View Full Version : Sea Story: "Sparky"

03-15-03, 12:43 PM
By Richard Roberts
July 9, 1998

Fellow Marine Melvin "Sparky" Sharp and I had both been wounded in two different deadly battles in the Pacific. Sparky had lost both eyes in the devastating invasion of Iwo Jima. And I had lost my front teeth climbing up a cliff, by a Jap hobnailed boot that kicked my teeth out, just as I reached the top on an Okinawa cliff. This took place a few weeks after Iwo Jima. The sands of Iwo Jima was Sparky's one and only battle experience in the Marine Corps, and was the single bloodiest engagement of WW2 for the Marines, with 6,821 Marines and attached Navy personnel killed and 19,217 wounded. This means that approximately one out of every three Marines landing on Iwo became a casualty. Sparky was one of them. Full of **** and vinegar and a great desire for action, he had entered the Corps as a teenager like many thousands of others. With the usual fear of the unknown and anticipated adventure, the Attack Transport carried Sparky toward the meat-grinder of Iwo.

I first met Sparky at Sawtell Vets Hospital in Los Angeles after I left the Corps. Sparky was about to have another operation on his face while I had to get a new bridge for my front teeth and a bone splinter removed from my jaw that was driving me crazy. Sparky was still very much beat up but full of determination and spunk. There was no other name for this Marine but Sparky. It fit him perfectly. Even his sightless eyes seemed to sparkle. The moment he came into your presence you could hardly resist his contagious liveliness and humble charm.

Sparky made it through the first night of deadly horror, in which 566 Marines and Navy Corpsmen lay dead or dying on the invasion beach. Robert Sherwood, combat correspondent, described Iwo "The first night on Iwo can only be described as a nightmare in hell." Sparky was a 60mm mortar crewman that fought doggedly inland against fanatical Japanese resistance. An incoming Jap mortar shell accurately and very effectively knocked out the mortar Sparky served. He and several others were latterly knocked off their feet and blown through the air. Iwo's "nightmare in hell" for Sparky became a
personal agony, as he lay mangled and covered by the now blood-black sand. His whole body from the waist up was one agonizing mass of pitted, bloody wounds. The shock of his extensive wounds caused him to dazedly pass in and out of consciousness. A Corpsman reached him and at first thought him to be dying and beyond repair. The Corpsman gasped audibly when he saw Sparky's face and upper body. He almost turned away to tend other wounded but something told him to stay. He then went to work.

When I first met Sparky in the hospital, I couldn't take my eyes off his face. Small black pits pockmarked his face and neck. The bursting shell had driven the black volcanic sand well into his skin. It was as if a drunken tattoo artist hand gone to work indiscriminately making his needle marks. For about a year the surgeons removed as much of the imbedded black sand and shrapnel as possible. The strong will of a determined man that must survive surged in his blood. Through innumerable transfusions and surgeries over the ensuing months he slowly regained strength and emotional confidence in the midst of his dark world. Both eyes were so badly damaged that they had to be removed in time. He was fitted with two prostheses that looked very natural. The dark brown color of those was so realistic that only his head tipped back to laugh, gave away his secret of darkness. During his long stay in the hospital, and in between operations and the learning of Braille, he attends church. He fell in love with and made plans to marry a girl named Nancy.

He asked me to be best man. I also had the privlege of making up their wedding rings. The big day came. Sparky and I spent some time reading a portion of the Holy Bible and then prayed together. As I guided him down the aisle to become one with a girl he would never see, I thanked God for the privilege of knowing this physically sightless, but faith-filled, vibrant human being. His hope, courage and enthusiasm were contagious. In 1950 I moved to the Puget Sound Area. I kept track of Sparky through a mutual friend, Bob Carlson, who was also in and out of the Vets hospital for cancer treatment.

One day in1952 a letter came from Bob of Sparky's health slipping badly. Seems his tragic lot was to continue to suffer, but our perspective on suffering is often not the same as God's. As soon as I could get the funds together and arrange for a few days off I headed back to Los Angeles. My mother drove me over to the vet's hospital. I wasn't sure of the exact condition of my old buddy Sparky, but geared myself for the worst. I was not wrong in doing that. An orderly took us to the ward and led us to the sun porch at the far end. Sparky was in a wheelchair. He made no response to my greeting, just faced blankly straight ahead. The battle of Iwo Jima was slowly finishing its deadly business.

The slivers of shrapnel and the grains of volcanic sand that had taken out his eyes and disfigured his skin had also minutely pierced his brain. Spinal meningitis had struck, almost taking his life. In the process it had claimed some of his brain functions, mainly his speech and memory. Could this be the same vibrant, tough, sightless comrade that I once knew so well? He was not wearing his familiar dark brown, plastic eyepieces. There was no need for them now. Sparky was grossly overweight. I was dazed and had a difficult time accepting the changes that had come into my buddy's life. I felt hopeless and humanly helpless for Sparky. There was no way we could communicate. Could there be any way I could reach this friend who had vegetated to such a pitiful condition?

As I spoke to him again, I took his right hand for a prolonged handshake. Slowly his left hand came over to grasp my hand also. His head started to rise and he tried his best to speak, but only made unintelligible sounds. However I knew behind those layers of darkness there were some shadows of recognition and response. My broken heart both rejoiced and despaired. I knew very possibly I that would never see Sparky again. I opened my Bible and read several passages to him including the 23rd Psalm "Yea, though I walk through the Valley of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me, thy rod thy staff a they comfort me." Sparky gripped my hand hard. I felt that down in the depths of his darkness this message had touched his soul.

As I said goodbye to my old buddy to return home toTacoma, I hugged him again and he squeezed my hand. Sparky's walk through the valley of the shadow of death was a painful, lonely, weary and prolonged one. It led him to face God and accept him, whom he loved despite the darkness in the shadows of the valley.

Today, I can't recall which of the valiant Marine divisions Sparky served in, the 3rd, 4th and 5th that made up the Fifth Amphibious Corps. He represented the uncommon valor of all Marines who, dead or living, fought on, in the waters and in the air and land off Iwo Jima.