Memorial Day Memories – John Vernon Combs

My father’s uncle, Vernon, served in the military during WWII.  He fought in the battle of Iwo Jima.  I knew of him as a little kid and had the privilege of meeting him several times when we’d visit Nebraska.  I don’t know how to describe it to you, the immense feeling of love and awe for this man whenever I think of him.  He was never comfortable retelling his story of the war in person but one year he got up the courage to relive those awful days and write about it for his posterity.  I will never be able to adequately tell him how thankful I am for his service and selflessness but I do thank my Heavenly Father each day for him and the countless others that were never able to tell their story.

Personal History of my fight for the island of Iwo Jima (written in 1994)

I was drafted into the United States Marine Corp in June of 1944, at the age of 18 years and 10 months.  I was in the 5th Marine Division and 28th Regiment.  The only experience I’d had with a rifle was when shooting prairie dogs, once in a while, out in the Nebraska sandhills, where we lived at the time.  Little did I know that I would be trained in a few short months to be one of 20,000 Marines who would be sent to go ashore and capture the Island of Iwo Jima from 20,000 Japanes who were dug in very well.

We trained from June until November and sailed for the Hawaiian Islands on Thanksgiving day.  For three days and nights a storm was so terrible that 1500 men on our ship were sick, but finally the storm broke and the last ten days of the trip were good.  We trained in Hilo Hawaii until January and then loaded on a ship for the slow trip to the Island.  They fed us ice cream and steak for 30 days getting us fattened up for the battle.  We had no idea where we were going because everything was top-secret.  Each morning we could look out and see a few more ships gathering in our area.

Finally, on the morning of February 199, 1945 as it got daylight it was like a huge 4th of July celebration.  The sky for miles around was lighted up with explosions and flares.  We had our packs on our backs with ammunition bandalos around our necks and water canteens on our sides.  It was heavy as we went down rope ladders over the side of the ship into smaller P.T. boats which carried us to shore.  When the door on the front end of the boat went down we ran out as fast as we could before a shell could hit the boat and kill us all.  Several boats were hit before they were unloaded.

Our job was to hit the beach, get up on top of the bank, turn left and take Mount Suribachi.  We lost a lot of men right on the beach.  I was in the 15th wave and when we came ashore we moved right in with what was left of the first 15 waves.  For the first three days and nights the fighting was so intense I didn’t take a drink of water or a bit of food.  The fourth day was really bad because we had made our way to the bottom of the hill and thousands of Japanese came charging out of the hill like ants coming out of the ground.

Suddenly the fighting slowed down and we were getting about half way up the hill when some guys showed up asking for volunteers to raise the flag.  No one made a move or offered to stick their neck out to go on up and raise the flag.  That is all I ever knew about the flag raising.  I didn’t ever see where they took the famous flag raising picture or know when it was taken.  All we knew was that there was still too much fighting going on to be out celebrating and get shot.

By the 5th and 6th day we had pretty well quieted down our end of the island and we sat about half way up the hill for 3 days waiting for them to finish the other end of the island.  Lots of boys wrote home and said they had made it through the battle.  I personally could still hear a lot of shooting on the other end and didn’t feel like we had made it through yet.

Sure enough, after three days word came that they did not have enough men left to finish the job, so they strung us out single file and marched us down the 7 miles to the other end of the island.  We moved right in on the front lines and immediately started fighting and losing more men every day.  By this time all that were left were Imperial Marines who were the very best shots.  The big guns had all been destroyed so all that was left was hand to hand rifle fire and hand grenades.

Down at this end of the island it was so rocky we couldn’t dig in at night so we had to pile rocks up for fox holes for protection.  Since we were going uphill again the Japanese were higher than we were so they could shoot at us even while we were in our fox holes.

In the evening of the 22nd day of the battle I was getting ready to chip some rough places in the bottom of my hole to make it a little smoother to sit in all night.  Just as I raised the pick up to hit the rock a Japanese bullet passed through my neck, over my spine but under the skin and made two holes in my shoulder where my arm was up with the pick.  It knocked me down in the hole and two men came up from behind and drug me out of the hole.

I was fortunate that we had just gotten a new corpsmen and he had battle dressings and morphine to give me.  I was taken back to the large tent on a stretcher that had been set up for operations.  Two days later the fight was over and I was flown off the island to Guam.  After a few days of treatment there I was taken onto a hospital ship which sailed to San Francisco.  From there I was transferred to a hospital in Seattle, Washington.  On the 4th of July I was transferred to Glenwood Springs, Colorado for therapy in the hot mineral springs pool so I would be able to turn my head again.

The war ended and I was discharged from the Marines and received the “Purple Heart”.  Almost daily for the last 49 years I’ve wondered, “Why me?”  5,000 men died and 15,000 were wounded.  And I survived.

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