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Iwo Jima Marine: 'Thank God I survived' (with audio, video)

PARRISH

The name of the small island did not alarm Gene Christie.

He was one of 30,000 U.S. Marines going ashore in landing craft that morning 65 years ago during World War II.

Christie’s world was Chicago, the Cubs and Georgia Burlingame, his Amundsen High School sweetheart waiting at home.

The island was Iwo Jima.

“I’d never heard of it,” said Christie, 87. “It was my first action and thought we were walking into an easy operation. It had been bombarded for so long. The first couple of waves were hardly fired upon. Then the third wave, mine, hit the beach.

“The Japanese opened up with everything they could.”

It was Feb. 19, 1945, a revered date in Marine Corps history.

“It seems like yesterday,” said Christie, who was with the 5th Marine Division. “You could hardly move up the beach because it was full of black volcanic sand. Getting beyond that point, there was nothing but bullets, bombs and people falling all over the place.

“The word ‘holocaust’ is used a lot, but that’s what Iwo was. A holocaust.”

More than 2,000 Marines would die before sundown — “A nightmare in hell,” war correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote — a precursor of a fierce 35-day battle to wrest the heavily fortified island from 22,000 entrenched Japanese troops.

Only eight square miles and 650 miles from Tokyo, Iwo Jima was targeted as an emergency airbase for B-29 bombers returning from raids against Japan.

The price was costly:

n Of the approximately 19,000 Marines killed in World War II. one-third died at Iwo Jima.

n It was the only Marine battle where the number of American casualties (26,038 killed and wounded) exceeded the enemy’s. Barely 1,000 Japanese survived.

n 27 Medals of Honor were awarded, the most in American history for a single military engagement.

“Many times he told us kids how lucky we were to be here because he could’ve been one of those killed at Iwo Jima,” said daughter Marny Eastman of Bradenton. “I don’t think people today appreciate the sacrifices they made.”

A handsome portrait of the family, hanging in Gene and Georgia Christie’s winter home, is testament to his good fortune.

“I’m blessed,” he said. “I thank God I’m alive.”

An orphan, Christie and his wife have nine children and 23 grandchildren.

Symbolically, photos of Iwo Jima are near the family picture.

“He didn’t talk about it for years, but after he did and I realized what he’d been through, I was astounded,” Christie’s wife said.

One photo is of the iconic flagraising at Mt. Suribachi — immortalized by photographer Joe Rosenthal — 65 years ago today.

“I never knew they had raised the flag,” Christie said. “A lot of us were still fighting at the base of Suribachi. There was a battle still going on.”

The battle on Iwo Jima ended for Christie on March 3, 1945.

He was shot through the right arm, disabled, and sent to a hospital ship.

His war, violent and brief, was over.

“It was my only operation, but it was enough,” Christie said. “We’ve had freedom to enjoy as the greatest generation. I’m proud of it.”

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