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Print On the sands of Iwo Jima
Written by Greg Ruland   
Wednesday, 10 November 2010 00:00

There’s a bit of the movie star John Wayne in World War II veteran Bob Vernon.

It’s not a metaphysical certainty, but Vernon probably wouldn’t box the ears off anyone bold enough to make such a comparison. He is, in fact, a modest, genial fellow who agreed to tell some of his history as a war veteran because Thursday, Nov. 11, is Veterans Day.

World War II veteran Bob Vernon uses pictures hanging on the wall of his Cottonwood home Thursday, Nov. 4, to help illustrate his recollections of war in the Pacific theater. Vernon joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 after losing a cousin, who served aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma, in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.“Remember the veterans,” he urges. “Remember they are the ones who gave their lives to protect our freedoms.”

His good humor seems at odds with the dark stories of war he was prepared to tell during an interview Thursday, Nov. 4. He said his eternally positive attitude derives from a commitment he made at a very young age to fight bad moods and negative thoughts.
“It’s such a waste of time,” he said.

Vernon joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943 when he was 17. A self-described “Indiana farm boy,” Vernon said he had a lot to learn about the world when he first signed up. Fortunately, his strength, tenacity and quiet confidence impressed a drill sergeant, a tough-as-nails relic of the Spanish-American War, who took Vernon under his wing.

The sergeant also threw Vernon into the boxing ring against another soldier he’d never met, screaming he better injure the man or face the consequences. Vernon complied with a right-left combination that laid the soldier out.

“He was a mean [son of a gun],” Vernon said. “But I guess he liked me because I could fight.”

That Vernon is a fighter is matter of record. He was stationed in the South Pacific as part of the 3rd Marine Division, 9th Regiment. After a year in the Pacific, the picture he paints resembles Wayne in the “Sands of Iwo Jima.” By the age of 18, he was already hardened to the grim realities of battle.

In his first action, Vernon conducted operations with an elite Marine unit that specialized in light infantry amphibious assaults. The unit, known as Marine Raiders, or Carlson’s Raiders, operated out of New Caledonia, Vernon’s third deployment in the theater after stops in New Zealand and Australia.

Vernon recalls the night he was ordered to board a submarine on a mission to rescue a lawyer imprisoned in the Philippines by the Imperial Japanese Army. The man was a close friend of Ferdinand Marcos, a resistance fighter who later became president of the island nation, Vernon said.

The rescue mission had Vernon and another raider, armed only with razor wire, paddle a rubber raft from the sub to shore, eliminate resistance and retrieve the lawyer from a building where he was being held.

A Japanese soldier in the wrong place at the wrong time paid the ultimate price when Vernon wrapped a wire around his neck and squeezed hard.

“I took his head off,” Vernon said.

In the mid-1980s, Vernon returned to the Philippines, and in a surprise organized by the Marines, met again with the lawyer he rescued so many years in the past. After an emotional greeting, Vernon said the lawyer loaned him the use of his limousine for the day.

Vernon fought in the U.S. offensive that jumped from island to island, avoiding areas where Japanese forces were most concentrated. He fought at Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Tarawa and Iwo Jima, taking part in some of the most violent battles of the war.

“At Guadalcanal, we were literally firing Howitzers at each other from point-blank range,” he said.

A photo of his machine gun platoon holding up a blood-stained Japanese flag captured from a fleeing soldier holds a central position on a wall of photographs.

He recalls when his sergeant at Bougainville told him he expected to die in the assault but not before he kicked every one of their butts off the boat and up the beach.

At his unit landed, Vernon watched as the sergeant, standing thigh-deep in the sea, urged his troops to shore then took an artillery shell in the groin, killing him almost instantly.

“We lost a lot of good people,” Vernon said.

At Iwo Jima, Vernon’s 3rd Marine Division took the island’s heavily fortified airfield March 9, 1945, after several days of intense fighting that killed nearly 7,000 Marines and 18,000 Japanese, according to  U.S. Navy reports.

Vernon served in one of two machine gun platoons deployed to keep the Japanese army at bay as bombers landed and took off from the landing strip below Mount Surabachi.

He witnessed much carnage but claims he suffered no ill effects, nothing like the post-traumatic stress disorder sustained by so many soldiers returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Following the war, Vernon worked nearly 20 years as a railroad engineer and almost 40 more as a school teacher. He raised two children with his wife, Charlotte, a friend since first grade.

He said he doesn’t attend reunions of his unit and doesn’t keep track of his old war buddies. He set those connections aside when his service was complete.

“I did my job, I served my country and it was done. It was time to move on to other things.”

In the present day, Vernon more resembles Wayne in “True Grit.” He possesses the same rugged looks as the Duke, a telltale sign of their active lives.

Like Wayne in the film, Vernon faces physical challenges brought on by age, but finds a way to prevail. Vernon’s right leg was removed from just above the knee in 2009 due to poor circulation caused by a 1949 auto accident. Instead of a patch over his eye, he wears a bandage over his nose.

Wayne was terminal with lung cancer when he performed the final stunt in “True Grit,” jumping a three-rail fence because another character told him he was too old and fat to do it.

“Well, come see a fat, old man sometime,” Wayne gloated, turning and galloping off into the sunset.

Vernon, 85, embraces his current-day challenges with the same kind of humor and stubbornness. He is working to lose weight and gain strength so he can wear his new motorized prosthesis, which is currently propped in the corner of his living room.

He said he’s not ready for the electronic leg yet, but if history means anything, he’ll overcome that hurdle too.