Most 18-year old high school grads look forward to their new job or higher education. But for Phil Mounger, turning 18 meant joining the Marines and getting schooled in the brutal art of island warfare on a crater-pocked moonscape called Iwo Jima. It was the kind of experience no school can prepare you for—and staying alive was the ultimate test. It was a test Mounger almost didn’t pass.
“I had never been in combat before and didn’t know what to expect,“ said Mounger, now 85 and a resident at Querencia at Barton Creek, an upscale senior living community in West Austin. “Although, I do remember one officer telling his brother officer on our way over that Iwo Jima was going to be a terrible fight—not some easy pushover.”
Phil Mounger became a Marine because his older brother was one already, and because his country was still at war around the world. When he graduated Smithville High School in 1942, just 40 miles from Austin, he too chose to become a “leatherneck.”
The Marines were doing most of the “dirty work” in the Pacific, fighting their way up a chain of Pacific islands with names that still haunt many vets: names like Tarawa, Saipan, Guadalcanal, and Tinian. Securing “Iwo” meant gaining a landing filed for long-range bombers and their fighter escorts—within easy striking range of Japan itself. The Japanese understood the stakes and had fortified it with 20,000 battle-hardened troops, dug into solid rock and concrete, and protected by huge gun emplacements.
Mounger wound up being assigned to the 5th Marine Division and being shipped to Hawaii for final coordination. While there, he shared a tent with two Navajo “code talkers,” who became famous for their ability to encrypt messages in Navajo terms that the Japanese radio monitors could never crack. One in particular, named Willie Notah, became a close personal friend. Both men had no clue what lay ahead for them.
The U.S. Marines were to take the small but vital island of Iwo Jima at all costs. On invasion day, Mounger rode a landing craft in on the fifth wave of the assault, one of 60,000 Marines who came ashore. The battle for Iwo Jima was supposed to last three days; it wound up lasting 35. Ultimately, it claimed the lives of 6,821 Marines, with another 18,500 wounded. A like number of Japanese perished–holding out to the bitter end–preferring death to surrender. The Japanese made the Marines pay for every inch.
“We could only move 200 or 300 yards a day,” said Mounger. “Fortunately the island was full of bomb craters so you could find ready cover—except from a direct hit.”
Unfortunately, luck ran out for Mounger on his third day on Iwo Jima. As he was walking up a trail with his comrades, separated at five-yard intervals, he suddenly saw a brilliant orange flash and felt a numbing concussion envelop his body. The explosion killed his comrades instantly and left him flat on the ground, unable to move and afraid he’d be shot by small arms fire. He wasn’t sure if he lay there for minutes or hours, until a team of corpsmen loaded him on a stretcher and shot him full of morphine.
Mercifully, he was still alive. But sadly, a piece of shrapnel the size of a pencil eraser had pierced his lung, “skipped across his heart” and lodged in a heart muscle. Although numb from morphine and feeling no pain, his lungs began to fill with blood. His stretcher was placed in a rear area full of the dead and seriously wounded.
He was set out in open and soon it began to rain. The corpsmen pulled a tarp over his face as though he were gone. He spent that night lying outside in the rain. In the morning, he heard one of the medics tell the other, “that guy over there is dead”—meaning him.
Immediately, Mounger pulled back the tarp and shouted as loud as his injured lungs could manage: “ I’m not dead! I’m not dead! … I’m alive!” The surprised medics quickly attended him and stabilized his condition. Now, he had his “million dollar ticket” home.
Mounger also remembers that, while waiting to be evacuated from Iwo Jima, a commotion broke out among his fellow Marines. They told him that the American flag had been raised over Mt. Suribachi! The photograph of that flag planting instantly became world famous and remains the most famous wartime photograph ever taken.
His recovery began in a military hospital on Guam Island. While there, he was subjected to multiple operations—using a hollow needle and siphon—to remove fluid from his lungs, and later from around his heart. Since open heart surgery was unheard of in 1945, the doctors told him the shrapnel would be there forever—inserted just beside his heart.
It was while on Guam that Mounger also learned that his good friend Willie Notah and many other comrades had died there on Iwo Jima. Just a few millimeters of difference in the shrapnel wound site, and he too would have been KIA—“killed in action.”
With the surrender of Japan in 1945, Mounger returned to civilian life, taking up his love for steam locomotives and working as a fireman and engineer. Ultimately however, he desired something that touched more on human relations, so he earned a double degree in Anthropology and Social Economics from the University of Texas in 1953. He parlayed those degrees into a 25-year career with the National Labor Relations Board (NLBR). That job took him to San Francisco, where he enjoyed working to educate groups on union issues and also investigate unfair practices against union employees.
After retiring, Mounger sold his house in California and moved to Austin. There he discovered Querencia, a place he could relax and take stock of his long and eventful life. He felt at home among the many other veterans there, such as Travis Budlong. Budlong appreciates the sacrifices Mounger and other Marines made to secure Iwo Jima for more personal reasons; he was a 22-year-old B-29 pilot who was able to land there when needed—and enjoyed the protection of fighter air cover based on the island.
Today, Mounger, Budlong and others at Querencia reminisce about their experiences in WWII, often called the “Good War.” Having tasted war, Mounger considers himself a pacifist but he recalls his service and friendships fondly. You might say Mounger keeps such memories close to his heart, as even current X-rays reveal that the shrapnel he received on Iwo Jima 65 years ago still moves—with every beat of his heart.
src: PR Querencia at Barton Creek