Colorado community celebrates Iwo Jima veterans
BOULDER, Colo. — On a beautiful spring morning, Dr. Dick Jessor walked the mile from his home in Boulder to his office. The longest-tenured faculty member in the history of the University of Colorado, Jessor's office in the CU Institute of Behavioral Science building features a view of Boulder that can't be rivaled by many.
Less than two miles away, Jack Thurman sat at the Egg & I restaurant in Boulder with his daughter, Karen, and his buddies from a church group. They sipped coffee, caught up on each other's lives and shared a few laughs.
The two long-time Boulder County residents, both in their late 80s, have never met, but 69 years ago, they were in the same place at the same time — doing their best to serve their country, help their friends and stay alive through one of the deadliest battles in the history of American war.
Jessor and Thurman were members of the United States Marine Corps at the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II in early 1945. On Monday, they will be honored for their service during the Bolder Boulder's Memorial Day observance.
"For me, it means that I can show my own respect for people who have served (in the military), but particularly for the people who didn't make it," said Jessor, 89.
Making it back from Iwo Jima took no special skills. There was so much blood shed between the U.S. troops and the Japanese that Jessor said, "Survival, as I look back on it, was totally a matter of chance."
Iwo Jima is a small island about 750 miles from Tokyo. Taking control of that island during World War II was critical for the U.S., which wanted it for an air base for the B-29s that were used in bombing missions. Without having control of Iwo Jima, the B-29s didn't have the fuel to make long-range missions and return safely.
On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, the Marines were sent in to try to capture the small island.
"We were supposed to take Iwo in three days," said Thurman, 88.
The battle, which lasted 36 days, cost more than 25,000 lives, including 6,800 Americans. Another 19,000 Americans were wounded.
For Jessor and Thurman, that was their only experience with combat, and it was brutal.
Thurman, who lived in Boulder for years and now resides in a Longmont retirement home, was a part of the 5th Marine Division — one of three sent on this mission. The 5th Division suffered more casualties than the other two amphibious corps involved.
Thurman and his fellow Marines were sent to land on Red Beach 1, on the southern end of the island, near Mount Suribachi.
"We didn't know what we were getting into," said Thurman, who was 19 years old at the time. "I tried to get an idea what it was all about, but boy oh boy, when we hit that shore, all hell broke loose."
Before they landed, Thurman said the amtrac (amphibious assault vehicle) to his left and the one to his right were both knocked out.
"It was a bloodbath out there in the water before we even got to the shore," he said. "It was ironic that I was to land on Red Beach 1 when the water was already red with blood."
To the north a bit, the 20-year-old Jessor and his mates from the 4th Division landed on Blue Beach 1.
"We were getting bombarded, so we all jumped out the back of the amtrac and I ran around, hit the beach and looked over," Jessor said. "The guy next to me had a big bubble of blood coming out of his mouth and died as I watched him. That was my introduction to combat."
The next several days were brutal for all involved. Jessor and Thurman both knew their time could be short.
"We knew that some of us are going to be killed," Thurman said. "My wish, along with quite a few of the others was, 'If I'm killed I want to be buried on Iwo Jima along with my buddies.'"
After the initial four days of constant combat, Jessor said his division was pulled back for a bit.
"We had a chance to write a letter home and I wrote to my parents and said goodbye," Jessor said. "People were getting killed every day. It was really pretty much of a slaughter, so I didn't expect to get off."
Both men were hit with shrapnel, but didn't suffer serious enough wounds to prevent them from continuing the battle.
On Day 5, Feb. 23, 1945, Thurman and the 5th Division took over Mount Suribachi. Thurman was one of the riflemen guarding his fellow Marines as they raised an American flag on the top of Mount Suribachi.
Thurman was among the 16 Marines in the famous "Gung-Ho" photo taken with the flag. Actually, Thurman was the only unidentified Marine from that photo. It wasn't until about six years ago that his identity in the photo was made known.
"I saw the first flag go up and that was the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life," Thurman said. "It was going up and then when they got a full mast, the wind hit it, unfurled the flag up there and it was just a beautiful sight to see."
That first flag flew for only about 5 hours before it was replaced with a bigger flag. The raising of the second flag produced the iconic photo from Iwo Jima.
To the north, Jessor looked back.
"I could see the American flag flying on Suribachi and I just started screaming," Jessor said. "I said, 'The flag is up on Suribachi!' and everybody around there turned around.
"We thought, 'Wow, we've got it!' For us, what it meant is our rear was now covered. It was under our control. But, we had a long way to go."
The battle lasted another three weeks or so before the United States took full control of Iwo Jima. It was mid-to-late March before Thurman and Jessor left Iwo Jima and returned to Hawaii.
They never experienced combat again, but think of that battle often.
For years, Jessor, who has been a member of the CU faculty for 63 years, didn't talk about it and, in fact, turned his back on the Marine Corps. He went to a reunion of the 4th Division in St. Louis in 1992, though, and has opened up more about his experience in recent years.
Thurman also needed a few years before he would talk about Iwo Jima. Today, however, he is proud to talk about it and has had many public speaking engagements over the years.
"It's something I want to do for the rest of my life," Thurman said. "I wanted to do this to honor my buddies. I can walk and I can talk for them and that's what I'm doing. I can't forget, and I don't want to forget my friends, my buddies. I'd (go through that experience) again, in a minute."
Both men grew up on small farms — Jessor in Eastern Pennsylvania and Thurman in South Dakota. After the war, they went to their separate lives, finding successful employment and raising families.
But, for a few weeks in early 1945, they shared an experience that few people can comprehend. On Monday, they will be honored for their service in World War II, but they aren't doing it for themselves.
"I don't really feel I should personally be honored, but I feel the veterans should be honored," Jessor said. "I concluded I was symbolic and that's really what it is. I'm standing in, especially for the guys I was with on Iwo."
Thurman said he thinks of those men often, and his memories of that time on Iwo Jima are vivid to this day.
For both men, Memorial Day is a time to remember the men they fought with, and why they did it.
"During the night, artillery fire would light up the whole area," he said. "If it wasn't artillery fire, it was flares. The sky was just full of flares. It would light up that flag and I could see the flag unfurling up there, the red, white and blue. The first thing I thought of us was Bunker Hill and the song, 'Oh say can you see ... that our flag was still there. It really hit us.
"Every morning that flag was there. A lot of emotion went on in the morning when we saw that flag still up there, waving us on."