Marines more than comrades
Cox News Service

Sunday, October 22, 2006

PALM BEACH, Fla. United States Marines, Joseph Dryer Jr. will tell you, are more than comrades in arms.

They are brothers, members of a close-knit, well-disciplined family. And members of that family make incredible sacrifices to serve their country and protect one another.

Dryer, a 45-year resident of Palm Beach, is pleased that Clint Eastwood has directed a film that will educate generations unfamiliar with the World War II battle of Iwo Jima, one of the fiercest, bloodiest battles the Marines ever faced.

On the eve of the release of that film, "Flags of Our Fathers," Dryer cannot share memories with any of his Marine buddies. Of the friends he landed with, all but Dryer and one other man were killed on that tiny island.

"Flags of Our Fathers," which opened Friday, tells the story of the battle and in particular, of the six U.S. servicemen five Marines and one Navy corpsman who were immortalized by a single snap of a camera shutter.

Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning image of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, became an indelible symbol of the Marines' victory on the craggy, 8-square-mile island. The win was a key moment in the Pacific campaign and foreshadowed Japan's surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.

From the invasion of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, through March 26 of that year, about 70,000 Marines scoured the island to rout an enemy that was frantic to defend its territory.

Operation Detachment, initiated by heavy Air Force and Navy shelling of the island, was waged to take control of Iwo Jima and its airfields. The island is about 670 miles south of Tokyo.

Capturing Iwo Jima would give U.S. fighter and bomber planes an emergency refueling site during long-range attacks on mainland Japan and also would knock out the Iwo Jima radar system.

Though the Japanese forces were outnumbered, their determination to hold Iwo Jima and prevent an invasion of Japan made them deadly opponents. They used the time before the American invasion to train, construct hundreds of protective concrete pillboxes, dig about three miles of tunnels, establish sniper sites and operations in caves, set mines on roads and stockpile food.

The offensive, fought yard by yard, cost the lives of 6,821 members of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions. Some 20,000 other Marines, including Dryer, were wounded. Of the more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers entrenched on the island, 18,000 died.

Twenty-two Marines and five sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroics on Iwo Jima, the most awarded to date for a single battle.

"It is the best example of the Marine Corps' combination of esprit de corps, brotherhood and training that I can think of," Dryer said.

Rosenthal's photograph made celebrities of the six U.S. servicemen who planted the flag on Mount Suribachi. But every Marine who fought in that battle made a tremendous sacrifice, Dryer said.

He recounted memories of Iwo Jima recently in the library of the large, welcoming home he shares with his wife, Nancy.

In his collection of photos is a picture Rosenthal took showing Dryer and a fellow Marine in a foxhole on Iwo Jima. The bodies of Japanese soldiers are visible in the foreground and left side of the photograph.

Though Dryer went on to become a hotel proprietor, stockbroker and automobile security company chairman, Iwo Jima remains a defining moment of his 85 years.

He was 23 when the amphibious units began their invasion. Many of the Marines in the platoon he led were very young, he recalled.

They all feared for their lives, but their training had given them faith in their fighting abilities, Dryer said. The Marines used guns, flame throwers and grenades to flush out and kill their Japanese opponents.

The Marines were on edge day and night because the Japanese snipers were everywhere. Japanese soldiers also made nighttime incursions into the American camps, dropping grenades and firing machine guns. Their orders, Dryer said, were to fight to the death and not be taken captive.

Witnessing the fall of so many of his fellow Marines was a tough psychological hit, Dryer said.

"In the beginning, it takes time to get adjusted to the people you are losing, the friends you are losing," Dryer said.

He saw his colonel's chest ripped open by gunfire. "It was not just seeing it, but it was hearing the rasping of his breath as he was trying to breathe. He was still alive," Dryer said before pausing. "It stayed with you.

"When my battalion landed, we had 33 officers," Dryer said. "Finally, when the sniper shot me through the chest when we were attacking a machine gun, we were down to three."

Dryer was hit by a dum-dum (expanding) bullet from a Japanese sniper on March 17 when he was directing an attack on a machine-gun placement.

"I had shot the guy in the shoulder and he had pulled his machine gun back into the cave. And then I was circling with one arm while I was holding my rifle in a cave to one of my scouts to go up and throw a grenade in the cave," Dryer said.

"I turned and saw (the sniper) looking at me down his rifle barrel. He was behind a big rock. There was no chance to move. He made an absolutely perfect shot. I think he decided I was the officer because I was doing all the signaling.

"Fortunately, his bullet hit my dog tags and locker-box keys and so when the bullet went into my chest, it turned inside and did a right angle turn and exploded out the center instead of going out the heart."

His lungs nearly destroyed, Dryer spent more than a year in military hospitals recovering from the injury, for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. During the few weeks it took a transport ship to get him to the naval hospital in Hawaii, the ship ran out of stored plasma. Healthy sailors donated blood for the wounded.

He credits donations from two sailors, one black, one Jewish, for saving his life.

"If it hadn't been for him I don't think Joe would be with us," said Dryer's brother, Tyrrell "Terry" Dryer of Rochester, N.Y., referring to the black serviceman.

One comfort Dryer had was a secret stash of alcohol, he remembered. After a Japanese bullet damaged the lock on the trunk in which it was stored, it took a bit of work to get the trunk open at the hospital in Honolulu, where he shared stories with fellow officers. But he managed.

"The problem was, how do you get rid of the empty bottles when you are in a hospital room without being discovered?" he laughed.

"The 5th Marine Division, they went ashore pretty early and he was very badly wounded over there," Terry Dryer said of his older brother. "He had a very rough time. They are still picking shrapnel out of him periodically."

"I think it was very admirable. I don't think he would have had it any other way," Terry Dryer said.

Joe Dryer, who rarely talks about his wartime experiences, says the thousands who died in the battle for Iwo Jima sacrificed their lives for the mission and each other.

"It's very hard to imagine someone in Palm Beach, West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale, if they saw a grenade, throwing themselves on top of it so nobody else would be hurt by it, but that was not uncommon" at Iwo Jima, he said. "It's the way people thought. It's training."

It's just what you do for family.

David Rogers writes for The Palm Beach Daily News.