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Li’l Old Man from Iwo Jima

by Jerry Richter

The woman waiting for the hotel elevator was using a walker and her husband was stooped over a cane. He wore a blue baseball cap with the words “Iwo Jima Survivor” embroidered in gold.  It had been more than 70 years since the battle, so he must have been at least eighty-eight years old.

I usually don’t approach strangers in public places like this, but, being alone with no one but myself to embarrass, I spoke to him as we approached the ground floor. “Excuse me sir, you were at Iwo Jima?” I asked.  He replied that he had been.  As the elevator door opened I said, “So was my Dad.” We stepped out of the elevator into the lobby and, leaning on his cane, he narrowed his eyes and looked at me a little suspiciously.  “What outfit was he with?” he asked. When I replied simply, “the Seabees” his eyes opened wide, he beamed and exclaimed, “Seabees, those guys saved our ass!”  He and his Marine tank crew had been mired in a bomb crater, surrounded by exploding Japanese mortar shells. The tank’s treads impotently churned the loose volcanic ash. A Seabee lumbered up in an “unshielded, unprotected, unarmored” Caterpillar bulldozer, he said. The Seabee hooked a chain to the tank and pulled it to more solid ground.

He waxed rhapsodic about the Seabees and how the Marines regarded them with the same level of respect and awe as they did the unarmed Navy medical corpsmen who dragged their wounded to safety and treated them. Unlike the Corpsmen, the Seabees were combatants and were issued weapons and trained in their use. However, their primary mission was the construction of airfields, bridges, buildings and infrastructure, with fighting reserved for self-defense and protection of their projects.

The most amazing thing about the Seabees to my interlocutor was their age. “These were a bunch of old men,” he said. “Some of them were in their forties! We didn’t know how they could even walk around.” This from an eight-eight-year-old man remembering the perspective of his eighteen-year-old self. In fact, the average age of Seabees was thirty-seven, considerably older than other services. My father was forty-seven during the battle of Iwo Jima. He had enlisted at forty-five when he honorably could have stayed safely at home.

The fact that the Navy took so many middle-aged men like my father is easy to explain. After Pearl Harbor, the Navy realized that they would need the equivalent of the Army’s Corps of Engineers for their Pacific island campaigns, something they did not have. They formed the Construction Battalion, or Seabees, and recruited men like my father, a master carpenter, awarding many of them the highest enlisted rank, Chief Petty Officer. While they could train a teenager to fight and kill in about six weeks, they could not train one to be a highly skilled construction tradesman so quickly.

That was the Navy’s reason. My father’s reasons are not so clear.

Jack Richter was the short and combative son of a feisty Irish mother and stolid German farm worker and carpenter. Dad seemed to enjoy the pursuit of danger and adventure, as a volunteer fireman, a union organizer, prohibition scofflaw, and occasional brawler, usually in the defense of an underdog. At 5’3” he had a short-fused temper, was notoriously lacking in patience, and held quality alcoholic spirits in high regard. The official family story is that he joined when he did because my oldest brother was almost at enlistment age and would quit high school and go when he reached seventeen. My second-oldest brother would enlist a year or so later. Dad explained that in order to understand his sons’ experiences when they came home, he should do his best to share that experience, even if it meant leaving his wife home alone with their fifteen-year-old daughter and three-year-old son (me). A fine and noble motivation.

I think, however, there were at least a few of other factors at work. First, he saw a worldwide event taking place that threatened to pass him by, as well as an opportunity to capitalize on his trade skills in a patriotic cause. But he had also successfully led his family through the Great Depression and arrived at a point where the release of his three children to independent adulthood was in sight. He was looking forward to a future of relative ease, when, at the age of forty-two, he was presented with “congratulations, it’s a boy!” and realized he had eighteen to twenty more years of child rearing ahead. I can well imagine that his reaction was on the order of “get me the hell out of here.”

I heard many stories from my Dad about Iwo Jima and the Marines, for whom he had great respect. He observed them from the perspective and maturity of middle age. As he was an “old man” to the Marines, they were “kids” to him and he must have seen them as sort of surrogates for his own two teen-aged sons, both of whom by then were serving on combatant ships in the Pacific, one of whom had been wounded in the Philippines. He admired the young Marines’ fighting abilities, loyalty, reliability and courage. He said many times that when he and his colleagues were laying steel matting by hand for a runway, digging the trench for a pipeline, hammering together barracks that would house those yet to arrive, it helped to know the Marines had their backs, literally. As he once said, “You know, it’s tough to use a hammer and a rifle at the same time.”

In spite of this admiration, he was disturbed by a tendency of many of these young warriors to engage in brutal methods of wresting souvenirs from the enemy dead. He sometimes expressed concern that they otherwise seemed to be such normal “kids” and he wondered if his own sons could behave in that way in the same circumstances. I think that this was due to his natural sympathy for the underdog. After all, in war the ultimate underdog is the dead and on Iwo that was particularly true of the Japanese dead. While the mutilation of individual enemy bodies was condemned by officers and older non-coms, the sanctioned method of enemy burial was by means of Seabee operated bulldozers shoving piles of corpses into unmarked mass graves, something my father also talked about. I think this was seen as simply a part of the battle, a necessary function of “cleaning up” the battlefield, an obvious hygienic mandate. The taking of body parts from individual dead, for collection and display, was a much more personal act however, and was seen by many of the more mature combatants as unnecessarily savage. The young Marines had only recently been trained to overcome one of the most powerful taboos of our society, that against the taking of life. This was a necessary part of preparing for survival in war, but with their short life experience it may have been difficult for them to balance this new “freedom” with more nuanced moral considerations. Middle-aged men like my father, for instance, had lived complex lives, observed or been touched by death in some form or other, and had developed their own moral framework to help them incorporate this powerful, new experience.

I asked my new friend if he had ever heard the Marine saying that my father had quoted to me; “don’t ever hit a Seabee. . .” and he stopped me and finished, “yeah, he may be some Marine’s grandfather.” He shared some of his other memories of the time, mainly the heat, the lack of fresh water, the hygienic and aesthetic by-products of wearing the same clothes through six weeks of combat. His final thought on his experience with the Seabees was that, “you know, sometimes it was like fighting the war in front of your father.”

The Li’l Old Man in Albany seemed to be a nice sort, mellow, friendly and gentle in his old age. I’m sure at eighteen he had seemed a nice, normal kid. I hope that some day in the future his children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren will not go into a dark attic corner, open a moldy, scarred foot locker and find, under old, moth-balled uniforms, black and white photos, and pieces of coral and volcanic rock, a glass jar filled with gold teeth.