CALHOUN CITY – From Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945, more than 6,821 Americans died and another 20,000 were injured during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
Those aren’t mere statistics for the Rev. W. Buford Usry, a Calhoun City resident who fought on that Japanese-held island and lived to tell about it.
“You were kind of numb, actually. We were, or I was,” the 85-year-old said. “You did what you were told to do. Your job changed by the minute. When someone got killed, you had to do his job.”
Usry grew up in Grenada. He married his sweetheart, Delores, when he was 17 and she was 16.
At 18, he joined the war.
“I was put into the Marine Corps. I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “I talked smart to the Marine recruiter. I talked smart to him, and he said, ‘You’re in the Marine Corps now.'”
Usry was a father with a 2-week-old daughter when he shipped out. He didn’t see her for another two years.
The 5th Marine Division was known as “The Spearhead.” At Iwo Jima, Usry and his buddies were part of the third wave of attack.
“The landing is one thing that haunts me,” he said. “Me and my buddy went off the boat at the same time. Both of us went under water. I came up. He didn’t. I don’t know what happened to him. You had to walk away. You had to go on. You couldn’t stop. That haunts me.”
The war didn’t get easier from there.
At his home in Calhoun City, Usry pointed to soldiers who were killed more than 65 years ago:
“On this side, a mortar shell hit him and cut him half into,” he said. “On the other side, a mortar shell hit him and cut him half into. There I was. Nowhere to go.”
Usry was an anti-tank grenadier. Rockets fit onto the barrel of his M1 rifle. They were designed to knock the tracks off tanks.
“Sometimes, we used them to shoot in caves, as well,” he said. “Of course, that’s where the enemy was, mostly.”
He can’t remember taking a bite to eat or going to the bathroom during his time on the island. He got hit on the fifth day of the invasion, the same day the iconic American flag went up on Mount Suribachi.
“I was knocked out by a concussion shell. My buddy and I had to help somebody to the aid station,” he said. “We came back and we couldn’t find the front lines. We got out in front of the front lines. Why somebody didn’t kill us? I don’t know.
“We got up on a hill and someone yelled at us to get down. We ran down, and the enemy started shelling.
“The shell hit my rifle. Why it didn’t kill me? I don’t know. It’s something you ask all the time.
“I woke up three days later on a hospital ship. I didn’t have any clothes on. I guess they were just waiting to see if I was going to die.
“The first thing they gave me to eat was a glass of chicken broth. That was the first food I remember having for eight days.”
Among all the fearsome memories from Iwo Jima, Usry recalls that glass of broth as manna from heaven.
“Oh, man, I could drink a gallon of it now,” he said with a wide smile. “That was the best thing I ever ate in my life. I could have a gallon of it now.”
More to do
When he recovered, Usry had the option to go home, but he asked to rejoin the 5th Marine Division, which was preparing to invade mainland Japan.
According to military estimates, an invasion of Japan would’ve claimed 247 out of 250 men in Usry’s company within three days. He believes the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan and the surrender that followed saved his life.
“No doubt about it,” he said.
Cpl. Usry finished his service as part of the occupation force in Japan. When his time was up, the Marines asked him to stay.
“That was two years away from my wife and my little girl,” he said. “I was ready to go home.”
There was no way to avoid bringing his experiences home, but he kept them to himself.
“I came back knowing I could do it, no matter what I had to do. The war taught me that,” he said. “But I was numb and quiet for a long time and didn’t tell my family what I had gone through. My daughter said, ‘Dad, why didn’t you tell us? We could have understood you better.’
“Maybe I didn’t participate with the family as I should have. This is where a good wife comes in.”
A couple of years after his return, he answered a call and joined the ministry. He and Delores had two more daughters, and Usry buried himself in the work of a Southern Baptist preacher.
“I started to talk about the war in about 1988, so from ’46 to ’88, I kept it in,” he said. “I got involved with the Iwo Jima Survivors Association. The first one I went to was in Vicksburg.”
He became a speaker at association meetings around the South, mostly telling stories about friends who didn’t make it off the 8-square-mile island.
“That began to relieve me some pressure. That’s when I started opening up to my family,” he said. “They would go with me to the reunions.”
In 2009, Usry presided over a monument dedication for Charles Wilmore “Billy” Stuart Jr. A quarterback, Stuart had led Picayune to a football championship, then enlisted after graduation.
“He had come looking for me when I was hit. He was in another company. They told him I had been killed,” Usry said. “He started back, a sniper got him. They brought his body back in ’49.”
Usry spoke at the ceremony, but it was not a time for preaching.
“It was a time to remember,” he said.
For 57 years, he was a pastor at different churches in Mississippi. He “semi-retired” and worked on a interim basis until about a year ago, when he had heart surgery.
Now, Usry considers himself fully retired. That means he has extra time to spend with his memories, and he also has more time with his wife and family.
“Delores and I spend all of our time together,” he said. “We never separate. We go together. We’re best friends.”
At 10 a.m. Thursday, the pair will go to the Calhoun City Square, where he’ll speak on behalf of those who didn’t make it home.
There’s a survivors’ reunion scheduled for Feb. 19 in New Orleans, and the Usrys plan to be there, too.
“I’m a realist. I consider myself a realist. That war was real. Those real things happened to me, and you can’t get away from reality. You can’t do it,” he said. “But I came home when so many others didn’t. I think it’s so important today to remember those who didn’t come back.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal