash landed on the island. It was of course but a shell of its former self, but was fun to explore.
We also visited a couple of sulfur pits -- which were active outlets for the volcano and were bubbling mud and hot water and smelly gases (of course the rotten egg smell). The smell permeated a good deal of the island and usually was noticeable until your sensory organs got used to it.
We visited the old native village which had been located nearby and spent a little time there. We were told that the village folks had been evacuated by the Japanese prior to the invasion. We were also told -- and am not sure if there is any fact to this, that because of the rotten egg smell and fumes around the island, the population was very small, for women would not stay pregnant -- having something to do with the fumes. Fact or fiction? Your guess is as good as mine.
Completing the island tour, it was now time to begin work.
Work, for me consisted of doing weather observations and working a twelve hour shift and if memory serves me right, I worked seven days on and then had two off. We were a very small detachment and probably numbered no more than about five or six.
My work area located near runway
Me filling the balloon in the inflation shelter
We mainly did upper air observations using helium filled balloons and would release these about twice during a shift. We filled the balloon to a specified capacity in a building designed for this purpose and then attached a small battery operated instrument package. On a prearrange signal, and coordinated with your coworker in the tracking room, the balloon and instrument package were released. You would then have to run over to the tracking antenna located in a covered facility and manually orientate the antenna to pick up the signal from the rapidly rising balloon. If you were not careful, and especially at night, you could lose the tracking signal early on and never locate it again -- thus having to repeat the whole process once more.
Preparing to make Rawinsonde release. Interest notation on slide: If I had some common sense, I would use about 6 of these balloons and come home -- via air mail.
Once the signal was acquired, we would work as a team taking readings off of the instrument package and recording them onto chards, graphs, plotting boards, etc and then coding the entire finished product into a code which was transmitted from the base communication facility. The entire 'run' would take about 4 or 5 hours, until the balloon -- which expanded as it rose -- burst and the instrument package fell into the ocean. If this happened too soon and not enough data was collected (a minimum requirement was established), then you would have to do it all over again.
Sgt. Derring & Nolan
working with the recorder.
Doing the run's computations and calculations.
After a while a person would become very proficient in their duties.
You had a fair amount of off time on your hands and not a lot to do.
You could go to the movies -- usually two or three times a week in the evening and the all purpose theater was located just a short work from my barracks on the flight line. Usually, we would stock up on goodies from the little PX located between the barracks and the theater and enjoy one or more movies, depending on what arrived on the C-54 run to the island. Most of the movies were fairly recent and the choice was pretty much in the blah category (no R rated type movies for us -- remember, we were isolated with no women). So this was our big evening on the island.
Additionally, there was a small, two alley bowling alley -- which I did utilize on a few occasions -- but being as the pin setter was manual, it was more work than it was worth unless you got a few fellow together -- which rarely happened.
There was a small work out room with barbells, etc and this was visited by myself on one or two occasions. I did not have much discipline for weight lifting and quickly avoided this activity.
Another activity was the swimming pool, located behind the PX. It was OK and I did spend some time there -- but quickly got tired of this activity for the water was never changed and you could not see the bottom of the pool. Additionally, the water stayed so hot (black concrete!!!) and it was murky and very warm most of the year. Scratch another activity.
The activities for us to keep occupied dwindled rapidly.
One activity that was enjoyed by all daily was the NCO club. It was a small club for all to enjoy and there was a small bar serving, if I recall right, beer and not much else in the form of liquor. There was a pool table if I recall and a room to play cards -- very popular among some of the men. There was also two nickel slot machines which I took to and spent a number of hours playing when I had the money. I kept all of my winnings for a 'party to end all parties' when I came back to the real world.
Activities that were first and foremost with most fellows there were like any other military unit: letter writing!
I had a girl back home when I left and we wrote to each other a lot. She had entered nursing school in New Orleans at the Charity School of Nursing and when she could write -- she did.
A fairly new way of communicating was for us to make audio tapes and exchange these which were nice and a lot more personal than the letters. However, the letters and pictures were the predominate form of communication exchange. The problem was distance and this caused a lot of confusion. A simple solution was to place a number on the envelope and keep track of the numbers. This made things go a little easier and you could at least read the letters in some semblance of order.
On my long leave prior to coming to Iwo, I dated my girl, Deanne as often as I could thinking I would leave in 30 days and we became pretty close. I had taken a fair number of photographs of her at her home in North Tipitate (between Eunice and Basile, Louisiana) and these were my tie to her. I placed them under a glass top on a desk that I was able to scrounge for my room. The sight of her smiling in these images helped to pass the long days and nights awaiting my year of duty on Iwo.
Of course, all good things must come to an end.
I got the inevitable 'Dear John' letter from Deanne about halfway through my tour of duty and it devastated me. I almost went insane -- for in her breaking up with me, she informed me that she had fallen for a med student and was engaged to marry him upon his graduation! She would even ask me for brotherly advise!
Long story short, she and I ended up trading a few nasty barbs via tape and letter over the next month or so and then communications between us broke down altogether and I did not hear from her again until I returned home.
Because of our isolation on Iwo Jima, it was arranged that we would receive R&R every 3 to 4 months -- or so it was on paper. In my case, because of no one to take my place, I did not get my trip off the island until I had been there for NINE long months and I frankly was climbing the walls by this time.
I was granted a week leave in Japan and went back via our trusty C-54 to Tachikawa Air Force Base near Tokyo.
I spent a whirlwind week in and around the Tokyo area and even did a little bar hoppng outside of the base. I even managed to visit a Japanese bath house, which was a unique experience.
The Tokyo Tower near
the Imperial Palace.
Later, I visited Tokyo, traveling downtown via commuter train. I did the tourist thing including the Tokyo Tower, which is similar in appearance to the Eifle Tower, and other sights of Tokyo. One thing that still facinates me is a large department store in Tokyo that I spent time in. It was almost like being a child in a toy store decorated for Christmas -- with so many things to catch ones attention. Even as large as the store was, everything on display was grouped into small, cramped displays with every item seeming to scream out at you to buy it. Bewildering, to say the least.
The restrooms were wierd with NO toilets -- at least as Westerners recognize them. There appeared to be what looked like an oversized urinal placed flat on the tile floor. It was a little larger than a standard urinal -- but wierd, even so. All was interesting and fun. Even stranger, this store was in the bustling downtown area of Tokyo, but a few steps from the Imperial Palace grounds located nearby.
The week of course passed fast and before I knew it, it was time to return back to Iwo.
I repeated the C-54 flight back to Iwo and went back into my work routine.
Nasty weather moving over Iwo.
The island had only a few activities that appealed to me as my time on the island passed ever so slowly. I got into making model planes and spending a major amount of time detailing them and hanging them from the ceiling in my barracks room which I shared with a fellow by the name of Willy who I also worked with on my shift. We did as all of the fellows there did, and placed the centerfold Playmates from Playboy all over the walls of our room. With the quonset hut style building, it was neat to see the lovely ladies literally climbing up the walls and ceiling.
Another pastime was tape recording. Almost everyone on the island bought a reel to reel tape recorder (Sony) and we recorded everything we could get our hands on including records, other tapes, etc. We recorded everything...rock music to classical music -- it did not matter. I built up a collection of about 50 reel to reel tapes and color coded them to the type of music. Remember -- I was bored out of my mind.
The main activity -- at least where I was concerned -- on the island, of course, was 'boondocking'. It was our favorite activity and I went as often as I could -- exploring the island. I did not really keep in touch with the history of the battle -- locations of specific landmarks, etc., but just went exploring to see what I could find. My co-worker and friend, Willy went with me most of the time.
Image of me in the boonies.
Second image of me in the boonies.
Usually we would just set out in one direction and cover the terrain as best we could. At times this was just walking in areas of grass and very little jungle growth, while other times we encountered lots of thick jungle growth. At other times we went to the beach to collect 'beach balls' to decorate our humble quarters or just to explore the landscape.
The easiest location to access was the beach on the eastern side of the island which was very rocky and had really neat rock formations and large waves at times hitting the beach. By leaving our barracks, and traveling along the taxi way to the end of the runway (basically east and west), this led to the perimeter road which then led to the area of the beach. On one occasion, I found a large piece of coral that had been washed ashore and collected it for my room. I still have that piece of coral around my house somewhere -- quite possibly in the attic.
View along rocky beach on
west side of island.
Another view along rocky
beach on west side of island.
On this beach, there were some fairly sheer rock cliffs that rose upwards of 50 to 100 feet and were almost non scalable. On one occasion, a couple of other fellows were with us and one managed to climb the cliff to a cave located near the top in order to explore the cave. He was disappointed to find that the cave only extended some 10 feet or so into the face of the cliff -- a real letdown considering the effort of climbing this sheer rock face.
On another trip, one of the old hands took a group of us in the interior of the 'jungle' in an effort to show us 'newbees' a fairly untouched machine gun nest. We traveled through some pretty tough terrain and it rose and dropped and became heavily entangled in jungle growth. In fact, it was but about a half mile to a mile from our barracks -- but through some of the thickest growth around the island.
A dud artillery round in the boonies.
We traveled about an hour and finally came across the machine gun nest that we were searching for. It was in a sheer rock formation which rose about 50 feet or so about the mean level of the area and it was near the bottom of the formation, and fairly easily accessed if you knew where to look.
Peering inside, we were treated to a very interesting sight. There were some rusting Japanese helmets (about three or four) along with an equally rusted machine gun base and stand. The machine gun had long been removed -- but the bones of the dead defenders were still there -- all mingled and in disarray -- but there.
We were told not to handle the bones for it was against the current military policies in respect for the dead -- whether it be Japanese or American remains. We did look very closely, but did not touch anything. The trip was worth it and we felt that we had just experienced a piece of history. Leaving, we took a somewhat different route and came across a large outdoor kitchen -- obviously Japanese and did spend some time here looking over things. You could see that they had fed many troops with the size of the kitchen out in the jungle. It was very large and had locations formed into the concrete cooking area for large cauldrons for food.
A fellow boondocker holding a jaw bone
-- Japanese --. It was left were it was found.
One of the men in the group found and picked up a human jaw bone! and was promptly told to place it back where he had picked it up from. He did so but another fellow had his picture taken holding it before he placed it back in its location.
Many other trips were taken around the island and most are but fuzzy memories only remembered when I view the series of slides that I took during my stay on Iwo Jima.
One of the best views of Iwo Jima
I call this image 'My Domain'.
One such 'boondocking' trek was when Willie and I decided that we were going to play gung-ho Marines and 'scale Mt. Suribachi -- on foot'!!! We grabbed our 'cout-stick' (carved walking sticks that we had made to use while boondocking) and got a lift to the base of Mt. Suribachi.
We began climbing and in no time came to a conclusion that maybe this was not such a great idea. The sides of the volcano were very heavily overgrown and the jungle had reclaimed every square inch with vines, bushes, small trees, grass, tangles of every kind of imaginable growth one could consider and we were making very slow progress. We kept going not knowing if it would be better to head up or down. We literally were lost and under the thick growth, it was quite dark. We kept running across large millipedes which grew on the island to lengths of up to a foot long. We had been warned to stay clear of these and we did not need to be reminded.
After what seemed hours (which in actuality was probably only about an hour and a half) we started to come into a clearing. Ahead of us was the winding road which wound around Mt. Suribachi and we emerged from the jungle growth, filthy, sweaty, bone tired and exhausted. When we looked around, we saw that we were only about 1/3 the way up the side of Mt. Suribachi!
After a rest, we continued up the side of the volcano -- only this time by walking up the winding road. It seems that we had had enough of the game and were only interested in getting to the top where we could meet our ride back to the base.
Eventually, our ride arrived and the two weary 'boondockers' returned to our fairly comfortable lodging and a couple of beers at the NCO club.
"Cat" [our pet] before he was killed
[bobbed tailed variety]
An interesting thing about Iwo was that there were a few cats there -- believe it or not. The breed of cat was a grey striped tabby with a peculiar difference as compared to the stateside version. The cats there were short tail cats -- similar to a bobcat and I believe, brought from Japan! One of them had befriended the fellow that I had replaced and he stayed with me a while and eventually -- probably during mating season -- vanished into the jungle never to be seen or heard from again. I enjoyed his company while he stuck around.
Time lappsed shot of a full moon
over Mt. Suribachi.
During the late summer nights, the view at night looking at the night time sky was awesome. Being on an island did have advantages in that sense. If you wanted to watch the night sky, this was the perfect vantage spot. During the late summer, it is especially rewarding for this is the time of the famous Perseids meteorite shower. A spectacular show was visible for hours and we had a ring side seat. After counting literally a couple of hundred streaks across the brilliant night sky, I gave up the count and just marveled at Mother Nature's fireworks spectacular. What a wonderful memory to take back with me when I went home.
We were bored there enough to do some silly things on occasion. On Halloween, I decided to play a trick on the fellows who usually would sit out in front of their barracks on cool evenings to watch the crystal clear starry nights. With no lights to speak of, the stars over Iwo Jima were some of the most spectacular views of the heavens I have ever seen. You could almost reach out and touch them.
On this particular night I decided to play a Halloween joke on the other fellows and went to the weather hut located at the edge of the runway which ran parallel to our barracks and other buildings on the air base apron.
I took out a small balloon (used to test wind direction) and activated a small battery operated light. These were activated by adding water and slowly the light bulb attached began to glow. The whole thing was about the size of a small flashlight and weighed about as much. We normally used these at night when launching our radiosonde balloons with a light attached to locate them while rotating the antenna to began the transfer of information.
The balloon was then filled with helium and I tested the weight with various amounts of helium and eventually got the balloon to sort of hang over the ground at about a height of 5 to 10 feet with the lighted battery inside. A breeze was blowing from east to west and I released the balloon and it slowly glided across the island and eventually out to sea. It actually never rose above 10 or 15 feet and I was extatic about 'putting one over the fellows' and hopefully causing some confusion and even a possible UFO sighting.
Wrong. Sneaking back, the fellows were all sitting in front of their barracks, sucking on beers and jawing away like usual. One casually mentioned to me that he was surprised that my instrument release must not have gone too well, for the damned thing never got very far off of the ground -- and then they all had a good laugh. Oh well, so much for my little Halloween prank.
Image F-4 fighter/bomber.
One day, we had an unexpected visitor to the island. The visitor was an F-4 Phantom which had engine problems and had elected to use the island as a emergency landing strip.
During the war, the island was sought after as an emergency landing strip for B-29's on long bombing missions. Countless crews were saved when they set down on the island. Prior to Iwo Jima being taken from the Japanese, the normal procedure for a damaged plane, was to either make it back to its home base or to ditch in the ocean -- usually with loss of some or all of the crew.
Iwo Jima changed this.
Today, another plane with engine problems, landed and taxied to the ramp near my barracks.
Everyone was all abuzz -- here we had a front line fighter here at our door step for us to check out. Many a photo was taken around the plane and I was no exception.
After a few days, a replacement engine was flown in via C-130. The engine was replaced and the crew taxied out for take off with all inhabitants coming out to watch the big event.
Taking off, we had hoped for a max power climb out -- with the pilot electing to take a leisurely climb out to altitude instead.
This was the only occurrence of a landing of an unscheduled plane on the island during my year there. It was quite a memorable event -- at least for me.
One very sad occurrence that totally took me off guard was a letter written by my brother-in-law which arrived. The letter was written to advise me that my Grandmother had passed away, following a routine surgical procedure.
(Text of the letter)
Milton's Cash Drug PRESCRIPTION SAVING CENTER EUNICE, LOUISIANA Milton Aucoin, B. S. Pharmacy 2.21.66
I'm sure receiving a letter from me comes as a shock. It is good that it should for I have some sad news to relate to you.
On Sat. afternoon the 19th of Feb at about 5. O'clock in the afternoon your Grandma Hebert Died.
It had orignally planned that you recieve a telegram informing you of t' is fact. However since the telegraph office here was col closed your Uncle Paul was supposed to wire you from Lafayette but in the general confusion It slipped his mind.
I Know you will wonder why some attempt was net made to arrage for you to get an emer gency leave_ I am the cause of that in so far as I had been informed on a previous occasion that Grandmothers were not close kin enough under normal circumstances to warent one This is more apt to your present situation with improper transportation facilities.
Your grandmother was buried on Sunday afternoon the next day at 4 P.M and a funeral mass was held this morning at 6.15 A. M, since there were no @@@@@ clergy to say that extra mass yesterday.
All members of the family took it reasonably well and I believe you would be proud of the way your mother stood up to the situation.
I do net believe that you were ever fully informed on the nature of your Grandmother illness. When she became ill a heart condition know as tachycardiac rapid heart beat in which the heart is never able to fully relax and continues to contract and there cause @@@@ the heart to just stop and do @@@nothing. This however is not what caused her death_since this is fairly easily to be controlled. An autopsy after death was performed to determine the exact casue. I have not seen the report however it was told to me that it was some type of blood @@@@@@@@ poising that actually casue death_ Any how Sat at about. 2:30P.M and operation was deem necessary by the Doctors to attempt to save her life. They could actually find no organ or growth that would cause her to be as ill as she was, hence the necessity of the autospy. The last 2 weeks of her life she spent in the hospital. She did get her wish in that the didn't suffer long and did not die alone As you know since the death of your grandpa she had been unhappy and I persoanlly feel that she just give up completely. She was ready and this is borne out by the fact that the Dr. told me up to the day that she died that in all honesty he could not tell me what was the matter cause he did not know. Joe pray for your grand mother and do not feel to badly because she is really where she wanted to be. Father Forget says that she is in a place where we all want to go and she is much happier now than us @@@ who left here.
I was shaken up by this tragic news for my Grandparents had been very close to me and during my early and later teen years, had lived with them during my off school months during the summers of growing up. These periods of time had been some of the most wonderful times I had ever spent in my life.
My Grandfather had died when I was staying there and he had had a severe stroke and was paralyzed from the neck down and just wasted away over time. It was very hard to see him go.
Getting the tragic news that my Grandmother had just passed away was like a sledge hammer blow and even to this day, am troubled by that memory on Iwo so very long ago.
While on Iwo, I as mentioned earlier spent many hours 'boondocking' with Willie and sometimes others. One memorable event was when we spent some time up on Mt. Suribachi and took quite a few pictures. We even became very brave and decided to do the no-no....descending into the crater of Mt. Suribachi! It was interesting and some of my slides document this little incursion. The view that day, as most days on the island, was spectacular and visibility was unlimited.
Image of co-worker near pit of volcano.
Me near the volcano pit on Mt. Suribachi
On another day, I ventured up there alone and also had my trusty camera along as I watched an approaching thunderstorm build and move directly towards my location atop Mt. Suribachi. As it neared, I crawled into the small shelter near the memorial and waited the storm out. Talk about interesting and and experience for the base of the storm was actually lower than the top of Mt. Suribachi. Loud thunder, lightning, heavy rains and jangled nerves are what I recall. After the storm moved off, I came out of my little hiding place and continued taking images of the storm as it moved off to the northeast.
Excellent view of island from near the flag monument
-- invasion beach is to right.
On the morning of February 19, 1966, I awoke to the sound of approaching helicopters and ran outside to see two Marine choppers approach the ramp. They landed and discoursed a group of full combat dressed Marines. It seems that a magazine in Australia had asked for a photo shoot to be used in an upcoming issue and the Marine detachment was going to assist in the shoot. This morning, as I recall was dreary, overcast with a light drizzle periodically falling and a mist hanging over the island reducing visibility considerably at times.
I tagged along, trusty camera in hand and we went to the beach where the Marines did a rousing blood curdling charge up from the water's edge while the photographer fired away with his camera. While on the beach, the Marine unit formed up and fired off a 21 gun salute on Invasion Beach. I picked up a couple of the M-1 spent casings and to this day have one displayed in my office. It is one of the very few mementos that still remains from my year on Iwo Jima. After about a half hour of this group of fellows storming Green-1 Beach, the fun stopped and all piled into the trucks and headed up to Mt. Suribachi.
Atop Mt. Suribachi, a fleet of ships appeared off shore of Mt. Suribachi including the U. S. S. Hornet and its supporting group of ships. The Marine detachment proceeded to do a tribute to their fallen comrades and a small ceremony took place followed by a twenty-one gun salute.
Then, the group of Marines managed to produce a flag and long pipe and proceeded to reenact the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph. This went on for about 15 minutes with the photographer taking shot after shot.
Then everybody headed back and the Marine unit piled into their choppers and headed out to the fleet off shore.
All of this and it is interesting to this day, that I was the ONLY serviceman who was assigned to duty on the island to actually take any interest and tag along with the Marine unit and photographer. No one else seemed to care!
My year on Iwo Jima was finally approaching its end. I became short and when my time came to leave, I was more than ready to head back to the real world. I packed my personal stuff, shipped it back home in a large crate and boarded the trusty C-54 back to Tachikawa for processing home.
I was there a few days awaiting my travel orders and did some shopping for items to bring home to special friends and family.
I even did a night on the town and came very close (actually so close, that when I think of it, it scares the hell out of me) to being arrested by the Japanese police for something I had not even done. Luckily, the MP's had monitored the call and they showed up at almost the same time extracting me from a possible nasty situation. But, then that is a different story and one to save when a bunch of veterans get together and have a few drinks an tell tall tales.
The next morning I was on a plane headed home -- reversing the trip that had brought me to this adventure and a memorable year in my young life."
2002: In Retrospect -- Thirty-six years ago, I was a young, bright-eyed air force enlisted man who spent a year on a small island in the Pacific Ocean. To be exact -- hollowed ground -- having been bought and paid for by the lives of over 6,000 young U. S. servicemen and over 20,000 young Japanese servicemen.
Spending this year on Iwo Jima was at the time, I must admit, not very historically significant -- at least, in my way of thinking.
In fact, the island, to me as well as others there -- was more like a penal colony. We were isolated. Period!
We did have USO shows come and visit us regularly every month or two; but, these were a shadow of what we considered as the real world. Here were cute young ladies, and their dashing escorts, performing silly routines on a small movie theater stage. They were always escorted by a contingent of military junior brass. These performances meant little or nothing to me -- for shortly after they had finished, they were whisked off to the next stop on their tour.
Boredom and loneliness were the two paramount forces at play on Iwo. You worked, you played, you drank, you tracked through the boonies to pass time and even so, time stood still -- playing heavily on your mind.
Receiving a letter from your girl [or at least she WAS your girl when you left to come to this island, right?], was both wonderful and at times -- gut wrenching. You saw others get the dreaded 'Dear John' letter and worried that the next letter or cassette tape would be the one to tell you that '....I have found someone else'.
These words would send your sagging spirits into a major tail spin -- almost never seeming to recover. I felt that I was the loneliest man in the world then and felt as though I would never emerge from this pit of depression. It was not as if you could just head over to the local 'bar and grill' and hit on another girl. There was no bar and grill and -- there were no other girls.
So, what you did on Iwo mainly was to mark time. Mark time until the day you could say that you were 'SHORT' and headed home.
You busied yourself with your work, your past times and trying to make the best of a lousy assignment. You were thankful that at least you were not being shot at, like others that you knew who had gone to Viet Nam.
When you finally did get the magic carpet ride home on the 707 freedom bird, it was to a different world. Somehow the world had changed during my year on Iwo Jima. We were cautioned NOT to wear our uniforms in public upon returning stateside. We soon found out why. The Viet Nam war had changed our beloved country and the military was now hated. Servicemen were taunted, spit on, heckled and in some cases physically assualted. The plane landing in San Francisco was greeted by crowds of jeering war protesters.
So much had changed in just one short year.
I went into the military in July 1962, fresh out of high school -- proud to be joining the United States Air Force and returned four years later, now ashamed of the uniform that I was wearing.
Surely, this year on Iwo, though spent on one of America's historical battlefields, had been but a penal colony to me.
Joseph L. Richard
Det. 12, 20th Weather Sqd.
United States Air Force
Note: To view ADDITIONAL images taken during my year on Iwo Jima, please click on the following link to my World War II Stories Photo Album:
WW II Stories: Iwo Jima Photo Album 1965-1966
Did YOU serve on Iwo Jima? Did you know that there is a group of veterans who have gotten together to form an association of servicemen, no matter what branch of service, who served at one time or another starting at the invasion of the island on February 19, 1945 and continueing until the island was eventually returned to the Japanese in 1969?
Black Pearl Veterans
Mr. Joseph Richard is originally from southwestern Louisiana and the 'Heart of Cajun Country'. He currently resides with his wife in the New Orleans area. Currently, he is heavily envolved in the collecting and preservation of World War II Stories.
The materials depicted on this page were reprinted with kind permission of the subject of our essay -- Joseph L.Richard.
We, at the World War II Stories - In Their Own Words web site wish to offer to Mr. Joseph L. Richard our most profound THANK YOU for his poignant story of his personal experiences -- during his military tour of Iwo Jima and especially for allowing us to share those memories.
Original story transcribed on 4 November 2002
Story updated on 27 November 2002
September 5, 2002.
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