A Hell Called Iwo, Recalled

By Sheldon Derer

(From the cover)

“At Tarawa, Saipan & Tinian, I saw Marines killed and wounded in a shocking manner, but I saw nothing like the ghastliness that hung over the Iwo beachhead. Nothing any of us had ever known could compare with the utter anguish, frustration and constant inner battle to maintain some semblance of sanity,” said Lt. Cyril P. Zurlinger, later a casualty himself.

They don’t look any different then most other 70 plus year olds. They’re somewhat overweight, balding, brow and face lined with the creases of time. They laughed and joked. Talked about family and their lives here in Florida.

It’s hard to believe that these same men had been to hell and back. Both had been Marines and survived the battle and horrors of the volcanic speck in the Pacific called Iwo Jima.

Each had his own memories that when recalled, turned their faces from smiling congeniality to a stoic, almost robot look. There were memories of young men going down the rope netting of a troop ship, into a sea tossed “Higgins Boat.” This would land them on a strange black-sanded beach. Each would say that the exploding mortar shells and machine gun fire that took the lives of so many of their fellow marines just wasn’t meant for them. It was just plain luck.

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Mort Caplan, of West Palm Beach, was then a 20 year old corporal. “I remember crawling out of a foxhole I had dug, into another one about 50 feet away. My buddy had hidden a can of beer in his gas mask pouch and wanted to share it with me. Two other Marines jumped into the hole I had left. A short time after, they took a direct hit. Nothing left but a big hole. I finally got off that island with a small shrapnel wound on my leg. Just lucky I guess. It was meant to be.”

Walter Hirschinger of Palm Beach Gardens, was then a terrified 18-year-old private manning a flamethrower. “I was following this lieutenant. We were clearing out some holes in the ridge where the Japanese were lobbing grenades down on us. I had just cleared out eight of these holes and was exhausted. We stopped to take a breather when suddenly all hell broke loose. The lieutenant and I went down. I was hit. It was like an explosion in my left arm. It felt as if an ax had cut my arm off. I thought the only thing holding my arm in place, was the sleeve of my field jacket. I said to myself, “Pull it out and throw it away”. I felt my left hand being squeezed by my right. My arm was still there. One of the many heroic medics got to me and gave me a morphine shot. After 17 days on this island I would finally leave Iwo.”

It was just meant to be.

Editor’s note: Sheldon Derer is a friend of Caplan and Hirschinger and has been a columnist for Boomer Times & Senior Life.