Iwo Jima, Thursday, 8 March 1945
Regimental Combat Team (RCT) 25 strengthened its defenses while the rest of the division pushed the Japanese toward RCT 25. Rather than give up, the Japanese managed an organized counterattack that night. For night operations, Japanese assault leaders sometimes wore a strong scent so their men could follow even in complete darkness. Waves of Japanese hit the division after two hours of firing, and there was hand-to-hand fighting all over.
In the blur of days that the battle became, there is one time that stands out in Hudson’s memory. Going by surrounding events, this time may have been as early as 26 February or as late as 8 March. Somewhere in there was a night when Hudson’s squad got an unexpected break.
Hudson and his men had had little chance to discuss life and death while trying to survive the battle. This night, there was time for conversation, a talk that defined for Hudson what he was fighting for and what he would live for. Hudson learned that night something formal teaching had never taught him: understanding and respect for people and their different lives and personalities.
After a rainy, cold week, Hudson’s platoon was rearranged to operate more efficiently. Usually a Marine infantry platoon has four squads of thirteen men; what was left of Hudson’s platoon was now combined into two squads of twelve and ten. Martinez promoted Hudson to squad leader, since his squad leader had been shot by a sniper the day before. Hudson was now leading twelve men, and Martinez took the other ten.
Though the majority of the Japanese had been killed during the first week of battle, the Marines had also lost many men. “Our job now,” Hudson recalls, “was to rout the Japs from their holes and caves and secure the island so as to make it safe for the air corps to use little Iwo’s three great landing strips.”
Their first task was to fill a hundred-yard gap between two companies during a banzai attack. At dawn, Hudson checked his men and they started out. They had not moved far when a Nambo machine gun opened up and pinned them down. The first blast didn’t hit anyone, but with the second blast two men right behind Hudson were killed. Seeing where the fire came from, the men on the flank put several bazooka shells right in the machine gun nest. The gun stopped and they continued, minus two men. Hudson was now squad leader for ten men.
By the time they reached the next company, they were spread out too far: “when you spread out ten men over one hundred yards with no heavy firepower you aren’t in any too good a position.” This was one of many times on Iwo Jima when a company didn’t have enough men or weapons to cover the rough terrain for its assigned distance. Sometimes it took two understrength companies to cover what one full company could handle on easier terrain.
Hudson reported to the commander of the next company, and they started their morning push together. After getting the signal to move out, Hudson’s assistant squad leader Charlie started to go. No sooner had he moved than a sniper bullet shot through his head. Now Hudson was leading nine men and they were pinned down again, spreading out more and more.
Determined that one sniper couldn’t hold them down, Hudson got his men moving quickly and staying low, to get to a better position for fighting back. In a few more yards, they came to better terrain. One of the men spotted a mortar crew in a rock formation, and the squad tossed in a few grenades. The grenades scared the Japanese, and they ran one by one across a clearing. The squad shot them one by one. “Morale goes high when you can kill back, and things aren’t all one-sided. We felt pretty good and stayed in their rock foundation until we heard more orders of what to do.” With nine men in the rock shelter, they were “safe as safe could be,” so they waited there for the next move. Contrary to popular opinion shaped by movies, “In combat things go slow and you never know why you have to slow down especially when you are in the mood for moving out and getting the whole mess over with.”
While waiting for orders, Hudson had his men dig two foxholes outside the rock formation and put two sentries in each. The rest of the men stayed in the rock formation and tried to catch up on their sleep between taking turns as lookout.
We waited for the Japs to come again that night, and during the hours of darkness when it’s cold and you are scared, you talk to your buddies and you seem like brothers to each other, because of the intimacy and warmth of knowing you have a friend who has saved your life and guards you while you sleep in a muddy hole that’s not even fit for the land crab that shares it with you.
Outside the rock formation that night, the lines were building up to a solid front, preparing for a bigger push the next day. Inside, Hudson’s squad knew that although this was their best chance since the invasion to get some sleep, with dawn bringing their biggest push so far, this was also probably the last night they would be together. None knew who might have hours and who might have decades to live. So they talked, and “each one had something to say that I’ll always remember as long as I live.”
The statements and the men made an impression lasting over the decades. Other details have faded, such as whether Hudson was leading eight or nine men at this point. Such details were vital in battle, but not important enough to compete for long-term memory when Hudson was physically, spiritually, and mentally drained.
Hudson’s squad, made up of new guys and veterans, older and younger, adventurous and timid, farm and city boys, married and definitely not, reflected the variety found among Marines and among men. Their reactions to the possibility of death also varied widely. Hudson understood fear of death, respecting those who did the job anyway and feeling disdain for the one who didn’t. Combat fatigue made some sense to him, but not cowardice. The talk of the men that night, like last words, had special significance for Hudson. He weighed their words against who they were and who they wanted to be.
Yash was a carefree young Polish boy, unfazed by combat. “He just talked about eating a hot meal again and that seemed all he wanted even though he was almost ten thousand miles from home and not sure whether he would ever get there or not.” Several days later Yash “cracked up and cried like a baby” after seeing another Marine lose his arm.
Carlton was married, with a baby girl. He wanted to go home and quit digging foxholes in hard volcanic rock. He swore he wouldn’t dig in again, and in fact the next day a mortar landed near him and put a fist-sized piece of shell through his shoulder. “He smiled when he was hit and said, ‘I’m going back to my daughter now.’”
Red was much older, in his thirties, a new man in the squad. Hudson thought “the infantry was no place for him. He never said much because he was too afraid.” Yet Hudson called him a good Marine and said he killed over fifteen Japanese in one night raid. Several days later he was killed by a sniper. “The odds sort of go against a man.”
Saint’s nickname came from having a French name, not being a saint. Hudson called him the comedian in the squad, but even the comedian cried when things got tough. On this night he was happy, and talked about his first love affair with a gorgeous blonde back in California. He wasn’t very concerned with the seriousness of fighting; he just wanted to go back and have more love affairs. The shell that hit Carlton also hit Saint—in his abdomen. The squad thought he would die, but, while being carried away on the stretcher, he was able to wave goodbye.
Irish had only been in the Corps for a year. He missed Staten Island more than anything else in the world. He fought hard, one night killing a Japanese soldier with a knife. His hope was to get home and marry his sweetheart, but several days later, a shell landed in his foxhole. “We all thought he would be all right even though his legs were badly injured, but he died on the hospital ship several days later.”
Another man, who will remain nameless for obvious reasons, “was a coward and everyone knew it. Perhaps you can’t condemn a man when he isn’t sure of living or dying, but he was a disgrace to the Marine Corps and everything we believed in.” He lived through the battle by developing a toothache before the big push the next day. He went back to the aid station and stayed until the battle was over.
Whit, from Massachusetts, “was a corporal and a good one too.” He talked about going home, being satisfied, and never complaining about anything anymore. “He thought that just living was wonderful and to be able to sleep just eight hours would be heaven. He got his wish—Whit and I still correspond and I know he sure does appreciate living now.”
John, a big strong man who thrived on adventure, “wanted to get off this rock island and fast.” He told the others what he planned to do in Honolulu with his back pay and a five-day leave after the battle was over. He had lost a brother in France several weeks before and knew he would need to take care of his parents when he got back home to the farm. But he was not able to. “Johnny picked up three machine gun bullets in the chest the very next morning and died in my arms, cursing the Japs for what they did to him.”
Against a background of filth, dirt, and horror shone brotherly love, life lessons, and understanding of what it means to be American. Both the good and the bad were beyond expressing, but Hudson tried:
I haven’t the verbal ability to describe all the fight and horror of war I saw on Iwo Jima. I haven’t the power of expression to make you realize the filth and dirt of living in a hole for a month. And perhaps I am failing in telling you of the story of my group, my men, who trusted in me to lead them in combat, of whom many were killed and many will never be the same because of what happened to them. But I did learn a lesson, a lesson so strong and lasting that it changed my whole way of life. I’ve recovered from my wounds, and overcome all the mental strain that war caused, but it was this group of loyal men who made me realize everything I was fighting for, they gave me the ability to see other persons’ worlds through that person’s own background and experience and sense of values, to respect the rights of others, to help a person when he needs help, and everything that adds up to the American way of life.
Excerpts are from Fighting the Unbeatable Foe: Iwo Jima and Los Alamos, now republished as a 75th anniversary edition in paperback and Kindle.