While attending a military reunion in honor of the 69th Anniversary of the U.S. landing on Iwo Jima two weeks ago month, a veteran once again fell on this historic and honored battlefield. The veteran, John McKenzie from San Marcos, California, had survived the ferocious D-Day assault and was returning for the first time since the war with his son.
On D-Day, February 19, 1945, John was a 17-year-old naval Coxswain and Higgins boat commander. After disembarking a wave of young Marines on Iwo's shores, he was attempting to extract his unwieldy boat from the murderous beach. Without warning, John felt his boat being rammed broadside and pushed almost parallel to the beach. Spun out of control and with no room to maneuver, given the sheer crowd and chaos of the landing beaches, John had to abandon his boat. The only direction he could flee was towards the deadly beach he was moments before trying to leave. As John McKenzie describes it, "I had to get to the beach in order to get to another boat that was leaving. I had to get off the beach because there was more work for me to do."
Shortly after the memorial ceremonies concluded, John suddenly passed out and slumped over in his chair. Just prior to the ceremony, we all had walked down the beach to the water's edge, a distance of several hundred yards. It was not easy for any of us let alone for someone close to 90. The Island has actually grown in height since D-Day 1945, but the angle of the slope to the beach was just as steep. The terrain still consists primarily of the loose, dusty dark black volcanic sand that was impossible to dig in for protection and requiring extra effort for each step. To the returning veterans the one noticeable difference was the island's thick green vegetation. In their day, the island was a bleak, barren landscape as hostile and unwelcoming as the Japanese defenders trying to push them off.
As fellow veterans and medically trained tour staff moved quickly to assist John, a strong and forceful call was heard, one heard countless times decades before throughout Iwo's bloody battlefield. "Corpsman!" The tone was unmistakable. It was not done for the benefit of ceremonial reenactment. Understanding this, young Marines and their embedded Navy Corpsman (male and female -- unlike in John's day) moved towards the call without hesitation.
I watched as the Marines hustled to assist several civilians already with John while determining what other steps to take, not waiting for guidance. Smartly alerting their counterparts, Japanese medical personnel, several descendants of those once trying to kill John and his buddies, arrived on scene in short order.
Several of our group began to worry out loud and query about the quiet commotion going on around them. I advised to keep calm and a bit distant from the situation. It was not from lack of concern for a fellow veteran or angst against helping. I am not shy. But this was Iwo Jima and the Marine contingent -- deployed from Okinawa to support the event -- were once again taking command in a very far away land of what could become a chaotic situation.
By the time our group mustered to the airfield for departure a decision to Medevac John had been made. Medevac was no stranger to Iwo. Thousands were taken off the island in 1945, but fortunately not John.
Propellers were already turning on the Marine C-130 as we began boarding our charter jet. It was clear the Marine aircrew had begun preparing as soon as they heard the news from their ground colleagues. They, too, had not bothered to wait for additional guidance. A veteran -- his "formal" status irrelevant -- was in trouble in the middle of the Pacific. Moreover, the Japanese even offered to fly John to Japan on one of their aircraft.
As we finally taxied for our return to Guam, with the Marine C-130 taking off ahead of us, several members of our group continued to speculate about Brother John. The irony of the situation was not lost on anyone. I continued to breathe easy. I am an Army veteran and have been in similar situations in far away lands. My recollection was fighting the panic that comes not with the injury, but the realization that home and anything close to modern medical care was a long way away. I know what it feels like when an American looks down, particularly one in uniform and says in a soothing voice, "We got you man, its going to be ok."
So I knew, and I figured John did too, given the number of young Marines and friendly Japanese faces moving smartly around him, he was in the best hands possible. Once regaining awareness, he cracked jokes and did his best to make others feel at ease, noting the need to replace a faded Navy tattoo. "This one's all faded," he said through an oxygen mask while lying flat on a stretcher.
We both knew John would survive his second tour on Iwo Jima.
Postscript. John was medically evacuated to Guam without incident. He returned stateside under his own recognizance with the assistance of family and friends.