At Rest on Iwo Jima

Colorized version of the Rosenthal Photograph

The battle began on 19 February 1945; it wasn’t over until the end of March.  Some say that this battle has never ended because we continue to remember what happened there.  What happened was that more than 100,000 Americans landed on a volcanic island to take it away from its Japanese defenders so that the U.S. forces could have an emergency landing site for the bomber pilots and crews of the U.S. Army Air Corps.  U.S. forces killed around 19,000 Japanese — and we’re told that 3,000 more were sealed up inside a vast network of caves to suffocate.  Of so many Japanese, the Americans took only 216 as prisoners.  Of the Americans, Japanese defenders killed 6,102 Marines, 719 sailors, 41 soldiers, and wounded 19,709.  One of those killed, whose body the Americans never recovered, was Staff Sergeant Bill Genaust, USMC.

We believe William H. Genaust was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on 12 October 1906, the son of Herman and Jessie Fay Genaust, and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Like many Americans, he enlisted to serve his country during World War II.  For whatever reason, the Marines sent him for training as a photographer — and that’s what he did during the war: combat photography.

Some folks think that combat photography means taking pictures of an ongoing battle — and, of course, that’s entirely true.  But it also means participating in the struggle, particularly when your life is on the line or when your fellow soldiers/Marines are counting on you.  In 1944, Genaust fought alongside his fellow Marines at Saipan and displayed heroic actions during the battle while engaged with determined Japanese enemies and was wounded in action.  Genaust’s superiors nominated him for the award of the Navy Cross for these actions, but the Marine Corps downgraded the award to a Bronze Star medal.  Genaust was a cameraman, you see … not a rifleman.  Sadly, he never lived to receive his Bronze Star medal or his Purple Heart Medal.  Those items would arrive in the mail after he was long dead; the Marine Corps presented them to his next of kin, his wife Adelaide, instead.

Staff Sergeant Genaust could have gone home after receiving severe wounds to his legs on Saipan, but he opted to remain in theater.  After Saipan, after his recovery period, the Marines made Genaust an instructor to teach younger Marines how to take moving action films inside a combat zone.  The Marines were gearing up to participate in another major landing.  Three infantry divisions were placed under an amphibious corps.  Among the 70,000 Marines in readiness for another fight were sixty cameramen.  One of their supervisors was Bill Genaust.

When Staff Sergeant Genaust came ashore on 19 February 1945, he was with the 4th Marine Division. But a few days later, on 22 February, Genaust served with the 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division, near the base of a mountain named Suribachi.  His orders were to film the action taking place at the base of the mountain and he was assisted in this mission by Marine Private First Class (PFC) Bob Campbell.

On the morning of 23 February, while serving as the Executive Officer (XO) of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, First Lieutenant Harold Schrier volunteered to lead a combat patrol to the top of Mount Suribachi, capture it, and signal his success by raising a flag from the pinnacle of the mountain.  Combat cameraman Staff Sergeant Lou Lowrey accompanied Schrier’s patrol.  At around 10:30 a.m., Lieutenant Schrier and two of his NCOs attached their small flag to a waterpipe that the Japanese had discarded and raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi.  This was the first flag raising, filmed by Staff Sergeant Lowrey. It was seen by almost no one.

SSgt Bill Genaust c.1944-45

At around noon, Genaust and Campbell were told to “join up” with Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal and accompany him to the top of Suribachi.  Rosenthal had also arrived on-island on 19 February but routinely returned to his ship each night — which is how Rosenthal had missed the first flag raising at mid-morning on 23 February.

The problem was that Schrier’s flag was too small to be seen with any clarity from the base of the mountain, so the 28th Marines’ commander produced a much larger flag.  Genaust, Campbell, and Rosenthal were told to accompany four Marines to the top of Suribachi, raise the larger flag, and record it on film.  On the way up, Rosenthal, Genaust, and Campbell met Lowrey, who was on the way back down and told them about the first flag raising.

Once on top, Genaust and Campbell located a second water pipe, attached the larger U.S. flag, and selected a place to anchor it — where it could be seen from any point on the island.  Lieutenant Schrier ordered the first flag lowered as the larger flag went up.  Staff Sergeant Genaust stood off to the left of Joe Rosenthal and filmed the action with his Bell & Howell Auto Master 16mm Motion Picture Camera.  Rosenthal became famous for capturing the flag-raising on black and white still film photography — a picture that appeared in U.S. newspapers on Sunday, 25 February 1945.  Genaust’s film captures other Marines on the summit as they gaze up at the American flag; men who do not appear on Rosenthal’s snap.[1]  Note also, there was an Army and Coast Guard photographer on Suribachi on 23 February 1945.

Within a few days, on 3 March 1945, Genaust’s supervisor reported him “missing in action” during combat operations at the entrance to a large cave near Hill 352-A (on the northern part of the island).  By the end of the next day, he was ruled “killed in action.”  Lieutenant Colonel Donald L. Dickson, who may have served in overall command of Marine combat correspondents and photographers at Iwo Jima, provided a two and a half-page letter to Bill Genaust’s wife, Adelaide.  Dickson’s account began with Sergeant Genaust’s service on Saipan but ended as follows:

As I understand it, a group of Marines were clearing caves of die-hard Japs.  Grenades were thrown in one cave, and it was believed all the enemy were killed.  The Marines wanted to double check and asked Bill if they could borrow his flashlight. Bill said he would go in with them.  They crawled in, and Bill flashed his light around.  There were many Japs still alive, and they immediately opened fire.  Bill dropped without a sound.  As the bearer of the light, he had been the first target for a number of bullets.  I feel sure he never knew what happened to him.

“The Marines forced the Japs deeper into the cave but could not get them out.  More men would have been killed in carrying out of the narrow cave Bill’s lifeless body.

“TNT charges were quickly placed at the cave mouth and exploded. The whole cave mouth was blocked with earth from the explosion, and Bill’s body was completely buried by it.[2]

According to the testimony of Marines present at the scene of Genaust’s death, he was hit multiple times by a Japanese machine gun.  U.S. officials have never recovered Sergeant Genaust’s body; the last attempt made occurred in 2007. 

Sergeant Genaust is one of around 250 Americans still missing from the Battle of Iwo Jima.  A memorial plaque with Genaust’s name inscribed can be found atop the summit of Mount Suribachi.  Moreover, an award in Genaust’s name is presented each year by the Marine Corps Historical Foundation, recognizing the work of military personnel and civilians toward preserving Marine Corps history.

Endnotes:

[1] Bill Genaust’s motion picture footage was used extensively by the National Archives (as reported by Criss Kovac) to identify Marines who participated in the flag-raising event but were earlier misidentified.  See also: USA Today.

[2] U.S. Marine Corps Archive Files, Quantico, Virginia: LtCol Dickson to Adelaide Genaust (3 pages) (undated letter).


Published by

Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “At Rest on Iwo Jima”

  1. A proud history of our men during WW11. Honestly, no words except this is the first time one of your posts made me cry from pride and sadness. Bill Genaust and those that served during the war, in the war, are heroes. Such rich history, though at times I tend to find it overwhelmingly sad. God bless all that have served our nation during war.

    Sempre Fi

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was an excellent, detailed report of a Marine who gave his life. It still saddens me greatly knowing he is still on that stinking island.

    Sgt. Genaust’s iconic footage was even filmed in color, unbeknownst to nearly all as all combat footage was copied onto B&W film to be shown as news reels in theaters. That is where Adelaide saw that footage NOT knowing it was taken by her husband. She only found out much later. After that, she stopped going to theaters because watching it reminded her that it was she that suggested he become a cameraman.

    As small detail, there were about 30 U.S. Army soldiers amongst the Marines on Iwo (about whom this super yet sad story by Mustang is about). These were Japanese-American (Nisei) soldiers who wore Marine dungarees and served to provide translations of captured documents and interrogate the few prisoners. A couple of the Nisei were filmed by Sgt. Genaust.

    One Nisei, Sgt. Terry Doi, was awarded the Silver Star. However, one Nisei (Sgt. Mike Masato Deguchi) stepped on a landmine on Iwo and was severely wounded. He would die of his wounds shortly after war’s end.

    I pray there are no typos… God bless the Corps.

    Liked by 2 people

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