World War II veteran learned price of freedom on Iwo Jima
By Ray Westbrook | Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas | Published: February 17, 2014
Marine Sgt. William R. Pasewark, an Iwo Jima veteran from the Bronx now rooted in Lubbock, values freedom.
He saw how much it cost in World War II on the small Pacific island of Iwo Jima, where sand is actually tiny black pellets of volcanic ash. There, 6,500 Marines died and another 20,000 were wounded in defeating 23,000 Japanese soldiers.
It is the same island where Joe Rosenthal photographed the raising of the American flag and turned it into an icon of victory for the nation.
Although an American patriot on the level of men who contended with British forces at the birth of the nation, Pasewark has moved on from bullets and bayonets to a more powerful weapons system -- words.
And when he speaks to students, he tells them they have a heritage of freedom that comes from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Pasewark wasn't always so appreciative of freedom, and at first he had no inclination to be a Marine.
At 18 in 1943, he was invited to take a physical examination for possible service in the military, and was on the subway with a friend from high school, Dick Weber, who was headed to the same place. They were riding into the unknown, but they had definite opinions about destinations.
Weber planned to choose the Marines, but Pasewark was looking at the long-range implications, and meant to take the Army Air Corps, where there were no muddy foxholes to dig.
"You learn a trade, go to Europe, see London and Paris, and live in clean barracks," he told Weber.
After passing the physical, and while wrapped in a towel, he came to a Marine recruiter who was holding his papers and wouldn't hand them over.
Essentially, he was shanghaied into the Marine Corps but later had no regrets. And Weber, ironically, was taken into the Air Corps.
Rehearsal for war
Pasewark and other Marines of the 25th Regiment, 4th Marine Division, practiced for the invasion of Iwo Jima while based in Maui, one of the Hawaiian Islands.
They had never heard of Iwo Jima. But when it was announced as their destination, they began studying a mock-up of the island.
With its dark, volcanic ash beaches, Iwo Jima looked sinister and evil to Pasewark.
Despite its dark aura, the Marines were well prepared physically, mentally and strategically, he remembers.
"Our youth, Marine training and spirit of the Corps welded us into a highly motivated, indestructible force -- we thought. We were thousands of miles away from home, and many of us had not seen our families for two years.
"Mentally and psychologically, as well as physically, we were in another world."
The invasion, attended by a fleet of U.S. ships along with aerial bombardment by American planes, started at 9 a.m. Feb. 19, 1945.
Pasewark was energized by the sight and figured his first combat was going to be easy. Besides, his battalion was a replacement force that wouldn't be among the first waves of the invasion.
"About noon on D-Day, even with no previous battle experience, we sensed that the invasion had gone awry," Pasewark wrote in memoirs of the battle.
"We watched over the rail as the wounded were brought back to our ship in small landing craft."
He remembers that along with the Marines coming back with serious wounds, there also was a K-9 Corps dog on a stretcher, suffering wounds and inbound for medical care.
He wrote, "The first attack waves needed immediate help, but the beaches and waters were clogged with disabled equipment, supplies and Marines -- live, wounded and dead. There was just no space on the beaches to land reinforcements the first day."
The night before he went ashore, he got his last haircut from the ship's barber and emptied his wallet of $32 for an extravagant tip -- money had no value on Iwo Jima.
Pasewark describes the 23,000 Japanese -- almost all of whom died either in combat or suicide charges -- as not so much on Iwo Jima as in it.
The underground portion of the island had been carved into 16 miles of tunnels that had survived periodic bombing by B-29s for months.
"The Japs always saw us, but we never saw them."
He remembers that after he had left the ship by climbing down the rope ladders, he entered a landing craft that held about 20 Marines.
"The trip to shore was the most tense time of the entire operation," he recalls.
"We didn't know what to expect. There were so many ways to die: small arms fire, artillery shells, mortars, drowning from a capsized landing craft, and when you finally got to the beach, land mines."
On the beach, it was impossible to dig deep foxholes in the loose, black volcanic sand, and the men in his unit detected a saturation pattern of mortar fire that was coming closer and closer to the shallow protection of an attempted foxhole.
"The mortar shells were deafening. It sounded as if the earth was breaking up around us -- and it was."
Pasewark and others, in danger from the explosions either in front of or behind them, intuitively sensed that they would only be at risk from the front if they moved to the ocean's edge.
Others stayed in place inside makeshift foxholes.
"Some who stayed in the foxholes were killed. But some of us who dashed to the ocean edge didn't make it either. Everyone was vulnerable."
Pasewark pauses in thinking about seeing fellow Marines fall in combat. "Yeah, oh, yeah, I saw some being hit ... I don't think I want to tell that story."
Remembering how they moved forward, he said, "Night in the hills were long and sometimes cold and wet. When we controlled a strategic position, our bright flares floating down helped deter Japs from infiltrating or attacking. But when you weren't the lookout and trying to get some sleep, the flares and the flickering shadows they created in the rocks and ridges kept you awake.
"It was eerie."
After the battle was winding down, Pasewark and other reinforcements went back into the rocky hills to recover their dead.
Snipers were still active.
"We carried bodies down to trucks that took Marines to their graves," he remembers.
"The excitement was gone. The reality of war set in."
A grave prepared
The dead Marines were placed on trucks, awaiting the preparation of a mass grave.
Back on his ship, he remembers, he and the others were tired, dirty and heavy laden, and he longed to sleep and be alone.
But he was called topside early the next morning to be part of an honor guard to bury at sea the men who had died during the night.
"My unforgettable first sight was the glistening deep blue Pacific waters and two white hospital ships with large red crosses on their sides. One was named Hope; the other, Solace."
He remembers, "We presented arms. The haunting melody of taps from the bugler wrenched my heart. Tears welled up in my eyes. Embarrassed, my head bowed. And there, on the steel deck, I saw splotches of tears from the rest of the honor guard.
"At that time, and under those circumstances, the emotions were too tough for any of us to handle."
He still keeps in his mind the image of the white hospital ships with their red crosses and the comfort they gave.
"I recall this scene every time I sing the hymn 'What a Friend we have in Jesus' ... thou wilt find a solace there; or hear the phrase 'When hope is lost, all is lost.' "
He wrote, "After the last burial, each of us silently scurried down to the sanctuary and solitude of our bunks. I thought about what had just happened to those we honored -- and to me. Words from the Navy Hymn became real to me:
"Eternal Father, strong to save, O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea."
Maui prepared a large welcome home for the men.
"When we neared Maui on April 5, 1945, I was surprised to see so many Hawaiians on the pier to greet us with welcome home signs, American flags, patriotic band music, girls in grass skirts and the enthusiastic alohas.
"Apparently, the fierceness of the battle, the Iwo Jima flag-raising picture and reports of the high casualties preceded our sea trip home."
Though he didn't know it at the time, Pasewark was on his way to a career as a professor -- New York University, Michigan State University, Penn State and Texas Tech. And, along the way, to a family with his wife, Jean, and six children.
He is retired now, after authoring 90 business and computer textbooks, but he hasn't stopped working or spreading the message of freedom.
Though the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima lived under a dictatorial government, they also longed for freedom, Pasewark believes.
One of the men who died had left behind a letter written by a young woman of Tokyo:
"You are spending the night and day on the battlefield, and I sympathize with you ... I still remember the time when we parted ... You may recall it on this occasion as the city is beautiful with cherry blossoms.
"You are not free now, but your duty will be a last one. I wish that you will do your best for your country."
Pasewark said there is a reason for the speeches he makes.
"They are to try to inspire patriotism and to express the thought that every living being -- every living creature -- wants to be free."
He learned the price of that freedom on Iwo Jima.