Corpsmen Of Iwo Jima - Valor, Sacrifice
by U.S. U.S. Navy André Sobocinski
Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
February 26, 2023
At 0900 on February 19th, 1945, the first
assault waves from the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions hit the beaches
of Iwo Jima.
Embedded within these units were corpsmen
like Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class Stanley Dabrowski, of New
Britain, Conn., who remembered the “tremendous noise,” concussion of
small arms fire, explosions of artillery and sounds of shells. “As
we were coming into the beach we were under a rolling barrage of
16-inch guns of the battleships. You could just feel those shells
going over your head.”
Amidst Iwo Jima's black sand and the wreckage of war, hospital corpsmen struggle to save wounded marines shortly after the initial landings. Life saving plasma flows into two patients while a deceased comrade lies alongside. Few ratings have been more impacted by a single battle than Navy hospital corpsmen at Iwo Jima. Nearly 80 years later the battle for Iwo should be remembered as a memorial to the fallen, to their service, but also the shear grit and resilience of those Navy corpsmen who answered the call. (U.S. Navy image by André Sobocinski, Bureau of
Medicine and Surgery)
The beach was unlike anything U.S. forces
had encountered in previous campaigns. What was called “sand” was in
fact volcanic ash that one corpsman later likened to walking in a
“bin of buckwheat.” Directly behind the beach the wind and waves
shaped this soft terrain into a 15-foot terrace that slowed the
progress of vehicles and men into the fight. It was not long before
the beaches were clogged with the invading force. Although the
initial landings did not face heavy counterattack, once the beaches
were full of men, vehicles and equipment the island’s defenders
unleased the full fury of artillery, mortar and rockets. In this
chaos, casualties mounted quickly and calls for “Corpsman!” were
Hospital Apprentice First Class James Ferkin
Twedt was among the first to arrive on Iwo. A veteran of the Navy
for just over a year, the 19-year old Iowa native was assigned to
the 26th Marines. As Twedt followed the calls for medical assistance
exploding shell amputated his foot and badly mangled the other.
Incredibly, despite these grievous wounds and loss of blood, he
dragged himself to two wounded Marines and was somehow able to
administer first aid and stabilize them before being relieved by
another corpsman. Twedt later died of his wounds.
Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class Herman S. Trevor of Hollywood, Calif.,
arrived on Iwo Jima as a veteran of the bloody Saipan and Tinian
campaigns. When his mortar platoon came under heavy fire, Trevor
left his sheltered position to attend to four seriously wounded
Marines. He was applying a tourniquet to a Marine who had lost his
leg when his position came under targeted attack. Trevor remained
with the casualties treating hemorrhage and shock before dashing 75
yards under fire to locate a litter team. It was later reported that
time and time again Trevor “treated casualties with a cool
expertness that inspired all who observed him.”
Mate Third Class Byron A. Dary of Clinton, Wisconsin had the unique
distinction of being a Silver Star recipient from the Normandy
invasion of June 1944. On Iwo Jima, he landed as part of USS
Sanborn’s “beach party” assigned to control the movement of
personnel and equipment and help oversee the evacuation of
casualties. Again and again, Dary left his covered position to
salvage medical supplies and equipment scattered across the invasion
beaches. When calls for corpsmen rang out, Dary supported the FMF
corpsmen in providing emergency medical aid to the wounded before
being killed in this mission of mercy.
Iwo Jima is a pork
chop-shaped volcanic island located 750 miles south of Tokyo. On its
southern end is Mount Suribachi a dormant volcano rising 550 feet
southwest of the beaches where the landings of February 19th, 1945,
took place. The northern end of the island is a rocky plateau where
the Imperial Japanese forces operated two active airfields and a
third was under construction. Iwo Jima was truly an island fortress
heavily fortified by some 23,000 troops equipped with a formidable
array artillery, mortars, rockets, tanks, an extensive system of
underground tunnels and irrepressible need to defend this strategic
island at all costs.
The battle for Iwo may have been a suicide
mission for the defenders of the island; it certainly was for U.S.
forces that arrived in February 1945. There was no strategic
advantage for the Marines and no surprise attack. Casualties were
immense, and outside of Marine litter bearers corpsmen suffered the
largest casualty rate. As in previous battles, corpsmen serving on
Iwo were targets of snipers, but were also killed and injured while
going into harm’s way to treat casualties.
that corpsmen were often singled out because they “looked
“We carried [medical kits] which I didn’t like
at all because they marked us as corpsmen. . .because of this, we
were told to carry side-arms not as offensive weapons but for
Despite the fact that the 4th and 5th
Marine Divisions on Iwo Jima were assigned five percent more
corpsmen than was allotted by the Marine Corps Tables of
Organization, corpsmen losses were too great to overcome. Corpsmen
casualties in six battalions exceeded 50 percent. Hospital Corps
casualties in one battalion exceeded 68 percent. In the 36-day
battle, 332 hospital corpsmen were killed in action or died of their
wounds. Another 659 corpsmen were wounded and required evacuation.
Knowing this fact, it is little surprise that Iwo’s corpsmen
were highly decorated. Iwo corpsmen received a total 14 Navy Crosses
(including six posthumous), 108 Silver Stars and 287 Bronze Stars.
And among the 27 Medals of Honor awarded to Iwo veterans (the most
of any battle in World War II), four were bestowed to hospital
corpsmen ... Francis Junior Pierce,
Jack Williams, and
Pharmacist’s Mate First Class John Harlan
Willis, was a 23-year old corpsman from Columbia, Tenn., serving
with the 27th Marines. On February 28th, Willis was sent to an aid
station with shrapnel wounds but, disregarding his injuries, soon
left to rejoin the fight and attend a wounded Marine. While
administering plasma to the Marine, the enemy lobbed eight
consecutive grenades into his shell hole. Willis retrieved each and
hurled them back towards the enemy before being killed by a ninth
In December 1945, Secretary of the Navy James
Forrestal bestowed a posthumous Medal of Honor to Willis’s young
widow, Winifred, and his newborn son. A photograph taken of the
event remains a poignant and a powerful reminder of preciousness of
life and the pain of loss.
On February 19th, 1945, Jack
Williams of Harrison County, Ark., was part of the first assault
waves to land on Iwo Jima. While attached to the 28th Marines,
Williams took part in the effort to isolate Mount Suribachi and
later secure it. On March 3, while on patrol, Williams abandoned a
secure position to attend to two fallen Marines, before dressing his
own wounds. While returning to the rear, Williams was killed by an
enemy sniper. He was 20 years old.
Despite incurring severe
wounds, Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class George Wahlen of Ogden, Utah,
and Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Francis Junior Pierce of
Earlville, Iowa, both survived the battle and were the only
surviving Iwo Jima corpsmen to receive the Medal of Honor.
After leaving the Navy in 1945, Wahlen served in the Railway
Messenger Service and later the Army. He passed away in 2009 at the
age of 84 years old. Today he is the namesake of the Department of
Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.
After the war, Francis Junior Pierce joined the Grand Rapids Police
Department after the war remaining in this role until retiring in
the 1980s. He passed away from lung cancer at the age of 62. In
2003, Hasbro released a commemorative G.I. Joe figure of Pierce. To
date, Pierce is the only hospital corpsman ever to be honored with
his own action figure.
Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class John
Bradley of Antigo, Wisc., is perhaps the best known corpsman to have
served at Iwo Jima. Initially credited as one of the six Suribachi
flag raisers in Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph,
Bradley was later sent on a war bond drive across America with
Marines Ira Hayes and René Gagnon. He appeared as himself in the
John Wayne film, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and his story was the
subject of the bestselling book, Flags of Our Fathers (2000) by his
son James Bradley and Ron Powers. Although in 2016, a Marine Corps
investigative team ruled that Bradley was not in fact part of the
second flag raising, he was, however, a decorated veteran and a
recipient of the Navy Cross for heroism on Suribachi. Suffering
significant wounds during the battle, Bradley was medically
discharged from the Navy in November 1945.
Rosenthal’s photograph of the second flag raising is emblematic of
the Marine Corps and represents the hard-fought struggle and
tenacity of service. Corpsmen were a vital part of hard fought
victory and few ratings have been more impacted by a single battle.
Their valor, their dedication to duty, their performance and their
sacrifice is undeniable. Nearly 80 years later, the battle for Iwo
should be remembered as a memorial to the fallen, to their service,
but also the shear grit and resilience of those Navy corpsmen who
answered the call.
“Hall of Valor.” Military Times.
Byron Dary Navy Cross Citation.
Francis Pierce Medal of Honor Citation.
George Wahlen Medal of Honor Citation.
Jack Williams Medal of Honor Citation.
James Twedt Navy Cross Citation.
John Bradley Navy Cross Citation.
John Willis Medal of Honor Citation.
Garand, George and Truman Strodbridge.
Western Pacific Operations: History of U.S. Marine Corps
Operations in World War II, Volume IV. Washington, DC:
Government Printing Office, 1971.
Herman, Jan K. Battle Stations Sick
Bay: Navy Medicine on World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval
Institute Press, 1997.
Herman Trevor Navy Cross Citation.
Combat Awards. BUMED Archives.
The History of the Medical Department
of the United States Navy in World War II. A Compilation of the
Killed, Wounded and Decorated Personnel. (NAVMED P-5021, Volume
2). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1953.
Navy Medical Department Administrative
History, 1941-1945. Volume I, Narrative History, Chapters
Wright, Derrick. Iwo Jima 1945: The
Marines raise the flag of Mount Suribachi. Oxford, UK: Osprey
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