Hell on Iwo Jima – One Marine’s Story
This personal account by Alvin B. Orsland of the fighting on Iwo Jima originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Armchair General magazine. We reproduce it here to supplement the stories of other Marines whose World War II experiences will be the focus of The Pacific, an HBO miniseries that premiers March 14.
I’ll never forget a major who was speaking to us midway through our US Marine Corps basic training in California in the summer of 1944 saying. “You might think this is child’s play, but you better be prepared because it won’t be many months and you’ll be over there doing the real thing.” We all laughed at that. A few months later, we found ourselves in “the real thing” on Iwo Jima and the laughing stopped.
I was 18 when I enlisted in the Marines on June 15, 1944, two weeks after graduating from high school. Earlier, a whole group from our football team went to Seattle and saw the movie Tarawa [the Marine Corps documentary on the bloody 1943 invasion]. Oh boy, we were “gung ho.” Three of us joined up and were sent to San Diego for boot camp. The training was fantastic, we just didn’t have enough of it. There was such a hurry to start the men—the boys, really—to the war.
In November, we were sent to Hilo, Hawaii, for more training at Camp Tarawa. Then, on January 7, 1945, we shipped out to the invasion staging area at Saipan. On February 17, we left for Iwo and arrived on D-Day, February 19. The 28th Marine Regiment on our ship was sent in immediately, but we stayed aboard. We were held back as the island couldn’t take three full divisions at once.
The top brass told us it would be “all over in 72 hours.” Sure enough, at D+4 at 10:35 a.m., as I looked anxiously from our ship to the barren, heavily shelled island, we saw Old Glory being raised on the highest point, Mt. Suribachi. “That’s it!” we thought, “We’ve done it! Got those bastards licked!”
Everybody started screaming and whooping it up, thinking the battle was over, just like the brass had promised. A fellow next to me gushed, “Boy, we’re going in and sightsee!” I never saw him again after we landed.
We landed on D+5, February 24, and the beach was a mess of wreckage. There was still a lot of Japanese shelling but it wasn’t accurate. We spent several days on the beach, unloading ammunition and pulling guard duty. Then, some of us were “volunteered” to replace the 5th Marine Division Graves Registration unit whose personnel had nearly all been killed. This was one of the most horrendous things I ever faced. We placed the corpses of dead Marines into body bags and put them into trenches dug by big bulldozers. We would pick up fellows by the arms and, suddenly, you’d be left holding only an arm. We’d try to pick them up by their legs, and you’d be left holding only a leg. It wasn’t much fun.
On March 9, things were so bad at the front that they sent us up to the 5th Marine Division and I joined H Company, 26th Regiment. I spent 30 days on Iwo Jima, 15 of them in combat with H Company. There are so many memorable and moving, sad and horrific experiences that my H Company buddies and I had in that awesome battle. One thing that had a profound effect on me was the unrelenting, nauseating smell of putrid sulfur permeating the island. The sulfur smell was everywhere, a bad omen and constant reminder that this stark place was a waiting graveyard on the road to Hell.
Eerily, there were few visible signs of enemy life on Iwo and we seldom saw a live Japanese, although I saw an awful lot of dead ones. We had no targets to shoot at—all we could do was fire in the direction from where we thought enemy fire was coming. Fortunately, we had tank support with us, and the tanks’ flamethrowers proved highly effective in incinerating the well dug-in Japanese defenders. I discovered that crawling under a tank was a good way to escape the deadly fire. The noise was terrible, but it beat the alternative.
One incident stands out in my combat experience. I had crawled into this Japanese-held draw and was down there an hour our two, when I called out to my left and right to check who was there with me. No answer. “Holy Moses,” I realized, I was out there alone!
I zig-zagged back up the hill, enemy fire zinging all around me, then jumped into the first foxhole I came to. Inside were several of our new replacements, barely trained and hurriedly rushed into combat. I yelled at them, “Where’s my contact?” But, they were so green that they didn’t know our lives depended upon us covering each other at all times.
I was lucky to leave Iwo on March 26 with only a small nick on my finger from a Jap grenade and a twisted knee and ankle. Most of my buddies in H Company, 26th Marine Regiment weren’t so fortunate. Of the 365 Marines (including replacements) who fought on Iwo with H Company, only 36 were not killed or wounded in the 36 days the company was on the island. I dedicate this narrative to them.
Alvin B. Orsland lives in Camano Island, Washington. Orsland was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1946; in 1948, he purchased a successful sporting goods store which, when he retired in 1992, had expanded to five retail outlets.