The last time he was there, 67 years ago this month, people were shooting at him.
Greene, a Marine Corps veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, has been invited by a Denver foundation to return next month to that volcanic island where 7,000 of his comrades and more than 20,000 Japanese died between Feb. 19 and March 26, 1945.
A 19-year-old radio operator during the battle, he is one of 10 veterans making the trip, courtesy of the Greatest Generations Foundation, an organization sponsoring veteran trips to World War II battlefields. Greene and his fellow veterans will accompany military history students from Ohio State University, and also stop at Guam, Saipan and Tinian, the locations of other World War II Pacific battles.
“When I found out I was invited to go, and they said there was 10 college students going along, I said ‘This is great. I’d just as soon talk to these kids,’” Greene said.
Greene retired from the construction industry in Waterloo and has been to Japan several times. In 2008 he returned a Japanese imperial battle flag of one of his fallen former foes to that soldier’s family. Last fall, he organized a reunion of his surviving Marine platoon mates and local Iwo Jima survivors. But he has never been back to Iwo Jima, site of one of the war’s bloodiest battles.
For Greene, going with young people is just as important as if he were making the trip alone or with other veterans.
“It’s not as much emotional, but the fact that I can walk along that island with somebody that’s 20 years old that’s interested in what went on back then, and then help them understand what we went through — to me, that’s so important,” Greene said.
Young people now have a greater curiosity and appreciation for past conflicts because of present ones, Greene said.
“I’ve given a couple of talks at West High School. With our nation so involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, these kids are in much closer touch with what the military is, and that people do die, and things like that.”
“Our unit went ashore with 3,111 men. Thirty-six days later, we left with 1,411. Over half of them were gone,” killed or wounded, Greene said. The Marines were subjected to withering artillery fire as they started to move off the beach. He was in reserve but moved up to the front as others Marines were killed or wounded.
“You relied on your buddy. You kept him alive and he kept you alive,” Greene said. “I had dirt flying on me and stuff; I was buried one time by a shell near me.”
He’s looking forward to taking his college-age traveling companions atop Mount Suribachi, where five Marines and one U.S. Navy corpsman hoisted a U.S. flag in the most iconic photo of the war, and to walking along the beach.
He spent most of that time on the beach on his belly.
story by: Pat Kinney
photo courtesy of: Matthew Putney