Return to Sulphur Island

Riverside resident Don Farnham retraces his steps as a 19-year-old Marine 60 years after battles on Guam and Iwo Jima.

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By JOHN RICE

When Marine veteran Don Farnham speaks of Iwo Jima, he remembers the black sand beaches. Mixed with volcanic ash, the sand was so soft, Farnham said, "It was two steps forward; one step back."

This phrase could also describe the desperate battle waged by the U.S. Marines to capture this rugged outcrop of rock. It lasted 36 days and cost the lives of 22,000 Japanese and 6,821 Americans. On March 7, 2005, Farnham and his daughter, Molly Scherer, both Riverside residents, traveled thousands of miles to attend the 60th Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima. It was on the black sand beaches that their emotions finally overwhelmed them.

Farnham was only 19 years old at the time of the battle and served as a forward observer for naval bombardment.

"I radioed to the ships to direct gunfire," Farnham said.

His was a vitally important duty, because the Japanese were almost impossible to dislodge from their fortified positions. It was also an extremely risky job.

"Of my five man team, three were killed and one was wounded," Farnham said.

As dangerous as it was for the American assault troops, it was even worse for the Japanese. Though they were able to take shelter in 15 miles of tunnels and other rocky redoubts, the defending forces were virtually annihilated. Of the original 23,000-man garrison, the Americans captured only a 1,000 Japanese soldiers.

"I saw the destruction and the casualties," Farnham said, "But I never saw a Japanese prisoner."

This explains why only a handful of Japanese Iwo Jima veterans attended the 60th anniversary commemoration. The American contingent of 450 guests included 87 Iwo Jima survivors. Farnham never thought he'd see the day that the Japanese Rising Sun would fly alongside the Stars and Stripes.

"I couldn't believe I was there," he said. "It took awhile to sink in, but I didn't have too many bad memories."

The Iwo Jima Farnham revisited bore little resemblance to the "Sulphur Island" the Marines had assaulted 60 years before.

"There wasn't a blade of grass left on the island when we left," he recalled, "But the jungle has reclaimed it."

The mood of the ceremony was very conciliatory. It was a "Reunion of Honor," not an occasion for anger or resentment. Many relatives of Japanese veterans attended and American veterans returned some of their battle "trophies" to the families.

As for Scherer's feelings, she felt very fortunate that "out of six kids, I got to go." "Standing on the beach where my dad landed was so emotional," Scherer said. "It validated his experience, which I want to pass on to my children. I learned more on this trip than I did in any classroom."

Before the Battle of Iwo Jima, Farnham had been living a peaceful life, growing up in a family of eight children, in the small upstate hamlet of Phoenix, N.Y. Farnham joined the Marines in 1943.

"I enlisted because I didn't want to get drafted," he said. He wanted to have control over where he served in the military and chose the toughest outfit in the Armed Services.

Patriotism was strong in the Farnham family. Five Farnham brothers fought in the war.

"We had five stars in the window," said Farnham, "And one turned to gold."

The victim was Farnham's brother, Lynn, who was a flight engineer on a B-17.

"He was shot down during his 39th mission over Germany," Farnham said sadly, "Lynn was shot inside the plane and couldn't bail out."

Incredibly enough, a member of the Farnham family was later able to locate and interview the fighter pilot who had downed Lynn's plane.

Meanwhile, back in 1943, Farnham, the "19-year-old world beater" was off to Parris Island for basic training.

"Boot camp was a different way of life," Farnham said with typical understatement. "Some of these kids had never been away from home overnight. The mental part was tougher than the physical."

During the nine weeks, the recruits had their heads shaved and were deloused in "sheep dip." After basic training, Farnham was sent to radio school, an arbitrary military decision that would alter his entire future.

On April 10, 1944, Farnham shipped out to Guadalcanal. That costly battle had ended and the 3rd Marine Division was training for its amphibious assault on Guam. Farnham saw his first combat action during the recapture of this vital American possession.

"Guam was a bloody campaign," Farnham said. "It didn't get much attention, because it took place at the same time as the Normandy invasion."

The Battle of Guam, though, still looms very large in Farnham's mind. The island was captured by the Japanese only hours after Pearl Harbor.

"The Japanese were very cruel to the natives," Farnham said. "They were starved, and the pro-American ones were executed."

During the campaign, Farnham was "sleeping in foxholes half filled with water." He contracted a tropical fever, but it had no long-term effects.

The day the Americans retook the island, July 21, 1944, is the day islanders celebrate as their Fourth of July. Farnham and Scherer visited Guam on their way to Iwo Jima. During the flight, Continental Airlines gave Farnham a test tube, which he later filled with black sand from the beaches of Iwo Jima.

As fierce as the fighting had been on Guam, nothing could prepare the Marines for the living hell they would face at Iwo Jima. In fact, it was the biggest, bloodiest battle in the history of the Corps. The island, though, was a key component of Japan's air defenses and had to be taken. Prior to the landings, the Navy and Air Force pounded the island, but did little damage to the island's natural and man-made fortifications.

When the Marines came ashore, the first enemy they encountered was the island's impassable terrain. The steeply sloped beaches played havoc with men and machines. One veteran said, "The sand was so soft it was like trying to run in coffee grounds."

The sand immobilized wheeled vehicles and even tracked vehicles sank into it. The Japanese did not offer much resistance at the water's edge, but saved their firepower for when the Marines tried to penetrate inland.

Looming above the island's 10 square miles of desolate rock was the dormant volcano, Mount Suribachi. The 556-foot-high mountain served as a shooting platform for the Japanese, and the Marines were desperate to take it.

When they finally succeeded in raising the American flag a second time on its summit, photographer Joe Rosenthal took one of the most famous combat pictures of all time. But as Farnham sadly recalled, "three of the six flag raisers were killed before they got off the island."

Though he downplays his own contribution to victory, Farnham's signal company was performing some very valuable work. When troops faced heavy resistance, or fortified positions, Farnham would call in the naval guns and direct their fire.

He said that the navy guns had amazing accuracy, although a "short round" occasionally threatened the radiomen. Artillery shells and flamethrowers were the most effective weapons the Marines had for forcing the Japanese out of their caves.

The radio Farnham operated had a loud, hand-cranked generator.

"We buried the radio in the sand with just the crank showing to muffle the sound of the generator," Farnham said. This was done during night transmissions, when they had to be extra quiet.

Farnham was a private first class when the campaign started and that was his rank when it ended. He did not receive any decorations, other than a Good Conduct Medal.

"The Marines were stingy with promotions and medals," he said.

Not that Farnham needed the approval of his superiors. "Getting home without getting hurt was good enough," he said.

After the campaign ended, Farnham was shipped back to Guam to train for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. However, the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that August forced the Japanese to surrender. Farnham arrived back in Phoenix, N.Y. on Dec. 22, 1945.

His interest in electronics and communication having been piqued by his wartime experience as a radioman, Farnham moved to Chicago to attend the DeForest Institute, a forerunner of DeVry Institute of Technology. The G.I. Bill of Rights paid for his schooling.

"World War II was won by civilians who returned to productive lives thanks to the G.I. Bill," Farnham said, still grateful.

Farnham not only studied radio operating at the institute, he learned about an invention that was in its infancyâ€"television. After he graduated, Farnham wrote to the American Broadcasting Co., which was strictly in the radio business then.

They were impressed by the FCC licensed radio operator and Farnham was hired by the Chicago affiliate in April 1948. ABC started TV transmission in September of that year and Farnham served as a cameraman for the next 45 years.

The Marine Corps didn't just set Farnham on a career path, there were other benefits from his wartime experience.

"One of the soldiers in my company lived in Bridgeport, and I used to go his house for a beer." Farnham's comrade had a sister named Ann, and she became the reason for his visits. The couple was married on Oct. 9, 1948 and they're looking ahead to their 57th wedding anniversary.

The Farnhams moved to their Riverside home in 1959. Farnham confessed that the town's winding streets initially confused him.

"I had to leave early for work," he quipped. Farnham remains involved in the community, volunteering as a driver for PeopleCare.

In 1991, Farnham's old signal company began staging yearly reunions.

"We started out with 80, 90 veterans, now we're down to about 40," he said.

The old soldiers remain united by the unforgettable events they shared on the black sand beaches of the Pacific.

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