One of my editors asked if I wanted to interview a couple of guys in town who fought on Iwo Jima. Talk about a rhetorical question.
On Nov. 29, I had the privilege of talking with two Marines who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima — two guys who ended up living less than a mile from each other in a small town in north central Ohio.
The story ran on Pearl Harbor Day in the Ashland Times-Gazette. Here it is.
ASHLAND — Cledith Skeen sat in a plush recliner in his Belmont Towers apartment. In a chair to his left sat Tom Winemiller, clutching a wooden cane tipped with a shiny brass knob.
“Until I met this fella, in 72 years I had met only two other Marines who served in Iwo Jima,” Skeen said, gesturing toward Winemiller. “I don’t know if there’s many of us left.”
“I’ll bet you’re correct,” Winemiller agreed. “There can’t be very many. I hate to say this, but we left a lot of them on that island.”
“That’s the sad part,” Skeen said. “I don’t want credit. Any honor, any credit, goes to those guys who laid it down, almost 7,000 of them didn’t walk away.”
Skeen, 90, and Winemiller, 91, met for a brief interview last week. They had visited each other twice before after discovering a few months ago that they live less than a mile apart. Skeen, formerly of Canton, moved to Ashland a year ago with his wife, Margaret. She passed away in April. Winemiller and his wife Jeanne are longtime Ashland residents. They live just outside the city on Township Road 853.
Skeen described how they met. His daughter, Nancy White of Ashland, had taken him to a dental appointment. A receptionist at the dentist’s office took notice of his Marine Corps cap and asked where he had served. When she learned Skeen had fought in Iwo Jima, she mentioned that she knew another local man who had served there. A meeting was arranged.
“It was just a blessing for me to meet him,” Skeen said.
“And being so close,” Winemiller added. “Only about a half-mile away, as the crow flies.”
During the interview, they didn’t reminisce very much. No crowing about the good old days. No war stories — at least none glorifying their experiences on the eight-square-mile hell that was Iwo Jima. In the 36-day battle, nearly 7,000 U.S. Marines were killed — along with more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers. More than 19,000 Americans were wounded. For the Japanese, that wasn’t an option. For them, it was a suicide mission from the start. Only 216 were taken prisoner.
Skeen grew up in Hopedale, a little town in eastern Ohio between Cadiz and Steubenville. His father was a coal miner. Skeen had no desire to go into the mines. After the war, he went to work at the Timken Company steel mill in Canton. He worked there for more than 36 years. Skeen lived in Canton most of his life, where he and his wife raised three daughters. He has six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren — going on eight.
He enlisted in the Marines in January 1944. He was 17 when he signed up and 18 when he went in.
“I was a young kid and a spirit of patriotism prevailed in our nation at that time,” Skeen said. “As a young kid, I wanted to serve my country and a saw a picture of these young Marines in their dress blues and heard the Marine Corps Hymn and it got me all excited. Needless to say, I never had a pair of dress blues and I didn’t hear the Hymn very much.”
There was no time for spit and polish then. Skeen, who served in the 5th Marine Division, took basic training in California. On D-Day — Feb. 19, 1945 — he found himself aboard a landing craft poised to hit the beach at Iwo Jima.
Winemiller served in the 3rd Marine Division. His was a reserve division. There were more than 2,400 U.S. casualties on the first day of the invasion, so he was sent ashore a few days after it started.
Like Skeen, he went through basic training in California and quickly found himself headed for Iwo Jima. The movie “Guadalcanal Diary” inspired him to join the Marines. He enlisted in December 1943.
“It (the movie) was quite a stimulation at the time,” Winemiller said. “You were going to be in some sort of service if you were 17 years old in 1943. I knew I didn’t want to be a sailor. I was always kind of uneasy about the fact that you’re on a ship you’re a target every minute of the day and night.”
Winemiller grew up in Sydney in western Ohio. He lived in town, but developed a keen interest in poultry farming. After military service, he earned a degree in poultry science at Ohio State University. That led to a career in agricultural advertising. He moved to Ashland in the early 1950s after landing a job at Hess & Clark, a livestock supply manufacturer. He retired from there in 1980, but continued to work in advertising part-time before retiring for good about 15 years ago.
He and Skeen talked about arriving at Iwo Jima — part of an armada of 880 ships. The U.S. had been bombarding the island for a couple of months. All that pounding did virtually nothing to reduce the enemy’s numbers. They were waiting in ambush, hunkered down in hundreds of caves and pillboxes — some of them interconnected by 16 miles of tunnels.
“What they didn’t know was how much underground stuff there was on that island,” Winemiller said. “That’s what scared the hell out of all of us; there were more Japs underground than there were on top of that island by far.”
“There was no safe place,” Skeen added. “You’d go right over those caves and there were a lot of guys that got shot in the back.”
“I remember early on that there was a couple of guys who saw a cave opening and they decided they were going to go in and see what was in there,” Winemiller said. “They thought there’d probably be some dead Japs because they’d thrown a couple hand grenades in there. Well they never came out. They got blasted.”
The conversation turned even more somber. They recalled seeing and hearing about torture and other atrocities on both sides.
“These things happened,” Skeen said. “I wish I could forget it, but I can’t.”
“You’re doing all right,” Winemiller assured him.
They talked about their initial landing, the most dangerous part of the operation. Skeen explained that the Japanese strategy was to allow the Marines to land, then gun them down them while they were assembled on the beach. The sand and loose volcanic ash made for slow going.
“Going in, I could see the smoke and hear the noise, but I didn’t have fear in my heart,” Skeen said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. We hit the beach, that ramp went down and we went into that ash. It was like getting into a bin of wheat and it got into your shoe tops. After you went over the top of that, you heard a few live rounds and a couple more shells went off. I thought, ‘I’m going to die.’
“It never dawned on me until then. I dove into a shell hole when the mortars went off and about four or five guys came in on top of me. I said, ‘Keep coming, boys.’ I thought they’d give me more protection.
“I didn’t realize death could be so real, so close, until that moment. When you start hearing those live rounds going by your head and the mortar shells go off.”
Talk of life and death naturally led to talk of religion.
“It wasn’t a very pleasant thing, but the good Lord decided to let us hang around for awhile,” Winemiller said.
“When I hit that first shell hole, when I dove in there, I said, ‘Oh God, if you get me off this island alive, I’ll give my life to you’.” Skeen recalled. “They talk about foxhole religion. Believe me, I meant what I said.”
“I do believe that and I think that’s wonderful,” Winemiller said. “It took me a lot longer to do that, but that was an important part of it.”
“I was afraid I was going to die and I knew I wasn’t wanting to die or ready to die.” Skeen said. “Those things are memories that are almost like they happened yesterday. ”
“You’re never going to get rid of it,” Winemiller responded.
“No. I pretty well got over most of it for awhile, but I had a difficult time with it,” Skeen said. “But I’ll tell you one thing, I am proud to have served my country. I don’t know that I did anything really to win the war, but I was there attempting to help and I’m thinking of all those who died there.”
“You did your share,” Winemiller responded. “That’s all you can say.”
Both recalled seeing the American flag flying atop Mount Suribachi, a 550-foot volcanic cone at the southern tip of the island. Six members of a Marine patrol hoisted the flag on Feb. 23, 1945. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the event in what would become an iconic image from World War II. At the time it also boosted the morale of the troops as well as civilians on the home front.
They also talked about steam from subterranean volcanic activity seeping through cracks in the ground and filling the air with a stench of sulfur.
“It was so hot a lot of times, our foxholes were very warm,” Winemiller said. “You could bury C rations in it and they’d be nice and warm by lunchtime.”
“It was so hot underground, it was 90 degrees all the time,” Skeen added.
Skeen, a corporal, served with a recon company on Iwo Jima He spent 38 days on the island. When it was all over, he returned to Hawaii, where his division regrouped and prepared to invade Japan. However, after the U.S dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered.
“I don’t know how a lot of people feel, but I think that is one of the best decisions that President Truman made,” Skeen said. “It was very very bad that they had to drop those bombs and kill those people but, from what I saw over there, we would have probably lost millions on both sides because they were suicidal. They had no regard for anything — their own lives or anyone else’s.”
He compared Japanese soldiers, who were expected to die in battle, to modern terrorists.
From the fall of 1945 until May 1946, Skeen served in Japan with U.S. occupational forces.
“We went in and basically our job was to destroy all their military installations, their coastal guns and stuff like that,” he said. “For awhile, we saw no people (except for what he believed to be Japanese police officers). The women and children were taught that the Marines were the most savage men in the world, that all they did was rape and kill. They were very fearful of us. But it wasn’t very long before they realized we weren’t what they’d been told and they warmed up to us.”
Winemiller, who also made the rank of corporal, was assigned to the Joint Assault Signal Company. During the Battle of Iwo Jima, he worked on the front lines, communicating by radio or telephone to the ships, directing naval gunfire.
“I heard a good many shells go over my head,” he said. “Thankfully, they all went over. These weren’t always naval shells; there were artillery shells. At the end of their trajectory, they’d start to wobble and you could hear them coming. I don’t tell you that because it was an exceptional experience. I’m sure every guy that was in the frontline situation had that experience.”
He acknowledged that it could be unnerving, but he and the others didn’t dwell on it.
“I think most Marines I was around were dedicated to the job that needed to be done and weren’t just sitting around worrying about whether they were going to get killed,” Winemiller said.
After the Battle of Iwo Jima and Japan’s surrender, he was sent to north China to help repatriate Japanese soldiers who had been stationed there. His unit also helped Chinese nationalists, who were being threatened by Chinese communists active in the region.
As the interview wound down, Skeen and Winemiller talked about being grateful for their longevity and having survived Iwo Jima. For 72 years, they’ve carried the burden of painful memories. In the twilight of their lives, they have been blessed with a newfound friendship that allows them to share that burden and reflect on lives well lived.
Their experiences have given them a deeper appreciation of life — and for what lies beyond.
“The best is yet to come,” Skeen said.
Along with the story, I wrote what is called in the newspaper business an info bar. Here it is.
The Battle of Iwo Jima
Iwo Jima History
A small island 4.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, Iwo Jima is part of the Volcano Islands. The islands were Japanese territory, administered by the City of Tokyo. Prior to the Battle of Iwo Jima, about 1,000 civilians inhabited the island, living in six settlements. Most were involved in sulfur mining. Some harvested fish from the ocean or raised meager sugar cane and pineapple crops on what little arable soil there was. The civilians were forcibly evacuated just before the U.S. invasion with the exception of about 400, who were detained and pressed into construction duty.
Before the Battle
Japan had a naval installation on the island before WWII. In anticipation of the U.S. invasion, they built two airfields and were working on a third.
Located about 650 miles from Japan, the island served as a base for Zero fighter planes, which harassed U.S. bombers conducting raids on Japan. It also provided Japan with two hours warning of impending aerial attacks. Iwo Jima was halfway between the Mariana Islands and Japan. Seized from Japanese forces in August 1944, the Marianas served as a base for U.S. bombers. American forces planned to use Iwo Jima for emergency landings for American B-29 bombers. After the U.S. took Iwo Jima, 2,400 B-29 bombers carrying 27,000 U.S. airmen made emergency landings there.
Led by Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Japanese troops planned to die on the island — at the hands of the enemy or by suicide. Each man was ordered to sacrifice his own life and take 10 American soldiers with him. The plan was to inflict heavy casualties so the U.S. would lose its resolve and be reluctant to further its attacks on Japanese territory. The Marines sent in 70,000 troops and lost nearly 7,000 men. Kuribayashi knew what he was up against. He had been educated in Canada and had served as a military attaché there and in the U.S. It’s assumed he was killed March 21, 1945. In his final official dispatch Kuribayashi commented, “The strength under my command is about 400. The enemy suggested we surrender through a loudspeaker, but our officers and men just laughed and paid no attention.” His body was never found.
Iwo Jima Today
The U.S. returned possession of the Iwo Jima to Japan in 1968. The island, marked with shrines honoring American and Japanese soldiers, is open only once a year for a guided tour limited to veterans, their family and a limited number of journalists. Last year, American and Japanese survivors were brought together to the island to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle and to honor those who died there. Cledith Skeen passed on an opportunity to visit Iwo Jima last year. “I could have gone, but I had no desire to,” he said.
- In “Guadalcanal Diary,” the movie that inspired Tom Winemiller to join the Marine Corps, several Marines appeared as extras. Some of them were among the Marines who invaded Iwo Jima. Also, parts of the movie were filmed at Camp Pendleton in California, where Winemiller and Skeen took some of their military training.
- Mount Suribachi derives its name from a Japanese term for “grinding bowl.”
- Iwo Jima has no streams, ponds or lakes. The Japanese relied on wells and collected rainwater to survive.
- The large flag raised over Mount Suribachi, which replaced the smaller one originally placed there, had been recovered from a sinking ship in Pearl Harbor.
- The flag raising was also captured on 16mm film by Sgt. William Genaust, a Marine Corps photographer. According to Skeen, he didn’t live to see the footage he shot. Genaust was killed in action nine days later while searching a cave for Japanese soldiers.
Sources: “World War II Pacific Island Guide: A Geo-Military Study” by Gordon L. Rottman, World War II Database, the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, iwojima.com, “Combat Camera” by Patrick Brion, “Iwo Jima: Combat to Comrades,” a PBS documentary, Tom Winemiller and Cledith Skeen. Numbers of troops and casualties vary slightly, depending on the source.