By most measures, Stanley Berman has led a successful, even enviable life.
Born in Dorchester in 1920, he married “an exceptionally beautiful girl” named Anita in 1944. They shared a life together for 69 years, until she died in 2013. The couple traveled the world together, visiting more than 50 countries. They owned a home in Framingham, where they raised two daughters. He built a successful real estate business.
Even now, at 99, Berman is healthy and alert, spending hours at a stretch tracking the news online. “I know everything that’s going on,” he said. “I can’t believe it, at my age.”
But every February a kind of darkness falls over him, the darkest of these days being Feb. 19. It is the anniversary — the 75th this year — of the most wretched day of his life. On Feb. 19, 1945, during World War II, Berman was a Coast Guardsman on a landing ship in the rough, distant waters of the Central Pacific taking part in what would become the unfathomably bloody five-week assault and occupation of the island of Iwo Jima.
“I wish February 19 was over with already,” he said last week, perched on the edge of his bed in the Brighton nursing home where he now lives.
The epic battle at Iwo Jima was “not the most important in the Pacific but the most celebrated by Americans,” according to military historian Cathal J. Nolan, director of the International History Institute at Boston University. “It may well have to do with that photograph. It’s become iconic,” he said. He is referring to the powerful image captured by AP photographer Joseph Rosenthal of a handful Marines hoisting an American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning image endures in the minds of Americans as a symbol of courage, unity, and patriotism. But as the number of Iwo Jima veterans dwindles, there are few left who witnessed the action firsthand, who saw carnage on the order of what one journalist at the time described as “fighting of almost unbelievable bitterness and horror.” Marines gave battles graphic names such as “The Meat Grinder” and “Bloody Gorge.”
No one knows how many of these veterans are left, according to Lieutenant Colonel Raul Sifuentes, executive director of the Iwo Jima Association of America in Quantico, Va. Two years ago he began to track them but has only 200 names on his roster. “I get obituaries every day.”
Iwo Jima was an uninhabitable speck of a volcanic island, just 8 square miles in area, about 750 miles off the coast of Japan. It was thought to be valuable to the United States as a strategic airfield for bombers to make emergency landings when returning from attacks on Japan. For the Japanese, it was part of an “increasingly desperate and hopeless defense,” Nolan said, to keep Americans from bombing and invading Japan’s home islands.
An air and sea bombardment by US forces preceded the landing at Iwo Jima. Americans had total naval air and tank superiority, involved 60,000 forces, and deployed three times the number of Japanese fighters who’d spent months digging in, establishing a camouflaged network of holes, tunnels, caves, and other strongholds in a treacherous volcanic landscape. The first day alone, 30,000 Marines were deployed.
In 36 days of fighting, 6,871 Americans were killed and 19,217 wounded, many severely. Nearly all of the 21,000 Japanese fighters died, some of them dying by suicide before they could be captured.
Nothing prepared the young Stanley Berman for what lay ahead. “I’m a kid from Dorchester, what the heck do I know? We had no idea of the danger.” Before the war, he’d never even been on a ship.
He joined the Coast Guard impulsively after the United States entered World War II. He knew he’d eventually be drafted and didn’t want to join the Army. His first choice — the Marines — was roundly vetoed by his parents.
“So one day I’m in downtown Boston — I know this is very strange — but I see these footprints painted on the sidewalk, and a sign says to follow the footprints to enlist in the Coast Guard. I followed the steps to an enlisting station.” The date was Sept. 9, 1942. He was deployed not long after his marriage.
He was assigned to USS LST 763, a tank landing ship with a flat bottom meant to ferry tanks, cargo, vehicles, ammunition, supplies and troops onto shores that had no docks or piers. He trained for just a few weeks in Rhode Island, Virginia, and Hawaii, where he practiced mock landings and gun trials, though he said he had no basic training and felt ill-prepared for what was ahead.
“The real thing was entirely different,” said Berman, who was tasked with “putting ammunition into a gun,” a job that exposed him to enemy gunfire. More than once “we left our guns to hit the deck,” he said. “One of the guys couldn’t take it, he was so scared. He couldn’t do the job. They put somebody else in his place, which I didn’t think was fair.”
He always kept a picture of Anita with him. She wrote him every day from Dorchester, where she was staying with her mother, unsure exactly where he was or how much danger he was in. She even scolded him for neglecting her on Valentine’s Day. “She writes me and says, ‘all my girlfriends’ husbands sent Valentines. Why didn’t I get one from you?’”
Berman speaks with little embellishment about what he saw, though he says he remembers “every single minute” of the day of the invasion, "like it was yesterday.”
He alludes to bodies piled up, planes shot down, “yelling and screaming” by wounded soldiers who came aboard his ship when there was no other place for them to go. He was overjoyed to see the flag go up on Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, though that didn’t mean the end of the battle, which raged on until March 26.
After three weeks at Iwo Jima, Berman moved on to Okinawa to deliver more troops, tanks, and ammunition, with Japanese kamikaze aircraft zooming menacingly overhead. One morning, he woke to the horrifying sight of a Japanese plane burning in the ocean; it had struck the landing vehicle next to them. “It could have been us,” he said. After Okinawa, he was among the first wave Americans to enter Tokyo and see the devastation.
In 2007, Berman described his experiences in an interview for StoryCorps, a nonprofit that facilitates and collects interviews between family and friends, among others. Berman was interviewed by his son-in-law Robert Stolzberg and grandson Josh Berman, then 15. Josh asked him if he had been scared. “It was my job. I had no choice,” he replied. “It wasn’t very pretty. It was very, very scary … It was horrible, horrible.”
Today he acknowledges Iwo Jima changed him forever. Exposure to gunfire ruined his hearing, said Berman. (Visitors communicate with him by speaking in a microphone connected to his headphones.) “I have PTSD. I have absolutely no patience. I’m a nervous wreck.”
He added: “Every time I see an American flag I think of Iwo Jima.” Berman covered his eyes with his hand and began to cry.
Josh, now 27, is very close to his grandfather and says he doesn’t see this anxiety, but understands it is there. “It seems to me to be more in his dreams,” he said. “They are very vivid. He is always trying to get somewhere.’
Nearly 50 years went by before Berman was in contact with other Iwo Jima veterans. “Once the computer came in, a couple of seamen tried to locate us, and found quite a few of us. Every year, we met in a different city.” They greeted each other like family, he said. “But as we got older, people started to pass away and become sickly.” They exchanged holiday cards but for the last few years “I didn’t even get one card.”
Still, for him, the battle of Iwo Jima never goes away. “It’s on my mind every day. I just pray for February 20th, so I don’t think of February 19th anymore.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com.