Local vet attends 70th anniversary of The Battle of Iwo Jima

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Special to The Dorchester Banner
Twenty-four survivors of Iwo Jima including Earl Brannock (seated 4th from right) of Cambridge, attended the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima sponsored by the Iwo Jima Association of America.

CAMBRIDGE — Seventy years ago, for five weeks from Feb. 19 to March 16, one of the bloodiest battles ever fought occurred on Iwo Jima, a Japanese owned island in the Pacific theater of World War II. The final surrender came on March 24, 1945. And a Dorchester County native was there.

Earl Brannock recently attended the 70th anniversary reunion sponsored by the Iwo Jima Assn. of America. The Association’s mission is “dedicated to preserving and perpetuating the history of the Battle of Iwo Jima for future generations.” The Cambridge resident details the action in his book “U.S.S. Chester History.”

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The battle for the highest point on the island, Mt. Suribachi, ended on Feb. 23, 1945 when 40 Marines fought their way to the top of the 545’ peak.

 

His recollections of the historic battle are still fresh all these years later. He says the 4½ x 2½ mile volcanic island was “America’s most expensive piece of real estate to acquire” and “unforgettable to the men who saw it.” The American invasion, dubbed Operation Detachment, captured the island and three Japanese-controlled airfields — at great cost in lives and money.  Over 4,000 were killed, almost 500 missing in action, nearly 20,000 wounded, and over 2,500 suffered “combat fatigue” (PTSD).

In November 1944 the Allied fleet had rendezvoused at Ulithi, a major staging area for the U.S. Navy in the final year of WWII. Earl was a Navy quartermaster aboard the U.S.S. Chester, during the battle of Iwo Jima and it was his home for three years. The Chester bombarded the island 110 days before the marines invaded and aided in its seizure after 36 days of fighting.

Earl’s sea detail and battle station was the ship’s bridge as the “captain’s talker.” When the U.S.S. Maryland was hit and left for repairs the U.S.S. Chester assumed the lead position. The Chester’s crew felt like sitting ducks especially when an enemy dive bomber harassed the airfields daily. But they were “ready and anxious for a hunt,” says Earl.

The Chester, leading ship in the formation, fired the first shot. When the captain ordered “commence firing,” Earl as “talker,” relayed the order to the rest of the ship. Three Marylanders were part of the operation. The captain was from Bladensburg, the crewman on the firing switch was from Baltimore, and Earl relayed the order to fire the battery firing switch. That switch now hangs in the Brannock Maritime Museum in Cambridge.

Earl notes, “We returned to Iwo on Christmas Eve. After a day of bombarding Iwo we left, only to return two days later. This time we found two more enemy ships: A supply ship and a large landing craft. After a few salvos were fired at these ships, the destroyer U.S.S. Cummings was sent in to finish sinking them.”

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Earl Brannock answers questions about the 2nd edition of his book “U.S.S. Chester History.”

He explains that “More information was assembled on the invasion day than was seen amassed in any of the previous Naval Operations in which I had participated.” At sundown on Feb. 18 most of the fleet had joined the invasion force. “The radar screen looked as if we had every ship in the world with us.”

On invasion day Earl was up at 3:15 a.m. “At 3:45 a.m., I took over the watch on the bridge.    All bombarding ships were on station to cover the invasion at 5:28 a.m. The cruisers and battleships began with heavy-fire followed by the destroyers and rocket launching landing craft.” The first landing craft “hit the beach” at 9 a.m.

“The volcanic-dust beach was like walking in dirty snow. The terrain was one of the best defenses the enemy had. The fighting was yard-by-yard and inch-by-inch. With all of the heavy bombing and shelling, the enemy kept popping out of the ground like moles. Our dive bombers poured incendiary walls of flame ahead of our forces.”

“The Virginia accent of the Marine shore-base officer requesting fire support crackling over our radios was one that I knew and it gave me some bad moments. Two months after the war was over, while sitting in a duck blind in Hambrooks Bay it was confirmed that the voice I was listening to was that of Maj. Hugh Blair Long, my cousin’s husband.”

The battle for the highest point on the island, Mt. Suribachi, ended on Feb. 23 when 40 Marines fought their way to the top of the 545’ peak. Earl explains, “A Marine had vowed when they reached the top that the small U.S. flag in his pocket would fly from the summit. The smoke was so thick that the little flag could not be seen. He quickly made his way back down the mountain to a landing craft and acquired a larger flag and a war photographer.” Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph immortalized the battle.

Was Iwo Jima really necessary? Earl answers, “Ask any one of the 2,400 bomber crew members that used Iwo as an emergency field until the end of the war. One pilot who safely brought in his smoking B-29 after the landing gear had been shot away and deposited his crew and himself on the field was reported as saying, ‘I thank God for Iwo Jima and the men that fought for it!’”

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