By Jim Rundles Copyright 1995. The Jackson Advocate, Jackson Mississippi. Posted by permission from Ms. Alice Tisdale, Associate Publisher.
(Published in the February 23 - March 1, 1995 edition in the feature column “Up and Down Farish Street.” )
“Editor’s Notes: For the first time ever, this week’s column will be dedicated to a single subject, of a single time. “The Battle of Iwo Jima”. Of course, we note the fact that our personal friend of many years, Myrlie Evers, has been elevated, by popular vote to chairperson of the National Board of Directors of the NAACP ... and we salute her. But because I see so little said about Black Marines who both fought and worked and died on Iwo-Jima. It is my responsibility to tell again their story, which is my story as well. We cannot blame the press for their limited mention of Blacks anywhere, in any wartime activities, because there was deep segregation in all branches of the military, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and SeaBees ... the fighting construction wing of the Navy. They were too. Before we get into this heretofore untold story of the part these brave Black men played in the Battle of Iwo-Jima, I must say that the National Director of the Iwo-Jima Veterans Association is Jim Westbrook of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and when he found out I was on Iwo, he was gracious and sincere, and invited me to participate in every phase of activity Iwo Jima Veterans participated in. Jim is a good man, a good Marine, and a hero who served in a Rifle Company, 4th Division, on Iwo. I thank Jim and I say to him Semper Fi, the famed slogan of the Marine Corps, which means “always faithful.”
For History’s sake ... we point out that the historic raising of Flag on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima occurred on February 23, 1945.
One of the bravest sights I’ve seen, was on Iwo where a Black driver of a duck .... the nickname of a vehicle that was half boat and half truck. Time and time again, delivered much needed ammunition to Marines fighting at the foot of Suribachi, where that flag was raised. The Japanese shot two trucks out from under him, but he came back everytime. Battle hardened Marines cheered him from their foxholes.
Black Marines assigned to Iwo Jima ... were like Black Marines everywhere else ... They were segregated from day one. The story began in the summer of 1941. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had by “Executive Order” declared that men, regardless of color, were to be inducted into the Marine Corps. Old-line Marines, all white of course, screamed to high heaven that didn’t want “Negroes” in the Corps. That “Negroes” could never be trained in the manner “real Marines” of the world-famed organization were trained and that induction of Negroes into the Corps would “hurt the progress of Marines as they moved from one bloody island, to another, in the Pacific war against Japan...” But, President Roosevelt’s decision was final, and he struck down all excuses from Marine Corps officers, generals to lieutenants. Roosevelt had not asked for “integration” of the military. That came 7 years later, 1948, under President Harry S. Truman. So, the Marine Corps brass, informed the President (Roosevelt) that they needed time to “build a camp where Black Marines would be trained” ... And so from July 1941 to August 1942, they stalled, but they had completed on the Southern end of Camp Lejuene, North Carolina, a place called Montford Point, complete with “all the facilities of the white camps. “ Good barracks, dining halls, churches, medical facilities, entertainment and movie halls, camp stores, barbershops, training areas, and rifle-ranges (where they would train the Black Marines to shoot) ... and all other facilities, on a par with ‘white’ facilities.
Back home in Jackson, where I was the first Negro Marine admitted to the Corps from Mississippi, I had to wait out the period until a sufficient amount of the camp had been completed. There was one special requirement the Marine Generals insisted on. “If we must admit them, and train them, we reserve the right to demand that every Negro who wants to become a Marine, must have an education either in college, or must have completed his high school courses.” It was the one regulation we later came to love, because intellectually, we were smarter than 80 percent of the white Marines. We had college graduates ... college Professors, college teachers ... high school graduates ... and in the end, the highest number of Marines (20) to be sent to Montfort Point, in a group, were from Jackson, Mississippi.
When we arrived at Montford Point, the D.I.’s (Drill Instructors) were waiting for us. They were tough seasoned Marines, veterans of Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, (the first, great battles between Marines and the Japanese). At first, they were determined to give us hell to show Roosevelt that “Negroes ain’t tough enough to be Marines” ... But we were just as determined.
By the strangest coincidence, my drill instructor, a Corporal McQueen, was from Brandon, Mississippi, and the Marine over the whole general area was a Captain Hamilton, a graduate of Millsaps College, in our mutual hometown, Jackson, Mississippi. Both McQueen and Hamilton talked to me privately, saying, in effect “You ain’t gonna get no special treatment because you’re from Mississippi. You’re gonna be treated like everybody else in boot camp.” And I was.
I must point out that the man over the whole operation at Montford Point was a Colonel Samuel Woods, a man who believed in his “Montford Point Marines” and guided us throughout training with the slogan “Make me proud of you.” Eventually we did. On the day before we “graduated” from bootcamp, Corporal McQueen came to our barracks .and invited me outside. He looked me straight in the eyes and told me ... “Rundles, I have recommended you for drill instructor. It has nothing to do with your being from Mississippi. You’re one of the best damned Marines I’ve seen come through boot camp Black or White, and you can help train these Negro Marines and make them proud to be Marines, and proud of themselves. Don’t let me down ... somehow, I know you won’t.” Then he shook my hand .... patted me on the back and walked away. I never saw him again.
I was drill instructor for two years. Many of those days and nights were uncomfortable due mainly to rifts between me, and many of the other drill instructors, who were all Black, by this time. I objected, openly, and angrily, to them because of the extreme measures they often used in training recruits ... all of whom were Black. I got right in their faces and told them what I thought.
Then an amazing thing happened. The Commandant of the Marine Corps was coming to Montford Point to look us over. General A.A. Vandergriff was a veteran of the Solomon Island and Guadacanal Campaigns. The heroic struggles that Marines first engaged in against the Japanese in World War II. Vandergriff was a tough, and seasoned veteran. I should state here that it was originally planned to enlist only 1,200 Black Marines. One Battalion, and it would be a defense battalion. Originally named the 51st Def. Battalion, and we were supposed to ‘defend’ some lonely island that the white Marines had already taken. It was a cold, calculating plot, designed to keep “Negro Marines” away from any part of any battle. We knew of the plot, and we also knew that General Vandergriff’s visit was designed as an inspection that would make or break the future of Negroes in the Marine Corps.
After his inspection of the camp, the general was to have us ‘pass in review’, or parade by him in full dress with shouldered rifles. One African American Marine sergeant was to stand six feet in front of the general, shout commands to 1,200 Marines, and order them to ‘pass in review’. One mistake and the whole thing would be fouled up. What sergeant would this be?
Not only would the top Marine in the world be breathing over his shoulder, his voice had to be strong and accurate enough for every Marine on the parade ground to hear him. It was a pressure spot. We talked among ourselves, the other sergeants and me. It was decided that the right to chose that man belonged to the top-ranking African American Marine at that time, Master Sergeant Gilbert H. Johnson, who had served for 20 years in the Army before coming to Montford Point as one of the first Black Marines.
Sergeant Johnson told us “I’m going to choose carefully, because you all know that the future of Blacks in the Marine Corps may very well hang on the shoulders of that one man, standing in front of General Vandergriff, calling the commands.”
I went back to my hut and laid across the bunk trying to think of the right man for that job. Ten minutes later Sergeant walked in, looked me in the eyes and said “Sergeant Rundles, you are that man. We will all stand behind you. I choose you because I know you can do the job. God be with you, and us all.
Three days later I stood in front of General Vandergriff, looked out across the parade ground at ten platoons of African American Marines 100 yards away, said a prayer, and called out the commands. Those Marines were great. They moved like one smooth machine. They snapped to attention. Did ‘right-shoulder arms’ ... and did a right turn, and when I got to the ‘pass-in-review’ the Marine band, all African American Marines in the “Marching 100”, struck up “The Marine Hymn” as they approached where we were standing with the general, and other members of the President’s cabinet. They were great. I was proud of them. It was beautiful to watch the pride and precision those men executed.
When the last man passed, I followed the orders given me before that day, did an about face and saluted General Vandergriff. He returned my salute, smiling broadly, and said, “good show sergeant ... good show.” The other sergeants almost mobbed me when we got back to our area. Sergeant Johnson said “you did it, by God I knew you would.” I told him no, you all did it, you were great. Indeed they were, I later discovered that following his visit to Montford Point, General Vandergriff lifted all restraints on enlisting African American Marines, and more than 20,000 served before the war ended.
A year later a general order came down from Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, stating “There are only two kinds of Marines. Those who have been in combat, and those who were going ...” A month later I was informed that I would be leading three platoons of African American Marines into a battle area “somewhere in the Pacific.”
That “somewhere” was a place that wrote a powerful chapter in American history, and the history of the Marine Corps. That somewhere was Iwo Jima. In August 1944, we were given our last furlough home before leaving for Camp Pendleton, California. We arrived at Pendleton in early September, and for two months we had special training, including “Desert training” where the temperature rose to 110 degrees.
The area of Pendleton where we were located, was about a mile from a little town called Oceanside. It was also 30 miles from San Diego, and 36 miles from the Mexican border, and a town called Tia Juana. Happily for me it was only 88 miles to Los Angeles and Hollywood, by train; and being something of a loner, I enjoyed the trips into L.A. on weekends. On one of those weekends, I happened to read a local paper while I was at the USO, and I noticed “Count Basie and his band were appearing at the Plantation Club, about 10 blocks away. It was the first time I’d heard the band “Live and in Person”. I remember meeting the Count, and he backed off laughing, and saluted me, “I didn’t know there were any Negroes in the Marines. Man you look good in that uniform ...” It was the beginning of a friendship that would last many years.
In late October, we boarded a ship heading for the Hawaiian Islands. The first day on board I, along with about a hundred other guys, got seasick. It was the sickest I’d been in my life. Everything I ate came right back up, and I spent a lotta time hanging on the rail, giving my food to the ocean.
The next day, one of the sailors in the mess hall asked me “Sergeant, ain’t you in charge of these Marines?” I told him I was too sick to be in charge of anything. He said “Tell you what ... get you a bunk as near to the middle of the ship as you can. Then, don’t eat no greasy stuff. Let me know when you’re ready for your chow and I’ll take care of you. He did, and I gradually got over my sea-sickness.
A few days later, we landed at Pearl Harbor, and traveled by bus to Camp Catlin, that was located about halfway between Pearl Harbor and downtown Honolulu. The islands are beautiful in Hawaii, that is an understatement. They were wonderful. It did seem odd however, to be singing Christmas Carols in 85 degree temperatures.
The first week in January, we boarded ship, headed for our mission. Nobody knew we were going, and we all knew better that to ask. We were on that ship for 40 days. As we left the Hawaiian Islands I can remember seeing the huge convoy we were a part of. Hundreds and hundreds of ships of all sizes. From what I learned later, it was the largest convoy in Marine Corps history. On the way to our destination, we stopped, briefly, at Kwajelien ... Guam ... and many days later, at Saipan and Tinian.
Several days later, we were briefed about our destination. Some place called Iwo Jima. The whole operation wouldn’t take but about a week, we were told, then we’d head back to the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. Only one small detail we had all overlooked. The Japanese on Iwo might not give it up so easily. On the dawn of the invasion, February 19, 1945, I remember we all gathered at the side of the ship watching the huge 16-inch guns of the battleships pound Iwo with shell after shell. Rocket-bearing planes were hitting the island’s north end with a barrage of powerful fire. The barrage kept up as I noticed the first landing party of Marines from the Fourth and Fifth Divisions boarding the assault ships, LST’s and closes. As they stepped into the crafts that would take the first wave of Marines to the beach ... The ships let loose a savage barrage of shells. It seemed the whole island was covered with smoke rising from the shells. Good Lord, I thought ... nothing can survive that.
I noticed, off to our right, the Marines were loading landing boats near the line of departure. Other Marines were loading the 75-millimeter Howitzers. As I glanced at the Howitzers being loaded, I had no idea the role they would play in the lives of my men when landed.
The first Marines ashore found the situation so quiet they had reason to believe that ole General Howling Mad (Holland) Smith just might be right. It wouldn’t take but five days at the most to take Iwo Jima ... wrong the Japanese, suddenly opened up with a barrage of shells from the 16-inch guns, taken from ships they had placed in the sides of Mount Suribachi, and the Marines had no place to run ... nearly two thousand Marines were killed that first day. Inch by inch they moved ahead ... but the deadly barrage never stopped.
After three bloody days of fighting, Marines of the 28th Regiment, Fifth Division finally captured Mount Suribachi ... but what a price. The flag was raised on the end of a long piece of pipe. Joe Rosenthall took his now world famed photo, and the Marines secured Suribachi, but that was only the beginning.
Black Marines of the 8th Ammunition Company had landed with the second or third wave. They somehow made it to some cover behind the jutting end of a cliff that leaned out toward the ocean .. it was their duty to keep ammunition in the hands of the Marines throughout the operation.
On D-Day plus three, climbed down the Cargo Nets into the LST’s ... in minutes we were headed toward Red Beach Two. Others among the Black Marines would be landing just north of us on Yellow Beach One. As we headed toward the beach, I glanced up and pointed my field glasses toward Suribachi, and there she went. They were raising the flag ... God, what a beautiful sight, I thought.
Our first position was in the wrong place. Everywhere on Iwo Jima was the wrong place, but we hunkered down between the Japanese line, and our 75-MM Howitzers, and the Japanese aiming at the 75’s fell a little short, and landed right on top of us. Only minutes after we landed two of my men were killed by Japanese mortar fire. As I mentioned earlier, it was the responsibility of Black Marines to work and fight, and on Iwo, for the first few days you couldn’t see anybody to fight, but somebody kept pouring hell’s fire of shelling all around us.
For three weeks straight, Black Marines in my company the 34th Marine Depot, and in my buddy, Gunnery Sgt. Kermit White’s Company, the 36th Marine Depot ... as well as the 8th Ammunition Company and the 16th Marines worked and fought. The Japanese were trying hard to knock out the 8th Ammo Company, because if they could blow up the Ammunition Dump, Marines would, in fairly short order, run out of Ammunition. Luckily there was never a direct hit on the 8th Ammo’s position.
It was weird, but we could be in our Foxholes, day or night, and hear Japanese soldiers running under us through one of the many underground tunnels they had built. Before we close we want to pay high tribute to the 16th Marines, who were also Black, and who had men killed and injured, as they went through hell and heat, bringing the wounded Marines from the front lines back to the temporary hospitals near the beach. Like many others of us ... they received a bunch of medals, including the Presidential Unit Citation, which I also wear.
WEEKLY QUOTATION: “On Iwo Jima, in the ranks of all the Marines who set foot on that Island uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Admiral Nimitz, Commander of the Fleet .