A Veteran Remembers
“We were moving toward the first airfield and we saw them raise the flag. I was quite a distance away from it [Mount Suribachi] but I saw it and we were happy as hell because we were taking a lot of mortar and artillery fire from that mountain. It really was something to see,” recalled Russel L. Severson of Arcadia whom as a young PFC in the United States Marine Corps witnessed the now iconic flag raising during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Sitting in his home office, Severson is surrounded by memories of the past; photographs of veteran get-togethers, a bayonet from a fellow veteran that served at Guadalcanal, military certificates, and a wooden case with a glass cover in which several military pins and awards are fixed neatly.
Pointing toward one of the three Purple Heart medals in the display case he said, “this one here, my dad got in 1917 when he was wounded in France in the Battle of Saint Mihiel with the 89th Army Division.”
Severson then pointed out that he received one for the injuries he received on Iwo Jima and said with a laugh, “they sent me one and then another but I’m not quite sure why.”
Severson is straightforward and void of patriotic rhetoric when explaining his choice to enlist.
“I went down to La Crosse with a buddy of mine who was signing up for the Marine Corps; the recruiter there said why don’t you sign up too?” Severson answered that he had yet to finish high school but the recruiter assured him that they would let him finish and they wouldn’t call him until then.
“But he lied to me. Right after the first of the year I got called in,” Severson said.
As is still the case today, Severson and other Marine recruits were sent to San Diego for bootcamp in January of 1944. While in California, Severson would earn qualification badge for rifle sharpshooter at Camp Matthews before completing further special training at Camp Elliot. At Camp Elliot he was placed in a seven-man machine gun crew, “I was the number two gunner and the rest of them carried ammo and after Camp Elliot we shipped out to Guam.”
“I was in I Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Marines.” Severson’s regiment and four others comprised the ‘V Amphibious Corps,’ which — as the name implies — was a sea-to-land invasion force.
Arriving on Guam in early August, Russ was sent in as a replacement battalion for troops in the division whom had been fighting since July 21.
It was here that Severson would see the most combat.
“They were already fighting when I got there as a replacement on the northern end of the island,” he said. “We had captured Guam but we believed there to be a large force of Japanese still on the island so we spent some time patrolling and clearing them out. We had some awful close calls while patrolling on Guam. Almost everyday getting shot at or something.”
Organized fighting on the island of Guam would continue until Aug. 10. Despite a large U.S. presence Japanese defense within the island’s jungle would continue for months with 677 Marines killed and over 3,000 more wounded in the 3rd Marine Division.
“It was a pretty big island, it was hot and humid. We were always wet from rain or our own sweat,” Severson said.
After seven months of patrol and training on Guam the 3rd Marine Division joined a landing force tasked with capturing the two airfields on Iwo Jima.
“We were supposed to land the second day but the beach was so littered with wrecked landing craft that we had to wait. The engineers had to clear the beach out before we could land,” Severson said. “We went down into the landing craft and sailed around all day looking for a place to land. All day we were out there wetter than hell and cold. Then we went back to climb aboard the ship just to wait for the next day. It was no fun out there bouncing around, everyone got sea sick.”
Marine commanders had requested 10 days of pre-landing bombardment to soften the well-prepared Japanese defenses on the island. However, Fifth Fleet commander Admiral Raymond A. Spruance believed that time and ammunition supply could not permit such a sustained bombardment and instead ordered only three days of continuous bombardment. At the time intelligence was not aware of the scale and complexity of Japanese tunnel systems on the island, which protected the defenders from a majority of the bombardment.
“One night these Japanese bombers came over and every ship started opening up with tracer rounds and you could read the newspaper it was so bright. I could see that there were two Japanese planes in the sky just before they disappeared back into the clouds.”
Severson said they landed on the third day and the person in charge of the landing craft was from Green Bay. “After the war I happened to run into him, in Green Bay. Got to know him good,” Severson said.
The landing force was met with mortar fire and found it difficult to dig in on the soft beaches but they would fight their way toward the first airfield objective. Severson said that during their advance he saw the flag go up over Mount Suribachi. Around 10 a.m. on Feb. 23, 40 men of the 5th Marines climbed and captured the crest of the mountain despite large numbers of enemy in the vicinity.
“We moved toward the first airfield and we saw them raise the flag. We tried to cross the airfield and they were peppering us with mortars and we’d hit the deck, they’d explode and we would continue to move,” Severson said.
Severson pointed toward a photo on the wall where he and three other men stood smiling with award certificates in their hands.
“He received the Congressional Medal of Honor on Iowa Jima,” Severson said.
The man smiling in the photo is Medal of Honor recipient, Hershel “Woody” Williams who landed with Severson on Feb. 21. Recalling Williams’ later actions, Severson said he remembers the corporal volunteering to make five individual trips to the beach front to refill an M2-2 portable flamethrower that he used to clear out enemy defenders from their reinforced concrete “pillboxes.”
“This guy here, he ran a flamethrower and he was cleaning out these pillboxes; the rest were behind cleaning them [the enemy] off as they came out. He had went down to the beach four or five times to get more flamethrowers. It was no fun,” Severson said.
Official recording from the United States Department of Defense website of Williams’ actions follows that on Feb. 23, for four hours and with only four riflemen to protect him; Williams wiped out seven pillboxes and would prepare explosive from a safe area only to struggle his way back to the enemy positions where the charges could be set.
From defense.gov: “One time, he jumped onto one of the pillboxes from the side, shoved the nozzle of his 70-pound flamethrower into an air vent pipe and fired, killing everyone inside. Another time, he charged bayonet-wielding enemies and killed them with one burst of flame.”
At the age of 96, Williams resides in his home state of West Virginia.
Severson said he spent three or four days on the island fighting to take the Japanese airfields while under mortar fire and Japanese troops waiting to ambush the superior U.S. landing forces. “We had just taken the second airfield on Iwa Jima and I got hit with shrapnel.”
Severely wounded, Severson received shrapnel in his leg and neck.
“We couldn’t move me out, there was three of us wounded and couple of us killed but we had to wait until morning for the 9th Marines to relieve us and take the wounded out,” Severson said.
Severson said that no one dared move around at night for fear of their own men shooting them in mistake for the enemy whom was prone to sneak attacks at night.
The next morning the wounded were transported down to the beaches likely still under threat of enemy attack. By the time Severson was evacuated from the island, there would still be over a month of fighting until the island defenders would be subdued.
“They loaded me onto a hospital ship and sent me to Guam where I spent some time until flying to Pearl Harbor and from their I flew to Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois,” Severson said.
In his home office Russ has compiled a scrapbook of photos, paperwork and other printed materials related to the Marine Corps. Among the photos is a one-page list of events and dates significant to Severson’s life.
One of the entries labeled, “Memorable Experiences” and includes just two short sentences in italics:
“Saw the flag raising on Mt. Suribachi. Had the honor to serve with a great bunch of guys and still correspond with some of them.”