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Notebook History

Surviving Iwo Jima

Fermin Castillo today (left) and during World War II (Handout)

History

Surviving Iwo Jima

In a bloody Pacific battle, Fred Castillo evaded shelling but left with emotional scars

Second in a series on war veterans

The 19-year-old Marine dug through volcanic black beach sand, carving out a foxhole to protect himself from a terrifying barrage of Japanese artillery. He abandoned his rifle when its muzzle embedded in the choking sand, rendering it useless, and picked up another from a nearby dead infantryman. His most pressing thought: survival.

Feb. 19, 1945—the beginning of one of World War II’s bloodiest confrontations, the Battle of Iwo Jima. Pvt. Fermin “Fred” Castillo of the 28th Marines, 5th Division, had just disembarked via landing barge from a transport ship. Amid constant shelling from more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers, American forces were trying to seize this strategically located Pacific island. Carnage and death surrounded Castillo for all 36 days of the battle. The scenes would haunt him for years afterward.

He lost almost every close friend at Iwo Jima. He remembers the day Navy corpsman Bailey said, “Come over here.” As Castillo prepared to move, a mortar shell struck in front of him, killing Bailey and wounding Castillo’s best buddy, Wilson. Images like these, along with the last day’s surprise banzai attack, imprinted themselves on his mind.

Castillo helped man a .50-caliber heavy machine gun to defend Marines trying to scale Suribachi, the dormant volcano Japanese troops dominated. He ran messages for his colonel and removed casualties to hospital ships, literally dodging bullets. “I was petrified, but had to keep moving,” he recalls.

After days of fighting, Marines mounted Suribachi, raising the American flag in a memorable scene captured on camera and later cast in bronze at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Months after Iwo Jima, Castillo joined occupying forces in Hiroshima and Nagasaki post–atomic bombs.

After the war ended, Castillo returned home and eventually married. But flashbacks and nightmares plagued him—the dread he felt getting off the barge in Iwo Jima, the images of his friends’ brutal deaths, and his trepidation upon entering unknown Japan. To quell the vivid recollections, he turned to alcohol. His friends considered liquor socially acceptable, he says, especially for a Marine. But as his reliance on it increased, his relationships began to suffer, especially with his wife and two young children.

Castillo realized that in order to care for his family and succeed in business, he needed to get sober. He sought help through Alcoholics Anonymous, gradually leaving alcohol dependency behind and choosing to drink only in moderation. He ultimately credits God for his recovery.

Today, Castillo still occasionally struggles with unbidden memories. It’s been decades, though, since he tried to drown his thoughts with liquor. Instead, he acknowledges past tragedies and moves forward, relying on the Savior each day, he says.

Now 94 years old, Castillo has no desire to visit war memorials. He believes they would only remind him of war horrors. Instead, he’s focusing on his wife of 60 years, six children, and 13 grandchildren. The blessings help drown out the past.

He’s still incredulous he survived Iwo Jima: “The bullets weren’t touching me. I was being saved by the Savior.” He remembers sitting in a foxhole, thankful his mom, a woman of faith, had helped instill his own: “I felt secure my Savior was with me, but was still scared.”

Comments

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  • David Wallover
    Posted: Sun, 09/20/2020 09:36 am

    My own father recounted similar stories from Iwo Jima.  Like Mr. Castillo, my father's faith sustained him, as well, both during the battle and throughout his life.  I am still in awe of the courage of those young men in that time, but also of their courage in forging lives for us, their families, in peace, always pointing us toward Christ.  Forever grateful.  Forever humbled.  Forever...

  • SonoitaMike
    Posted: Sun, 09/20/2020 11:15 am

    I'm very grateful for all those that served during the great war but especially for those that were tasked with securing Iwo Jima!

    I just can't imagine the fear experienced.

    So glad it was for a victorious cause.

    Hoping our current generation can pass on a country worthy of such sacrifice.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Sun, 09/20/2020 10:24 pm

    As a young soldier in 1984, I remember well the WWII veterans working the USO facilities treating us like family and heroes as we traveled between duty stations. They had such a love and respect for America with their flags and patriotic dress. They had paid the cost in blood and tears to pass this nation on to future generations and I was one soldier who experienced their love and kindness by their cookies, refreshing drinks (nonalcoholic of course), coffee and sometimes sandwiches. They loved America and by actions they showed it to a young soldier alone and away from home. Many of them were Christians where you could sense their love of Jesus, the inner peace and joy. 
     

    I miss that patriotic time where police were respected, and America was loved. Certainly it wasn't perfect but it was far better than the sentiment today with the hatred of police, the anarchy, and the disdain for America.