MISSOULA — Their eyes have seen the horrors of Iwo Jima, and for years it wasn’t anything either Harry Hayden or Ron Scharfe felt much like talking about.
The pivotal World War II battle in February and March 1945 cost the lives of more than 6,800 Americans and 21,000 Japanese, and changed the survivors forever.
It also secured for U.S. troops a key island in the South Pacific to provide landing strips for giant B-29s on bomb runs to and from Tokyo. Five months later, the war was won.
It took another shattering event a half-century later – the death of his wife Mary in 1995 – to unleash pent-up memories for Scharfe, 86.
“When I lost the wife to cancer, then they’d come back just in flashbacks. Every two weeks, I’d have flashbacks,” he said.
Traci Scharfe was 26 at the time, and she hadn’t heard her father talk about Iwo Jima.
“I knew Dad was in the war, but now I love hearing all the stories about it,” she said Monday.
“I’ve got memories. I mean, I think about ’em every day, really,” said Hayden, 86, who grew up in Beach, N.D., but has lived for more than 30 years in Belgrade. “Your mind goes and you’ve got nothing to do, especially like I am in a nursing home.”
Scharfe and Hayden were among four World War II veterans honored Monday at the University of Montana law school, by the school’s Law Military Society.
They were joined by Gene Bell, 87, of Kalispell, a fellow Marine who watched the battle on Iwo Jima from a hospital ship for 13 days, and Jerry Bell, Gene’s twin brother, who wasn’t at Iwo but ended up on Okinawa with the Army later in the spring of ’45.
Each semester, members of the Law Military Society and the ROTC honor valiant military service with a similar commemoration, said 2nd Lt. Brad Jones, a second-year UM law student who served as master of ceremonies.
Few saw as much of the carnage and the triumph on Iwo Jima as Hayden. He was in on the initial landing on Feb. 19 and remained for 32 of the 36-day campaign. Of the 42 Marines in his platoon, three survived – a death rate of more than one per day.
At that pace, a sprained ankle may have saved Hayden’s life. He woke up on the fateful morning, climbed out of his foxhole and stepped on a rock.
“It tipped my ankle over and I went down like a shot,” Hayden recalled. “I crawled back to the CO on my hands and knees and he sent me back to the hospital to get it taped up.”
Normally, he said, the medics would have doctored the ankle and kept him in sick bay for a day or two until he could walk. Then they would have sent him back to battle.
“The doc at the hospital said, ‘How long you been up there?’ I said, ‘32 days.’ He said, ‘Would you like to get out of here?’ I said, ‘You got that right.’ ”
Next thing Hayden knew, he was on a hospital ship headed for first Guam, then Hawaii.
Dale and Larry Hayden brought their father, who uses a wheelchair, to Missoula from Belgrade for Monday’s event. It wasn’t until the past decade or two that he’d talk about Iwo.
“I think he just tried to forget it for all those years,” said Dale.
Even now, he added, Harry has nightmares about the island. Nothing dramatic in his life occurred to prompt him to open up about his war experiences.
“I don’t think so,” Larry Hayden said. “He just started realizing that there are going to be fewer and fewer of them and if he didn’t start talking, nobody would.”
Even small celebrations like the one Monday that drew 75 students, families and veterans, are important, Gene Bell said.
He’s the lone remaining member of the board of directors for the Iwo Jima Association of America who was actually there, and spends a lot of his time speaking to high schools and civic organizations. Bell said he traveled to Washington, D.C., five times last year in that capacity.
“We don’t want people to forget what happened,” he said.
“This was really nice. I really appreciated it,” Scharfe said afterward. “You know, you never forget things. You never forget the guys you left over there. It’s always in your mind.”
Iwo Jima was returned to Japanese hands in 1968. Today, the tiny island (just eight square miles) is a military base. It’s opened one day a year for a Reunion of Honor for both American and Japanese survivors. Hayden and Bell have made trips back to Iwo.
But Bell said the annual event, which began in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the battle with the help Ambassador Walter Mondale, is in jeopardy.
“Japan’s getting kind of hinky about it,” he said. “We hope we can continue, but it doesn’t look good.”
Scharfe, who was on Iwo Jima during the battle for more than a week, said the cost of the Reunion of Honor has prevented him from going along.
“If I could get someone to sponsor me, one of those big outfits like Allegiance or something, I wouldn’t mind going back,” he said.