WWII Marine commander recalls wounds of Iwo Jima

The Enterprise — Tyler Murphy

Happy to just be alive, 92-year-old Sanford “Sandy” Berkman said he was lucky to be wounded instead of killed in the World War II battle for Iwo Jima. Twenty-six of the 53 men he led into combat would be killed and all the rest, including Berkman himself, would be wounded. In this photograph, he displays his Iwo Jima commemorative medal, Purple Heart and Distinguished Unit Citation. 

The Enterprise — Tyler Murphy

In 1945 Sanford “Sandy” Berkman had this picture taken before the battle of Iwo Jima. As a Marine Corps second lieutenant he led an assault platoon in the initial attack to take the island and witnessed the historic flag-raising there, before being wounded. 

Photograph by Joseph Rosenthal

The second flag being raised atop Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II become one of the most recognizable and published photographs. The scene depicts six weary servicemen replacing the battle’s first flag, which was put up three hours earlier by frontline troops. Joseph Rosenthal took the picture unprepared and wasn’t sure if he even captured the image until the film was developed; it won the Pulitzer Prize. Though the famous second flag-raising may have done more for the war effort, the first marked a far more significant moment in the battle for Iwo Jima. 

Photograph by Louis R. Lowery

The first flag to rise on Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima was not the iconic one most Americans associate with the battle. It was raised by the first squad of Marines to reach the summit on the fourth day of fighting and was ordered taken down by a general who wanted to keep the flag. It rose atop Mount Suribachi at about 10:20 a.m. on Feb. 23, 1945 and flew for about three hours before it was replaced. 

NEW SCOTLAND — Leading a platoon of 53 men into one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, 2nd Lt. Sanford “Sandy” Berkman and all of the Marines under his command would be wounded or killed while fighting on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima. 

“In my platoon, we had 53 men. I found out afterward we had a 100-percent casualty rate; 26 killed, 27 wounded,” recalled 92-year-old Berkman from his home in New Scotland.

“So many people got killed and hurt, those of us that got hurt felt like we were the lucky ones because we got off alive.”

According to the United States Navy’s historical archives, the battle for Iwo Jima and its airfields caused 26,000 American casualties; about 6,800 of those were killed in action.

Of the approximate 20,000 Japanese defenders, only 1 in 20 would survive, with just fewer than 19,000 killed during combat.

On the fourth day of the battle, Feb. 23, 1945, Berkman was wounded by mortar fire from an enemy counter attack, made moments after he witnessed the capture of Mount Suribachi and a victorious flag-raising at its peak.

The spectacle helped inspire the beleaguered Marines who applauded and cheered the scene from the valley below. Navy ships along the island’s coast even sounded their horns at the sight. When the Japanese soldiers saw the display and realized their loss, they responded with an intense barrage of mortar and machine gun fire.

The Japanese had been using the elevated terrain of Mount Suribachi to track and target U.S. troops and its capture was considered a major advantage in the 36-day battle to seize the eight-square-mile island.

Associated Press photographer Joseph Rosenthal took a picture of a second flag-raising three hours later atop Mount Suribachi, after commanders ordered the first, smaller flag be preserved and a larger one sent up. The iconic image Rosenthal took was one of the most widely published photographs of the war and its likeness, which depicts six weary servicemen pushing up a long metal pipe with a large American flag blowing at one end, was also made into a national monument.

Recalling his experiences, Berkman said he wasn’t positive which of the flag-raisings he witnessed that day. He explained the passage of time since then, and the traumatic injuries he would suffer immediately after the spectacle, clouded his recollection.

“The general wanted the first flag. He was worried some Marine might take it as a souvenir and he wanted it. So he ordered a second to go up, so he could have it. The second flag-raising was Rosenthal’s,” said Berkman, referring to the famous picture.

“Solid Marines”

At the age of 21, Berkman enlisted with the U.S Marine Corps. He received training in North Carolina and became a radio operator in the Marines’ 3rd Division.

“In nine weeks of bootcamp, the first thing they taught you was the Marines are the boss. You’re just a private, you’re just a small part of the Marines,” said Berkman.

“I remember my drill instructor was from Minnesota. He’s what we called a China Marine. His tent was at the end of our row and he had an ironing board where he would press his campaign hat and, when he put it on, you could not see his eyes,” said Berkman. “We all knew when he lifted his head up to look you in the eyes, you were in big trouble then.”

“Back then, the Marine Corps were made up of mostly southerners and westerners; they were a conservative group. But it was a very tight branch of the service,” said Berkman, who came from Mechanicville, N.Y., enlisting at an Albany recruiting station.

Before leaving home, Berkman remembered telling his uncle, “‘I don’t need this top coat; it’s warm down south.’ I had no idea; I figure it was down South, it had to be warm. When I got to Parris Island in the February of 1942, it was so cold the water froze in our buckets.

“Why did I join? I just wanted to do my share, I guess, but I was old by the standards of the Marine Corps at the time. I was 21 when I signed up; most the Marines in those days were 18-, 19-year-olds,” he said.

As a radio operator, Berkman traveled with the 3rd Marines Headquarters Company from the Carolinas to California, boarding a ship to New Zealand and then another to the Solomon Islands, where he was assigned “clean-up” duty following the battle for Guadalcanal, where the war’s first large-scale offensive engagement against the Japanese was fought.

Combat at Guadalcanal was over by the time Berkman and his unit arrived and they spent most for their time training.

In 1944, Berkman had an opportunity to attend officer training school but it required volunteering for a dangerous reconnaissance mission to covertly scout Japanese positions behind enemy lines.

“We signed papers saying we would never divulge any information about it. It was a long time ago but I signed it and I keep my word,” said Berkman.

Berkman did say he joined a small select group of non-commissioned officers, recalling many of them had prior combat experience.

“They were pretty solid Marines,” said Berkman.

One had been previously awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest medal Marines get for valor, he recalled. The highest is the Medal of Honor.

“We all knew about the Medal of Honor. We knew you pretty much had to die to get it or have somebody up high notice you for some reason. It was something we didn’t see as much of, but the Navy Cross, there were guys with that and we respected them a whole lot,” he said.

The scouting mission took the men behind enemy lines for several days and was executed without incident.

If the men had been discovered, there would have been no way for them to escape or receive support, said Berkman.

“Of course the Japanese didn’t know we were there. If they knew we were there at all, I wouldn’t be here; all of us would be dead,” he said of those on the mission.

Old man at 24

When Berkman and seven others arrived at Quantico, Va. to join the Marines’ Officer Candidates School, they found their names at the bottom of the enrollment list for promotions. Many of the students at the school were in college before the war broke out or had other merits, including students who were professional and college athletes.

When the group of transferred Marines went to meet the school’s commander, they also learned he was a native of Albany, like Berkman, and his fellow veterans pushed Berkman to speak with him.

“We were both from Albany, and they [the boys] said I had a big mouth and insisted I do all the talking,” said Berkman. He recalled asking the commander, “We’ve been in combat. How come we’re at the bottom of the list?” to which he replied, “‘That’s because you’re competing against all the boys from college.’”

Berkman remembered one of his bunkmates at the military school had been Notre Dame’s All-American quarterback.

“We were competing against guys that were mostly book smart; they had read about it. We had been out there a long time though, but I doubt any one of us had ever seen a college,” said Berkman, comparing those who enlisted into the school to those veterans sent there from the front. 

Berkman said he and the veterans struggled more in the first half of training, which was more technical and academic, but they excelled at the second half, which brought students more and more into the field. For many of the college boys it was the first time they were exposed to combat conditions.

“I said let’s wait until the second half and see what happens. Once we got out into the field these guys didn’t know right foot from left. Even the instructors at the school weren’t much smarter, most of them had never even been overseas, let alone combat,” said Berkman.

At the school, Berkman and the trainees learned the art of combat tactics. He was taught how to organize and maneuver units of men in combat and to evaluate battle situations and enemy strengths.

“It’s like being taught how to engage the enemy. How to avoid getting flanked; how to avoid getting your men into a situation you can’t get out of,” said Berkman. Another part of the training, he recalled, involved learning how to get men out of amphibious launch craft during an assault.

In June of 1944, Berkman successfully finished school, was promoted to the rank of 2nd lieutenant, and reassigned to the 5th Marines as a troop train commander.

“In the Marine Corps at the time, if an NCO [non-commissioned officer] got a promotion he didn’t get sent back to the same outfit. I guess they thought you were too friendly with the guys you already knew, that you couldn’t command the respect needed for an officer,” said Berkman.

As a troop train commander, Berkman was responsible for making sure 300 fresh Marine recruits, mostly from New Jersey and New York, made the trip from the East Coast to the West Coast, where they would board a transport to Hawaii.

They were mostly kids,” said Berkman, “But half of them were also wiseguys from the streets of New York and New Jersey, some from jail.”

Before leaving for California, Berkman wanted to warn the men about the consequences of fleeing the service after having signed up, known in the military as going absent without leave or AWOL.

“The morning we left, I assembled all these kids, 18-, 19-year-olds — I call them kids because at that point I was 24. I was an old man and they used to call me the old man,” said Berman.

“Anyway, I got all of them together and said we had a long trip, over 3,000 miles, and we’ll have to take on food and water. ‘You see the fellas standing here with the rifles and the live ammo in those rifles?’” Berkman asked the new Marines, motioning to all of them. “If you think for one second if you can take off and go AWOL… You know these guys are good marksmen.”

Every single one of those Marines arrived in California and boarded a ship, something Berkman’s commanders noted as an accolade in his service record.

In Hawaii, Berkman was made a platoon commander in the 5th Division’s 26th Marine regiment. The unit was designated as an assault platoon and issued 10 machine guns.  The weapons are much heavier armaments than an infantryman’s rifle. The machine guns were mounted on stands to stabilize them, had cooling systems, ammunition belts, and were able to fire at incredible rates.

“We had five air-cooled and five water-cooled machine guns. At the time, I knew nothing about machine guns; I was a radio guy. But I had a gunnery sergeant that was really nice and we had a two-week crash course,” said Berkman. “I knew more about what to do with them from a tactical point — put it there. But breaking them down and taking them apart is knowing something completely different.”

On New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 1945, Berkman and the platoon boarded a troop transport with thousands of other Marines and joined the largest convoy of ships the Marines would gather during World War II. The convoy would continue to collect men and supplies for more than a month before launching an attack on Iwo Jima.

A sea of dead bodies

Military commanders deemed capturing Iwo Jima necessary to help protect long-range bombers striking mainland Japan.

The island was situated between mainland Japan and U.S. forces and had airfields, which the Japanese used to harass American planes. American military commanders wanted to capture the island and use the airfields to protect U.S. bombers and offer them a closer respite during bombing runs on Japan.

It was the first time American troops would invade sovereign Japanese territory and its defenders, conscious of previous defeats, adapted to the Allies’ now apparent technological advantages by building miles of underground caves and bunkers to shelter them from America’s superior air and naval forces, which bombarded the island relentlessly and kept the Marines supplied.

The Japanese troops resigned themselves to fight to the death on the island, aware they could not receive any further support during the invasion. As the battle lingered, many Japanese soldiers struggled with a lack of food, water, or ammunition.

Inaccurate intelligence about the strength and resolve of Iwo Jima’s defenses had American military planners errantly predicting a three-day battle for the island, but it would take more than 12 times longer than they thought. Marines first landed on the beaches on Feb. 19, 1945 and the island was declared under U.S. control on March 26.

The deep complex of fortifications on the island would slow the Marines’ offensive to a crawl, often forcing soldiers to engage in fierce close combat. Marines painstakingly confronted concealed and well-fortified caves and bunkers using flame-throwers, grenades, small arms, and tanks — where possible. At other times, soldiers on both sides came under heavy and prolonged artillery fire, with many Marines unable to dig foxholes for cover in the barren island’s sandy volcanic ash.

“When we were briefed, we were told we were going to take this island ‘no matter what,’” said Berkman. “Before we hit the island, they also told us it would last for 72 hours, not 36 days.”

In the ship convoy, the transports were spread out over several miles of ocean to avoid air attacks. Aboard, Berkman said, he could see only a few ships nearby but on Feb. 19 their transport approached Iwo Jima.

Berkman described an island of dull color, barren rock, and smoke.

“There really wasn’t much to see. We had fired — we had battle wagons [large battleships] and all kinds of attack ships with us and they blasted the island for 72 hours prior to our landing. They poured 18,000 shells into that island,” said Berkman. “And it didn’t do a damn thing. They [the Japanese] were all underground.”

“They were just so well fortified they could sit there and laugh at us, it didn’t dent anything,” he said. “We didn’t know they were 18 inches underground and in concrete.”

He remembered climbing over the ship’s rails and down large rope ladders to board a smaller landing craft.

“When we went over the side on the morning of the 19th of February, we were going down these ropes and I saw a few guys in our division go in the water. Some of them fell off and got crushed between the landing craft and the transport ship,” he said.

The landing craft Berkman boarded held just over 100 men or two platoons of about 50 Marines each. He and the other platoon lieutenant were the highest-ranking officers among them.

“We had no communications in my outfit. We were on the frontlines as an assault group. We weren’t the first ones in but we were close,” he said.

The Japanese intentionally delayed their initial attack, allowing troops and equipment to cluster on the beach for a few minutes before launching an assault. By the time Berkman’s landing craft got to shore, the battle had already began.

“It was a sea of dead bodies at the beach,” said Berkman, who lost some of his men to enemy mortar fire shortly after landing.

“It was 100-percent chaos. Dead bodies all over,” he said.  “My big thought was: ‘We’ve got to get the hell off the beach.’ It was unbelievable.”

He described damaged and abandoned vehicles scattered along the shore, including half-sunk landing ships that had taken direct hits from incoming artillery fire.

The platoon of Marines burst out of their own landing craft and rushed up the beachhead under continuous mortar fire, finding cover where they could and assembling with the rest of their company.

“[The Japanese] owned Mount Suribachi and they were looking down at us and the whole island from it. They could see everything we were doing,” said Berkman.

After assembling just off the beach, Berkman’s company was divided in two, with half of them heading left to secure Mount Suribachi and the rest, including Berkman and his platoon men, heading right to secure the rest of the island and the airfields.

“I had to get my boys together and we had our guns ready to go and we started toward the airfield,” said Berkman, recalling the 53-man platoon had already lost some of its men.

“When you lose your friends, how do you deal with it? The answer is: You don’t. When they go down, you don’t deal with it, you can’t, there’s too much going on. It’s very frustrating.” Berkman added, “We all had a job to do and we did the best we could.”

The platoon advanced inland falling under enemy fire so intense the Marines were unable to set up their machine gun emplacements.

“So we started inland and even by the fourth day we’d only advanced less than a mile. We were pinned down most of the time. We couldn’t even set ourselves up to meet the enemy. We were all like ducks in the water, they were killing us all.”

Take your chances

Some of the most harrowing experiences Berkman recalled were being under constant Japanese artillery fire, day and night, and often with little or no available cover.

“It never stopped,” he said.

“There was nowhere to hide; they were shooting and spotting us from Mount Suribachi,” said Berkman, whose platoon was fighting in the valley below.

Iwo Jima is an open landscape of volcanic ash and rocks, he said.

“It was all volcanic ash, worse than sand, you couldn’t dig a foxhole in it. It would cave in on you,” he said.

“You can’t run from it, you can’t dig a foxhole; you just take your chances. More than once I told myself ‘I won’t get off this island alive,’” he said of the artillery fire.

“There just isn’t a lot you can say, you just do what you were trained to do and listen to what the boys upstairs tell you to do. Don’t question; do it,” he said.

As the platoon moved forward, it began engaging the Japanese, and at times had all 10 of the machine guns firing at once.

“With ten machine guns going at once it’s hard to think you’re not killing something,” said Berkman.

“Thank God for those flamethrowers. I remember one bunker; the flamethrower came up and blasted the cave the Japs were in. A bunch of them came running out on fire. We — all the men and I — we clapped.”

Berkman said he and the other Marines perceived the Japanese soldiers very coldly and that they didn’t take prisoners, saying, “Marines don’t take prisoners.”

He talked about how the Marines saw the Japanese, who were known for almost never surrendering, intentionally targeting vulnerable personnel, such as medics, and murdering or treating prisoners very poorly. He also admitted that a number of servicemen were racist toward the Japanese and that American war propaganda often fueled those biases.

Berkman said he believes the term “Jap” is inappropriate and insensitive and refrains from using the word anymore. However, he found himself uttering it when recalling some memories, explaining it was commonly said during the war, especially by the Marines fighting in the Pacific.

In explaining the troops point of view, he noted that the Empire of Japan, as it called itself then, was a totalitarian state, which had occupied large portions of Asia. Imperial Japan also started the war with America by launching a devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

“It’s war; they were the enemy. It was all awful,” he said. “They were good combatants, they were smart, but their outlook was a lot different from us. They didn’t care if they got killed; they just wanted to kill you.”

As his platoon moved over the island and came across dead Japanese soldiers, it was common for the men to strip the bodies of valuables and take souvenirs.  Berkman said he took some things off dead Japanese soliders, such as an officer’s sword, but all his personal items and those he took were lost at sea when the Navy cargo vessel carrying them was sunk by an air attack later in the war.

“We went by the dead Japs, the boys took whatever they could for souvenirs –– swords, pistols, whatever they could find. A lot of Japanese soldiers carried with them small flags with the rising sun. The brazen men took the gold teeth out of their heads. Those were the bad guys back home who joined the war — the ones who back home they were from New York or New Jersey and the gangs,” he said.

“It’s not something to be proud of; it happened. People probably don’t like to hear about it,” he said.

By the fourth day of the battle, on Feb. 23, Berkman said he and most of the men had only had a “couple to a few hours of sleep.”

“For days, it was like a living hell because you didn’t know if you were going to get killed that day or not,” he said.

It was on the fourth day that Berkman would see something historic, one of the two flag-raisings showing the Marines had captured the peak of Mount Suribachi.

Though the second flag-raising photographed by Rosenthal might have made a larger impact in the war effort, the first symbolized a more significant moment in the battle for Iwo Jima.

“We were getting ready to make an attack. I was getting the men into position and I happen to look up at Suribachi and this flag was going up and then everybody was yelling and screaming ‘Hurray,’” remembered Berkman. “I looked for a minute and then got back down to business and that’s when I got hit.”

“It was a major attack,” said Berkman of the sudden Japanese offensive. “They got mad at us for taking Suribachi; they didn’t think we could do that.”

As Berkman was moving around his men, giving orders for an attack, a series of mortar shells landed near his position and his legs and lower back were pelted with at least eight pieces of shrapnel.

His wounds would keep him from walking without a cane for several weeks and eventually required five surgeries. The scars are still plainly visible on his body 68 years later.

As Berkman fell, the attack continued, with shells exploding around him. He called for a corpsman and gave himself a shot of morphine.

“Officers were the only ones allowed to carry morphine and I gave myself an injection. A Navy corpsman came along with a stretcher and put me on it and I was carried to the beach,” he said.

“All the beach was lined up with wounded guys, and, believe me, a lot of them were worse off than me,” he said.

The wounded Marines were waiting to be evacuated to hospital ships anchored just off shore. Even on the beach, though, Berkman said Japanese mortar shells still occasionally hit, sometimes killing wounded men where they lay.

After being evacuated, Berkman would learn that half of the men he landed with on Iwo Jima had died there, and not a single one of the survivors from his platoon had escaped without being wounded.

He was awarded the Purple Heart and his unit was given a distinguished citation.

“Whole platoons, even companies, were just wiped out,” he said.

A close enemy

Iwo Jima would be the last time Berkman would fight in battle but not the last he would be in one. While en route back to the States, he was hospitalized in Sipan and then took a ship to Hawaii.

The vessel came under Japanese air attack and Berkman recalled the sailors shooting down Japanese planes and American fighters battling in the skies. One of the Japanese planes tried to ram the ship he was on in a suicide attack but was blown off course by anti-aircraft fire and crashed into the sea.

“We encountered a dog fight and one of the Jap planes flew at the ship. It missed by maybe 50 feet; it was close,” he said.

During his trip home, Berkman discovered Japanese prisoners were being held captive aboard ship and he wanted to get a look at them. Hobbling on a cane, he went below decks to the cells.

“I wanted to see these guys. I ended up talking to one of them, a Jap pilot who was educated at the University of California. We didn't say much but he spoke perfect English; he had better diction than I did,” said Berkman. “He said to me ‘We’re going to win this war.’”

Berkman asked the Japanese officer, “You’re not serious, are you?” The prisoner stared and did not respond and, after a moment, Berkman replied, “I wouldn’t bet on it,” and walked away.

 

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