WWII 483rd AAA Reunion -- Uncommon Valor

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Photo by Jacki Mossl Pictured at Henry Horton State Park are, from left, Woodrow Sanders, Lester Leon McMahan, JK Brumbelow, Garland J. Bath, Eddie L. Gibbs, James Shelby, and Edmond Donaldson (seated).

By Jacki Moss

Special to the Tribune

The battle of Iwo Jima and the iconic image of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi are indelibly etched in the hearts and minds of Americans as symbols of our hard-fought battles in World War II that changed the history of world and secured our nation's freedom.

Those Iwo Jima stories have been told innumerable times, just as they should be. But this chapter in history is incomplete without telling the stories of the soldiers who protected and secured this crucial American strategic location's airstrips for the remainder of the war.

This is the story of some of these men, members of the Army's WWII 483rd AAA (Anti-Aircraft Artillery) Automatic Weapons Battalion that was attached to the Marines when they landed at Iwo Jima. A handful of these veterans convened at Henry Horton Park last week for their battalion's 56th reunion. As the numbers of the 483rd's members dwindle, it becomes even more important to keep their history alive. Now in their late 80s or early 90s, these veterans get together to honor one another and to swap war stories, just one more time.

Why is what these unsung heroes did in WWII so significant? Simply put, their mission enabled American forces to successfully invade the Japanese homeland and to change the trajectory of the war in favor of the Allies. And they ensured that the lives lost in the bloody Iwo Jima battle were not lost in vain.

The small, pork-chop shaped island's terrain was challenging and favored the already entrenched enemy. The sandy beach was smothered in volcanic ash from Mount Suribachi, an extinct volcano. The sand and ash mixture made rapid, or even secure footing under a heavy load of gear very difficult, and digging foxholes next to impossible, as it would refill holes as fast as the soldiers could dig them. The interior of the island was rocky and had uneven broken ground, making troops' ground movement arduous at best. Adding to the inhospitable ambiance, "Iwo" means "sulfur" in Japanese, which explained the pervasive rotten egg smell that spit from fissures in the island and tainted the sea air.

The Japanese knew that if Iwo Jima fell into the Allied's control, their homeland would inevitably come under withering attack. They had been planning for the American invasion of the island since early 1944. In that time, they had created an 11-mile web of underground tunnels, caves, pillboxes, machine-gun nests, and bunkers that they used to travel all over the island safe from the view from the air. This underground honeycomb enabled the enemy to hide from view when in danger, and then to literally pop out of the ground and surprise our troops with deadly ambush attacks at will.

Taking the 10-square mile island would be difficult and costly in human lives and injuries. Trumping the negatives of this island was one very overriding positive -- its location. Americans and Japanese alike understood that the island's location was strategic for waging war through the air. It was roughly half way between the United States' Mariana bases used by the B-29 Superfortresses and the targets in Japan, making it the perfect location for a staging ground for strategic bombing campaigns against the Japanese homeland.

Adding to the reasons to capture the island was that it was already problematical for Allied forces. First, it was an early warning station for Japan, giving Tokyo two hours warning before American bombers could reach their targets. Second, the Japanese had built two airstrips from which they had assaulted the Mariana bases and had launched kamikaze attacks on Allied forces. The island had to be controlled by the Allies at all costs. On March 14, 1945, Admiral Nimitz declared the island conquered. The capture signaled to the Japanese that invasion of their homeland was inevitable and soon.

Now it was up to the 483rd to keep the island and its two airstrips safe for its intended use -- to be a landing strip for bombers that were damaged or low on fuel, and to refuel for sorties over Japan. Although the island had been officially declared conquered, Iwo Jima was far from safe for American forces. There were hidden enemy soldiers who were still intent on carrying out their commander's order to kill at least 10 Americans before they died in battle. In one final battle, 10 days after being declared conquered, the last of the Japanese holdouts were neutralized.

The battalion's mission was to use their formidable anti-aircraft weapons to deter and eliminate any Japanese air strikes to the airstrips. Firepower was the 483rd's specialty. They embodied the American motto of "victory through firepower," bringing heavy-duty firepower to the island in the form of 40mm anti-aircraft automatic cannons, as well as 20mm automatic cannons. These weapons could wreak deadly havoc upon any low-flying aircraft target that happened to be unfortunate enough to come into their sights.

The 483rd's protection of the airstrips undoubtedly saved American lives and helped shorten the war. By the end of the war, 2,400 B-29 landings took place at Iwo Jima, many of which were under emergency conditions that might otherwise have meant a crash at sea. We thank the men of the 483rd AAA Weapons Battalion for their service.