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09-10-09, 10:43 AM
Montgomery Life > News
Catholic War Veterans keep history alive

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

By Keith Phucas

Peter Stefanek had cheated death in bloody Pacific island battles that claimed the lives of thousands of young men his age during World War II, but sensing his time was short because of cancer, he finally talked about his wartime experiences in the last weeks of his life.

Stefanek, who died July 12, was 88. He lived in Norristown for many years and was a member of the Catholic War Veterans Post 1182.

Though a Norristown resident, Stefanek grew up in western Pennsylvania. As a teenager, he worked a factory job in Cleveland but quit to join the Marines Corps on a dare from his boss just before World War II, he said during an interview recorded for DVD just two months before he died.

The horrific battles he survived in the Marshall Islands, Tinian, Saipan and Iwo Jima would transform his youthful innocence and earn him The Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star. Stefanek was wounded fighting Japanese soldiers during the bloody battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

During the “island hopping” in the Pacific during the war, Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Marianas fell to American forces in summer 1944, according to u-s-history.com The capture of the Marianas, and later Iwo Jima, provided fixed air bases for B-29 Superfortress aircraft that would launch attacks on Japan and surrounding islands.

On Saipan, Stefanek’s Fifth Marine Division was slow to advance under relentless enemy fire, and many men were killed.

“We were supposed to go the first day 500 yards,” he said. “But we didn’t go 500 yards in three days.”

The Japanese artillery raining down on the marines when they landed on the island’s beach made forward movement nearly impossible and took a terrible toll.

“They had us pinned down,” he said. “I guess we lost half our men in the first three days.”

During the first two weeks on Saipan, 1,474 killed were killed, 7,400 wounded and 878 went missing, according to u-s-history.com. Nearly 2,000 more Americans died before the island siege ended and another 6,000 were wounded. Many perished during a last, suicidal Japanese counterattack on July 7.

On Feb. 19, 1945, the Marine Corps’ Third, Fourth and Fifth divisions landed on the volcanic island Iwo Jima at 8:59 a.m. A total of 70,000 marines charged the sandy beaches against an opposing force of 27,000 Japanese.

That came after 10 weeks of bombing from carrier-based planes and medium bombers. But the troops were bombarded with artillery the enemy hid in a vast underground network of caves and tunnels in Mount Suribachi, high above the beaches.

The American effort concentrated on capturing Suribachi first, a goal that was achieved on Feb. 23, 1945, four days after the battle began, and on that day raised the American flag seen in the famous photograph, according to the online history site.

Stefanek, who recalled lying in “red water” of human blood for about five hours after being hit with machine gun fire, described the battle as “complete barbarism. It was just terrible.”

He and fellow Marines were trying to knock out an enemy fortification, or “pill box,” when a grenade landed at his feet.

“I froze, and my jacket and everything was full of holes,” he said. “I gave myself morphine.”

Stefanek said some of the explosive fragments remained in his arm until this year.

“In fact, they took some shrapnel out a couple months ago before I took an MRI,” he said.

By the end of the three-week battle to secure Iwo Jima, 6,281 U.S. troops and more than 20,000 Japanese were killed.

Marines had prepared to invade Japan’s mainland, but Aug. 6, 1945, a U.S. plane dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Three days later, Nagasaki was bombed. Soon after, the Japanese surrendered.

Stefanek lived on East Brown Street in Norristown before moving to Brightview assisted living home after being diagnosed with cancer.

His late wife Doris B. Stefanek died Feb. 10, 2008 at 86. She had the distinction of being the first female drill sergeant in the Marine Corp.

Guy Anhorn, who videotaped Stefanek this spring on DVD, learned that his picture was on the wall of the National Museum of the Marine Corps and in the book, “Flags of Our Fathers.”

Though the veteran had been reluctant to talk about the war for years, with the urging of his nephew Ted Monaco, a retired Navy captain, he agreed to share his story with Anhorn for the Veterans’ History Project.

Anhorn said Stefanek earned medals for carrying the survivors of his squad back to safety after a voracious firefight that left many dead.

Besides nephew Ted Monaco, brother-in-law Tony Monaco and another nephew, Chris Monaco, live in the local area. Stefanek’s grandson, U.S. Army Sgt. Michael J. Alfonse, recently returned from Iraq.