WATCH: One of the last living Marines from Iwo Jima shares his story with WATM
Frank Clark was 15 years old when Pearl Harbor was brazenly attacked by the Japanese on December 7th, 1941. On that fateful Sunday morning in Hawaii, 2,403 people lost their lives and 1178 more were wounded. The next day, the United States entered World War II.
Clark's two older brothers, Charles and Pat immediately enlisted into the Air Corps. "Our patriotism among the young men was unbelievable. They just flooded the enlistment," he shared. Since he was too young to join, he had to wait. On December 23rd, 1943, his mother signed the paperwork that would allow him to become a United States Marine.
He was just 17 years old.
Clark had a twinkle in his blue eyes and a sly grin when he shared that he chose to serve as a Marine because of their beautiful uniforms. He had no way of knowing what was waiting for him.
Clark turned 18 two weeks before he graduated from Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, CA and was chosen to become a radio operator. When he finished his training, he joined the 4th Marine division in Hawaii. On February 17th, 1945 – he and those he described as "on his level" were told of the plan to invade Iwo Jima in two days time.
The 4th Marine division was told that the invasion would give the United States a staging facility to eventually attack Japan, since Iwo Jima was just 750 miles from its coast. Iwo Jima boasted two air strips that would be needed for a successful attack on Japan. Clark also shared that the officers told them that the recent air and naval bombardments over thirty days had taken out 95% of the Japanese's fighting force on Iwo Jima. Officers assured the Marines that they'd be off the island in five days and back in Hawaii.
Clark shook his head and said, "What they told us was wrong and we paid dearly for it."
As a radio operator, he was on a small communications ship off the shore of Iwo Jima as the Army and Marine divisions hit the island all at once. Clark watched in horror as the men who stepped off the landing ship were killed without warning.Unbeknownst to those officers who planned the attack on Iwo Jima, the Japanese had created underground tunnels. It was there that they hid, safely waiting out the month long bombings from the United States. As those soldiers and Marines stepped onto the beaches of Iwo Jima, on February 19th, 1945, a camouflaged mountainside artillery awaited them.
It would take all day under intense fire, but eventually the Marines and soldiers were able to take the first part of that coveted airfield. The price for that piece of land was heavy. Hundreds of bodies laid on the volcanic ash sand beach bearing witness to the cost of that day.
On the third day of the battle of Iwo Jima, Clark got off the boat and made his way on the island – with an extra forty pounds of radio equipment on his back. He and the other Marines he was with struggled through the tough sand to make their way to safer positions.
At one point, he and three other radio operators were in a hole about five feet deep with all of their equipment communicating with their leaders. Clark vividly remembers what happened next. He bent over to get something and within a second, the Marine behind him was shot in the forehead, dying instantly. That bullet was meant for Clark, but bending over saved his life.
It wouldn't be the last time Clark narrowly evaded death.
He remembers the feeling of that volcanic ash sand on his body. He stopped to take a quick break to catch some sleep, burying himself in the sand and covering his head with his poncho. "When I started getting up and pushing myself to get out, I felt a hand there. As it turned out, I had taken my little nap laying in the lap of a dead Japanese soldier. It wasn't a good feeling, but there was nothing you could do about it," Clark said.
Clark shared another memory of his time on Iwo Jima. He recalled seeing six rows – each the length of a football field – of bodies covered in white lime. He was unsure if they were American or Japanese bodies, but seeing that gave him an eerie feeling. Clark said you won't find pictures or videos of that, as he was sure the government told the media not to show it. That image of those bodies has stayed fresh in his mind.
The Marines and soldiers continued their advancement onto Iwo Jima, slowly taking the island. On day six of the bloody battle, that now infamous picture was taken of the Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. The image would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and become an iconic image of the war.
It would take almost another month before they captured the island completely. When they left that island, Clark didn't look back.
The Marines in his division never made their way to Japan – they didn't have the fighting power like they originally planned for. The Battle of Iwo Jima took the lives of 6,800 brave men and US troops suffered 26,000 casualties. After the Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Japanese quickly surrendered.
After leaving Iwo Jima, Clark was informed that his two brothers, Charles and Pat, had both been killed in action.
Clark left the Marines after the war ended and went on to live a quiet civilian life. He was married for 68 years and 8 months to his beautiful wife Nadine, before she passed away in 2017. After her death, he moved into the Missouri Veterans Home.
Frank took a break from his interview to ask WATM writer Jessica Manfre for a dance.
These days, Clark enjoys spending time on his computer and visiting with the ladies that work at the Veterans home.
When asked what advice he would give incoming service members as we approach twenty years at war he laughingly joked, "Do what you can to get into officer's training – live the better life."