Walter T. Oelerich still searches for the grave of Pvt. Joseph P. Naulty, hoping to pay final respects to a teenage friend killed a stone's throw from him 70 years ago at Iwo Jima.
The two Marines had been almost inseparable since they had met at boot camp the year before Naulty bled out on the Pacific islet neither of them had even heard of.
Even at the final moment of their comradeship, when a bullet pierced Naulty's chest the same Feb. 23, 1945, day that Marines raised the flag over Mount Suribachi, they were only a few dozen yards apart.
"I didn't know he had been hit," said Oelerich, 88, a retired NYC transit police officer who has lived in his Farmingdale home since 1957. "But I wasn't in my hole five minutes before I got the word. Naulty got it."
The two men had been ordered to dash about 100 yards to retrieve a pair of 5-gallon canteens. Oelerich had sprinted ahead, making it safely back to their foxhole.
"I was upset," he continued. "I was training with him all that time, had traveled all the way across America, to Hawaii with him, across the Pacific. And he gets it over a 5-gallon water can."
Oelerich, who served with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine, 4th Division, is one of a dwindling number of eyewitnesses to one of the bloodiest land battles of World War II's Pacific Theater. Only the battles of Luzon and Okinawa claimed more American lives.
The 36-day struggle was launched to wrest Iwo Jima from dug-in Japanese forces. Japanese fighter planes from Iwo Jima had been savaging American bombers flying toward Japan. And capturing Iwo Jima would also provide crippled American warplanes a safe place to land. The emergency strip saved the lives of 24,000 U.S. airmen who otherwise would have crashed at sea, according to the World War II Museum in New Orleans.
But victory exacted a horrific cost in blood.
A total of 70,000 U.S. Marines and 18,000 Japanese soldiers squared off on tiny Iwo Jima island's 8 square miles of misery and volcanic sand.
Nearly 27,000 Americans were wounded, 6,821 of them fatally, according to historian Robert Burrell, author of "The Ghosts of Iwo Jima." Fewer than 1,100 Japanese survived.
During an interview in his living room, Oelerich recounted a battle so intense he never bathed or even removed his shoes over its entire five weeks.
He arrived in the afternoon of Feb. 19, 1945, among the second wave of Marines to hit the beach on the battle's first day.
Landing Marines faced fire from Japanese troops sheltered in bunkers dug into the volcanic rock, or hidden in caves on Mount Suribachi.
There was little place to hide. The island's volcanic sand was so powdery it was impossible to dig foxholes deep enough to provide much protection from Japanese snipers hidden in bluffs that rose above them.
"For the entire time we were on the beach, for three days before we moved further in, your head was always exposed," he said. He recalled being puzzled by fleeting hissing sounds until he realized they were snipers' bullets whizzing past.
Death was random.
Oelerich recalled pausing for a cigarette break in the relative safety of a bomb crater with a fellow Marine he remembers only as Schneider. Oelerich said Schneider flicked away a cigarette butt and scampered off. Moments later, he was dead.
"Every day, there was another face or two missing," Oelerich recalled. "As the battle wore on, I got more anxious. I thought, 'My number is coming up, it has to be.' "
Along with Naulty and Schneider, Oelerich knew 35 others who died at Iwo Jima. These many years later, a plaque inscribed with their names hangs in an upstairs room at his home.
"I didn't drink after I came home, and I didn't have bad dreams," he said. "But now and then when I talk about the fellows, I can tear up. But you just move on."
A Crown Heights, Brooklyn, native, Oelerich made it home with barely a scratch. With his 1946 honorable discharge in hand, he joined the transit police in 1950, the same year he married fellow Brooklynite Mary Boyle. He retired in 1981.
He said he is still trying locate Naulty's grave. Oelerich feels time is running out for him to get a chance to pay his last respects.
"It sounds silly, but I wanted to tie up loose ends, sort of close it," he said, his easy voice suddenly tight.
He drew quiet for a moment.
"Some of them don't make it, some of them do," he said of war's random hand. "I don't know why."