Gilberto Mendez thought it was over after six days.
But the battle that had seen him and his fellow soldiers of Fourth Division, Twenty-third Marine, I Company face wave after wave of charging Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima was just the beginning. “On the day following that, after the fire fight, we were ordered to move out and we started moving out and all hell broke loose again. Mortar fire and machine gun fire, rifle fire, antitank fire from the enemy,” Mendez recalled on August 26, 2011when he shared his story with the Nimitz Education and Research Center in Fredericksburg, Texas.
“We were ordered to move forward and, like I said, all hell broke loose.” The melee of violence saw a mortar shell hit close enough to Mendez that he was sent skyward. “It [the mortar] picked me up and then I felt the ground again, and with a terrible ring in my ear…And a corpsman and another marine tried to pull my tongue out with a big safety pin. They pierced my tongue and they were pulling my lip because I was choking on my own tongue.”
Marines move inland across landing beach, Iwo Jima 1945
Mendez tried to get up but was unable to do so. The percussion he’d experienced destroyed his equilibrium and put a ringing in his ear that would last for six months. “They took me to the rear area to the hospital. And the doctor came over and checked me out and everything, and he said, ‘No wounds.’” The doctor also told Mendez that he was lucky to be alive and had the not been carrying a pick shovel on his back when the mortar struck near him that he might have been killed. “They told me that a large piece of shrapnel was embedded in my shovel. The shovel saved my life.”
Mendez was given a shot by a nurse at the field hospital and awoke on an already moving ship. He was transferred to a hospital ship soon after and sent to the Oakland Receiving Hospital in California. From there he moved to Balboa Hospital in San Diego where he got some relief from the ringing in his ear while in the bathroom. “I was taking a shower. When I turned sideways and I got some water in my ear...And I was pounding on my head…when I heard a thump, thump on my ear, and the ringing subsided…It [the ringing] was still there but not with the intensity that I had before.”
Mendez was discharged from Balboa and sent to Marine Headquarters on November 10. He attended a parade that celebrated the anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps and then discharged. “I can say this with all sincerity: if I had to do it again, I would gladly do it.”
Distant picture of the famous "Flag Raising" at Iwo Jima 1945
Although Mendez’s time in the US Marines was short, he made a tremendous contribution. He was credited with twenty kills while on Iwo Jima and his actions saved countless lives. He severed with honor despite having to return to the States to enlist after he and his family were repatriated by the same government that he would later defend with such distinction.