RICHMOND - Seventy years sometimes melts away like so much wax, and Berkshire County's lone survivor of the battle of Iwo Jima again experiences the barren volcanic island, the paralyzing fear, deafening explosions, smell of putrefying dead, the taste of gasoline-tainted water from a soiled canteen.
"I guess anyone who was there will tell you the same thing: Sometimes, it's just as though it happened yesterday," Richmond native Dave Reynolds, 90, said. "I guess there aren't too many of us left anymore, but really, it's a wonder there's any at all."
At 20 years of age, Reynolds — a machine gunner with the 4th Marine Division, 24th Regiment — landed on the Japanese-held island during the first day of fighting, on Feb. 19, 1945. The battle, which lasted until March 26, proved a pivotal victory for the U.S., but it was not without heavy tolls on both sides. Almost 7,000 Marines died and of the 22,000 Japanese who occupied the island — only roughly 1,000 survived.
A heavy blowReynolds never saw the end of fighting. Eleven days after landing, a bullet struck him in the face, fracturing cheek, nose and shoulder, leaving an eye and ear hanging by mere ganglia.
Doctors successfully repaired the damage in visits to a series of medical units, first on a boat offshore near the island, next on Guam, next on Hawaii, finally in San Francisco. If you didn't know him before the war, you'd scarcely detect the scars. No such fix exists for the memory, however. The trauma of those days remains indelibly impressed on Reynolds' brain and nervous system, strong as ever, 70 years on.
"We're human — in no way can we control our dreams," Reynolds said. "It pops into your head. You never know when, but when it does, it's just like you're there again."
He added, "There's one thing that always comes to mind: the smell. The island was only five miles long and two-and-a-half miles wide and there was [tens of thousands] dead. The memory of that smell is not going to go away. You hoped the wind would change direction."
Fighting in the darkReynolds graduated Pittsfield High School and joined up in 1942. A year later, he found himself in the Pacific theater. He took part in battles on Saipan and Tinian.
"When I was in school, I was considered to be pretty smart in geography," Reynolds said. "But who ever heard of a place called Iwo Jima? [The commanders] wouldn't tell us where we were going until two days out at sea. When they did, it didn't make a difference because no had ever heard of the place."
The latter battle, at Iwo Jima, of course, proved different, more horrible. The earlier fighting occurred in jungles. Iwo Jima was barren. Worse, the Japanese troops had built 11 miles of underground tunnels there.
"You never knew when they were going to appear out of the ground," Reynolds said. "Sometimes they'd come up behind you in territory we'd already taken and thought was ours and start shooting at our backs. They had 20-some years to prepare to defend the island, and I guess they knew we were coming."
In the velocity of fear, Reynolds said he and the other Marines tried to survive off K-rations, dextrose tablets and by trying not to think.
Remembering fallen brothersAfter the death of William A. Jordan, 88, of Lanesborough, another member of the 4th Marine Division who fought at Iwo Jima, in October of 2013, Reynolds became the only living man in the county who fought in the battle. Jordan served in a landing craft unit bringing artillery ashore, and suffered no injuries.
Lenox Police Officer Sean Ward's late father, Sgt. Joseph M. Ward, another 4th Division veteran who fought at Iwo Jima, was not so lucky.
The sergeant suffered injuries on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima — taking, in total, two bullets and many pieces of shrapnel — and another later during the Korean War. For this, Sgt. Ward was given the Navy Cross, the second-highest military decoration for valor behind the Medal of Honor. He died in 1991 at the age of 65.
Years after World War II, Sean Ward's aunt noticed her brother in a scene from a film which showed the sergeant after he'd just landed on the beach at Iwo Jima. She approached the owners, who had the image of the scene spliced from the reel and developed, now a keepsake of the family.
"He said there was nothing but Japanese in front of them [when the film was shot]," Sean Ward said. "I remember as a kid him usually remembering to mention this day [Feb. 19]."
"It's one of the biggest events in Marine Corps history," Louis Robesch, commander of the Marine Corps League of Pittsfield, said. "Every Marine holds it in special regard, for sure, and the guys who were there remember it like yesterday."
An honorable lifeRobesch and the Marine Corps League at 4 p.m. on Saturday will host a dinner at Zucco's Family Restaurant in honor of the Iwo Jima anniversary. Reynolds, three local men who fought at Okinawa and other World War II veterans plan to take part in the event, an annual tradition dating back several years.
Reynolds worked at General Electric and Beloit Corp. in his post-military career. He married his wife, Lois, 90, in 1947, and this week the two celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary. Reynolds' older brother, Carlton, 92, fought on the Western Front during World War II, surviving the The Battle of the Bulge.
Last year, Reynolds took an Honor Flight from Albany, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., and visited the Iwo Jima Memorial, also known as the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial. Of three tour buses full of veterans, he was the lone man who had fought in the battle, and was thus allowed to exit the bus alone and approach the site.
"To think that we still have somebody we can honor and cherish that proudly served at Iwo Jima," said Rosanne Frieri, Richmond's veteran's agent, who's known Reynolds for more than a decade. "I'm proud of him. He's a great friend, a great neighbor and a great American."
She added, "Every Memorial Day he's out on the front lawn in his uniform, and he'll render a salute."
"As long as there's human beings on this planet, there's going to be wars," Reynolds said. "There's no getting away from it. The nature of war changes. It has a lot in my lifetime. But the end result is always that people die. I don't know if it will ever change, but we have to hope so."