A Corpsman's Story of Iwo Jima
Ziehme, who was born Feb. 27, 1922, in Glen Flora, died Nov. 10, 2005.
Because his story is as insightful today as it was then, it is being reprinted (11/17/06) in part from the June 2, 1988, issue of the Ladysmith News.
By John Terrill
A flag raising, sadly, has little significance for most Americans. It’s an excuse to stand at the beginning of an athletic event or a reason to take one’s hat off (for the dwindling number who show that much respect).
The American flag was respected when Gerald Ziehme was growing up in Glen Flora in the 1920s and 30s. His father ran a store in the village, and the family of seven lived in a little farmhouse. He did not realize then that that peaceful setting would one day be replaced by Iwo Jima, a battle that would forever change his life.
Ziehme was there when the first American flag was raised on Mount Suribachi, the summit of the island whose name says it all. It was one of America’s most costly battles of World War II.
Although Ziehme’s company placed the very first flag on the summit and their accomplishment was photographed, credit has gone to the men who placed a larger flag on Mount Suribachi several hours later. The deed was immortalized in that famous photograph by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, which was transformed into the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, D.C.
While it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, no picture can capture the hellish nightmare of the 36 day battle for Iwo Jima as well as the words of a survivor. Flambeau High School students had the opportunity to hear the story of Iwo Jima firsthand from Ziehme earlier this spring as he spoke to students in the high school library. It is only the second time he has spoken publicly about Iwo Jima.
Ziehme had joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at age 14 and enlisted in the Navy at age 17 when a neutral America was staying out of “Europe’s war.” A pharmacist’s mate, Ziehme was assigned to the Marines. Pearl Harbor ended America’s neutrality.
Why Iwo Jima?
Iwo Jima is a tiny volcanic island 4.66 miles by 2.5 miles, known only for its sulfur deposits and black volcanic ash. But in the waning days of World War II, the Japanese were using its two air bases to attack American bombers on their way to the Japanese homeland and to attack American held Saipan.
American military analysts knew that Iwo Jima could be strategically important, serving as a base for U.S. fighter escorts and as a way station for bombers hitting Japan.
American bombers first hit the island (Iwo Jima) on June 15, 1944, in what would become the most intensive preparation given any objective in the Pacific during the war. It culminated in 74 days of continuous air strikes by Saipan based U.S. bombers and three days of steady bombardment from the big guns on U.S. ships stationed off Iwo Jima (including the battleship USS Wisconsin in her first bombardment of the war).
All that effort did little good, as the Japanese were entrenched in a network of tunnels and fortifications. Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander of Iwo Jima, was preparing to fight to the bitter end.
The U.S. assault on Iwo Jima began at 0900 on Feb. 19, 1945. Within minutes the first wave of armored amphibian tractors and troop-carrying landing craft approached the beaches. Members of the Marine’s 4th and 5th divisions had little initial opposition as they waded ankle deep through volcanic ash. Military planners hoped to secure Mt. Suribachi and one of the air fields the first day.
“We were supposed to take the island in three days,” said Ziehme.
When those first Marines tried to cross the volcanic terrace beyond the beach, they were mowed down by machine gun and rifle fire, and the Japanese unleashed mortar and artillery shells on the beaches.
“When you got on the island, you couldn’t get off,” Ziehme told the students. Debris, landing craft and bodies of dead American soldiers littered the beach.
Ziehme remembers crawling on his belly across the hot black sand and smelling the sulfur. “You crawled, you never stood up,” said Ziehme, who didn’t have to explain the consequences.
A medical corpsman, he carried 80 pounds on his back. His supplies included four units of plasma, battle dressings, medications including morphine, and water. Many times he had to crawl over the sand with a wounded soldier on his back.
“You could look at a guy’s eyes and tell to the day how long he’d been there,” said Ziehme.
“You didn’t know who you could trust.” The Japs infiltrated the American lines at night and snipers shot G.I.s from the vantage points. “You never saw them,” he explained.
There was no hospital set up on the island in those initial days, although there were field surgeons. He remembers one time when he carried two wounded soldiers to the beach, picked up a life raft that he had signaled for, swam out to the ship (the USS Arkansas) in the darkness of night and came back and took the other man out.
Well trained for his job. Ziehme did the best with the limited supplies he had. “There was a lot of hand-to-hand combat,” he explained. On occasion he was taking care of two wounded guys when he came upon Sgt. Joe Fisher. “I thought he was dead,” said Ziehme. Fisher’s intestines had come in contact with the sands of Iwo Jima and Ziehme knew he had to clean them before putting them inside his body. He didn’t have any water left, so he called to two men nearby, neither of whom had any. Among them they generated the only liquid available - urine - to cleanse his organs.
“Months later in a field hospital in Hawaii, I heard his voice. ‘Hey doc, is that you?’ It was Fisher. “The kid had lived,” said Ziehme, as he broke down in tears.
“It was so difficult,” Ziehme sobbed, “They usually died before you could treat them.”
On the third day of battle he came upon a mortally wounded comrade. Ziehme attended to him, and seeing a chaplain nearby called to Father Bradley. The dying solider asked Ziehme to pull his shoes off as his feet had fallen asleep. He didn’t have any legs, they had been blown off.
Some men went berserk under those conditions. Ziehme was forced to knock out one fellow soldier who had gone off the deep end. “He’d have killed me ... I know he would have. He was out of his head.”
Jack Williams, a fellow corpsman, was killed on the 7th day of battle. He received the Congressional Medal for his bravery, and a frigate is named for him.
At 23, Ziehme was an “old man” on Iwo Jima. Many of the soldiers were kids — 15-20, “just out of boot camp.”
“The Japs would rather wound a guy than kill him because it took people to care for him,” said Ziehme. medical corpsman were prized targets. “They’d decoy you by yelling, ‘Corpsman,’” said Ziehme. The troops then began to use code words.
Ziehme said he had no personal animosity against the Japs. “They were doing what we were, protecting their country. They were dedicated soldiers.” But he despised some of their tactics. Americans were tortured at the hands of the Japs, he said.
“Killing is not right,” he told the students, “but that’s the way it was.”
Ziehme admitted he was “scared all the time” but said he never felt he wouldn’t come home, even though “the odds were bad.”
America paid a dear price for the conquest of Iwo Jima — 5,931 dead and 17,372 wounded. Of the 29,900 Japanese in the island, 20,000 are thought to have died. Many died in the tunnels that initially protected them. They succumbed to flame throwers and grenades.
Wounded three times on Iwo Jima, he continued his duties because the need for medical corpsmen was so great. “I was a diehard Marine. I was proud of it and the guys.”
Ziehme went from 183 pounds to 126 pounds during the 36 days he spent on Iwo Jima. He still bears the scars of battle on one arm and carries six ounces of shrapnel in his knees. “I don’t know that a day goes by without pain,” he said.
Knifed in the face by a Jap while in a fox hole, Ziehme carried granules of black sand from Iwo Jima in a scar from that wound until they were removed by a plastic surgeon some years ago.
The physical wounds leave a scar that can be seen; the scars from the emotional wounds are hidden. He was hospitalized for 11 months and was discharged on Sept. 7, 1945.
“A silent wound is worse than a broken leg. It’s a terrible thing (but) these wounds can be healed. They’re doing it at Tomah. They don’t heal as fast as a broken leg.”
Ziehme said doctors today know more about treating post-traumatic stress syndrome, and even have medication which helps. He said it is important to talk. He visits Vietnam veterans in the hospital at Tomah and listens to their horror stories. He knows what they’re talking about.
“Be good to the boys from (the) Vietnam (War),” he told the students. “They were taken away from their homes and sacrificed for people (the South Vietnamese) who couldn’t do it (fight) for themselves.”
Ziehme had the opportunity to visit Iwo Jima on the 40th anniversary of the battle. He chose not to. He said he opposed giving the island back to Japan. “We fought hard for it.” He said he wanted to remember the Marine cemetery the way it was then, with helmets draped over wooden crosses.
Ziehme said his outfit had a casualty rate of 365 percent. The unit was replaced three and one-half times. He figures only two or three from his unit are still alive (in 1988).
“The true heroes are dead.”
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