Iwo Jima battle influences life of public service

George Wetzel turned 24 during month-long siege

By Jennie ZeitlerStaff Writer


 

A reminder of the part he played in the battle for Iwo Jima, George Wetzel sits with a statue that still holds a prized place on his desk.

George Wetzel was a young man of 20 when the United States joined the Allied Forces in World War II. He was a law student at the University of Minnesota and was able to defer his service for a time.

“Then I enlisted in the Marines so I wouldn’t get drafted,” George said. “If I was going to fight, I was going to fight with the best.”

He headed to Parris Island, S.C. for basic training. He then spent four months at Camp Pendleton, Calif. before going to Camp Tarawa, Hawaii.

“The 5th Marine Division had just been created specifically for Iwo Jima, and because of the timing, I was in it,” he said. “We knew we were going to some island, but didn’t know which one.”

The Marines stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima Feb. 19, 1945. It turned into a month-long battle with the highest casualty rate of any World War II battle.

George was in the fourth wave to land, going ashore at Green Beach, the closest landing spot to Mount Suribachi on the southern tip of the island.

“A lot of guys were killed in the surf. The surf was red when I went through and I was scared when I saw that,” he said.

Normally a Marine would dig a hole to take cover, but that didn’t work on Iwo Jima because the ground was volcanic ash and just collapsed.

“After a while we found an old Japanese underground hole, bigger than a pillbox,” he said. “We captured that and stayed there.”

George’s son, Michel Wetzel, said, “When we would watch war movies, Dad would just laugh to see the Marines standing up. He said that everywhere a person went they were crawling or staying low.”

On the morning of the second day, George woke up to discover that he was on the front lines. The infantry had shifted during the night, marching through his unit for the attack on Mount Suribachi.

His job was to gather information from forward observers on where to shoot and then relay that to the gunners, who could set the coordinates for the guns.

Mount Suribachi was taken on the fourth day of battle, a moment George clearly recalls. “Turning around and seeing the flag flying on Suribachi surprised us,” he said. “It moved me.”

But he didn’t anticipate that the flag-raising would be so significant. “I didn’t know it would become such a famous national symbol of the war,” said George.

Once Suribachi was taken, his unit moved west across the island and then advanced to the north.

“We were afraid of getting hit with artillery,” he said. “It never stopped. At night it quieted down, but then it would intensify the next day.”

Less than two weeks after storming the beach, George marked his 24th birthday. It wasn’t something he realized at the time, since he had “more important things to worry about,” he said.

He was on the island for the entire siege, but he never saw a Japanese soldier. The Japanese hid underground in elaborate tunnels and caves. He didn’t expect the battle to last so long.

“We had been told that they’d bombed the island so heavily ahead of time that we’d take it in a matter of days,” he said.

He escaped injury or death more than once during that long month. One time he was looking through binoculars on a tripod but moved over to let someone else look. The man who stepped up to the binoculars got hit in the chest.

Another time, he traded a watch shift with someone who was then hit by a grenade while on watch.

Iwo Jima turned out to be the bloodiest battle of the entire war, with a higher casualty rate even than D-Day.

There were many difficult conditions that the Marines faced.

George’s daughter, Toni Wetzel, recalls hearing her dad tell about the fact that there were no clothing changes on the island. They wore the same fatigues for the entire duration of the battle (approximately 36 days). Once back on the ship after the battle, the men were issued the clothing that was taken off deceased or wounded Marines, and there was no time and no resources to remove the name patches that were on them.

“By the end of the trip, they often referred to each other by the names on their jackets,” Toni said. “My father always sent a Christmas card to his old Marine buddy Lou. But in the salutation, he always called him ‘Phenouf’ which was the surname on the jacket that Lou was issued.”

After the battle, George’s unit went back to Hawaii to prepare to attack the Japanese mainland.

“I thank God that the war ceased, because then we didn’t have to attack Japan,” he said.

He had occupation duty following the war for six months, landing at Sasabo on the west side of Kyushu Island in September 1945.

He stood on the edge of Nagasaki looking at the aftermath of the atomic bomb that had dropped August 9.

“I saw the rubble; there was not much standing,” he said. “I was shocked that a bomb would blow a city apart.”

One of the unit’s main tasks during those six months was to burn ammunition. George found the Japanese people to be very cordial.

George Wetzel kept this print of a soldier’s welcome home on his desk as a reminder of his war service. To him, it is the most touching picture of World War II, surpassing even the Mt. Suribachi flag-raising.

George returned to Little Falls but soon headed back to finish law school at the University of Minnesota, which he did in 1948.

He joined his uncle Charles Fortier’s law practice for a short time, but left to work in Wadena for about six months.

He then joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), working in Quantico, Va. for training and was then assigned to Johnson City, Tenn., New York City and Nome and Fairbanks, Alaska.

Michel said, “He always told us he joined the FBI because it was a prestigious job, and would permit him to see more of the country than his law practice would allow. Those were important things to a young man, but became less important as time went on.”

Of his time in New York, George said, “I just tried to keep from getting shot.”

After about five years in the FBI, George’s Uncle Charlie was run over by a car back in Little Falls and George returned home to practice law in 1953.

He represented District 53 in the Minnesota State House of Representatives from 1957 to 1961.

He was appointed to the bench as a probate judge in 1971, later serving as a county judge and then as a district judge.

“It was a job to do; it was an honorable position,” he said. “It was difficult making decisions in a lot of cases,  mainly in child custody cases. But I liked marrying people.”

Originally retiring in 1987, George found it hard to stop, and continued to work part-time until the early 1990s.

“The most fun about retirement is not working — and having more time to spend with my family,” he said. Wetzel, 91 years old, and his wife, Erna, have five children: Denise, George, Jr., Michel, Valerie and Antoinette (Toni).

“It was an honor to serve our country, and to serve people as a judge,” said George. “But it’s been a pleasure to be retired.”

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