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Iwo Jima 60th Anniversary 2005
by Harlan Glenn

In memory: Danny Thomas, US Navy Corpsmen passed away on New Year's Day 2007

Of all the Pacific War battlefields Iwo Jima has to be the most significant and at the same time-the hardest to get to. While it holds the same type of meaning to Americans as Gettysburg, Iwo Jima is not a place that you can hop in the car and make a road trip to. Iwo Jima is in the middle of nowhere and due to an agreement between the American and Japanese government, we and the Japanese can only return but once a year to visit and remember those who fought and died there some 60 years ago.

Each year, in the month of March, the island of Iwo Jima is open to visitation by American and Japanese veterans and family members, and a handful of “enthusiasts”. It is a short day and over before you know it! Americans leave the island of Guam at about 0800am and arrive on the island at about 09:30am.

As soon as you hit the ground you are welcomed by a Marine contingent from Okinawa, who support the pilgrimage each year. From there you are shuttled to a memorial service where both Japanese and American veterans and officials speak and offer remarks about the battle and those who took part. Once the ceremony is over-you are free to roam and explore the island.

Iwo is like many other hard to get and less traveled islands in that it is a time capsule, with areas of the island still strewn with battle debris, from pieces of shrapnel on the beach to shell casings and bullet ridden canteens in the tunnels and bunkers. Much of the island is now overgrown and looks nothing like it did in 1945. But there are other areas that are as they were during the battle-where the ground is so harsh that no plant life can grow and remains scared from the hells of that 30+ day campaign.

This year, this trip was very special for me, as I was able to make an old veteran very happy. Since the war, in fact since the very day that he stormed ashore with his Marines of the 23rd Regiment, 4th Marine Division, Danny Thomas a Navy Corpsman has been haunted by the visions of what he saw that fated day of February 19th, 1945.

As soon as the ramp went down on his Higgins boat, Danny and his best buddy Chick, also a Navy Corpsman ran ashore with their platoon of Marines. No sooner did their Boondockers hit that black sand-than did Danny’s pal Chick were blown in half with his intestines strewn across the beach before his very eyes. After Danny finished vomiting up his toenails, he went into auto pilot and began treating wounded and dying Marines on the beach.

For the next two weeks Danny followed his Marines inland and into some of the “hottest” enemy held strong points found on the island, places like The East Boat Basin, The Quarry, The Meat Grinder, The Amphitheater, and here in these places the 4th Marine Division were whittled down to a fraction of their original strength-and all the while Corpsmen like Danny did their best to try and patch them up and keep them alive.

Somewhere from the time Danny left the beach to the time he left the island he earned a Bronze Star-yet he can’t tell you how-as he blacked out-as things were so terrible that it was all he could do that survive-and that was the go into auto-pilot, as he was trained and do his job. He was to forget what he saw and what he found and just keep on going until it all stopped. And here is where poor Danny’s problem began…his nightmare never stopped! For years after the battle and war had long ended, Danny was haunted by the ghosts of Iwo Jima. Every night he would awake in a cold sweat and could smell the rotting flesh and burnt cordite. Each and every night he would see the faces of his friends and of the wounded Marines and dead and decaying Japanese.

I met Danny in 2002, on my first pilgrimage to Iwo Jima, and was so taken by his persona that we became fast friends-as he is the sweetest and most endearing soul that one could ever meet. After we had returned from our trip in 2002, Danny had said to me that he’d like to go back for the 60th anniversary-as his last and final trip-to say goodbye to the ghosts and make peace with the dead-in hopes that they would allow him to live his final years in a more tranquil environment. And so our plan was made to return to Iwo for the 60th, but with one stipulation, that I accompany him and look after him-he did not have to ask-it was a gut feeling and request from his guardian angles that I go with him-as if I did not-he might no go and forever be tortured.

So as we began our trip back to Iwo in 2005, from the very first night of the 10 day pilgrimage, it was with great pride and environment that I looked after Danny-as if I were his personal valet. And all along the way I knew that this may well be the last time I see Danny, and that I had to ensure that he were treated like a King, as in my mind he so deserved it for the care giving that he had unselfishly distributed during the battle for Iwo Jima in 1945, 60 years ago.

To know Danny, one is taken with his simple and honest demeanor from the get-go. He speak eloquently like a southern gentleman of years long gone and only heard spoken while watching old films shot in the 1930s and early 40’s. I do not think that this man has a single enemy-as he is so likable and honest-much like that of a saint. It is sad to think that such a sweet man has been tortured for so long by the actions that took place over that short but hellish period on Iwo Jima. When you think of a battle scars, Danny has them-yet they are unseen and hidden and he does not openly display them-which is much the way of the Pacific War veterans-they did their job and if they survived they came home and got on with life as best the could. One has to consider how many more “Danny’s” are out there, secretly suffering and troubled by those days of yesteryear. As time catches up with them-we will really never know how badly many of our World War two veterans have suffered-and with each year more and more pass away and many of them taking their stories with them-to the grave.

Since meeting Danny in 2002, I have been to his home, driving there to Irving Texas from Burbank California, and have sat in his den with fireplace, in his old rocking chair and listened to his stories of boot camp and hospital apprentice school, and of the shenanigans that he and his fellow corpsmen got up to on the island of Maui, where the 4th Marine Division trained and refitted for the Iwo Jima operation (Camp Maui).

And the one thing or request that Danny has ever expressed was-that when I told him that I was going back to Iwo in 2003, he asked me to take his American flag with me and go to the top of the summit, and hold it up and to have a picture taken of me-holding up his flag. I agreed and was actually quite honored by his simple and humble request.

So Danny sent me his brand new K-Mart nylon 50 star American Flag and I took it with me on the plane to Iwo in 2003. As we approached the island I took the folded flag from my carry on bag and tucked it inside of the World War Two Marine utility jacket aka John Wayne style, so when I got to the top of the summit-I could fulfill Danny’s request. As a side note each time that I return to Iwo. I always go in period military attire, head to toe! As soon as we touched down-we were briefed by a Marine Corporal who said “There will be no simulated Iwo Jima flag raising, there will be no acts of disrespect to the Japanese-we are their guests, etc, etc”. Well that also included holding up an American flag-as it might upset the Japanese. I was instantly upset that I could not fulfill Danny’s request-and when I returned and told him about it-he was aghast and furious…

In the course of our conversation, I asked Danny if he would like to go back one last time-and he declined, saying that he was in ill health and did not want to be a burden to anyone who might feel that they had to take care of him and thus spoil their trip. At that point I assured him that it would be an honor to accompany him and look after him-and after a little arm bending-which took a few months, and he agreed and so we would both go back for the 60th Anniversary Iwo Jima 2005.

One has to question why holding up a flag meant so much to Danny and others like him-yet I would have to say that to any WW2 Marine Iwo Jima and its flag raising are a symbol that stands for the entire Pacific war and those who took part in it. Mount Suribachi and the flag raising (note that there were two flag raisings, yet it is the 2nd of the two that became ”famous” through still photography and motion picture) are like a badge of courage and endearment for those who took part in the battle-though the flag raising took place on D+4 of the 36 day battle, it is that one event that they all remember and treasure, serving as a sign that they would win and overcome the seemingly impossible.

Knowing what it meant to Danny, I planned a surprise and covert mission to take place on the island and to be done in his honor, I packed a WW2 48 star all cotton/muslin 54” x 28” American flag in my carry on bag. And if opportunity presently itself, I would climb the summit-using the original route as the 42 man patrol took and, once atop the summit I would hold up said flag, for Danny, and then present it to him later, at sometime that day on the island.

To get the original route, I called Col. David Severance (the rank of Captain at the time of Iwo), who was with Lt. Col. Shepard who sent up the 42 man patrol to scout the summit and raise a flag (54” x 28”) as a sign of conquest and defiance to the Japanese defenders on the island. Col. Severance knew exactly how to get me there-giving me specific directions from their landing beach-to go inland so far and then turn left at a specific point and head up the summit between two land mark rocks-and though paved road has been added to the summit and some of the mountain has been blown and hacked away-it is still possible to take the same route!

The night before we left for Iwo, many of those going met in the hotel bar to share their plans and what Iwo meant to them and why they were going. Though I was local I went down to see Danny and spend some time with him-prior to leaving the next day. This was the first time I had seen him since 2002 and he was glad to see me as I was him. I did not mention a word of my “covert” plan, rather we talked of how he had been and what he wanted to do during the trip-and for Danny the 10 day trip was unimportant, it was only that one day that mattered and he focused on it and said how this time he was going back to say good bye to his buddies who had been killed there and to make peace with the ghosts-doing all that he had and could to knowing that this was indeed his last trip-I can only guess that even as we sat in the bar-he prepared mentally for that special day.

I have to revert back to 2002, as the morning that we all left the hotel on Guam to go to Iwo, both my buddy (Dan King) and I were dressed in full M1941 Marine Corps utilities and 782 gear-head to toe, and the moment we got off the elevator all those in the lobby turned to stare, most with approving and proud eyes and a few with eyes of disapproval for fear of upsetting the Japanese, but one individual was stunned…Danny! Danny saw us from across the room and his mouth dropped to the floor. As we approached him he smiled and he put his arms around us and confided that for a moment he thought we were both friends of his that he had lost during the battle-that for one moment he was taken back and had to reality check himself…this short and small incident shows you how affected Danny is from those fateful 36 days on Iwo of 1945.

The day before Iwo on Guam, 2005, the show Mail Call were interviewing veterans for their Iwo Jima TV special. And as I worked for them as an independent, I had been trying to get them to do a segment of Navy Corpsman since the series started in 2002, and now in 2005 they had given in to “Harlan” pressure, and were also to interview Danny about his experiences and what it meant to “Go Back”. During the corse of Danny’s interview he had the entire crew, myself included, in tears! Danny held back noting and told how he got into the Corpsman Corps and how he was transferred to the FMF (Fleet Marine Force) and how he ended up on Iwo and what happened…the most traumatic part of his story was when he spoke of D-Day (“Invasion Day”, the term D-Day is not limited to the invasion of Normandy June 6th 1944, rather it was used by the Army, Navy and Marines to signify the day on which a operation was the commence). Danny went on to tell how he ran down the ramp and saw he best buddy buried up to his waist-and how when Danny turned around to see if his buddy Chick was following him-he saw the rest of Chick…with Chicks intestines splattered all over the beach and his legs nowhere to be seen, Chick had been blown apart by a mortar and Danny had just found him as he gave his last gaping stare and the life left his decapitated body. Danny made light-in his true old school gentlemanly way of how he “threw up his toe nails” at the sight of Chick and as soon as he had no more to throw up-he went into auto pilot an began doing Corpsman work-dressing wounds and doing his best to save the lives of his fellow Marines.

This has been Danny’s most haunting memory; from the first minute on the beach-to see his best friend blown apart and his internal organs spread across the black sands of Yellow Beach 1, Iwo Jima.

Once Danny had finished his interview we were all silent, the drew and I had worked together many times before, and this was the first time that we had ever seen each other openly weep with tears streaming down our cheeks-it was that moving and I know that none of us were able to keep it in-even Danny cried, but I watched him and knew that he was glad and he had shared his story as I had impressed upon him before that when and if we ever got to do this interview-that he could to hold back-and that he had to tell it all so all that watched it would know what “he” saw and what it was like to be a Navy Combat Corpsman. And Danny did just that-I was so proud of him-it is hard to find the words to express that.

The next morning, we all gather in the lobby of the hotel-to gram some “hot joe” (coffee) and get on a bus that will take us to the airport –to the plane-that will take us to the fated island of Iwo Jima. And in the lobby I made my way to Danny who was quite and as usual on his own-not being one to travel in groups or in “packs”. He made a complimentary remark about my attire, thought is time he did not have a flashback-he was relaxed and smiling and seemed quite happy-he KNEW that this was his last trip and he was to savor each minute-letting no part of it escape him and his memory vault.

This year, for the 60th, there were 3 planeloads of “pilgrims” as usually there is but one plane. And Danny did not travel on the same plane as I, when we landed we made out way to the beach to begin shooting “Mail Call” with the Gunny. Hours later the crews were to go atop the summit to shoot some “stand-ups” from the mountain-looking down onto the landing beaches.

At that point I knew that THIS was my moment of opportunity! I acted quickly and with the accompaniment of a fellow historian, Fletcher Isacks, who had happened to be there on the beach, spreading the ashes of a family member, I looked to him and he at me-and by some form of mental telepathy-we said to each other-let’s go! And up we went-and I must tell you that out respect and admiration for those who made the original climb grew as we made our way through the brush and up the mountain.

Thinking that they were the ages of 19 to 20 and were both double that-our climb was enduring. Each time that we grabbed a hold of a brush op root-it would give way and break loose from its surrounding earth-forcing us to keep a steady and quicker pace or fall backwards and down the mountain. As we rose near the summit we heard chanting, which turned out to be Teddy Draper, a 5th Division Navajo Code Talker. Draper was “singing” a cleansing song for the dead, and as we got closer to the top of the summit his songs increased in volume-and gave us a kind or inspirational inner strength to keep going and not slow down. As we got to the top we were beat (more so I than Fletcher). We had done it-we had climbed the summit as they did on February 23rd, 1945.

 

As we caught our breath we broke open our last canteen of water and “refueled”. And then through the corner of my eye I noticed that there were three Marines who were raising flags on the flag pole. Now this is something that I had never seen done in the two other times that I had been on the island. Never had I seen or knew of how anyone could have “their” flag raised atop the flag pole and with full honors to boot! Fletcher and I approached the Marine Lieutenant and asked him if he had permission to do this-as I was shocked to see it taking place. He said “No sir, I do not, and I’ll probably get chewed out for it later-but I’m gonna keep doing it until someone tells me to stop”. He then explain that he and his two corporals would only fly “special” flags, those that were for family members or veterans who were there during the battle and that they would not just fly any flag for just any reason-it had to be a “special” flag with a special reason.

Fletcher then produced a small flag that his Grandfather had carried during the battle-when he was killed during the battle. And so that flag was promptly flown with full Marine honors (Present and salute and a moment atop the pole, and then pulled down and folded for presentation). I could not believe my luck-and how the Gods and Angels had shown upon me-for I could not have asked for a better gift or presentation to my pal Danny! I removed my flag from under my M1941 Marine utility jacket and asked the Lieutenant to fly it-saying that THIS flag was for a WW2 Iwo Jima Corpsman that was on the beach and could not make it up here to the summit and how it would mean a great deal to said Corpsman if they would fly it…

There was no question and the Marine Lieutenant took the flag from my hand and with the help of his Corporals attached it to the flag pole rope and with the command “Present!” they all saluted and up went my 48 star flag…up the pole and to the very top of the pole-and there it flew for a minute over the summit or Suribachi and the island or Iwo Jima. As the flag was then lowered the Marines salute remained until it was folded and handed to me….I could not believe my luck or he experience-Danny was really gonna get something special. As we made out way down the mountain and back to the beach, there was Danny by the monument, sitting by himself pondering as young Marines folded up the chairs and tents which were used for the memorial service-which had taken place as we were climbing the summit.

I walked up to Danny and said something to the equivalent of “I’ve got something for ya” and pulled out a folded 48 star flag-and his eyes lit up and a smile grew across his face. As I handed it to him I said “Guess where it’s been???” Danny replied well I guess to the summit? And I replied yes but better than that-and as he was taken back by the gift he did not at first hear that the flag had not only been atop the summit-but it had been flown atop the Iwo Jima Marine Corps flag pole and with full Marine honors!

 

After I explained that-and looked him in the eyes-he knew-as if he had been watching a close circuit TV camera-what exactly had happened and how the flag got up the summit and how the events have unfolded one after the other….Danny then looked up and me and began to cry, two to three tears leapt up and our from each eye. I said to him “So does that make your day?” and he replied “You just made my life!”

And at THAT moment I knew that this simple exchange between Danny and myself were a memory that I would treasure forever and that regardless of what else happened on the trip that this moment was the most meaningful and memorable and for all three trips-THIS, NOW was the very best and how lucky I was to experience it.

This one day of the 10 day journey-and this brief exchange would make a lasting memory of a life time. I knew that my act had just made an old guy very happy and that he would never again doubt or wonder if he would be remembered or his acts of yesteryear appreciated. My mission had been completed and I felt truly good inside-as I know too that an ol’ Corpsman, Pharmacist Mate 3rd Class Daniel B. Thomas now felt-validated, loved and would not die forgotten.

The day after Iwo Danny fell ill and during the trip back to the states only got worse. The trip had taken its tool on him, as it did for several other veterans-it is an emotional rollercoaster to retrace your steps on hallowed ground where you once walked. Danny spent some 4 weeks in an Irving hospital, finally being released to the custody of his niece. And as he lay in his hospital bed, I read to him my short 5 minute script-which was to be included in the Mail Call Iwo Jima show, Navy Corpsman segment….and as I read it to him - I could hear him tearing up and sobbing - as I finished Danny said something to the effect of “That’s the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me”, as Danny is the featured Corpsman of the show and now will be immortalized so to speak. The script made Danny the spokesperson for the Iwo Jima Corpsmen and set about to explain to the viewers who the Corpsmen were and what they did-on Iwo Jima and how much the Marines loved them, saying that the Corpsmen were infact the “Saints of the Battlefield” on Iwo Jima, and I don’t think there is a Marine Iwo Jima veteran alive that would disagree with that.

Iwo Jima is today a floating memorial, where veterans and family members can go to pay their respects and remember their fallen comrades. It is also a place where we can all go to explore and learn about the battle and the men who took part in it. It is a harsh and ugly place-that like much of the Pacific was at one time, truly HELL ON EARTH! If you can ever get the chance to go and visit-you surely should take advantage of it-as there may come at time when we (Americans and Japanese alike) can no longer visit the black shores of Iwo Jima. For those not familiar, Iwo is much like our Gettysburg, it was the pinnacle point of our war in the Pacific and cost more men killed and wounded than the invasion of Normandy-which seems to have blinded the public into thinking that the biggest badest battle of the war was fought on Omaha Beach.

 

The entire Pacific War is a forgotten war, and like its veterans, they too are forgotten and overshadowed by those who fought in North West Europe. That is why it is so important-NOW and before it’s too late to befriend a PTO (Pacific Theatre of Operations) veteran-as they truly are the forgotten ones-and how sad it be for them to go to their graves-unremembered and unappreciated. Simple acts as I have performed can mean so much to these ol’ soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and if this sounds like a pleading request for action-you’re right-it is! One aspect of taking these battlefield tours is that on each trip, at least for now and before they have all died off, on each trip you’ll meet one ol’ guy who’ll you’ll be drawn to-make him your friend, don’t let him pay for anything-treat ‘em like a king and you’ll know that in his last days-he’ll never forget the acts of kindness or friendship that you have bestowed upon him. So little can mean so much! And as Danny said “You made my life!”, so go take a Pacific battlefield tour, go to Tarawa, or Saipan, or Iwo, or Okinawa, or Peleliu, and pick out one vet and be his buddy - it’ll be one of the best and meaningful things that you do in your entire life!

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Danny & Harlan

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