ENTERING THE SERVICE
At 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, 1 September 1939, I was opening up my cousin Bert’s Magnolia service station on Locust Street in Denton. I turned on the radio for some music, only to hear “We are interrupting our scheduled program to bring you the latest news bulletins. Hitler’s Panzer divisions have crossed the Polish frontiers, and in response to their treaty obligations to Poland, Great Britain and France are expected momentarily to declare war on Germany. . . .” So much for Munich and “peace in our time”; the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had announced what was in store for Europe, and this news bulletin had removed the last bit of guesswork. The time was now. And what added immeasurably to my excitement was the knowledge that before long I would be seeing the “battlefield” at close hand.
After hostilities had been declared in September, Britain had sent an expeditionary force to bolster the French, but neither had been able to do anything to help the hapless Poles, and in the West the lack of military activity had been dubbed the “phoney war”.
For me and much of the world, 1940 was the year of decision. When Hitler, with Poland under his heel, turned westward, the “phoney war “was revealed in all its savagery. Churchill and Reynaud replaced Chamberlain and Daladier, but nothing could stop the breakthroughs of the Wehrmacht with the Luftwaffe in close support, thus revealing the horrid truth that Germany’s was the only general staff in the whole world to have learned the tactical answers to the siege conditions of the Great War. So there followed in quick and tragic order the refugees streaming across the saddened fields of fallen France, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) driven into the sea at Dunkerque, and then Britain’s turn herself as Goering launched his all-out offensive against the RAF and her air defenses. The single relief from this unmitigated gloom was the indomitable voice of Churchill still hurling his defiance.
In the United States in general and in Washington in particular there were two burning questions, quite different in detail but inextricably linked: What would be the official reaction to the plight of our erstwhile Allies, and would President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) seek a third term of office? Thanks to my fairly strategic placement in the capital scene, I was able to witness these developments first hand.
As to the first question, thanks to Miss Alla Clary and Billy Wilcoxon of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) staff, I always had a seat in the Observers’ Gallery in the House of Representatives, and the Commissioner was invariably generous in granting me the time to go to the Hill. Thus I heard the questions raised, the key debates, and the actions taken – armed neutrality and the arming of our merchant ships; destroyers for bases; Lend-Lease; national conscription under a Selective Service System – that moved us inexorably closer to the war, with Churchill’s impassioned plea of “Give us the tools and we will finish the job!” as a backdrop. The nay-sayers, the America Firsters – Borah, Couglin, Lindberg, Joe Kennedy – were in full voice but were no match for the Administration as emergency measures were sent up for the President’s eager signature. Sometime later, I was present in the Labor Department Auditorium when our Secretary for War, Henry Stimson, stood blindfolded before the fishbowl on the dais and withdrew the first fateful draft number – but by this time it was all academic as far as I was concerned.
ANACOSTIA ELIMINATION BASE
My flight instructor, Ensign Shawn Brios, was right out of Central Casting. Of medium height with a supple frame, a shock of curly black hair presiding over a dark, handsome visage punctuated by piercing black eyes, perfect teeth set in a mouth that seemed trying without success to mask a sneer, all perfectly accoutered in a well-tailored uniform over burnished jodhpurs, and those wings of gold pinned neatly over his left breast tunic pocket. He was by designation as well as by aura a fighter pilot, and he had just returned from fleet duty aboard one of our storied carriers, the USS Saratoga, and he must have been wondering at the cruelty of the detail officer who had condemned him to shore duty which involved trying to teach the likes of me how to fly. In all the fleet there was no ignominy like coming a cropper at the hands of some ham-handed flying cadet.
We all met our instructors outside the hangar on the flight line with our training planes aligned in a neat row. These were Stearman single-engine bi-planes, affectionately known as “Yellow Perils” because they were all painted a solid bright yellow so they could more easily be spotted from the air in the event of a forced landing at sea or on the land. In the event, it was marvelously stable and air worthy, and for its purpose I suggest no better aircraft was ever designed. We had each been issued a parachute and a flying helmet known as a gosport, which featured a speaking tube issuing from each ear flap extending into the front cockpit and thus permitting one-way communication from the instructor to the student.
Ensign Brios’ first question established the fact that we were beginning from absolute ground zero – that I had never flown, been up in, or even close to an airplane before. If that be true, he wondered, why had I chosen this branch of the service? Not mentioning Colonel Johnson, of course, I replied that I guess I wanted to see if I had “that something extra.” I was referring to Naval Air Corps recruiting posters that were beginning to appear on billboards around the country which asked the question. “Have you got that something extra? Then wear those wings of gold!”
“Well,” he replied, “we’ll soon find out.”
THE ROUTE TO TOKYO:
TINIAN, IWO JIMA, OKINAWA
And there was a troubling corollary to the fact that we could now bring the Jap mainland under aerial attack from our Mariana bases. Given the distances involved in the bombing effort, it was impossible to provide the B-29s with fighter cover, and so over the target area they were completely exposed to Japan's superb home defense Fighter Command which ringed her major cities. It therefore required no tactical genius to determine what our next offensive move must be; we desperately needed a base much closer to the mainland from which we could provide protection for the Superforts, and a mere glance at the map indicated precisely where that could be. Seven hundred fifty miles to the north northwest, exactly half the distance between Tinian and Tokyo, lay a group of islands known as the Bonins Volcanoes, principal of which was a mere speck in the ocean called Iwo Jima. Like the Marianas, Iwo’s place in history was determined entirely by geography; in Japan’s perimeter defensive scheme for the mainland based on outlying islands, Iwo was a critical bastion; nine miles long and three miles at its greatest width, it was completely covered in brown volcanic ash, with a hump-backed ridge down the middle and at its western end its only distinguishing feature, Mount Suribachi, a volcanic cone rising 1,000 feet, and later to be immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s dramatic photograph of our flag being raised on its peak. More to the point, there were three serviceable air strips, two at sea level and one on a mesa of the ridge, 6,000 feet of clay surface with a 300 foot drop off each end. Our intelligence estimate of Iwo’s garrison strength was put at 25,000 men under a general famed in Japanese army circles for his tenacity on defense.
By the time VPB-108 began operating out of Tinian, our offensive preparations against Iwo were well in train. One key to the kingdom was Iwo’s isolation to prevent any egress or ingress by air or sea, and our patrols to the east, north, and west of the island were designed to keep it that way while the island itself was encircled by our task force which included two carriers and a battlewagon. The Jap fighters had been deemed hopeless in the face of such an armada and had been withdrawn to the mainland, but the garrison had been ordered to resist to the end. For 51 consecutive days Iwo was subjected to aerial assault, bombing and strafing, without opposition, and for the week before D-Day, while the 3rd and 5th Marine Divisions watched from their crowded transports, the Fleet pounded the island point-blank with its heaviest weapons. However, as history has painfully recorded, what was hoped to be a walk in the park was anything but.