These days, William J. Weismantel enjoys talking with two former Marines he met some seven decades ago when he was stateside receiving advanced infantry training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., before heading to the Pacific in World War II.
It’s a comfort to chat with his buddies, Melvin Johnson of Delaware, Ohio, and Jack Blandford of Massapequa, Long Island.
In the back of his mind, he wishes he could chat about old times with some of the fellows in his platoon who fought alongside him in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
But that’s just not possible.
Weismantel was the only member of his platoon to survive the bloody battle in which nearly 7,000 Americans were killed and more than 19,000 wounded.
“The initial plan for our platoon was to go to Okinawa, but conditions were so desperate for manpower that we were sidetracked to Iwo Jima. I was on a ship, and a fellow Marine said, ‘Hey, look. They’re putting up the flag.’ I looked and saw the flag the Marines put up on Iwo Jima,” Weismantel says, recalling the indelible image atop Mount Suribachi captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal.
That occurred Feb. 23, 1945. The next day, Weismantel and about 30 other members of his platoon were sent ashore to help secure an airstrip.
“They asked for a volunteer to serve as the platoon commander’s runner,” he says. “A runner did everything that the commander wanted. No one volunteered, and I was picked. I thought to myself, ‘Well this will be the end of me.’ ”
Little did he know that such hazardous duty would turn out to be a lifesaver for him – and him alone. The lieutenant he was running for suffered a severe shrapnel wound.
“Myself and a Navy corpsman managed to get the lieutenant back to be removed to a hospital ship,” Weismantel remembers. “Then, when I returned to my platoon, they were all dead. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I knew I couldn’t stay up there alone. I went back to headquarters.”
Weismantel had never imagined something like this happening to him. As a teenager, he was gung-ho when it came to the military and, in fact, had managed to secure a combined academic and working scholarship to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pa., where he had graduated before entering basic training at Parris Island, S.C.
When he made his way back to headquarters on Iwo Jima, there was no time for coddling or mourning. Death was everywhere. He was simply reassigned to a demolition team with the 3rd Division Engineers.
“I was with a team that set demolitions at cave openings. The enemy could often be located in these caves, and it was my job as the weapons man to protect the Marines setting the charges to close the openings,” Weismantel says.
And the horrors of war were ever-present.
One particular incident that demonstrates the randomness of death still stands out. He recalls being with a fellow Marine who was thrilled to see a bulldozer on Iwo Jima.
“He went over and told the Marine operating it that he had run one before the war,” Weismantel says. “That Marine offered him the chance to operate it while he took a break. The bulldozer was being used to probe for unexploded artillery rounds fired from American battleships.
“I don’t think more than 5 or 10 minutes had elapsed when he’d been operating the bulldozer, and it made contact with a buried shell. It exploded, and about the only thing left from that bulldozer were fragments from the seat. God, it was a huge explosion! It seemed like more than the operator should have been killed.”
On March 26, 1945, Weismantel says, he had the distinction of being the last Marine from the initial landing forces to leave Iwo Jima.
“As I was leaving,” he says, “I reached down and grabbed a handful of volcanic ash and put it in my pocket. I sent it to my friend, a bartender in downtown Buffalo. He put the ash in a shot glass and displayed it at the bar.”
A year later, he received his honorable discharge and joined his father, William A. Weismantel, and an uncle, Herman, in the family furniture and funeral business. He also married Ilse Peschan, and they raised four children.
More than three decades ago, he sold the funeral home on Main Street in Springville and opened his own restaurant, then sold it and worked as a sales representative for funeral home supplies. He now says, “I’m just enjoying life, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
A few years ago, life became even more enjoyable. He received a phone call from his former Marine buddy Johnson, whose brother had located him and Blandford through an Internet search.
“Melvin calls me two or three times a month, and Blandford is periodic,” Weismantel says. “You know the three of us talk very little about the Marine Corps. We talk about our families and how we are making out with our lives.”
Friday, Weismantel will travel to Wayne, outside Philadelphia, for a gathering that also promises to be enjoyable:
“I’m going to my 70th reunion for my class at Valley Forge Military Academy.”