Cypress resident reflects on Iwo Jima
By FLORI MEEKS
Since he returned to the United States decades ago, Jim Westbrook has found it difficult to talk to most people about his experiences in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
The friends he did speak to after the war accused him of exaggerating.
What has helped, Westbrook said, has been talking to those with similar memories.
He gets a chance to do that every year at the Iwo Jima Veterans Reunions he has been coordinating for the Gulf Coast since the mid 1980s.
There probably are 10,000 reunions in the United States today of military personnel," said Westbrook, who spends half the year living in Cypress and the other half in Vicksburg, Miss.
They get together and reminisce and talk about things no one understands," he said. We have a camaraderie no one else understands."
The 2010 Iwo Jima Veterans Reunion will be held Feb. 19-21 at the Westin Oaks Hotel, 5011 Westheimer Road. All World War II Iwo Jima veterans are welcome.
The Iwo Jima reunions always are held on Feb. 19, the anniversary of the date in 1945 when U.S. forces landed on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima to capture it from Japan. The 8-square-mile island was completely fortified by the Japanese. The 35-day battle that followed resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties with more than 6,800 dead and thousands wounded.
Of the more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers present at the beginning of the battle, only 216 were taken prisoner. The rest were dead or missing. The island was declared secure by the United States on March 26, 1945.
Westbrook was among a relatively small group of American Marines who landed on the island at the beginning of the battle and fought on to the end without becoming a casualty.
He represented the U.S. 4th Marine Division. The 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions comprised the initial assault forces, minus the 3rd Marine Regiment, which was held in reserve.
Iwo Jima, located midway between Japan and U.S. bomber bases in the Marianas Islands, was home to three airfields and was ideally located to be a fighter-escort station. The U.S. also envisioned it as a sanctuary for damaged bombers returning from Japan.
Westbrook was 20 when he landed there. It was some tough combat," he said. I remember one night toward the end. The Japanese threw everything they had at us. We slept in foxholes that night. The next day, we were able to walk to the beach without being shot. We heard the Japanese shooting themselves in the caves."
During the day, temperatures on Iwo Jima reached the mid 80s, Westbrook said. At night, it was chilly. The Marines needed blankets to insulate them from the cold and ponchos below them to protect them from the sulfur in the volcanic island's soil.
After Westbrook's safe return to the U.S. and discharge, he completed his high school degree, attended college and found work with an insurance agency. He went on to run his own firm in Vicksburg for 30 years.
Westbrook was married during those years to Birdie Westbrook, who died in 2004. In 2009 he married Grace Chantos Westbrook, who helps plan the reunions.
The first of these reunions was organized in 1985 by the late Vernon Hammond, who was with the 5th Marine Division when he fought at Iwo Jima.
Westbrook organized all of the other events. Initially, they saw large numbers of veterans. Today, he said, a considerably smaller group attends. Stop to think, it's the 65th anniversary of that battle," Westbrook said. Even if they were 18, they're 83 now.
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