Blue Grass resident served in U.S. Marines at Iwo Jima
By Mary Louise Speer | Saturday, March 17, 2007

Battleship guns boomed and bombers thundered overhead as some 30,000 Marines from the 3rd, 4th and 5th divisions took to the beaches on the east side of Iwo Jima, a tiny island occupied by Japanese Imperial Army forces.

The date was Feb. 19, 1945, and World War II veteran Robert McClean of Blue Grass, Iowa, was among the U.S. Marines designated to help wrestle control of Iwo Jima away from the Japanese. The troops were ferried to the island in wave-buffeted landing craft for a ground battle that would last a little more than a month. McClean was with F Battery, 2nd Battalion, a unit dispatched to deliver ammunition for howitzers.

“No one had their heads up very far,” he said. “Two guys and I spent the night in a Caterpillar tractor.”

During the next month, his main focus was on staying alive. The barren island’s surface was mainly volcanic rock and ash, and the Marines found it difficult or simply impossible to dig foxholes.

“During that time, I worried more about finding the next K-ration (meal) rather than clothes,” he said. He did receive a clean pair of socks, his first since February, after getting off the island March 17.

Unbeknownst to the Americans, Japanese forces under the direction of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi had spent several months building a complex set of fortifications and miles of underground tunnels to defend their positions.

Estimates on the number of Marines at Iwo Jima vary between 70,000 to 110,000. According to a Web site devoted to Iwo Jima,, it was the largest number of Marines dispatched to any single battle during the war. They faced 22,000 Japanese who had been ordered to maintain control of the island located 522 miles south of Tokyo.

“Iwo Jima was the worst battle the Marines ever had,” veteran John Goodall of Bettendorf said. He fought in four Pacific Theater campaigns, including Iwo Jima and Saipan.

The battle’s fame was assured with the taking and publication of a photograph of Marines triumphantly raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island. Interest has been renewed with the recent release of two Clint Eastwood films dealing with the battle, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

Iwo Jima’s beach was divided into sections, and the 4th Marine Division was assigned to go in on the yellow and blue sectors. It was about 8 a.m. when Goodall, who was aboard a ship, saw a teletype message sending him and others to shore. The group climbed down the side of the ship on ropes and boarded a small landing craft for the short trip. Fortunately, the coxswain was able to get the front of the craft up so they could walk out onto dry land, he said.

He recalls seeing a dead Marine who wore boots the same size as his own and being glad he was still alive. The group ran up on the beach, carrying their gear, which included a canteen of water and rations for each man. They ended up taking shelter in a tank and stayed put for about 2½ days.

“We were all so happy to be in that tank where we wouldn’t get killed. How I made it through, I don’t know,” Goodall said.

Sleeping on a battlefield was a challenge. Some men assembled sandbags and made a kind of wall to give themselves protection from gunfire. “As long as they didn’t hit you, everything went pretty well,” McClean said.

Once in awhile, the comrades in arms found something to laugh about, he said. “One of the guys had part of a board at Iwo Jima and he had on it: ‘I wish I was home,’ ” McClean said. “I just saw it that one time. It was blown into toothpicks, same as anything else, I suppose.”

The ground battle for Iwo Jima ended March 26, 1945. The conflict resulted in the deaths of 6,825 Americans and many more injured. Nearly 21,000 of the estimated 22,000 Japanese stationed there died.

McClean’s war service also included time on Saipan, located in the Marianas Islands. U.S. troops from the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions battled the Japanese on that island from June 15 to July 9, 1944.

Although he made it home without suffering any injuries, he always knew death was only a few finger-lengths away at any given moment.

McClean shared in the surge of jubilation and relief when news of Japan’s formal surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, reached the troops. He had survived the war and would go home.

“I was always happy that (President) Harry (Truman) dropped the (nuclear) bomb. I’m not happy that a lot of people died,” he said.

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The Gung Ho Gang

Robert McClean and John Goodall belong to the Gung Ho Gang of Marines who fought in World War II and Korean War. The group meets once a month to eat breakfast at Village Inn, Bettendorf, and hash over war memories.

All of them were trained as riflemen, Rod Mooney of Bettendorf said. Some were assigned to units called the Raiders, others to aviation duties, line companies or aboard ships. They fought in famous battles for islands such as Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Iwo Jima and other spots in the Pacific Ocean.

The term “Gung Ho” originated from the 2nd Raider Battalion, said Elmer Mapes of Bettendorf, who is proud to call himself a U.S. Marine Corps Raider. Originally, the phrase meant “to work together.” But that meaning has changed quite a lot through the years. Now, most people interpret it to mean totally “enthused” or “all fixed up,” he added.