Iwo Jima Letter


On Saturday, my wife was going through some old papers and found a letter her cousin Bob Terese had written to his parents on March 22, 1945 — almost precisely 70 years ago. He was a Chicago kid, 20 years old at the time. (The gap in age between him and my wife is explained by the fact that Bob’s mother was the oldest of twelve children, while my mother-in-law was the third youngest and became a mother relatively late in life.) The address is given only as “IN PORT” and the letter begins:

I guess this might be called “An Anniversary”, because it was a month today that I received my Battle Colors — in the invasion of IWO JIMA. Inklings of the momentous engagement came to me from the thunderous salvos of our warships tearing the Japs and their island to bits. From three o’clock when I first answered the call to man my battle station I could see the crimson and orange of cannon lightning and the brilliant bursting of star shells as they radiated their glow of death. And in the clear of the dawn I saw the midget of land — small, and so out of place in the vastness of the ocean, like a tree on a desert — “Hell’s Acre”, two and a half miles wide and five miles long.

Even in the happy newness of an early morning sun, the island looked desolate and grimly pale — first from the haze of exploding Jap guns and the bursting of our bombs from dive bombers and later from the mist of a miserable rain that kept falling throughout the day. On the signal bridge I watched the first assault of our Invading Amphibious Units that struck about a mile from Mount Surabachi, which was the strategic key to the whole island.

Reading those words and holding the tissuey paper on which they were typed, I was struck, first, by Bob’s literary style — this was from a man who enlisted straight out of high school, who would never end up getting a college degree. There are some purplish passages that come out of a boy’s adventure story (“Inklings of the momentous engagement … “), but the writing soon settles down. Vivid, colloquial, and eloquent, it provides a window into history. (I’ve posted the entire letter on my website.)

Bob was on the U.S.S. Artemis, an “attack cargo ship.” On February 19, it had anchored off the coast of Iwo Jima, the tiny Japanese island that the United States was about to attack. (He didn’t write home about it until a month later because “Naval Regulations prohibit any mention of contact with enemy units until thirty days after the initial encounter.”) Bob says early on (slipping into the historical present), “Please remember that I do not hit the beach with our Amphibious Units. I remain on the mother ship … to discharge cargo, man the anti-aircraft guns and haul our invasion boats aboard when they return for fuel or a night’s lodging.”

But he was hardly remote from the fighting. “I had a box seat in fact, our ship was so close that the shells from our battleship screamed and whistled as they passed directly overhead.” And from that box seat (one of several baseball metaphors in the letter) he witnessed some amazing things, including the real-time action of the iconic photograph that emerged from the battle:

I saw the American flag raised atop the crater and I cheered — but I did not know how blood red was that Star Spangled Banner. We had a few air raids that made me a few years older — but then one expects those things when stealing apples from under his enemy’s nose. After all, it was the boldest assault we’ve pulled so far, only six hundred miles from Japan. …

All the advantages were on their side as we played in their ball park against fortifications that were impregnable except by direct attack with flame throwers and without the element of surprise for Tokyo have been broadcasting an accurate prophecy about the possible invasion of IWO two weeks before it came off. Yes, we were all scared when we first entered the battle, but I’ll bet the Japs wet their pants too. …

Bob survived the battle and the rest of the war. Afterward, he worked at a number of jobs, including, in the late 50s, as a school-bus driver for mentally disabled students at a school in Glen Ellyn, Ill. It occurred to him that their opportunities were limited once they finished their schooling, so, with a partner, he opened a pet shop in Chicago staffed by people with such disabilities. That eventually led to Lambs Farm, a 72-acre property north of the city where residents could work on a farm, a restaurant, a bakery, or a shop. Bob died in 1999 but Lambs Farm continues to operate, offering work to 250 people and housing to 160.

I never met him and I don’t know how much the wartime experience affected him. I would guess a lot. My daughter Elizabeth Yagoda is a high-school history teacher. When I sent her a transcript of the letter, she replied that she’d just been discussing with her students “that we’re something like the second generation where childhood deaths are uncommon.” Bob, not far beyond childhood at the time, certainly had a front-row view of death on the Artemis. He reports on what he saw, in language that gets simpler and simpler — no more “inklings of the momentous engagement” — until he gets to the image that must have stayed with him forever.

My most memorable personal experience was the hoisting aboard of Marine casualties with our ten ton boom. It seemed everything was against our getting them safely on deck except GOD, and it was only through Him that we did it. The water had devastating swells that pitched the small boats we were hoisting the Marines from unmercifully and to harass matters more, it was pitch dark. It took an hour to accomplish a task that normally would have taken fifteen minutes. Some of the Marines had arms blown off, others suffered shrapnel wounds and one died the next morning from severe burns he received when a tank blew up from a bomb hit. And so that night I witnessed my first burial at sea.

Two shells were strapped to his legs for weights and then he was placed upon a wooden plank that extended over the side of the ship. A huge American flag was placed over the body and threatened to blow off thru out the ceremony. I can’t describe how sad I felt when the plank was raised and I heard the body splash into the water. The empty flag looked so lonely and it seemed to wave farewell to a very dear friend. I guess that’s the first time I’ve cried since I’ve been in the Navy — tears for a buddy whose name I didn’t even know, but in a sense of comradeship I knew him because he played on my team. …




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