Two nearly 100-year-old veterans of the Battle of of Iwo Jima in Japan met for the first time on its 75th anniversary at a ceremony aboard another of the battle’s veterans — the Battleship New Jersey.
The two Camden County, New Jersey, veterans tossed a remembrance wreath into the Delaware River late-February from the port side of the floating Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial on the Camden waterfront across from Philadelphia.
The 99-year-old John Welsh of Gloucester Township and 97-year-old Francis “Frank” or “Elmer” Beach of Oaklyn also shook hands and personally exchanged a few World War II memories of the U.S. Marine Corps assault on Iwo Jima, a Japanese island in the Pacific that was part of the enemy’s early warning system during the war.
Both remembered seeing the initial U.S. flag raising by the Fifth Marine Division atop 546-foot high Mount Suribachi in the winter of 1945 after the Marines captured it Feb. 23, a few days into the five-week battle that began Feb. 19. The battle ended March 26, a costly U.S. victory and one of the bloodiest battles in Marine history with 6,800 killed and nearly 20,000 wounded.
"When we saw it (the flag) go up, we all cheered. I stood up and didn't care if I got my backside shot off," Welsh recalled of the flag.
Beach also remembered seeing the flag event as did most of the cheering Marines and Navy crews aboard the battleship New Jersey offshore and other vessels. The celebration was short-lived, though.
"I thought when the flag went up it was the end (of the battle,) but it was just the beginning," remembered Beach, the father of New Jersey state Sen. James Beach and six other children. He described the island fighting as "very hard" and "lasting too long."
In support of the assault on Iwo Jima, the New Jersey protected the Essex (CV-9) aircraft carrier group that conducted air attacks on the island from Feb. 19 to 21.
For most of his life Beach has been reluctant to talk much about his role in that battle or the rest of the war, but he told family members this detail: As soon as he and others in the first Marine wave hit the beaches on the volcanic island, he could hear Japanese bullets whizzing by his head as he lay prostrate on the sand.
Welsh, a Purple Heart recipient, was wounded twice and survived both malaria and a jungle fever in three island campaigns.
He was shot in the back in Guam after the Bouganville Island campaign and then in the arm on Iwo Jima, an injury that sent him home before the war ended. Every night in his bedroom he prays for comrades who never came back from the war, said his daughter, Joanne Carr.
Welsh had served with Medal of Honor recipient Hershel "Woody" Williams in the same unit — Company C., 1st Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, though they were in different platoons and did not know one another.
Welsh then headed to Virginia for the Iwo Jima Association of America’s national commemoration of the 75th anniversary where Williams, 96, spoke.
Beach also was wounded but in the leg by a bayonet-wielding Japanese soldier during the Bougainville Island campaign. He had refused a Purple Heart then because he considered his injury minor compared to those suffered by other Marines but finally accepted the medal on the deck of the battleship New Jersey a few years after it opened as a museum in 2001.
"It's a testament to the men who were there that the battle has entered our national conscience and is so often memorialized," said battleship museum curator Ryan Szimanski, alluding in part to the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial statue in Arlington, Virginia.
The statue replicates the famous flag-raising photo by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal.