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Camp Pendleton Marine Recounts His Battle At Iwo Jima


Sixty-five years after the battle of Iwo Jima, retired Sgt. John Thurman talks about his experience as one of the first Marines to hit the beaches of Iwo Jima in steel amtracs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Every school child knows that World War II was a devastating conflict and many American servicemen lost their lives in Europe and in the Pacific. But it brings the magnitude of loss in that war into sharper contrast to know that more U.S. military personnel lost their lives in one battle of World War II than in the nine years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. The battle I'm speaking about is the Battle of Iwo Jima, the tiny Japanese island situated about 650 miles south of Tokyo in the Pacific Ocean. It is perhaps best remembered today for the iconic photograph taken of U.S. Marines raising the American flag during the battle. One man who fought on Iwo Jima is here in San Diego to talk to new Marine recruits about that famous battle. I’d like to welcome my guest, retired Marine Sergeant John “Jack” Ryland Thurman. He’s the author of "We Were In the First Waves of Steel Amtracs Who Landed on Iwo Jima." And, Jack Thurman, welcome to These Days.

JOHN RYLAND THURMAN (Author): Well, thank you. Thank you. Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Why did you decide to write this book about your experience on Iwo Jima?

THURMAN: Yeah, what I was doing, I was getting into a lot of talks at different clubs, the Kiwanis Club, the Lions Club and so on, and then at CU there in Boulder, Colorado, I got to where I was talking up there at the ROTC. And each time, I – it was suggested why don’t you write a book? And I never gave it much thought as – until time went by and went by and I can tell you one thing that got me started. I had started the book sometime ago but I got away from it simply because I just, you know, it was hard to hold back the emotions and be able to – and difficult to write.


THURMAN: And so I got away from the book for awhile. And then my daughter was stationed over in Okinawa for three years and she talked us into coming over there. And the thing that happened was that she had me – she conned me into a talk that night. I should’ve known. And – excuse me.

CAVANAUGH: That’s okay.

THURMAN: And so I made my talk and, boy, excuse me. I made my talk and then after the talk was over with, going out the doors there, the assembly doors, a Marine stepped up to me and he says, sir, can I ask you a question? I said, sure. I would say there were probably about 8, maybe 10, Marines standing there. And he says, we’d like to know what is real. Is our training anywhere near the real thing. And that caught me. And I says, no, you’re not ready. The body’s ready. The Marine Corps gave you a strong body to overcome any kind of terrain that you’re going to have to endure, but, I said, the mind is not ready.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you a question, Jack.


CAVANAUGH: You were trained here in San Diego before you went overseas to Iwo Jima.

THURMAN: What was it?

CAVANAUGH: You were trained here in San Diego.

THURMAN: Oh, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Is that right?

THURMAN: Yeah. Yes.

CAVANAUGH: How different is San Diego now from when you were here back in the forties?

THURMAN: I can’t believe it. The – About the tallest building that was here was the El Cortez Hotel.




THURMAN: And then the Bank America was – on Broadway there was, you know, also. But I just can’t believe the skyscrapers that are – went up around here.

CAVANAUGH: So how old were you when you fought on Iwo Jima?

THURMAN: I was 18.

CAVANAUGH: It’s really sort of amazing to everyone to know what kind of responsibility that we give teenagers who go off to fight these battles for us.

THURMAN: Uh-huh.

CAVANAUGH: What was the goal of the mission? Why was Iwo Jima important to the allies?

THURMAN: Yeah. Boy. I’m sorry.

CAVANAUGH: That’s okay.

THURMAN: The reason was that, like you were mentioning, that Iwo Jima was six hundred and forty-some miles away from Tokyo and the B-29 bombers were loading up in the Saipan area in Guam, and Artinian (sp). And flying from Saipan to Japan really ate up the fuel because the B-29s had to go up over Iwo to get into Japan then back up again to get away from artillery fire. So, consequently, on their way back they ran out of gas. Not all of them but some of them ran out of gas. And the pilots, the crew, they were all either they were gone, disappeared, or just drowned out there in that ocean water.


THURMAN: And the PBYs came in to rescue the crew but when darkness set in, that was pretty much it. They were gone the next morning.


THURMAN: Yeah. And so the Iwo Jima had to be taken because we knew there was an airport there and the airport was too small for the B-29s but they still landed. And to be real quick here, we were on the airstrip all that day. We were along, only on the airfield about three days, three to four days. And I saw the first three B-29s coming in. And we took up positions, firing at everything possible that would be a sniper’s nest and whatever because you could go by gun smoke coming out underneath of caves and whatever. And so there were two B-29s that crash landed out in the water and I saw the crew running down the wings and jumping into the water. But the third B-29, I thought, oh, boy, it looks like he’s going to make it. His landing gear was up, and he come in and the nose of that B-29 hit the end of that airstrip. The airstrip was built up off of the ground because of all the lava rock. It was about a ten foot high airstrip and built like a bank. And so anyway, he bounced into the air a foot into the airstrip there and the nose of that B-29 bounced out of two different bomb holes and finally came to a stop right straight across from where I was at. And the crew jumped out and started running towards us, and one of the guys come running right where I was at. I was in kind of a fork of the runway, kind of like a fork. So I was in – I was firing away, giving him coverage, and there were bullets whipping around his feet and I thought maybe any minute he’d go down, but he got over to me…


THURMAN: …and jumped into my foxhole. And the first thing he says to me is, damn, am I glad to see you. And I says, I’m glad to see you, too, but, I says, you better get to the rear because we’re getting the hell out of here.

CAVANAUGH: Now you said that it was, you know, you tried to write this book years ago and you stopped…


CAVANAUGH: …because it was – it was bringing back too much.


CAVANAUGH: Do you – does it still bring back a lot?

THURMAN: Oh, yeah, I haven’t forgot – I haven’t forgot a thing. And my close buddy and myself, we’re – we were together on Iwo, you know, just about all the way through the whole campaign. Him and I went out for observation. We volunteered for observation to locate any enemy positions that we could possibly find. And before we got back and all that, why he got shot through the neck. And for me to write about that was pretty tough. And so what happened – I’ll go back to Okinawa real quick here. And so when those two – that one Marine asked me about the – what it was like, or, you know, if the training was anywhere like what I went through – Well, anyway, I got to thinking about that after – when I was on the plane going back to California and I thought I got to finish that book.


THURMAN: Those guys got to know what it’s like. They’ve got to know because they’re asking. So that’s what changed my mind.

CAVANAUGH: And you’re going to be speaking with new recruits at MCRD tomorrow here in San Diego. Apparently you’ve spoken with Marine recruits before and active Marines now. What kinds of questions do they ask you about Iwo Jima and World War II?

THURMAN: They ask me what’s it like. And also, too, was there supplies parachuted into us. Questions like that.


THURMAN: And I said, yes, the – I would say maybe after about a week they started parachuting supplies in to us because we were running out of those supplies and we were in the middle of the island and there was – It was hard for our supply trucks to get in there and weasels to get in and dump off supplies. We – Matter of fact, when we were running out of ammunition, about three o’clock in the morning, the commander asked for volunteers and I was one of the volunteers. There were three of us that went to a bomb – we knew where the bomb hole was at, and got a box of ammunition on, each of us, on our shoulder and took off. But, you know, they – people were kind of curious as to…


THURMAN: …did you have plenty to eat? Did you have water? And I says, no, I didn’t. And the training is that what they do is if you need something off of a comrade that is a fallen comrade and you need something, you don’t hesitate to take it and that’s the way I felt. If I’ve got something you need, grab it, you know. And I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit here.

CAVANAUGH: Well, yeah, I’m just – We’re kind of up against some time here, the top of the hour, so I just kind of want to know do you think that just people in general don’t really know what World War II cost the people who fought it?

THURMAN: The general people?


THURMAN: Yeah, it’s hard for them to realize, you know. Of course being in it, I do realize, you know. And it’s so easy to snap out of life, you know, and the numbers increase, you know, double fold by the end of the day and it’s – You know, I can understand. I can understand why people are under – couldn’t understand why this and why that. But I can see why.

CAVANAUGH: And you wanted to write this book in order to set it down, to set all these memories, these minute memories you have, it seems, of what happened on Iwo Jima…

THURMAN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …to set them all down and so that people who want to know what it was really like can go and see.

THURMAN: Umm-hmm. Well, you can’t forget. You know, like I and my buddy and when he got shot through the neck, you know, you can’t forget that. And there are situations that take place that happen so quick. You know, the guy’s standing beside you and, first thing you know, he’s wiped out. And when we went to get that ammunition early that morning and we were starting to run out of there, getting out of the ammunition dump, and my buddy to my right was hit. And there were bullets flying everywhere, by the way. And he was hit and he was dead before he hit the ground. And I called over to my buddy to my left and I says, I – like I – I know where the sniper’s at. I see the smoke coming out. Follow me. So we ran around and…

CAVANAUGH: What memories.

THURMAN: Pardon?

CAVANAUGH: What memories these are, really.

THURMAN: Oh, I can’t forget. And…

CAVANAUGH: Well, we actually are out of time and…


CAVANAUGH: …I’m sorry, I’m going to have to stop you. But I want to let everyone know if they want to read about your memories, the book is called "We Were In the First Waves of Steel Amtracs Who Landed on Iwo Jima." I’ve been speaking with retired Marine Sergeant John "Jack" Ryland Thurman. And I want to thank you so much for speaking with us, and thank you so much for your service.

THURMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, and it’s a pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: If you would like to comment, please go online, And stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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