Heading into combat for the first time, Pfc. George Aukamp wrestled with nerves.
A farm boy from Lancaster County, Aukamp rode with about 20 other Marines in an amphibious vehicle bouncing across waves toward tiny Iwo Jima, where 22,000 Japanese defenders waited in caves, tunnels and 900 fortifications with orders to fight to the death.
Military planners thought it would take six days to secure the 5-mile-long island and its strategic airfields 750 miles south of Tokyo.
But the epic World War II battle, which began Feb. 19, 1945, raged for five weeks before the Marines prevailed.
An intense bombardment from 450 ships preceded the assault. By mid-morning an armada of landing craft began reaching the beach and discharging a first wave of 8,000 attackers, including Aukamp with the 4th Marine Division.
Aukamp hit the beach lugging a 50-pound, three-cylinder flamethrower backpack filled with high-test gasoline and napalm. It was like wearing a bomb.
The Japanese pinned down the Americans on slopes of black sand 10 to 15 feet high, leaving the lean, 6-foot-1-inch Aukamp fearful he wouldn’t see his 19th birthday the next day.
Aukamp survived eight nerve-wracking days on Iwo Jima and was evacuated with a facial wound. To this day, a shred of shrapnel remains lodged near his jaw.
A hearty, silver-haired widower, Aukamp, who is about to turn 94, lives independently in a tidy rancher in Willow Street that has been his home for over 25 years.
Aukamp retired in 1986 after 34 years managing recreational and other properties for PPL. He and his late wife, Betty, raised a son, Gary, and daughter, Nadine Graver. The family enjoyed time at their cottage in Ocean View, Delaware.
In a recent interview, Aukamp recalled his harrowing experiences on Iwo Jima, an unlikely chapter in an otherwise sedate life built around routines of work and family.
Aukamp hadn’t been eager to go to war but didn’t shirk his duty. A Quarryville High School graduate, he was drafted after turning 18 and inducted in Harrisburg on June 1, 1944, with about 100 others. Officials sent most of the men to the Army or Navy. But they picked Aukamp and two others to become Marines. Aukamp never knew why.
Aukamp trained as a flamethrower operator. He was part of a three-man team that included an explosives specialist and a rifleman.
Just weeks before being shipped to Iwo Jima, Aukamp’s superiors offered him a desk job because he could type. But Aukamp was unwilling to abandon his buddies, and he went to war.
Aukamp’s memories of the first days of battle are a blur.
One sight he’ll never forget is the U.S. flag atop 554-foot Mount Suribachi after Marines silenced the big guns there.
“It was an encouragement to go on,” Aukamp said.
On the fifth day, Aukamp got his first taste of close action.
He watched as Marines converged on a concrete-enclosed machine gun emplacement known as a pillbox. A flamethrower operator whom Aukamp knew approached the fortification amid suppressing gunfire from comrades. The soldier fell with a bullet to the head.
“That’s when I got called up,” Aukamp said.
He chose a different route to the pillbox and got within 70 feet of it. His training took over. He squeezed the flamethrower’s dual triggers and unleashed a fiery arc at the pillbox’s rectangular opening.
“I had one full burst,” he said. “It’s either them or you. That’s the way you’ve got to feel about it.”
His tanks empty, he dropped the pack and moved on, glad to be rid of it.
Wounded in action
Three days later, a sergeant ordered Aukamp to grab a folded stretcher and come with him to rescue wounded on the front line.
Moving along a runway, Aukamp quickly became a target. He dove into a bomb crater and heard a bullet hit the stretcher. He didn’t know where the shots were coming from.
Aukamp lifted his head and scanned ahead to try to locate the wounded. He didn’t see anyone.
“That’s when a mortar went off right in front of me,” Aukamp said, and shrapnel struck him in the face.
“I had blood all over,” Aukamp said. “It was numb quick.”
The sergeant, who had been following Aukamp, jumped into the crater with the private, saw he had been hit and ordered him to “get the hell out of here!”
Retracing his steps “was as scary as anything,” Aukamp said, because he was exposing himself again to gunfire.
“I figured this is the end for me,” he said. “I was scared that bad, I don’t know if they were shooting at me or not, because I didn’t hear nothing.”
A Jeep assigned to the rescue mission came upon Aukamp. The driver raced the injured man toward the beach, where a medic rendered first aid and got him on a barge taking wounded to a hospital ship.
Aukamp’s face swelled, his jaw locked and his tongue wasn’t right. But his war was over.
Aukamp’s son, Gary, said that when he was growing up, his father didn’t talk about Iwo Jima. Only in recent years has he opened up about it.
“There’s guilt that you had to take somebody else’s life,” George Aukamp said. “And you just don’t feel proud of it.”
It’s also hard for Aukamp to make sense of why he made it home, mostly unscathed, when so many didn’t.
Historians put the American dead on Iwo Jima at 6,800, at least 10 of them from Lancaster County, according to “Lancaster County Heroes: World War II,” which Lancaster Newspapers published in 1947.
Another 19,000 were wounded. Besides Aukamp, they included 26 from Lancaster County.
The Japanese death toll exceeded 18,000.
Tears welled in Aukamp’s eyes, having recalled more than he expected.
“I tell you, the Lord Almighty was watching over me,” Aukamp said. “That’s all I can say. I give him all the praise there, to this day yet.”
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