This Day in History: Two Heroes at Iwo Jima
On this day in 1945, two United States Marines engage in heroic actions at Iwo Jima. One Marine would risk his life, but he would survive and eventually return home. The other would not.
Both men received the Medal of Honor for their bravery in a battle that was once called “as close to hell as you could get. . . . active gunfire all the time and explosions going off. People getting killed right and left.”
William “Red” Walsh had signed up for the Marines immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, his entire baseball team took off for a nearby Marine recruiting office as soon as they heard what happened! On Monday morning, when the recruiting office opened, Walsh was sitting there, determined to sign up.
He was then only 19 years old.
He excelled in the Marines. “Strict, but fair,” one sergeant later recalled. “Honest . . . tough . . . He let you know he was in charge. He wouldn’t take nuthin’ from nobody.”
In February 1945, Gunnery Sergeant Walsh was with the forces at Iwo Jima. He soon found himself in a fight to capture a ridge near Hill 362. Walsh and his men had spent the night before being pounded by enemy fire. It had been a demoralizing night, but Walsh seemed undeterred and he boldly led his men into the fight.
“Hell we can’t stay here!” he reportedly declared. “Let’s hit the sons-a-bitches again!”
The Marines’ first charge was forced back, as was the second. By then, Walsh was in a hole with several wounded men. The Japanese kept throwing grenades, but Walsh kept throwing the grenades back out. Finally, one rolled in with less time to spare. Walsh threw himself on the grenade, absorbing its impact and killing himself instantly in the process.
“He was protective of his men,” one sergeant later explained. “It was the one thing we had instilled in us because without them you’ve got nothing.”
The other Marine was Private Wilson D. Watson. He’d celebrated his 23rd birthday aboard a ship heading toward Iwo Jima. In the midst of the tough battle on the Japanese island, he surely must have wondered if he’d live to see his 24th birthday?
The fighting was intense, and the Japanese fire was seemingly endless. On February 26, Watson’s battalion was moving forward slowly, but they were being pummeled by machine-gun fire. Finally Watson spotted the pillbox that was the source of the fire, and he made his way toward it. He finally got close enough to shove a grenade in. Then he did it again, later, with another pillbox.
The next day, Watson’s platoon was attempting to take a ridge, when it came under fire. But Watson was fed up. He charged up the hill, as his citation describes, “under fierce mortar and machinegun barrages and, with his assistant BAR man, charged the crest of the hill, firing from his hip.”
Once he got there, he stayed. He was being attacked from all sides, and he was in an exposed position. But he just kept firing. He would fire all the rounds in one magazine, drop it, then fire all the rounds in the next. He did this over and over again for 15 minutes, killing 60 Japanese. He held that hill until his platoon finally arrived.
“The only thing on my mind was that if you don’t get those Japs they are going to kill all of us,” Watson later said. By the time his platoon joined him, he was covered in his own blood. He didn’t even realize he’d been hit.
Two brave, young men. Only one would return home.
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James H. Hallas, Uncommon Valor on Iwo Jima: The Story of the Medal of Honor Recipients in the Marine Corps’ Bloodiest Battle of World War II (2016)
Medal of Honor citation (William Gary Walsh)
Medal of Honor citation (Wilson Douglas Watson)
Patrick K. O’Donnell, Into the Rising Sun: In Their Own Words, World War II’s Pacific Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat (2002)