‘We were receiving fire from everywhere’

World War II veteran recalls brutal battles in the Pacific

jwilkinson@thestate.comNovember 10, 2008 

  • ABOUT THIS SERIES

    Each week between Aug. 31 and Veteran's Day, The State profiled a local veteran chosen to visit the National World War II Memorial on the Nov. 15 inaugural Honor Flight.

    Read more about the Honor Flight program

    Click on a name to go to each veteran's story

    • Nealy Sweat: It was just before dawn in March 1945 on the smoking, stinking, moon-like island of death that was Iwo Jima. Nealy Adolph Sweat of Summerville was carefully peeking over the rim of the shell crater that was keeping him alive when a shot cracked out.
    • Henry Austin Browder: Henry Austin Browder of West Columbia began World War II on horseback. Browder — a mechanic in a mechanized war — had never ridden a horse.
    • Mary Crum: Mary Crum still remembers that April day in 1945 when she and thousands of others gathered at Union Station in Columbia. It was Friday the 13th, by chance, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage the day before in Warm Springs, Ga.
    • William C. Wildman: The sky was black with flak over the Brenner Pass in the Italian Alps, the shells bursting like lethal popcorn all around the bobbing B-24 “Liberator” bomber piloted by William C. Wildman.
    • Thomas E. Grove: It was Jan. 5, 1945, and Pvt. Thomas E. Grove watched in horror as the massive German Panther tank slowly raised its long 88-mm cannon toward him.
    • Fred Andrew Shealy: It was midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1944, near the French-German border in Alsace, when the Nazis came down like howling ghosts, apparitions of death in white camouflage.
    • Solomon Bright: Solomon Bright felt the impact, but didn’t see the kamikaze slam into the bridge of destroyer escort USS Bowers as it cruised off Okinawa on April 16, 1945.
    • Irv Levine: Irv Levine didn’t think about the amulet until it was gone. His grandmother gave a kemeye, a cameo blessed by a rabbi, to each of her six grandsons who went off to war in 1941.
    • Fritz Gray: Fifty-two bodies — German or American, Fritz Gray couldn’t tell — lay frozen in a minefield.
    • Anna Bell “Wendy” Wendelburg Zeigler: Wendy Zeigler began work at 6:30 that December morning in 1944, in a sprawling Gothic hospital in Paris, to pandemonium, blood and screams.
    • Russell V. Meyne: Russell V. Meyne was sitting down to breakfast when he noticed, through the chow hall window, a fighter plane skimming the airfield about a quarter mile away.

    How to contribute: Call (803) 582-8826, go to honorflightsc.com, or send a check payable to South Carolina Guard Foundation Inc., 551 Granby Lane, Columbia, SC 29201-4655.

    Official Honor Flight homepage

    VIDEO

It was just before dawn in March 1945 on the smoking, stinking, moon-like island of death that was Iwo Jima.

Nealy Adolph Sweat of Summerville was carefully peeking over the rim of the shell crater that was keeping him alive when a shot cracked out.

The Japanese bullet ripped through the front of his iron helmet, miraculously curled around the liner and blew the helmet off Sweat’s head.

“The first thing I did was feel to see if the top of my head was still there,” he said. “I was lucky.”

Later, when the soldier stopped to reload, Sweat rushed the fortified position and killed him. Today, the Japanese rifle is displayed at Sweat’s home outside Orangeburg — a souvenir from hell.

Sweat, 84, is one of 91 veterans who will be on the inaugural Honor Flight to the nation’s capital Saturday to visit the National World War II Memorial.

That flight is full. But local organizers hope to raise $300,000 to charter a total of six flights to take 600 veterans to Washington for free over the next year or so.

‘SOUTHERN BOYS ARE FASTER’

Sweat was a star halfback at Summerville High School on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. When he graduated in June 1943 at age 18, he was promptly drafted.

He was ordered to Fort Benning, Ga., to undergo rigorous basic training for the U.S. Army’s airborne service, learning to parachute or be deployed by glider.

“It was fun,” he said. “I learned Southern boys are faster than Northern boys. It’s just true.”

Sweat took advanced training at Camp Hale, Colo., learning to ski and climb with the 10th Mountain Division.

He was then placed in the 147th Infantry Regiment — an elite unit classified secret until 1957 — and trained on skis to battle the Italians in the Alps.

But the Italians had switched sides and become U.S. allies. So, in January 1944, the regiment was shipped to the south Pacific — “with all our winter clothes,” Sweat said — as unattached special forces serving Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

“Where he needed us, that’s where we went,” Sweat said.

After arriving at the Pacific staging area of New Caledonia, the regiment landed on Tinian island in July 1944 to help “mopping up” Japanese resistance. Tinian was in the Marianas Islands — part of the U.S. campaign to seize Pacific Ocean air bases from which to bomb Japan.

Sweat arrived on Tinian a private. He would leave a sergeant. He will not speak about what happened in between.

“There are some things I don’t talk about,” he said.

“WE GOT PINNED DOWN”

Iwo Jima was the second-to-last stop in the island campaign to Japan. Its airstrip was needed so the United States’ new B-29s bombers would have a place to land when hit over Japan.

“It was an emergency strip,” Sweat said. “A couple landed while we were fighting.”

The Japanese Imperial Army had entrenched an estimated 22,000 soldiers in bunkers, fortifications and caves throughout the island and its ponderous mountain Suribachi. The island was desolate, waterless and covered in a black, volcanic, powdery sand.

Few people know that the Army was on Iwo Jima with Marines. But the 147th was ordered to climb from landing craft with grappling hooks to scale a high ridge about ¾ mile from Suribachi. The mission was to fire on the enemy opposing the Marine landings on the beaches below.

“We did it. We climbed the ridge,” Sweat said. “But we got pinned down immediately and from all directions and couldn’t move. We were receiving fire from everywhere. Poor planning by somebody.”

They would fight non-stop for 31 days.

“We could hear the Japanese at night getting happy, drinking sake,” he said. “And we would know what was coming next.”

DIG, BURN OR BLOW THEM OUT

Sweat led the 50-man 4th Platoon, Company I. His men had two flame throwers, mortars and two bazookas. The rest of the men were armed with Browning Automatic Rifles, BARs, powerful automatic assault weapons.

Sweat was the only man with a smaller caliber, semi-automatic M-1 Garand rifle. As platoon leader, he would fire tracer bullets to direct the fire from the BARs.

The idea was for the BARs and mortars to protect the men with flame throwers and bazookas. They would in turn blast and burn the Japanese out of their caves.

“We had to dig them out or burn them out or blow them out,” Sweat said. “So the flame thrower is a wonderful weapon, especially with caves.”

The technique was to blow long streams of jellied gasoline into the lower entrances of caves, Sweat said, letting the draft carry it through the complex and incinerating everyone inside.

Any Japanese soldier who emerged was killed.

“We didn’t take prisoners,” he said. “If they didn’t stink (were rotting or burning corpses), we stuck ‘em (with bayonets).”

Approaching the cave entrances with a flame thrower was perhaps the most dangerous mission. Sweat said men who operated them didn’t survive long.

Sweat was lucky he lived.

Besides having his helmet shot off, Sweat and a Marine beside him were hit by a “short round” from a U.S. gun. The blast killed the Marine “and blew me about 20 feet,” Sweat said.

He went to an aid station — “my uniform full of holes; me beat up” — but declined treatment and walked back to the fight.

Then there was the day he single-handedly killed five Japanese soldiers and made the newspapers back home.

The last one was an officer who rushed Sweat with a sword, the report said.

“I never even talked to the (reporter),” Sweat said. “Somebody told him that. We didn’t have reporters at the front.”

‘TOO SAVAGE TO PUT ON THE STREET’

Today, the sword is displayed in Sweat’s home beside the Japanese rifle, a Japanese officer’s diary, a Japanese officer’s cap and a Japanese flag.

They sit beside the picture Sweat took of his friend Vernon Crawford of Florida as the Marines raised the American flag on Suribachi in the background.

Of the 50 men Sweat led into battle, only 14 survived —Crawford among them, although wounded by shrapnel in his neck.

Of the estimated 22,000 Japanese defending the island, more than 20,000 were killed or committed suicide. There were more than 27,900 American casualties; 7,000 of whom were killed.

Sweat would go on to the grim battle for Okinawa. He was preparing for the invasion of Japan when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, ending the war.

But Sweat would not go home for another six months. The Army kept him and other non-commissioned officers from the regiment on Okinawa.

“They said they were too ‘savage’ to put on the street at home,” said Lucile Sweat, Adolph’s high school sweetheart and wife of 61 years. “That’s the word they used. Savage.”

Even after his return home, Sweat would take to the woods for days to be by himself and battle post traumatic stress. Once, while he was suffering a nightmare, Lucile tried to wake him.

“I never did again,” she said.

Even today, Sweat has flashbacks. He can’t watch war movies, and only recently has watched documentaries with Lucile.

But Sweat kept his struggles in check. He worked until retirement at the Charleston Navy Yard.

Despite the horror, Sweat said he is proud of his service. But until recently, he rarely talked about it, even to his wife and two children: Katheryn Ross of Seneca; and, James W. Sweat of Georgetown.

“We were trained to do a job,” he said. “And in the end we did.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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