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Fury, Fumaroles and Brimstone
Fury, Fumaroles and Brimstone
The Japanese Named It Sulfur Island.
The U. S. Marines Called It (Censored)


George Pickett interviewed by Tony Welch

For seven months – May through November, 1945 – George E. Pickett and three fellow sailors held sway over what would soon become the world’s most iconic and instantly recognizable piece of real estate.

None of them held a trust deed to the property, and yet this foursome lorded over their patch of ground with all the authority of a cop on the beat. Trespassers and interlopers were warned away by a sign reading: “DANGER – 5,000 VOLTS! KEEP OUT.”


HIGH AND DRY: Mountain-top sailors (from left): Robert Robertson, Charles Shimmin, George Pickett and Robert Ray. Together, they set up and maintained an elevated radar tower atop Mt. Suribachi within 25 yards of the much-celebrated flag-raising site

“Each time I stepped out the front door of our Quonset hut, there was this sprawling panorama five hundred feet below,” Pickett recalls. Not more than 35 feet away, an American flag danced atop a new flagpole. “On a good day I could see clear to the north end of the island, five miles away.”

The island referred to is Iwo Jima, and the viewpoint facing Pickett’s mountain home is exactly where the U.S. Marines planted the Stars and Stripes atop Mount Suribachi. George first came ashore on Iwo thirty-five days after the flag raising. He would spend the next seven months treading the consecrated ground upon which the eyes of millions became fixated – thanks to a single photographic image.


THEN AND NOW: A double dose of U.S. naval gunfire explodes on the crown of Mr. Suribachi a day before the invasion. The salvo just to the right is very close to the future flag-raising site. The crest of Suribachi as it appears today; the speck of white is the memorial dedicated to all who lost their lives on Iwo.

Pickett’s assignment – classified Top Secret --was to help make Iwo and its surrounding waters a more secure place by introducing radar to the island, which technical advancement had proven invaluable at sea during surface engagements with the enemy. Initially trained as a radio technician, George went through a further 18 months of radar instruction before being assigned to a sector known as GROPAC 11– Group Pacific Eleven. GROPAC’s hush-hush mission was to install elevated radar-ranging equipment on certain specified islands throughout the Pacific. Pickett and a boatload of technicians departed San Francisco on February 1, l945 aboard a Dutch vessel and crew leased to the U.S. Army. “We stopped at five islands in all, over a period of sixty days,” Pickett notes. “While underway at night we had to take turns manning the crow’s nest, because the ship had no radar. Would you believe we got paid extra for that? – fifty cents an hour. When we arrived at Iwo on April first, a large group of departing marines came aboard and we went ashore in their LSTs. I left the ship with sixty bucks, cash in hand. Never could figure that one out.”


SCENE FROM ALOFT: An Avenger torpedo bomber pilot, flying from an offshore aircraft carrier, takes in an eagle eye view of Mt. Suribachi three weeks after D-day.

On his first morning ashore, George carefully picked his way across a mutilated landscape. Knowing virtually nothing of the unrestrained violence that preceded his arrival, Pickett was suddenly brought up short by an open trench layered with Japanese soldiers. An obviously hardened Seabee bulldozer operator repeatedly ran his tracked vehicle back and forth, gradually filling the gravesite. One of many mass burials, as it turned out. Pickett’s second rude awakening came when he learned that beneath the island’s surface of volcanic pumice were thousands more entombed Japanese, scattered along eleven miles of tunnels and in innumerable caves. An alarming number of them, as the Marine invaders were quick to discover, remained very much alive and aggressively combative.

Less than a week prior to Pickett’s arrival, a force of 350 determined survivors left their underground labyrinth and in the pre-dawn hours of March 27 infiltrated the Marine lines undetected. Pausing briefly to regroup, they then assaulted the sleeping quarters of the 7th and 21st Fighter Groups. Amidst total confusion, the groggy Mustang pilots suddenly found themselves overrun and outnumbered. Within the spread-out tenting area, chaos reigned. In one encounter, some cooks armed only with long-handled soup ladles and other kitchen utensils drove six Japanese out of the mess tent – and lived to tell about it. From outside the perimeter, U.S. ground crews and other support personnel quickly joined the fray. The frenzied Japanese ransacked the area, tossing grenades inside tents and then gunning down or bayoneting any survivors attempting to flee. When the skirmish finally ended at mid-morning, 330 Japanese lay dead; those not killed committed suicide. Forty-four U.S. pilots and support personnel died, with another 100 wounded. The encounter marks the only known WW11 engagement between aviators and infantry. “Our own tents near the airfield were only a few hundred yards away from where the attack took place,” Pickett remembers. “That’s when we starting posting armed sentries at night.”

In consequence of the mounting death toll on both sides, hundreds and then thousands of bloating bodies became feeding and breeding grounds for millions of flies. Marine and Seabee sanitation teams, often under fire themselves, quickly fell behind in their recovery efforts. In a moment of inspiration, a pair of C-47 cargo planes was outfitted with improvised spraying equipment. The aircraft made repeated low-level passes over Iwo’s terrain, leaving in their wake misty clouds of DDT. The disease-carrying fly population – just one more threat to human health -- plunged dramatically. The bushido-driven Japanese proved far more resilient.

GROPAC’s first project, at the far north end of the island, was to install seventeen radio transmitters for the joint Army/Navy Communications Center. Each transmitter was equal in size to a refrigerator; the condensers stored within were wired and bundled, then each unit connected in sequence. “It took close to a month to complete,” George notes. “After we finished, the Navy officer in charge went out to a ship and brought back a pile of steaks that we cooked up on a grill – his way of saying thanks. And I got advanced to petty officer second class.”


CHEESE PLEASE: A.P. photographer Joe Rosenthal records a picture of the Suribachi flag raisers. But it’s not this posed image that would capture America’s heart and soul and later earn him the Pulitzer Prize. The Associated Press, in an unprecedented gesture, donated all proceeds from the sale of Rosenthal’s famous grab-and-shoot photo to the Navy Relief Society – a total of $12 million over ten years. At right, Easy Company marines climb Suribachi’s north flank with the first of two flags flown that day.

Next stop…Suribachi. Within the walls of its volcanic cone – as well as along the steep slopes rising 550 feet above the island floor – dozens of cave entries were discovered shortly after the flag raising. Flame throwers and dynamite satchel charges were lugged up the mountainside. In one cave alone, by actual count, 142 charred bodies testified to the effectiveness of flammable napalm. How many cave dwellers remained was anyone’s guess, connected as some caves were to tunnels leading downhill to the island itself. But for the moment all was peaceful on the mountaintop– and there was every hope that it would remain so.

“A construction battalion roughed out a two-lane road up the mountain, and we used our assigned weapons carrier to haul all our gear and unassembled parts,” Pickett explains. “The winding mile-long road ended about fifty feet below the highest point of the volcano’s rim, on a leveled plateau.” A just-erected but empty Quonset hut – home sweet home – greeted the quartet.

Adds George: “The Seabees also built a four-hole outhouse nearby, so that each one of us had his own throne.” Pickett seriously doubts if any prowling Japanese ever used it. “One of the first things we did was build a shower stall, using a 150-gallon external fuel tank from a P-51 Mustang fighter plane. Shaped like a teardrop. We installed the tank on top of the shed that housed the motors that ran the electric generators. Talk about king of the hill!”

Pickett on more than one occasion expressed delight at finding himself in a war in which he was totally ignored by the enemy. “I never once got shot at!” he’d exclaim, feigning disappointment at being short-changed -- but in reality profoundly grateful, as evidenced by a toothy grin.

Nearby, a thirty-foot steel tower loomed above the compound. The plan was to attach the radar oscillator at the top, then follow through with all the necessary connections to the electronic apparatus packed away and waiting assembly.

With a Raytheon company technician standing by, the four-man team finished the complex task in a week. To Pickett’s surprise and delight, the radar apparatus immediately came to life and did what it was intended to do: detect any approaching or passing surface vessel within 35,000 yards. The great majority of Allied shipping in that theater of war was equipped with a sensor that automatically returned a coded signal to the GROPAC station atop Shuribachi. Any vessel under radar scrutiny that failed to respond was presumed to be unfriendly. “The Army Air Corps on the island operated similar radar towers to detect approaching enemy aircraft,” George explains. “I remember seeing B-29s taking off and landing on our radar screen as the revolving oscillator picked them up. It only broke down once during the seven months of continuous operation.” A nearby duo of gasoline generators supplied 5,000 volts of electricity to the system.

Pickett graduated high school in Wheeler, Oregon at age 16, then went to work for a journeyman carpenter in need of an apprentice. By the time he enlisted in the Navy on his twenty-first birthday – and newly married to boot -- George was thoroughly familiar with residential construction, having helped erect five dwellings. He also delved into wood carving and furniture making, a vocation he was to pursue in later life.

Standing alone in the empty 20x48-foot quonset, George quickly sketched out a workable interior design. “I set aside one-quarter of the space for us four guys. Then half of the hut to hold all the radar gear. The last section went to house Joe Hayes, the lieutenant jay-gee in charge. Hayes was an OK fellow, a school teacher from the Midwest somewhere. He was seldom around…left us pretty much alone. And would you believe – he didn’t drink! Sweet man – he sold us his weekly booze allotment for the same price he paid for it.” Hard liquor, especially well-aged bourbon, was the currency of choice on Iwo. Nothing else of value came close, excepting genuine Japanese flags, sidearms and samurai swords for which the liquor was eagerly traded.

With lumber and tools supplied by the Seabees, Pickett partitioned off the quonset and then proceeded to furnish the interior. He designed and constructed four spacious bunk beds (no army cots for these swabbies). Then a table and chairs, plus a large dresser with four drawers, one for each occupant. Further personal touches followed, and living began to resemble more of a peacetime setting than a war zone.


HANDY ANDY: George Pickett’s woodworking skills are evidenced by a homemade lamp and bedroom dresser, plus an array of bunk beds to brighten the Quonset hut. The skull and warning sign (center) serve as grim reminders of the war being waged – literally underfoot. The samurai sword was ‘rescued’ from a subterranean Japanese bunker.

Making the best of it atop Mount Suribachi wasn’t all domestic tranquility, to be sure. During installation of the radar tower, a human skull was unearthed – undoubtedly Japanese. “We decided to hang it just below the posted danger sign on the tower, to give the warning further emphasis. Somebody came up with the bright idea to insert two lights within the empty eye sockets. The lights served to illuminated the skull and warning sign at night.” The adornment must have done its job, George reflects, because to his knowledge no surviving Japanese lurking in caves within the mountain ever came snooping around the premises. For a final touch, a pair of eye glasses was added – after all, weren’t all Japanese born near-sighted? Newspaper and magazine cartoonists early in the war liked to portray them wearing inch-thick spectacles. “That’s what everybody was led to believe back then,” Pickett notes. “That is, until the shooting started.”
 

ABOVE AND BEYOND: Custom-designed and built by the 31st Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees), the Suribachi memorial was dedicated October 2, 1945 by a U.S. Army occupational detachment. The flag was later replaced by a bas-relief bronze tablet, seen here.

A group of ten Navy radar operators took turns commuting to the mountaintop. Their task: monitoring the radar scopes 24/7, while Pickett’s on-site crew of four maintained the power plant and electronic equipment. One of the radar operators, a second-class petty officer named Jack Gary, decided to fill his off-duty time with a new hobby. Armed with a portable tank of oxygen and connective breathing tube (plus a lantern and .45-calibre sidearm), Gary began exploring unsealed caves and tunnels he thought reasonably safe to enter. Not for nothing had the Japanese named this place Iwo (Sulfur) Jima (Island). Ascending sulfur fumes from hundreds of fumaroles scattered across the devastated landscape provided a constant reminder that ‘Iwo was hell – without the fire,’ as one Marine aptly put it. The highest underground temperature ever recorded on Iwo was 156F; even more troublesome, nowhere on the island was there a natural source of drinking water.
 

IN REMEMBERANCE: Returning Iwo veterans often leave their dog tags as a symbolic tribute to fallen comrades. This 2010 anniversary tour consisted of 26 vets ranging in age from 83 to 97 (photo courtesy Vernon Martin, Sgt., USMC)

“I went along with Jack a couple times,” says Pickett. “We navigated one of the tunnels and it finally opened up into a rather large excavation. I think it might have been a hospital, or emergency room.” Slumped along a bench against one wall, a dozen Japanese soldiers in the first stages of mummification testified to the utter hopelessness and despair of their troglodyte existence. “One of them had his arms folded around a samurai sword,” Pickett continues. “Jack scooped that up in a hurry, and then he proceeded to look for wrist watches. Finally, he got out a pair of pliers and started yanking all the gold teeth he could find. He later made rings out of monel, a nickel and copper alloy, with some of the better gold teeth mounted in the center. I don’t know…that’s just the feeling some guys had…almost an automatic reflex. No more regard than if the Japs were animals.”

Then came a day in late November; time to pack it up and pack it in. George remembers: “We carefully dismantled all the classified radar equipment and boxed it, well padded and secure. And that included the skull from the tower, in its own special container with the eyeglasses and all. Lord knows, though…our shipping containers probably ended up at the bottom of the ocean – just another pile of post-war surplus.” Pickett gave the room a final once-over, then walked through the open doorway for the last time and across the hallowed ground, clutching his seabag.

Part fantasy, part Dante’s Inferno, part netherworld – the imagery of Iwo Jima will likely remain in the American consciousness for a very long time. As in: “My great-great-great-great grandfather fought on Iwo Jima.” George Pickett well knows he got but a whiff of what transpired there, and is ever grateful for being spared the savagery* that engulfed so many others of his generation.
 

George Pickett at age 22, and now a spunky 88. George and his wife Thelma have been wed 68 years, and reside in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Coincidentally – or perhaps intentionally? -- sons Mike and Harold both served in Vietnam as electronic technicians. One Navy, one Marines.

*For each of Iwo’s eight square miles, 3,255 American servicemen were killed or wounded. Add to this figure 21,060 Japanese casualties, and the total exceeds 46,000 dead/wounded/missing in action over a 45-day period.

* * ** *

Copyright © 2012 Tony Welch 

Written by Tony Welch. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Tony Welch at:
scriptony@hotmail.com.

About the author:
Tony Welch has recorded oral histories of WWII veterans in seven states. His interest in preserving first-person battlefield accounts began a half-century ago, when as a U.S. Navy journalist he began "picking the brains" of senior enlisted men. Says Welch: "If they had four or more hash marks on their sleeve and campaign ribbons on their chest, they were fair game."

Published online: 01/07/2012.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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