Thank You, Jack
During this week in February my thoughts often turn to my uncle, Jack Beattie, who served as a Marine and participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima. I never knew Jack, who died after six days of hard fighting on Iwo 12 years before I was born. To me, he was like so many of his generation, an ordinary guy who made an extraordinary sacrifice. He served his country quietly, died for it violently and had a small part in the storied history of the United States Marine Corps. This is my small way of keeping his memory alive and a way of saying thank you some 69 years after he gave his life for his country.
I came to “know” Jack primarily from my mother, who would often talk about him and other family members who served in World War II. If you know anyone from that greatest generation you’ll be familiar with the term “got it”. I recall her saying that Jack “got it” at Iwo Jima. I also remember her saying that her cousin Johnny “got it” at St. Lo in France. As a young boy, I quickly understood that it meant they were never coming home again. The only person she didn’t talk too much about was my father, who was a B-17 pilot. He died when I was only 7 years old answering a call as a volunteer firefighter. It was just too painful for her to talk about.
As I grew up, I became an avid history buff, particularly interested in WW II. I researched my father’s wartime history, met members of his crew, visited his old airfield in England and flew in a B-17 with my youngest son. But in the background, Jack’s memory was always tugging at me. What made him volunteer for the Marines a year and a half before the war started? What kind of Marine was he? How much combat did he see? What unit was he in? How did he die? Did he die alone? Can I find some guys he served with? I vowed to myself I would get those answers and keep his memory alive, even if I was the only person to ever know his history and sacrifice.
The research was quite a journey. I sent for his personnel records, scoured the Internet, read many books on Iwo, visited as many blogs as I could find and spoke to my aunt (Jack’s sister) who is the only living person still around (that I know of) who knew him well.
So in memory to Sgt. John J. Beattie, here is his story.
Jack was born into a poor but fiercely proud Irish family in Yonkers, N.Y. He was the third son in a family of five boys and a girl. His father died when he was only twelve so money was pretty tight and the neighborhood probably offered him ample opportunities to get into some scrapes and defend himself. I recall being told that he joined the Marines to get out of the neighborhood and get some discipline. He probably was a bit of a hellion. Jack officially became a Private in the Marines on July 24th, 1940, almost a year and a half before Pearl Harbor. He was 5’9” and 140 pounds with a 26-inch waist and lots of energy.
He completed boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. and was stationed at Portsmouth and Yorktown in Virginia. I’ve been told he absolutely loved being a Marine. He loved the discipline and structure it demanded and the camaraderie it afforded a young man like him. His records show him consistently rated “5” which was the top rating on the professional evaluations. He belonged to something bigger than himself and he was doing something where he could make a difference. He was, in short, a proud Marine.
In early 1942 he was transferred to Quantico, Va. Quantico is where Marine officers were trained- basically it was officers’ boot camp. Newly minted 2nd Lieutenants, key battlefield leaders referred to as “90 Day Wonders”, were churned out every 90 days, most likely not in enough numbers to make up for the horrific losses in the Pacific campaign. At Quantico he received promotions to Corporal and Sergeant and became a Drill Instructor training the officer candidates in the art of warfare and survival. He decided to make a career out of the Marines because he loved it so much.
As I went through his records there was one thing I didn’t understand: there was no mention of the early iconic battles that have become so linked to the Marine Corps history. Having enlisted in 1940, I thought for sure I would see him involved in Guadalcanal or Peleliu because he was a veteran by 1942. I have since discovered that he was so good at training officers that he was deemed to be “mission critical” at Quantico and he was kept out of combat so he could continue the important mission of supplying well trained combat leaders into the Pacific theater. Jack wanted desperately to get into the fight. He continually sought (and was refused) a combat assignment until the command finally acquiesced to his wishes. He knew exactly what he was headed for but went willingly and eagerly.
On February 14th 1944 (almost exactly one year before the invasion of Iwo Jima) he was assigned to the newly created 5th Marine Division. The Division was created specifically for the invasion of the Japanese islands and nobody harbored any allusions as to just how tough the upcoming battles would be. Jack joined “I” Battery, 13th Marines in command of a 105-millimeter howitzer and its crew. He trained at Camp Pendleton and extended his enlistment by 2 years in June of 1944. After almost 1 year of intensive training, Jack and his crew “embarked aboard LST#782 from Hileo, Hawaii on January 7, 1945 “ according to his records and “arrived and disembarked at Iwo Jima Volcano Island on 19 February, 1945”. His 6 days in hell had begun.
Jack’s battalion, along with a tank battalion, pioneers and other units, were attached to the 28th Marine Infantry Regiment to form “Regimental Combat Team 28. Combat Team 28 had perhaps the toughest of assignments; assault and neutralize Mt. Suribachi, a 560-foot high extinct volcano. They were to land at Green Beach right at the base of Mt. Suribachi.
Scheduled to land in the 14th wave about 30 minutes after the first troops hit the beach on the morning of D Day, Jack’s gun and crew were launched in their amphibious truck (DUKW) at 2:30 am. Due to the carnage and confusion on the beachhead, they eventually landed on the beach sometime between 11am and 2pm.
It’s hard to know exactly what Jack was doing in the next few days other than fighting hard and watching so many of his fellow Marines fall wounded or killed. “I” Battery closely supported the 28th Marines in their costly fight for Mt. Suribachi and we do know Jack witnessed the flag raising on Feb. 23rd. The next day, Feb 24th, with Suribachi subdued,“I” Battery began to push north. This is when things went terribly bad for Jack.
Until recently, I never knew how Jack was killed. My aunt thought it was from shrapnel. The casualty report from his records state “gunshot wound- right thigh.” From this limited information, I believed it was possible he bled to death on the battlefield. I began to dig further, searching the records of Captain George Dike, his company commander, other sources and a letter written to my grandmother from a fellow Marine who was with Jack when he died. I was able to piece together what I believe happened on that day on Iwo Jima.
Jack’s gun had been supporting an infantry assault when a Japanese shell struck it. Capt. Dike called it a direct hit. It wounded many members of Jack’s crew and he was grievously wounded. As he lay there bleeding from a large wound in his right leg, a buddy and fellow Marine was comforting him. Navy Corpsmen were the bravest of the brave and performed heroic acts on Iwo Jima but there just weren’t enough of them to handle the high volume of casualties on Iwo. Apparently, Jack knew his fate. He asked his buddy to promise him that he would contact Jack’s family after the battle. He wanted him to tell his brothers, sister and his mother that he loved them and that he would be fine where he was going. He wanted them to know he was at peace. And he wanted his mother to know, that special woman who would soon receive that horrible telegram, that she was the best mother anybody could ever hope to have. His strong Catholic faith was unshaken. And after about an hour, Jack’s battle on Iwo Jima ended quietly. He was 23 years old.
It’s been a blessing getting to know Jack through this process and there’s still so much to learn. His records were fascinating to review. When I opened them, the first thing I saw was a copy of his military photo ID. I was stunned. It was the first and only picture I’ve ever seen of him. He bears a striking resemblance to my college age son Jack. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Then there was a copy of the kind handwritten letter to my grandmother from Capt. Dike, written as soon as they came back from Iwo Jima. He talked about how they became fast friends, his engaging personality and his gentlemanly conduct. I guess the Marines did a good job in reshaping him over the 5 years they had him. Then there was the inventory of his personal effects: 6 towels, 1 pen, 1 sweatshirt, a pair of socks, a shirt, handkerchief, underwear, gloves and a bar of soap. I guess other than ammunition, food and your buddies, you don’t really need that much else on a place like Iwo.
There are also some sad items such as a copy of the dreaded Western Union Telegram that my grandmother received. There is her application for the Gold Star lapel pin, the condolence letter from the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the notice that Jack was buried on Iwo Jima in the 5th Marine Division Cemetery, Plot 1, Row 8, Grave 155. There is also a letter from 1948 notifying my grandmother that Congress appropriated money for a National Cemetery in Hawaii as the final resting place for those killed during the war in the Pacific theater. The US Government would bury Jack there, or send him back to the states for burial if the family so wished. Jack is buried with his fellow Marines in that beautiful cemetery so far away from Yonkers.
I visited Jack a few years ago on a trip to Hawaii. It’s beautiful and I was proud of him. He belongs there.
Was it worth the cost? It’s hard to say, particularly for our family, which paid a steep price with the loss of Jack. It is estimated that approximately 22,000 airmen were saved because newly captured Iwo afforded them a place to make an emergency landing as their badly damaged bombers returned from missions over Japan. Without Iwo, they would continue to be forced to ditch in the Pacific and likely perish. To capture this piece of volcanic rock, the Marines suffered approximately 30,000 casualties, including 7,000 killed to secure this safe haven in the middle of nowhere.
Iwo Jima wasn’t quite finished with the Beattie family. It would visit two ironies on us; one during the battle and another 68 years after it was over.
One of those 22,000 airmen that made an emergency landing on Iwo was a young, talented golfer named Mike Fetchick. Mike hailed from Yonkers, N.Y. as well and happened to be engaged to Jack’s sister, Marie. Mike was a waist gunner on a B-24 bomber that was one of the first planes to make an emergency landing on Iwo. The battle was still raging on the north end of the island and Mike could hear lots of gunfire in the distance. After landing, he set out to locate Jack, only to find out he was killed in action several days before. Mike visited Jack in the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on the island and later told the family that Jack was among friends. Ironically, Jack’s future brother-in-law would be among the first airmen saved by Iwo. Mike later married Marie and had a very successful career on both the PGA and Champions Tour. Thank you, Jack.
Jack did reach out and touch me once. This final irony of Iwo happened 68 years after the battle. I had received his military records and called my brother to tell him I was sending him a copy. He told me something extraordinary just happened to him. Something his son had seen on TV. He would only tell me to go on Amazon and purchase a History Channel special on the Pacific War called “Battle Group: Spruance”. I watched it and at the end of a segment on Iwo Jima there were some comments on the human cost of securing the island. Using video shot in 1945, the camera panned the 5th Marine Division Cemetery with all the white crosses and the flags fluttering in the breeze next to each cross. Then there was a 5 second close up of only one cross filling the entire screen. There on the cross, below the Eagle, Globe and Anchor and the USMC letters was the name; Beattie, J.J. 289046. Out of 7,000 graves the cameraman chose Plot 1, Row 8, Grave 155. It gave me goose bumps. I no longer believe in coincidences. I do believe that was Jack reaching out with a smile to say thank you for remembering him.
In 1945 there was a sign at the entrance to the 5th Marine Division Cemetery. It said:
When you go home
Tell them for us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today
As I write this 69 years after the battle, the tomorrow that those Marines gave me so long ago, I am enjoying today.
Thank you, Jack.