Meriden man played pivotal role in famous photograph
By Paul Struck
With Veterans Day recently celebrated and a growing interest in the World War II invasion of Iwo Jima thanks to Clint Eastwood's recently released movie "Flags of our Fathers," the horrific memories of many WW II military veterans are today returning to the surface.
As Hughes reluctantly recalls it, when the Marines ultimately took the mountain by either driving back or extinguishing the well-armed, well-imbedded Japanese, a tremendous roar - a cheer if you will - thundered down from the mountain top from the thousands of Marines who had stormed the volcanic fortress over a non-stop four-day invasion.
"I was a member of the Navy 'beach party,'" said Hughes, his eyes welling as the flood of terrible memories eased to the fore. We stayed on the beach, were armed with carbines, and worked with the ships to unload Marines, equipment, ammunition, medical and food supplies. We helped shuttle the injured to the beach hospital and the ship hospitals. The dead, we just left where they fell because there was no time to take care of them."
The horrific reality of soldiers dying all around him didn't hit the numbed Nevada, Missouri high school graduate until he stood to signal one time and "something" hit him in the back that knocked him to the ground. Stunned, he slowly rose to his feet and, upon inspection, found a hole in his backpack. He opened the backpack to find a hole through his blanket, through the mess kit, and a sniper's bullet lodged in the mess kit pan.
"Without that backpack, I'm not here today," said Hughes, his eyes looking blankly at the carpet beneath his chair. "God must have been looking out for me."
As all the terrible memories began to shape, Hughes continued. "We were under constant mortar attacks from the Japanese. A mortar hit our camp and exploded several barrels of gasoline. Five Marines were walking by at the time and were immediately engulfed in the flames. They ran until the died.
A few hours later, a foxhole close to ours (two men in a foxhole) was hit and two members of our beach party died instantly."
With that, Hughes talked his foxhole buddy into running down to the shore with him to get one of the 4x8-foot perforated steel "sheets" used for traction for the tanks and Jeeps coming ashore from the LSTs. "My God, it was heavy, but we dragged it back up the beach and put it over our foxhole. Then we packed sandbags on top. The next day, a mortar hit it and our lives were saved," explained the doting father of three children and nine grandchildren.
When Hughes's ship - the APA 120 U.S.S. Hinsdale - first arrived off the coast of Iwo Jima, they dropped anchor and listened all day and night to the Americans pound the island with bombs and various fire-power from battle ships and planes. "You can't believe the amount of ammo, bombs and shells we exploded on that island. It was tons and tons for an entire day and night," said Hughes.
The beach party and 1,200 Marines aboard the Hinsdale met with commanding officers that night and were told by a Rear Admiral that the invasion the next day would be "duck soup." He told the men that they had pounded the island so severely that it was nearly flattened and that no one could survive such an onslaught. The Hinsdale Marines and beach party were the first wave of the U.S. invasion, the plan to take Iwo Jima and then head to D-Day at Okinawa.
All told, 110,000 Marines from 880 ships sped from Pearl Harbor to Iwo Jima in 40 days for the invasion, with thousands of Leathernecks ultimately killed there.
Hughes said when his beach party first hit the island, following the Marines ashore, there were unidentifiable torsos, limbs and body parts all over the beach. Many of the men paused to weep and vomit and then stayed the course of the invasion and setting up camp.
"It took four days to get to the top of that mountain and the wounded and the dead kept coming in real fast. We could not keep up. It was just terrible," added Hughes.
After six horrific days on Iwo Jima, the job was completed, the enemy routed or destroyed, and Hughes's beach party and some of the surviving Marines boarded the Hinsdale and headed back to Pearl Harbor for three weeks of R&R, before heading to Okinawa to do it all again.
As a U.S. Navy Signalman, Hughes was the one ordered to summon from a ship a larger flag for the historic photo taken by Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer covering World War II and the invasion of Iwo Jima following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Hughes also played a critical role in his ship's return from Iwo Jima and then a frightful trek to Okinawa that suddenly turned deadly when the ship - the U.S.S. Hinsdale - was struck by a kamikaze plane loaded with bombs.
After the Iwo Jima victory, the Hinsdale returned to Pearl Harbor for three weeks of R&R before the ship headed to the pending Pacific War climax at Okinawa. The Hinsdale was one of 1,213 "Joint Expeditionary Force" ships loaded with more than a half million troops headed to the April Fool's Day Battle at Okinawa.
"We just about lost the ship," said Hughes in recalling the deadly blast. "She started to list and take on water and all the survivors were ordered to rush to the starboard side. All our weight on the starboard side righted the ship and lifted the hole in the hull above the water line.
"It was terrible. There were so many dead and wounded and the kamikazes just kept coming. There were no lights on board. I was manning a 20-mm cannon on a walk-way on the portside and we shot down two kamikaze planes. "I got some good hits on those Japanese planes and that was a very good feeling seeing the tracers hit their target."
As the kamikaze attacks subsided, soldiers pumped the water out of the ship, recovered bodies and tended to the wounded, while another group welded metal plates over the holes in the ship that was stopped dead in the water. The Hinsdale was then towed to Kerama Retto about 20 miles away at an agonizing speed of just five knots.
On April 14, the Hinsdale was then towed in a convoy of LSTs 4,000 miles south to Ulithi where it underwent a month of extensive repair work. "We had no power. On the trip to Ulithi, we just went alongside the repair ship for three weeks straight," explained Hughes "We were sitting ducks.
On May 20, the repaired ship sailed for the States and put into Brooklyn Navy Yard 2 in July, 1945 for a complete overhaul. While there the Big Bomb landed in Hiroshima and the Japanese surrendered.
In November, the Hinsdale then sailed via Pearl Harbor to Sasebo and Nagasaki to pick up more than 1,000 troops, and reached San Francisco in January, 1946.
Hughes then got his orders to go to Treasure Island near Alcatraz to wait for his discharge. He then was sent to the Olathe, Kan. Naval Air Station. After being discharged there, he began farming with his brother in Missouri but there was a severe drought so he gave the farm to his brother and began hitch-hiking with a buddy to California from Kansas City, Mo.
It was during this venture that circumstances and fate led Hughes to Cherokee County and, eventually Meriden where his "blessed' life has unfolded.
"We were going to California. I met a girl when I was stationed out there after the war and I was going to go out there and get married and settle down," explained Hughes cautiously."
As fate would have it, Jim's buddy lost his wallet in one of the cars that had picked them up while they were hitch-hiking on U.S. Highway 30 in Iowa. "I'm not footing the bill in California," Jim sternly told his buddy.
The pair had heard of possible farming jobs in Cherokee, so they decided to hitch-hike to Cherokee. They got rooms in the Lewis Hotel in downtown Cherokee and put their names in at the Chamber of Commerce.
Shortly, Hughes was hired by Cleghorn farmer Russell Fredrickson who just so happened to have a beautiful niece named Vanny who one day came by the farm.
Today, after 54 years of marriage, Jim and Vanny are the proud parents of three adult children - James III, age 53; Traci, age 50, and David, age 42. They have nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
"I worked for the Fredricksons for about five years and Vanny and I got married in 1952," added Signalman 3rd Class Hughes. "We rented a farm south of Meriden and then later got the opportunity to buy one so we did it."
While raising his family and farming, Jim also pitched a lot a amateur baseball and took up the game of golf.
James III is married to Linda (Goodburn) and they are the parents of three - daughter Molly Paulsrud, 24, of Ida Grove, who with husband Eli are the parents of Alex age five, and Anna age three; son Corey, age 24, of Orange City; and daughter Rachel, age 20, a student at Iowa State University.
Traci is married to David Woodward, a minister in Brenham, Texas, and they are the parents of Jessica, who lives in Hollywood, Calif., and sons Weston and Taylor, students at the University of Texas.
David, age 42, lives in Orange City with wife Bev (Nelson) and they have three children - son Cody in 8th grade, and daughters Courtney a junior in high school, and Sydney a 4th grader.
Before he left the interview, Jim Hughes said he had one more thing to say about Iwo Jima, and when one of our country's war veterans asks to speak, you shut up and listen.
"We were hunkered down in our foxholes in the dark under heavy mortar attacks that never seemed to end. The smell of death and exploding ammunition was everywhere. My (foxhole) buddy finally said, 'Jim, do you know how to pray?' I told him yes, and he said 'Then, get with it.'
"You know, God was with me all the way through. I could have died on several occasions. I'll never forget it. I can't forget it."