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thedrifter
02-16-07, 09:22 AM
Article published Feb 16, 2007
'An inch from desertion'
Niles' Iwo Jima battle veteran recalls a close encounter with Mother Earth, digging for his life

NILES

It was as close to Mother Earth as Robert Thibodeaux had ever been. "I presume I was about an inch from desertion. I dug down as far as I could,'' the 82-year-old Niles man said, recalling his predicament Feb. 19, 1945, when he and some 30,000 fellow Marines hit the beach on Iwo Jima.

The Marines were intent on securing the island's airfields, and the Japanese defenders, deeply entrenched in tunnels, were just as intent on holding on to them.

A native of Branch, La., Thibodeaux had observed his 20th birthday just two months before. Iwo would be his first, and last, action of World War II, yet he said he wasn't scared as he watched the ripples surface near his landing craft.

Believing initially the ripples were from fish, he said they actually were created by enemy shells."I was wondering what was going on, what would happen next. I didn't really think about the gravity of the situation,'' he said.

A machine gunner with the 5th Division of the 28th Marine Regiment, Thibodeaux dashed to the fringe of the island's foliage and dug furiously into the volcanic ash. In short order, he had some of the terrain on top of him as well.

"That afternoon, something hit behind me. ... It was a phosphorous shell that hadn't gone off. If it had, I wouldn't be here today,'' he said.

He said he remained in the foxhole two days, helping plug the Marines' last line of protection in the assault. Occasionally, he left his position, at one point attempting to strike up a conversation with a fellow Marine.

"This guy was lying there ... so I reached over and my hand got wet. It was full of blood,'' he said. "I got scared then. I realized this is dangerous.''In the early stages of the 35-day battle, Thibodeaux took a position at the base of Mount Suribachi. As he sprayed machine gun fire up and down the mountain, attempting to kick up smoke from a pillbox so it could be pinpointed by artillery, he realized the Marines were in for a long fight.

"I lost faith in the 8-inch guns on the ships when I saw one of the shells ricochet

Lou Mumford

Mum's the WordLou Mumford is a Tribune columnist.

off a Japanese pillbox. Those things were 18 inches thick,'' he said.

He said his respect for the Japanese soldiers deepened as the battle continued.

"When they were given an order, they either fulfilled that command or they died trying,'' he said. "The only ones that surrendered were when we'd run over their pillboxes and they'd have no other way out. Either they'd come out or we burned them out.

"Those flamethrowers, the Japanese ... they feared those more than anything.''More than 20,000 of the roughly 22,000 Japanese soldiers on the island paid the ultimate price for their stand. The Marines lost nearly 7,000 men and had another 19,189 wounded. The engagement marked the only battle of World War II in which Allied forces had more casualties (killed and wounded) than the Japanese.

After serving in Japan as part of the Allied occupying force, Thibodeaux returned to the United States. He ended up in Niles after finding work at the former Bendix plant in South Bend.

It was at Bendix where he met his wife of 57 years, Betty. A mother of four, Betty said her husband seldom talks about his war experiences.

Thibodeaux agreed the war isn't his favorite subject.

"I think this is the most I've talked about it since I've been back,'' he said.He said he saw Clint Eastwood's movie "Flags of Our Fathers,'' finding it realistic, but he hasn't seen its sister film, "Letters From Iwo Jima,'' that provides the Japanese perspective. "Flags of Our Fathers'' brought back memories, few of them pleasant.

"I wouldn't give you a million dollars for my experience, but I wouldn't give a plug nickel to go again,'' he said.

Ellie