CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Harry Garbe was born in Riverside, New Jersey in July, 1924. A high school student with a brother in the service, a yen to travel and see the world, and facing the draft on graduation, Garbe left school and joined the US Marine Corps on January 14, 1943. His cousin, a hunter and a good shot, joined with him on the premise that they would serve together, but that was not to be. Garbe began his post basic training duty serving as a guard at the Anacostia, Maryland Naval Air Station, while his cousin went overseas.
Garbe was eventually sent to North Carolina, where he boarded a troop transport that passed through the Panama Canal on its way to Hawaii, where he was assigned to the Fifth Amphibious Corps headquarters, which included the Third, Fourth and Fifth Marine Divisions. The Corps was preparing for the invasion of Iwo Jima and left Hawaii in an 800-ship convoy in February, 1945. Garbe spent forty days at sea, suffering through several bouts of seasickness. Three of the convoy’s ships were lost during a typhoon, and a “Liberty Ship” broke in half during another violent storm. Liberty Ships were prone to such occurrences due to a design defect amidships. Shipbuilders corrected the problem by adding an extra piece of metal to the hull to improve stability.
Garbe recalled that the Iwo Jima operation was held to a strict schedule, and that no event was permitted to delay that schedule. He said that a man fell overboard one night, but his ship had to keep moving rather than attempt to rescue him. The lucky soldier was picked up by another ship.
On February 12, a week before the actual invasion, 84 tons of bombs were dropped on Iwo Jima. The massive amount of bombing did not cause much damage to the enemy, however, since the Japanese were dug into underground shelters and caves. An initial reconnaissance landing stalled against stubborn Japanese resistance, causing the enemy to believe they had successfully repelled the invasion.
The real invasion began on February 19, 1945. Although the U.S. stated that it only lasted for one day, fighting continued for another five days. The American militia crowded Japanese troops into their caves and collapsed the caves right on them. Japanese infantry, who were trying to reach their fighters to the north of the island, were shut down trying to get through the American bases along the beaches. By day three of the invasion, the American Air Force was circling around Mt. Suribachi, the volcano of the island. The following day, there was no more shooting or bombardment. All 21,000 Japanese men stationed in Iwo Jima were killed, as were 6,821 American men.
Garbe and his convoy did not arrive at Iwo Jima until day six, the concluding day of the invasion. He stated that, while he was there, he was never afraid to die. There was constant shooting all day and night, but shots were never fired at him. Garbe was stationed at headquarters at the foot of Mt. Suribachi, to keep watch. Everybody had food rations, and water was drunk from gasoline tanks. There were three men to each bunk; one had to keep watch while the other two slept, and they all took turns staying up. Garbe said that the island smelled of sulfur. He would remain there for 36 days, leaving on March 26, claiming that he would never return to the island.
Later in life, Garbe joined membership to the Iwo Jima Survivors of Connecticut. As a part of this organization, he was given the opportunity to return to Iwo Jima for a visit. Some of his fellow members went, but Garbe refused to go on the trip. He was so happy to have escaped there alive, knowing that he could have been severely wounded or killed. Today, Iwo Jima is closed to the public, looking the same as it did fifty years ago. There is a lack of trees, dirt roads, barren beaches, and debris everywhere. It would forever be remembered for the dark history that looms over the island.
Harry Garbe passed away at the age of 93. Click here to read more about his funeral honors.