STOCKTON, Calif. (Reuters) – On the 75th anniversary of the U.S. Marines’ landing on Iwo Jima, 104-year-old William White still has vivid memories of the exploding grenade that nearly ended his solo reconnaissance mission during one of World War Two’s fiercest battles.
White was one of tens of thousands of Marines who stormed the beaches of the tiny tear-shaped Pacific island, a landing that began on Feb. 19, 1945. The bloody, 36-day battle that ensued left nearly 7,000 U.S. and 22,000 Japanese fighters dead.
White, who resides in an assisted living facility in Stockton, California, said he was looking for cover for his unit when he encountered a squad of Japanese soldiers and opened fire. The Japanese responded with gunfire and grenades, and one exploded and wounded him so badly he thought he would die.
“It could have been very, very simple. But it didn’t happen, fortunately,” said White, a Purple Heart recipient who is among a dwindling number of U.S. veterans of the battle.
Iwo Jima, about 700 miles (1,000 km) south of Tokyo, was sought by the U.S. military as a staging area for attacks on the Japanese main islands.
It is best known for an iconic news photograph of six U.S. Marines raising the U.S. flag on top of the island’s Mount Suribachi, signaling a hard-won victory. The photo inspired a statue at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
White was a company sergeant assigned to lead a 10-man security detail for the First Battalion, 28th Marines, during the invasion, named Operation Detachment. When he ventured out alone on his reconnaissance mission to look for cover, he was about 50 yards ahead of his men when suddenly the gunfire erupted.
His fellow Marines exchanged fire with the Japanese military for several minutes. Suddenly, a grenade went off six to seven inches from White.
“The next thing I knew I was up against the wall. The grenade had exploded, shoved me back against the wall. I had no idea what was going on,” White said.
Somehow, he managed to get up and stagger back to the sick bay. White does not know how and cannot explain it, but knows he was lucky.
White was later transported to Guam and eventually back to the U.S. mainland. The Purple Heart that arrived in the mail several months later was one of many medals he was awarded during his 35 years of active service.
The centenarian, who was married for 42 years and rose to the rank of major before his retirement, said he thinks about Iwo Jima from time to time.
“I occasionally have thoughts about what happened or what might have happened,” White said. “But that’s it – just memories.”
Reporting by Nathan Frandino in Stockton, Calif.; Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Dan Grebler