Sunday, March 22, 2009

Carmel man recalls heartbreak of Iwo Jima

Carmel man recalls heartbreak of Iwo Jima

Herald Correspondent
Posted: 03/22/2009 01:31:06 AM PDT

Click photo to enlargeHarry McLaughlin, 89, of Carmel holds a photo of himself as a young... (ORVILLE MYERS/The Herald)«1»Meeting Harry McLaughlin, it's easy to be impressed by the irrepressible vitality of this 89-year-old Carmel resident.
He would be a tough man to kill.

A shrapnel scar and a growling battlefield voice are clues to the history of his time spent fighting the Japanese 64 years ago in the Battle of Iwo Jima, which ended March 26, 1945.

Capt. McLaughlin is retired from the wholesale garden supply business and today lives a quiet life with his wife, Muriel. It is a far cry from his days in the South Pacific during World War II.

"I still think about Iwo Jima," he said. "You never forget."

The battle of Iwo Jima began Feb. 19, 1945, McLaughlin's birthday. As he sat with the Third Marine Division on transport ships off the coast of Iwo Jima, he could see sand flying from explosions on the beach. Everyone had heard about the casualties. Tokyo Rose had even joked that when it was over, the Marines that were left could fit into a telephone booth.

McLaughlin spent a lot of time that day studying maps. His job was to interrogate captured Japanese soldiers. It was hard to imagine there were many left. After 74 days of aerial bombing, Iwo Jima was a scorched, volcanic flyspeck of an island — ugly, but strategically critical.

When McLaughlin finally landed on Iwo Jima at daybreak on Feb. 24, he found himself slogging through a black sand salvage yard of overturned vehicles and shell-torn bodies.

Rising 556 feet above the carnage was Mount Suribachi, the



sulphurous volcano into which the Japanese army had burrowed 11 miles of tunnels. Heavily fortified with artillery in pillboxes and caves, the Japanese could direct their fire at almost any point on the island.
The Marines were ducks in a shooting gallery.

"Hundreds were killed before they even saw the enemy," McLaughlin recalled. "It was very bad, heartbreaking. We covered (the bodies) up with sand and ash and put a marker there."

McLaughlin took refuge behind a few small rocks. Glancing up, he was amazed to see the American flag waving on top of Mount Suribachi.

But when you're pinned down, watching enemy mortars blowing up so many of your buddies, you're not thinking about witnessing history, McLaughlin said. "You're thinking about trying to save your neck."

Inch by inch, McLaughlin crawled toward headquarters, which he described as "a crummy-looking foxhole with sandbags around it up there maybe 100 yards or so."

Iwo Jima, the admirals and generals said, was to have been secured in four days. Instead, it was a 36-day nightmare.

"How I got out of there alive I'll never know," McLaughlin said. "I did a lot of praying."

Many of the troops were scarcely out of boyhood when they joined the Marines. McLaughlin was no exception.

McLaughlin grew up in Oakland. "A good Irish lad," he excelled in sports and graduated from St. Mary's College in 1942.

When the manager of Hagstrom's Food Store introduced him to Muriel, her pretty teenage daughter, he was smitten. But the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and all of a sudden, McLaughlin said, the whole country was very gung ho to go to war.

He and Muriel wed five days before he shipped out.

Assigned to the Headquarters Company, McLaughlin's orders on Iwo Jima were to find out how many Japanese soldiers were in those caves.

When artillery failed to blast them out, the Japanese were burned out and blown up — but rarely captured. To surrender was to be dishonored, to have their families ostracized.

"They were instructed to die first," McLaughlin said, "but some of them realized living was pretty good. One day, we got about 25 of them out of there. They'd say 'Me no savvy. C'est la guerre! (It's the war.)'"

Other times they told everything — like how they were trained to shoot American officers in the head and soldiers in the legs to disable them and draw more targets into the open. "They'd tell us where their fortifications were and how many were still in the caves."

With virtually no water on the island, the Japanese were dying from dehydration, starvation and lice infection.

The American soldiers lived with filth, rot and the terror of enemy mortar shells the size of 55-gallon drums tumbling end over end, seemingly headed right for them.

"You adjusted to it as best you could," McLaughlin said.

Nights were worse. Two men shared a foxhole. One watched and listened while the other tried to sleep. Huge land crabs crawling in the night sounded like the enemy approaching. Intermittent gunfire kept them awake, McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin even jumped into a foxhole once and landed on an angry patrol dog.

Sometimes, the Japanese infiltrated their ranks and yelled in perfect English, "Corpsman, help me! I'm hit!"

But his thoughts always returned to Muriel and his parents.

One day, McLaughlin was delivering a map and bumped into his good friend Oscar Salvos, a company commander. Salvos looked despondent.

"'I don't like this Mac,' he told me, 'I don't have enough machine guns and they want us to go on a night attack.'

"Oscar had a Purple Heart — a real Marine, this guy. Well, he was killed. I remember the day I was looking for his body. I went down to the beach. There were thousands of them lined up on these stretchers. They were all dead. I was thinking these kids' folks don't even know about it yet."

When the battle was declared over on March 26, McLaughlin headed to Guam. As the ship pulled out, he was overwhelmed by a terrible melancholy about people he left behind, "people who were alive when we got there."

President Franklin Roosevelt, it is said, literally gasped at the count: 7,000 Marines dead, 24,000 wounded.

For a man who witnessed some of the most ghastly sights of war imaginable, McLaughlin remains remarkably warmhearted.

He plays golf every Monday and visits with his two sons and five grandchildren.

Five years ago, he and Muriel went to the 60th reunion for veterans who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. McLaughlin was the only Marine there out of his company of 300.

He had traveled a long road from playing stickball on the streets of Oakland.

"You never forget it. You've seen the worst of the worst," McLaughlin said. "It's very abhorrent, the whole thing, war."

Leslie Dunn can be reached at


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