Edward E. Roy
07/01/2008 - Edward E. Roy was not even out of his teens when he fought in the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. The battle raged day and night from February 19 to March 25. By the time the Americans declared the island secure and the Marines raised our flag, captured in that famous photo, one in three of his comrades-in-arms were dead or wounded.
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"There were dead people all over the place," Ed tells me. "I was lucky." Well, not as lucky as all that. But we'll get to that later.
Ed is soft-spoken and shy, with a sweet smile and disposition. He is only one of 20 Iwo Jima survivors who live in Wyoming. Recently, at the Wyoming Veteran's Memorial Museum near the airport, Ed received a plaque on which was mounted a vial of sand from Iwo Jima. The plaque is now on display at the museum.
Now, I'd heard of "the sands of Iwo Jima," but I had no idea how infamous those sands were until I heard Ed's story and did some research on my own. Here's what I learned:
Ed's unit, the 5th Marine Division, was the first to storm the beaches on the morning of the first day of battle. All the previous night, America's Navy and the Army Air Corps had bombed Iwo Jima in an attempt to "soften the target" so that when the Marines landed, they would meet as little resistance as possible.
The Japanese island was of strategic importance to America because it was midway between Tokyo and the American bomber bases in the Marianas. An American air base here was vital for its
B-29 bombers, who needed it for occasional refueling, for meeting with escort planes, and for landing when they'd been crippled from a mission over Japan.
So, after a night of American bombing, on the morning of February 19, the 5th Marine Division went ashore. They were met by two surprises. The first was the discovery that the sand on Iwo Jima's beaches was actually loose, course, volcanic ash which made it nearly impossible for the infantrymen to find their footing and made it completely impossible to dig foxholes. The second surprise was the eerie silence. There was no enemy fire. Some of the Marines speculated that maybe the bombings of the night before had eliminated the Japanese defenders. Patrols were sent inland to investigate.
Little did they know that the entire division was in the Japanese cross-hairs. That the enemy had a 360-degree view of the island. That the previous night's bombing had done little damage because the Japanese, brilliantly anticipating America's battle plan, had spent months creating a system of tunnels and firing positions beneath the island's mountain and its volcanic sand. That their weapons, including heavy artillery hidden behind reinforced steel doors, were poised and ready for the 5th Division as well as the 3rd and 4th Divisions which were now coming ashore on other parts of the island. That the Japanese had planned all along to bide their time until the beaches were packed with American equipment and Marines.
The Marines were unaware of their fate until that first patrol, making its way inland, came upon a hidden line of Japanese bunkers. Suddenly, the enemy opened up in a blaze of machine-gun fire, mowing down row after row of Marines. Then they trained their heavy artillery on the beaches.
Somehow, through all this, and over the next 34 days and nights, Ed was not wounded. Despite the intense combat which was sometimes hand-to-hand. "I was young and I wasn't afraid of anything," Ed says.
So, Ed came through the battle unscathed. Until...
The day after the Americans declared the island secure. Turns out, it wasn't that secure after all. It seems many Marines, and maybe Ed was one of them, fell victim to a series of surprise attacks by lone, surviving Japanese soldiers. These soldiers would wind through the maze of underground tunnels, wait for their opportunity, and then, from a bunker that had previously been declared "cleared" by the Americans, would emerge and fire their machine guns at a passing Marine. Ed spent a month in the hospital and then returned to his unit.
The American victory at Iwo Jima, supported by the Navy and Army Air Corps, was largely attributed to "the inch-by-inch tenacity of the foot soldier."1 Admiral Nimitz, commander of the Navy's Pacific Fleet, said of those servicemen, "Uncommon valor was a common virtue."
Edward E. Roy, who returned to the States at the end of the war, married and raised a family in our town, and is a member of "the greatest generation," is a perfect example of that valor.
I'm honored to have met him.