75 years later, the Battle of Iwo Jima still haunts this veteran

After weeks of fierce fighting, even battle-hardened U.S. Marines were “sitting on the ground, hands to their faces, sobbing their hearts out.”

W. Eugene Smith, The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Among the most brutal battles of World War II in the Pacific, the Battle of Iwo Jima began on February 19, 1945 and raged for 36 days, devastating the island stronghold.

W. Eugene Smith, The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Bill Montgomery doesn’t hear too well these days. At 95, he’s deaf in his right ear and struggling with his left. But he can still hear the sounds of war that pounded his 20-year-old eardrums on a rocky, pork-chop-shaped island called Iwo Jima. And he still remembers the unbridled joy he felt the day he saw the U.S. flag raised there, an event forever etched in the annals of American military history.

“It was the fifth day after we landed,” he recalls. “I was all alone, lying on a slope on the edge of an airfield, when I heard some ships’ horns sounding. And cheering started from guys in the foxholes.”

He cast his eyes to the summit of 554-foot Mount Surabachi, a point visible from just about every corner of Iwo Jima’s eight square miles. What he saw from about a quarter-mile away sent a charge of excitement through his war-weary body. “I looked, and there was the flag! What a feeling that was!” he says, the wonder still rising in his voice.

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Six U.S. Marines raise an American flag on Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, five days after fighting began in the Battle for Iwo Jima. Three of these men would be killed before the battle was won. The U.S. Medal of Honor was awarded to 27 servicemen who fought at Iwo Jima, more than any other battle in U.S. history.

It was perhaps the most iconic moment of the war in the Pacific. Photographer Joe Rosenthal’s image of six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Iwo Jima’s highest point became an inspiration to millions of Americans back home, and remains a rallying point for U.S. Marines everywhere.

“I felt ecstasy!” Montgomery says. “I knew it was all over. So many of us had been killed. We made it through.”

Except, it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. The battle for Iwo Jima would rage for another month. Of the 110,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, and pilots who fought on that volcanic outpost, a staggering 26,000 would be killed or injured. And Bill Montgomery would become one of the very few Marines to endure the entire 37-day fight, day after bloody day. Of 50 men in his unit, only a half-dozen or so survived.

“I’ve never understood how I wasn’t hit,” he says. “I feel guilty. But thankful, too.”

He leans forward, his fingers drumming a tabletop at his retirement home near Atlanta, Georgia. His wife of 70 years, Lea, seems to want to reach out and touch his agitated hands, but instead she smiles sweetly at him. He smiles back and relaxes a bit.

The Marines had landed on Iwo Jima, 760 miles from Tokyo, on February 19, 1945. After days of shelling by the U.S. fleet, they were expecting an easy mop-up operation—three to six days of fighting. Instead, the enemy, 21,000 strong, responded with unexpected fury, picking off Marines seemingly at will from a complex network of tunnels.

For Montgomery it was a month of harrowing escapes. He spent one night hunkered down in a shallow ditch, afraid to raise his head lest it be blown off by fellow Marines shooting from a foxhole a few feet behind him. That same night, several hand grenades, lobbed toward the foxhole by Japanese fighters, landed short of their target and exploded in a circle around him.

“When the morning came, those Marines were astounded,” he says. “They said, ‘We thought you were dead!’ ”

It wasn’t the only time the fog of war nearly claimed Montgomery. Crouching in position another day, Montgomery was mistaken for the enemy by a P-51 Mustang fighter-bomber. The pilot dropped his load right on top of him.

“It landed right next to my foxhole, didn’t go off, ricocheted right in front of us into the Japanese area, and exploded,” he says. His life was spared, but Montgomery was spitting mad. “I took a few shots at that Mustang,” he confesses. “Ever since then, when I meet a veteran pilot I ask him, ‘Were you on Iwo Jima?’ I never found the guy.” Montgomery says it was the closest he came to snapping during his Iwo Jima ordeal. Others weren’t so lucky.

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Some 21,000 Japanese troops occupied the island in a vast network of tunnels. Most fought to the death. Only 216 were captured alive.

“I came across Marines sitting on the ground, hands to their faces, sobbing their hearts out,” he says. “Their minds just snapped. A lot of us just got kind of numb, immune to any shock.

“Toward the end we were told to go pick up the dead Marines and put them on the edge of the road to be picked up by truck and taken to the cemetery. Many of them would have been lying there for a week or so. A lot of guys grabbed a dead Marine by the arm or leg—and it would come off.”

Lea gasps at her husband’s words. “I’ve never heard some of this,” she says softly.

“That wasn’t a pleasant sight,” her husband says, his eyes locking on hers. Then he laughs. “As a matter of fact, I don’t remember ever seeing a pleasant sight on Iwo. Except the ship when we left.”