Photograph of Iwo Jima (click on image to enlarge) Archives of The Museum of the San Fernando Valley
The veterans who returned to the United States to make the San Fernando Valley their home at the conclusion of WWII did not leave behind their wounds, physical and psychological. James Fecht was a U.S. Marine who fought on Iwo Jima with the 3rd Marine Division. The following is an excerpt from his war memoirs.
In the final years of his life, Jim began a series of acrylic paintings of the places where he had fought. He painted all of the locations at peace. It took him a lifetime to work through the terrors he had experienced in combat.
"Things started heating up about 200 yard ahead of us in the scrub trees and volcanic rocks, a firefight was definitely moving our way. Homer Davis, a farm boy from Middlefield, New York and I were huddled up as deep as we could get in a shell hold, in the light volcanic sand, about 20 yards from the edge of the scub trees.
The unmistakable crackling of light Namu machine gun fire, and the popping of their rifle fire, kept coming our way, and we knew that we would soon be in for it. Mortar shells were dropping in on us, ahead of their advancing troops, keeping us pinned down in our holes.
Every time a shell exploded nearby, the light sand would shift back down in our hole, keeping us busy shoveling it out again. We took turns immediately after a shell burst, to stick our heads up to take a peek at what was coming our way, and then report to the other what we thought was coming in.
At my lst sighting it appeared to me that the shells were bursting further behind us, which meant that their troops were getting closer to us. I also note that their small arms fire was moving a little further to our right into the 4th Marines on our right flank.
Our Battalion's plan on defending or advancing was always to lay down a withering stream of fire, and the time had come to defend our position against their counter attack. They were too close for our artillery or Naval or Air support, so that left it up to each of us to throw everything we had at them.
On all sides of us, all up and down the line, small arms fire began popping and cracking, and with the explosions of grenades and mortar shell, it sounded like the biggest Fourth of July you've ever heard.
It was pretty late in the afternoon and with the sun going down, we were sure that their main charge would come after dark. Their counter attacks always came after they moved up close to our positions during the day, then came in on us at night.
Our old Marine Gunner McGrew, a 20 year veteran who we would follow anywhere, came crawling into our hole with bandoliers of 30 caliber ammo clips for our rifles, and bags of grenades. He told us to keep our fire all night, but to fire from different positions so as not to give our locations away.
Homer crawled about 5 yards to the left and I crawled 5 years to the right, were we dug a couple more foxholes in the sand to give us a couple of more firing positions. We would fire into the scrub trees ahead whenever we thought we saw something moving. And, the rest of our battalion were doing the same thing.
As it got dark, one of our destroyers moved in close to shore, and started shooting off flares that lit up the area in an eerie light as they slowly drifted to the ground. In the dust and smoke from exploding shells rising up in the brush and scrub trees, limbs were being cut off from the murderous fire. Shadowy figures darting between rocks and trees drew a stream of fir from a dozen different directions.
When the sand started kicking up in my face, I realized that there was incoming fire too. I could hear the whizzing over my head that sounded like bees buzzing by. The Gunner came crawling by, dragging more bandoliers of ammo from hole to hole.
The firing in front of us died down about 2 A.M., but it sounded like the 4th (division) on our right flank were still getting it. They were in afire fight and were getting mortar shells dropped in on them too. The shelling lasted only about a half hour, but there was to be no sleep that night, as small bands of three or four charged our lines all night. The tension in the darkness was sheer terror and left us all exhausted as first light of dawn filtered through the dust and fog.
Homer and I took turns cat-napping and keeping watch back in our big sandy hole together. Lieutenant Rink crawled over to us and passed the word that we were to move out right away, and move up 100 yards and dig in there. We strapped our packs on, loaded up our cartridge belts with ammo, hooked on all the grenades we could carry, then crawled out of our holes.
About 20 feet to my left, a big ex-Pro football player named Gurley, lay slumped over the edge of his foxhole. I thought he was just asleep, and I crawled over to wake him and to get him to come with us. That's when I noticed his mouth and nose were buried right down in the sand. It looked like somewhere during the night he must have raised up to fire, a small piece of shrapnel hit him right in the heart. Our Navy Corpsman, Doc Wilson, got my signal and crawled over to take at look at him, but there was nothing he could do.
As we made our way up to our new position, we encountered dead enemy bodies about 20 yards in front of us. That's how close they had gotten to us. When I poked one with my bayonet to make sure he was dead, his helmet fell off, and I found some letters, pictures, and a regimental flag up on the inside straps of his helmet. I stuffed them into the pockets of my dungarees, and moved on.
As we got further into the scrub trees, we found dead bodies all over the place, some places they were stacked on top of each other. They had charged right into our murderous firepower. Some of the guys were shooting into the corpses, taking no chance that some might be alive.
The Artillery, Naval and Air bombardment ahead of us, churned up the landscape until it looked like all the pictures of hell I had ever seen. s the barrage moved on up ahead of us, we came out of the little scrub trees into a small clearing, where we stopped and started digging in, and not a bit too soon! a machine gun opened up from a concrete pill box about 200 yards ahead of us, spraying lead all across the front lines. When bullets started kicking up dust all around you, and clipping off the leaves from bushes right near your head, you can dig a hole pretty fast.
A take was called up to knock out the pill box that was pinning us down, and as it swung into the clearing, and started firing at the emplacement with armor piercing shells, some of those shells ricocheted off the concrete and bounced end over right over our heads adding to our peril.
The tank maneuvered in closer to the pill box to get within its flame thrower range, when all of the sudden it was hit by a high explosive shell from another buried pill box on its flank. The tank was completely immobilized and started burning. A couple of the tank crew got out of the tank and started running town our lines, but both bunkers opened up on them and cut them down.
About 20 yards on my right, an Indian boy from South Dakota, by the name of Mix, stripped off his pack, cartridge belt and canteens, loaded up the pockets of his dungarees with grenades, grabbed his rifle and took off on a dead run toward the bunker, about 200 yards of open ground.
I don't think they saw him because the smoke from the burning tank, because he never drew any fire at all. He ran around to the back of the dirt mound that covered the concrete pill box and started throwing in grenades one after the other, as fast as he could pull the pins. When the dust cleared Mix waved at us and yell that it was all clear. There were 4 dead bodies in the bunker and Lieutenant Rinka said we could more up past there tomorrow.
After the campaign of Iwo Jima was over, we returned to our base on Guam, where Mix was awarded the Silver Star for his outstanding bravery. "
South Pacific at Peace Series by James L. Fecht (click on image to enlarge) Acrylic painting completed in 1997. Archives of The Museum of the San Fernando Valley 2009