Robert Stilson of Alameda Isles Mobile Home Park in Englewood, Fla. was a 19-year-old Marine Corps corporal who charged ashore from a Higgins Boat onto the black sandy beach at Iwo Jima on the first first day in the second wave –Feb. 19, 1945– to play his part in one of the major battles in the Pacific during the closing months of World War II.
His outfit: The 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division — the ones who raised both American flags on Iwo — was aboard ship just off shore the day before the invasion began. They trained for months with the “Navajo Code Talkers” to transmit messages from the front lines to headquarters the Japanese couldn’t decode.
“I remember just before it started, a battleship pulled up right beside Mount Suribachi and began throwing 16-inch shells at the mountain. We thought nothing could possible survive on that island after a shelling like that,” he recalled more than 65 years later. “We didn’t realize what it would be like when we got ashore. We thought it was going to be a cake walk. We were young, gung-ho and stupid.
“When I climbed into the Higgins Boat to go ashore I don’t think I was even scared until I hit the beach. The ramp on the front of our landing craft dropped down as we touched shore and just as it did the fellow in front of me in the boat had an enemy mortar go off right between his legs. It blew him into my lap. He was dead! I had to push him aside to reach the beach.
“When I got ashore the first thing I saw was someone near me getting shot. We were trained not to bunch up when something like this happens. We did anyway. A group of Marines congregated to the wounded man. As soon as they gathered they were hit by an enemy mortar shell. Bodies were flying all over,” Stilson said.
“I hit the ground and started crawling in the powdery black sand to the terrace further up on the beach away from the shoreline. Our objective was the far beach at the base of Suribachi, about a half-mile away.
“You could look up on Suribachi and see Japanese soldiers pulling machine-guns out of caves. They would shoot them at us for a while then stick them back in the caves. We had no protection because the black volcanic sand was so fine you couldn’t dig a foxhole. It would just cave in on you.
“We were right below the mountain and getting pounded. It was pretty bad,” he said with a grimace as he slowly shook his head a lifetime later.
“I remember lying there and Corsair fighter planes flew over us and strafed the enemy. They didn’t miss us by much. They did a great job, but it didn’t help because the Japanese were dug in so good in concrete bunkers.
“It took us all day to reach the far side of the island because of the fierce enemy resistance. The whole island smelled like rotten eggs from the sulfur deposits. On the second day of the battle you could smell the rotting bodies. You never forget that smell,” Stilson said.
“I didn’t make it to the beach on the far side of the island just a half-mile from where I came ashore. I got wounded on the second day by a Japanese machine-gun. I was lying in the black sand below Suribachi when machine-gun bullets missed my head a few inches. I instinctively pulled back to get away from the bullets and was hit in the back and both legs by enemy fire. It wasn’t hurting at all, but I lost a lot of blood.
“I got a letter the other day from a fellow from Kalamazoo, Mich. who remembers pulling me down to the beach where they were taking the wounded. It was pretty disorganized on the beach because there were so many wounded Marines.
“I was taken by LST (landing ship) out to an AKA (attack transport) off shore converted to a hospital ship. I was put in a cargo net and they got me aboard the AKA,” Stilson recalled.
“They put me on an operating table right then and there and checked me over. A priest was standing beside me. He told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to make it. It’s all over for you you’re going home.’
“I think it was a blessing I got hit so quickly. Most of my buddies didn’t make it off Iwo Jima.
“Some good came out of my injuries. I remember there was a fellow in the next bed to me aboard the hospital ship who asked, ‘Can you play chess?’
“‘No,’ I replied.
“‘Well you’re gonna learn,’ he said
“I did learned how to play chess.
“A couple of days later I was taken to the deck of the hospital ship on a stretcher to watch the second flag raising on Iwo Jima. Just at the moment the flag was going up we had a kamikaze attack. Nurses were trying to drag me away from the railing, but I held on. It was quite a show to see the American flag going up on Suribachi,” he said.
Stilson went by ship to an Army hospital on Saipan where he continued to recover from his three bullet wounds. By the time he reached the Navy hospital in Hawaii he was getting around on crutches.
It wasn’t long afterwards that his division returned to Hawaii to regroup. He was reunited with what was left of his buddies after the 36-day battle of Iwo Jima. When the Japanese surrendered at war’s end, the 5th Division was sent to Kyushu, Japan as part of the occupation force. Stilson spent six months there then returned to San Diego, Calif. and was discharged from the Marines in Chicago in April 1946.
He went to work for a research and development company in Chicago that tested plastics and made miniature electrical connectors. The old Leatherneck was involved in making parts for the Minuteman Missile. After almost 40 years with the firm, he and his wife, Ruth, retired to Englewood in 1990.
They have a son, Robert, and a daughter, Susan, who both live near Chicago.
Name: Robert Wilson Stilson
D.O.B: 3 May 1925
Hometown: Guana Station, NY
Current: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: 21 Sept. 1943
Discharged: 24 April 1946
Unit: 28th Regiment 5th Marine Division
Commendations: Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Operation ribbon
Battles/Campaigns: Battle of Iwo Jima
Author’s Note: To read about and view pictures of the first flag raising on Iwo Jima, please click here.
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. It is republished with permission.