Mike Klein Online

My Father, USMC Sgt. Charles F. Klein: “I didn’t do too well at Iwo Jima”

Mike Klein

November 3, 1941 is the date that changed my father’s life.  With Germany sweeping across Europe and Japan prepared to attack, my father enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.  He was 24 years old, somewhat older than many recruits and draftees.  But he was a scared young man nonetheless.

My father’s World War II Marine Corps service was seldom discussed at home.  I learned bits and pieces from my aunts and one uncle but from my father, almost nothing.  As a youngster, I wanted to hear my father talk about war and how he beat Japan.  John Wayne won wars in the movies so it must have been something like movies.  He didn’t want to talk about it.  The less he said the better.

A few years ago I read James Bradley’s brilliant history “Flags of Our Fathers,” the story of the U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima.  I knew for years that my father was part of the Iwo Jima invasion.  Once when he was well into his early 80’s, my father said he didn’t do very well at Iwo Jima.  I remember telling him that he got off the island alive; to me, that was doing pretty well.

We left it at that.  I could always tell when my father really didn’t want to talk about something.  But after his death it got me wondering, what could I learn about his Marine Corps service?

It is amazing what the government saves.  With a few phone calls and some e-mail, I was able to begin patching together my father’s service record.  The mother lode of information that filled out his story arrived in a huge packet from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

The envelope contained a photocopy of virtually every document, order, medical review and pay stub during my father’s service that ended with his honorable discharge nearly sixty-five years ago.  There are personal observations written by his superiors, details about hospitalizations, even copies of letters my mother wrote to the U.S. Marine Corps Commandant when months would pass without any word from my father.  The family had no idea where he was or his condition.

What emerges most from the documents is the story of a young man who like those around him was called to a task he did not choose, in places he did not choose, doing a duty he found almost impossible to comprehend, with full regard for those around him and with less regard for himself.

The Pacific War for the U.S. Marines was punctuated by long periods of training, then outbursts of horrible activity followed by more long periods of training.  Two years passed after induction until my father’s first major conflict on Bougainville in November 1943.  Sometime after Bougainville he came down with malaria.  Then there was the Guam invasion on July 21, 1944, where my father received multiple mortar shrapnel wounds and was evacuated back to the ship.

After three months in the hospital, my father rejoined his unit to prepare for what would become the Iwo Jima invasion.  Marines knew they were preparing for something extraordinary, but they did not learn until the approach that they would attack the tiny island that played such a large role in the war. By capturing Iwo Jima, the U.S. assured a secure and open flight path to Japan.

My father was discharged September 12, 1945 at Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago, about five weeks after atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   He received $22 in pro-rated monthly salary, along with $6.89 to cover transportation home.  The discharge lists service on Bougainville, Guam and Iowa Jima.   “Due to unavoidable war conditions, the information on this certificate is incomplete.”

The discharge does not mention combat fatigue.  This was a kind way of saying my father broke down physically and emotionally.  I found those details in identical Marine Corps letters written to my mother and grandfather.  Apparently, two cases of pneumonia, malaria, the Bougainville and Guam campaigns, along with his wounds sustained at Guam, had taken their toll.  My dad was in shock after 1944.

Shortly after the Iwo Jima invasion in February 1945 my father was sent back to the States on medical leave. A hospital report written in March that year says, “He has been anxious and tense and restless for four to five months.  His C.O. (commanding officer) knew about his difficulties and at Battle of Iwo kept him on board ship because he was too nervous for battle.”  That is when I knew what my father meant about not doing very well at Iwo Jima.  He never got off the ship.

Forty-one years after an honorable discharge, my father wrote a letter to the National Personnel Records Center.  It was a very short letter:  “Gentlemen:  Please send me the medals and commendations I earned during my service with the United States Marine Corps during World War II.  I have never received any of these.”  He framed the medals and today they are in my home.

I believe sometime after World War II my father made peace with his Marine Corps service. During later years he became a Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Commander, a new way to serve.

My father’s story is not one of a great military hero who excelled against all odds.  He was just a young Marine doing what millions of patriots have done since the Revolutionary War, doing the best that he knew how.  On this Veterans Day, I remember and thank him always.

Service Honors: Sgt. Charles F. Klein, USMC

One Purple Heart

Two Navy Unit Commendations

American Defense Service Medal

American Campaign Medal

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with Four Bronze Stars

World War II Victory Medal

National Personnel Records Center: http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/

(This column was originally published on November 11, 2009.  Here it is again, in honor of my father.)

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November 11, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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