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The Barnett Brothers at Iwo Jima

posted on September 7, 2007 at 1:37 PM

Next we turn to the compelling story of the Barnett brothers who, sixty years after fighting the battle of Iwo Jima, returned to the tiny island with their own loyal brigade of family and friends.

Pedersen: The thing I remember most about being on Iwo Jima is the sense of excitement I had coupled with a sense of reverence. I had become aware of Iwo Jima and the role my grandfather played on it in seventh grade.

Narrator: Bob Barnett was 24 years old, nearly the same age his grandson Matt is today, when he fought in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. More than 6,800 Americans, most in their teens or early twenties, lost their lives on Iwo Jima.

Bob Barnett: What gets me the most is all my buddies are still there. As far as I’m concerned, I know we brought them back but, to me, that's one of the reasons why I go back to walk over the ground.

Narrator: On March 12, 2005, Bob returned to the tiny Pacific island for the 60th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima. His brother Doug was by his side as he had been sixty years ago when as young Marines they struggled through the ankle deep sand under heavy enemy fire. Walking the now peaceful beaches, the Barnett brothers were accompanied by three generations of family members, along with special friends.

Doug Barnett: We're taking those flags back, and we're going to have our grandsons help raise them. And that's very important to us, that type of a thing, because we're not going to be here a lot longer and we want to pass anything on we can to our grandchildren so that they'll remember us.

Narrator: In 1942 Bob and Doug enlisted together in the Marines. Doug, just 19 years of age, had to persuade his father to let him sign up. Drawn by a sense of duty to defend country, brothers Merle and Jerry and their brother-in-law, Scott, also joined the war effort in various branches of the military.

Bob Barnett: Dad says five boys is too many. No more. That many in one family, half the family was in the service.

Narrator: After completing boot camp, the brothers departed from San Diego in 1943 for their first close-up look at war in the pacific.

Doug Barnett: Our first time overseas, we hit Guadalcanal. We went up the Northern Solomons to Vella Lavella, Choiseul and Bougainville. So we came back here and formed the Fifth Division in California.

Narrator: While the Fifth Division was forming, Bob got married. But a few months later, bound for Iwo Jima, left his young bride behind. 660 miles south of Tokyo, this small island held great tactical importance. Desired as an air base for U.S. planes within easy striking distance of Japan, Iwo Jima was the Empire's last line of homeland defense. On February 19, 1945, Bob and Doug were among the first U.S. Marines to land.

Bob Barnett: We went in on a Higgins boat. It's wide open at the top. It's like a big convertible. They we were all in there waiting for the ramp to come down so we could go in. Well, there was Mount Suribachi looking right at us. We wasn't very far off either. There it was. And pretty soon I heard ricochets off the side of our Higgins boat, and some of the Marines right beside us were dropping. They were dead.

Narrator: Despite more than two months of bombing raids meant to weaken Japanese defenses, landing troops braved heavy fire. The coarse volcanic sand provided no traction and open beaches... no protection. Taking cover and directing fire from an extensive network of caves and tunnels, the Japanese defense was deadly.

Doug Barnett: We spent 36 days and nights there of constant battle, constant day and night. I had a thousand bullets go by my ear. I could them go by but I never had one that had my name on it.

Bob Barnett: We had so many dead Marines, we used them for sandbags. That's something we never trained for. Then we went -- we went up to take this air field. We was right up on the edge of it, and that was the fifth day. And finally we got up there and we turned around and people started hollering and they was raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. And everybody thought, well, this is over. This is it. We got her made now. Well, we was there for 31 more days after that still fighting.

Doug Barnett: You had to take things serious but you couldn't take things too serious or you would never make it.

Bob Barnett: We was all scared. We was so scared that we didn't think about it no more. I mean you just did what you had to do and hope you can see the sun rise again. That's the way it was for 36 days and nights.

Narrator: Of the nearly 75,000 U.S. troops that landed on Iwo Jima, 26,000 were killed or wounded. One out of every three Americans never made it home. The Japanese also lost great numbers. Most of the nearly 22,000 Japanese defenders did not survive.

Doug Barnett: After Iwo, though, we came back to Hawaii and regrouped again. And we were two days out of Pearl Harbor heading for Sasebo, Japan, because we were going to hit Japan proper. But they had dropped the bombs -- the atomic bombs, and the war ended, thank god, because they estimated there would be a million and a half of us guys that never made it out of Japan. And I believe that.

Bob Barnett: When we was on the high seas, they announced that the war was over. And they wrote a song during the wartime, "When the lights come on again all over the world." That's what we got to singing.

When the lights / go on again / all over the world / and the boys / are home again / all over the world

Bob Barnett: Then we went and got a bus from Des Moines to Knoxville and we got out and there was an old fella there recognized us. I said we want to go home. And he was a taxi driver. He had a little taxi. He took us. And we wanted to pay him and he says "No pay." And there was Mom and Dad come running out of the house and, like, Doug, Dad grabbed him. And Mom said, "Well, Bobolink, you're back." We was glad to be home. Oh, yeah. If you talk to any of the Marines in the Navy or any of the fellas on either side, they don't want to kill one another. We really didn't. They were human beings just like we was. But that's the way it was. And we either did it or we got it. It was either kill or be killed. That's the way it was.

Narrator: Returning for the 60th anniversary, Doug and Bob, now both in their eighties, have seen much of death and much of life. With the wisdom of age and a lifetime of experience has come the need to share their contributions and sacrifices with the next generation.

Bob Barnett: Matt says, "Grandpa?" "What do you want, Matt"? He said, "I want to raise this flag." I said, "What's that one for?" He said, "That's the one you give to me at my wedding. I want to raise it." So we did, him and I. And I said, "Matt, what are you going to do with it?" He said, "I’m going to frame it and I’m going to put in my living room," and he said, "I’ll never forget it."

Pedersen: I would like people to remember the sacrifice and what people -- what guys like my grandfather went through to give us what we have today to give us the freedom we enjoy.

Tags: Iowa veterans World War II

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