'They threw everything at us': 75 years later, Bartlesville WWII veteran recalls the battle for Iwo Jima

BARTLESVILLE â€" Grabbing a pencil, R.J. George jotted down a few quick lines on one of the sheets of paper provided.

“I said something like, ‘Mom, don’t worry. I’m good. I’m fine where I’m at,’” he said.

Since leaving home for the war more than two years earlier, the 20-year-old Marine had been in the regular habit of writing his mother.

But unlike previous letters, this one, he said, wasn’t optional.

“We were about five days in on Iwo Jima,” he recalled, “when the top admiral put out this order that everybody â€" everybody â€" would write home today.”

“I think the news was getting back home and it was so bad, all the moms were driving ’em crazy.”

But while George and his comrades followed the order to write, they knew the sad truth:

Far too many mothers would not be getting letters from their sons.

Instead, fingers trembling as they tore into them, they’d be opening telegrams from the War Department.

The telegrams that brought notice of death.

And after five days on Iwo Jima, there was still no end in sight to the bloodshed.

‘So many bodies’

Five days earlier, on Feb. 19, 1945, while waiting with his unit off Iwo Jima, George had no reason to anticipate what was coming.

Surrounded by ships “as far as the eye could see,” he felt confident and even a little bored, he said.

“I thought there couldn’t be a rat alive let alone a Japanese,” he said, adding that the Navy had zeroed in on the Iwo Jima shore.

“Our planes bombed and strafed. The ships pounded it, pounded it.”

“But things didn’t go exactly according to plan,” he added grimly.

From the moment the first ground troops hit the beach, “they threw everything at us.”

This Wednesday will mark 75 years since American forces first landed on those beaches, officially kicking off the battle for Iwo Jima during World War II.

George, 95, of Bartlesville, was there for all of it.

Like most of his fellow 4th Marine Division mates at the time, he’d never heard of Iwo Jima.

But the battle for it would ensure that no one â€" not the invading force, not the American people, not the world â€" would ever forget it.

Lasting five weeks, the fighting would result in more than 6,800 American dead and some 26,000 total American casualties.

On the first day, while the first wave fought to gain a foothold on the beach, George’s landing craft circled off shore.

The waiting game ended about the middle of the afternoon.

George’s craft moved in to the beach. The gate swung forward, and they began clambering off.

George’s first experience with war violence had been weeks earlier on Saipan. But it was nothing like this.

“There were so many bodies,” he said.

The fighting was still fierce, the front line just a few hundred yards ahead of them.

George and others began to dig foxholes.

The black volcanic sand of the beaches was loose and coarse.

“You’d sink to your ankles,” he said. “It was like walking in a wheat bin.”

George had only been digging for a few seconds when he drew back in surprise.

There in front of him, a dead body was sticking part way out of the sand.

“I didn’t know if it was ours or a Japanese,” he said of the body, which had been buried by exploding shells.

George moved a few yards away and started again, only to uncover another body.

“That did it,” he said. “I quit trying to dig a foxhole.”

‘A war we had to win’

Like every other guy in his Bell City, Missouri, high school class after Pearl Harbor, George had been champing at the bit to enlist.

But his time came soon enough following graduation.

And when it did, he knew he wanted to be a Marine.

“I thought I was tough,” he said, blue eyes twinkling with amusement.

“And I got my choice.”

Making him feel even better about going to fight was the universal support.

“It was a war we had to win, and everybody knew it. Kids picked up scrap iron. The women plowed fields. The men went to war.

“And back then, the United States was united. I wish our country was back like that.”

Sent to the Pacific with other replacement troops, George was assigned to the messaging center of a regimental headquarters company.

“It was kind of like a post office,” he said, adding that his main job was to deliver messages as they came in.

As part of his work, George had the opportunity to meet some Navajo code talkers. He came away impressed.

“They were all just congenial, good people. They were fun to be around. And they done a good job. They were Marines.”

The work kept him out of direct combat.

But much of the time, especially on Iwo Jima, he was close enough to feel the heat.

At the time, though, it didn’t faze him.

“At 20, I thought I was indestructible. I can’t say I never was scared. But I never did think I would ever get hurt.”

“That don’t mean,” he added, “I wouldn’t dive in a hole if I had to.”

Or, minus a hole, just hit the ground.

It was on Saipan where George first learned just how flat a person could lie when he had to â€" when the shells were falling, sending shrapnel flying in every direction.

George did not see the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, which was captured in the famous Iwo Jima photo.

But the word got back to his group quickly.

“It boosted morale, but I knew we weren’t done yet,” George said.

On March 26, after more than five weeks, Iwo Jima was finally declared secure.

George and other Marines were taken aboard an aircraft carrier and transported to Maui to rest and recover.

That’s where they were a few months later, training for their next assignment, when the news of the atomic bomb broke.

The war was finally coming to an end.

‘The reason I’m here’

Coming home after the war, George would eventually meet and marry his wife, Donna.

The couple will celebrate their 70th anniversary this July.

The Georges still share a home in Bartlesville, where, just last week, they raised a brand new red Marine Corps flag over their driveway.

Flapping in the breeze along with his American flag, “it’s the fourth or fifth one I’ve gone through,” George said. “These winds in Oklahoma are hard on flags.”

Over the seven decades since he came home from service, George has had plenty of opportunity to think about war.

He hasn’t changed his mind any.

“War is hell. You kill people. You tear up, destroy. And for what?”

Many of his comrades remained bitter toward their former enemies. But “I never did hate the Japanese,” he said. “They were human beings just like us.”

George’s daughter compiled a scrapbook for him of photos and mementos from his service.

In his service-era photos, he’s usually the tallest guy.

Although he’s lost about an inch from the rangy 6-foot-3 frame of his youth, George still stands tall in a crowd, like at the annual Veterans Day parade in Bartlesville. He was honored to serve as grand marshal of the event last year.

The scrapbook also contains some of those letters home, which his mother saved.

Knowing they were a comfort to her, he didn’t mind writing them, he said.

“I think she’s the reason I’m here today,” George said, adding that his mother “prayed 24 hours a day.”

“My mom kept the Lord so busy, he assigned three angels just to watch over me.”

Photos: Scenes from the Battle of Iwo Jima, which started 75 years ago

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima in Japan.

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