For two Marines who fired machine guns in World War II, memories of the Battle of Iwo Jima that began 67 years ago today are a blur of sleepless nights and bullets flying through the salty air as they ducked for cover on black sand beaches.
Larry Odell, of Las Vegas, and Bob Oram, of Boulder City, are two of the last local Marines who fought on Iwo Jima. The small volcanic island became a safe haven for landing flak-riddled B-29 bombers returning from missions over Japan. It also served as a base for fighter planes that escorted them.
Odell was a corporal with the 2nd Howitzer Battalion, known as the "Forgotten Battalion." He made the Iwo Jima landing on Feb. 22, 1945, with Marines who brought the second U.S. flag that was raised the next day on Mount Suribachi.
"We lost a lot of people because there was no place to hide. If there were, I would have found it," Odell, 88, said last week.
It was the sixth and last landing he made with the Forgotten Battalion since arriving in the Pacific theater in July 1942. Of 120 men, only Odell and 34 comrades survived to return to San Francisco aboard a converted bomber in April 1945 after battles at Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam and Iwo Jima.
On Iwo Jima, Odell credits flamethrowers with defeating Japanese soldiers who were entrenched in caves and a maze of tunnels.
"They'd get above them and shoot that flame in there. They had a choice," he said about the Japanese. "They'd either stay in there and get cooked or come out and get fried."
He attributes his survival to his small stature at 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, and his tough childhood during the 1920s and '30s in the Southern Nevada mining town of Nelson.
"I learned how to survive. I didn't miss any meals, but we postponed a few," he said.
"The fact that I'm small, I made a smaller target and I didn't take any unnecessary chances. I did my job but I didn't try to be a hero and go out and kill a bunch of Japanese. I waited for them to come to us, and then we'd get them."
Odell eliminated his share of the enemy with his machine gun when dozens made banzai charges in last-ditch efforts to attack their position.
"No matter how many we killed, they just kept coming," he recalled.
Odell thought the Battle of Iwo Jima would never end. It was difficult to gauge who was winning because the Japanese would recover their dead at night.
"The only thing you'd see is dead Marines. You'd think, 'We're not doing very good.' It was disconcerting. You'd know that some would get killed, but you didn't see them because they'd drag them back inside."
Oram, 86, said there "was no such thing as a front line. It was just a zigzag thing that if you could kill the Japs that were able to shoot you, then you had the front line."
Oram remembered how that line changed while he was manning a .30-caliber machine gun on March 7, 1945. His company, led by 2nd Lt. John H. Leims, had made "a little bit of a retreat" under the slashing fury of Japanese machine gun fire.
With his men holding their new position, Leims braved the barrage to rescue three wounded Marines on an abandoned ridge. He later received the Medal of Honor, one of 27 awarded for action on Iwo Jima.
"He was carrying wounded soldiers back getting them out of the way of the Japs. On the second carry-out, I helped him carry the guy out who was wounded, and then he went back a third time," said Oram, who visited Leims shortly before he died in Conroe, Texas, in 1985.
Relatively few Japanese were taken prisoner during the Battle of Iwo Jima, and there was a reason why, Oram said.
"We were instructed before we ever went ashore that anytime you saw a Jap coming out of a cave with his hands up, shoot him because he would just as soon die if he could kill one of us," he said.
"So, if he'd walk up to one of our people, he'd have a hand grenade and pull the plug on it and drop it right there."
Oram said he only got one full night's sleep during the 22 days he was on Iwo Jima. That was when a guard dog was positioned at the edge of his foxhole to detect any approaching enemy.
Oram and his machine gun crew from B Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division landed on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, four days after the invasion began and the day of the flag raisings on Mount Suribachi.
Like Odell, Oram watched the second iconic event from a foxhole near the foot of the mountain.
"It made me feel like they was taking a big chance. I knew the island was quite a long ways from being secure," he said.
The number of local Iwo Jima fighters has dwindled over the past few years with the deaths of Chet Foulke on Dec. 31, and Parke Potter in 2009.
Foulke, a Marine demolition expert, recalled in one of his last interviews how tears ran down his face when he watched the first U.S. flag fly over Mount Suribachi.
Potter helped fashion a pole for that flag from pieces of pipe that he and other Marines had dug from a rubble pile.
Besides Odell and Oram, only a few other Southern Nevada veterans who were at Iwo Jima remain. They include Ivory Roach, 86, of Las Vegas, an Army sergeant who served with the 592nd Port Company, a supply unit attached to the 5th Marine Division; Edwin Lum, who then was an 18-year-old Marine in the 5th Amphibious Corps Signal Battalion; and Marine Pfc. Sam Showel, 86, of Las Vegas, a radioman with the 5th Marine Division, who served with the famous Navajo code talkers.
Showel, of Jewish War Veterans Post 21, was in the fourth wave on the first day of the invasion.
"I was scared as hell," he said.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.