Marine Corps, First Lieutenant
Five autobiographical stories written by Walter J.P. Curley:
1. Black Sand
2. Lieutenant Curley Lunches with Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang
3. Fifth Marine Division Lands on Iwo Jima
4. Iwo Jima: Flushing the Japanese Out of Caves
5. Preparations for the Japanese Surrender in Northern China as Aide-de-Camp to Gen. Arthur Worton
1. Black Sand
At 0430 on February 19 we pulled on our dungarees, piled into the mess for steak and eggs, and went topside to watch the preliminary bombardment of our target. The noise of it filled the ship. There was no talk; everyone had his own thoughts. A scene of force, of power, of vast preparation unfolded. We were awestruck and deafened by the ceaseless explosions and intense drama: dive bombers, strafing, pounding naval gunfire, planes firing rockets, rocket-support ships, and ships, ships, ships—as far as we could see.
Bombing of the beach areas let-up, and at 0930 our first assault waves began, heading in landing craft towards the southwest shore of Iwo Jima. At 1030 my boat team went over the side and down the rope netting to our landing craft. We circled the rendezvous area for an hour, and hit the beach at noon. No insignia of rank was worn by any officers or noncoms. We knew the enemy habitually tried to kill any leaders first. I had three squads; I put Platoon Sergeant Brande in charge of the first two squads, I took the other, plus Caraciola as runner. The landing craft ran up onto the beach at full speed. I jumped off the ramp sideways and fell hard on the wet sand.
We spread out and ran twenty-five yards inland. I knew the point of advance where we were to meet the rest of the command post group on our right flank. After our first short advance, we flattened out on the sand. I looked to see where my other squads were before trying to move forward. The beach was being raked by Japanese sniper and mortar fire. Three sniper shots missed my face and threw sand on my head; another creased the left side of my helmet. I jumped into an existing foxhole, landing on a dead, mangled Japanese soldier. There was no time to be nauseated.
I sent Caraciolo to Brande, pointing out our next point of advance. We moved forward another fifty yards, choking on the smoke, dust, and stench of death. The whispery, momentary shoosh preceding detonation of mortar shells, the crackling automatic-rifle fire, the shouting and screaming and growling machines made the world unreal. There were howls of pain and of fear.
Only yards further on, we came to the designated meeting place with Captain Detchon and his team, the mission being to set up the command post. I sent a squad to the edge of Airfield No. 1, another to the right flank, and the third to the left, while the deputy battalion commander, Major Ayrault, and Detchon reconnoitered the chosen position. I had planned on being further in, but heavy fire forced us to stay put: there was no choice. A runner came from the squad on the edge of the airstrip to tell me of casualties in the company. It wrenched my gut. I pulled that squad back to begin digging in, still virtually on the beach.
At 1600 we received a major mortar barrage, and just lay in shell holes, listening, praying, and cursing. The snipers, deadly and invisible, never stopped. When dark came we got into our newly dug foxholes. During the first night hellish mortar and machine-gun fire came at us from Mount Suribachi, five hundred yards off our left flank, the highest point on the island. While digging my foxhole I got hit in the foot by a shard of shrapnel. It pierced the shoe leather, only bruising my ankle. I was exhausted but sleepless. I could hear comrades being slaughtered by the storm of lead and iron. Yells of anguish and fury.
The situation remained bad the next day. We continued to be pinned down on the beach, but started to improve our positions by digging deeper. I sent two squads to hunt snipers in the late morning. The Japanese threw a major bombardment at our position; casualties were heavy. I was dug in immediately in front of some of our tanks and an ammunition dump that the enemy was trying to knock out. They blasted the tanks and finally got the dump. I could not leave my hole because of a sniper in a wrecked plane twenty yards away. I lay waiting for the next shell. We could not move; our landing group was being decimated in the open by mortars and artillery. The mostly invisible enemy was contesting every inch of ground.
The second night the Japs let loose another sustained mortar and artillery bombardment. Shells landed constantly ten yards or less from our foxholes. Elliott Detchon, in a hole near me, shouted into the din and asked if I was as scared as he was. I replied that I was praying like a goddamn saint. A voice from another hole—I thought it was Zimmerman—yelled that he did not know any fucking prayers.
Were we merely expendable creatures? Are we humans? Are we alive or am I dead and in hell? Where are we? I felt profound hatred, and a need to satisfy it. How? When? The war had become a personal affair.
The enemy shelling stopped at 0200 and ours started: naval gunfire, light artillery, planes strafing and shooting rockets—a ceaseless, deafening cacophony of explosion. The Japanese shelled and strafed our landing barges and nearby ships. I saw two of our planes shot down into the sea near us. Evacuation of the wounded to hospital ships had already started. I got some sleep that night.
On February 21 our company continued to be pinned down on the beach; we tried to build the C.P. and improve our own holes. The job of digging out the dead around us had begun. We set up a peripheral defense around the position and waited again. A report came from Intelligence that two prisoners were being brought in: my real job had just started. I took a detail of men and constructed a temporary POW stockade. There was word of more casualties in our company. Terrible news. We waited for the prisoners, who never arrived. That evening we were pounded by another bombardment, and soaked by a bone-chilling rain.
The next day we received the first prisoners: a corporal, wounded in both legs, and prisoner no. 2, burned by a flame-thrower—both in hideous condition. D-2 came to interrogate them. I talked to the prisoners about their wounds and their personal feelings, not successfully. There were more shells and sniper fire that night.
Prisoners no. 1 and 2 were evacuated to hospital ships. On the morning of the fifth day we received Prisoner no. 3, who had slight shrapnel wounds. I talked to him briefly; he was PFC Gunta Murasaka. Another of our planes was shot down, and we got our first air raid. Prisoner no. 4 arrived in the late afternoon—an old sailor who had not eaten in ten days and had had no water for three days. I could not figure out what a sailor was doing there. He was very sick and could not speak. We evacuated him immediately, but he died later.
The area around Airfield No. l being fairly well cleared out, we moved forward to set up a permanent POW stockade in the new location. It had three large pens, two guard pillboxes, and my “sandbag” office. The signal company gave me a field telephone.
On February 24, at around 1000 hours, as we continued to improve the new stockade, a Jap sniper in an abandoned pillbox almost got me—an extremely close call. Three hand grenades dumped into his cement box by a flanking unit eliminated the problem. Prisoner no. 5 was brought in at noon. He also was too feeble to speak and was evacuated immediately. I had some chats with Murasaka, an easygoing sort who looked much older than his thirty-nine years. He had three children, had been a truck driver, lived in Kyushu, and was fed up with the war. He made a cigarette holder for me out of a piece of wood from an ammo box. Murasaka asked me about my tattoo. He thought I had gotten it in China because of the snake and skull. He wondered how long American tattoos last. Another air raid that night kept us hunkered down.
By the end of the first week we had reinforced the stockade. I had more long talks with Murasaka. A Jap sniper dressed in Marine dungarees was killed in our area by some motor transport men. D-2 asked Murasaka if he could talk some of his buddies out of the caves in the hills north of us. He agreed to try.
The stench from the piles of Marine and Jap dead was sickening. Murasaka spoke over the loudspeaker to the ones who were holed up. The only answers were hand grenades and machine-gun fire. We retired to the stockade. The Navy planes, naval gunfire, and our Twenty-eighth Regiment then blasted the hill and later captured it. As a reward for helping us, I had our company barber (and bazooka man) cut Murasaka’s hair.
Prisoner no. #6 had gangrene in his arm and leg. We evacuated him after D-2 had questioned him. POW #7 was too wounded to talk and was also evacuated immediately. The Seabees had landed and were working on Airstrip No. 1.
The enemy, just north and west, unleashed a new and tremendous artillery bombardment. They seemed to prefer nighttime. They hit another ammunition dump close by; we were being rocked by our own detonated shells, plus theirs. My teeth chattered all night. In the new area, I was sharing a double foxhole with Tech Sergeant Volpe from our M.P. company headquarters. The hole held two giant oil drums, four feet underground and reinforced with sand bags; the Japanese had vacated it only two days before. I was sure that Volpe had battle fatigue/shell shock: he jumped at any sound and looked haunted. There were others, in my own platoon, whom I was worried about on that score.
Five more POWs were brought in—Koreans attached to a Japanese labor battalion, who had functioned as unarmed workers. They were pleased to be our prisoners and out of the jurisdiction of Nippon, they said. All were young, healthy and cooperative. Several of our Fifth Division doctors came to examine and interview them about the diseases and sickness on the island. The Koreans were willing to tell us anything of importance. I put them to work around the stockade, building and securing the area. The Japanese and Koreans were kept in different pens. One afternoon, while interrogating the Koreans, I had a happy surprise visit from my Yale roomie Al Hilton, who was with a Third Division signal company located 700 yards from us. He asked me if I had heard from Shirley Temple. One of the prisoners from Seoul said Al and I looked like brothers.
My right arm was hurting like hell at night, only when I lay flat. I could not figure out why.