They line the staircase into the basement, fill shelves and tables throughout the house: Elmer Rerucha, his wife, Elaine, four children and 13 grandchildren in photographs.

They're all there -- at graduations, in football uniforms, lining up in rows at family weddings.

They're what came after. After he watched men die and mortars fell around him. After he made it home, one of only a few men to come back from a company of 200. 

It has been 64 years, but he won't forget. 

"It's traumatic for him to relive this period of death and destruction," said his wife, Elaine. "He doesn't talk about it anymore, but he still has a dream once in a while -- and the smell haunts him."

Rerucha enlisted with a group of friends in 1943. They played together on the high school football team in David City, Neb. 

Rerucha didn't want the Army and he didn't like water, so he chose the Marines. He was 19 then -- 6 feet tall, 180 pounds. 

He trained in San Diego and at Camp Pendleton, becoming a mortarman and a rifle sharpshooter. He boarded a ship for Saipan, but the men weren't needed there. Instead they headed to Guam, where water swelling in the island's reefs howled, keeping Rerucha up at night.

Over the course of 35 days, 30,000 men from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions would fight at Iwo Jima. On Feb. 24, 1945, Rerucha joined them. They came to shore on Higgins boats, and many were hit with shells and died before they even got to land.   

The volcanic ground was so hot that steam shot up when the Marines tried to dig foxholes. Fire came from everywhere: Marines and Japanese shooting at each other, from planes, off of ships.

Rerucha saw somebody firing from behind a disabled tank and warned his captain. But the captain told his men to move forward. As soon as he gave orders, the captain was shot between the eyes. 

The Japanese were relentless, Rerucha said. Some soldiers would run suicide missions, running up to tanks with explosives and blowing themselves up to disable the vehicles. Rerucha remembers the smell of the powder they used, a strong odor that lingers and won't let go. 

During banzai attacks, American Marines would fire their rifles, but the Japanese kept coming, even if they were shot. 

"We were losing a lot of men," Rerucha said. 

The man in charge of carrying ammunition for Rerucha's mortar unit dropped his rifle on his foot to take himself out of action. Rerucha took his place, getting the ammunition himself. When he was gone, a shell landed in the middle of the crew, right where Rerucha would have been. 

He fought for four days on Iwo Jima. Out of a company that started with 200 men, Rerucha was one of seven left on the island. The rest had been taken off wounded or dead.

On Feb. 28, a mortar fell near Rerucha, spraying shrapnel. He was hit in the back, neck and legs. As Rerucha left the island on a hospital boat, a guy next to him kept complaining about his itchy legs, asking someone to scratch them for him. 

When Rerucha looked over, he saw the man's legs were gone.

"It was a bloody, bloody mess."

He remembers how beautiful it was when he got to Hawaii, where he spent six weeks before being shipped to a hospital in Illinois.

But he was still reminded of the casualties and injuries of war. He once asked the soldier bunking with him what he was in for. The soldier lifted his shirt, revealing an X cut two inches deep in his back, like the mark of Zorro. A Japanese soldier had jumped into his foxhole and sliced him with a sword. The backpack he was wearing saved the soldier's life. 

What Rerucha has now is a Purple Heart, which was awarded to him for what he lived through on Iwo Jima. He has a piece of slug bullet still lodged behind his knee. For years bits of shrapnel worked their way to the surface of his skin. Rerucha's wife would pluck them out. 

And what he also has are all those photographs, memories of the children and grandchildren he lived to see. 

 

If you would like to suggest veterans to be featured, please send their names, contact information and a summary of their service to Kristy Gray at kristy.gray@trib.com or P.O. Box 80, Casper, WY, 82601.

Coming next week: Leonard Wold of Evanston saw 337 days of combat, participating in all five of the major campaigns of the European Theater.

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