Don Farnham wasn’t particularly concerned as landing craft headed toward the black sand beaches of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945. His division, the 3rd Marines, was in reserve. He was shipboard, sitting out the landings.
That was fine by him. Seven months earlier, in July 1944, he had been among the first Marines assaulting the beaches of Guam. Mortar shells, artillery shells and machine gun bullets rained like hail as he and the four other members of his naval artillery observation team tried to identify targets for the destroyers offshore.
His landing on Guam was inauspicious. Leaving the Amtrac that carried him ashore, he tossed his radio over the side before jumping out after it. The Amtrac, a tracked amphibious vehicle used by Marines in their beach landings, promptly made a U-turn and crushed the radio.
“The first lieutenant said to tell the colonel I needed a new radio,” said Farnham.
He didn’t think that was a very good idea, and instead snagged one from the headquarters company without alerting the regimental commander of his blunder.
Then he and his team, part of the 3rd Joint Assault Signal Company — JASCO for short, set about directing naval gunfire. He says his training helped him operate despite his fear.
“Everybody is scared,” said Farnham, who was an 18-year-old at the time of the Guam invasion. “You do your job. You don’t want to let down anybody. Your mind, you’re like a robot.”
It would be a month before Guam was secure. During that time, Pfc. Farnham experienced trying to sleep in foxholes filled with water, Japanese banzai attacks and the surreal experience of a Japanese tank rolling right into the battalion command post area one night and pausing before the tank commander popped his head out of the hatch to look around. Seeing nothing, he ordered his tank to leave. No one fired a shot.
He also saw the first member of his JASCO team, the scout sergeant, killed in action.
It was a long way from Phoenix, N.Y., a small town northwest of Syracuse, where Farnham grew up. As a 17-year-old senior in high school in 1943 he enlisted in the Marines, “because they were considered the cream of the crop.”
At the time of his graduation, Farnham had four brothers serving in the U.S Army — one of them, a B-17 flight engineer would die in a raid over Regensburg, Germany. Another, Ralph, fought with the 9th Army in Belgium and was awarded the Bronze Star.
Instead of risking getting drafted, Farnham wanted to control where he ended up. So he chose the Marines. Heading toward Parris Island on a barge with other new Marines, he got a sinking feeling.
“I thought, ‘Maybe this was a bad idea,'” he said.
What he didn’t know at the time was the Marines would lead him to a long career in radio and TV, one that would include winning a pair of Emmy Awards. In 1943, Farnham had no idea what life had in store for him.
He certainly didn’t imagine it would include a perfectly aimed mortar shell directly hitting his JASCO position on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.
Things had been rougher on Iwo Jima for the U.S Marines than expected. Instead of staying in reserve, Farnham’s JASCO team was on the island by Feb. 22. Near the airfield in the center of the island, his team set up their radios and generator in a shell crater.
At one point, a telephone wire got cut and Farnham braved the near continuous mortar fire to go splice it. Japanese positions were 100, maybe 200 yards away. His team’s commander, 1st Lt. John Burke, told him he was going to write him up for a citation for his bravery.
Burke never got the chance.
A mortar shell scored a direct hit on the team’s crater. Farnham was stunned and didn’t realize what had happened right away.
The man working the generator, Charles Austin, was killed instantly. The team’s other telephone man, Tommy Wuller of Belleville, Ill., was wounded, a pinhole puncture in his abdomen. Farnham didn’t think it looked that bad.
“Tell my mother I had time for some prayers,” Wuller told Farnham.
“I said, ‘You’re not gonna die. We’re going to get you out of here.’ But he did die later on the hospital ship.”
The scout sergeant, Duthie Marr, had what looked like a bad head wound. Farnham later learned he survived.
Burke had been wounded earlier that day. A sniper’s bullet had grazed his buttocks, but he stayed with the team. He was again wounded by the mortar shell. As Burke was being carried away on a stretcher, he was hit again by another mortar.
Farnham never again saw Burke, who died from his wounds on March 4.
Of the five men in his team, one was dead, two mortally wounded and one seriously wounded. Farnham, 19 years old at the time, was untouched.
The team’s radio telephones were damaged. Farnham couldn’t reach anyone to give him orders on what to do. So he stayed in the hole, alone, all night.
“That was a hellish night,” Farnham said. “There were grenades rolling in, I think from both sides.”
While he couldn’t hear anyone on his telephone, others could hear him. The next morning two other JASCO men came to get Farnham. They destroyed the equipment with a hand grenade, took the code books and left. It would be the last time Farnham would be on the front line.
Without a team, Farnham worked at the battalion CP doling out equipment to other units. After a few days, an officer asked him, “Do you feel like going back up there?”
Farnham was honest.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t. If I’m ordered, of course. But I’m not volunteering.’ And he said, ‘Well, let’s leave it at that.’ So I stayed back there.”
He was still at the battalion CP on March 17, when the island was almost secure. They gathered up souvenirs — Japanese flags and sabers — and traded them to a fighter pilot for some whiskey. They had a St. Patrick’s Day party. Three days later, Farnham headed back to Guam to train for the invasion of Japan, which was called off when Japanese surrendered in August.
“That was great news,” Farnham said.” We expected to be there another year, at least.”
Instead of working in one of the paper mills near Phoenix after the war, Farnham — now someone with radio training — used the G.I. Bill to fund further training. With waiting lists delaying entry to schools out east, he headed to Chicago’s DeForest Training School (later DeVry) and later to a program in Kansas City. In April 1948, Farnham sent resumes out to ABC, NBC and CBS in Chicago.
ABC contacted him and a week later he was working the sound board for radio programs like “Terry and the Pirates” and “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.”
By September of that year he was working as a cameraman for ABC-TV in Chicago. He would stay with the company for 45 years, working as a cameraman for Monday Night Football, the Super Bowl, the World Series and three Olympic games. He was part of the ABC crew that traveled with Richard Nixon to China in 1972.
Farnham won his first Emmy Award as a cameraman in 1959 and would snag a second for his work at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980.
In 1996, a couple of years after he retired from ABC, Farnham joined the fledgling Riverside Cable Commission, which televises village board meetings and other notable events.
At the age of 87, he has just been re-appointed to another three-year term on the commission.
In 2005 and again in 2010, Farnham returned to Iwo Jima.
“Looking out the plane window in 2005, I had tears in my eyes,” he said. “I’m just an emotional guy. There’s very little you can recognize. When we left there, there wasn’t a blade of grass.”