Iwo Jima survivor tearfully recalls service, historic WWII battle
APPLE VALLEY, Calif. — John Hixson said tears streamed down his face as he watched five Marines raise the U.S. flag at Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
Almost seven decades later, the Navy veteran’s tears continue to flow as Hixson remembers his time in the Pacific and several encounters with Japanese Imperial troops during the war.
This month marks the 69th anniversary of the U.S. victory in the long and bloody battle, which ended March 26, 1945.
“I was on the USS Carteret giving cover to our guys with my carbine rifle,” said Hixson, 90. “I was taking fire as our troops took the Suribachi beachhead and raised the first and second American flag.”
Hixson said he’ll never forget Feb. 19, 1945, because it was D-Day at Iwo Jima and the day he survived his birthday.
“On the fourth day of the battle, we put up the second flag because the first one was too small,” Hixson said. “But when our guys saw that second flag go up, a sense of pride flowed through our troops because it was a sign that we were winning.”
Wearing a baseball cap with a patch from Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photo, Hixson seemed transported back in time as he pointed to black and white images on a computer monitor.
“Right there! That’s the area on Suribachi where the enemy was shooting from,” Hixson said. “I remember some of the guys who were taking these pictures, and I can still hear the bullets whizzing by my head.”
As Hixson’s ship transported the 5th Marine Division to Suribachi, Hixson said a Marine from Running Springs, Calif., was injured when he went in with the 3rd Marine Division.
“I don’t remember his name, but a shell hit near him and he got shrapnel in the knee, hip and back,” Hixson said. “He told me it still hurts him after all these years.”
Hixson, who was on the USS Carteret for the battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Ie Shima, and on the USS Barnes for the Battle of Tarawa, said missing the bus for boot camp in San Diego prevented him from serving on an aircraft carrier that was later sunk by the enemy.
“I credit Jesus Christ for seeing me through every battle, and protecting me from every bullet that missed my skull by inches,” Hixson said. “Even a downed fighter jet missed hitting me by only a few feet.”
Hixson said he was almost killed when a Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat fighter crashed on the aircraft carrier USS Barnes in 1943.
“I took cover under the flight deck, and I could feel and hear the smashing of metal,” Hixson said. “We lost the pilot and one of the guys onboard, and a bunch of our guys were injured.”
After leaving Suribachi for Saipan and dropping off a ship full of wounded Marines, the Carteret headed toward the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, where Hixson said he could almost touch the “belly of a kamikaze aircraft” as it flew over the ship and crashed.
“I relayed the order not to fire, but I guess our guys heard ‘fire’ and engaged the enemy in the sky,” Hixson said. “As it turned out, the kamikaze barely missed us and hit the water and exploded.”
Hixson said everyone on the Carteret was nervous as they approached the Yamato, one of the largest and most powerful battleships ever built, which carried 18-inch guns and could “lob shells at us from over 20 miles away.”
Hixson said he was relieved when he heard that the U.S. had sunk the Yamato before the monster ship could fire at any U.S. ships.
During the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, Hixson said he was in Okinawa and remained there until the war ended.
“After I heard what we had done with the atomic bomb, I was stunned,” Hixson said. “I never knew we had that kind of technology.”
Hixson said a mighty roar went up on all the ships as sailors celebrated the news that the war was over.
He said one of his happier moments was bringing U.S. soldiers back to the states.
“They put us in what was called the Magic Carpet ship,” Hixson said. “We brought the first load of Marines back to Portland, Oregon, and the entire town turned out to meet us at the dock.”
Before departing for the states, Hixson said U.S. troops picked up enemy rifles and handed them out to those waiting at the dock, as people handed them bottles of milk.
Since then, Hixson said he’s attended several Iwo Jima survivor meetings in Wichita Falls, Texas, where Air Force officers thanked Hixson and other Navy and Marine veterans for taking Iwo Jima so that American B-29 bombers could land. Hixson said his three daughters asked him to pen his experiences without embellishment so that his five children, 16 grandchildren and future generations could remember his life.
“Oh dear, I don’t remember how many great-grandchildren I have, but I wrote everything down, word-for-word,” Hixson said. “It was a labor of love for my family, and so every American could know a bit about the price that was paid for our freedom.”
Hixson has also shared his testimony to many groups and churches, and led the Pledge of Allegiance at the God and Country Celebration in November.
An official from the Library of Congress interviewed Hixson for a DVD project, but Hixson said he wasn’t given a list of questions ahead of time and it was difficult to remember every detail of the war.
“The planes that were shot down, the ships that were sank, so many battles, so much loss of life,” Hixson said. “It’s tough to remember everything that happened so long ago. I just know that my savior protected me through it all.”