Battle of Iwo Jima: Marine Private Jay Rebstock's Story of Survival | HistoryNet MENU

Battle of Iwo Jima: Marine Private Jay Rebstock’s Story of Survival

6/12/2006 • World War II

 

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National Archives
Heedless of the enemy fire around him, a rifleman of the 5th Marine Division follows his comrades up a ridge on Iwo Jima and into the teeth of Japanese defenses.

By December 1943 Jay Rebstock had finished boot camp, and in February 1944 he was assigned to the 5th Marine Division. The 5th was new, but it boasted many old Raider veterans and experienced paratroopers — veterans from the early fights at Guadalcanal, Choiseul and Bougainville. In those elite numbers was the legendary John Basilone, who had earned the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal and opted to go back into combat rather than remain in the States. The presence of all these veterans gave confidence to newer Marines like Rebstock.

For the next seven months, the 5th Division trained in the United States, and Rebstock was assigned as a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) gunner to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines. In the first week of January 1945, Rebstock, along with the entire 5th Marine Division, mounted out from the Big Island of Hawaii, while the 4th Marine Division embarked from Maui for what many thought would be landings on Formosa or China. As the reserve division, the 3rd Marine Division would round out the attack force. This three-division force was the largest ever committed to a single battle in the history of the Corps. Named the V Amphibious Corps, it was designated VAC.

Rebstock and his fellow Marines boarded the troop transports amid scuttlebutt that their landings would be just a warm-up for the real destination — the island of Okinawa. They knew nothing of the plan called Operation Detachment, issued on December 23. The operation called for a direct frontal assault on the 3,000 yards of black, sandy beaches below Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi and the seizure of its three airfields. The island rested just 660 miles south of Tokyo. The 5th Division would assault the left of the beaches. The 4th would assault the right. The naval force with which they would rendezvous was enormous. About one week out of Hawaii, Rebstock’s company commander called his Marines together and informed them that their target was the island of Iwo Jima, and the Marines of Company E looked at each other with puzzled stares. The captain uncovered a map on the bulkhead, revealing a diagram of the pork-chop-shaped island, and pointed to the eastern beaches. They were labeled Green Beach, Red 1 and 2, Yellow 1 and 2, and Blue 1 and 2.

We’ll be landing on Red Beach 1, the officer said, holding his pointer on the second invasion beach north of Mount Suribachi. Company E would be in the second wave, he said. Nevertheless, it was the first infantry wave, after the wave of LVT (A)s (landing vehicles, tracked [armored]) came in to provide fire support with their 75mm guns.

Briefings were now held daily. Maps and models of the island were available for each man to see. Examining the terrain models, some squatted down to get an idea of the elevation. All eyes focused on Mount Suribachi, the mountain that had to be taken.

As the men approached the landing area, the final briefings included estimates of the length of the battle. No more than 3-5 days, the young BAR man heard — even less if the Japanese gave their usual banzai charge for the emperor and allowed the Marines to cut them down like they always did.

On February 18, 1945, the night before D-day, sleep was almost impossible. Weapons were checked for the thousandth time. There were religious services on board, but attendance was light. Some letters were written, but mostly the time was spent just checking everything over one final time. The landing force was called to chow at 0300 hours on the 19th. It was steak and eggs in the galley, standing up. Some could not eat. Others ate as if there was no tomorrow, scooping up the untouched plates of those who could not. Rebstock ate in the crowded galley, which rang with the sounds of metal utensils on metal trays. There was little talking.

At 0630, everything was in position, and the thunderous roar of the shore bombardment began. What looked to the observing Marines like ships firing at will was in fact the execution of a detailed bombardment plan. Each vessel had been meticulously given exact targets to hit with an exact number of shells at a very specific time. The island was swept yard by yard with a rain of steel. Five battleships pounded Iwo from the east coast, while two other battleships steamed to the west coast and smashed it from there. For almost an hour and a half, the battleships poured more than 500 rounds onto their targets. The cruisers chipped away with an additional 700 rounds.

The bombardment shrouded Iwo Jima in clouds of dust so thick that it was obscured. While shells rained down on the island, the landing force was debarked. Rebstock and the members of Easy Company’s 2nd Platoon were called to the tank deck of the LST (landing ship, tank) to board their LVTs. He hustled down to the tank deck with his heavy pack and a 5-gallon can of water. Other Marines scrambled over the steel decks, loaded down with their gear and other materiel. Drivers started the vehicles. The noise in the closed hull was deafening, and blue exhaust from the engines filled the compartment and choked the waiting Marines. Finally, the big steel doors in the LST’s bow began to open, and the blue haze and fumes were dissipated by the sudden rush of fresh air that brought relief to tortured lungs and eyes. The sunlight of a beautiful day streamed into the cavernous hold as the first tractor creaked toward the inclined deck leading to the lapping, blue water. Like a great hippo, the ungainly tractor waddled down the ramp and went in nose first. Its steel tracks ground on the steel ramp until it plunged in and bobbed up, righting itself in the light seas. It churned away as the next tractor followed, and then the next. Finally it was time for the 2nd Platoon to enter the water.

Rebstock and the other 15 Marines on the LVT felt the vehicle dip down the ramp, and suddenly they were floating and crawling off to join the other launched tractors as they circled in a great rendezvous. A few minutes past 0800, the naval gunfire stopped. The LVTs churned toward the line of departure, and as they passed the Navy ships, sailors waved and yelled encouragement. Nothing could be heard above the roar of the tractor engines, but the Marines gave the thumbs up in response.

The 2nd Platoon’s tractor reached the line of departure as 120 carrier-launched aircraft roared overhead to further bomb the island. The Marines cheered, seeing that 48 of the aircraft were Marine planes. They watched the planes drop their high explosives and napalm on the slopes of Suribachi and on the Motoyama airfields. For 20 minutes it was a grand spectacle. The planes flew away and the Navy bombardment started again. This time, every gun concentrated on the beaches.At 0835 the first wave of infantry formed and followed the LVT (A)s toward the beaches. Rebstock and his fellow Marines could see the sterns of the tractors in front of them, and as the leathernecks looked over the gunwales of their own craft, they could see adjacent units churning forward with them. Their destination was Red Beach 1, and they pushed onward under the greatest cannonade of naval gunfire imaginable. During the 30 minutes that it took for the run to the beach, the American ships salvoed more than 8,000 rounds of fire, completely obliterating Japanese Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s beach defenses. In the 2nd Platoon’s tractor, the Marines looked over the sides. Rebstock, holding onto his 5-gallon water can, watched as some waves broke over the gunwales and splashed onto the deck. Despite the relatively calm seas, some of the men were sick. The motion and the 30 minutes in the belly of the LST with those terrible fumes were now taking their toll.

The tractors approached the beach like giant water bugs. Rebstock began to see splashes in the water. He assumed the Navy had fired some short rounds. Then, there were more splashes, and suddenly an LVT exploded, and men screamed in the water. These were not short rounds. With the deadly seriousness of men under fire, everyone huddled into small balls on the wet deck.

Two hundred yards from the beach, Rebstock sneaked a peek over the side, and he could see that the armored tractors from the first wave were not even on the beach. In fact, they had backed down, and were firing their guns from the water. Rebstock’s LVT churned past the firing LVT (A)s.

What the hell is going on? he thought. He looked out again. To his amazement, he saw a gun firing at the aircraft that were strafing the beach. He could only see the top of the gun and the top of a helmet as the gun slewed around from its position atop the second terrace.

The tracks ground on the sand, and his LVT lurched up a slope, then ground to a halt as the tracks continued to churn and cut grooves in the soft soil. Over the side, came the order, and the Marines jumped onto the black volcanic sand.Rebstock crouched low and tried to move forward, but his feet sank into the sand up to his knees. He cursed; the 40-day ship ride seemed to have left him out of shape and wheezing for air. He felt like a salmon trying to swim upstream. As alternately he struggled up and slid down the terrace, he chanced a look down and was horrified to see that he was still lugging the water can he had been given to carry in. His hand opened as if he had grabbed a hot iron, and he half threw and half kicked the offending can away.

He also now ditched some of his gear. His load was so heavy he could hardly move. In addition to his weapon, he had 240 rounds of ammo, plus an extra bandoleer slung around his chest, grenades, entrenching tool, canteens of water, a bipod for the BAR and a pistol. It did not take him long to send the bipod and the pistol to join the 5-gallon water can on the beach.

When next Rebstock looked up, some of his squad had surmounted the terraces that led up from the beach and had jumped into the gun pit where he had seen the artillery piece earlier. The Marines were clubbing the Japanese gunners to death with their rifles. With his lighter load, Rebstock struggled up the second terrace and ran to his assistant BAR man, who, like him, was carrying an extra load of ammunition. The BAR is your weapon, so you can carry your own ammo! Rebstock’s assistant said before he went off at a half lope across the flatter land.

Rebstock’s platoon moved across the neck of land joining Mount Suribachi to the rest of the island. The men cast wary eyes up the forbidding slopes, expecting a hail of fire to rain down on them at any moment. But Suribachi let them pass.

As they approached a small sugar cane field that had remarkably withstood the bombardment, Rebstock watched in amazement as a Japanese soldier charged toward him. It was almost unreal, as if in a dream, and it took him a moment before he leveled his weapon at the charging figure to knock him down with a short burst. A lieutenant came up, and screamed at the panting BAR man that he thought he had killed a fellow Marine. Rebstock was horrified, but not for long, as another Marine came up and presented him with the insignia that he had cut off the fallen soldier’s shirt. He had been a Japanese marine.Again, they pushed on. By early afternoon they reached the opposite side of the island, where the terrain consisted of solid rocks and cliffs. They stopped and counted their casualties. It was not too bad. Easy Company had lost its company commander and had six other men killed and nine wounded, but they had cut a wide path across the island, isolating Suribachi from the northern reaches of the island. The company took up defensive positions and evacuated its wounded. The men were ready for orders to swing to the north, but those orders did not come, and would not come, at least on this day. In fact, within an hour of being evacuated, most of the wounded men were back with their units, saying it was safer in the lines than on the beaches. The landing beaches were catching hell.

The third and fourth waves landed behind the 2nd Platoon and dumped 2,800 more men on the beach, and they, too, began their ascent up the double and triple terraces to reach the flat land and the airfield. Enemy small-arms fire increased. Marines who had landed on Green Beach, to the left of Rebstock and the 2nd Platoon, headed for the base of Suribachi.At a few minutes past 1000, as the Marines packed on the beaches struggled to overcome the damnable, sliding terraces, General Kuribayashi gave the order for his previously silent artillery to open fire.

The roar was as deafening as it was frightening. Artillery and mortars, along with big coastal guns and anti-aircraft pieces, unleashed a terrifying volley. The beaches were pulverized with every conceivable type of fire, and the raining shells swept back and forth across the landing beaches like a giant scythe. Marines were crushed and landing craft on the beaches exploded. Vehicles and equipment close to the beach were instantly destroyed. Wounded men from the first waves were the most pathetic. Already wounded and awaiting evacuation, they were now annihilated along with the medical personnel attending them.

As evening approached, the Marines dug in where they were. On the west coast, Easy Company prepared for the inevitable banzai counterattack, which had become a predictable Japanese tactic. Jay Rebstock occupied a fighting hole with four other Marines, and he trained his BAR toward the north, envisioning the upcoming, screaming charge. He wondered if he would be able to fire fast enough to beat back the enemy.

Darkness came at 1845, and the night turned cold. Marines shivered in their holes, straining their eyes forward. The Japanese bombardment continued without letup. Each slackening of fire was followed by an increase in intensity. The banzai charge, however, never came. General Kuribayashi forbade any such meaningless charges, which, he correctly concluded, only played into American hands. Instead, he pounded the invading force with ceaseless artillery barrages from well-placed guns, and waited for the invaders to come to him, so he could bleed them white.

The next morning, Company E prepared to attack to the north, but as it advanced, Japanese artillery and mortars pounded its positions. All Rebstock and the men from 2nd Platoon could do was advance and then burrow into the ground. The unseen enemy continued to inflict horrific casualties on the Marines. Except for the one enemy soldier that Rebstock had seen and killed on D-day and the artillerymen at the water’s edge as they landed, no one in the 2nd Platoon had even seen any enemy soldiers to fire at. Yet, the enemy could see them, and Company E was being drained. In the attack on D-plus-1, as the 26th and 27th Marines advanced, there were 600 casualties. On February 21, D-plus-2, Company E lost its second company commander.

Rebstock and the members of the 2nd Platoon prepared for yet another attack on February 23. Suddenly, wild cheering was heard across the front, and ships horns and whistles could be heard from the sea. The flag’s up, someone said, and all eyes turned to Suribachi. There it was. The Stars and Stripes was snapping smartly in the wind. The men of Company E lent their voices to the cheering and hollering. Rebstock felt tears well in his eyes and was bursting with pride. Best of all, he knew that the battle must be close to being over. He remembered the briefing onboard ship, where the end of the battle had been predicted in three to five days with the fall of Mount Suribachi. Well, he thought, this is the fifth day, and the flag flies atop the mountain. The end is in sight.

But the battle was not over. It was not even close to being over. In fact, it was only beginning. Once the euphoria brought on by the flag-raising on Suribachi had passed, the battle went back to its bloody contest of attrition. The following day, February 24, Company E, with the rest of the 2nd Battalion, moved along the western coast in an area that would be known as Death Valley. The attack began in the morning and was strictly by the book — lay down a base of fire, bring up demolitions and the flamethrowers, and destroy the position; move to the next bunker and repeat the steps again.The attack pushed along the west coast, which was one series of pillboxes after another. To the left, the Marines could see the peaceful waves breaking on the sandy beaches, and many fantasized about what a marvelous spot it would be to spend a lazy afternoon. To the front was one ridgeline after another, and the never-ending Japanese artillery and mortar fire.Rebstock fired his BAR at the first strongpoint he could see. The weapon bucked on his shoulder as he poured fire into what looked like an aperture. Other Marines attacked the flanks of the positions. Then the flamethrower operator was down before he could reach the pillbox. Another took his place, and he, too, went down. Rebstock increased the volume of fire at the position, cursing the enemy that he could never see. A third man retrieved the flamethrower, and soon there was the familiar whoosh and the telltale orange tongue of fire before he was hit as well. The life expectancy of the flamethrower man was short. He was a prime target for every Japanese soldier who could see him.

Finally the pillbox was neutralized and Rebstock’s squad rushed forward, only to be pinned down again by the relentless small-arms fire from another position. Rebstock could see nothing, but fired in the direction that his comrades pointed. They attacked throughout the day, and dug in for the night.

On the 25th, the officers decided to try a different strategy. Instead of the preparatory fires, which drove the Japanese underground and announced the beginning of the ground attack, they would attack in the afternoon, without preparatory fire, hoping to catch the Japanese off guard.

Death Valley was a deep indentation, like a stadium field, with high ridgelines surrounding the valley floor. The attack would carry the Marines down the slope into the valley, and then up to seize the ridgeline that guarded against further northern movement. The entire attack down into the valley and up the other side could be seen by the enemy, but there was no other way.

At 1500, the attacking force stood up and began to advance, but Rebstock’s feet were frozen in place, and suddenly an unquenchable thirst overtook him. I guess that is what’s called being scared, he recalled. I could not move, and I drank almost an entire canteen of water, and only then did my legs move forward.

They moved no more than 50 yards before the whole world exploded on them. Everyone dived for cover, and Rebstock and his squad leader jumped into a hole with two other men. As one of the men looked up to see who their new companions were, a Japanese bullet hit him directly in the middle of his forehead, and he slumped over dead. The second man had a bullet pierce his helmet, deflect between the helmet and the liner, and come out on the other side.

Rebstock and his squad leader lay in a fetal position in the hole with the dead and wounded while Japanese artillery thundered all around them. The ground shook, and rocks buried the huddled Marines. Just when they thought nothing could be worse, the first airbursts detonated above them, hurling deadly steel fragments down from above.

The young BAR man could not move. Like a worm trying to dig deeper, he flattened himself into the hole. He remained pinned there until, finally, he heard the familiar clanking of friendly tanks arriving on the scene. An ear splitting crack signaled the fire of a Sherman, just to the side of him. He crawled to the edge of the hole and began laying down fire with his BAR, sending a stream of fire marked with red tracers into the terrain to his front. As the smoke cleared he could see a new bunker and what looked like an aperture. Again, the BAR went to his shoulder, and rounds poured into the slit. Marines inched and crawled forward toward the bunker. Rebstock changed magazines and bore down on the opening.

To his right, a similar scene unfolded. Private First Class Leonard Nederveld, in the adjacent platoon, moved forward and flipped a white phosphorus grenade into another opening. The soft explosion of the phosphorus was what the Marines expected, and they kept their eyes glued for a Japanese defender who would try to run out. But the explosion was anything but soft. Instead, a gigantic, deafening explosion sent out an enormous shock wave, obliterated the bunker and clouded the battlefield. Rebstock was thrown to the ground, and the private’s BAR shot from his hands. The other Marines in the area were flattened to the ground like knocked-out fighters. The explosion seemed to echo over and over, and Rebstock could only hear a ringing in his ears. The pillbox had actually been an ammunition dump.

Rebstock staggered to his feet, dazed and disoriented, and looked for his weapon. Almost immediately he was thrown down again by a force as mighty as that of the exploding dump. A Sherman tank erupted in a ball of fire and smoke — a Japanese artillery shell had found its target.

The tank continued to explode as its munitions cooked off, and was joined by more exploding ammunition from the pillbox. After long minutes, the roar from the two near-simultaneous detonations ebbed, and the area was engulfed in silence. It was as if the ferocity and savagery of the battle had reached its zenith and now collapsed under its own weight. What moments before had been the roar and fire from some separate chamber in hell was now eerie silence.

Stunned Marines picked themselves off the ground and made hesitant steps, first in one direction and then another. Rebstock twisted around, looking for his weapon, and cradled the damaged piece in his arms. Instinctively, he found another from a fallen comrade and smashed the first one on a large boulder, swinging it by the barrel.

 

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National Archives
Two of the nearly 22,000 Japanese soldiers killed on Iwo Jima lie in the foreground as members of the 5th Marine Division continue their advance.

Other Marines appeared as figures in a dream in the settling dust and smoke. Someone passed word to return to the original lines, and the battered Marines limped back, dragging wounded buddies with them as best they could. The whole attack had not lasted long, and the company added 16 more casualties to its ever-growing list.

That night was made longer by an unforgiving cold rain that beat down on the 2nd Platoon. The men shivered in their holes and cursed the island of Iwo Jima. The misery of the weather was topped by a renewed Japanese bombardment, making sleep impossible for the exhausted Marines.

The next morning, with the rain continuing in a steady beat, the order was passed for the men to stay in their holes. Ammo would be reissued, and replacements would be sent to the platoon. All day, the platoon traded fire with the relentless enemy, and at 1630 the Marine next to Rebstock nudged him and warned that a Japanese soldier was crawling in on him. Through squinted eyes, Rebstock picked out a crawling figure, 50 yards to his front. As he crawled, the man raised his hand, and then continued to move toward Rebstock. He alternately crawled and stopped to raise his hand. The Marines in the line watched this agonizing, snaillike movement.

Rebstock sighted in on him. Don’t shoot him, his buddies said. Let him get close before you do. Rebstock held his fire. As the crawling man got close, someone recognized that this was not an enemy soldier at all, but a U.S. Marine. Two men ran out and dragged the gray, dust-covered figure into a hole. He was all shot up, his leg was hanging on by a thread and he was unrecognizable. Encrusted dust and sand were caked on his face, pasted there by an undercoat of blood. Rebstock stared at him, and then thought he recognized the man. It was Watson, from another company.

 

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National Archives
The butcher’s bill was high for the Americans as well. A stretcher party evacuates one of the 17,913 men wounded during the battle. An additional 6,140 Marines would be killed — making Iwo the bloodiest single engagement in Marine Corps history.

The corpsmen patched him up as best they could, made a makeshift stretcher and attempted to evacuate him to the rear. As they picked the wounded man up, though, the Japanese opened up on the rescue party. The stretcher crashed to the ground as the carriers dived for cover. The wounded man screamed as the shells exploded around him. Finally, someone pulled him into a hole, and Jay Rebstock leaned over to comfort him.

You’ll be okay, Watson, he said and patted the man on the shoulder. Another Marine asked, Why are you calling him Watson? That’s not Watson, he informed Rebstock. That’s Nederveld.

Rebstock took a closer look, and, unbelievably, it was the man who had dropped the grenade in the bunker and detonated the massive explosion the day before. He had survived and had spent 24 hours in the Japanese lines.

Company E did not attack forward again. With its depleted numbers it was pulled off the line, and, mercifully, sent to the rear for what was to be a form of R&R. The word was that they were through at the front. They would not be put back into the line.

The promise that Company E would not go back into the line was broken on March 4, the 14th day of the five-day battle and the ninth day after the flag-raising on the mountain. When they returned to the line it had moved all the way to the northern end of the island, and Rebstock could see the ocean over the northern shore from an elevation of 300 feet.

From March 4 to 11, the men of Company E attacked against the final Japanese defenses. Rebstock got his first view of a Zippo tank. The fire-breathing, armored machines could deliver a long stream of flaming napalm for more than a minute, and as new holes and bunkers were discovered, the Zippo went into action. The Japanese were immolated in their defensive positions, and the few who charged were immediately shot down by the waiting Marines. With each step, the Japanese became more frantic. They dropped mortar rounds as if there was an unending supply. At night, the Japanese soldiers infiltrated, looking for food and water, and crawled into the lines, stabbing many Marines.

On one of the last days of battle, the 2nd Platoon had moved to the final ridgeline, and as the men stared down into the canyon below, they could see that the rocky precipice on the other side looked down into the water. The end of the island was in sight. A Marine descended into the canyon, and as he approached the bottom a shot rang out and he slumped in his tracks, dead from a sniper’s bullet. One solitary Japanese soldier came out, waving his hands, but the infuriated Marines on the high ground cut him down. Then a second Japanese soldier came out with something in his hands, and some of the Marines said to hold fire and see what this guy was up to. But a nervous shot was fired, and that triggered fire from all the jumpy Marines on the ridge.

Still a third soldier appeared in the bottom of the canyon, and again someone shouted, Hold your fire, but again, after a pause, another shot was fired, and the reaction shooting began. Rebstock put his weapon down. He could kill no more. Other Marines did the same, and finally it was silent.

On March 27, Rebstock and the remnants of his company were back at their starting point on the west coast in the shadow of Mount Suribachi. Just before first light, there was tremendous shooting in the area of one of the airfields. It lasted more than an hour, and as the sun broke into a clear sky, an LST nudged into the shore to take the exhausted Marines off the island.

The word came out that the shooting had been the final banzai charge by the last of the Japanese force. Three hundred Japanese attacked, killing almost 100 men who had been resting in their tents, and dying to the last man. The cost for both sides had been appalling. The Japanese suffered more than 20,000 casualties, the overwhelming majority of whom were killed. The Americans suffered 5,931 dead and 17,372 wounded — more than a third of the attacking force.

As Rebstock’s ship sailed from Iwo, the survivors could not believe they had made it. Everyone prayed, and on the voyage back toward Hawaii there were a number of burials at sea, as some of the wounded succumbed to their wounds. As the ship finally approached Pearl Harbor, what remained of Company E gathered in front of the ship’s pilothouse. The men anxiously waited to pass through the submarine gates at the entrance, and a photographer came to them and told them to line up for a company photograph. These grim Marines sat in three rows and posed for the picture, and just as the photographer snapped the shutter, the loudspeaker came on and a voice announced that President Franklin Roosevelt had just died.

Rebstock and the assembled men broke down and cried. He was the only president they had ever known, and now he was gone. He had not seen the end of the war to which they had just sacrificed so much. They entered Pearl Harbor, where the war had started and where it would end for them. They were in the field on maneuvers when the word was passed that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Within days, their company was hustled out of Hawaii, loaded on a ship and put to sea — headed for Japan. Three days out of Pearl Harbor, in the evening as the ship sailed under blackout, the lights came on and the captain announced that the war was over. Iwo Jima would be the only battle for Jay Rebstock and the 5th Marine Division.

 


This article was written by Ronald J. Drez. Drez is the author of the book, Twenty-five Yards of War: The Extraordinary Courage of Ordinary Men in World War II (Hyperion), from which this article is adapted. This article originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!

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