More than 60 years ago, two young men, neither one out of high school, joined the Marine Corp on opposite sides of the country: one, a boy from McLean, the other from California, enlisting to help defend their country in World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
There was no way of telling their lives would take parallel courses from that point on, returning home just after their 20th birthdays, being drafted to become CIA agents, retiring to homes in McLean after their years of service.
The single event that brought them together was not even uncovered until about 10 years ago, the 50th anniversary commemoration of the battle of Iwo Jima. In the 10 years since, Tom Cox and Jim Wheeler have become close friends, talking about their experiences to veterans groups and other organizations in the area.
“We were 43 days on a ship before we landed at what we knew as Island X,” Cox said.
“When we reached Xai Pan, it was part of an 800-ship armada,” Wheeler said. “They gave us maps and everything, and we went to Iwo Jima, which means ‘sulfur island,’ and the whole place was about the size of Dulles Airport,” he said.
A total of 75,000 troops took to the shores of the small, lava-encrusted island, told by their admirals that it would be “a piece of cake” to win the territory, Wheeler said.
“The Fifth Air Force had been bombing the island for 73 days until they said they couldn’t see any sign of life,” he said.
“There were 22,000 Japanese soldiers ingrained in about 18 miles of tunnels and caves throughout the island,” Cox said. “When we landed on the first morning, they gave us hand grenades and told us to kill our man the first day.”
The first three days were horrific, Wheeler said, as the leaders of the Japanese forces had been hand-selected by their commanding officer and had made Iwo Jima their home base.
Over 3,000 U.S. Marines died within those three days, many of them “caught in the crossfire” while trying to attack the Japanese forces on Mt. Sarabachi, the highest point on the island. It was not a direct attack, as tunnels carved into the mountain came out from the side, not from the front, and U.S. forces had to attack from an angle, Wheeler said.
On February 5, the fifth day of the attack, there was an eerie calm on Iwo, as the men call it.
“Tom’s group was right up to the base of the mountain, and they figured the Japanese were waiting,” Wheeler said. “The colonel sent two teams of five men to go to the top, figuring it would be a suicide mission, that they were waiting on the other side.”
They would later learn that the remaining Japanese soldiers on that end of the island had committed suicide.
THE GROUP OF MEN who had been sent to the top of the mountain were sent up again “with a flag to put on top of Mt. Sarabachi,” Wheeler said. “We then got a communiqué that the Navy Commander was coming onshore and wanted to take the flag with him, so they came back down and got a second flag from the ship I came in on.”
When the first flag went up signifying the American’s success on the south end of the island, the harbor was noisy with the sound of ships’ horns celebrating the victory, he said. “No one paid attention the second time.”
It wasn’t until the photograph of the men raising the second flag made it back to the U.S. that the commotion began. “President Roosevelt wanted to bring the men home to use for a bond drive, but what he didn’t know was only three of the men were still alive,” Wheeler said.
The battle, however, was far from over.
“Mt. Sarabachi is at the south point of the island, and the other Marines had been sent north, so we thought we’d cut the island in half,” Cox said. “We thought we’d be going home to Mom. We had no idea going home was going to be even worse.”
It was following that battle that the men’s lives went in different directions, but only temporarily. Wheeler was sent to Guam to train for the invasion of mainland Japan, while Cox was deployed to Nagasaki one month after the detonation of the atomic bomb.
The battle of Iwo Jima was never supposed to be so deadly, the men said.
“It’s hard to say how many Air Force people were saved” by being able to land on Iwo Jima during routine bombings of Tokyo, Cox said. The hidden Japanese forces proved a much more vicious foe than expected, costing thousands of men their lives.
The order to attack Iwo came from a panel made up of leaders from the U.S., Canada and Britain, he said. “It would’ve been nice if they could’ve sent us to Australia for six months and dropped the bomb on Iwo instead.”
Both men returned home shortly after their 20th birthdays, attended college courtesy of the GI bill and were recruited to join the CIA. They never knew each other during their tours in WWII; they never talked with their families about what they had seen or experienced at Iwo; they did not receive the hero’s welcome made famous through black and white photographs that filled the pages of popular magazines at the time.
In recent talks with Vietnam veterans, Cox took the opportunity to set straight some misconceptions of the welcome WWII vets received when they returned.
“Going to Nagasaki was like walking through Dante’s Inferno,” he said. “When we got home in May of 1946, there were no parades. There was a billboard near the base in San Diego that said ‘Welcome Home, Well Done,’ and all that paint was faded and peeling off.”
They did return home with some nightmares of the horrors of war they’d seen.
“We had a good view of a cemetery from the top of Mt. Sarabachi, and we’d see the couple hundred newly-dug graves when we’d shoot at them coming out of the mountain,” Wheeler said. “You could smell the Japanese we’d roasted with flame throwers.”
Patricia Wheeler, Jim Wheeler’s wife, said she had no idea during the first part of their marriage where her husband had served during WWII.
“I didn’t know until the 50th anniversary where he’d been,” she said. “When he began talking about it more, there wasn’t much I could say. He didn’t want to talk about it before, and I accepted that,” she said.
She credits his friendship with Cox for his openness and willingness to talk about that dark time in his life. “Men in those days didn’t talk about their experiences,” she said. “The older you get the more you think about what you’ve done.”
WHEELER’S DAUGHTER Suzanne and her husband Robert Klein have also helped bring his stories out of him, through questions, quiet conversations and arranging public talks about the battle.
“Growing up, he never talked about it,” Suzanne Wheeler Klein said. “After the anniversary celebration, that’s when he came out and started talking about it a bit more. It’s made him a little more outgoing on the topic. He’s gotten a lot of notability.”
As the mother of three young sons, she is planning a trip with her husband and her father to the USS Iwo Jima in Norfolk sometime soon. They have all been to the Iwo Jima monument in Washington together.
“It’s symbolic of an experience my father had as a young soldier,” she said. “It makes me very proud of him that he put his life on the line, it brings me back to what we have to do to keep our country safe for our children.”
Robert Klein said his father-in-law reveals more to him in quiet talks on the golf course and during long drives, when the two of them can speak together in private.
“These are old-school tough guys,” he said. “My dad’s the same way, and he’s a Korean vet. He tells me stories about how he got out of the war and joined the CIA, and they can’t really talk much about that.”
As Wheeler’s only son-in-law, he feels Wheeler is more comfortable confiding in him than his wife or daughter. “I asked him questions about what he did, and he was happy to talk to me about it,” he said. “I think for a long time he felt guilty that he had survived when over 100,000 other guys didn’t.”
In the past few years, the men have grown comfortable talking about what they witnessed.
“When [Tom] Brokaw wrote that book on the ‘Greatest Generation,’ I think we relaxed and started talking about” the battle, Wheeler said. “We locked it away because, going to college at the time, most people were GI’s.”
TIME HAS CHANGED how these men view the military operations of their country. Wheeler remains a Marine at heart, faithful and devoted to following what his Commander in Chief deems right. Cox, however, calls the war in Iraq a mistake and does not believe the U.S. should be attacking a nation that did not attack it first.
“We have different views on current events,” Cox said. “I feel we shouldn’t be in Iraq because we were not attacked by Saddam Hussein.”
“This terrorism we’re fighting is a different kind of war,” Wheeler said. “We’ve got to confront it. We’ve got to fight it.”
Cox was recently told by a friend that he lives in the past, a theory Cox said might well be true.
“I love the music, the movies, everything about the past,” he said. “I don’t like what’s going on in the world today. It’s not just the boys that are being killed and maimed overseas, it’s the mothers and the wives too.”
“I feel sad we don’t give our president the respect he deserves,” Wheeler said. “I’d like to see the country give him more support,” much like it was during WWII "when people who booed at the president during newsreels at the movies were thrown out for being unpatriotic,” he said.