Photo of Bill Simpson
By Stuart Simpson
Although the U.S. flag was flying above the island, the Japanese were far from relinquishing their territory. The battle continued for another 29 days.
On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, 23-year old J.W. "Bill" Simpson wasn't worried about much of anything. His mind was far from the growing world conflict that day as he sat in a car parked off Second Street in Monticello, KY, shooting the bull and drinking moonshine with one of his buddies. An announcement on the radio, however, quickly put all the small talk to rest. Word had just reached the states of Japan's military action. Our country would soon officially join in the war effort, and life for Simpson and hundreds of thousands of other young men and women was about to take a drastic turn.
Beginning on October 24, 1942, Simpson spent three years, six months and six days as a signalman with the amphibious troop transport the U.S.S. Thurston, (AP77). From his post above the bridge, he had an unparalleled view of many of his nation¹s bloodiest and most important battles during the war.
Taking part in the invasions of North Africa, Southern France, Sicily, Normandy, and the assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Thurston and her crew earned seven Battle Stars. This is the story of Simpson's view of one of the most memorable moments of the war.
It was at 6 am on February 19, 1945 that the Thurston began landing operations at Iwo Jima. The invasion of the small Pacific island turned out to be one of the bloodiest and most remembered battles of World War II.
For the next eight days, until Feb. 27 when it got underway for Saipan, the ship and her crew took part in the invasion during the day and retired from the area during the night.
Resistance to the Allied troops was fierce. The nearly 22,000 Japanese defending the island were secured in bunkers, which provided strong resistance to the landing. For U.S. troops, advancing 30 or 40 yards on shore during a day was not uncommon.
The advancing soldiers also found that the sands of Iwo Jima were only a myth. The terrain on the volcanic island was all ash - nothing but ash.
"It was no trouble to dig a foxhole," one Marine said. "You could dig it with your hand."
It was on the third day of fighting that Simpson and many other Thurston crewmembers witnessed one of the most symbolic events of World War II, the raising of the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi.
Suribachi, the highest point on the small island, was near where the Marines had landed. The Thurston held its place just off shore. When the flag was raised and captured in the now-famous photograph, Simpson was at his post near the top of the ship watching. The flag, he says, was raised and lowered a couple of times, apparently for photographers at the ceremony. He later wrote home to his mother that the sight of seeing "our flag" flying atop Mt. Suribachi was one of the most thrilling sights he had ever seen. A sculpture of the flag raising was the basis for the famous sculpture now at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.
Although the U.S. flag was flying above the island, the Japanese were far from relinquishing their territory. The battle continued for another 29 days. In the end, it took the Marines 32 days to finally take control of their eight-square-mile objective. The cost of victory, however, was very heavy. The U.S. suffered 25,852 casualties and nearly 7,000 killed. Almost all of the nearly 22,000 Japanese defending the island were killed.
For the Thurston it was on to Saipan, Guam, Talagi, Espiritu and Ulithi before taking part in the final invasion of the war, Okinawa. The ship arrived at the island on April 9 and withstood a Japanese bomber attack for 17 hours. On April 14, the ship began its return to Saipan.
During the spring of 1945, the crew of the Thurston and the rest of the U.S. forces were preparing for one last invasion on the mainland of Japan at Yokohama. After seeing how the Japanese troops had defended their turf on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, most expected the coming landing to be the bloodiest and deadliest yet. However, a new weapon in the U.S. arsenal made the invasion unnecessary, the atomic bomb.
When the U.S. dropped its second atomic bomb on Japan and the country surrendered, the Thurston and her crew had just arrived in San Francisco. The ship was in port there from August 14 until August 25, 1945. With the coming of V-J Day, the war was over. All that was left to do was bring our boys home. The Thurston set out for Eniwetock on August 25.
After a return "Magic Carpet" trip to Manila, Guadalcanal, Espiritu Santo and Noumea in New Caledonia, the ship returned to part in Seattle, Washington, arriving Oct. 17. It was here that Simpson took his leave of the Navy and made his way back home.
Returning to Kentucky, Simpson returned to work in the family newspaper, married Eileen Simpson and raised two sons.
Iwo Jima Remembered
© Stuart Simpson
Published by U.S. Legacies: November 2003