Tragedy on Iwo Jima By Dr. Henry Yokoyama T/Sgt.
During the last phase of the Iwo landing, the U.S. marines had the unhealthy task of cleaning out the holed-in enemy. When cajoling and threats were exhausted, the cave entrances were sealed with explosives in an attempt to destroy the diehards. These caves had been ingeniously constructed with hidden air shafts and supplied with ample food and water. The sealed-in fanatics were able to continue a mole-like existence indefinitely.
The fighting was by then confined to the northern tip of Iwo, called "Kita No Hana." The Fifth Amphibious Corps Headquarters received a report that General Kuribayashi's cave had been by-passed. Lieutenant Kapner (Navy lieutenant from FRUPAC), whom we had accompanied on several cave sorties, decided that the cave may contain documents worth our while to investigate. Accompanying our expedition were two adventure-hungry staff light colonels, an engineer demolition squad, and two recently captured POWs.
The island commander's cave was located in a secluded, reddish claystone formation on the craggy northern section of Iwo. Continuous bombardment had inured us to heavy artillery but the angry chatter of machine guns and the high ping of rifle bullets passing overhead made us duck instinctively. Even the battle-hardened marines were glancing nervously over their shoulders. The bypassing troops had sealed the several entrances to the headquarter's cave, but the two POWs were familiar with the cave and were able to locate and reopen two sealed entrances.
The absence of the familiar stench of rotten bodies warned us that the cave was well ventilated and that the trapped enemy could still be alive and well, after a week's confinement. The bolder POW, Kasai, read the hesitancy on our faces and volunteered to go in alone. He soon disappeared into the yawning cave mouth, but we sensed his regret for having volunteered for the distasteful mission. We knew from our earlier cave explorations that the hidden enemy stragglers did not attempt to identify intruders as friend or foe. We waited anxiously. Five minutes after Kasai's flashlight beam was lost to view around a bend, a shot rang out. Then an ominous silence ensued. We looked at each other with mixed feelings-pity for Kasai, apprehension of the danger, and indecision as to whether or not to go to Kasai's rescue. Then we heard a sudden patter of running feet from the depths of the cave. We scurried for cover with ready carbines. We heard Kasai's prearranged signal. We sighed with relief. We greeted Kasai like one resurrected--as a friend, not an enemy POW. Kasai's voice trembled as he explained what was only too obvious that there were "persons alive" in the cave. We stripped for action as the two flustered staff colonels barked contradictory orders in the confusion.
We alternated POW calls with phosphorus smoke grenades. The two POWs yelled till hoarse, with pledges of safety, promises of food and medical treatment. Only faint echoes answered mockingly. The engineer colonel was anxious to test his new "Jap killing device" and radioed back to have it sent pronto.
After two hours of tense waiting, we could hear the "device" laboring its way over the rough terrain. It was a bulldozer tugging a fifty gallon tank of oil mounted on steel runners. The engineer boys readied the oil thrower. A large fire hose was attached to the tank and a gasoline pump provided the pressure. Kasai and his buddy increased their frantic calls, after seeing the death-dealing monster. They kept well to the side of the entrance lest a comrade fire from the dark interior. They were now pleading to their silent comrades. They explained how the monster would belch oil into the cave and how this oil would be ignited to turn the cave into a fiery crematory. The colonel was anxious to start and gave them ten minutes.
Ten minutes lapsed with no response. We moved to the upper entrance, hoping someone would surrender before being burned alive. Four marines held the hose; another group stood behind the bulldozer and a few more were near the cave mouth. Varying emotions were reflected on their waiting faces--some felt pity for the poor victims; others felt horror at the thought of cremating living men or even glee at the thought of removing the hidden hornets.
The pump was started. The hose squirmed to life. A stream of black diesel shot into the gaping cave entrance. But something went wrong. For an instant, flames played along the oil stream. (We later remembered seeing a straw mat just inside the cave, smoldering from the phosphorus grenades tossed in earlier.) Frozen looks of incredulity appeared on the faces of the men holding the hose. The lead man naively tried to brush away the flames with one free hand. The others turned away with astonishment and fear written on their faces. They were too shocked to cry out. Finally someone yelled, "Run!" But his voice was drowned by the deep roaring explosion. Billowing black smoke engulfed everyone near the cave entrance, like a giant black octopus with tentacles of blood red flames. Terrible screeches could be heard emanating from within. The black cloud rose menacingly toward us and we ducked into the cave to avoid being engulfed.
A few minutes later, we emerged to a nightmarish scene. Too stunned to move, we all watched two blackened figures running crazily in circles with bodies aflame and uttering hoarse screams. We chased down one of the burning figures and tripped him. Two fellow marines recovered from their initial shock and helped us with the still flaming carcass. We dug the clayish soil with our hands and threw it over him to stifle the oil flames. With trembling hands and cussing the dull trench knives, we cut off the burning clothes. The young marine's face was unrecognizable. It was charred black. His eyebrows, scalp and even nostril hair were singed crisp. His eyes rolled unseeing, showing the whites. His mouth opened as he gasped for breath. His whole mouth, teeth, tongue and palate were all blackened. His body was a statue carved from black ebony, except for his feet, which we found were the only white skin when we tore off his burning combat shoes. The skin, protected by the leather, was shining a conspicuous white. The raucous cries from the charred marine numbed further our already benumbed brain.
"0h, God, help me! Don't let me die like this. Don't stand there. Do something!" He rolled his unseeing eyes in an effort to see. We cursed our own helplessness...the damn cave...the stupid war...and the tragic world.
Meanwhile, the others had stripped the other burned marine of his flaming clothes and were making every effort to comfort him. The field ambulance took an interminable time arriving. When the stretchers were readied, we rushed off our first marine. Then we turned to help the other badly burned marine. The pain and agony were clearly visible from his face and body contortions. A blotch of unburned blond hair was visible. As we struggled to lift him, he tried to rise and whispered hoarsely, "Fellows I'm sorry I can't help you." The words cut us like a knife and we could no longer contain ourselves. We left the cursed cave.
A week later, we learned that the two marines had died within a few hours. The 5th Division Cemetery near Motoyama Airfield No.1 had acquired two new crosses. War is more than Hell!