From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

More Than Brothers

I was seventy-two years old. For over fifty years, I’d had the same nightmares. I’d wake up in a cold sweat, often with tears running down my cheeks to my sweat-soaked pillow. I couldn’t forget that last battle and the friend I’d lost to a Japanese shell.

In the late 1930s, I had joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at the age of eighteen. The second of seven children, a six-foot, two-inch lanky boy from the Deep South, I wanted to help my family after the death of my father.

Four years later—a veteran and survivor of Roi Namur, Saipan and Tinian—I found myself basking in the sun on the Hawaiian island of Maui with my unit, the Second Battalion, Twenty-fourth Regiment of the Fourth Marine Division.

I was a machine gunner, first squad. My best friend was Richards, a broad-shouldered boy about an inch taller and a year older than me, who came from a town in the southern part of New York State. We did everything together.

We had been in Maui nearly three months. We played softball and went on trips to the town of Kahulai, but most of our time was spent in the seemingly endless boredom of marching, training and more training—preparing for our next objective.

Then all the boat rides, ball games, sunbathing and training came to an end. We were boarding transports to once again become a part of war, and we had no idea where our ships were taking us.

Our destination turned out to be a sulfur-smelling volcanic island called Iwo Jima. This island was near the end of Nanpo Shoto, a chain of islands in the South Pacific, 750 miles from Tokyo. Twenty-three thousand Japanese soldiers and sailors occupied it.

On D-Day, we left the safety of our transports and boarded the landing craft around seventeen hundred hours. We were to come in on the second wave; a section of the beach designated “Yellow” beach would be our landing zone. We were to take and hold this pork chop–shaped island as an emergency landing field for U.S. bombers and their fighter escorts returning from raids on Japan.

Leaving the landing crafts, we struggled to make our way across the beach. Trying to walk in the black volcanic sand was like trying to walk inside an hourglass—the sand shifted constantly beneath our feet. We made little progress because of the debris, the mines and the constant fire from the enemy. We also had the unpleasant task of wading through our fallen comrades.

We finally arrived at the crest of the beach and went across Motoyama Airfield Number One. We set up our guns and prepared to fight, staying there for what seemed an eternity.

My buddy Richards, who had been in sick bay aboard the transport, suffering from a high fever, finally joined me on the third day. I felt a lot better with him by my side.

Our gun was set up halfway between two airfields near a place called Charlie Dog Ridge. We were under constant fire from snipers, small arms and machine guns. Plus, a never-ending stream of shells came from the dreaded mortars, which were hidden in the jagged volcanic rock of this hell the Brass called an “objective.”

Hours passed as Richards watched my back and I watched his. Brothers in arms, we depended on each other totally.

As we repositioned our gun in what we believed to be a safer place, a Japanese shell suddenly exploded near our crater. Many were killed or wounded, including our ammo carriers and some of our riflemen. I was one of the injured. It seemed like hours, but it was only a few minutes until the angels of the battlefield, the Navy corpsmen, were helping me. As the stretcher bearers picked me up and carried me out, I kept reaching for my buddy. I did not want to leave him alone.

We had only gone a few yards when we were hit by another shell. One of the bearers was killed instantly, the other severely wounded, and I was hit for the second time. I lay there all night in the warm volcanic sand, worrying about Richards, trying to ignore the pain from my wounds. Sometime during the night, I lost consciousness.

The next morning, I was picked up and taken to the aid station on the beach. They told me I was the only one to survive the explosion. It was the last thing I remembered about those three awful days.

I woke up aboard a hospital ship headed for Guam. There, I was placed in a body cast and flown to the United States. Before and after my surgeries, I mourned Richards. I kept saying to myself, I should have been the one who stayed behind.

I was discharged in December 1945 and went back home to Georgia to be with my family. I had married that August, while on leave, and over the next fifty years, helped raise three sons and a daughter. My life was as full as a man could ask for, yet there was a hollow place in my heart that could not be filled. Not a day went by that I did not think of my best buddy still on that island. And sometimes there were those awful dreams. . . .

In 1995, I attended a “Veterans of Iwo Jima” reunion in Atlanta. At the reunion, I was asked to join several veterans’ groups. After talking with other vets, I finally wrote my name on a few different sign-up sheets. A copy of one of these pages ended up in the hands of a retired police detective in Endicott, New York, who immediately recognized my name.

The detective called me the very next day. I answered the phone, and a man asked, “Newton?” For the first time in fifty years, each of us heard a familiar voice—a voice we both thought we’d never hear again. The voices belonged to two Marines who had gone through the hell of war and who had each been told that his best buddy had been killed in action on that bloody island.

To this day, we continue to phone, write and visit each other. The bad dreams are gone, the empty place filled. We are now, as then, closer than brothers.

William C. Newton
As told to Bill Newton Jr.

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