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September 14, 2008

Our War: O'Fallon Marine is talking at last about Iwo Jima

There was no flag pole out front when Donald G. Thompson moved into the assisted living center in O'Fallon. It took him six months of pestering the management and city leaders, but he got one. "This is something in me after watching the flag go up over Mount Suribachi," he said. "Since then I've been inspired every time they raised a flag."

There was no flag pole out front when Donald G. Thompson moved into the assisted living center in O'Fallon.

It took him six months of pestering the management and city leaders, but he got one.

"This is something in me after watching the flag go up over Mount Suribachi," he said. "Since then I've been inspired every time they raised a flag."

His apartment has a photo of the flag going up over Iwo Jima and a photo of the Marine Corps monument to the event. His walker has a teddy bear in Marine dress blues. He has a collection of Corps hats reading Semper Fi. His hearing loss came from explosions and firing an M1 rifle. The globe and anchor are tattooed on his forearm.

Thompson lied about his age to get in the Marine Corps. He was a poor 17-year-old who wasn't interested in school, so he joined on April 28, 1941.

He was on guard duty on Dec. 9, 1941, outside the naval hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., when he heard the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States was in World War II. He became part of the 3rd Marine Division, 21st Regiment and soon found himself as a sergeant in a combat infantry platoon training in New Zealand and on Guadalcanal, then fighting on Bougainville.

On July 21, 1944, Thompson landed as part of the Battle of Guam.

"We landed on Guam, and this one guy put his finger in the air to see which way the wind was blowing. It got shot off and he had his ticket back to the states," Thompson said.

Japanese artillery was firing down from a ridge and murdering Marines.

"We had to take that ridge, and we took it. That night I saw my first Japanese banzai charge. They broke through in two sections. Ours held, but we lost a lot of men. Where they broke through, they killed a lot of people," he said.

Thompson's weapons platoon was wiped out. His lieutenant was killed. One Marine came crawling back to the line.

"I could see his innards were out. I pushed him back and said there was no help coming until morning. He died about 5 a.m."

The next morning, Thompson looked out and the field was covered with dead Japanese soldiers. He saw a Japanese officer die.

"I shouldn't have done it, but I crawled out to where the Japanese officer fell. I knew he had to have a sword. I got the guys to cover me and I crawled back with that sword," he said.

"They carry confidential battle plans in the handle of their sword. I sent it back to battalion headquarters, they got the information out of it and sent me back a commendation of thanks."

From Guam to Iwo Jima, men in Sgt. Thompson's platoon entrusted him with keys to their sea bags and foot lockers. They wanted him to make sure their personal effects made it home.

"I begged them not to do that, because it was a sign they'd be killed," he said. "Some were older than me, but they wanted spiritual help. I turned into an unofficial chaplain."

He paused.

"I'll never forget those guys."

One of them was his lieutenant on Guam.

The Marines were advancing behind tanks. It was getting dark and there were caves.

"They opened up on us. We didn't last too long. I watched the lieutenant, watched as a shell just cut his head off," Thompson said.

"I'd just talked to him a few minutes before."

They loaded the wounded on the tanks and went back to the lines. The captain asked Thompson if he'd take more men out.

"I told him 'no.' It was suicide. Any machine gun or rifle fire would show up in the dark. I told him the next morning they should call in an air strike on those caves and we could go on. He passed the information on up to command."

Dive bombers cleared out the caves the next day.

With as much as he saw on Guam, Thompson said Iwo Jima was far worse.

"Iwo was just mass slaughter on both sides. Twenty-three thousand Japanese underground and 20,000 Marines on top. The only way to get them out was to burn them out with flame throwers, and those are things that stay with you," he said. "I never talked to anybody about some of these things until now."

Thompson had suffered jungle rot, his foot was lanced and draining an open wound as he headed to Iwo Jima. He missed the first day of the invasion, Feb. 19, 1945, because of his foot.

The sergeant who replaced him with the platoon that first day was one of 35 Marines blown up by a single mortar round. When he arrived on Feb. 21, Thompson walked past the bodies of 250 Marines lined up, awaiting removal.

Iwo Jima's importance to the Americans was as a landing strip for bombers hitting Japan. Thompson was part of the two regiments from the Third Division that were to take the first landing strip.

He said a third regiment was held in reserve, but never sent in.

"They just kept sending in replacements, but they were new and didn't know much and wouldn't last long."

Thompson was at the end of the runway when the first American B-29 -- the Dinah Might -- landed after getting shot up over Japan.

"It felt like it flew three feet over my head."

He saw his lieutenant killed on Iwo Jima. They sent in another lieutenant fresh out of officer's school at Quantico -- another "90-day wonder."

"His first night he said to have the men dig in and one man to a foxhole. I said, 'No, sir, you can't do that or half of them will be dead in the morning.'

"You see, some of them Japs spoke perfect English and they'd say, 'Joe, I'm coming in,' or if you'd nod off, they'd pick you off if you were one to a foxhole, so we always had two to a foxhole and you'd doze in two-hour shifts. Anything that moved at night, you'd shoot."

The lieutenant put Thompson on report and wanted a general court martial because he said Thompson had disobeyed a direct order in combat. The lieutenant said the book called for one man to a foxhole.

"Capt. Wilson, the commanding officer, told the lieutenant there was only one thing -- this is combat and we don't go by the book here. He said 'Thompson's fought through three campaigns, and two men to a foxhole is the correct way.'"

Thompson then had to share a foxhole with the lieutenant.

"He never did like me much."

Thompson's foot was so badly infected after nearly a month in battle that he was evacuated.

He was one of three members of his company not wounded or killed on Iwo Jima. He flew out on March 19, 1945. It was his 21st birthday.

"And I've never had a happier one."

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