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


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.”

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Robert Swansen

(Robert Swansen)


Flights to the underground

WWII flyer Bob Holmstrom tells of the crucial war missions he long kept secret


Sept. 2 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.

For 40 years he didn’t tell a soul. He’d been sworn to secrecy, and honorable men keep their word. His family knew only that he was a B-24 tail gunner during World War II—until his daughter found a box of war mementos on his closet shelf and stories started spilling out.

Bob Holmstrom, 94, is one of about 100 men from Operation Carpetbagger still alive who can tell true tales of their missions. The Office of Strategic Services—precursor to the CIA—designated these airmen to fly spies and supplies into Europe behind enemy lines on top-secret moonlit night flights from 1944 until Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.

With the 801st/492nd Bomb Group at RAF Harrington airfield in England, he flew 30 missions as tail gunner on his 10-crew, black-painted B-24 Liberator, the Night Knight. He’d already flown five missions from RAF Cheddington dropping propaganda leaflets over Germany.

Planes often flew below 500 feet to make drops, with crews watching for signal fires or lights, three in a row. Through the bomb bay they dropped supplies—usually in cylindrical containers with a bumper on one end and parachute on the other—for resistance fighters in France, Germany, Belgium, Norway, and other occupied countries. Holmstrom recalls, “We dropped medical supplies, gasoline, blood plasma, shoes, clothes, rifles, machine guns, dynamite … whatever people needed.” They even dropped carrier pigeons in oatmeal boxes with mini parachutes.

“Only the navigator and pilot knew where we were going each night. … We were flying alone with no fighter protection … we couldn’t even communicate with other airplanes, because if you didn’t know anything and you got shot down, you couldn’t tell the Germans anything,” Holmstrom explains.

In case the plane did go down, crews had learned bits of several languages and how to eat, drink, and smoke European-style. Holmstrom remembers on each flight the navigator would alert the crew where to find safety if they survived a crash: “He’d say something like ‘Three kilometers to your west there’s a church’ … so you had a place to try to find where you might run into someone from the underground who could get you back to England.”

After each mission, the first crew back would stand by the control tower, counting planes as they returned to see if all survived. Then intelligence officers would individually debrief crews twice—once after giving them a glass of cognac to relax, and again after a hearty American breakfast to jog their memory. Intelligence recorded everything each flyer saw—maybe enemy fighter planes or explosions on the ground.

Jenny Nelson, Holmstrom’s daughter, is amazed at her dad’s exploits and has accompanied him to Carpetbagger reunions annually since learning of his deeds. “He is my hero,” she says, her voice breaking.

Holmstrom entered the war at age 18. He says he didn’t fully understand the gravity and importance of what he was doing. Later he was awarded, among other honors, the French Legion of Honor and the Congressional Gold Medal. Best of all, no more secrets.

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Charlie Riedel/AP

Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kan. (Charlie Riedel/AP)


Machen’s miracles, Methodists’ morality

J. Greshem Machen’s 20th-century take on liberalism could guide faithful Methodists today

It is not often that a dead Presbyterian can offer a way forward to living Methodists, but J. Gresham Machen can.

In February 2019 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) passed the “Traditional Plan,” which reaffirmed the church’s ban on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and forbade current clergy from officiating at or hosting same-sex marriages. The close vote (438-384) highlighted long-term divisions within the denomination.

Division seemed inevitable, and now the inevitable has come: Early this January, a group of eight Methodist bishops and eight church and lay leaders recommended dividing the UMC into two denominations. The current UMC would remain and pursue a more theologically liberal agenda, while conservative churches would form a “traditional Methodist” denomination and retain their property. Some form of this plan will likely come to a vote at the 2020 Methodist General Conference in May.

Although he has been dead for nearly 83 years, Machen can speak to Bible-believing Methodists today. Machen (1881-1937) taught New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, laboring for Biblical Christianity during the rise of theological liberalism in early 20th-century America. When Princeton embraced liberal theology, Machen left and founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia to carry on Biblical training for Presbyterian clergy. When the Northern Presbyterian Church later suspended Machen and others for supporting Biblical missions, Machen exited that denomination to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as a Biblically faithful alternative.

Methodists now stand at a crossroads not so different from the one Machen straddled. While the church in Machen’s generation rejected Biblical miracles—repudiating the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, and the bodily resurrection—the present generation is rejecting Biblical morality, repudiating Biblical sexual ethics, redefining marriage, and categorizing sin as not sin.

In 1923, at the height of the controversy over theological liberalism, Machen published Christianity and Liberalism, which offered a theological justification for a separate, Bible-believing denomination a decade before it became necessary to form one. Addressing those who called for unity at all costs, Machen argued, “It is often said that the divided condition of Christendom is an evil, and so it is. But the evil consists in the existence of the errors which cause the divisions and not at all in the recognition of those errors when once they exist.” 

In enumerating those errors, Machen defined theological liberalism not as the product of an alternate interpretation of the Bible, but as a repudiation of the Bible. He saw it not as a different Christian view but as a competing religion: “The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism.’ An examination of the teachings of liberalism in comparison with those of Christianity will show that at every point the two movements are in direct opposition.” 

Bible-believing Methodists are not dividing the Church today any more than Bible-believing Presbyterians were in Machen’s day. They are separating the true Church from a rival religion. Evangelical Christians should celebrate, not mourn, the impending split of Christian Methodism from a non-Christian rival religion that merely bears the name “Methodist.” As Machen observed, “Christianity is founded upon the Bible. … Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”

If history offers any insight, evangelical Methodists have reason for optimism. Mainline Presbyterians, Lutherans, Congregationalists, and other adherents of theological liberalism have watched their denominational numbers fall for decades. Many of their evangelical, Bible-believing counterparts continue to thrive.

That should not surprise us. Christ is building His Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail.

—This story has been updated to correctly describe the composition of the group that recommended dividing the UMC into two denominations.

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