Local marine veteran recalls historic battle of Iwo Jima

Date: 2/19/2015

LONGMEADOW – Seventy years ago, Joseph Maruca served in an engineer battalion of Fifth Amphibious Corps of the United States Marine Corps during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, where he witnessed moments of horror and bravery. 

Maruca, 88, who has been a resident of Longmeadow for 45 years, told Reminder Publications the battle began on Feb. 19, 1945 and lasted 36 days. He was 18 years old at the time.

“I was there for 26 days,” he said. “It was horrendous. It was an awful experience where you think any moment you could be killed.”

Iwo Jima, a small volcanic island, just two miles by four miles, located 660 miles south of Tokyo, was a strategic necessity during the war in the Pacific because Japanese fighters taking off from airfields on Iwo Jima were intercepting U.S. B-29 bombing runs and attacking the Marina airfields controlled by U.S. forces, according to the National WWII Museum.

Approximately 70,000 U.S. Marines invaded Iwo Jima after months of naval and air bombardment. Roughly 18,000 Japanese defenders were dug into bunkers.

Maruca said the majority of Japanese soldiers were hidden in miles of tunnels.

“The Japanese could be in a pill box and you’d bomb their pill box and they’d go into their tunnels,” he added. “You hardly ever saw a live Japanese soldier on the ground until the end so to speak. Basically, it was all fought underground.”

The iconic flag-raising photograph atop Mt. Suribachi also took place during the battle, on Feb. 23, 1945, five days after it had begun.

“I was close to Mt. Suribachi,” Maruca said. “I was on the beach when they raised the flags and they raised a flag in the morning and that’s when the Marines went up and took position and when the flag went up everyone cheered and all the ships blew their whistles in the ocean and everybody thought the island was going to be secured the next day, which was not true. And then they raised the second flag, which is the famous one.”

Nearly 7,000 Marines were killed and 20,000 were wounded, during what is considered to be one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. A total of 216 Japanese soldiers were captured; the rest were killed during the battle.

“It was an awful sight,” Maruca said. “I’d walk by Marines that were stacked. The ponchos were thrown over the dead Marines; their feet sticking out and their heads and faces bloody and distorted.”

Maruca said his Marine engineering battalion worked alongside members of the United States Naval Mobile Battalion, also known as “Seabees,” to get the three airports back in shape.

“We were in our foxholes being bombarded all the time by the Japanese artillery and mortars and things like that,” he added. “And when we could get up and work we had Marines out there with bulldozers on the airfield. We were patching up the airfield, putting Marston mats down, [which are] these mats that you put down to drive on for planes.”

After the war, Maruca was stationed in occupied Japan for a couple months before coming back to Western Massachusetts. In 1952, he started Winchester Auto School in Springfield, where he works to this day.

All of Maruca’s friends served during World War II, he noted. The majority served in the Navy and few enlisted into the Army.

“We all came out and we didn’t talk about the war and the reason is there’s nothing to talk about,” he added. “We all had our own experience that no one wanted to hear and I’ve only talked about in recent years – the last ten years or so.”