Local WWII Marine recalls experience at Iwo Jima

By: Sarah Wojcik | Shelby - Utica News | Published April 29, 2015

 Benard Wesolowski, 90, of Shelby Township, holds a photo of himself at age 19, when he enlisted in the Marines. He served from 1943-1946 and participated in the capture of Iwo Jima during World War II.

Benard Wesolowski, 90, of Shelby Township, holds a photo of himself at age 19, when he enlisted in the Marines. He served from 1943-1946 and participated in the capture of Iwo Jima during World War II.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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SHELBY TOWNSHIP — One of the Americans who faced 22,000 Japanese troops at Iwo Jima and claimed victory after 35 days of fighting during World War II shared his story as the 70th anniversary of the end of the war approaches.

When Benard Wesolowski, 90, of Shelby Township, was 19 years old and growing up in Hamtramck, he decided to volunteer for the military in order to avoid the draft. He had never traveled before, but his service would take him to California, Hawaii and Japan.

He was originally placed into the Navy, but he protested and said he wanted to be in the Marines.

“(The Marines) had quite a reputation — more than the Navy and the Army — and they always stood out. Glory hunters, I guess,” Wesolowski said.

He said he took a train to San Diego for basic training, where they did a lot of “funny things” to the new recruits, and they just had to sit there and take it. Afterward, he went through boot camp along the Californian coast, near San Diego, and once finished, headed to the Marines training base in Hawaii.

“Our whole outfit was stationed on the biggest cattle ranch on probably the world,” he said. “We trained there for maybe six months, then they sent us for another vacation on Iwo Jima.”

Wesolowski said he traveled to the Japanese island with a huge convoy of ships. Anywhere he looked, he said all he could see were more ships.

He said the military wanted to take over Iwo Jima so that the B-29s that were bombing Japan could land on the island and refuel.

“It was very important for the bombing of Japan, and it saved a lot of Air Force planes and a lot of pilots’ lives because, if they were low on fuel, they could stop at Iwo Jima and fill up,” he said.

Once the convoy reached the island, he said the Japanese troops were waiting for the Americans in caves with machine guns. He said the Japanese had been living in the caves and underground for years prior to their arrival.

Wesolowski was in the second wave of Marines to storm the beach. The first wave moved out at 9 a.m. The second moved out at 9:15 a.m.

He said he could not describe what it was like watching the first wave of men advance onto the beach or what it felt like when it was his turn.

“You look for a foxhole to jump into and try not to get hit, that’s all. Different things happen to different guys,” he said. “They told us that we’d be there three days, and they were a little off-target. We were there 35 days. They didn’t expect that many Japanese there.”

In order to get the Japanese troops out of the caves, he said soldiers went in with flamethrowers and burned them out. Afterward, he said his foxhole buddy would go into the caves to collect their flags and souvenirs.

“I would stand on the outside. I just didn’t want to go inside,” Wesolowski said. “One time, he was in there and I heard a shot, and I thought maybe he got killed, so I waited while he came out and asked him what happened. He said, ‘One of the (Japanese) moved, so I just shot him again.’”

Wesolowski said his friend brought a camera everywhere and would risk his life taking photos from the foxhole. When his friend  got injured, Wesolowski said his friend entrusted him with the camera and film and told him to watch over it.

Later, when Wesolowski attempted to locate his friend, Wesolowski learned that his friend had died a few years before, but survived his injuries and lived out the rest of his life as a civilian. His friend’s son came to Wesolowski’s home in Shelby Township to pick up the photographs and some items that his father had taken from the Japanese caves.

“When there was no more resistance, that’s when they figured that was the end of (the battle),” he said. “We went back to Hawaii for a couple of days. We recuperated there, and they prepared us for the occupation of Japan.”

He said the returning Marines were made military police and shipped back out, where they occupied Japan for approximately six more months.

After being discharged from the service in 1943 at the age of 22, Wesolowski returned to Hamtramck and met his wife, Helen, a few years later.

“It was a blind date,” she said. “I knew nothing about him, and he knew nothing about me. Our friends decided to get us together, and it worked.”

She said he proposed after only six weeks of dating, and they got married the next year, in 1950. In June, the couple is set to celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary. They have two children and have lived in Shelby Township for 45 years.

Wesolowski said he ended up working in a machine shop, but prior to that, he held all sorts of jobs. As for his military experience, he said it is all over with, and he has since moved on with his life.

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