On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, a 20-year-old kid from New Jersey stepped onto the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima, where his boots sank ankle-deep in the volcanic ash and the boom of mortar rounds filled the air.
He’d never seen combat before, facing the Japanese as a greenhorn, but he slogged 28 days through some of the bloodiest fighting in Marine Corps history – a battle that claimed almost half of his division.
Before he left that island, George Cattelona would take a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder, feeling pain as hot as grease from a frying pan.
He would survive a grenade exploding a few steps away, a blast that turned his helmet around backward.
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He would see a fellow Marine cut in half.
And when he sailed home to marry, to raise three daughters, to work in Raleigh as district manager for an insurance company, he kept quiet about Iwo Jima. For almost 40 years, his feelings about the war came out in nightmares.
“I don’t think anybody talked about it very much,” said Cattelona, 91, who lives in North Raleigh with his daughter, Nancy. “It’s one of the things, I guess, you try to push it out of your mind.”
But then he did talk about the war, first for a small audience at a Catholic church just up the street. Then at public libraries. Then in classrooms. He felt the pressure loosen in his mind. The more he told the story, the less the memory troubled him.
I talked to a young kid this past week and I asked her, ‘Did you ever hear of Iwo Jima?’ and she said, ‘No.’
George Cattelona, Iwo Jima veteran
So as his generation of World War II fighters dwindles to about 600,000 people, he urges his old comrades to open up as he did. He understands veterans’ tendency to shut the worst pictures away in a locked room at the back of their heads, and he knows the release they can feel when they invite people in.
“I used to encourage veterans, if you do one thing, make a DVD of what you went through for your children,” he said. “I talked to a young kid this past week and I asked her, ‘Did you ever hear of Iwo Jima?’ and she said, ‘No.’ ”
More than 16 million Americans fought in World War II, many of them – like Cattelona – leaving home for the first time. When he enlisted in 1943, the United States’ population stood at 136 million, less than half its modern total, meaning that roughly 1 in every 9 citizens wore a uniform.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that nearly all men and women from that war have passed into their 90s by now, and they die at a rate of 430 a day. By 2036, the federal government predicts, none will remain. But the final World War I veteran died in 2011 at the age of 110, so the government’s guess is based on the few veterans who will live well beyond a century. Advocates for these troops know that for most, the end is coming sooner.
“I realize what an opportunity it is to talk to these guys,” said Shayne Jarosz, executive director of the Iwo Jima Association in Virginia. “It’s a fleeting opportunity.”
Nobody knows for sure how many Iwo Jima veterans are still alive. Roughly 70,000 U.S. soldiers fought there. Membership in the association runs to 1,200, but that includes family members. Reunions now tend to draw about 30 actual veterans. On three occasions, Jarosz has led tours back to the Pacific, where the men who fought as teenagers remark on how much taller the island has grown, and how much wider the beaches have become – fueled by volcanic activity. Cattelona has flown back twice, retracing the paths where he carried a rifle.
“They grew grass from one end to the other,” he said. “How they did that I’ll never know.”
In February of 1945, Cattelona arrived by Higgins boat at Red Beach One, dropped in the sand two hours past the first landing – H-plus-two in Marine lingo.
He served as a forward observer in the 5th Division, a liaison between the big guns and the front lines, carrying information on where to shoot.
On his first day, crossing a stretch of flat land being pummeled by Japanese fire, a mortar landed in the middle of his team of 16, killing one Marine and wounding 10 more. A piece of shrapnel cut through Cattelona’s canteen, leaving a four-inch gash.
“Didn’t come out the other side,” he said, still sounding relieved. “Some guy asked me, ‘Why didn’t you keep it?’ Now who’s going to think about that?”
The day turned even more grim when his team reached a command post and saw a fellow Marine in two pieces, the top half unrecognizable.
“It looked like someone took a sword and cut his body right in two at that point,” said Cattelona, shaken after 70 years. “I saw it. Our radio man saw it, and he looked at it too long. I didn’t look at it that long. I saw it, and I pushed it out of my mind because I turned my head. And he screams. And I had to yell at him. The way I did it: ‘Danny! Let’s move it!’ ”
On the second day, closer to the front, a hand grenade exploded while Cattelona was building a foxhole, scattering hot metal.
“I got a piece in my left shoulder,” he said. “A piece of shrapnel went into my helmet on the back side and turned my helmet completely around. Of course, I screamed and yelled because that piece of metal in my arm was very hot.”
But the days on Iwo Jima grew less hectic after the first two. At one point, Cattelona and a few other Marines cooked Campbell’s Soup in a helmet – their only hot meal on the island. At another, an Associated Press reporter interviewed him on the island, leading his story with the Marine who escaped death twice.
Iwo Jima casualties: 18,000 Japanese soldiers killed 216 Japanese captured About 7,000 U.S. Marines killed 20,000 U.S. wounded
After 28 days, Cattelona left Iwo Jima, his division taking the highest casualties. He hadn’t shaved or bathed in four weeks of combat, and found himself wearing the same tattered uniform.
“I didn’t even want to look at it,” he said. “I had to buy myself a pair of jeans.”
By the end of Iwo Jima, American forces had killed nearly all of the roughly 18,000 Japanese fighters, capturing 216 that survived the battle. It has been guessed at since the war that another few thousand continued fighting in the vast tunnel system beneath the surface of the island.
Enemy losses nearly tripled the number of American deaths, about 7,000. But when the wounded are included, U.S. total casualties at Iwo Jima surpass the Japanese – an anomaly in the Pacific War.
Most stunning, though, for a generation raised in relative peace is that nearly 100,000 people fought on an island that could easily fit inside the Interstate 440 Beltline. At roughly 4 miles by 2 miles in total size, Iwo Jima would stretch from the Capitol to North Hills in one direction, and from Pullen Park to St. Augustine’s University in the other.
Scholars since then have debated what fighting there accomplished. After the battle, Iwo Jima was useless as a staging area for invading the Japanese mainland. But it did act as an emergency landing strip for B-29 bombers. Only a few months after fighting stopped on the island, a far larger and bloodier invasion happened on Okinawa.
More than anything, the battle is remembered for Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer-prize winning photograph of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi, perhaps World War II’s most iconic image.
The Iwo Jima Association has taken veterans back to the island since the 50th anniversary in 1995. The Japanese were reluctant at first, he said, thinking Americans were planning to beat their chests and gloat over victory. They didn’t. “We go out and honor the dead from both sides,” Jarosz said.
Once the men find themselves on the old terrain, surrounded by men who saw it in 1945, they open up and share stories.
“They’re 18 again,” Jarosz said. “It’s very cathartic, I guess. As soon as they get back, the first thing that everyone does is go to the bar there in Guam and sit and talk.”
As a history teacher, I recognize that within the next five years, most of these gentlemen are going to be gone. We are at the edge of the precipice.
Shayne Jarosz, executive director of the Iwo Jima Association in Virginia
Cattelona’s wife, Norma, died in 2006. He can remember her waking him during a war nightmare, long ago, her hand and her presence calming him down. All three of his daughters and his three grandchildren now have copies of a DVD where Cattelona recorded his story, preserving the details it took so long to share.
After the last trip to Iwo Jima earlier this year, Jarosz cautiously approached Cattelona and asked him to visit Fairfax High School in Virginia, where he teaches history. He didn’t want to impose, but Cattelona agreed, speaking to students too young to remember Sept. 11.
“For two days,” Jarosz said, “he went in and talked to every student that wanted to come into the library. The kids were absolutely riveted when he was talking. They see it as a huge novelty. As a history teacher, I recognize that within the next five years, most of these gentlemen are going to be gone. We are at the edge of the precipice.”
From a couch in Cattelona’s living room, a visitor can see two maps of Iwo Jima and three depictions of Rosenthal’s photograph, one of them painted on a gourd. While he can, Cattelona will tell anyone who asks about war as he knew it – the stories it took half a lifetime to speak.