American victory on Iwo Jima came at a terrible cost. Almost 7,000 Marines and Sailors lost their lives over the 36-day battle. To put the battle in context for its brutality, more men died in this battle than all the deaths the U.S. has suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq in almost two decades of war since 2001. Additionally, more than 19,000 were wounded there. Since most Marine line officers led from the front, they were often the first to get wounded or killed. As a result, sergeants and corporals found themselves leading their entire platoon on Iwo Jima after just a few days in battle. According to Marine Corps historians, USMC Lt. Colonel Robert Burrell, by the Battle of Iwo Jima, “the Marine rifleman had developed into such a finely honed instrument of destruction that squad leaders, platoon commanders, and company commanders wielded the majority of combat power.” During training, all Marines often role-played others’ positions to ensure the command structure never collapsed while under fire. With this knowledge, one will appreciate the following story.
John J. Wlach enlisted in the Marine Corps on 28 July 1942. He was born on 25 January 1921 in New York City to Jewish parents and loved baseball and the New York Yankees. He had blue eyes, light brown hair, stood 5’9” and weighed 170 pounds, all muscle. He fought on Bougainville and Guam, and was wounded on Banzai Ridge on 24 July 1944 taking shrapnel to his left leg. After Guam’s battle, he was assigned the 3rd Squad Leader, in 3rd Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division. They trained for months preparing for the next battle, Iwo Jima. His outfit landed on Iwo on the 21st of February. The next day, his company commander, USMC Capt. Gerald Kirby, was killed in action. And after Kirby’s death, Wlach’s lieutenants and platoon leaders started dropping like flies too.
After Wlach and what remained of his platoon broke through the defensive line near Airport No.1 on 23 February 1945, they encountered intense opposition on the rising hills on the Motoyama Plateau north of the first airfield and en route to their next objective: Airfield No. 2, defended by Colonel Masuo Ikeda’s 145th Regiment of the Imperial Japanese forces. This was Iwo Jima’s garrison commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s “most powerful” unit; it manned the strongest area of the general’s defense and had undergone years of combat experience in China. While the Leathernecks fought Ikeda’s forces, Corporal John Wlach, now in charge of 3rd Platoon, helped secure the left flank above Airfield No. 1.
By now, Wlach had taken over his platoon when its leader was taken out of the lines after suffering several wounds. Due to casualties, the platoon had gone from 45 to 19 men. Facing what he and his men called Hand Grenade Hill, they encountered over 200 grenades flying around them within a period of 15 minutes. As a former “crack amateur and semi-pro baseball player,” Wlach, without hesitation, picked up several of the grenades and “pegged” them back at the Japanese before they exploded. His snappy and quick responses with the grenades, as if he was fielding line-drive grounders at a baseball game, mesmerized his comrades. He was using both hands to grab these flying or rolling bombs and then flung them back at the Imperial Japanese forces attacking them with their own weapons playing Russian roulette every time not knowing where the “fuse timer” was on these hand-held bombs before they exploded. When he was not busy with Japanese grenades, he pulled the numerous grenades attached to his web-gear on his front and threw his grenades into openings on the slope facing them full of Japanese tunnels.
USMC PFC Cecil Matheney, and eye witness, commented: “Wlach is the guy who’s mainly responsible for taking that hill. He was a wild man, but he kept his head. He kept the boys right up on the skirmish line.” Wlach exposed himself to fire, and, irritated that several men nearby were scared and not following him, he stood up in clear view in the middle of the crazy battle and screamed commands. He also did this to draw enemy fire so his Marines knew where to attack.
“You see, we had gotten in front of these Japs almost before we knew it. They were so well concealed—even their pillboxes—that we’d have never known they were there if they hadn’t opened up. But Johnny didn’t let us get caught with our breeches down. He snapped us right out of our stunned surprise and had us going just as though we had been there for hours.”
Seeing some Marines were allowing fear to stymie action, he stood up on a mound and yelled, “Come on, you fellows, the only thing that can happen to you is to get killed!” With that declaration, his men took the hill reported Marine Corps correspondent Disk Dashiell.
According to one report, Wlach took out around 30 Japanese soldiers and did not lose one of his 19 men in this action, a remarkable feat when one knows where he was and what he was up against. Since no officer witnessed any of his feats and most of his line officers were wounded or dead from his company, no one put him in for high awards. His regimental command did put him in for a Bronze Star with V, but the paperwork got lost or the command failed to follow up on it and it never happened. He did get a commendation from the 3rd Marine Division commander, USMC Major Gen. Graves B. Erskine, which read in part: “His extreme coolness under fire, heroic action and skillful leadership were an inspiration to this entire company and contributed materially to the success of the attack.” Moreover, the division did name a street at its base on Guam after him, but he never received any medals.
He asked the archive to look into it in 1997, remembering being told in 1946 while he was in the hospital that he was going to get a valorous decoration (the documents in the archive do indeed prove this!). Although he never got his medal, he had something few people ever get—the full confidence and respect of his brother Marines who would go to Hell and back with him at their head. That is one of the most honored statuses any Marine can ever obtain and is more priceless than any medals.
On March 1, Wlach’s luck ran out and he suffered horrible gunshot wounds to his arm and chest and was medevacked to a hospital ship. He had one year of rehabilitation, mostly at Earle New Jersey Naval Ammo Depot, until he was healthy enough to be discharged in February 1946.
For more about the forgotten heroes of Iwo Jima, visit bryanmarkrigg.com.