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Belk recalls year-long campaign of island hopping

Photo by Terry Lewis

Photo by Terry Lewis

ALBANY, Ga. -- During much of 1944 and early into 1945, as the 4th Division's 20th Marines were hopping from island to island -- Eniwetok Atoll to Saipan to Tinian and on to Iwo Jima -- Sgt. John E. Belk had one recurring thought each time he and his fellow Marines hit the beach: "Are you going to make it this time?"

Belk did make it, and 66 years later the former grunt recalled the harrowing World War II campaign in the Pacific.

"We had a rough time of it," Belk, 87, said. "Our whole division was called upon to do a lot ... but really no more than everybody else."

During a 16-month period, Belk and the 4th participated in some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Theater. In the four campaigns in which he participated, more than 62,000 soldiers (not counting civilians) died.

The Americans lost more than 10,000 men while the Japanese defenders lost more than 52,000 men.

"Entiwetok was a picnic compared to the other places," Belk recalled. "It was the first of just many little islands. It had a big communications center on it. It was the first time I hit the beach and my biggest concern wasn't really the Japs, but getting shot accidentally from behind. We had a guy who was in the front of the push get all shot up, but all his wounds were in the rear.

"Friendly fire was a big concern for all of us."

Saipan, where nearly 3,000 Marines died, was another story all together.

"Saipan was where I just about got it," Belk said. "There was a Jap up in a smokestack directing mortar fire down right on top of us. It was heavy fire, like bees all around us kicking up dirt and sand. We took lots of casualties, they were coming our of ears ...

"The guys in the unit next to us figured out where he was and went and took care of him."

As the Marines advanced to the center of the island, the Japanese began committing suicide en mass. Facing imminent defeat, nearly 5,000 Japanese troops and civilians killed themselves by jumping off the island's cliffs.

"Blood and broken people were everywhere," Belk said. "They died where they landed."

Then came Iwo Jima.

"Oh, God ..." Belk responded when asked what he experienced on the island. "The landing took forever. It was hard for us to get enough troops on the beach. It took three days for us to establish a beachhead.

As soon as one of the landing craft got to the beach, the Japs would hit it -- they were knocking them out as we landed. Bodies were everywhere.

"The place was nothing but rocks and caves. We ran into constant opposition and they (the Japanese) just wouldn't quit," Belk said. "We bypassed the caves at first, but they were digging tunnels all over the place. They were underground.

"I remember trying to get some sleep in a fox hole and I could hear them digging underneath us. They were everywhere."

Belk remembers when the fight tipped in the Marines' direction.

"We brought in flame-throwers," said Belk. "The flame men would pour flames into the holes and the Japs would run out like birds without feathers, their skin falling off.

"I don't think they use flame-throwers any more. It was the most dehumanizing thing I've ever seen in my life."

After Iwo Jima, Belk's unit was sent to Maui to regroup and take some much needed R&R. In the meantime the war in the Pacific ended and Belk was sent Japan to participate in the occupation.

Belk was discharged in 1946, but not before being asked if he was interested in re-enlisting.

"I asked the man if he was crazy," he replied. "I'm going home."

Belk married his wife of 62 years, Maxine, in 1947. The couple raised five children and he retired from Belk Chemicals in 1998.

"I lost a lot of buddies, but I never got a scratch," Belk said. "Worst I got was when a scorpion stung me on the ear on Saipan. I was one of the lucky ones."