A Place Called Home
Joe LaNier grew up in the Jim Crow–era South and served in the segregated Navy during World War II. All he knew was separate and unequal. Until he came to Denver.
Iwo Jima 1945
One year after he’d enlisted in Mississippi, LaNier found himself far from home and part of an elite fraternity: He was one of the fewer than 1,000 African-Americans serving on Iwo Jima. For the blacks in the U. S. Navy 23rd Special Seabees, however, the monotony quickly set in as they were at best grunts amidst what would be the most publicized Pacific battle of World War II. While death was all around them, their world was comprised of just a few hundred yards. They carried out orders as they were handed down, unloaded ships, battled thirst, and sweat through the blazing sun in the middle of the Pacific. On the north side of the island, Marines continued the advance to gain control of “Sulfur Island” (the English translation for Iwo Jima) against Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who’d spent time in the States for part of his schooling. To the southwest, LaNier’s segregated unit went about its daily routine, despite the certainty that the enemy was still scattered within nearby Mt. Suribachi, which was filled with undetected tunnel systems.
On the other side of the small island, evidence of the carnage and chaos of the landing on Iwo Jima still littered the beaches, all within walking distance of LaNier’s unit. Amazingly, LaNier’s unit never lost a man on Iwo Jima; none of them was even injured. “You have a power structure in the service that doesn’t see you as a group that’s making a contribution to the fighting of this war,” LaNier says. “You are the guy that picks up the cans—you’re ancillary. It’s an indication of what the ‘powers-that-be’ thought about us as a unit.”
On a plateau, a small tent city operated as planned. It was here that LaNier was assigned a job as an assistant inside the carpentry shop. As a gopher, he would haul two-by-fours, two-by-sixes, planks, wood, and other imported construction materials around in the crude lumberyard. The 23rd Seabees were tasked with constructing makeshift structures, while others in the unit were stevedores, responsible for unloading ships, working the docks, and transporting goods.
It was on the plateau that he noticed the flies. They were much bigger than ones he’d seen at home. These were big, green flies—bigger, LaNier surmised, because of the bodies on the island. The carnage was everywhere, and the putrid smell of death consistently filled the air.
The unit spent four months in this new, sandy, dusty plateau area up from the beach. LaNier and a fellow Seabee shared a small canvas tent. Each Seabee tent had two cots but lacked basics like tables and lights. Wool blankets were issued, but because of the warm temperatures, the men usually slept on top of the blankets in their shorts. It was up to each man to decide how he would use his two canteens of water per day. Men grew itchy stubble or full beards to save the water used shaving. The Seabees built a shower system comprised of half-barrels that tilted and spilled water, but bathing was infrequent. As the front expanded on the north side of the island, American troops took over Japanese-built water purification systems. Slowly, water became more readily available.
There were occasions when the men of the 23rd were able to see newsreels from the States. The Seabees, an ingenious bunch, would hang a sheet against a tent as someone manned the film projector. This was the only visual clue of the war’s progression; however, the soldiers were able to hear the music from back home on the radio—via the enemy. Several radios were scattered about in the tent city, and many of the men gathered around the small devices to listen to the infamous Tokyo Rose. Beginning at 6:30 every evening, the sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey could be heard coming from the tents, all lined up just a few hundred yards from mass carnage.
Of course, there was propaganda. Despite the misinformation, the black Seabees were amused by the Tokyo Rose broadcasts and listened every evening. Even so, LaNier noticed that on certain nights her psychological warfare succeeded. Many men would often stare off into the night, wondering if their girls back home still loved them and if they would live to see another day on Iwo Jima.
The weeks on Iwo Jima had now turned into months of living on the dusty, acrid island. By the middle of the summer, the men of the 23rd were informed that they would be moving on to another “destination unknown.” LaNier didn’t need an explanation. He wasn’t eager to leave Iwo Jima: The fact remained—LaNier was better off socially and economically in the Navy than he was back home in Mississippi. His unit’s time on Iwo Jima was coming to an end, and the men began the organized teardown of the tent city.
Over the course of the next two weeks, the tents came down, the dump was cleared out, and matériel was packed in crates headed aboard LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks). Trucks and ammunition were loaded back up; the stevedores, maintenance workers, construction specialists, ensigns, chaplain, and even medical and dental officers all prepared to leave Sulfur Island. Sweaty, dirty men went back and forth countless times from the plateau to the shore, loading and unloading trucks full of supplies. LaNier had never seen trucks like these in Mississippi and was fascinated by the size and power of the ones used in transport. He quietly continued to hope someday, in the near future, he would get his wish to drive one. He watched as his home on Iwo Jima disappeared— every bit dismantled and loaded up for the next destination.