ALAMEDA (KPIX 5) — 75 years ago, American forces launched an all-out assault on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. It was one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theatre. On Sunday, two Bay Area men spoke about what it was like for those who were there and what it meant to those who followed them into military service.
In February, 1945, a young Navy signalman stationed aboard the carrier USS Hornet was transferred to a destroyer in the South Pacific. That’s when he played his part in history. Ralph Ivar Bertelsen of Alameda was only 17 years old and had all of six months of signal training when he arrived aboard the destroyer USS Moore.
“The next day they invaded Iwo Jima,” Bertelsen said. “We were in close to the beach retrieving pilots that had been shot down.”
The fighting was savage as the Marines struggled to gain a foothold on the rocky island. Bertelsen spent three days communicating with other ships using signal lights as they pulled pilots from the sea, and he didn’t even notice that equipment right above his head had been hit and damaged.
“I could see the place up there on the top and there were people up there with rifles shooting at us,” he said.
The “place up there” was Mt. Suribachi, where the Japanese were dug in and determined to fight to the death. The battle lasted for 36 days.
“The people that were there had to be devoted to what they were doing for their countries,” Bertelsen said. “It was an all-out effort by, really, both sides, the Japanese and the Americans.”
When the Marines finally captured the mountaintop and planted the flag, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that was taken became a solemn symbol of the Marine Corp ever since. Joe LoParo served in the Corps at the end of the Vietnam War, but had a hard time finding the words to describe the sacrifice of the nearly 7,000 who died at Iwo Jima.
“When people say thank you for being a veteran, I say if you truly want to thank a veteran, be the kind of American that’s worth dying for, because those are the guys that deserve it,” LoParo said.
For many, Iwo Jima was a turning point in the war in the Pacific and provided one of the most recognizable images of the “Greatest Generation.” As for Bertelsen, he stayed in the military, serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and retiring after 30 years of service as a full Commander in the U.S. Navy.
There aren’t many left who hit the beach that day but, for those who have survived to this day, they have been invited to Washington to be part of a week-long series of ceremonies commemorating the anniversary.