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History and Heritage

Ghosts of Iwo Jima

70 Years After the Battle Began

Deafening silence. Snow lightly dusts the branches of the Christmas trees on this cold, gray Galloway, New Jersey morning.


The rows are neatly lined - this is a farm, after all. Its principle crop is Christmas trees. However, its true purpose seems to be the sale of home and family, of comfort, of peace and safety ... of silence.

A sharp, shrill metallic buzz slices the early morning tranquility. It sounds like a chainsaw at first, but soon reveals itself as a four-wheeled, all-terrain vehicle.

Wally Kaenzig sits at the helm, gleefully carving a path through the fresh-fallen snow. He laughs - zipping around with the wild abandon of youth. Wally is 94 years old. If anyone has earned the right to laugh, it's Wally. He spent 26 days in hell.

Wally is a survivor of Iwo Jima.

The Rutgers University Junior was well on his way to a career in agriculture when the shocking news crackled across the radio that December in 1941. In an instant, Wally and many of his classmates dashed to the nearest military recruiting station - they were going to fight.

Turned down by the Navy, ("You ain't gonna be able to grow squash very well on a ship," laughed the recruiter) Wally found himself walking through the next door in the building. He was going to be a Marine.

Wally became a member of the Corps' legendary 4th Marine Division. Before long, he was training extensively at Camp Pendleton, California for an invasion like no other. The Marines knew they were working toward something huge - the secrecy surrounding the operation was highlighted one day by the unannounced arrival of a black convertible limousine. The silent, bespeckled stare of the commander-in-chief studying the drills in the dunes below was all the proof needed.

  • Navy Photo

  • Navy Photo

  • Navy Photo

  • Navy Photo

  • Navy Photo


Once out to sea, Wally and his fellow Marines were briefed on the objective for which they had been training so long. The 4th Marine Division would join the 5th and 3rd for an invasion of an eight-square-mile, pork chop-shaped volcanic island: Iwo Jima.

The island's two runways (a third under construction) would allow for U.S. long-range bombers to begin runs over the Japanese mainland. Iwo Jima's strategic location was not lost on the Japanese - more than 20,000 defenders dispatched to the island were dug in, literally, through a series of interconnected tunnels and caves.

Amphibious forces of the U.S. Pacific Fleet attacked the fortress of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, with a formidable force, totaling 495 ships, including 17 aircraft carriers, 1,170 planes, and 110,308 troops.
The beaches were eerily quiet as the Higgins boats landed ashore and the Marines began to offload. The relentless, pre-invasion bombardment from naval and air forces must've surely worked.

The minimal resistance, however, proved only a ploy to draw the exposed Marines onto the beaches. It was then that 20,000 determined Japanese defenders, led by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, opened up from their vast underground network. The bombardment did little to soften the defenses.

It was directly into this inferno on D-Day that Wally came ashore. He almost didn't even make it off his Higgins boat. Mortar and artillery shells burst all around as the boat's ramp lowered. Several simultaneous and deafening explosions nearly capsized the landing craft. The boat was sinking fast - Wally knew he had to get out of there quickly.

Conditions worsened as Wally struggled ashore through the volcanic sand. The hailstorm of bullets and artillery only increased as he struggled to organize and push his men forward.

He was only 24, but Wally knew and accepted that he would soon be dead.

It was four days into the campaign when luck began to change. The roar of ships' horns and whistles off the island pointed Wally's eyes toward the summit of Mount Suribachi - the island's highest point. There flapping in the Pacific breeze was the American Flag. The summit was secured.

The celebration was short lived.

Literally inching their way across the island, the Marines were able to secure Iwo after 36 days of brutal combat. Victory came at a very heavy price. At the battle's conclusion, 6,821 Americans and more than 20,000 Japanese were killed. Twenty-two Marines and five Sailors received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions on Iwo - the most bestowed for any campaign. Adm. Chester Nimitz remarked, "Among the Americans serving on Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Wally returned to Galloway following the war hoping to put the past behind him.

Seventy years have gone by, and yet the memories are as vivid as the day he stormed ashore. Friends and family have passed. The ranks of survivors grow smaller each year, yet Wally embraces life with the zeal and passion of a man more than half his age.

Surrounded by the trees on the farm he loves, perhaps he's finally found his peace.