Looking back after 69 years, vets grew up fast
They were all teenagers 69 years ago, Cajun boys who knew little of the ways of the world before being sent into one of bloodiest battles of World War II.
“I had never been farther than Mamou, Eunice and Basile, and they took me to California,” said 88-year-old Allen J. Fontenot, recalling his stint at basic training just a few months before he found himself operating an amphibious Higgins boat ferrying Marines to and from the shores of Iwo Jima.
At one point — after three days without sleep — Fontenot nodded off only to be awakened by the sound of gunfire.
He looked down and saw bullet holes in the box of ammunition around him.
“The lead was embedded in the box,” he said.
Fontenot and a small group of other veterans and family members gathered Wednesday at the VFW hall in Judice to reminisce on the anniversary of the day in 1945 when the U.S. launched its invasion of the Japanese island.
The fighting stretched on for 36 days before the U.S. won the island. Nearly 7,000 Americans died. The Japanese lost about three times that number.
Harry McCauley, 87, enlisted at the age of 17 a few months before the battle, inspired by an older brother who had joined the Navy earlier in the war effort.
“I said, ‘I want to be a sailor, too,’ ” McCauley remembered.
He recalled a December 1944 meeting in Hawaii where an officer showed him and his fellow sailors a map indicating the U.S. military’s next major target in the Pacific: the island Iwo Jima, considered a strategic win to gain control of the Pacific.
“We had never heard of it,” McCauley said.
Fontenot and McCauley sat together and chatted Wednesday with veterans Harris Schexnider and Horace Trahan, both 87.
All served in the Navy on boats that filled the waters around Iwo Jima, transporting men and equipment to shore, bringing back the injured and dead, clearing mines, searching for submarines, bombarding the island from sea.
The four veterans were joined by Jackie LeBlanc, whose husband, “Jaco” LeBlanc, served at Iwo Jima and has since died, and Sandy Maples, whose father, Warren Hoffpauir, also served and has since passed.
Those two Navy veterans were on ships that were side by side during a Feb. 21, 1945, kamikaze attack.
Maples said the crew on her father’s vessel, the USS Lunga Point, had shot a Japanese aircraft, which then turned and dove into the ship’s deck.
Several sailors were injured, she said, but the ship sailed on.
On Wednesday, Maples brought a small piece of metal that her father had saved from the kamikaze’s plane.
“They cut it up and each could take a piece if they wanted,” she said.
LeBlanc’s husband was nearby on the USS Bismarck Sea, which didn’t make it through the battle.
Two kamikaze pilots crashed into the carrier, and the ship was abandoned as it slipped into the sea.
LeBlanc said her husband jumped off and found his way to a life raft, but 318 of his fellow sailors were lost.
Jackie LeBlanc still remembers her husband talking about young sailors so frightened as they hung from ropes slung off the side of the ship that they couldn’t move and had to be pulled off by others.
“Some of them were so scared they just froze,” she said.
McCauley, who for several years helped organize larger Iwo Jima reunions for the region, said the number of veterans of Iwo Jima and World War II in general has been steadily declining in recent years as the veterans age.
Veterans groups have no firm numbers for the number of surviving Iwo Jima veterans, but the number of World War II veterans has gone from some 16 million after the war to just more than a million today, according to figures from The National WWII Museum.