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'The whole island was on fire'

Bob Legge was there and saw his fellow marines bleed and die for old glory.

For more than a week, 19-year-old Bob Legge had sailed across the Pacific, packed into a troop carrier with 2,500 other Marines, from their training ground in Hawaii to a tiny blob of volcanic rock known as Island X.

Only after they'd boarded the troop ship had they heard the name Iwo Jima. Few if any had heard those words before. After more than 30 murderous days in February and March, they would never forget them.

On the morning of the invasion, 50 years ago tomorrow, he climbed on deck and got his first look at the Japanese-held island he would help conquer. For days, bombers had soaked the island with explosives. The night before the landings began, battleships opened up with ceaseless artillery barrages.

"It looked like the whole island was on fire," he remembered. " Hell, the reaction was, 'There's not going to be anything left for us.' "

On the contrary. What was left for them was the heaviest American bleeding of any individual battle in the Pacific war.

Now, so distant in time and place from the war, it's not as obvious why we wanted so desperately to capture this oblong mountaintop jutting out of the ocean. To understand why this battle was worth the 6,821 men who died and the 19,000 who were wounded - not to mention the more than 20,000 Japanese who died defending it - you need to consider how hard it was to wage an air war against an enemy nation halfway around the world.

Over the course of the war, the Allies captured one island after another, creeping from Hawaii and Australia toward the Japanese homeland, with each island operating as a steppingstone to the next.

But by the winter of 1944-1945, we were in a tough position. By all rights, we should have been plastering Japan with the heavy bombings that were wrecking German resistance.

Distance made the difference. Our nearest bombing bases weren't a few hundred miles away, as was the case in Europe. Our nearest base in the Pacific was in Saipan in the Mariana Islands, 1,500 miles south of Japan. No planes except B-29 Superfortresses, the technological vanguard of the Army Air Corps, could make the round trip to the Japanese islands. That meant the full power of the bomber fleet couldn't be unloaded on Japan, and the B-29s had to fly without fighter escorts.

Capturing tiny Iwo Jima would provide us with airfields 660 miles from Tokyo. That would mean fighter cover for the bombing raids on Japan. It would enable the bombers to double their payloads.

Just as important, it would wipe out the Japanese fighter planes on the island. Those fighters had been raiding American bombers on the ground in the Mariana Islands and in the air on their way to and from Japan.

The Japanese were a few months ahead of the Americans in recognizing the strategic value of Iwo Jima. As recently as February 1944, there had been just 1,000 or so Japanese natives, 1,500 naval airmen and 20 planes on the island.

Then the Japanese started fortifying the island against capture and basing more planes and men there. By the time American ships sailed toward it for an invasion, the Japanese defenders could hardly have asked for better defenses than they had: about 21,000 men, 1,000 machine guns, more than 200 pieces of artillery and mortars, 380 grenade launchers and 200 rocket launchers.

Worse yet for the American attackers, the Japanese could hardly have found a stronger position if they'd designed it themselves and cast it in concrete poured into the sea.

Iwo Jima was 3 1/2 miles wide at its widest point and barely half a mile wide at its narrowest. The rocky, uneven ground provided thousands of natural hiding places for the island's defenders. At the southern end of the island, an extinct volcano called Mount Suribachi was laced with hundreds of natural caves in its sides.

The Japanese built pillboxes in many of these caves and linked them with networks of tunnels, so that they could move among them and evade American fire.

Americans began bombing Iwo Jima, sporadically at first, in the summer of 1944. By 1945, the bombardment was routine. Days before the invasion, Navy ships brought their big guns to bear on the island.

By the time troops landed, shortly after 9 a.m. Feb. 19, Iwo Jima had been so heavily battered that bombs and strafing and artillery shells had shaved off nearly every clump of vegetation on the island.

On the morning of the invasion, Legge (pronounced "leg") and his fellow Marines got up about 2 a.m. Rising early was no hardship; sleeping didn't come easily when they knew they would see battle tomorrow, many for the first time. The Navy cooks treated them right.

"They fixed us steak and eggs, bacon and eggs, ham and eggs, whatever we wanted. This was the last day for a lot of people."

Over the next several hours, the Marines on his ship crawled down rope ladders into smaller landing craft, each about 8 feet wide and 35 feet long. Legge spent the next three hours packed in the landing craft with about 10 other soldiers and a jeep, circling at a distance, waiting to make their run to the beach. They covered their faces in a thick, white flash cream to protect themselves against burns, until they looked like a squad of ghosts in olive drab.

They were part of the second wave to hit the beach. When their turn came, shortly after 9 a.m., their little boat started what Legge thinks was a 30- minute zigzagging course to the beach at the narrow end of the island, near Suribachi.

Shells arching from Japanese positions began exploding above the tiny craft headed for the beach. Legge and the others kept their heads low and waited. When the bow struck the black volcanic sand of Iwo Jima and dropped its landing plank onto the beach, machine-gun fire tore into the jeep. The driver abandoned the car, and all the men scrambled out.

"It was mass confusion," he remembered. "We had several casualties. . . . About every other word was, 'Corpsman!' "

Legge was a forward observer for an artillery unit, but he had no artillery pieces to direct, no targets he could scout out. That first day on the beach was a ridiculously slow plod through the heavy, wet sand.

"That day was just survival," he said.

The beach was rippled with ridges of sand that a storm in 1943 had dumped there. These "sand terraces" were 5 to 18 feet high. Although they did provide cover from frontal fire, they also slowed the Americans' advance.

And the cover was far from complete. Legge and the other Marines did their best to dig into the sand.

"They were dropping mortars and artillery behind us and kicking us in the tail," he said.

In the course of that first day, he'd see men all around him lose arms and legs, and others killed by direct hits from mortar shells.

"For a little country boy, you just couldn't believe what was happening there. It was devastating," he said.

Later that afternoon, the artillery for his unit arrived. He doubts that they advanced more than 100 yards inland.

In the days to come, he'd do his part in the fight to capture Iwo Jima, directing artillery fire against reinforced-concrete pillboxes one by one. Legge emerged almost unscathed, although he got a phosphorus burn on his rear that probably put him among the more than 80 percent of the Marines there who were casualties.

On March 10, Legge, a Wells county commissioner and retired grain-elevator owner, will return to Iwo Jima to join 800 Marine Corps veterans to remember the battle and the many Marines who fell there.

"It's hard to figure out why some guys were hit and others weren't. There were a lot of terrific guys wiped out there," he said.