Every year, as mid February approaches, I have this dream. I’m back in uniform, jammed into a C130 with two dozen other GIs, a couple of gun jeeps, pallets of ammo and supplies, and I can’t get to sleep. And then, in my dream, I wake up and I’m somewhere west of Wake Island and the C-130’s engines are somehow singing a different tune. And the deck was not quite level. Then a wing dipped and the nose dropped and we dropped through a moonless night toward a vast, empty ocean.
Except it’s not really a dream. It’s me flashing back to August 1965, when I was part of the First Air Cavalry Division advance party, deploying for a still-secret patch of jungle in the Central Highlands. Our pilots complete the turn and level off and below I spy a single point of light against an irregular shape infinitely inkier than the darkness behind it. Why is Okinawa blacked out?
The hydraulics screech. Our descent slows. My ears pop as the engines growl and props change pitch to become speed brakes. Abruptly, we’re taxiing.
We stop near a hangar and as the engines whine into silence the Air Force crew chief huddles with one of our officers, a colonel. “Leave everything except headgear and weapons,” he says.
Something is very wrong. And that’s when, safe in my bed, I wake up.
But on that night in 1965 we jumped down to the runway. Instead of a flight-line bus and a ride to the terminal we marched single file, following a white line until we came to a hangar, atop which burned that lone light. I read the sign below it:
Welcome to Iwo Jima International Airfield.
Elevation: Dry season +1 Rainy season -1
The colonel gathered us into a semicircle and explained that an engine had caught fire and was shut down. The four-engine C-130 can fly on three, if necessary, but we were at maximum load; extended flight would push the remaining engines to their limits, inviting another fire or failure. Wake Island was five hours behind us, Okinawa more than two hours. The pilot made an emergency landing on Iwo Jima.
The runway we stood on had served as an emergency landing field for the giant B-29s of World War II. The fifty-some airmen manning this airfield were overjoyed at our arrival. It was months since anyone dropped in, months since they had reason to believe they served any purpose on their lonesome bit of volcanic rock in the middle of nowhere.
Tumbling from their beds to greet us, they asked, many times, if there were any women on our plane.
Nope, we explained, just us grunts.
Just us grunts.
Just 20 G.I.s with rifles.
Their disappointment was obvious: As a lonely airman explained, their Pacific paradise’s delights included a woman behind every tree.
Alas, no real trees on Iwo Jima.
Nevertheless our hosts gave us their bunks for naps and served us cold chicken, hamburgers, sandwiches and anything else they had, from milk and coffee to Scotch, vodka, bourbon or gin — and refused to take our money.
Then they screened two films: Combat footage shot by John Ford’s Navy cinematographers of the Marine conquest of Iwo Jima, and the John Wayne movie, “Sands of Iwo Jima.”
Seven thousand American Marines died taking this volcanic island; 22,000 Japanese gave their lives trying to stop them. America wanted it for emergency landings by shot-up planes returning from missions over Japan. By VJ DAY some 800 such air crews had landed safely on Iwo Jima; many, perhaps most, would have died had it not been for those 7,000 marines.
And now they had saved another plane and more Americans. I felt humbled. How many of us would have survived a water landing? How long would it have taken to even find us in those vast, shark-filled waters?
By the time both movies had screened, the sun was up; we went outside for a look around. I saw rocky beaches covered with volcanic ash and sharp-edged crushed coral. No sand. “John Wayne musta took all them ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ back to Hollywood,” opined one of our hosts.
At mid-morning I visited the hangar to view the C130’s scorched wing above the burned engine. A half-dozen mechanics stayed busy fitting a new engine to its myriad connections. Later we lined up to board. As our crew chief, a man of about 35, passed me, I stepped out of line.
“Tell me the truth, Sarge,” I said. “How much danger were we actually in? Could we have made Okinawa?”
“We’ll never know,” he said. “But if there was no emergency field here, I’d have been on my knees praying the whole way. And if the skipper had bypassed Iwo Jima to try for Okinawa on three engines, I’d never fly with him again.”
Back in the air I kept thinking about Iwo Jima’s marines. I tried to imagine what it was like in one of their landing craft, tossed by waves, shells bursting all around, inexorably headed toward an entrenched, fanatical enemy. Were they seasick? Fearful? What were their thoughts on that long, scary ride to the beach? Did they know they might die?
So I think about them every year at this time. Seven thousand dead. Seven thousand mourning mothers. Seven thousand grieving fathers. Thousands upon thousands of orphaned children, shattered wives and sweethearts.
I was barely out of diapers when those men hit Iwo Jima’s bloody beaches, yet surely I am forever in their debt. Surely they fought and died for me as much as anyone.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.