Iwo Jima -65 Years Ago -Part III
February 18, 2010

Monday February 19th, 1945

"Mother, you said you were sick. I want you to stay in out of that field and look real pretty when I come home. You can grow a crop of tobacco every summer, but I sure as hell can't grow another mother like you." ----Franklin Sousley Iwo Jima Flag Raiser July 1944, Letter from Training Camp


Weather conditions around Iwo Jima on D-day morning, 19 February 1945, were almost ideal. At 0645 Admiral Turner signaled "Land the landing force!"

Battleships and cruisers steamed as close as 2,000 yards to level their guns against island targets. Many of the "Old Battleships" had performed this dangerous mission in all theaters of the war. Marines came to recognize and appreciate their contributions. It seemed fitting that the old Nevada, raised from the muck and ruin of Pearl Harbor, should lead the bombardment force close ashore. Marines also admired the battleship Arkansas, built in 1912, and recently returned from the Atlantic where she had battered German positions at Point du Hoc at Normandy during the epic Allied landing on 6 June 1944.

The massive assault waves hit the beach within two minutes of H-hour. A Japanese observer watching the drama unfold from a cave on the slopes of Suribachi reported, "At nine o'clock in the morning several hundred landing craft with amphibious tanks in the lead rushed ashore like an enormous tidal wave." Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Williams, executive officer of the 28th Marines, recalled that "the landing was a magnificent sight to see—two divisions landing abreast; you could see the whole show from the deck of a ship." To this point, so far, so good.

Within minutes 6,000 Marines were ashore.

The going became progressively costly as more and more Japanese strong points along the base of Suribachi seemed to spring to life. Within 90 minutes of the landing, however, elements of the 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, had reached the western shore, 700 yards across from Green Beach. Iwo Jima had been severed—"like cutting off a snake's head," in the words of one Marine. It would represent the deepest penetration of what was becoming a very long and costly day.

With grim anticipation, Iwo Jima's Japanese commander, General Kuribayashi, signaled his gunners to begin to unmasking the big guns—the heavy artillery, giant mortars, rockets, and anti-tank weapons held under tightest discipline for this precise moment.

Kuribayashi had patiently waited until the beaches were clogged with troops and material. Gun crews knew the range and deflection to each landing beach by heart; all weapons had been pre registered on these targets long ago. At Kuribayashi's signal, these hundreds of weapons began to open fire. It was shortly after 1000.

The ensuing bombardment was as deadly and terrifying as any of the Marines had ever experienced. Casualties mounted appallingly.

On the left center of the action, leading his machine gun platoon in the 1st Battalion, 27th Marines' attack against the southern portion of the airfield, the legendary "Manila John" Basilone fell mortally wounded by a Japanese mortar shell, a loss keenly felt by all Marines on the island. Farther east, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Galer, the other Guadalcanal Medal of Honor Marine (and one of the Pacific War's earliest fighter aces), survived the afternoon's fusillade along the beaches and began reassembling his scattered radar unit in a deep shell hole near the base of Suribachi.

Historians described U.S. forces' attack against the Japanese defense as "throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete."

Back in Mansfield, most people who had sons, husbands, fathers serving in the Pacific and especially in the Marines knew something was up. If there was a hint of it in the letters sent home by a home-sick Marine, then the usual agonizing halt of mail always signaled the boys were in harm's way. It had been almost a week without any mail service, and by Tuesday February 20th, the first news of Iwo Jima hit the pages of American newspapers. Radio reports during the evening were beginning to hint that it was a massive battle with growing numbers of casualties.

There were no front lines. The Marines were above ground and the Japanese were below them underground. The Marines rarely saw an alive Japanese soldier. The Japanese could see the Marines perfectly.

Both division commanders committed their reserves early. General Rockey called in the 26th Marines shortly after noon.

Mansfield's Staff Sergeant Alexander Ferzoco, George Santucci and Frank Green were all part of the 26th Marines on Iwo Jima. The 26th Marines was one of the infantry regiments of the 5th Marine Division. It mounted out from Hilo, Hawaii from 1-4 January 1945. Sailing on ships of Transport Division 46, the regiment arrived off Iwo Jima's shores early in the morning of 19 February 1945. The 26th was assigned as the Corps reserve for the initial phase of the assault on Iwo Jima. During the afternoon and evening of D-Day, it landed across the 5th Marine Div's beaches. Beginning on D+1, the 26th Marines began offensive combat operations.

On the football field, there wasn't too much Alexander 'Al' Ferzoco didn't do. He threw for touchdowns, ran for scores, blocked, punted and played defense. In the 1932 season, he led the team to a 6-0-2 season. Mansfield only gave up 32 points, which is the fourth lowest scored in Mansfield school history. More than one person had the same observation of Al Ferzoco football skills: "Pound for pound, Alexander Ferzoco was one of the best football players in Mansfield High School history". Back during the lazy summer of 1941, many of Mansfield's boys had decided to join the armed forces in hopes of three square meals and the promise of an education. Al Ferzoco was one of the first, joining the Marines. It was decent pay and a good chance to learn some trade.

He was given a big shindig by the Mansfield gang prior to him shipping out. Everyone was surprised he got a pretty easy assignment that summer, the Hawaiian islands and a place called Pearl Harbor. Al was in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. He eventually spent 25 years in the Marines.

Of the six flag-raisers on Iwo Jima, the story of Harlan Block, in many ways, parallels that of Alexander Ferzoco.

Harlon Block was born in 1924 in Yorktown, Texas. Harlon was an outgoing daredevil with many friends at Weslaco High School. A natural athlete, Harlon led the Weslaco Panther Football Team to the Conference Championship. He was honored as "All South Texas End." Harlon, and twelve of his teammates enlisted in the Marine Corps together in 1943. Harlon Block was second-in-command. He took over the leadership of his unit when Sgt. Mike Strank (another flag-raiser) was killed.

When his mother Belle saw the Flag Raising Photo in the Weslaco Newspaper on Feb. 25, she exclaimed, "That's Harlon" pointing to the figure on the far right. But the US Government mis-identified the figure as Harry Hansen of Boston. Belle never wavered in her belief that it was Harlon insisting, "I know my boy." No one--not her family, neighbors, the Government or the public--had any reason to believe her. But eighteen months later in a sensational front-page story, a Congressional investigation revealed that it was Harlon in the photo, proving that indeed, Belle did "know her boy."

Early on March 1st, Harlon wrote to Belle, "Dearest Mother, just a few lines to let you know I'm OK. I came through without a scratch...." That evening a mortar blast exploded next to Harlon. The All-State pass-catcher, stood there, let out a muffled scream: "They killed me!" and rolled to the ground dead.

He was 21 years old.

His letter to Belle -saying that he had come through without a scratch -had not yet left the island. It would not be post marked until March 14.

Harlon is buried beside the Iwo Jima Monument in Harlingen, Texas.

By the end of the day, the assault divisions reported the combined loss of 2,420 men to General Schmidt (501 killed, 1,755 wounded, 47 dead of wounds, 18 missing, and 99 combat fatigue).

(From L to R:) Joe Melfie, Al Lodico, Al Ferzoco in Mansfield @ 1939-1940