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Iwo Jima veteran recalls WWII battle

By GEORGE BARNES | Telegram & Gazette | Published: February 19, 2017

WEBSTER, Mass. (Tribune News Service) -- Sitting off the Pacific island of Iwo Jima in a amphibious landing craft on the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, Edward Brisbois, 90, of Webster watched events unfold in what was to be one of the most celebrated and bitter battles of World War II.

Only 18, he was manning a machine gun on a Higgins boat filled with Marines waiting to join troops already fighting Japanese on the tiny island. The beach was shrouded with smoke as a nonstop artillery and machine-gun fire rained down on Marines struggling through the volcanic ash-covered beaches. The vehicles the troops were supposed to ride in on were stuck.

The Marines whom Brisbois' boat was delivering were part of the second wave to hit Red Beach 1, located in the shadow of Mount Suribachi. They were behind schedule. As they waited, the Marines prepared themselves for the worst. The boat crew was just hoping they would not be sent to the bottom of the Pacific.

"The Marines were hunkered down," he said. "Some were praying."

Many would not live to see the end of the battle. Marking the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, Brisbois, a Cambridge native who now lives in Webster, said it is important for people to remember the sacrifice of those who fought in that brutal battle, which lasted 36 days at a cost of 20,000 American casualties, including 7,000 dead. The Japanese lost nearly all of its more than 18,000 troops from fighting or ritual suicide.

During the battle Marines had to literally dig the Japanese defenders out of hundreds of pillboxes, caves, tunnels and other fortified emplacements throughout the island. During the battle, 22 Marines and five sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor. Fourteen of the medals were awarded posthumously. Although the island was declared secure on March 26, 1945, attacks from small Japanese forces using the tunnel system continued for three months, Army troops on the island as a garrison force killed up to 6,000 Japanese in small-unit actions. Two of the Japanese defenders did not surrender for four years.

Brisbois said he is concerned that the history of Iwo Jima and other battles are not being taught in schools and the memory could be lost to history. For years he would attend reunions held for amphibious sailors who fought in the war, but he said few are left and the reunions are no longer held.

"Kids don't know what went on there for 30 days," he said.

Remembering his first trip to the beach, he said as they moved forward, they came under fire. Shots were splattering around them like handfuls of pebbles thrown into the water. They were lucky. Others were not.

"A boat would get hit and pull out of line," he said. "We weren't even up to the line of departure when this was happening."

With the first shots, he said he jumped from his machine gun and grabbed a rifle, thinking the Japanese would be coming over the side. No one knew what to expect. All were steeling themselves for the landing, the boat racing town shore, when two naval destroyers cut in front of them, firing at the beach.

"It was pow, pow, pow, pow and then all went quiet," Brisbois said.

As they hit the beach, the boat's front ramp dropped, but the Marines did not move. The boat was under intense fire. They had to move. Bisbois said the coxswain, Paul Denk of Pittsburgh, told him and another sailor to get the Marines off the boat. They yelled at them to move and they responded, rushing to get out of the boat.

"They started falling down and I thought, 'They're Marines, they are supposed to be athletic,' " he said. Then it dawned on him what was happening. The men were being shot. "I thought, 'Holy mother of God, keep moving.' "

Five never made it off the ramp, shot dead as they tried to exit. Others were wounded and dragged back onto the boat. Brisbois was enlisted to help medics get several wounded onto the boat. After they loaded all they could, the ramp went up and they brought the wounded to a hospital ship. Brisbois and his crew then headed back to the island to help resupply Marines with ammunition, food and other supply efforts up and down the beaches.

"I didn't sleep for four days," he said.

On the morning of the fourth day of the battle, he said they were laying off the beach when all the ships began blowing whistles. He looked toward Mount Suribachi and saw a flag being raised. What he witnessed was the the first flag of what would ultimately be two flag raisings on the mountain. He did not witness the iconic second raising photographed by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. He said the first flag raising of a smaller flag is more meaningful to him. For years he has flown a replica of that flag at his home in tribute to that special moment.

Brisbois went ashore a few times during the early part of the battle to haul supplies to troops and to back up the battalion clearing and organizing the beachhead. He and his crew looked for Japanese hiding near the beach in tunnels and small spider holes where they would emerge from to shoot at troops from behind their lines. During one of those trips, he said he said they came upon an emplacement for an antiaircraft gun set up near the first airport to fire on the beach. Near the gun he found a dead Japanese soldier with a rifle. The rifle had a bullet hole through it, but he picked it up and brought it home with him. It is now part of a large collection of memorabilia from his time in the service, including photographs of him when he was 18 years old, a few photographs taken from his boat off shore as the battle raged and other items, including photographs of ships he served on.

Brisbois survived the battle of Iwo Jima with only a small wound. His ship was resupplied and joined a fleet in the battle of Okinawa, the last major battle of the war. That battle was one of the bloodiest of the war with more than 12,500 Americans killed. Thirty-six ships were sunk and 386 damaged in suicide attacks by kamikaze pilots and suicide swimmers.

Brisbois survived that battle as well and returned home to a long career in the automotive industry. His brother Bill was not as fortunate. Fighting in Europe, he was wounded and eventually died.

(c) 2017 Telegram & Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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