Iwo Jima survivor describes the horror and pride of key WW II battleground
By Joe Napsha | Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa. | Published: February 23, 2014
From a makeshift hospital on the volcanic sands of Iwo Jima in February 1945, Raymond Goron cheered as he watched a group of Marines raise a small U.S. flag atop Mt. Suribachi, four days after the invasion started.
“When it went up, the men acted like a bunch of kids — celebrating like the war's over. We were jumping up like a bunch of girls. But it (battle) was just starting,” said Goron, a Navy corpsman attached to a Marine platoon fighting the Japanese in World War II.
That first flag was replaced by a much larger one — immortalized in a photograph and a statue at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va.
In his Southwest Greensburg home 69 years later, 90-year-old Goron pointed out that the flag raising didn't signify an end to the fighting on Iwo Jima. The brutal battles went on for five more weeks, leaving about 6,820 Americans dead and 19,000 wounded.
The 70,000 Marines who attacked the tiny island were deployed as part of an island-hopping strategy the United States used to move the war closer to Japan. The Japanese-held island had three air strips the United States could use to launch B-29 raids across the Pacific Ocean against Tokyo, 660 miles away.
Goron and his fellow corpsmen aboard the USS Sandoval landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, the first day of the battle, following the Marines, who were in the first wave of the invasion that morning.
Goron experienced combat for the first time on Iwo Jima, landing on the rugged island in a small boat that took corpsmen to shore to provide emergency medical care in the battle zone.
“We could see the battle (from the ship). I was a little scared going in,” he said. “We were in a sea of ships in the harbor.”
In a hospital hastily built just off the beach, “19-year-olds took care of 19-year-old boys,” Goron said.
The corpsmen were ordered to take the Red Cross emblems off their uniforms because they were easy targets for Japanese snipers, Goron said.
“We would be the first ones to be shot,” he said, leafing through photographs he has kept for nearly seven decades.
He recalls one Marine who was coming to help them was felled by a bullet to the head just before he reached the hospital. He died instantly, Goron said.
As they bandaged and stabilized the wounded before putting them on small boats that ferried them to the ships in the harbor, the ships were lobbing shells overhead, aiming at Japanese positions inland.
“Even to this day, I can hear those 16-inch shells going over my head and exploding into the volcano (on Mt. Suribachi),” Goron said.
The Japanese returned fire with rockets. One landed just below the hospital, killing eight men. Sparks from a rocket caught Goron's blanket on fire.
When night fell, he slept with his rifle pointing out of the foxhole, ready at a moment's notice. They would hear Japanese soldiers calling out for corpsmen, pretending “in perfect English” to be wounded Americans.
Despite warnings not to leave the foxhole to search for wounded soldiers at night, some medics did and never came back, Goron said. Tending to the wounded “is the first thing on your mind. It's bred into us,” he said.
When he saw the first flag raised atop Mt. Suribachi come down, he was disappointed, not realizing that another flag, twice the size, would replace it.
The second flag raising on Feb. 23 is most remembered because of photographer Joseph Rosenthal's famous picture of Marines hoisting it. Goron is saddened that those who raised the first flag have been largely forgotten in history.
“I am disappointed they did not put a plaque up for the first flag raising,” he said.
On the fifth day of the battle, Goron left the harbor aboard the USS Sandoval to take the wounded to hospitals on other islands.
“I was damn lucky to get out of there alive,” he said.
Goron was a student at Connellsville High School when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, plunging the nation into the world war that had been raging in Europe and Asia since September 1939. Goron had played tackle on the school's football team and blocked for future Notre Dame star and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack.
After graduating in 1943, Goron joined his father at Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, working at the Dickerson Run rail yard outside Connellsville. His father wanted him to apply for an exemption from military service, since railway workers were vital to the war effort on the home front — moving men and materiel like coal and steel.
But Goron listened to his buddies who had joined the military and enlisted in the Navy without telling his father.
“I wanted to see the world,” Goron said.
Instead, he saw the tragedy of war before he saw the world. While training in Cape May, N.J., 80 sailors were killed on a cold winter day when their ship was accidentally rammed by another.
“It was an awful experience. There were 80 frozen bodies. It hardened me,” Goron said.
For his military service, Goron last month received a certificate of special Congressional recognition from the U.S. House of Representatives and received a commendation from the state House of Representatives.
After the war, Goron returned to his job at P=, then worked at a former Westinghouse Electric Co. plant in Youngwood. He and his wife, Catherine, have been married since 1955 and have three sons, Michael, Francis and Patrick Goron.
Goron said he never returned to Iwo Jima.
“I can't forget it. ... I would love to go back if I could. In my younger days, I would have jumped at the chance.”
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.