Iwo Jima, Thursday, 15 March 1945
It was the Ides of March, on which Julius Caesar died. Almost twenty centuries later, another warrior was wounded.
Only two of the original forty-seven men in Hudson’s platoon were present at the end of the battle. Hudson wasn’t one of them. The platoon was near Tachiwa Point on the last day of the Fourth Division’s battle; the ocean was only a short sprint away. It was while finishing off the last Japanese strong point in the Fourth Division’s zone that Private First Class William Hudson was wounded by grenade shrapnel. He became his unit’s last casualty.
They were within a hundred yards of the ocean when it happened; they could see the water, and Martinez told them their battle would be over when they got to the ocean. He challenged them to get down there and get it over with.
Hudson saw a gun emplacement firing off to his right, saw a machine gun kill four men, and realized from where he was, he could see into the back part of the emplacement.
Laying down his BAR, he took two grenades, sneaked up behind the emplacement, and threw in a grenade. A Japanese soldier came out of the hole, looked at Hudson, and threw a grenade at him. Hudson ducked into a slight depression, and the Japanese grenade landed a few feet from his head. “I heard the grenade I had thrown go off and I knew that I put the machine gun out of commission. But I also knew that I was lying next to a bundle of explosion, but I was too amazed to move.”
American and Japanese grenades were different, and the differences probably saved Hudson’s life. American grenades had a pin to pull; the Marine would throw the grenade and hope it went far enough away. The Japanese grenade was detonated by hitting the firing pin on a hard object, often the soldier’s helmet. “When we heard a distinct clank, we knew a grenade would be thrown and we quickly took cover.” The Japanese grenade was less powerful and had more explosive than shrapnel; its effect was more of a concussive blow.
Hudson sat and counted the seconds until the Japanese grenade went off. When it exploded, the blast went mostly above him. Shrapnel hit him in the wrist, upper arm, and the back of his neck. But he didn’t know yet that he was wounded.
Hudson also didn't know that he was temporarily deaf. He had one more grenade, so he threw it in the bunker, and when it went off he knew that anybody still in there must be dead. Then a corpsman came up to him and he realized he must be wounded, though he was still in no pain. But the battle of Iwo Jima was over for him.
The corpsman bandaged Hudson’s arm and wrist and wrapped a bandage around his neck. The corpsman told Hudson he’d be going back to the field hospital and put Hudson on a jeep that was already carrying another wounded Marine. Despite morphine and shock, Hudson was now in a lot of pain.
I was going to tell the corpsman how much I hurt, but there was another Marine on the jeep who had a severe abdominal wound. He was moaning in pain, and after I saw how badly he was hit, I didn’t say another word.
By this point in the battle, those hurt badly enough to need a real hospital could be evacuated by air. But on his arrival at the field hospital, Hudson was able to walk in. Another corpsman put a new dressing on his wounds and told him they would leave the shrapnel in for now since it didn’t look that bad. Then he told Hudson to lie down on a cot and get some sleep.
For the first time in a month, Hudson could peacefully sleep, knowing he was safe, and alive. Though he wasn't sure how much he was wounded, and he couldn't talk, and things in his mouth felt loose, and he was still having hearing problems, his main feeling was relief. He had survived; he was okay.
That night, about sixty Japanese tried an escape from the pocket Hudson had been fighting, and failed. Failure seemed to break their spirit. Across much of the island, more Japanese were behind American lines than in front, so at night Marines still shot first and asked questions later.
Excerpts are from Fighting the Unbeatable Foe: Iwo Jima and Los Alamos, now republished as a 75th anniversary edition in paperback and Kindle.