A few days before the battle, Don Harris swam 100 yards to the shore of the island with a scout group of Marines to find out if its black volcanic sands would support the equipment needed for the invasion to succeed.
Harris had by then served in four previous operations, including the invasions of Saipan and Tinian with the 4th Marines in a reconnaissance company. But this mission had him scared so badly he shook.
“Part of it was that the water was a lot colder than what we trained in,” he said. “But part of it, too, was that we were all scared to death. But after about 15 minutes we calmed down and focused on the mission.”
The retired Marine told this story and more to his fellow Leathernecks during the monthly meeting of the Jake Puryear Marine Corps League at the Floyd County Library on Saturday.
Like many who served during World War II, Harris’ war started after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. On Dec. 20, after taking a train from his home in New Jersey to New York City, Harris joined the Marines.
After fighting with Marines taking the Kwajelein Atoll and then Eniwetok Island in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, he fought in Saipan, then in Tinian during the attacks on the Marianas Islands.
He returned to Hawaii to train with the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team for the mission on Iwo Jima in February 1945. The Marines were sent ashore before the invasion to “find out what the black stuff on the beach was” and to destroy and obstacles or mines in the way, he said.
After his initial swim toward the shore of the islands days prior to the battle, Harris went ashore with his reconnaissance company and fought in the battle as part of the forward advance against the second airfield on the island.
Harris remembers Iwo Jima as a battle of artillery shellings and grenade fights, with barely any physical contact with the Japanese they fought. He called the carnage there some of the worst of the war.
“Many of the guys I served with said they never saw a live Jap,” he said. “I went through it and only saw two live Japs.”
In total, more than 6,000 Americans and 21,000 Japanese died in the fighting on Iwo Jima, which was the last major campaign of the war for Harris.
After the war, Harris returned to civilian life and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Springfield College in Massachusetts. He went into management with Kopper Corp. out of Pittsburgh, Pa. and, after an early retirement, spent 26 more years in direct sales in plastics. He now lives in New Bern, N.C.
“Two million World War II veterans did what I did and went to college,” he said. “All of it — every last penny — was paid for by the GI bill and our taxpayers.”
Harris said if he had his life to live all over again, he’d still join the Marines.
“Those of us that have served in a particular service — and this is true of guys who have served or went into underwater demolition groups, the OSS, the special forces — I think we all develop a specific pride in our organizations and we say we’d do it again,” Harris said. “And I have that pride in the Marine Corps. So yeah, I’d do it again.”