LAKEWOOD RANCH -- One step into Jim Haskins’ sixth-grade history class at Braden River Middle School on Tuesday transported students 69 years back in time.
Standing straight and tall at the head of the class was World War II veteran Hurb Thompson, 86. He was decked out in dress blues as he shared his story of being a teenager who enlisted in the Marine Corps.
The year was 1942. World War II was raging and Thompson detailed his late teenage years to sixth-graders in observance of Veterans Day.
“I had never been away from home,” Thompson said. “I had never heard of Iwo Jima. Everybody was scared.”
The class of 11- and 12-year-olds weren’t that much younger than Thompson when he faced going to war.
“He was five years older than you when he went in the war,” Haskins said to students.
But to hear him tell it, he didn’t think he would be caught up in one of the deadliest battles -- the Battle of Iwo Jima.
“It was the toughest, dirtiest battle in the Pacific,” Thompson said.
Students’ eyes widened and a hush crept over the room as Thompson explained the details -- 6,821 men killed, 19,218 wounded on the island that spanned just 8 square miles.
He asked students to do the math. “That’s 852 men killed in a square mile,” he stressed.
Soldiers didn’t eat. They couldn’t sleep. Thompson said showering wasn’t an option. Students asked, how could you not shower? What did you look like when it was over?
“I always wonder what I looked like after that situation,” Thompson said. “One man said, ‘It don’t make any difference, we all smell the same anyway.’ ”
His levity led students to chuckle. He described digging a hole in the pebbly earth of the island only to see that the beach would provide no protection. He passed around a sample of that sand -- a treasured memento he received after going back to the island years later.
“There were more dead Marines there than in all of (the battles in) Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said. “If you tried to dig a hole so the bullets wouldn’t hit you, it would just cave in.”
At night, Japanese soldiers would take the uniforms off of dead American soldiers and put them on as camouflage.
“This was the most heavily fortified island in the Pacific,” Thompson said. “We were like sitting ducks in a pond.”
Japanese soldiers filled the tunnels on the island. That’s why the casualty rate was so high, Thompson said.
“If you stayed in one spot too long you’d be killed or wounded,” he said. “There was no place to hide really.”
It was pitch black on Thompson’s most frightening night. He didn’t skip a beat as he recalled spending a night in a cave in a sulfur pit.
“The Japanese had dug trenches from the pit to the beaches,” he said.
About 17 days into the battle, Thompson and two others were given explosives to cave in one of the trenches. He had his backpack of explosives on when something hit his wrist. It was March 7, 1945 and he had been shot. Once in the wrist, another shot to the side, which ended up in his chest. Then another shot in his buttocks.
“I still have shrapnel in my chest cavity and one in the right buttock,” he said.
His friend looked at his helmet on that infamous day and said, “I saw your helmet. I thought you were a goner.”
“I wish I had that helmet,” Thompson said. “I wish I knew what it looked like.”
He was hoisted up into a hospital ship as his body dangled over the Pacific Ocean. Later he was sent to California, which is where he was when the battle ended.
“It’s a wonder any of us got off that beach,” he said. It’s a miracle of God I guess.”
Thompson earned the Purple Heart, which he lovingly keeps in a box with small pieces of the shrapnel medics got out of him.
Eleven-year-old Gabriella Alfonso said, “I was so proud of what he did -- just of all the things he went through. It’s cool he survived from all of that.”
Thompson said he’s most proud of the iconic image of the U.S. soldiers holding up the American flag at Iwo Jima.
“It was a gratifying experience,” Thompson said about serving his country.