U.S. Marine Pfc. Bob Crossley of Venice, Fla. hit the beach on Iwo Jima in a Higgins boat in the third wave on Feb. 19, 1945. He was a member of the 5th Marine Division, 26th Regiment, 2nd Battalion D-Company.
The Japanese commander allowed the first two waves of Marines to land with a minimum of defensive fire. He waited for the third wave to reach the beach before opening up on the leathernecks, packed along the shore, with everything he had. Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi was determined to make the Marines pay for every inch of the eight-square-mile island.
Before the 36-day battle was over, 6,821 U.S. servicemen lost their lives. Some 17,400 were wounded, including Pfc. Crossley. All but 1,083 of the 20,000 Japanese defenders were killed in the assault. More Marines received Medals of Honor during this engagement than in any other battle in the Corps’ 230-year history.
Crossley had already received his first Purple Heart at Bougainville (British Solomon Islands) while serving with the 1st Battalion, 1st Parachute Regiment. He was wounded by shrapnel on Nov. 29, 1943. It put him in a stateside hospital for a couple of months. After he recovered, he was sent to the 5th Marine Division just in time for Iwo Jima.
For 72 days an Allied invasion force of more than 1,000 ships bombarded the volcanic island before the assault. They struck it with every gun in the fleet and bombed enemy emplacements by air day after day. The nearly two-and-a-half-month-long barrage had little affect on the Japanese defenders, who were dug into caves and a honeycomb of underground tunnels far below ground.
“This was the first island we took that was theirs in the first place. They were dug in and they weren’t gonna make it easy for us,” the 80-year-old Venice, Fla. veteran said while talking about the battle he was involved in six decades ago.
“After we landed, we were all trying to get over that first hump. The beach sloped up and it was heavy, black sand. With water in your boots it was very difficult to run,” he said. “You’ve got all this gear on your back and I was carrying a can of ammo for the machine gun. Every inch of the beach the Japanese had zeroed in and they were shooting at us with mortars and machine guns. They also had sharpshooters. They were well-organized.”
Even after Crossley cleared the beach and began moving inland, there was little or no vegetation to conceal him from enemy fire. It was more of the same stinking, hot, coarse black, volcanic sand that stuck to the Marines and everything they owned. The 2nd Battalion’s assignment was to cross the neck of the island, just north of Suribachi, swing right and head north toward the two air fields on the upper end of Iwo Jima.
“It was one continuous firefight. The guy next to you would get hit or maybe it would be the guy behind you or in front of you who would go down, but you didn’t stop, you pushed on,” Crossley said. “The only one who stopped would be the corpsman. They would always respond. Their main job was to stop the bleeding. They were magnificent, but there just wasn’t enough of ’em.
“The Japanese had all kinds of firing lanes. They were firing all sorts of artillery, mortars and machine guns at us. They had these depressions in the ground covered by big steel doors. The doors would open and they’d roll out a huge mortar that fired a giant phosphorus shell. It was like a huge football that hit the ground and sprayed the area with white phosphorus. If it got on a Marine it would burn a hole right through him.”
They were four days into the battle — it was Feb. 23, 1945: “Somebody in one of the foxholes saw the American flag go up atop Suribachi. Word quickly passed from foxhole to foxhole that our flag was up,” he said. “It was great to see that flag because when you were out there in no man’s land, like we were, you never felt like you were making much progress. It was a kill-or-be-killed environment, so it was a good day when our flag went up.”
After getting off the beach, Crossley’s unit reached “The Sulfur Pits.” This was a barren area of naturally formed holes of hot, black sand comprised mostly of sulfur. They were ordered to climb into these holes and dig in. When they started digging, the sulfur steamed up out of their holes and the sand they placed around the top of their foxholes, from the bottom of the pit, was also steaming hot and produced more sulfur fumes.
“Fletcher, my foxhole buddy, was a good ol’ Tennessee boy. He had a crummy black beard and looked just like Willie in Malden’s ‘Up Front’ cartoon,” Crossley said. “We were sitting in our foxhole when they grabbed Fletcher for stretcher detail. Two stretcher bearers were going to get the wounded and Fletcher went with them as an escort.
“When he came back he was holding a scrawny chicken by he neck. All its feathers had been plucked. I asked him, ‘Where in the world did you get the chicken?'” Crossley said. “Fletcher told me, ‘I was sitting there with my rifle between my knees and the other two guys were out picking up a wounded Marine. All of a sudden I saw this chicken walk by. I got the thing in my sights and BANG!’
“‘Then I reached over and got the dead chicken. While I was waiting for the stretcher bearers to come back I plucked it,’ Fletcher said. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘We’re in The Sulfur Pits, what are you gonna do with it?’
“‘I’m gonna cook it,’ Fletcher said.
“‘How you gonna do that?’
“‘I’m gonna cut off part of my pant leg, put the chicken in the pant leg, fold the ends over and bury it in a hot sulfur hole in the bottom of our foxhole.’
“He did and the next morning we had delicious hot chicken for breakfast. It was just about the only hot meal we ate on Iwo Jima.”
It was their fifth day on the island and all they had seen day and night since they landed was continuous Japanese firepower directed their way, it seemed to Crossley and Fletcher. They were part of a three-man light machine gun team.
“It was cold at night and the guy on the gun would be shivering all the time. The guy who had just gotten off the machine gun would sit in the hole and try and get warm. The third guy would put his arms around the guy on the gun and try and keep each other warm. Once the guy on the gun got warm, then the third guy would take over the gun and they would switch positions.”
While digging through the spoils of war on the island one day, Crossley came across a Japanese battle flag. It was all white with a rising sun in the middle. It was signed in black ink by an entire company. Emblazoned on one corner was a magnificent tiger’s head.
“I think the flag came from one of the Japanese Marines on the island. These were big guys, six feet or taller who wore green uniforms, leather leggings and had gold teeth,” he said. “I think that tiger’s head on the flag indicates the guy had earlier fought in China. I believe it was an officer’s flag because everyone who signed it was very careful with his signature.”
After “The Sulfur Pits,” Crossley’s battalion moved further north on the island to an area of eight-foot-tall ravines where the Japanese had set up firing lanes.
“You never knew what was waiting for you around the next corner,” he said. “We were losing men at an alarming rate. There had been 257 men in my company when we landed on D-Day. Ten days later there were only 29 left. I lost a lot of good buddies.”
On D-Day plus 10, Crossley became a casualty, too. He was completely incapacitated by a mortar round that nearly killed him. He was knocked unconscious by the concussion from the enemy shell. When he awoke, he couldn’t move and had lost control of all bodily functions.
From Iwo Jima, the young Marine was transported by hospital ship to Saipan, then to Honolulu and finally back to the states, where he spent months recovering from his injures at a veterans hospital at the Great Lakes Naval Reception Center.
After he recovered, Crossley took the G.I. Bill and went on to graduate from Western Michigan University. Later, he became a civilian audio-visual expert. He was Chief of the Audio-Visual Division for Public Affairs U.S. Army European Headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany. He was also a Reserve lieutenant colonel. After his retirement in 1987, Crossley and his wife Dolores moved to Venice.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, March 14, 2005 and is republished with permission.
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