Bruce Bender, 88, was in the first wave of U.S. Marines to land on the beaches… (Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot )
Although his memories of Iwo Jima are more than 6 decades old, Bruce Bender remembers the volcanic ash, the pungent smell of sulfur and oppressive heat with vivid clarity.
Bender was one of the first Marines to set foot on a desolate island in the Pacific in 1945 in what became a turning point in World War II. The offensive began calmly enough, but it didn't stay that way for long.
The barrage began when the third wave of Marines hit the shore. It didn't end for two days.
"They were shooting at us — we were digging holes," Bender said, a faint accent reflective of his native Pittsburgh still in his voice.
Of the 29 men who came ashore together, Bender was one of three to survive the bloodshed, and the only one to leave unscathed.
Sunday marked the 67th anniversary of the storming of Iwo Jima. Bender, who's 88 now and lives in Costa Mesa, is one of a shrinking number of World War II veterans who have survived to share their memories.
The marching orders were straightforward: Ascend Mt. Suribachi and eventually make the island safe for U.S. pilots to use as a stopover en route to the Japanese mainland.
But the planned five-day mission turned into a bloody commitment lasting more than a month. More than 6,000 Americans lost their lives and about 18,000 of the Japanese defenders were killed, according to the U.S. military's estimates.
Before the storming of Iwo Jima, the U.S. Navy led a three-day bombardment that stripped the island of its vegetation, leaving the Marines exposed as they came ashore. The heat and the stench of sulfur were oppressive. and Bender said he found it amazing that the Japanese soldiers had been able to live on the island.
Suribachi was pockmarked with caves and other well-concealed hiding places where the Japanese would shoot at the advancing Marines. It was nearly impossible to determine where the shots were coming from, Bender said.
Amid the chaos of the battle, Bender received a combat promotion to first lieutenant because of the escalating fatalities.
Bender said the smell was nearly impossible to forget. Men on the island were barred from using water for anything other than drinking. They faced a possible court-martial if they used valuable freshwater to bathe, he said.
After a month without bathing, the men reeked.
But the Battle of Iwo Jima took place as the war was winding down, and before long, Bender was recuperating in Maui, Hawaii.
He eventually graduated from USC on the GI Bill. While there, he met his wife, Jeanette, 83, in what she describes as a "whirlwind romance." Married for 62 years, the couple have three children, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Over the years, like many veterans of his era, Bender has remained silent about his experiences.
"He said, 'Why should I be the one to be here to tell the story?' " Jeanette Bender said.
It wasn't until about five years ago that he saw the value in telling his children about his life during the war. He later opened up enough to start writing it down.
Last December, each of his children found a hardcover copy of his book under the Christmas tree.
"I promised my children over the years that I would have it done and completed, and I finally did," he said. "It was just, well hey, instead of buying junky things for our kids, we tried to give something they could pass on to their own children when they have children.
"We wanted to put money into something that would last," he said.