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WWII veterans reunite, reminsce about Iwo Jima

September 14, 2005|by KAREN HANNA

karenh@herald-mail.com

They believed the U.S. Marine Corps' rigorous training would keep them alive. Good fortune and friends stood the test of time.

"Somebody had to do it, and we were just 17-year-old kids with nothing to do," World War II veteran Vern Brintzenhofe of Hagerstown said during a reunion of some of his fighting comrades at the Days Inn in Hagerstown.

The 17-year-olds who joined the U.S. Marine Corps more than 60 years ago are octogenarians, members of a hardy, but dying breed of warriors. Nine men who fought with Brintzenhofe in the Battle of Iwo Jima planned to travel from as far away as Connecticut, Ohio and New Jersey to renew acquaintances this week.

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According to Tommy Thompson of Gettysburg, Pa., the Fourth Marine Division left the United States in 1942 with 18,000 men. It returned with just 3,000 soldiers alive and uninjured when the war ended in 1945.

"I was fortunate enough to be one that didn't get hit," said Thompson, a private first class who was responsible for helping set up communications in combat. "A lot of my buddies got killed or wounded, but I was fortunate to be one of the 3,000 that survived."

The Fourth Marine Division shipped out from home immediately into the war, and troops fought on the islands of Tinian, Roi-Namur, Saipan and Iwo Jima, where almost 7,000 Americans and about 20,000 Japanese fighters died in 36 days of combat. Brintzenhofe and several of his friends are Purple Heart recipients.

They laughed and bantered during interviews at the hotel Monday and Tuesday, and they kidded each other about which units truly won the war. Camera bulbs flashed in succession as their wives and children took pictures.

"I can see the headline now: Old goats come to Hagerstown," quipped Jack Colby, a former Marine Corps signalman from Alexandria, Va.

One man's son drew laughs when he responded by calling the group a bunch of retreads, but the veterans' red-and-blue Fourth Marines caps and T-shirts said it all: Iwo Jima survivor.

Herb Ing, 84, a retired colonel who was platoon leader for some of the men, hasn't lost his spark.

"People say, 'Why don't you just die, move over, make some room?' said Ing, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 32 years. "I have a Harley motorcycle. I'll give you a ride on my bike."

The veterans' zest for life outlasted the war.

"Living, surviving ... that was everybody's thought," Thompson said.

Marines traveled aboard amphibious tractors to enemy beaches and searched out cover amid explosions and gunfire.

"As you're going in, you see the whole island, nothing but smoke and shells landing, and as you're coming in, you hear the shells landing," Thompson said.

Brintzenhofe, president of Fourth Marine Division Association Chapter 3 Old Dominion, Va., survived three days on Iwo Jima.

"I seen what was coming in, and I ran into a hole, and three other guys got in the hole on top of me, and I woke up in the hospital three weeks later," said Brintzenhofe, who was hit by mortar shrapnel in seven different places.

Brintzenhofe was hospitalized 51/2 months before being returned to active duty. The other three Marines died.

Brintzenhofe and his fellow Marines said their wartime buddies were unlike any they ever met in civilian life.

Thompson said he would give "a thousand dollars" to be able to frame a birthday card his friend made for him while both were fighting on the island of Saipan. Even in the midst of combat, friends contributed their "choice" chocolates, cigarettes and candies to celebrate his 21st birthday in a foxhole.

The card was lost to the scourges of battle and time, Thompson said.

"In combat like that, can you imagine doing that?" Thompson said. "I mean, that's Marine Corps buddies."

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