Remembering Iwo Jima

By Dick Mason, The Observer March 26, 2014 10:18 am

Mel Elder of La Grande served as a radio operator during the battle of  Iwo Jima. Elder did so while aboard the USS Hinsdale. (CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer)
Mel Elder of La Grande served as a radio operator during the battle of Iwo Jima. Elder did so while aboard the USS Hinsdale. (CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer)

La Grande man recalls famous battle for Japanese island that ended 69 years ago today

Mel Elder can still hear the officers’ words echoing on the public address system of the USS Hinsdale as the ship approached Iwo Jima, a small Japanese island about 760 miles south of Tokyo.

“They all said, ‘Don’t expect a tough assignment. We should have the island secured in three or four days,’” Elder recalled. 

Sadly, these words were far from prophetic. The 1945 battle for Iwo Jima, which the United States eventually won, lasted five weeks. Fighting on the island claimed the lives of more than 6,000 Americans and at least 18,000 Japanese. 

Today marks the 69th anniversary of the end of the battle of Iwo Jima, an engagement which forever shaped Elder’s perspective.

“It made me appreciate the value of life, I can tell you that,” said Elder, who was a radio operator for the U.S. Navy during World War II. 

Elder was one of more than 50,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces sent to Iwo Jima, an island the United States desperately needed to wrestle away from the Japanese for strategic reasons. U.S. military officers had reason to believe that few Japanese remained on Iwo Jima because it had been heavily bombed by American planes and shelled by U.S. Navy ships.

What U.S. military officers did not know is that the Japanese had built an extensive network of tunnels on Iwo Jima that they used to protect themselves from the bombing and shelling. This meant the Japanese easily withstood the pre-invasion barrage from the U.S. Armed Forces and were close to full strength when Americans invaded on Feb. 19, 1945.

As a result, American military personnel were hit with a surprisingly intense blitz when they landed on the beaches of Iwo Jima. More than 1,000 Americans were killed in the first day of fighting, according to one report.

Elder will never forget how eager the U.S. Marines on his ship were to go ashore during the first day of fighting.

“Some were jumping ship to get in there rather than waiting for the unit they were assigned to,” Elder said. “They could have been court martialed for this. The Marines were a tough bunch of guys.”

Mel Elder poses for a photo in his U.S. Navy uniform.
Mel Elder poses for a photo in his U.S. Navy uniform.

He said many Marines were eager to go into battle even after learning there had already been heavy American casualties.

“They knew that men had been killed but they were hopping to get going,” Elder said.

Elder remained aboard the USS Hinsdale while working as a radio operator for about the first week of the battle. His ship was about a mile from shore, so it was relatively safe from fire. Nevertheless, the USS Hinsdale was hit once at Iwo Jima by an explosive device that landed on its deck. Elder was unharmed because he was in the ship’s radio tower at the time.

The USS Hinsdale was the vantage point from which Elder observed one of World War II’s most unforgettable moments, the raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, by five Marines and one Navy corpsman. The Associated Press’s Joe Rosenthal photographed the flag raising. Today, this picture is one of the most memorable war photos in history.

The flag raising immediately boosted morale on the USS Hinsdale.

“Everyone on the ship who saw it was excited,” Elder said.

The USS Hinsdale was moved farther from shore each evening but it was still easy to see that fighting was continuing because of the tracer bullets that lit up Iwo Jima.

“It looked like the Fourth of July,” Elder said.

Elder never went ashore during the conflict but was prepared to. He had been told that he would be part of the first wave of men to storm the beach. Elder prepared for the invasion by practicing firing a Thompson submachine gun.

He was pulled from the beach invasion force after more experienced men were brought in.

“I had no beach training,” Elder said.

Had Elder, then 21, been called on to participate in the invasion he would not have felt as frightened as he would had he been older.

“When you are a young guy you don’t feel as threatened as you do now,” Elder said.

Elder, who grew up in Kansas, moved to La Grande with his wife, Eddie, in 1949. The couple will celebrate their 68th anniversary on June 9.

Today when Mel Elder reflects back upon his Iwo Jima experience he feels humbled by the courage he saw others display. Elder will never put himself in the class of these individuals. 

“I don’t pretend to be any kind of a hero,” he said. “What I did was nothing compared to what those Marines did.”