Tony Moccero and the Marines of Iwo Jima
By Aaron M. Little with Andrew Knox
The 700 Club
Iwo Jima is only eight square miles in size, yet it was the stage for the costliest battle in U.S. Marine Corps history. Over 23,000 Marines would be killed or injured during the five-week conflict for control of the island. Tony Moccero was one of the first Marines on the shore the morning of the invasion, which was ironic because initially he didn’t meet the physical criteria to join the corps.
Tony Moccero: You had to weigh 140 lbs and be 5’ 8”. I weighed 123 and was only 5’6”. I ate a lot of bananas, drank a lot of water, went back, stood on my toes when they took my height and I weighed 126. They gave me a break and put me in.
Andrew Knox: Why did you want to be in so bad?
Moccero: We had to do it. The Japanese had attacked us, and I thought we had to fight for our country.
The U.S. command expected the invasion of Iwo Jima, named Operation Detachment, to be over quickly.
Moccero: They told us that in three days this battle will be over.
U.S. intelligence underestimated the enemy. The Japanese had been preparing and were heavily fortified and deeply entrenched in the island.
Moccero: They owned Iwo Jima for 80 years, and they had the best mining engineers, big caves and tunnels. And they went down about 25-30 feet. And they had a hospital for the Japanese that had about 300 beds in it. Almost everything was under ground.
Months of bombings by U.S. forces had little effect on the Japanese, who waited safely underground. On the morning of February 19, 1945, the shellings stopped and the U.S. Marines began their assault. As the they approached the beach, Tony, who had become a Christian just months before, took the opportunity to encourage a frightened fellow Marine.
Moccero: I looked at a Marine next to me, and I said, "Are you afraid to die?" He said, "Sure, I’m afraid to die, aren’t you?" I said, "Yes, I don’t want to die, but I’m not afraid." He said, "Why not?" I said, "Because I just gave my life to Jesus and the Bible says if we live, we’ll never die and if we die, we’ll live again. Do you mind if I pray with you?" He gave his life to Jesus on that Amtrak. As soon as he said, "I’m fine. I’m okay now. Thank you, Tony." The Amtrak hit the beach and he disappeared.
The Japanese had taken positions on and inside the 554-foot Mount Suribachi. The higher ground provided them considerable advantage as they opened fire. The Marines, exposed on the beach, began dying in mass numbers.
Moccero: The fire that was coming at us, we couldn’t even see where it was coming from. It came from everywhere. From below us, above us, beside us, in front of us. We were just like sitting ducks in a fishbowl. I was just kinda blank. My thought was that I had to just do what they told me to do, just go right across Suribachi on the other side. I called it a suicide mission.
Knox: What was the difference when you arrived on that island that you didn’t expect?
Moccero: The difference was the casualties that we had.
Knox: Seeing so much death and disaster and all this hell on earth, what does all of this do to a young soldier’s faith in Jesus Christ?
Moccero: It strengthened it because He spared me. I’ve said to many men I wasn’t lucky and I wasn’t better than, holier than anybody else, but it just wasn’t my time to go.
After several days of intense fighting, the Marines took control of Mount Suribachi. Tony was at the base of the mountain when the legendary raising of the American flag took place.
Moccero: All the ships out at sea began ringing bells and blowing horns. We Marines shouted. We thought the war was over.
But it wasn’t. The conflict on Iwo Jima lasted several more weeks as the Marines then had to march north to take control of the entire island. That’s when Tony was hit by a sniper’s bullet.
Moccero: It hit the edge of my helmet on the left side. It ricocheted, cut my scalp. When I put my helmet on after they’d patched me up, I took the liner out and there was a .31 caliber bullet between the liner and the helmet. I stayed and fired my bazooka four more hours at targets until I got into shock. I started to shake and I got dizzy and I couldn’t stand up so they grabbed me and put me on a jeep back to the beach and back to the hospital ships. I wasn’t brave but just automatically was trained to just do it, because we were buddies. Band of brothers.
Tony’s service on Iwo Jima was over. It took three more weeks of fighting before U.S. forces had control of the island. After recovering from his wound, Tony returned to action in the late summer of 1945. He was part of a ground unit in Japan deployed just weeks after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Marines were put in harm’s way inside the fallout zones.
Moccero: Our government didn’t know about the trouble we were going to have. I got radiation so bad that for eight years I couldn’t control my urination, couldn’t control my bowel movements. I would pass out/faint automatically; I’d have migraine headaches. I went down from 154 that I weighed in the Marines down to about 120. And the V.A. (Veterans Administration) had me in the hospital for three months. They gave me a million dollars worth of tests. They couldn’t help me. They said, "We can’t do a thing for you. The radiation won’t go away."
Tony was out of options and accepted that he was dying. Then one night he went to hear a revival preacher in his town.
Moccero: He called me out of the audience. He never saw me. I’d never saw him. He told me exactly what was wrong with me. He said you won’t have it again. And from that day on I have never had a reoccurrence of that problem. All glory to God.
In the 57 years since his miraculous healing and the 65 years since Iwo Jima, Tony has held fast to what his experience on that island taught him.
Moccero: It made me want to preach the gospel more intensely because war is hell and I know the Lord is coming soon. And there’s a lot of war in our hearts that people are fighting, so that war made me think of the real war that’s in the hearts of men and women that God can deliver us from. We are all created by God to be His children. Do you want to be God’s child?
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