As one of the last survivors of Iwo Jima, 93-year-old Wally Kaenzig often finds himself retelling his tale of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II: to classrooms full of students, to younger veterans, to news reporters.
He has been asked so many times about the flash bulb moment — six soldiers raising the American flag over Mount Suribachi — he doesn’t wait for the question to be asked. He’s used to cutting to the chase. After three minutes, no one is listening to you, he was told as a young instructor at Marine Corps Base Quantico.
Kaenzig remembers the flag-raising as a fleeting moment of catharsis heralded by a tremendous blast of horns from the flotilla of ships off the Japanese island.
“You says to yourself, ‘Well, we’re winning, finally we’re winning,’” recounts Kaenzig, who by the fifth day on Iwo had witnessed so much bloodshed and would still for weeks to come. By the time the flag raisers were rounded up for a USO tour, three had been killed.
Younger soldiers, their eyes cast to the skyline, cried when they realized what was happening. But not Kaenzig, then a captain charged with making sure ordnance didn’t fall on U.S. troops.
“By that time, I was an old man,” he says, sitting at the dining table of his Galloway Township home, not a hint of irony in his voice. “I was 24 years old. I kept thinking of what still had to be done.”
Then, without missing a beat, it’s on to the rest of the story.
Navy recruiters came to Rutgers University during Kaenzig’s senior year in the agricultural program. As he and his friends were filling out the paperwork, one of them quipped, “What the hell do you guys think you’re going to do? Row potatoes?”
The Marine Corps recruiters who came the next week were less derisive, so that’s where Kaenzig ended up. Because of his extensive math and science classes, he went straight into officers’ training.
Dorothy, his high-school sweetheart and future wife, followed him first to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and then California. They married the day he graduated from the reserve officers’ course at Quantico and, when Kaenzig left for the Pacific, she boarded a train to Jersey.
“She arrived in Egg Harbor City the stroke of midnight Jan. 1. I sailed from San Diego that morning,” he said. “We were on different coasts at the same time.”
Dorothy wrote to her husband every day of his deployment. On Iwo, Wally received the letters three days after they were mailed, sometimes several of them at once. He read them from wherever he was on the volcanic island. Like the flag-raising, the letters provided a thread of hope amid the obliteration.
“Of course, she’d express her love for me, which was always nice to hear,” he says, with a knowing smile.
The landing craft Kaenzig and his team — three radio operators, three wiremen and a marine who acted as security — took to Iwo dumped them onto the beach at dusk. Japanese troops had cut down wave upon wave of troops on that beach.
Mired in black volcanic sand, soldiers had to scramble up the beach and over a rise to the flat land beyond. The only trenches in the sand were the impact craters left by Japanese bombs. Artillery and mortars rained down from the hills and mountains on either side of the landing beach.
“It was like shooting ducks in a pond,” he said. “They had us, and all you could hope for was the casualties wouldn’t be so heavy that it became a factor.”
On his way off the landing craft, Kaenzig stopped to help one of the radio operators hoist the heavy equipment onto his back. As they finally made it onto the beach, a bomb exploded ahead of the team. If they had been a few seconds faster, they could’ve stepped right into the blast.
“You never know,” he said. “You could’ve been in that spot at that time instead of where you were. Fate, I guess it’s called fate.”
At least four times, Kaenzig stopped to tell a crouching soldier to get off the beach only to find he was dead. Eventually, he gave up the futile effort, rounded up his men and ran for the front lines, which at that point were the safest place.
Kaenzig said the military had expected strong resistance on Iwo — the island was a stepping stone to mainland Japan — but prior to his arrival, it was expected to be at most a three-day battle. It ultimately stretched on for more than a month, officially ending March 16, 1945.
The reason was the system of caves and tunnels the Japanese employed to traverse the island. American war planes had hammered the island for days before, but they couldn’t see those fortifications from the air.
“When they came over, (the Japanese) had early warning as we did, so they knew the planes were coming,” Kaenzig said. “They’d move everything into the caves. When you look down, you’d see nothing, no one down there.”
Similarly, the Japanese troops would fire mortars and other armaments from openings in the tunnels. When American troops called for air support, the planes would hammer the entrances, but their bombs couldn’t reach the troops hidden within. Once the assault ended, the Japanese soldiers would return to their positions.
“Every round they fired hit something or somebody,” Kaenzig said.
Because of the heavy casualties — an estimated 26,000 casualties and 6,800 dead from all branches of the U.S. military — reinforcements were called, but even that proved problematic.
“A lot of these kids didn’t have a chance,” he said. “There just wasn’t the time to pull a company out to spend a day or two to train them.”
By the end of fighting on Iwo, Kaenzig had been deployed for more than two years, participating in offensives in the Marshall Islands and Saipan. The planned assault on mainland Japan never happened, as Japan’s leaders surrendered in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Kaenzig soon found himself back home. Dorothy met him in Philadelphia so they could have some privacy before the inevitable barrage of family dinners and well wishers.
“A big feast here, a big feast there until you realize you’ve put on pounds,” he said, with a laugh.
In 1968, Kaenzig retired from the Marine Corps a lieutenant colonel. For decades, he worked at Atlantic Cape Community College, becoming dean of students for generations of graduates. At 93, he uses an all-terrain vehicle to get around his property and helps sell the products of the greenhouse he operated for decades in Galloway.
“They always tell you don’t stop moving, and that’s what I did,” he said.
Kaenzig’s home shows the signs of a full life: a clean but messy kitchen, photos in piles on the dining room table, certificates and plaques on the walls of his office.
Around the living room hang Dorothy’s needlepoints of flowers and nature scenes. She was a talented painter, too, Kaenzig said, but all of the paintings have been given to relatives. Outlines of those paintings left squares of lighter paint on the walls.
“She was a wonderful mother,” he said. “While I was galavanting around the Marine Corps, she was raising the children.”
Now, he takes care of her, Kaenzig said. Dorothy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about six years ago.
There were several other veterans from Iwo Jima in the area, but Kaenzig has lost touch with all of them. His division has an annual dinner in Washington, D.C., but it’s impractical to go. To ask his children to drive that far for one day would be an imposition, he said.
Once, several years ago, a local politician was trying to put together a book of local World War II heroes. Kaenzig advised him against it for the same reason most veterans would.
“I told him there are heroes, but I’m not one of them,” he said. “Most of the heroes never came home.”
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