Simmons was with the 96th Infantry Division and was already a seasoned combat veteran when he arrived on Okinawa in April 1945. He had been shot in the leg in the Philippines, where he earned a Bronze Star for valor.
On Okinawa, the division’s task was to cut the island in two and push south, he recalled. Simmons’ job was to destroy caves where Japanese troops — or civilians — were hunkered down.
“I was ordered to go up and blow this cave,” he said. “So I went up there and all I saw was children and women. And I refused to blow the cave. It was huge. I just couldn’t do it.”
His superiors told him it was OK this time, but that he better follow orders. He blew several more as they moved south and was wounded when an artillery shell peppered his body with small metal shards.
Ozzie Aasland, now 92, remembers the island defenders allowing the 6th Marine Division to land with little resistance. They wanted the Marines concentrated in one area so they could decimate them.
“It kind of backfired on them,” he said.
Aasland would remain there for 103 days, firing 105mm Howitzer rounds.
The only time he really felt scared was during a strafing run by an enemy aircraft.
“The bullets were tracking along like a sewing machine,” he recalled. “You only had a few seconds to know what was coming and analyze if it was going to hit you. You’re thinking, ‘Is this my time?’”
The gunfire missed.
Don Bryan, a 96th Infantry Division medic, also can’t forget his close calls.
One night, after hunkering down with three others a short ways down the slope from Needle Rock, on Hacksaw Ridge, a Japanese grenade landed in the middle of them. The enemy had crawled up to their position under cover of darkness.
The men had no time to react. They all just hit the deck. The grenade went off.
Miraculously, no one was injured.
After breakfast the next day, Bryan was returning to their position to retrieve his belongings when he saw a Japanese squirter running away with one of their machine guns. Another grenade landed nearby. He ran.
“I got hit in my left arm,” he said. “So that was the end of it for me.”
Roman Klimkowicz, a forward observer from the 96th, remembered a one-in-a-million shot that possibly saved the lives of his comrades and likely doomed one of the last Japanese defenders of the island.
Klimkowicz recalled sitting in a foxhole near the bloody Kakazu Ridge with a lieutenant, a captain and a few others when they heard a flurry of small arms fire.
The captain ran out with his .45 to see what was going on. Klimkowicz ran out with his carbine.
Supported by bazookas, Marines assault a ridge two miles north of Naha on May 4, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa.
They spotted a pigeon, already out of range from whomever had been shooting at it. Klimkowicz took aim and fired.
“I hit the thing by accident,” he recalled. “We went out to get it. It had a tube on its leg with all of our guns marked on graph paper… It must have been a Jap that had been overrun but hadn’t been picked up yet and he had some pigeons … It was a lucky shot.”
Sailor Bill Haligas joined the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army but didn’t get a free ride either.
He arrived on the USS Maryland just in time for the Battle of Saipan. Assigned to the lower powder-handling room, his job was sending powder by elevator up to the gun room. Tightly secured below the waterline, it surely would have been his grave had anything happened, he said.
During the Battle of Saipan, the Maryland was torpedoed but was saved by the ship’s damage control team. They were able to limp back to Hawaii.
Then, the Maryland was put back into service and participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where it was struck by a suicide plane.
“The kamikaze airplanes were flying around like mosquitos,” Haligas said. “They were so desperate by that time because we were getting so close to Japan.”
The kamikaze struck on the bow between turrets one and two, he recalled. Its 500-pound bomb went through the deck and detonated in the sick bay, killing most of the doctors and patients.
Tank-borne infantry moving up to take the town of Ghuta before the Japanese can occupy it in April 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa. The men are members of the 29th Marines.
Again, they limped back to Pearl Harbor, and again, they were put back in service, this time to Okinawa.
The Maryland arrived prior to the landing to soften up the island’s defenses, Haligas said. On April 7, they were once again hit by a kamikaze, right on top of turret three.
The plane, the fuel and another 500-pound bomb cracked the 18-inch-thick steel on top of the turret, but somehow didn’t penetrate it.
“If it had, I wouldn’t be here today,” Haligas said. “Because all the powder would be like the Arizona. All the powder would have exploded and we’d be gone.”
Marvin Goldberg of the USS Diachenko arrived in Okinawa in June. He had missed most of the fighting but the devastation spoke volumes.
“The only thing I seen in Okinawa was Naha, and it was flattened,” he said.
“It was about killing them off until they were wiped out is what it basically amounted to,” said Donald Dencker, an artilleryman also from the 96th. “We outlasted the Japanese.”
What these men saw and did had a direct impact on who they would become and the lives they would lead.
Simmons and wife Fay never leave each other’s side. They do everything together, from sailing to Mexico to skydiving on their 60th wedding anniversary.
“My life has been a big joke,” Simmons said with an easy smile. “We had fun.”
Stars and Stripes researchers Norio Muroi and Catharine Giordano contributed to this report.