AUGUSTA, Maine — It was just over 66 years ago that Raymond Miller was with his Marine regiment, bearing south on the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima. There was an unusual lull in the gunfire, and his attention was drawn about 400 yards away to the top of Mount Suribachi, which rose sharply at the south end of the pork chop-shaped isle.
In a scene that has become perhaps the most famous representation of Americans fighting in World War II, Miller’s fellow Marines were raising the U.S. flag.
“Thousands of us cheered, even though neither the battle nor the war was over,” Miller writes in the book “From the Volcano to the Gorge/Getting the Job Done on Iwo Jima.” “I’m pleased to have been there for that moving and historic moment.”
But, as Miller also points out, the fighting had barely even begun as the flag was hoisted above the mountain, which was well-fortified by the Japanese with big gun emplacements and batteries that rained fire on the U.S. invaders day and night. In the next month, 17,000 Japanese troops and 6,000 U.S. Marines would die in one of the most difficult confrontations of the war.
“You couldn’t see any guns. Everything was hidden in the hills and blockhouses,” the 86-year-old Miller, who lives in Paris, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They could see us, but we couldn’t see them.”
The fighting went on much longer than the three days the soldiers initially were told, dragging on for a month before the island was fully in American control.
A book appearing at the 66th anniversary of the February-March 1945 battle includes the recollections of Miller and Howard McLaughlin Jr., who also served in the 5th Marine Division at Iwo Jima. Rather than a detailed and technical history of the battle, the stories are personal in nature.
In a way no movie can, they reflect the true nature of combat and its impact on troops, its gruesome side and how those who are constantly inches from death manage to cope over days and weeks.
“If I talk to people who’ve been in battle, they kind of get it,” Miller said. He hopes the book will enlighten those who haven’t.
The Japanese considered Iwo Jima extremely important to the defense of their homeland 800 miles away. Americans were determined to remove that protective outpost from Japanese control and gain access to its three airfields. The troops’ main landing was Feb. 19, 1945.
Despite their specialty training, Miller and McLaughlin were called on to fight in the ever-dangerous front lines. They acknowledge the excellent training, technical skills and commitment of their adversaries, who were willing to fight to the death. But the book also reflects frustration with American troops from behind the lines who shared in the glory without sharing in all the pain and heartache of seeing their buddies die.
The experience that is foremost in Miller’s memory involved his friend, identified in the book as Gus. The two were ordered to go into the field and search for wounded Marines.
“We hunkered down, not quite kneeling,” Miller recalled. “We were shoulder-to-shoulder and we heard some gunfire.”
“I remember saying to him: ‘Gus, that was a close one.’ I looked over to him, and he slipped to the ground. I said I’d go over and get some help.”
But it was too late. “The bullet that killed him was 4 inches from my shoulder,” Miller said. “He died in my arms.”
Mixed with the horrifying scenes are some that are uplifting. One involved a Marine called Marty who showed Miller the bullet that penetrated his steel helmet at such an angle that it whizzed about the inside until it spent its energy and fell harmlessly. Marty was allowed to keep both the helmet and bullet as souvenirs.
Then there was an even luckier Marine, Stan Stevenson, who had been shot through the head and survived with no noticeable damage or disability. He became known as Lucky Stevenson.
Miller, who grew up in Oshkosh, Wis., said he was changed for life the minute he entered the battle.
“When the ramp went down on that landing craft, that’s when the war began for me,” Miller said. “You’re not the same person after that.”
His next six weeks were spent in battle with “highly trained, well-disciplined and intensely motivated fighters who lived with indescribable personal fears, most inhumane conditions and grinding fatigue — and still got the job done with pride, alive or dead,” Miller wrote. “I wish I were articulate enough to do the job right of telling how it was.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Associated Press erroneously reported the hometown of author Raymond Miller. He lives in Paris, Maine, not Standish, Maine.