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From the Stars and Stripes archives

Iwo Jima battle was a hell for both sides

Rene Gagnon points to his picture on a Stars and Stripes front page during his visit to Tokyo in February, 1965.

SHIGEMASA NAGAI/STARS AND STRIPES

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Published: February 20, 1965

TOKYO — America's ability to reinforce its battle-riddled battalions gave them victory on Iwo Jima, two former foes agreed Wednesday night on the 20th anniversary of that historic campaign.

Seated side-by-side on a straw mat floor while a Japanese girl served them dinner, Kikuzo Musashino, 65, of Odawara, Japan, and Rene Arthur Gagnon, 39, of Bedford. Mass., discussed the bloody fighting that between Feb. 19 and March 14 cost 19,000 Japanese lives and 5,931 Americans killed.

"After three or four days we knew it was lost," Musashino said. "It was a matter of reinforcements. Even before the landings the Americans had taken control of the sea and air."

Musashino is a tough-looking, tough-talking former captain who joined the regular army in 1919. He was known as "Oni Chui," or "Devil Lieutenant," in his younger clays.

"You played a rough game for the next month, even though you knew you were losing," Gagnon said, a smile creasing his dark face.

Gagnon is one of the six marines who rammed that famous pole into the ground on Mt. Suribachi in a flag raising that is as sacred to Marine lore as the Halls of Montezuma. That's why Gagnon is here. Friday he was scheduled to go back to Iwo with his pretty wife, Pauline, and their 17-year-old son, Rene, Jr.

"You may be interested to know that out of our company of 250 men only 12 walked off the island. The rest were wounded or dead." Gagnon leaned towards his former foe, who squinted at him through a pair of dark glasses. "As you've noted, with 12 men left out of 250, if we'd had no reinforcements floating out in the harbor we could have lost that one."

Gagnon and Musashino were two miles apart, they established, in March 23 when the Stars and Stripes went up over Mt. Suribachi.

"There had been fighting all through the night," Musashino recalled, "and it was still going on when the sun came up.

"On the day the Japanese force on Pipe Mountain (Suribachi) made their death charge and were wiped out, I was at my station in the south village on guard against enemy attack. We had a hospital unit there 10 meters below ground. We had our shelters above this and above the shelters we had zigzag trenches. I saw the flag go up on Pipe Mountain."

Musashino talked through an interpreter, but occasionally lie would look at Gagnon. Gagnon turned around and studied the former foe intently. Both said they had never met anyone from the other side before in actual combat.

The Japanese officer was finally captured, but not until June.

"We hadn't slept either," Gagnon said, thinking back on the eventful day. "You don't go to bed and you don't have to get up.' He laughed.

"I remember it vaguely. The first I heard was that they (2d Bn., 28th Marines) had lost contact with the patrol that was going tip forward. I was a battalion runner. You probably had them in the Japanese Army. too. They had lost contact. The radio had gone out. I was asked to bring up a replacement. I just caught up to 'em and followed all the way to the top. And what got me the most was that there was no fortification. A few mortars and mortar men, but we had been pinned down for four days by that mountain and yet when we broke through there was nothing there, really."

Musashino asked through the interpreter, "How many men did you have'?"

"Forty," Gagnon said. "On the way up we encountered about four or five snipers. That was it."

"The force defending that south beach was wiped out when they made their death charge," Musashino said. "We had everything pretty well beaten out of us. Only about 20 men were left. There was one shelter at the foot of Mt. Suribachi which held out until May."

Snipers made a hell out of Iwo, everyone who was there recalls. The snipers hid out in caves or sand during the day and carne out at night. Although the resistance fell in front of Suribachi in five days, it took another three weeks to reach the north side of the islands.

Following are excerpts from the remainder of the conversation between Gagnon and Musashino, which went on for two hours and a half over a Japanese dinner and sake cups and wound up with wishing the other well.

Musashino: The Americans hit during the day and then at nightfall . . . They'd drop back. That's what prolonged it. If they'd kept hitting they could have broken the defenses much more quickly.

Gagnon: What happened to the dead? We never saw any, not to any extent ...

Musashino: We pulled them back into our air raid shelters, pill boxes and buried them there.

Gagnon: It was a demoralizing thing to us. You would advance, but you never saw any dead. I think that was the worst part of it for us, because you were advancing, but you wouldn't see anyone. You figured where are they? So we had a feeling that as we hit towards the end of the island they'd all be there in one spot. That would be almost impossible to take. As a matter of fact, that other end of the island was much harder than the mountain itself ... We heard this (Japanese garrison) was the cream of the crop. Was this true?

Musashino: They weren't especially picked troops or anything like that. Matter of fact the (Japanese) marines fell apart in about 10 minutes. But the army commander (Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi) was a very good leader and he imbued a fighting spirit and that's what made them hold out so long.

Gagnon: We heard Kuribayashi got away, that he'd been picked up in a submarine.

Musashino: No truth to that because lie stayed until the last. On March 17, General Kuribayashi gathered the remnants of his forces around him and started a drive towards the third airfield. lie instructed his aides that if he were to die that his body was not to be surrendered to the army. During the advance he was hit in the thigh by a shell and a sergeant picked him up and carried him, but he died on the way and they buried him near the root of a tree at one end of the airport there. The U.S. forces later gathered this information and they made an effort, but never found his body,

Gagnon: What impressed you about the Americans?

Musashino: In their attack on Iwo, knowing that they were going to use the airfields, they did almost no damage to the airfields. These airfields, which had taken the Japanese two or three years to build up, the Americans restored in 20 days and were using them. This impressed me.

Gagnon: How were most of the caves dug out?

Musashino: By hand and with explosives.

Gagnon: This must have been quite a job. Some of them were big enough to drive a truck into.

Musashino: We had no machinery or anything like that. We had 23,1100 men to do the work in one year, starting in March of 1944. There were 8,000 navy and 15,000 army there.

Gagnon: One thing puzzles me. Why were there never any bayonet charges on Iwo.

Musashino: They tried a few, but they never succeeded. Perhaps it was because of the terrain.

Gagnon: Tell me, what was our most effective weapon?

Musashino: The most effective thing was that Americans were able to coordinate land, sea and air forces as one unit.

Gagnon: When we needed aircraft they came in.

Musashino: We had no air force (by then) as such.

Gagnon: When were you captuned?

Musashino: I think it was June 16, but I'm not sure. By that time we had run out of food and were all skin and bones. On the west side of Suribachi, at the foot, the soil is very soft, and we'd dig a hole in that and bury ourselves up to our heads. On this particular day about 60 people found me with a dog (police dogs used for search) and pulled me out and took me to a hospital where they gave me an alcohol bath, cleaned me up, put clean clothes on me and put me to bed. I don't remember what happened for the next few days and then they brought me some rich food which tasted pretty good. The prisoners, the rest of them and me, we kept asking, "Why are they fattening us up for the kill?" Nothing happened and after a while we were transported to Hawaii and then Sacramento. From San Francisco we took a train to Pennsylvania.

Gagnon: You more or less answered my question. You didn't believe you'd get the good treatment.

Musashino: We thought we were going to be questioned for all the information we could give out and then killed. We didn't get rid of that feeling until we got to Pennsylvania. Then a general came in and told its the war was over and we were going home.

Gagnon: Our last day was nothing like that, of course. We wound up just going to the cemetery for a ceremony and I remember the occupation force came in just as we were getting off the island. Someone looking for souvenirs opened up a cave that had been sealed off and we had about 10 or 15 Japanese soldiers rush out of the cave. Somehow they were living in those caves. There was another small scale war going on when they rushed out of there. It was not near as eventful as my last day on the island ... It was more or less secure. There wasn't much to it.
 

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