Famous Marine battle honored by new aircraft carrier

BETHANY - Alfred Mauro was among the more than 1,000 Marine and Navy survivors of the most savage Pacific Island battle of World War II who watched commissioning of the USS Iwo Jima aircraft carrier at the Pensacola, Fla., Naval Base June 30. There also were 10,000 others who attended the ceremony.

As he watched, the Marine Corps veteran said, "I thanked God someone thought of the infantry" in designing the $1.2 billion amphibious assault ship. "The technology we have (now) will save lives," he said, because this new class of small carriers (40,500 tons, 844 feet long) carry 30 helicopters to ferry troops ashore. No more climbing down rope ladders to heaving landing craft , then bouncing through rough seas, exposed to enemy fire, demolition barriers and violent seasickness. No more wading ashore under withering fire with 60 - to - 100 pound packs. Troops won't get soaked, either, he said.

The memory of the brutal battle for the tiny, barren island of volcanic ash, the final "stepping stone" airbase to Japan, will live forever with Mauro and other survivors. It was the most costly battle in U.S. Marine history.

Iwo Jima was so heavily fortified with underground pillboxes, blockhouses, gun emplacements and telephone cable and honeycombed with 3 miles of tunnels that it "had to be reduced the hard way," by ground troops, Mauro said. The Marines fought above ground, the Japanese below, it was said.

The Japanese had had years to "lock in" firing zone controls. Every angle and beach was covered. Even 72 days of continuous bombing and naval strikes before the Feb. 19, 1945 invasion had negligible effect." We bombed and destroyed. They built," Mauro wrote in post-war notes.

The Bethridge Road resident, now 77, recalls one general saying "Victory was never in doubt. Its cost was." And the price was indeed high. More than 6,800 Marines were killed and 19,000 wounded in taking the island after bitter fighting. Few of the 22,000 Japanese survived the 36-day battle.

"The Japanese were trained to die for their emperor," Mauro said. "We were trained to die for our flag."

One of 11 children raised in New Haven and West Haven, Mauro enlisted as a teenager in 1943 and trained at the Marine bases at Parris Island, S.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif. He took part in the recapture battle for the island of Guam in 1944. Then, as a member of the Third Division, 27th Regiment, 9th Marines, he was part of an invasion force being planned for another island but held in reserve off Iwo. Casualties there ran so high they were thrown into the fight. Some 1,131 of the 5,569 division Marines lost their lives.

Iwo Jima was all foxholes. Mauro clearly remembers living in them in the open for 24 hot days and cold nights. "You dug in and you moved on," he said. Your helmet was your friend. "You ate in it. You cooked in it. You dug with it and even killed with it." You also washed and bathed in it.

Food was beans and sardines. 'I still like sardines," he said.

With death all around, the most traumatic moment for Mauro came when the Marine next to him took a direct hit and was decapitated. He never knew the man's name but had shared a brief, searing combat moment with him.

What tipped the balance of the prolonged battle for the Marines was their training, spirit and weapons, with the flame throwers a decisive factor. Only they could get into and around corners in the maze of concrete bunkers and tunnels.

One day, while "cleaning up the island," Mauro found a Japanese soldier's wallet, filled with family pictures. He remembers thinking, "This man was in a sense just like me. He didn't want to be there."

"We had great respect for our enemies," Mauro said. "They had mothers and fathers too." He added quietly, "No one wins in wars."

After the war Mauro joined his brothers in the family construction business. Their projects included an Albertus Magnus College building and Our Lady Of The Assumption Church and rectory in Woodbridge. A service-related disability forced him to retire in 1971.

Mauro and his wife Grace moved to Bethany 37 years ago to raise their family.

Long a devoted parishioner of the Assumption Church, Mauro has volunteered much time there, including 15 years of daily visits to the former pastor, the Rev. John Horgan, now 90 and bedridden, as adviser and assistant. "We're like father and son,' Mauro said, calling this his "personal mission."

Mauro is a member and chaplain of the Bethany Volunteers of Foreign Wars Post #2448 as well as a life member of the Connecticut Chapter of the Iwo Jima Association. The state has its own replica statue of the Marines' famous U.S. flag raising on Mount Suribachi on the island at New Britain. An eternal flame there keeps alive the memory of the spirit and sacrifice of those Marines who died.

"The heroes are the dead ones. They gave their lives," Mauro said. "Freedom is not free. We paid for it in blood."

Mauro hopes today's children will understand the war, "that it should never be seen again but should never be forgotten."