LEWISTON — George DeVoe witnessed his first invasion from the bow of a U.S. ship. He watched as allied guns tossed palm trees into the sky while they leveled a forest on the Micronesian island of Anguar.
When the fighting ended, he began his own hellish job.
For days, he and a crew of five collected the battered and heat-swollen bodies of Japanese soldiers. It was death up close for a 22-year-old from Caribou whose regular job was keeping the Army’s jeeps and trucks running well.
“They were seasoning us,” said DeVoe of the gruesome assignment. “They were getting us prepared for the big show.”
A barren, volcanic rock was in U.S. commanders’ sights.
“They estimated that there were 50,000 on Iwo Jima,” DeVoe said. “A lot of us were going to die.”
Sixty-five years ago this month, from Feb. 19 to March 26, the battle raged above and around the island south of Japan.
DeVoe, now 87 and living in Lewiston, still recalls the feeling of walking onto an Iwo Jima beach covered in black sand.
“It was all volcanic ash,” DeVoe said. “You made two or three steps and sank back.”
He was there for weeks, running errands with a radio operator on a half-track, a heavily armed truck with wheels on the front and a tank-like track on the back.
The job took him to several corners of the island. And what he didn’t see, he heard.
Chatter on the radio guided him to watch the island peak of Mount Suribachi when American flags were famously erected.
Once the first went up, DeVoe listened as soldiers complained that the flag was too small. He heard the call go out for a bigger flag. And he watched as the second one rose.
A photograph of the flag raising became iconic, reproduced in newspapers, magazines and on postage stamps. A sculpted image of the raising became the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial.
DeVoe remains proud of his service during the battle. But all these decades later, it remains heartbreaking.
Though there were fewer than half the number of Japanese soldiers projected, the fight was grisly. Snipers were a constant threat, particularly for the guys carrying flame throwers and the K-9 soldiers.
“They were the first ones shot because they could sniff a Jap,” DeVoe said.
Sometimes he would watch the fighting on the mountainside.
“I could see once in a while a Marine getting hit and rolling down,” he said.
And he watched as Allied ships tried to knock the top off the island, training their 16-inch shells on the rocky peak.
He listened to the shells as they whistled overhead.
“The big shells would hit the top of the mountain and skim off,” he said. “They kept hollering on the radio, ‘Cease fire! Cease fire! The shells are landing amongst the boys on the other side of the mountain.’”
When he wasn’t working on his half-track, DeVoe hunkered down in his foxhole, protected by steel and several feet of dirt.
He advised a pair of young Navy Seabees to create a similar foxhole one day.
“You dig that hole as deep as you can,” he told them.
The next morning he woke to shaking ground as a tank rolled by, picking up the bodies of men who were killed during the night.
“They brought those two boys out,” DeVoe said, choking up as he recalled the 65-year-old memory. “ They had a direct hit. It killed them, those Seabee boys.”
They were joined by so many others.
When the battle ended, nearly the entire 22,000-soldier force of Japanese was killed. More than 6,800 American soldiers were also killed and another 19,000 were wounded, exceeding the Allied casualties at D-Day, nine months earlier.
DeVoe had watched the cemeteries grow day by day.
“The ground turned white with crosses,” he said. “I left the island, and I never looked back. I just thanked God I wasn’t left behind under a cross.”