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A War in Letters: June '00 American History Feature

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 19, 2000 
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A War in Letters
A War in Letters

The correspondence home from two men–an American Marine and a Japanese general–reveals how their destinies converged on a tiny Pacific island called Iwo Jima.

by Mary Beth Kennedy Voda

ON THAT INFAMOUS DAY in December 1941 when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, Tom and Milly Kennedy were working in an electrical parts plant in northern New Jersey. The young couple–both were only 22–was originally from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, but had recently relocated. Married the previous June, the Kennedys were eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child. Mary Beth was born in July 1942 and Tommy arrived in August 1943. Because of his family status, Tom Kennedy wasn't drafted, but he felt a conflicted sense of duty to both his country and to his family. In May 1944, Tom finally succumbed to the "slacker" pressure and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Soon he was immersed in the rigors of South Carolina's Parris Island boot camp.

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Like many thousands of couples separated by the war, Tom and Milly corresponded faithfully, writing volumes of letters, sometimes as many as three a day. In a letter written from boot camp, Tom reassured his apprehensive wife that he was safe and well.

Hello Darling,

I just received a short note from you and wanted to answer it right away to tell you that you're worrying entirely too much about me. I'm fine, and the safety precautions that they have here are so tight that no one gets hurt unless they're really stupid. There is always a senior officer or instructor with us, and I'm watching out for myself all the time. I have too much to come home to for me to get careless.

When we go to the rifle range each morning we have to watch a training film before we start shooting. Most of the fellows fall asleep because it's so early in the morning. But so far I have kept wide-awake. I don't want to miss any small detail that may help me to qualify as an Expert or that may help to save my life when and if I see combat. It might even help to keep me in the States as a rifle instructor.

As he chronicled life in boot camp on that steamy June morning, Tom Kennedy couldn't have known that eight months later he would go ashore on a Pacific island and take part in one of the fiercest battles of World War II. Neither could he have known that the man who was then assuming overall command of Japanese defense operations on that island shared Tom's devotion to family, his loyalty to country, and coincidentally his initials. Yet for 36 days in 1945, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Private first class Tom Kennedy would share an ugly lump of volcanic rock called Iwo Jima.

 

THE JAPANESE government knew that it was only a matter of time until the Americans invaded Iwo Jima. Japan considered the island part of its homeland and knew its strategic value to the Americans. By capturing the island, the United States would gain airstrips valuable for a bombing campaign against Japan.

On June 22, 1944, 53-year-old Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, a well-respected veteran military strategist, arrived on Iwo Jima. Kuribayashi's assignment was accompanied by a sobering admonition from Japanese Premier General Hideki Tojo, who warned, "The entire Army and the nation will depend on you for the defense of that key island."

Although age, culture, and ideology separated Kuribayashi and Kennedy, their ties to home joined them in a bond that was personal as well as universal. Like Kennedy, Kuribayashi was a devoted family man who corresponded regularly with his wife, Yoshie, and their three children, who were waiting out the war in Tokyo. Responding to a letter from his wife, the general described his situation on Iwo Jima:

Our sole source of supply is rainwater. I have a cup of water to wash my face–actually, my eyes only, then Lieutenant Fujita [his aide] uses the water. After he is through with it, I keep it for toilet purposes. The soldiers, in general, don't even have that much. Every day, after I've inspected defense positions, I dream in vain of drinking a cup of cool water. There are a lot of flies. Also many cockroaches crawl all over us. They are very dirty. Fortunately, there are no snakes or poisonous reptiles.

Security regulations prohibited Tom from telling Milly about his location or ultimate assignment, but when her husband's daily letters abruptly stopped arriving in January 1945 she knew her worst fears had been realized–he was headed for combat. Writing from a troop ship on course for Iwo Jima, Tom Kennedy, now a member of the 4th Marine Division, expressed his thoughts to his family. Milly didn't receive this letter until after the battle.

Hello my Sweethearts,

Well all I can say is that since I've been in the Marine Corps I've written letters in every position imaginable, sitting, standing, kneeling and lying down. Right now I'm sitting on the top sack in our compartment. I doubt if you know what the sleeping facilities are like, but there are rows of bunks and I'm on the top bunk, close to the ceiling.

It's interesting to see the reactions of the fellows as we move closer to our target. They try to keep busy and find things to do so that the hours will pass by faster. Some play cards, checkers, shoot dice, read, write, talk in gab sessions and play games. Anything to keep the mind occupied. I usually read or gab with some of the fellows. Mostly we discuss the forthcoming operation, our chances of beating the Japs in a short time, counterattacks.

I promise to write every day right up until the last minute, my Darling. I know you won't be getting these letters for a while, but I won't miss a day.

As an anxious Tom Kennedy neared Iwo Jima, General Kuribayashi learned of recent devastating defeats suffered by the Japanese Navy during the aerial battles over the Philippine Sea. The general realized he would get no support from naval forces, and that the men and weapons already on the island would provide its only defense once the Americans arrived.

In a letter to his wife, Kuribayashi voiced his concerns.

The enemy may land on this island soon. Once they do, we must follow the fate of those on Attu and Saipan. Our officers and men know about "Death" very well. I am sorry to end my life here, fighting the United States of America, but I want to defend this island as long as possible and to delay the enemy air raids on Tokyo. Ah! You have worked well for a long time as my wife and the mother of my three children. Your life will become harder and more precarious. Watch out for your health and live long. The future of our children will not be easy either. Please take care of them after my death.

In earlier correspondence, Kuribayashi had chided his children for poor spelling and penmanship. Now his letters reflected a more fatalistic tone as he prepared his family for the inevitable. To Yoko, his eldest daughter, and Taro, his only son, he described their dismal future.

 

The enemy landing on my island is merely a question of time. If the defense of this island fails, then Tokyo will be raided day and night. It is beyond words to describe the chaos, terror, heavy damage and confusion of an air raid. Those who live idly in Tokyo can't even imagine what it's like. Therefore, in case of a raid, the most important thing is to keep the family together. Anyone cut off from the family can die on the roadside. This actually happened in the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. You must work for your family with your mother as the central figure.

Regardless of school regulations, you must protect your home first. You don't have to obey the regulations scrupulously because the situation will be too serious to worry about the safety of a schoolhouse. Suppose you tried to go to your school to save it and your own home was destroyed and your mother killed? What would you do then? You must share the fate of your mother.

To begin with, once Tokyo is raided it means that Iwo Jima has been taken by the enemy. It means your father is dead. In other words you–fatherless brother and sister–must depend on your mother. It's pitiful enough to be fatherless children but what happens if you lost your mother? And from now on you must reconcile yourselves to living without a father.

 

To Milly Kennedy and to wartime wives and mothers everywhere, the fear that their children might live without a father was constant. She wrote a desperate letter to her husband even as he was nearing Iwo Jima's black beaches.

 

Dearest Tom,

Here it is, over a week, and no letter, but since I've started re-reading your mail I find that you said in the last one (January 26) that I shouldn't worry if I don't get mail for a while. So far there's nothing in the papers about the Marines doing anything, but your letters aren't coming, so I know that you're either involved with something important or else they're planning something for you. Of course, I may be all wrong, and I won't know until I get your letters.

How I'm hoping and praying that the reason there's no mail doesn't mean you're near the action. Even if I do get mail I know you can't say where you are or where you're going, but with all that time on the train that you wrote about, you must be heading very far away. To the Pacific, no doubt. I wish you could be sent to one of the safe places like Australia or New Zealand or New Guinea.

Every time I see a Marine I look at him not because I'm really seeing him, but because I'm really seeing you. How I wish it were you. So long until next time. All my love, Milly.

 

FOR 14 DAYS Tom and his fellow Marines cruised toward the island of Saipan. Once there they boarded LSTs (landing ship, tanks) and transport ships for the assault on Iwo Jima. In his last letter home before the battle, Tom Kennedy expressed a poignant courage.

 

Hello my Sweethearts,

Just one more lonely day slowly coming to an end. I got off early from mess duty tonight, so after showering and shaving, I can write my regular letter to you as I said I always will. No matter how busy we are or how close to the action, my days will always end with a letter to you.

I have a real nice story to tell you about what happened today. Since it's St. Valentine's Day, Father Hammond heard confessions and I went to talk to him. I told him that I have overcome the urge to use foul language and hardly ever curse any more. But what I mostly wanted was to ask him to please pray for me during the fighting. This is my first one, and if He does bring me through safely, let Him do it for yours and the children's sakes. As for myself, I told him I don't care how much I suffer just so long as I can come back home to you three. I then said, "Father, I have said my rosary every single day, just like you asked us to, and I will continue to do so."

He said to me, "My boy, have no worry or fear of not coming through safely. That daily rosary will do the trick. This is my first battle too, so I ask you to pray for me."

Honest Milly, there were tears in my eyes while we were talking. He is a wonderful man and made me feel so good inside. I wish you could know him like I do.

After dinner Father Hammond said Mass and I received Communion again. Believe me, I never was more thankful in my life for the Mass, confession, all the prayers and hymns. They make me feel as if I'm not in this alone. I have you and the children and our families, but I also have a deep, strong faith. How can I miss?

 

The Marines began their amphibious landing on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. Before the assault troops disembarked, American battleships shelled target areas, and carrier planes swept the island, spraying the beach and airfields with rocket and mortar fire. At first the Marines didn't encounter any resistance, but after the first wave of troops had pounded ashore, Japanese forces suddenly opened fire from concealed positions. From then on, the leathernecks were faced with two foes: a force of 22,000 tenacious Japanese defenders and formidable physical terrain in the form of loose, coarse, volcanic ash that covered the island. Marines floundered trying to gain footing; jeeps and tanks sank into the ground and became easy targets for enemy guns. Japanese soldiers, hiding deep in reinforced concrete pillboxes, blockhouses, and dugouts, wiped out whole companies of U.S. forces with unrelenting artillery fire.

As the costliest and most momentous D-Day of the Pacific War ended, approximately 25,000 Marines were on shore, but some 2,400 of them were already dead or wounded. At first light on the second day, the men saw the staggering devastation. Crippled tanks and halftracks were bogged down in the coarse sand, amphibious tractors lay flopped on their backs, cargo-unloading cranes tilted at insane angles, and bulldozers were smashed in their own roadways. From a labyrinth of tunnels and caves, Japanese soldiers had exacted a sickening toll as they pinned down American forces under a relentless rain of mortar and artillery fire.

General Kuribayashi had exhorted his men to dedicate their entire strength to the defense of the island. Since American naval and air superiority meant he expected no reinforcements, the general opted to hold out as long as possible, relying on the sheer defensive strength of his position. Documents found on the bodies of Japanese dead and posted on pillbox walls–apparently disseminated by Kuribayashi –read in part:

 

We shall grasp bombs, charge the enemy tanks and destroy them.

We shall infiltrate into the midst of the enemy and annihilate them.

With every salvo we will, without fail, kill the enemy.

Each man will make it his duty to kill 10 of the enemy before dying.

Until we are destroyed to the last man, we shall harass the enemy by guerrilla tactics.

 

Slowly, inexorably, the Marines forced their way forward. On the 20th day of the invasion, Tom Kennedy crouched in a foxhole and scribbled a letter to Milly on scraps of paper given to him by another Marine. Although still shaken, he described a recent "banzai" attack, the name deriving from the Japanese battle cry "Tenno heika banzai"–"Long Live the Emperor."

 

Some Japs crawled up out of their holes in the early hours of the morning and charged our foxholes. They crawled to within ten feet of one fellow and started yelling, "Hey Corpsman." Our fellow asked him for the password, but he still yelled, "Hey Corpsman." All he wanted was for some fellow to show himself so the Jap could throw a hand grenade in his hole. The kid saw him and killed him. Next morning, upon examining the dead Jap, they found a grenade in his hand.

When they pull one of their banzai charges they gather together in a big group and start yelling. Then some of their officers start waving swords above their heads and shout, "banzai, banzai." While they scream, they charge. Of course our guns cut them down like flies, but it's sure scary listening to them scream like that.

 

By March 8, American pressure forced the enemy out of its holes. Hand-to-hand fighting took place up and down the line. Many Japanese soldiers carried land mines strapped to their chests and came at Marines in attempts to blow them up in suicidal charges. Others, seeing that their assaults were failing, killed themselves with grenades. General Kuribayashi radioed a final message to Tokyo: "The battle is approaching its end. Since the enemy's landing, even the Gods would weep at the bravery of the officers and men under my command . . . . [M]y men died one by one and I regret very much that I have allowed the enemy to occupy a piece of Japanese territory . . . . Unless this island is retaken, I believe Japan can never be safe. I sincerely hope my soul will spearhead a future attack." He then bowed his head and committed ritual suicide by thrusting a sword into his abdomen.

Although Tom Kennedy suffered a shrapnel wound to the shoulder, he survived the U.S. Marine Corps' bloodiest battle. His letters to Milly resumed immediately once the Marines had secured the island, and Tom reassured her that he was fine. The 4th Marine Division returned to Maui, Hawaii, where the troops were re-equipped and trained for future offensives against the Japanese. Milly and the children had since moved back to Wilkes-Barre to live with her family, and in a letter to Tom dated March 11, 1945, she described the newsreels she and her sister had recently seen in the city.

 

Today Margaret and I went to see the first pictures of Iwo Jima, it was shown in the Capitol [theater]. The first picture was the one of the Marines putting up the flag on Mt. Suribachi, the others were of the convoy and then of the landing boats, some which were being hit from the island by the Japs as they (Marines) approached the beach. Sure is high and rocky, it didn't look so high or rocky in the pictures shown in the papers, but the movies sure did. Darling I kept looking for you but it wasn't clear enough. It showed one ship hit and the photographer lying there wounded. Other pictures were of the Marines moving up the slopes. It showed one (our) airplane crash in the sea and the pilot swimming towards a life preserver.

We're all praying for you to be alright, and as you said, no news is good news. So we'll try to pray harder and worry less till we hear from you. God bless you, Milly.

 

President Harry Truman announced the unconditional surrender of Japan on August 14, 1945, and the 4th Division became the first Marine division to return home. On a brisk November Sunday in 1945, Milly and the children traveled to the Wilkes-Barre railroad station to meet Tom. Their faces wreathed in smiles, they ran towards him as he jumped off the train.

 


Mary Beth Kennedy Voda is the daughter of the late Tom and Milly Kennedy. She has assembled the hundreds of letters exchanged by her parents during her father's service in the Marine Corps. A teacher and writer from Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, Ms. Voda is working on a book based on her parents' letters as well as the correspondence between General Kuribayashi and his family.

 



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