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Seizing Iwo Jima as 'kid' Marine

At 17 years of age, Holmes W. Cline persuaded his parents to let him enlist in the Marines. World War II was raging, and he wanted in on the action.

Like so many young Americans at the time, quitting high school and taking up arms for his country was an option.

After completing boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., he headed for Camp Lejeune, N.C., then on to San Diego, where he boarded a troopship bound for the Hawaiian Islands.

There, he joined up with the 4th Marine Division, whose battle-hardened members were back from their victory over Japanese forces at the Pacific island of Saipan to replenish their ranks.

Cline and other replacements received training from the more experienced Marines and were soon sailing farther west into the Pacific, stopping at various islands along the way.

Their ultimate destination was Iwo Jima.

"The thinking at the time was, it wouldn't be a big battle; that there weren't that many of the enemy on the island. But nobody really knew for sure because the enemy was living in caves," Cline recalled.

He and his fellow Marines, Cline said, took comfort in knowing that the enemy would be softened up by the big guns on Navy ships and bombings carried out by U.S. aircraft before they set foot on the strategically situated volcanic atoll.

As it turns out, the bombs did little to diminish the tenacious Japanese soldiers defending the island that, if seized by the Marines, would provide a place for U.S. planes to land.

"On Iwo Jima, there were facilities for damaged planes to make emergency landings," Cline said. "Fighter ands bomber planes could all land there after flying over to Japan, which was not that far."

So by February 1945, Cline and thousands of other Marines invaded Iwo Jima and quickly discovered that taking the island would exact a high price in lives on both sides.

"I was just a kid, and it was terrible. I was scared," he said. "I was with the first wave of Marines to land on the beach there. There was a lot enemy fire, and a lot of Marines got killed. The Japanese were all over the place, but we couldn't see them."

That's because the Japanese were hidden in caves, bunkers and other fortified structures from which they fired a blizzard of bullets.

"There was no jungle, except for maybe a tree here and there. The island was granulated stone, a real fine gravel, with a mountain at the end of it with some hills," Cline said. "The Japanese had years to dig caves, which protected them from the bombings."

Marines often took cover in bomb craters, he said.

What really sticks out in Cline's recollections so many years later is that the Japanese often refused to be taken prisoner when they were trapped in their caves and underground hideouts.

"Some would give up," he said, "but others decided to blow themselves up rather than surrender. They didn't care if they got killed. That's how they were taught."

During more than a month of fighting, Cline said, he miraculously was unscathed by enemy fire, though thousands of other Marines were killed or wounded.

"I was one of the lucky ones," he said. "I never got hit."

With a week to go in the battle, Cline turned 19, and the lesson he learned on Iwo Jima is one he has never forgotten: Every day of life is a gift.

"I'm 86," he said, "and I still feel that way."

Over the years, Cline said, he has purchased books detailing the historic battle he was part of, but says no book will ever be needed to remind him of a glorious moment he personally witnessed.

It occurred several days into the battle when he and other Marines were guarding one of the airstrips they had taken. Looking in the distance to the top of Mount Suribachi, they noticed a group of their comrades.

"We could see the 5th Marine Division putting up the American flag on top of Mount Suribachi. It felt wonderful," he said. "We figured we got our foot in the door, and it was over, but it was just part of it. The battle went on for weeks."

Unlike most other Americans, who became familiar with this historic World War II moment from an iconic photograph by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press, Cline doesn't need a picture to remind him. He lived it, and the image was burned into his memory:

"I can still remember it."


Holmes W. Cline, 86

Hometown: Blasdell

Residence: Orchard Park

Branch: Marine Corps

Rank: Corporal

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1944-46

Most prominent honors: Combat Infantryman Badge, Pacific Theater Medal

Specialty: Infantry