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World War II vet honored in hometown for Battle of Iwo Jima experience

American Flag (Unsplash/Lucas Sankey)
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Longmont resident Jack Thurman was honored in his hometown of Mitchell, S.D., on Memorial Day weekend for his involvement in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

At Iwo Jima, Thurman’s steel amtrac, an amphibious assault vehicle, was in the first wave and landed at Red Beach 1 on Feb. 19, 1945. The vehicles eased around a battleship and headed for shore, with fighter planes providing support.

The island of Iwo Jima was important to the United States war effort because it would allow a place for B-29 bombers to make emergency landings and refuel after flying from Guam to Tokyo and back.

Thurman, then 19 but now 93, remembered his fellow Marines knew they were about to land in the middle of a big battle.

“We were very alert to what we were getting into,” he said. “The B-29s were flying from Tokyo to Guam and they would try to turn around and make it back to Guam and they wouldn’t make it. They were sinking into the ocean.”

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Thurman said that when he exited his amtrac, they were supposed to secure an airstrip. He remembered three B-29s struggling to fly in.

“Only the one in front made it. It just hit the airstrip and ended up right in front of me, maybe 100 feet in front of me, and I never heard as many bullets hit something as hit that B-29,” he said.

Thurman was shielded from bullets in his foxhole, but did jump out to help a member of the B-29 crew whose pack was on fire from the explosions.

“I did run across the airstrip and there were bullets flying around my feet. I still can’t believe to this day that I didn’t get hit,” he said.

Thurman struggled to cut the airman’s burning pack off before another Marine came up and threw a white powder on the airman to extinguish the flames. In all the chaos, Thurman never found out what happened to the airman.

He was shot four times during the battle, including a bullet that glanced his hip and was slowed down by his water canteen.

While Thurman and other members of his regiment fought the Japanese on the ground, another regiment assigned to take Mount Suribachi started its slow ascent up the mountain.

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On Feb. 21, the men surrounded the base of the mountain and started to climb. Thurman was assigned sniper duty to cover Marines as they worked to post the American flag at the top.

“We were the group down inside the mountain, protecting the flag raisers,” he said.

A little after 10 a.m. on Feb. 23, Marines reached the summit and raised the flag. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the most recognizable photo of the war, of the second flag raising at Iwo Jima.

Thurman helped gather rocks to prop up the flagpole, as the Marines were having trouble getting it sunk into the black lava rocks on Iwo Jima. Thurman was close with Ira Hayes, one of the six Marines immortalized in the famous flag raising photo.

“After we got the flag up, Joe Rosenthal yelled at us, ‘gather ’round, you so-and-sos, I want a picture of you,'” he said. That photo became the gung-ho photo.

Thurman can be seen to the far left of the photo, raising his cap in celebration above a sitting Ira Hayes. Thurman said the flag was very important to the Marines on Iwo Jima.

“That flag is my buddy. We all looked at the flag that way,” he said. “It seemed to say, ‘I’m there for you,’ and, ‘Don’t go too far away boys, I’m still here.'”

Thurman left the Marines as a sergeant after four years of active duty, including serving as military police in Japan. He married in 1951, settling in Boulder. The couple had four children, and he worked as an architect.

Thurman couldn’t talk about his experience at Iwo Jima until about 1952 when someone told him that if he didn’t talk about it, his experience would be buried with him. Thurman was the last of the Marines in the gung-ho photo to be identified.

“I said, ‘I gotta talk for my buddies who didn’t make it back,'” he said. “So I’m talking for them and telling my story, as well as their story.”

In South Dakota, the Thurman family donated a black marble bench to Mitchell Veteran’s Park in honor of Jack Thurman.

He signed copies of his book, “We Were In The First Waves Of Steel Amtracs Who Landed on Iwo Jima,” and attended a golf tournament to benefit veterans.

Thurman’s daughter, Karen Thurman, said that there was a long line of people waiting for her father to autograph a book for them.

“People waited in line for three hours to have a book signed,” she said.

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© 2018 the Daily Times-Call (Longmont, Colo.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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