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10-20-06, 06:50 AM
October 20, 2006

'Thank God for the Marines'

New film ignites memories for Iwo Jima vets
Staff Writer

The three men are in their 80s now and dress in the uniforms of retirees. Battle fatigues long ago gave way to beach and golf attire.

But the memories of Iwo Jima, the courage and carnage, remain vivid more than 60 years later -- on the day a film about the pivotal World War II battle opens nationwide.

"Thank God for the Marines," said Hal Mettee of The Hammock in Flagler County, grasping a souvenir Japanese rifle he brought back from Iwo Jima. "If they hadn't been there, we wouldn't have been here."

The Marines did the brunt of the ground fighting, often hand-to-hand on the front lines. After five weeks, U.S. forces on March 26, 1945, secured the Pacific Island that's 650 miles from Tokyo.

Mettee, John Pinney of Ormond-by-the-Sea and Bud Benham of Spruce Creek Fly-In in Port Orange relish the scrapbooks and mementos from their days in the Army Air Force's 302nd Fighter Control Squadron, where they first helped direct fighter planes from trucks using electronic equipment.

"We just went where we were sent and did what we could," recalled Mettee, a salty character who speaks of his experiences with passion and pride.

Benham, 83, held a copy of Joe Rosenthal's original photograph of victorious Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi. It was the most famous and final of several images, a picture that became the inspiration for the book and film, "Flags of Our Fathers," which opens in theaters today.

Iwo Jima was a spit of land made of volcanic ash.

"They expected it would be easier," said Pinney, 86, of the bloody battle. "The Marines didn't make the rapid advance they expected. I was supposed to land on the fourth day. Instead, it was on the 14th."

Benham initially worked on the landing crafts that transported the Marines from the ships to shore. A couple of days into the battle, he, too, came ashore, facing live fire.

"I was very scared," he recalled.

He slept on the beach the first night, resting his head against canvas in the dark. When he awoke in the morning, he discovered he was lying atop a stack of dead bodies.

His eyes filled with sorrow as he told the story.

Mettee, a "wise-cracking kid" back then, didn't listen to the rules of combat, lighting his pipe while in a foxhole the night he came ashore. A Japanese sniper almost made it Mettee's last smoke.

"He shot the pipe out of my mouth. Wham, it broke the stem right off," he recalled laughing. "I dug the slug out, heated it with a Zippo, and used the metal casing to join the stem together."

Iwo Jima became a critical base in what was going to be the major invasion of Japan.

"We were waiting for the second shoe to drop," said Pinney of the days after capturing Iwo Jima.

It never came. Two atomic bombs ended the war.

Having had clearance as a photographer, Mettee, 81, said in the months that followed he took pictures in the Iwo Jima cemetery of the crosses that marked the grave of every American soldier, mailing a copy to family members.

"Thousands of graves. I wrote until my hand cramped," he said. "I did every one I could identify, letting them know, 'This is where your son is buried.' "

Mettee, Pinney and Benham plan on seeing Clint Eastwood's film about Iwo Jima either this week or when it goes to DVD. They hope the movie educates younger generations about D-Day in the Pacific.

"There were no civilians on Iwo Jima, so the impact wasn't like in Europe," Pinney said of the countless books and films that followed the Normandy invasion.

Mettee added: "The war in the Pacific didn't get the same media coverage, other than Pearl Harbor. It was almost a second war."

But even now for these men, no film can have the impact of surviving Iwo Jima.

"I can summarize the experience for me in one sentence," Benham said. "It made me glad to be an American in a free society and reverse the wrong the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor."


Iwo Jima chronology

Feb. 19, 1945: U.S. Marines land after 10 weeks of bombing from carrier-based planes and medium-range bombers. An estimated 70,000 Marines are available for the invasion against 21,000 Japanese infantrymen.

Feb. 23: First units reach top of Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island. Patrol led by Lt. Harold Schreir raises a small flag there. Later a larger flag brought from a landing ship tank is raised. Associated Press Photographer Joe Rosenthal snaps an image that quickly becomes famous worldwide and later is described as reflecting "the soul of a nation."

March 26: Island declared secure.

Battle toll: 6,821 American soldiers killed and another 19,217 wounded. An estimated 20,000 Japanese men killed.

Source: www.iwojima.com

Did You Know?

Some of the most memorable photographs may never have been taken, except for a twist of fate and some human persistence:

"You never knew what you got on film," Joe Rosenthal would say. On that day at Iwo Jima, Rosenthal captured a moment that would win a Pulitzer Prize. One reviewer claimed "Rosenthal's camera recorded the soul of a nation." Rejected as a military photographer by both the Army and the Navy because of impaired eyesight, Rosenthal was eventually sent to the Pacific by the Associated Press (AP).

Jack Thornell, another Pulitzer prize-winning photographer, was accepted in the Army but was sent by mistake to photography school instead of his intended assignment -- radio repair school. After leaving the army, Thornell worked for the AP, covering such assignments as Mississippi's first day of school desegregation. He won the Pulitzer in 1966 for his photo of the shooting of Civil Rights leader James Meredith .

Carol Guzy, the only female photographer to win three Pulitzers, originally trained to be a nurse. She realized she wanted to be a photojournalist when she received a camera as a gift. Today she is known for her photographs of the people of Haiti and Kosovo.

Compiled by News Researcher Helen Morey

SOURCES: www.newseum.org