Rudy Moraga summed up his brush with death during World War II in five words: “It was kind of hairy.”
Sixty-eight years after he witnessed the iconic Iwo Jima flag raisings as a wounded sailor on the deck of a ship, he boarded an Honor Flight on Friday in Las Vegas bound for Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport with 34 other World War II veterans. They plan to see the memorials built to commemorate World War II and the Marines at Iwo Jima.
The trip was funded by donations to Honor Flight Nevada from the Nevada Military Support Alliance, Southwest Airlines, individuals and corporations. The veterans include six women who served in the Army, Navy and Coast Guard.
They’ll also see the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington, Va.
It is the first Honor Flight Nevada to leave from McCarran International Airport since Reno became an Honor Flight hub in October, among more than 100 nationwide.
“I want to see what this Iwo Jima monument looks like because I saw the flags go up when I was there,” Moraga, 86, said Wednesday.
He was 17 and living in Florence, Ariz., when his parents signed permission for him to join the Navy in 1944. It wasn’t long before he was assigned to work the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS Bismarck Sea, headed for the South Pacific to join the 7th Fleet.
After the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in the fall of 1944, and the Lingayen landings in January 1945, the USS Bismarck Sea steamed toward Iwo Jima with 923 sailors, pilots and crew on board to support the invasion.
Things got “kind of hairy” for Moraga on Feb. 21, 1945.
“There were a lot of Japanese planes flying around trying to destroy ships but never got close enough,” he said.
Then a kamikaze pilot made a suicide strike, flying 10 feet off the water between the Bismarck Sea and a destroyer.
“It wasn’t seen until it was actually on us,” he said, explaining that American gunners couldn’t fire on the plane because the ships were in each other’s line of fire.
“The plane hit 50 feet below me, directly underneath the ammunition room I was stationed at. I got wounded pretty bad, my head, my arms, my shoulders. I took shrapnel everywhere.”
A second kamikaze plane crashed soon after into the aircraft elevator at the rear of the ship and exploded, crippling the fire fighting system.
With orders to abandon ship, Moraga jumped off the flight deck “and swam away as fast as I could before the ship blew up.”
“Five minutes later, it did blow up,” he said.
It sent up a ball fire that “made the night turn into daylight. ...I figured then this is going to be it. But I never gave up hope.”
With blood oozing from his wounds, his biggest fear was that sharks would soon arrive, but they never did, he said.
As he swam, air leaked from his life vest, which had been punctured by shrapnel. He had to tread water for four hours until he was rescued by a destroyer, the USS Patterson.
Six destroyers and escort ships rescued more than 600 survivors in all. About one-third of the crew — 318 sailors — died when the Bismarck Sea sank.
Some of the survivors, including Moraga, were transferred to the USS Dickens, a transport-attack ship that was sent closer to Iwo Jima to receive wounded from the battle.
Two days after the kamikaze attacks, he was on the deck of the Dickens less than a mile from Iwo Jima when Marines raised the first flag on Mount Suribachi. He couldn’t see the flag because it was too small and far away “but I knew what it was.”
“Then two hours later, the second one went up and you could see the flag. When word got out to all the ships, they started blowing their steam whistles, celebrating,” he said.
Moraga and his comrades will celebrate again on Saturday after their tours of the memorials, and again at 1:45 p.m. Sunday when they arrive back at McCarran for a star-spangled reception with an honor guard on the second floor above the baggage area that’s open to the public.
According to Jon Yuspa, founder and chairman of Honor Flight Nevada, of the 38,000 men and women from Nevada who served during World War II, only a couple thousand are still alive and they are in their late 80s and 90s.
“It is a privilege to honor the courageous actions of these humble servicemen and women,” he said.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.