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Our War: Belleville man was in first assault on Iwo Jima

Walter Berry, 82, of Belleville, with the Bible he carried as a Marine during World War II. Inside he kept the picture of his big brother, William, who flew 25 missions in a B-17 as a radio operator and gunner.
Walter Berry, 82, of Belleville, with the Bible he carried as a Marine during World War II. Inside he kept the picture of his big brother, William, who flew 25 missions in a B-17 as a radio operator and gunner.

Every Monday, Walter Berry travels to Jefferson Barracks Veterans Hospital to cope with a 26-day portion of his life from 63 years ago.

Berry was an 18-year-old buck private in the U.S. Marine Corps when his first combat experience came on Feb. 19, 1945. He was in the first assault wave on Iwo Jima.

"When the ramp went down and we scampered out, oh, the firing was ferocious. Japanese artillery shells and mortar rounds, machine guns were firing, guys were falling, guys were yelling for corpsmen. And I fell behind this leg that had been blown off at the hip. It still had the shoe on it.

"And I hunkered down behind it, and it wasn't very big, but I stayed there."

He said Lt. Howard "Smiley" Johnson, who played pro football for the Green Bay Packers, came up to see if Berry was OK. Then Johnson went over to check Berry's two tent mates.

A mortar round came in and killed all three.

Berry's platoon of about 40 men was reduced to half by the end of that day.

His worst day on Iwo Jima was yet to come.

Walter and Eva Berry live in a trim modular home in Belleville. As he talks about the war, his oxygen machine thrums in the background. He wears his Marine Corps belt buckle.

At age 82, his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has worsened. He thinks a combination of having more time on his hands and not having the coping skills of a younger man may have contributed to what the Veterans Administration has ranked as a 70 percent disability.

He can't sleep without sleeping pills. He can't watch war movies. He dove for cover when a car backfired and hates firecrackers. He's had nightmares since the war.

"When he first got home, he tried to choke me one night," Eva Berry said. "I hollered, 'Walt! Walt!' and he came to."

She wasn't especially scared by the episode.

"I knew what it was. It was from the service."

Berry said his senses have changed as he's gotten older.

"That was 63 years ago. It shouldn't still be in my mind, but it's so embedded, it comes back," he said.

On the second day, he and the 4th Division took the air field. Berry identified a couple of sniper positions in buried oil drums, made his way back to cover and heard someone say, "There's old Wally."

His buddy from East St. Louis Senior High School, Norm Aldridge, was with another Marine division.

"I asked, 'What are you doing here, Norm?' He answered, 'The same as you, Wally.'"

They chatted, hugged and parted, because the Japanese were shooting at them.

That day a Marine broke under the strain, screamed about killing Japs and started running toward their lines. Berry tackled him, a corpsman gave him a drink of brandy and they got him back to the beach.

The second night Berry found himself in a foxhole alone after a member of his squad was wounded by a mine.

It was raining. Berry passed a piece of tin and decided to retrieve it so he could keep his foxhole dry.

"I picked up that piece of tin and there was that Jap. Well, I just automatically jabbed him good and hard with my bayonet and he moved, and that was a mistake for him because I killed him," Berry said. "And I took the piece of tin and went back to my foxhole, and I got out of the rain."

That was the first time Berry had killed. He said it didn't especially bother him because it was what he was trained to do. It was war.

"That was my job. That's what they taught us. 'Kill Japs. Kill Japs. Seek and kill.' That's what we did."

The third day found Berry as part of the effort to take Hill 382, the Japanese communications center. He had a new lieutenant to replace Lt. Johnson.

"He was a guard-duty lieutenant. He wasn't much of a leader. He was always asking me what to do," Berry said.

The lieutenant nearly got Berry killed several times on Iwo Jima. He also was responsible for the memory at the heart of Berry's PTSD, but that came near the end of Berry's 26 days.

The lieutenant on the third day said he needed to know what was over the ridge.

"I started out and the Japs were zeroed in on me. I ran and I zig-zagged and I dove into a shell hole, but I saw where they were. I put my helmet up, and 'zing!' They shot it," Berry said.

He saw smoke coming from a crevice in the bottom of the hole and thought there were Japanese soldiers smoking in a cave down there. He pulled the pin on a grenade and got ready to drop it in when it dawned on him that he was seeing sulfur and steam.

"So I had to get the grenade back out again," Berry said. "And that would have made a funny movie, me trying to get that pin back in there, but I did."

He headed back to his squad.

"I ran back and zig-zagged again and dove behind a rock just as a bullet hit it. They almost got me."

He identified their positions and called in fire.

Berry took his squad on patrol and found a Japanese tank and trucks abandoned in a small grove of naked trees. Some Marines got in the tank.

"My guys started it and I yelled at them, 'You're lucky our artillery didn't hit you.' I also wouldn't let them pick up any souvenirs. If it was laying out, a Jap was sighted in on it," Berry said. "A buddy went after a Jap flag and they zeroed in on him and killed him."

On the morning of the fifth day, he was on the beach to resupply. He heard someone say, "There's Old Glory flying" on Mount Suribachi.

"We turned around and we all took our helmets off. Tears were running down our faces as we looked up and saw the American flag," Berry said. "Oh, boy, we knew then that we had won the island."

He said the flag infuriated the Japanese, who intensified their fire.

About two hours later, Berry saw them taking down the small flag and raising a larger one. The second flag raising was the source of Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo upon which they based the Marine Corps memorial sculpture near Arlington National Cemetery.

On the sixth day, Berry was on a part of Hill 382 called "the amphitheater." They were pinned down, and men were being picked off. Berry and Pfc. Dee John headed up the hill to see whether they could get out, and John was shot in the thigh.

John started to laugh.

"I asked him why he was laughing, and he said, 'I'm going home.'"

The invasion of Iwo Jima was supposed to take five days. Berry was on the island for 26 days and the battle lasted 36 days.

Day 19 was the one that gave him memories he still relives.

The night of March 8, 1945, was too quiet. Berry said his men knew something was up, and he sent a man to check on the Japanese positions. They were grouping with bamboo spears.

Berry couldn't believe that in modern warfare there were spears being thrown at him. The Japanese that night made a banzai charge, some with mines strapped to their bodies, but the Marines easily cut them down.

Berry had a Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, and was set up in a perfect position as the enemy came down a rocky corridor. Flares from the ships lit the night as he fired, every third round a tracer he saw go through the Japanese soldiers.

One wouldn't stop coming, even after Berry shot him over and over. Berry finally used a grenade.

He found the body the next day with its insides gone.

He believes he shot 25 Japanese soldiers that night, emptying 12 clips of a total of 240 rounds. While 746 Japanese soldiers were killed that night, none of the Marines from Berry's platoon was lost -- until early the next morning.

That is the memory from Iwo Jima that still bothers Berry: the death of Sgt. Harris C. Ayres.

The replacement lieutenant asked Berry whether he needed more firepower that night. Berry said he didn't need a third man in his foxhole, but the lieutenant wouldn't listen and brought up a cook. The lieutenant gave the cook a BAR.

Sgt. Ayres was bringing Berry more magazines when the cook thought Ayres was a Japanese soldier.

"He shot him from head to foot. I yelled, 'Do you know what you have done? You killed Sgt. Ayres.' He started shaking."

Berry tried to get the lieutenant to take the cook, but the lieutenant refused. The cook stayed with Berry the rest of the night.

"He stayed in the foxhole and cried the whole time."

Thoughts of the war race through Berry's mind. The group sessions with the other World War II vets at Jefferson Barracks help him cope, and he said he occasionally needs to air out the memories.

Ayres' death is always there.

Berry's platoon finally made it to the beach on the far end of the island. He almost felt at ease coming back.

"When we went back to the beach, we walked through our 4th Division cemetery. Sad. You see the names of guys you knew. The names of guys you had liberty with," he said. "Sad. So sad."

Back on the ship, he got clean for the first time in 27 days and ate spaghetti, getting the royal treatment from the Navy.

Later, he resumed his correspondence with his old high school principal. Berry asked whether the principal had heard from Norm Aldridge, the East St. Louis buddy who found Berry that second day on Iwo Jima.

The principal wrote back that Aldridge died on Day 10.

Berry had another letter to write.

"I had to write Sgt. Ayres' widow. I told her he was killed by small arms fire during the banzai attack," Berry said. "I couldn't tell her the truth.

"I couldn't tell her he died after all that, not from friendly fire."

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