FRANCIS T. KLEBER
THE BATTLE FOR MT. SURIBACHI
Safe in my quarters in the junior officers’ bunk room aboard the battleship, USS WEST VIRGINIA (BB48), lying offshore of Mount Suribachi at the southern end of the island of Iwo Jima, I viewed the mounting death reports from the heavy fighting on the beach with increased apprehension. Somewhere in that living hell at Suribachi was my brother Vic, a Marine First Lieutenant.
It was February 19, 1945, and I was an Ensign serving as Junior Asst. Navigator with an additional assignment as Junior Officer of the Deck at General Quarters. The mighty “Wee Vee”, as she was fondly referred to by her ship’s company, had earned her share of battle stars since her temporary demise at Pearl Harbor, and we were all proud of her post-attack record. The ship had contributed her share of steel in pre-landing bombardment and close fire support tasks for the Philippine Islands landings at Leyte Gulf, Mindoro and Lingayen Gulf; and now it was ready to carry out those same duties at Iwo Jima. The fact that we were the ”big gun” of the battle line of old battleships during the Battle of Surigao Straits when the “T” was crossed against a Japanese surface force made us feel pretty smug too. Yes, it had been well established that our ship, commanded by CAPT H. V. (“High Velocity”) Wiley, had pumped more 16” main battery goods into the Japanese heavies that night of October 25, 1944 than any other battleship present. The “Wee Vee”, the “newest” of the “old battleships” commissioned on December 1, 1923, had proved itself as a force to be reckoned with in spite of her age.
After 35 days in the Lingayen area, the ship anchored in Ulithi Lagoon on February 16 for some well deserved rest and recreation.. No sooner were her hooks into the coral and mud when a communication from CINCPAC was received which ordered the ship to refuel, take on stores and depart by sunset for Iwo. We were to proceed at best speed to replace the USS NEW YORK(BB34) which had damaged one of its propellers on an uncharted pinnacle. The “Wee VEE” was chosen for this task because it was the only heavy ship from the Lingayen fight group deemed to be in condition and ready for this mission. The ship steamed at a hard 18-knots and covered the 900 miles from Ulithi in 50 hours, earning a “Well Done” from Admiral Nimitz .
We arrived at the Iwo Jima landing scene on February 19 at 1030, an hour and a half after H-hour, ready to carry out the same fire support role which we had performed elsewhere in such an able manner. The island was smoky and cinder-like with a good sized bump at the southern end called Mount Suribachi. It appeared as if our naval surface forces were everywhere, and one couldn’t help but appreciate and marvel at the long range planning which had been done by our Navy in bringing such a large body of men, weapons and supplies to such a small place. Shortly after our arrival, the ship was assigned to a fire support station, and we took our place along with other old battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and small amphibious rocket ships to give gunfire support to that part of the Navy ashore: the U.S. Marines.
After several days of gunfire support duties and retiring to an outer area at night time , our shipboard existence took on somewhat of a routine aspect. Not so with the Marines ashore, however. As reports came in, it appeared as if some of the unlucky ones would make a costly down payment with their lives before the exchange of any real estate, especially the craggy and apparently enemy-laden Suribachi. Requests for fire support to that area were many, and our spotting pilots who acted as air spotters for the main and secondary batteries verified that it really looked like an extremely tough objective.
I managed to take a hasty look at some of the operation orders which were received on board after our arrival. To my surprise and dismay, I discovered that my brother’s regiment had been assigned the objective of capturing Suribachi. He was a reconnaissance platoon leader in the H. & S. Co., 28th Marines, FIFTH Division, and I immediately conjectured many visions of him, most of them bad. As a recon platoon leader, he would be taking his platoon out at night trying to determine the positions of the Japanese defenders, most of whom were later determined to be in underground fortresses. I had last seen him at Camp Pendleton as a member of the “Fighting Fifth”, the “Spearhead Division” just before I shoved off from the States in September 1944, But now, how was he? How was he faring? Was he still alive? Had he been hit by a bullet? What kind of existence over there? Had he killed anybody? These and many other questions caused me to reflect about my own life on a battleship compared to his. While I am sleeping on clean sheets, eating fresh food in the wardroom served by stewards and using table silverware on starched tablecloths, what is happening to my brother, Vic?
The more I thought about my present life compared to his, the more guilty I felt. Here just the night before, since things had settled down to pretty much of a routine for us, the wardroom had enjoyed a movie, a Guadalcanal war movie at that, while those on the bridge watch steamed the ship in an oval-shaped race track pattern as the gunnery condition watches lobbed a predetermined hourly amount of 5-inch harassing and interdiction fire with star shells at Japanese positions on Suribachi … just to ensure a sleepless night for the Japanese defenders.. What a contrast! Here I was on this floating hotel while my brother was in some stinking hole ashore, that is, if he was lucky enough to be alive. I visualized him in hand to hand combat with numerous “Banzai!” screaming Japanese fanatics, but I couldn’t settle on an ending to such encounters. I wondered if I would ever see him again.
I had tried to get into the Marine Corps prior to graduation from the Naval Academy less than a year before; but, because there were only 16 openings for many hopefuls and because I had not drawn a slip with an “X”, I was commissioned an Ensign in the Navy. Well, I liked it all right but not under these conditions; here I was in the Navy having it pretty soft while God knows what was happening or had happened to my brother over there on Suribachi. The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became; because I really couldn’t do a damned thing about it.
Later that night, we, of all things, had stringed dinner music in the wardroom provided by a small group of musicians from the ship’s band! I guess the ship’s Executive Officer was trying to create a “business as usual” atmosphere for morale purposes in spite of the fact that we were fighting a war. Well, we did go to GQ for main battery fire during the day and then the secondary battery condition watches would take over at dusk to provide harassing fire after our spotting plane returned. That band routine really took the cake.
“Oh, yeah, I was off Iwo …we listened to dinner music in the wardroom. It was really rough!” I could hear myself saying that in answer to any questions I might be asked when I got back home. “Well, what the hell? What am I going to tell my brother about Iwo when I see him? …if I see him?”
Reports of casualties indicated the Marines could use all possible support. I was still on that damned pleasure craft about 6000 yards or so from my brother. If I could only do something! Yes, the ship was helping out all right, but I was such a small part of it that it was difficult to fully identify myself with any concrete assistance to those Marines ashore.
On the morning of February 23, 1945, the Troop Commander ashore notified all ships present that Old Glory was flying from the top of Suribachi as a result of a successful assault by the 28th Marines. With the possession of this mountain, our whole endeavor to capture the entire island had been strengthened greatly. I felt extremely proud to have had something, ‘though small, to do with this success, but my feelings of guilt were still there too. I felt more proud that my brother was in the regiment which took Suribachi. I still had no idea of whether he was alive or dead, so my emotions were mixed with joyous thoughts of the partial victory and anxiety over his well being. What could I do to assist him? … to let him know that I was there even though in sort of a ‘man behind the man behind the gun” position?
I could write him a letter and let him know that I was nearby, that I was very proud of him, that I knew God would watch over him safely and that we would see one another again after the war was over. At least I could do that, but how could I get it to him? If I could get that letter to him, I was sure he would get a boost out of opening a letter from someone “back home” while he was in a foxhole on Iwo. The next day as our OS2U “Kingfisher” float plane was catapulted from the WEST VIRGINIA, my letter was aboard carrying a three-cent stamp. One of our pilots had agreed to drop it in a conspicuous place in an official message carrier designed for air drop use. When he returned, he assured me that it had landed right smack in the center of airfield #1 which was already ours and that he had seen a Marine pick it up.
Sometime after the mopping up was complete and all enemy resistance on the island had ended, regular US Mail service was initiated. Much to my surprise and elation, I received a letter from brother Vic after the “Wee Vee” had left Iwo Jima to prepare for the Okinawa invasion. He said that he had, indeed, received the letter in a foxhole the same day it was dropped, that it was a great source of comfort to him and that my words of encouragement about the future helped him to realize that the death and destruction of his surroundings were only temporary and there were better things in store for him.
Years later he wrote to me: “The letter’s delivery under those circumstances was nothing short of fantastic. Its loss, when the back pocket of my utility pants became torn, denied me possession of one of the most precious items ever given to me in my lifetime. That letter was priceless and graphically depicted the deep and abiding filial love between brothers.” While this letter meant so much to us, two brothers during war time, to others it was merely the first piece of U.S. Mail delivered on Iwo Jima before its surrender.
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