Newsletters & Information > They Worked and fought on Iwo Jima
They Worked and fought on Iwo Jima

Mar 1, 2005

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 .

 JAMES E STEWART JR PRESIDENT

JOHN TILLMAN VICE PRESIDENT

Historical advisor Byron Stewart PhD

 

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