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'For my country': 55 years later, ex-Marine recalls iconic battle at Iwo Jima

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

COVINGTON -- The battle of Iwo Jima is perhaps most associated with that iconic photograph of six servicemen raising an American flag atop a mountain. It's an image that has come to represent American triumph and glory.

And though U.S. troops were, in fact, ultimately victorious at Iwo Jima, victory came at a high price.

It's a price that Gerald Hipps of Mansfield is still paying, some 55 years later. The horrors he saw on the island still haunt him, in memories and nightmares. He tears up when talking about those 36 days of hell, as the battle became known. He remembers seeing dear friends and comrades killed before his eyes, his own life spared, time and again, by some miracle.

It's only recently that Hipps became willing to tell his story at all.

For decades, he refused to talk about the war, even to his beloved wife June. He would not watch war movies and did not register for disability payment from the government, though he was entitled to it.

But time, and the gratitude of strangers, has allowed him to open up and reveal the truth of what he experienced, of what it was really like to fight one of the most famous battles in history.

Hipps grew up in Miami. He dropped out of school at age 16 to join the Marines following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"I wanted to do something for my country," he said.

Hipps tried to get assigned as a cook. Having lived in poverty during his childhood, he thought that would ensure that he would have enough to eat, at least.

But his superiors weren't impressed with his culinary skills and instead he became a BAR rifleman.

On the voyage by ship to the war zone, Hipps and the other men didn't know where they were headed until their commanders called them into a room about three days before they landed and showed them a model of Iwo Jima. The island was an air base for Japanese aircraft to intercept B-29 bombers and provided a haven for Japanese naval units in need of support. They were told their mission was to secure Mount Suribachi, the 550-foot volcanic cone at the island's southern tip.

Before they landed, the Marines were served a hearty breakfast.

"We were told, 'This might be your last breakfast, so we're going to give you a good breakfast.' We had steak and eggs. Man, I'd never had steak and eggs in my life for breakfast," Hipps said.

It was the last comfort he would experience for a long time.

Hipps was part of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division that landed at Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945. He went in with about the 15th wave and the scene he encountered terrified him.

The Japanese had built an elaborate system of tunnels and bunkers throughout Mount Suribachi. The result was that they were heavily guarded and the Marines were exposed. The Japanese would open reinforced steel doors to fire and immediately close them to prevent counter fire.

The Marines often couldn't see their enemies and the terrain, consisting of volcanic ash, made it even more difficult to advance. They suffered heavy casualties. Historians have likened the attack to "throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete."

"We landed and I saw all the dead Marines. They were bleeding, their faces were in the dirt. It scared me half to death," Hipps said.

Just a kid of 17, Hipps jumped into a hole created by an explosion, momentarily too frightened to face battle.

"I heard a voice. I looked up and saw my colonel (Lt. Col. Chandler W. Johnson) and he said, 'Lad, you're not afraid are you?' I said, 'Yes sir, I'm afraid.' It dawned on me that here is an important man standing up there, walking around as if he's not afraid. I said, 'I'm not going to be afraid anymore.'

"Later I looked down and saw that colonel that gave me the courage to go on. He was dead. He was blown to bits."

Hipps was wounded, hit on his right arm, shoulder and leg by shrapnel. It was U.S. Navy Corpsman John Bradley who treated his wounds.

Bradley was one of the six soldiers immortalized by Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the raising of the flag atop Mount Suribachi.

Hipps witnessed that historic moment -- there were actually two flags raised, but that's another story -- and he cheered along with his comrades. He thought his job was done and he would be going home.

But instead, they went on to the northern end of the island for more fighting, more horror.

The battle was one of the bloodiest in the history of the Marine Corps.

Hipps escaped death many times, and watched, over and over, as his buddies did not.

Once he was walking along the beach with two other soldiers. They passed what they thought was a dead Marine under a poncho, but it turned out to be a Japanese sniper.

"I was in the middle. The other two guys got shot and got killed -- my buddies," Hipps said, tearing up.

Once, Hipps and seven other men stood in a circle, getting orders from their commander, when a gas bomb landed at their feet. Half of them were killed. Another time, he stepped on a live bomb, but it didn't explode.

He was nearly killed again when he got pinned down by a sniper while attempting to rescue a wounded Marine, but was saved by a comrade who used a flamethrower to kill the sniper.

He recalled seeing a bullet blow through the head of one of his best friends. He watched the Japanese push a captured Marine out of a cave. He was set on fire, burned alive.

Hipps remembers praying to God to get him out on more than one occasion. Shortly after one such prayer, he was notified that his unit was going home.

When the battle ended on March 26, 1945, the number of American wounded totaled about 27,000, including 7,000 fatalities.

Of the 240 men in Hipps' company, only 27 survived.

Hipps was awarded the Purple Heart.

He went on to marry and have three sons, and kept most of his war experiences to himself.

"I wouldn't even apply for disability from the government. I didn't want no part of the government. I just wanted to be with my wife and family," he said.

Though he tried to let go and move on, the memories wouldn't let go of him.

His wife June recalled that Hipps was so jumpy during the first few years of their marriage that she couldn't walk behind him. He would scream out at night, reliving the horror in his dreams, sometimes accidentally hitting her in the process. To this day, she sleeps surrounded by pillows.

And to this day, the nightmares continue. And the memories never let go.

"It makes me cry and get upset even to this day at the age of 83. I can close my eyes and see the horrible things that I saw as a young Marine," he said.

Hipps went decades without discussing the war. Then one day, his son saw a car with a banner that said "Iwo Jima Survivor" and told his father about it. Hipps decided he wanted one, too, and when he couldn't find one, he fashioned his own.

That simple act changed his life. Strangers started coming up to him, thanking him for his service. People would honk their horns and wave. Then Hipps encountered a Marine colonel who asked him to come and share his story at a local high school.

The floodgates opened: He started talking, to his family, to his doctors, to students, about what had happened. His grandchildren now know their grandfather is a hero.

Despite all that he's suffered, Hipps said he doesn't regret his decision to join the military.

"Regardless, if your country needs you to go to battle, go to battle to protect your country," he said.

The experience made him stronger, too.

"I knew once I got out I could survive under any circumstances," he said.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz said that, "Among the Americans who served on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Hipps won't acknowledge his own uncommon valor. But he does believe he made a difference.

"If I didn't defend our country, this country today would be under a dictatorship," he said. "Not just me, but the other guys, too. Hitler, the Japanese would have taken over this country if it weren't for us."