Englewood man drove landing craft onto Iwo Jima
Sun Herald

Enemy artillery rounds and small-arms fire rained down in the water all around them as they came ashore on "Red Beach," near the base of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, with U.S. Marines. Seaman/3rd Milt Alligood manned the steel ramp in the bow of the plywood Higgins Boat.

He lowered it as the leathernecks charged from their landing craft into the mouth of hell.

"We arrived off Iwo Jima at 3 a.m. Feb. 19 aboard the attack transport USS Rutland loaded with thousands of Marines from the 5th Marine Division," the 80-year-old Englewood Beach resident said. "We put our Higgins Boats over the side and began loading the Marines into them at 5 a.m. for the 30-minute trip ashore."

The leathernecks went over the side of the attack transport and climbed down cargo nets into the landing craft bobbing gently alongside the mother ship.

The boat held 36 solemn-faced Marines in battle dress carrying their M-1 rifles and wearing their steel helmets.

"We circled around out there with lots of other landing craft filled with Marines until we got the flag to head for shore. Our destination 'Red Beach,' the worst beach there," Alligood said.

He was part of the Higgins Boat's four-man crew. There was a coxswain at the wheel of the landing craft, two gunners on twin machine guns in the stern and Alligood, who manned the winch that raised and lowered the steel bow ramp.

"We reached the beach, I dropped the ramp, and the Marines charged off our Higgins Boat into sand that looked like coffee grounds. They had a hard time getting past the beach because of the dark sand," he said.

There were many landing craft disgorging thousands of Marines at the same time onto the slopping beach. In the chaos, explosions, noise and death, Alligood realized sea water was gushing through a hole a foot in diameter that had smashed through the side of his wooden boat as it rested on the enemy shore.

"I told the coxswain I'd take care of the problem. I was just an 18-year-old kid, but I stuffed a bunch of life preservers down into that hole and stood on them to keep them there," he said. "When we got back to our ship and told the officer of the deck about our problem, he took our boat aboard the Rutland, repaired the damage with a piece of plywood in about an hour."

"We went back to the beach with another load of Marines. On our return trip to the ship we had a load of wounded Marines on stretchers," he said. "I was holding this wounded Marine in my arms. He said, 'Light me a cigarette, will you?'

"He took a couple of puffs on the cigarette and died in my arms. That can turn an 18-year-old into an old man in a hurry."

During one of their trips to the beach they realized a wrecked ship up on the beach held a Japanese artillery spotter. The enemy soldier was calling in targets for concealed enemy gunners hidden in caves on Mount Suribachi.

"We told our captain when we returned to our ship. He requested a rocket attack. Our fighter planes blew the old ship to bits and with it the enemy spotter," he said.

For eight days sailors from the USS Rutland's Higgins Boats took Marines and supplies to "Red Beach" during the height of the initial assault on Iwo Jima and returned with wounded Marines. Although 11 of her landing craft were lost in the invasion and several of her beach party sailors were wounded, none was killed.

On Feb. 27 the Rutland left Iwo Jima and sailed for Saipan, 700 miles away. She loaded part of the Army's 10th and 27th Divisions and headed for Okinawa. The battle for Okinawa began April 1, 1945 -- Easter Sunday morning -- and continued for 82 days. It was the largest Pacific island battle in which American forces fought Japanese defenders.

The Rutland's Higgins Boats took a beating from enemy mortars during the fight for Tsugen Jima, a small enemy-occupied island on the east side of Okinawa. After this battle, the Rutland and its landing craft began preparing for the invasion of Japan.

"We were headed for Japan aboard the Rutland when they dropped the big egg on Hiroshima. We learned about it aboard ship," Alligood said.

"When we sailed into Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, the day of the surrender, we unloaded troops from the 1st Cavalry Division at Yokohama. The battleship Missouri was already there.

"As we were taking the second boatload of soldiers into the dock, (Hideki) Tojo, the Japanese prime minister, came out in a little open boat headed for the surrender ceremony aboard the Missouri. I could have hit him with a baseball he was so close," Alligood said.

"The war was all quite an experience," the old sailor said as he sat at his dining room table looking at a miniature, bronze reproduction of the second flag raising on Iwo Jima.

You can e-mail Don Moore at moore@sun-herald.com.