CAMDEN COUNTY, N.J. — Over nearly 70 years, John Lauriello rarely spoke of that brutal fight. His coworkers at Radio Corp. of America in Camden had no idea what he had been through.
Even now, when he turns in at night, the sights, sounds, and smells of Iwo Jima creep back into his memory, he said.
"The constant fire, the tension, noise, odors, and dead bodies were everywhere," said Lauriello, 90, of Westmont. "I remember getting shot at — and the sand dancing up around me.
"You knew you were the target," he said. "How I got through it, I can never tell. It was absolutely luck."
A Marine in the first wave to hit the sands of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, Lauriello is one of four World War II veterans who share their stories in a new documentary.
The film, The Voices of Camden County's Veterans: World War II in the Pacific, debuted in December by the county Freeholder Board and is the first in a series focusing on the history and experiences of local veterans.
Now online, the documentary was produced by the Rutgers Oral History Archives and the Camden County Office of Veterans Affairs.
"I have heard remarkable accounts of service and sacrifice from our veterans," said Freeholder Deputy Director Edward T. McDonnell, liaison to the veterans affairs office. "Every time one of their stories was shared with me, I knew that the valuable lessons from the 'Greatest Generation' must be captured before they were lost forever."
As young men seven decades ago, Lauriello, John Welsh of Somerdale, Edward Hill of Pennsauken, and Linwood "Stu" Allen, formerly of Berlin, tried to survive a day at a time in deadly places such as Guam, Bougainville, Guadalcanal, and Okinawa.
They never imagined they'd be asked to tell their stories for a documentary.
The war began for Lauriello on a bright picture-perfect day in South Philadelphia as he sat on the front steps of his aunt's house.
"I was enjoying the sunshine when someone heard the news on the radio: Pearl Harbor had been attacked," he said. "I enlisted in the Marines."
The decision later led to his assignment with the 27th Assault Regiment of the Fifth Marine Division, one of the first units that would land on the black volcanic sands of Iwo Jima.
"When I went in, there was nothing there — no tanks and no artillery," Lauriello said. Enemy "fire was pretty severe, pouring down on us like from a big shower head."
While talking with another Marine, he briefly looked away, turned back amid the battle's cacophony and "he wasn't there," Lauriello said. "He was laying in the sand, dead, picked off by a sniper.
"There's so much going on that you didn't have time to think about it," he said. "You protected your rear end."
At one point near an airfield, he was ordered to move from a foxhole he had been digging. Minutes later, two other Marines were blown up at the same spot.
As his regiment moved north, Lauriello heard ships' whistles blowing and knew "something was going on." In the distance, he saw the Stars and Stripes fluttering over Mount Suribachi, but the fighting was far from over.
"There was another 32 more days of it," he said, "and we were lowering some flags — of the Japanese."
By the time John Welsh landed on Iwo Jima, he had already been into combat in Bougainville and Guam, where he was hit in the back with mortar shrapnel, which he still carries.
"Iwo Jima was brutal. But it was somebody shooting at you, whether it was Iwo Jima or Bougainville," he said, "it was the same damn thing.
"Everybody was scared, but that didn't hold them back," he said. The Marines "were hot to trot."
Welsh, 93, had a lot of close calls. "But I never thought it would be me," he said. "I always thought it would be somebody else, and there were a lot of somebody else's in our uniform" at Iwo Jima.
Welsh was wounded in the arm March 12, 1945, about two weeks before the battle ended. "You can't convey the things that happen in war," he said.
The war at sea was deadly, too. Edward Hill, 89, joined the Navy after the war broke out and served as an electrician's mate, second class. He was assigned to the Intrepid, an aircraft carrier, which had been in the South Pacific only two weeks in February 1944 when a torpedo struck it, damaging the starboard screws and rudder.
"I think I said, 'Holy hell, we've been hit with a fish,' " said Hill. "The carrier shook and shuddered."
It would be hit again later that year in separate incidents — when a Japanese kamikaze killed about a dozen sailors around a 20mm gun, and when a 500-pound bomb hit the hangar deck, killing others.
In 1945, two kamikazes struck off Okinawa, within minutes of one another. Hill volunteered to help clean up a pilot's ready room, where he retrieved remains, including a charred head and foot.
"After seeing something like that, a lot of people didn't want to go in there," he said. "People growing up now don't know about war. There's no glory in it."
Air superiority in the Pacific was crucial as the Marines moved closer to Japan — and Stu Allen, a Marine crew chief for a twin-engine B-25 bomber, kept the planes flying.
"We bombed the Japanese at their air base at Rabaul," New Guinea, said Allen, 90, who now lives in Mantua. "Their runways were so torn up, they couldn't get a plane off the ground."
At the end of the war, Allen was scheduled to accompany a B-25 back to Hawaii, then was ordered to remain. Two days later, the plane blew up, and everyone aboard was lost. "It could have been me," said Allen.
Later, aboard ships that pulled into San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles, Allen and other service members received tumultuous welcomes.
"It's important to document these stories before the veterans pass way," said Shaun Illingworth, director of the Rutgers Oral History Archives. "They lived these events. They are the last living touchstones to them."