February 20, 2005
A saber and a fireball
On dangerous Iwo Jima, Army officer battled Japanese on a beach and outside a cave.
By David Venditta
Of The Morning Call
This is the second of two articles marking the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, a costly but key U.S. victory in the march toward Tokyo.
Scanning the beach for footprints, 2nd Lt. James J. Ahern couldn't hear the shouts of alarm from his men atop a cliff as a barefoot, shirtless Japanese soldier clutching a saber charged at him across the sand.
A brisk April wind blew in from the Pacific, muffling the frantic calls. The sun shone, but it was cool enough in this rocky, northernmost section of Iwo Jima that Ahern wore his field jacket. He had told the men of his Army platoon that he would check the beach alone. But the wet sand was smooth, revealing no telltale signs of the enemy.
At the water's edge, he turned toward a cave in the rock face 150 feet away and saw the Japanese man racing toward him, both hands gripping the hilt of his saber.
Though surprised, Ahern reacted coolly. He had time to get off a shot with his carbine. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
His heart pounding, he pulled back the bolt. A live round ejected from the chamber. He had ammunition. Why wouldn't the gun fire?
The safety was on!
He'd always kept it off. It was a rule the 23-year-old officer followed and that he impressed on the men. In combat, you have to expect the unexpected. You have to be ready to shoot at a moment's notice, or it could mean your life.
The Japanese was almost upon him, poised to swing his saber. Precious seconds had passed.
A fireball on a ledge
Ahern had faced death before on this tiny island, where he was leading a rifle platoon of the 147th Infantry Regiment.
The Marines had landed on Feb. 19, 1945. Ahern's unit arrived on March 21 to help secure the island from what initially were thought to be a few hundred Japanese.
But there were far more than that, hiding in tunnels and caves, and their resistance proved intense. In two months, Ahern's regiment alone would kill 1,600 and capture 800.
Danger was everywhere. One day in mid-April, a few weeks before the sword-carrying man came at him on the beach near Kitano Point, Ahern was firing a flamethrower into a cave from a ledge on a steep ravine.
A Japanese soldier inside tossed a concussion grenade that landed at Ahern's feet. When it exploded, the blast knocked him off-balance, jerking him around so that the stream of flame shifted from the mouth of the cave to the rock wall beside it.
The terrific force of the flame striking the wall created a fireball that whooshed back at Ahern and set his legs and chest ablaze. He tumbled headfirst down the slope, his back and arms slamming into rock, and landed on a ledge 20 feet below on his head and back. His helmet and the flamethrower still strapped on him blunted the impact.
He was hurt, in shock and still burning. Some of his men clambered down the precipice to reach him. They beat out the fire with their hands and splashed water onto him from their canteens. Using a poncho as a stretcher, they carried him to the battalion surgeon's tent. The burns blistered, keeping him out of action for a week.
Now on the beach, backed up to the ocean's edge so that water covered his shoes, with the safety preventing his carbine from firing, Ahern had to save himself.
The Japanese reached him and swung his saber like a baseball bat.
Ahern pressed his thumb to the button beside the trigger, disengaging the safety, and pulled the trigger just as the saber's blade swept in an arc below his raised gun, toward his stomach. This time the carbine fired, sending a .30-caliber bullet into the attacker's chest.
Ahern's field pack got in the way when he searched small caves, so he wasn't wearing one. Instead, he carried his food, a carton of K rations, tucked inside the front of his field jacket, above his pistol belt. The carton — 10 inches long, 4 inches wide and 2 inches thick — held biscuits, cheese, cigarettes, powdered coffee and milk.
When the Japanese got hit, the tip of his saber ripped Ahern's jacket and sliced through the box of rations, opening a can. The man fell dead.
Ahern was unscathed. He felt queasy at how close he had come to losing his life.
His men, who had witnessed the attack from atop the 200-foot cliff, congratulated him for the kill. He'd had a pact with them to raffle off any sabers they took as booty, and no man could get more than one. But the platoon members said there'd be no lottery for this prize. Their lieutenant should keep the sword. He'd earned it.
They did, however, kid him for not having his carbine ready to fire. He never could explain why he'd had the safety on.
Safe haven for B-29s
By the time he arrived on Iwo Jima, Ahern had been familiar with weapons and the military for seven years, since before America entered World War II.
The youngest of eight children born to a Philadelphia policeman and a former knitting mill worker, he joined the Pennsylvania National Guard when he was 16, too young to do so legally, using an older brother's identity. His father had died when he was a child, and the $3 a month he earned drilling with a cavalry regiment helped support his poor family.
He graduated from St. Thomas More High School in Philadelphia, left the Guard and worked at a clothmaker and at the Navy Yard as an apprentice toolmaker.
In 1942, with the nation at war, he joined the Army. High test scores sent the 6-foot, 170-pounder to Officer Candidates School, where he earned a commission as a second lieutenant of infantry.
Shipping out as a replacement, he joined Company F of the 147th Regiment on what was then British Samoa, now Upolu. More than a year later, his unit landed on Iwo Jima under the command of the 3rd Marine Division. Its mission was to roust the Japanese so that damaged B-29 bombers could land there safely.
The island reeked of sulfur and the waste produced by tens of thousands of men. Swarming blowflies blackened mess kits as soon as they were opened. Malaria, dengue fever and a fungus-produced rash called ”jungle rot” plagued Ahern and many others.
Soft, black volcanic ash made walking difficult, so Ahern sometimes used his carbine as a crutch to keep his balance. For cover, the men piled up rocks and hunkered down behind them. Mines with hidden trip wires maimed and killed.
A ‘suicide' survivor
One of Ahern's experiences on Iwo Jima was so unusual, it turned up in a newspaper article and, decades later, in a Japanese officer's memoirs.
On the last day of March 1945, Ahern took his platoon on patrol near rocky Kitano Point. Walking along a cliff, he looked down a ravine and saw a cave with two Japanese officers standing on each side of its opening.
An interpreter with Ahern yelled at the officers to surrender or they would be killed. They ignored him. But one soldier did come out of the cave with his hands up. Enraged at his cowardice, each of the two officers threw a grenade at him. Fragments from the explosions almost severed his feet, but he was still alive.
Ahern promptly shot both officers in the head, killing them, then had his radioman call for the battalion surgeon. Four men climbed down the cliff to the wounded Japanese. They put tourniquets on his mangled feet and carried him on a poncho up to Ahern's narrow ledge.
The man screamed in agony. Ahern gave him a few jabs of morphine.
Capt. Ralph ”Doc” Golden arrived, looked at the Japanese and said, ”Oh boy, this is really a textbook case.” He sedated the man, reached inside his canvas bag and pulled out a fine steel surgical saw that had been taken from a cave the Japanese used as a hospital.
A cigarette dangled from Golden's mouth as he worked. ”The ashes are sterile,” he explained. ”They won't hurt anything.” With Ahern holding one leg and a private holding the other, the doctor sawed off what was left of the man's feet. An ambulance took him to a field hospital near Mount Suribachi.
In the mid-1990s, while visiting the University of Hawaii library, Ahern found an article about the incident in a 1945 issue of the Mid-pacifican, an Army newspaper. It was headlined, ”Iwo Jap Saved By Army Medic and Sharp Saw.” The story contained no names.
More revealing was a Japanese officer's account. A former U.S. intelligence officer Ahern had met on Iwo Jima gave him an English translation of the memoirs of 2nd Lt. Yasuhiko Murai, a general's son who had been wounded and captured on the island in April 1945.
In his story, which came to light in the mid-1980s, Murai said that when he was in the field hospital near Suribachi, he saw someone he knew from his infantry battalion — Paymaster Sgt. Hayashida, who was about 35 and had lost both feet above the ankle.
The two Japanese met again at a U.S. Army prisoner-of-war compound in Hawaii. Hayashida had been fitted with prostheses. ”You know that the Japanese would never do the same for a U.S. soldier,” the amputee said.
Murai wrote that the paymaster had survived a suicide attempt. Hayashida had explained that when Americans discovered him and the officers at a cave, a lieutenant standing with him exploded a grenade, killing himself but not Hayashida.
So Hayashida had convinced Murai that he expected to die in the grenade blast with the lieutenant. That twisting of the truth allowed him to save face among his countrymen. In the Japanese military mindset, surrender was the ultimate shame and dishonor.
Hayashida lived to be an old man with his American-made ”feet.” He died in Japan in 1985.
Mourning a good soldier
After two months on Iwo Jima, now 1st Lt. Ahern was among officers from the 147th Regiment flown to Okinawa for still more fighting.
He was injured again, this time by grenade fragments in his back, and suffered a recurrence of malaria and dengue fever. The diseases were so debilitating, he could hardly walk after the battle was over. He spent months in hospitals on Saipan and in Hawaii and California.
Back in Philadelphia in the spring of 1946, three weeks after he was relieved from active duty, he married Mary Eells.
He had met her in 1943 while home on leave after getting his commission. She worked with one of his sisters in an insurance office. When he was overseas, he always looked forward to her upbeat, newsy letters.
The couple had two sons and a daughter. They moved to Emmaus in 1953 and to Bethlehem a year later, with Ahern working for an insurance company and later running a small book publishing company. He and his wife also owned a Catholic bookstore on New Street.
A reservist, Ahern retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1981.
He is 83 now, but Iwo Jima is still with him. He writes about his regiment, researches the battle and organizes his records, photos and correspondence. His son in California has the saber that almost slashed his stomach. His other son, in Montgomery County, has a ”rising sun” flag Ahern took from a Japanese soldier he killed.
But there also are the memories in his heart. One is of Ernst Lippold, a private in his company who was Jewish and in his early 20s. He was quiet, polite and unassuming. He didn't complain. He was a good soldier.
Ahern wondered why Lippold never got any mail or wrote any letters. He spoke with him and learned that he was Austrian. About the time Nazi Germany annexed his homeland, he came to America to study. After Pearl Harbor, he was subject to the draft even though he wasn't a U.S. citizen, and so he entered the Army.
Lippold believed that the Nazis had killed the family he left behind in Austria, that he alone survived. He had no one.
Ahern liked him and became his friend. But he couldn't grant Lippold's request for a transfer to Europe, where he could search for his relatives. That just wasn't possible.
One day in April 1945, Ahern asked for a volunteer to check out a report of a possible mine, and Lippold said, ”I'll go.” Walking down a small trail, he tripped the wire on a ”bouncing Betty” mine, which flew up and detonated. He was mortally wounded and died soon afterward at a battalion aid station.
Ahern had heard the explosion and knew what it meant. Tears filled his eyes. He accompanied the body to the cemetery near Mount Suribachi, where a Catholic chaplain prayed in Hebrew as two Marines lowered Lippold's sack-enclosed body into the ground.
The Army had no one to contact with the news about Lippold. His death on a stinking piece of rock in the Pacific, unmourned by a family that had probably perished in the Holocaust, weighed on Ahern for many years. He tried to find out if anyone had ever claimed the body.
No one had. But it was disinterred and reburied in 1950 in Arlington National Cemetery, America's most hallowed ground.
At least there was that.
”I think often of this quiet man, this good soldier who gave his life for all Americans,” Ahern once wrote to friends. ”May God have mercy on his soul.”
LIPPOLD, ERNEST L JR
PVT US AGF
- BURIED AT: SECTION 34 SITE 4264
- ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard