Original Document
Original Document
John W. Berglund recalls the raising of a different flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima

I was a senior at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. I remember the dorm stairwell filled with guys shouting and yelling up and down the stairs, "The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!"

That night there were a lot of guys drinking beer at the Corner Tavern, which was a hangout for Rutgers students, and they made up parodies of songs, like, instead of "It's a long way to Tipperary," they sang, "It's a long way to Yokohama, where the yellow bastards grow," and other parodies like that. Many of those guys were either drafted or enlisted in the next six months. I asked my father if I could enlist. I was in the first semester of my senior year, and he pleaded with me to stay in college, at least for the end of my senior year. But at Christmastime, I tried to enlist in the navy as a hospital apprentice, second class. I was refused admission because of my eyes–my right eye was below the minimum.

So how did I get in the Marine Corps? I memorized eye charts, I memorized the eighth line from the top, which was d-e-f-p-o-t-e-c. I read it backward and forward with both eyes, and I couldn't even see it. I got to Quantico in Officer Candidate School and thought I was home free, I was there less than a week, and there was an announcement on the board "Complete form Y tomorrow." That was a complete physical. Well, that night I couldn't sleep. I had visions of being put on the train under the guard for fraudulent enlistment.

I was in a group of people going through the mill, and the eye, ear, nose and throat room was the last place. I looked through a half-inch crack in the door while I waited my turn, and I memorized the top three lines on a chart of ten equal-sized lines. I gambled that the doctor would be too lazy to ask anything below the top three lines, and he didn't. So I was home free, and I didn't wear my glasses for two yean. I kept them in my trunk. And I fired the M-l rifle in OCS and made expert rifleman, which is a triumph of faith over reality, because at 500 yards, the bull's-eye was like a suggestion of a flyspeck on the front sight.

I stayed in Quantico for thirty-five weeks–ten weeks of OCS, ten weeks of reserve officers class, and then fifteen weeks of artillery school. From there I went to Camp Pendleton, California, where I reported to the 1st Battalion, 12th Marines.

In January or February I shipped out to New Zealand on a Liberty ship at the dizzying speed of eight knots an hour, maybe ten when they pushed it. This was an experiment, putting troops on cargo ships. We had a deckload of oil and gasoline, and we had 500 tons of high explosive in the hold next to where we slept. We had few troops, but we had a lot of seasickness because we ate in the same place where we slept, which was a big mistake.

It took twenty-two days to get to New Zealand. I spent five months there and loved every bit of it. One of the features of the country was pastries stuffed with whipped cream, and I had a sweet tooth. Whenever I went on an errand, I'd stop at a bakery and get a dozen pastries stuffed with cream. Most New Zealanders didn't have their own teeth, probably because of eating pastries like that.

After five months in New Zealand, we went up to Guadalcanal. At the time, Guadalcanal had been declared secured–the fighting was over. But nobody had told the Japanese Air Force. They used to bomb us every night. Not big air raids, just small, one-plane air raids. I used to lie in my hole wondering whether to put my helmet over my face or over my groin when the shrapnel fell from our own antiaircraft. It was very nasty. If it landed flat-side, it would bounce off a tent. If it landed on the sharp side, it would go through the tent and through you.

We trained on Guadalcanal. Because you can't see in the jungle, you couldn't see the rounds bursting in front of you, so we had to learn how to send howitzer fire commands by sound. We spent a day in the jungle digging into a stream bank, making splinter-proof shelters. Then we got in the shelters and we fired on ourselves. We were using 75-millimeter pack howitzers. The shell weighed fifteen pounds, and it had a bursting radius of about twenty yards. We were told to bring the rounds in, one round at a time, until we heard fragments crashing into our shelter. When that day was over, Col. Peewee Owens, who was in charge, called the roll over sound-powered telephones, and when he called each name, he went, "Whew!"

We went into combat at Bougainville, Empress Augusta Bay, and Cape Torokina. When I got onshore, everything was in confusion because the landing boats were "broaching to," which means coming in broadside, to waves, so the landing was in trouble.

We were being strafed by a Japanese plane. I was in a hole dug parallel to the beach, and at the time, I thought it should have been dug the other way so there was less exposure. So the Japanese plane came down, strafing us. It killed one man out in the water in a boat near me.

I was starting to dig my third or fourth hole of the day, when I saw five Japanese planes in flames all at once, above the fleet. The secret to us getting five at once was the proximity fuse. A proximity fuse was invented by Americans. It contained a small radar and a fuse a couple of inches long, and when it got fifteen yards from the target–any target, that's the bad point–it would go off. If you were firing over the heads of your own troops, unfortunately, they might go off, but against Japanese planes, they were deadly! So using the proximity fuse, we got five planes at the same time.

I spent ninety days in Bougainville, mostly in swamps, where I had to wring out my blanket at night in order to sleep. I learned that a wool blanket can be warm even if it's wet.

My closest escape from death was when a 500-pound bomb landed ten yards from where I was. We were in a swamp and had built an elevated foxhole using coconut logs and sandbags–it had to be raised because we were in a swamp. A Japanese plane flew over and dropped a stick of three 500-pounders on us. One landed across the road, one landed in back of our place, and the third landed next to our number-one gun–that's the one that was close to me. It dug a hole into the swamp twenty-six feet in diameter and ten feet deep. When it went off, I shook for half an hour. My mouth was filled with dirt. It was like standing in a subway, hearing a train come in and not stop–that was the sound of the bomb falling. I heard it click–the click of the fuse arming. I shook for a half an hour until I could light a cigarette under my blanket.

Another night, we were getting shelled by a Japanese 15-centimeter gun. And artillery men can't help it, it's second nature–they have to calculate what changes had to be made in the enemy shelling to place the next round right on where they were sitting. We had an old warrant officer named Bob Stutz, who was a Swiss national. He had to get permission from President Harding to enlist in the Marine Corps, because he was not a citizen, and he was due to retire and get a pension. While this shelling was going on, he said, "If that fellow goes up 100 and left 200, he'll save Henry Morgenthau a lot of money." Henry Morgenthau was secretary of the treasury in Roosevelt's regime. That's called gallows humor. It's a recognized psychological thing, that guys will joke in the face of death, because it lightens the atmosphere.

One morning we were told that somebody was firing at our place, and I was asked to climb a tree and look around. In artillery school I had learned how to climb trees using climber spikes, but I never practiced it before. I got seventy or eighty feet up the tree, and one of my men was up above me in the tree. Then some nut–one of our guys–started firing at us with an M-1 rifle, yelling, "Japs! Japs!" So the guy above me said, "I'm coming down, lieutenant, I'm coming down!" Well, I started down, and my spikes slipped out of the tree, and I slid sixty feet down the tree. It took all the skin off the inside of my arms and my legs. But I lived through that, and I lived through Bougainville.

I was back from Bougainville for maybe two weeks, and I was loaned to the 3rd New Zealand division. I was to supply them with naval gunfire to allow them to get their artillery ashore on Green Island. It was supposed to take two or three hours, but instead I stayed five days.

One of those named Hearn, trying to dig a foxhole into the coral. We made it in about nine inches. Hearn was a very bitter man. He had enlisted in the navy so he could sleep between sheets and have hot showers on a ship. And here he was in the mud with the marines.

The New Zealanders were trying to find the Japanese forces on this beautiful atoll. It was like Hollywood's idea of the Pacific, with big trees and a coral reef with a pastel sheen. It was beautiful. By my last day with them, they still hadn't found the Japanese, but the day after I left, the company found the Japanese forces entrenched behind a cliff on the edge of the island.

There were eight of them, which was about the number of men we had. In the forty minutes of daylight that was left, the New Zealanders killed the entire Japanese force and lost four people.

When I left Green Island, I was ordered to go back to the States. I was chosen by lottery to go back to form another division. So I packed my bags and waited thirty days for transportation. During that time, I had no duties, so I perfected my skills in bridge, pinochle, and cribbage. Four times I had my gear out in the street to be picked up, and it wasn't picked up. The colonel said, "If Berglund has any more farewell parties, the battalion won't be worth a damn."

I finally got back to the States, but instead of forming a new division, I was sent to Fort Sill to take a course in sound and flash ranging. At the end of that, I went back to the Pacific, to the Corps Artillery of the 5th Amphibian Corps in Hawaii, the big island. Tough duty!

When I landed at Pearl Harbor, I was traveling with a friend named Rick who had been in class with me at Fort Sill. Rick was a child of wealth, and he was friends with a family named Walker, who were one of five families who once owned all of the Hawaiian Islands. So he called Mrs. Walker and said, "I'm here in Pearl." And she said, "Oh, come out," So we went out to this beautiful home in the Nuuanu Valley, where we found these folks reduced to having only five servants because of the war–they were really suffering.

Rick and I had had several snorts in Pearl Harbor, and we had another drink at the Walkers", when all of a sudden–I can still hear it–there was a car in the driveway, and Mrs. Walker said, "That's our other guests." Well, into the room walked Admiral Nimitz and Admiral Lockwood, who was a submarine commander in the Pacific. You never saw two lieutenants get sober so fast in your life!

We had a very enjoyable dinner, and afterward we played nickel-and-dime poker upstairs. I was in the last few hands, and I won the last hand against Admiral Nimitz. Mrs. Walker told us, "Please don't tell anybody about this." And I thought, "Who's going to believe us?"

After Hawaii we went to Iwo Jima. I landed at Iwo on D-Day plus two. From a distance I saw the flag on Mount Suribachi.

I was in Corps Artillery, 5th Amphibious Corps. We had two battalions of our own, and we also coordinated all the fire of fourteen battalions of artillery. I was only a captain, and nobody listened to me, but I said they were doing it wrong. They were using World War I tactics. Every morning before the infantry advanced, they'd fire a great big barrage, and the Japs would just hunker down in their caves and shelters, and when the barrage was over, they'd come out and fight. There were a lot of people killed on Iwo. We had 20,000 casualties, including killed and wounded.

One night the ammunition dump next to us was set on fire. The Japanese were shelling us all the time, and I was in a sort of a splinter-proof shelter dug into the wall of the tent, with sandbags. It was covered on three sides but open into the tent. The tent got blown away by the explosions from the dump. I looked out in the sky, and I could see parachute flares and composition C - a plastic explosive - and dynamite. Everything was going off in the dump.

I had a flagpole outside the tent with a pair of black lace panties on it–this is what we were fighting for–and with all this stuff going off, bombs and artillery and flares, somebody said, "Through the rockets red glare, our flag is still there." I never got a picture of that. I think the Catholic priest censored that picture. It was on the same roll as the pictures of his chapel.

When Iwo was finished, I was sent back to Guam. I was under orders to be in on the invasion of Japan, so I'm just as happy that the atomic bomb happened, I remember one day going to visit the old LST [Landing Ship, Tank] that I had ridden onto Pearl–it was in the harbor it Agana, Guam–and they told me about the atomic bomb being dropped. Well, I was raised on science fiction, so it was no surprise to me, I simply said, "That'll show the little yellow bastards we can outdo them at everything, including barbarity,"

The most important thing I learned through World War II is, keep your sense of humor. The only guys I ever saw crack up–combat fatigue, psychoneurosis, you call it what you want–the only guys that happened to were guys that either lacked a sense of humor or lost their sense of humor.

Credit: From Brian Lockman and Dan Cupper, World War II in Their Own Words: An Oral History of Pennsylvania's Veterans. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2005.
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