Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bitter tale takes a happy twist

Clarence Rae Iwo Jima veteran, who recalls his adventures during World War II.
Photo by Bill Morem  03-30-10
Clarence Rae Iwo Jima veteran, who recalls his adventures during World War II. Photo by Bill Morem 03-30-10 Tribune

For such beautiful script, 硫黄島 translates from Japanese to English as “sulfur island.” For the ever-diminishing number of World War II veterans of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, its translation is “Hell on Earth.” All others know the 8-square-mile Pacific rock as Iwo Jima.

Sixty-five years ago, on Feb. 19, 1945, Sgt. Clarence Rae led his 38-man platoon in the first assault wave to hit the black sands of Iwo. Little did Rea, now 89, know that he would be badly wounded and that his platoon would be wiped out in a 36-day battle that left almost 7,000 Marines dead — about a third of all Marines who died during WWII — while another 18,000-plus would be wounded.

As with most men of his generation who saw combat in WWII, it’s taken some coaxing to get Rae to talk about his time in the service.

He seems a naturally humble man who downplays his past. Sitting in his comfortable Grover Beach home with wife Florence and daughter Denise, he’s thoughtful and concise in explaining his role in one of the most vicious battles in American history.

That eventuality began when Rae left his Bakersfield home after enlisting in the Marine Corps in August 1940.

The United States was about a year and a half away from entering WWII, and Rae, after graduating from Sea School, saw his first action involving German fighters and U-boats while assigned to the British Home Fleet during the Battle of the North Atlantic.

He subsequently served on convoys that came under U-boat attack when the U.S. sent Britain war materiel as part of the Lend-Lease agreement. (Britain finally settled its debt incurred under the plan in 2006, it should be noted.)

The point is that by the time the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — while Rea’s ship was in a Boston dry dock — he’d already been seasoned by combat.

That experience was put to use almost a year later when in November 1942 he was part of an assault at Safi, Morocco, to secure an airbase defended by Italians and Germans.

From there he volunteered and graduated from parachute school at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and ultimately became a jump instructor.

By 1944, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton, where he helped form the 5th Marine Division. His title? Take a deep breath: Platoon Sergeant, 1st Platoon, “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division.

At 24 years old, he was known by his men as “The Old Man.”

To some, Iwo Jima was almost laughable as a strategic stop in our country’s island-hopping Pacific campaign to Japan.

The Marines had bought in blood the Caroline and Mariana islands, putting such names as Guadalcanal, Palau and Saipan on the front pages of America’s newspapers.

Known as one of Japan’s “inner islands,” Iwo Jima was a sulfuric-stinking 4 miles wide by 2 miles long.

Its value? It had an airstrip that would allow bombers and fighter escorts to attack mainland Japan. (Following the war, it was discovered that its real importance to the government was as a potential bailing out location for the somewhat unreliable B-29 Superfortresses that would later drop atomic bombs. It was believed that if the bombs were lost in the Pacific en route to Nagasaki and/or Hiroshima, a mainland assault would be inevitable and the war would drag out in years and lives.)

So the decision was made to take the island. For 74 days B-24 Liberators dropped hundreds of tons of bombs on the island; ships offshore let loose with steady bombardments.

Intelligence reports said such a softening meant the island would fall within a week of attack. Not quite.

The reality was that more than 18,000 Japanese soldiers had hunkered down inside 18 miles of blast shield-fortified tunnels throughout the island. Hundreds of machine gun nests held the high ground overlooking wide-open killing grounds below.

It was 8:59 a.m. on Feb. 19 when Sgt. Rea and his platoon — including Medal of Honor winner John Basilone — made their landing on the black volcanic ash beach closest to Mt. Suribachi. Although many of the landing teams didn’t run into much resistance initially, that all changed as they moved inland.

The fight is legendary among WWII battles. For 35 days, Marines would grab ground, throwing grenades into caves, not realizing the Japanese soldiers had retreated behind blast doors and would then attack from the rear at night. Fighting was so fierce, hand-to-hand combat became common. (In the final tally, out of 18,000-plus Japanese soldiers defending Iwo, only 216 survived to be captured.)

With most of his battalion wiped out (and Basilone, a personal friend of Rea’s, dying after taking a direct hit from a mortar), The Old Man was seriously wounded on March 3 and evacuated to Guam, where doctors wanted to amputate his left arm.

Rea would have none of it, so it was decided during his year’s recovery that he’d undergo experimental nerve surgery, which was successful enough that Rea was able to go on to a 10-year career with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office following his Honorable Medical Discharge in 1946.

Now, here’s the ‘Twilight Zone’ twist to Clarence Rae’s story. While in the hospital, he was told that only one man from his platoon, in addition to him, had survived. Rae was relieved that it was his good friend, Clinton Watters, whom he’d last spoken with moments before hitting the beach on Feb. 19. Crushingly, he was later told that Watters had died.

Fast-forward 65 years. Rea was at a grandson’s birthday party in Orange County earlier this year and discovered through an odd set of circumstances that a relative’s chiropractor has a father who served in WWII. Indeed, it’s Clinton Watters — alive and well and living in Medford, Ore. Both men had been told the other had been killed.

The two have been in close contact since then, and will be getting together this weekend in Vacaville.

Through an Internet group of WWII vets, Rea related some of his experiences with Medal of Honor winner John Basilone (Google his name; he was an incredible person). That somehow led to Rea’s involvement with HBO’s 10-part series called “The Pacific,” a Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg production that chronicles Basilone and a handful of other Marines as they fight their way through the Pacific. Rea’s accounts have been incorporated into the series. Basilone and the 5th Marine Division’s Iwo Jima campaign is scheduled to air May 2.

That connection has led the Reagan Library to take Rea’s oral history of Iwo. His contributions to “The Pacific” have also led to the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Omaha, Neb., to honor him and others involved in the series at an event May 21.

So, thank you for your service, Old Man. And that’s offered with heartfelt appreciation and respect. Semper Fi.

Perhaps as many as 25 WWII veterans died in the time it took you to read this piece; that’s based on the estimate that 1,000 to 1,300 vets of that era are now dying each day.

If you’re a veteran of WWII and haven’t yet told your story of service to our country, call the San Luis Obispo Veterans Museum at 937-2465 and reserve a time to do so. Consider it one last call to duty, one last gift of knowledge to generations unborn.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.