Monday, February 19, 2018

Inferno of Death

Ernest Ivy "Boots" Thomas

Remembering Iwo Jima 
by Robert A. Waters 

It's been 73 years since the bloody Battle of Iwo Jima.  Part of General Douglas McArthur's "island-hopping" strategy, Iwo Jima tested the resolve and courage of the Americans involved.  We owe these soldiers a debt—without them, we would no doubt live in a different world today. 

From February 19 to March 26, 1945, thousands of United States Marines fought and died on Iwo Jima, a volcanic island 660 miles from Japan.  By the time the battle was over, the Americans had suffered nearly 20,000 casualties, with 6,821 killed or missing in action.  The 23,000 Japanese defenders of the island fought to the bitter end—20,000 died in battle or committed suicide when cornered. 

Before the war, the Japanese had spent years building a labyrinth of interconnected tunnels and bunkers throughout the island.  For this reason, the heavy American bombing campaign meant to "soften up" the enemy inflicted almost no casualties.  Once the Marines invaded, they were met with a fanatical opposing force that rose from beneath the ground, fought in quick spurts, then vanished back into their bunkers.  In many cases, hand grenades and flame-throwers proved more effective for the Americans than rifles and machine guns.  Marines couldn't even dig foxholes for protection because the ground was hardened rock. 

It was during this battle, seventy-three years ago, that Marine Sgt. Ernest Ivy "Boots" Thomas, 20, was killed in action.  As his life drained from him, he may have thought of his carefree boyhood in Monticello, Florida.  A few days earlier, he had shared an iconic moment at the top of Mount Suribachi.   

Born in Tampa, the Thomas family moved to Monticello when Ernest was eight-years-old.  During his high school years, war clouds had been gathering, and, on December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor changed the lives of every American.  Thomas was no exception.  Six months later, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.  By then, the Pacific had become an inferno of death. 

Thomas completed basic training (boot camp) at Parris Island, South Carolina.  Until March, 1944, he served as a drill instructor.  That month, he was shipped to Hawaii to begin training for the coming battle of Iwo Jima.  He was nicknamed "Boots" because of his long stint as a drill sergeant. 

Thomas was among the first troops that stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima.  His heroism on the battlefield is described below in his Navy Cross Citation.  But what he is most remembered for is being one of the Marines who raised the first flag on Mount Suribachi.  According to Military Times, "Platoon Sergeant Thomas...was one of the Marines who raised the FIRST flag over Iwo Jima (hours prior to the flag raising immortalized in the Rosenthal photo).  On March 3, 1945 - one week short of his 21st birthday, Thomas was shot and killed by enemy fire as he tried to radio a message during battle."  

Navy Cross citation 
"The Navy Cross is presented posthumously to Ernest I. Thomas Jr., United States Marine Corps Reserve, for extraordinary heroism as a Rifle Platoon Leader serving with Company E, Second Battalion, Twenty-Eighth Marines, Fifth Marine Division, during action on enemy Japanese-held Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 21 February 1945. When his platoon leader was wounded, Platoon Sergeant Thomas assumed command and, before supporting tanks arrived to cover him, led his men in an assault on a fanatically defended and heavily fortified hostile sector at the base of Mount Suribachi.   With the tanks unable to proceed over the rough terrain beyond positions 75 to 100 yards at the rear of our attacking forces, Platoon Sergeant Thomas ran repeatedly to the nearest tank, and in a position exposed to heavy and accurate machine-gun and mortar barrages, directed the fire of the tanks against the Japanese pillboxes which were retarding his platoon's advance.  After each trip to the tanks, he returned to his men and led them in assaulting and neutralizing enemy emplacements, continuing to advance against the Japanese with a knife as his only weapon after the destruction of his rifle by hostile fire.  Under his aggressive leadership, the platoon killed all the enemy in the sector and contributed materially to the eventual capture of Mount Suribachi.  His daring initiative, fearless leadership and unwavering devotion to duty were inspiring to those with whom he served and reflect the highest credit upon Platoon Sergeant Thomas and the United States Naval Service." 

For those who are interested, I recommend the Clint Eastwood movie, "Flags of our Fathers."  Ernest Ivy Thomas is portrayed in the movie by actor Brian Kimmet.