‘A sea of red ’

After bloody battle, man watched soldiers raise the U.S. flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima


By Jim Palmer

with assistance from James Ittel of Howard Lake


Harlan Shull of Stillwater joined the United States Marine Corps in January 1943. He was discharged in November 1945. During those years, he served faithfully and witnessed a lot. Some of those memories were difficult to recall, but one memory stood out as a highlight from his military career.


Shull watched as the American flag was hoisted up on the fourth day of battle at Iwo Jima (that iconic image is shown right).


Harlan Shull saw a lot during his days in the Marines. One of the most uplifting memories he had was of the Americans raising the U.S. flag on Mt. Surabachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Photo of flag raising is a public domain stock image

Shull passed away in 2010 at the age of 87. About five years before he died, Shull was the keynote speaker at a Veterans Day event at the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School. He talked about his time in boot camp basic training in San Diego and then waiting to be assigned to a combat unit (as a chef) at Camp Pendleton. One day a call went out for a volunteer for overseas duty. He took it. The following quotes were taken from his speech in 2005.


“We left the states in October 1943 and landed at Maui, Hawaii. That would be our home for the next two years. We set up camp, literally, in a brush near the small burg of Kilhei, which today is quite a tourist place. I recall when we were in grade school studying geography of all the great places in the world, my desire was to see Hawaii with those grass shacks and those pretty girls in grass skirts. I got there and never did see a green shack and the only grass skirt I saw was in the USO Show.


“Back to our camp in the brush. It was so dirty there that we could not cook anything that wasn’t brown. We had roast beef, dark bread, friend potatoes, brown gravy, chocolate pudding and black coffee. At this village there were chickens and pigs running around a large cane field nearby. So we decided to have a luau like we had heard of. Everything went well except how long to cook it. When we uncovered it some hours later the only thing that look liked pork was a small bit of the ham. The rest was charcoal! Hot dogs never tasted as good as they did that day.”


Shull soon moved up to the beach to their permanent camp that included its own galley building, mess tents, tables and even showers. It was here that he was attached to the 4th Marine Division. This division had just returned from the Marshall Islands, which was their first of four battles in 13 months. After some rest and relaxation on Maui, the group prepared for its next battle -- Saipan. This was Schull’s first taste of battle. After about six weeks there, they returned back to Maui.


“The object of these island battles was to save many wounded planes and crews. Let me say here that the work of the cooks is light during combat, as is when not in combat is more rigorous. We would then get our helpers from the troops rotated monthly. We had only one real hillbilly from the hills of the Great Smokey Mountains. He was really something. One day he said, “ I wrote a letter to my gal last night. ‘What did you tell her” I asked. “I told her, I love you like a hog honey, and I wish I was there wallowin’ with you!’ Oh, such is life!”


After weeks in Maui, the 4th Marine Division packed up for their next trip.


“Our outfit traveled the Navy ship LST. This stands for Landing Ship Tanks, but there were a few times we were sure it meant “Loosely Slung Together.” They were flat bottomed and the ocean swells would lift them at times so you could see both ends out of the water. The bow (front) was two large doors that open wide with a ramp so the AMTrac could enter and exit.”

An AMTrac is a 20 foot long tube with tracks on the sides so it can go in water and on land. They were used to move troops and supplies ship to shore.


“The ship was 200 feet long and held 101mm tanks. So here we are, our convoy of 20 or so ships strung out over many miles of this vast Pacific Ocean with the Navy destroyers out on our flanks for protection. The only thing we were sure of was that we were heading west. That was just one of several convoys.”


Harlan Shull. Contributed photo

Shull said that whenever they traveled by ship, the cookies were to help in the galley. That didn’t work well for Shull. He had chronic seasickness, so he spent most of my time top-side in the fresh air.


“After getting out of the range of secrecy they brought out the maps and told us were were going to Iwo Jima -- a small island shaped like a pork chop, six miles long, three miles wide, with a large mountain at the tip end, and no vegetation. It was all volcanic ash (ever try to dig a hole in a sand pile?), no civilians and three airport runways. It was 700 miles from Tokyo. UGH! Those were the preliminaries.


“The morning light of Feb. 19, 1945, found us in our battle positions surrounded by an ocean full of all kinds of ships, the sky full of planes and the air so full of blue smoke it looked like a lifting fog. As we were not the first wave of soldiers to go in first, we soon saw the results of the ones that did go first. A sea of red, stranded AmTracs and Higgins boats, arms, legs and torsos floating by with casualties being retrieved to the ships. We saw it all close up right there.”


“The Japanese had 21,000 troops on Iwo Jima. Of which, 20,000 were killed. All the Japanese were dug in caves and bunkers in the mountains and on the island. Very few were seen outside. The Marines were 110,000 strong in 880 ships. In 36 days of fighting the worst battle in Marine Corps history 22,000 United States troops were wounded and 7,000 were killed. We saw the American flag go up at Mount Surabachi on the fourth day of battle. That made me proud to be an American. It sent chills to your spine and a tear to the eye. Soon the bombers began using the runways verifying the fruits of our labors.”


“The duty of the AmTrac was to deliver troops and supplies back and forth. Being we were in headquarters with the other ‘specialists,” we did not have the advanced training for combat, so until the situation warranted it we were to stay on the ships. But one dark night my curiosity got the best of me and went down where they were loading supplies to take ashore. The officer in charge promptly assigned me to the last tractor in the group , and we all took off for shore. Now remember, it’s dark. I mean coal black dark! The only light we had was a very small red light on the beach which we aimed for and unboarded our cargo there. We lost the group on the way back to the ship so we tossed about like a cork until we were repaired as of day break about a mile from our ship. I didn’t go down there again!”


Shull later returned to Maui and then was transferred over to San Diego on the U.S.S. Colorado. He was discharged on Nov. 28. 1945.


Shull concluded his speech on Nov. 11, 2005, with the following...


“And so, on this Veterans Day you have heard the small report of just one veteran. Think of the millions of others who have their own stories of sacrifice and suffering, all in the name of freedom. They are all heroes, but the super heroes are the ones who made the supreme sacrifice. You must remember this all happened 60 years ago. While some of the facts and figures may beg for alteration, the memories are very vivid.


“As I walked among our troops on the ship the night before we landed on Iwo Jima, I never saw, comparatively speaking, so many bowed heads and Bibles read, which gave more evidence to the statement, “There are no atheists in the foxholes.” May Almighty God Bless America and the United States Marine Corps.”

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