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World War II veterans recount their time at Iwo Jima

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Iwo Jima Navy Images
Louis Lowery / US Navy / Getty Images

The best part of leaving Iwo Jima? For Lloyd Dinsmore, it had to be the shower.

As Dinsmore and his fellow Marines climbed aboard the ship that would take them to Hawaii, they were offered a choice, he said: “What did we want first – a hot breakfast or a hot shower.”

It was an easy choice, he said. Over the previous four weeks on the island, there had been no bathing or showers.

He made it count, he added, letting the hot water run over his face and body for about 45 minutes.

It would take multiple showers, he said, to fully wash the black sludge from the island’s volcanic ash out of his hair.

Dinsmore would be disappointed, though, if he thought he could ever wash Iwo Jima out of his head.

More than 70 years later, at age 93, he still lives with the horrifying images.

Amphibious tanks

Dinsmore, whose birthday was on Friday, welcomed the Tulsa World to his home recently to talk about his experiences serving with a tank crew in the Pacific war.

The youngest of eight children, he grew up in Missouri, where he graduated from Galt High School in 1940. From there, he went to work on a cattle ranch.

But in 1943, at age 20, the draft would call him away.

Kissing his sweetheart, Lois Colter, goodbye at Union Station in Kansas City, Dinsmore caught a train west to begin his service with the Marines.

With his two brothers quite a bit older, he was the only one of the Dinsmore siblings to serve in World War II.

In San Diego, Dinsmore was assigned to the 2nd Armored Amphibian Battalion. It was a recently formed unit, and boasted a new kind of tank that had not yet been used in combat – an amphibious tank, or “amtank” as it was often called.

Designed to travel on land and water, the tanks could be transported to within several thousand yards of an island and released, making them useful in leading invasions.

Dinsmore was one of two ammunition handlers on his seven-member crew. It was his job to assemble the tank’s 75mm shells, which came in two pieces, and then pass them to the loader to be fired at the target.

By the time Dinsmore arrived on Saipan in September 1944, the tanks had already seen their first action on the island in June, clearing the way for Marine infantry landing behind them.

“The battle was pretty well over,” he said, “but there were still a lot of Japanese soldiers. They had taken to the high hills on the island … and would make night raids.”

Saipan represented several firsts for Dinsmore, not only his initial fighting experience but his first loss of a comrade, as well.

The latter happened about 2 o’clock one morning, he said. “Caught unawares” by a Japanese air raid, the base sounded its warning sirens a little late.

Before Dinsmore and his crewmates could make it to their foxholes, one of the Japanese planes found them.

“We got caught in this open space – where jungle had been cleared to make a softball field.”

The plane had been hit and was going to crash – but it was still able to fire its guns.

“We hit the deck,” Dinsmore said.

That undoubtedly saved most of them, he added. But one Marine, John Bistline, was not so lucky.

“It happened so fast. … He had been standing right next to me,” Dinsmore said of his crewmate.

Hit by gunfire, Bistline died at the scene, Dinsmore said, cradled in the arms of another crew member.

‘26 days and 27 nights’

The invasion of Iwo Jima began in February 1945.

After Saipan, it was the next stop for Dinsmore and the 2nd Battalion.

The job of the amtanks would be to accompany the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, and lead the way onto the island.

An “8-square-mile hunk of sand and rock” whose most distinguishing characteristic was its black beaches – the sand is volcanic ash – Iwo Jima would demand everything of Dinsmore and his crew for the next “26 days and 27 nights.”

“We fought our way from one end of the island to the other,” he said.

It didn’t start smoothly.

As they moved in for their initial landing, the advancing amtanks hit a wall of volcanic ash at the water’s edge that they could not get past.

For Dinsmore’s tank, the situation was even worse. The clutch overheated and went out.

“The tank wouldn’t move,” he said, adding that just sitting there made them “a prime target for enemy guns – and they had an array of them.”

Forced to abandon the tank with enemy fire exploding all around, the crew dug in on the beach.

After 45 minutes, time for the clutch to cool, they got back in the tank and retreated back out to sea with the others.

That’s where Dinsmore spent the night – afloat with his crew in their tank.

They had quite a view, he said, as the Navy ships and the Japanese on the island continuously fired on each other. “It went on all night. … It was like a thousand Fourth of Julys,” he said.

The next day, a Navy construction battalion cleared away the ash wall, and Dinsmore’s and the other tanks were able to make a successful landing.

Tank warfare

From their station in the belly of the 26-foot-long tank, “it was a pretty scary-type operation,” Dinsmore said of being an ammunition handler. “You never knew when this thing was going to take a round from an enemy.”

A direct hit and everyone inside could be burned alive.

At the same time, being inside a tank “gave us some protection that regular foot Marines didn’t have.”

“Fortunately, we never took a direct hit. It was just a blessing that we didn’t.”

Another blessing, Dinsmore said, was the sight of the American flag when Marines raised it on top of Mt. Suribachi.

The subject of the famous photo by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal – who was there to snap it as it happened – it was an inspiring moment, Dinsmore said.

Unbeknownst to many, there were actually two flags. The photo was of the second flag raised – much larger than the one it replaced. Dinsmore saw both events.

Fighting at the base of the mountain, his tank was “approximately 500 feet below where these guys were” who raised the flag.

It triggered an ecstatic chorus, he said. Between the ships in the harbor and Marines on shore “everyone was shouting – it sounded like OU had just scored a touchdown,” Dinsmore said. “All of us were like ‘Gee, this fight’s already over.’ But it wasn’t.”

In later years, seeing Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo would give Dinsmore a feeling of “extreme pride.”

“At the time, we didn’t understand the impact that it (the image) had on the nation as a whole.”

After the taking of Suribachi, there was still plenty of fighting left to do. And that meant more dying.

“We saw men killed in many different ways,” Dinsmore noted grimly.

One incident he didn’t witness – but which, strangely, still plays over and over in his mind as if he did – involved another young Marine.

“He had been attacked (hand to hand) by two Japanese soldiers. He cried out ‘Mom, mom, they’re killing me!’ ”

Dinsmore pauses as he recounts this. Eyes reddening, he has to change the subject.

Troops in combat could not receive regular mail from home, and so it often piled up.

Once, Dinsmore received 110 letters at one time.

That’s what happens, he said, when you have a girlfriend, parents and seven older siblings writing to you.

“I sorted them by author,” he said. “Took me several weeks to read them all.”

He read Lois’ first, of course, he said with a smile.

Almost four weeks after Dinsmore’s unit arrived on Iwo Jima, the island was mostly secured and the unit’s work was done.

From there, he and the others sailed back to Maui to rest up for the next mission.

That was supposed to be the invasion of mainland Japan, as Dinsmore later learned. But the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 convinced Japan to surrender.

Suddenly, invasion was no longer necessary.

When the news of the first bomb broke, Dinsmore was still on Maui – mere hours, he said, from shipping out for Japan.

“We were elated,” he said. “The fact that this whole mess was probably going to be drawing to a close.”

“As bad as those A-bombs were, they actually saved a lot of lives. There would’ve been untold lives lost – Japanese civilians, American military – in an invasion.”

Back at home

After the war, Dinsmore went on to a career with the federal government, most of it with the Department of Labor. The family lived in Kansas City and then Houston, before moving to Tulsa in 1982.

Dinsmore and his wife, Lois – who will celebrate their 70th anniversary this June – raised a son and daughter. Of their five grandchildren, two have gone on to distinguished careers in the Navy.

Active with veterans groups in Tulsa, including the League and All Veterans of Tulsa, Dinsmore has spoken publicly many times about his experiences, including for programs about Iwo Jima at the Circle Cinema.

Over the years, Dinsmore kept in touch with his fellow crew members. Until age made travel difficult, the group got together for regular reunions.

As for reuniting with Iwo Jima, Dinsmore probably won’t ever get closer than the small vial of sand he has from the island.

A gift from someone a few years ago, the tiny black pellets remind him of the island and all who those who fought there, answering their country’s call.

“I am honored to have been a small part of a job that needed to be done,” Dinsmore said.

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