Seventy years ago, Charleston resident Pleasant Rourk went ashore alongside thousands of other Marines ordered to push the Japanese off a tiny rock island called Iwo Jima.
“I was just excited, like a little boy going on a dove shoot,” said Rourk, now 89. “Being killed was the last thing I thought of.”
The feeling didn’t last very long.
Across South Carolina, Rourk and a handful of other survivors from one of the bloodiest island battles of World War II today remember a fight associated with Marine heroism. On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, nearly 72,000 Marines stormed the beach to launch 36 days of fighting that included the iconic U.S. flag raising atop Mount Suribachi.
While Rourk witnessed the flag going up from the battlefield below, he more vividly remembers the 25 days and nights he survived on the island until a Japanese sniper shot him through his helmet, forcing him from the fight.
Rourk, a Marine Corps rifleman, landed on the first day. He mostly remembers the sulphur steam that vented up from the volcanic soil, spreading a heat so powerful that his first foxhole felt like an open-air oven.
“It would just burn your behind,” he said. “You could put a can of beans in the ground and next morning it would be cooked.”
Rourk grew up in Charleston near Wagener Terrace. He opted to enlist in the Marines because he believed the words of a relative who told him the Corps was safer than the Navy. After boot camp on Parris Island, he faced months of training until he found himself boarding a transport ship in Hawaii in a convoy to Iwo Jima.
“They had every type of ship imaginable,” he recalled, listing aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and supply vessels. “No matter which way you looked you could see nothing but ships to the horizon.”
Iwo Jima was part of the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific that preceded Japan’s surrender following the dropping of two atomic bombs. It was on the flight path of U.S. bombers returning from Japan, so capturing its airfields would provide damaged planes a safe landing strip, making it invaluable. It was also only 760 miles from the Japanese capitol city of Tokyo.
The night before the invasion, Rourk watched the pre-attack shelling, saying the orange glow made it appear as if the distant island had been engulfed in heat lightning.
The Japanese defenders had been on the island for years, digging caves, perfecting lines of fire and burying guns deep into the volcanic rock. When Rourk landed on Red Beach, the firing became brutal and around the clock.
“There were no safe areas,” said Stephen Wise, director of the Parris Island Museum, where the history of engagements are traced. “They could even come at you from behind,” he said, referring to the interwoven fields of fire the Japanese set up through their underground tunnels and portals.
Like many veterans, Rourk shies away from recounting details of the fighting he saw or the heroics he was a part of while other Marines were being killed around him. “I felt that I was such a small grain of sand on the beach; it doesn’t deserve recognition of any kind,” he said.
But sometimes he gives voice to his memories, such as the aftermath of a flame-thrower attack against a Japanese bunker. “The flesh smell had a kind of sweetish smell, like gardenias,” he said. Most of the more than 20,000 Japanese defenders were killed, as were six Marines who’d attended The Citadel, records show.
Rourk mostly survived unscathed until March 14 when an enemy soldier in a fortified cave took aim at his head. The bullet, fired from about 30 yards away, tore a path through the very crown of his skull, going through the front of his helmet and exiting out the back. The shot left him dazed and bleeding from his head, but not in severe pain.
“It felt like a bee sting,” he said.
Rourk was moved offshore to a waiting hospital ship to be patched up. He returned to duty later, in the Marianas Island chain. After the war, Rourk would leave the Marines, marry his sweetheart, Anita Stone of Greenville, and go to work for a paper company.
Today Rourk plans to visit Parris Island to commemorate the battle and honor the buddies he lost. What has stayed with him seven decades after what is now remembered as a testament to the Marines’ bravery, though, is the horrific cost of war.
“It’s the worst thing that man has come up with,” he said.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551