PFC Paul Merriman (USMC, WWII Veteran)
Operation Detachment was a 36 day operation (19 February - 26 March) systematically initiated in order to take the island of Iwo Jima and its three air fields all controlled by the Japanese Army. The battle ended up being one of the most horrifically ferocious contests in the Pacific Theater that pitted the United States Marine Corps against the Japanese Imperial Army. The battle lasted only five weeks but was an exceptionally bloody skirmish mostly due to the fact that Japanese Imperialists were so dug into the island. They'd formed an extremely advanced tunneling system throughout the entirety of the islet. 18 year old, PFC Paul Merriman was there on that island for twenty days with the 5th Marine Division, 28th Regiment. The division was activated for WWII and was mostly made up of former Marine Raiders and Para-Marines. Needless to say, they were a hardened, salty bunch that more than lived up to their motto "Uncommon Valor." Paul, however, would be experiencing the hellish rigors of his very first days in combat. They were to be some of the hardest days of his life.
I can’t imagine that feeling of claustrophobia as your metal M1 helmet grinds against sulfuric sand, bullets whistling within inches, your heart beating practically through your chest as artillery shells scream towards your position. I can’t really fathom the feeling of being able to move only a few yards a day on your belly, any more and you’re met with certain death. I don't know what it's like to be pinned down by automatic weapons on all sides for twenty days, believing that your time to die is coming sooner than later. I've never been 10-15 feet away from the enemy engaging in a shouting match while lobbing grenades back and forth. However, Paul Merriman knows what all of this is like. He's part of the old breed. They are the "Devil Dogs" of the United States Marine Corps that fought on an island that Paul Merriman describes as no bigger than George Bush Intercontinental Airport, an island called Iwo Jima. Paul's character is a rarity nowadays that stand out easily in a crowd. It's a mixture of quiet confidence, overflowing joy, and an unshakable drive. You want to be Paul’s friend when you meet him. You’re driven to understand him better and get to know the Iwo Jima Marine.
“Duty.” It’s a word that I heard often throughout my day with Paul Merriman. A great many things impacted me throughout that day throughout my time with Paul in Houston. Merriman will forever have a special place in the halls of our most legendary warriors. The connection of the word “duty” and so many instances in his life was first made when he talked about the surface of that hellish moonscape at Iwo. It came when I asked him if he’d feared the death that surrounded him for 20 straight days of non-stop, close quarters combat. I was struck by his words because they clearly weren’t braggadocios and were spoken as just a matter-of-fact. “I wasn’t afraid to die because I knew that was part of our duty. There were times I was absolutely shocked but I didn’t fear death. I just knew it was part of the equation.” Paul will take it from here.
Why’d you join the military?
PM: I joined the military for the same reason as all the other guys that did it. I hate that word “patriotism” because it’s so misused nowadays. It’s so abused. It was in our genes that the Japanese and Germans were coming to attack America. For awhile we laughed about that idea but then they started coming up to our West Coast and shelling some of the oil rigs. Then we started hearing about Germans amongst us. The Nazis were sending German spies to walk amongst us and they looked just like any other Americans. They dropped them off in Galveston so we were learning they were among us and we had to watch out. We didn’t talk to our neighbors too much and we were under the mantra of, “loose lips sink ships.” We blacked out our houses at night so bombers couldn’t come find us. One of the neighbors would be an air raid warden and they’d walk up and down the streets at night. If they thought anyone was coming they’d sound the sirens. So, it was in our genes that we had to win this war. Add to that, I quit high school at 16 and went to work at GE. I was poor so I took the trolley back and forth. It was about an hour and a half back and forth between work and home.
All of the women had jobs because the men were gone. I was 16, I’d get on the trolley car and you could feel it or they’d just straight up say, “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you gone? My son is over there. My husband was killed in Germany and you’re just walking around like everything is alright.” They had a category called “4F.” If you were living in that day you’d be "1A" which is prime for the picking. 4F was as low as you could get on the totem pole. It was basically like being cursed at but they’d say to me, “What are you, 4F?” It was basically like asking you if you were blind, deaf, or dumb where even the Army won’t take you (laughs)? I remember feeling like, “I don’t belong here.” I was a big strong boy and I knew I belonged over there even at 17. All my school buddies were over there too. The whole gang was gone and fighting overseas. Also, at GE I was making 55 cents an hour. You gave your family half of the money you earned as long as you were under their roof. I gave my money $40 a month and she fed me with that. If I joined the military I’d be making $50 a month and I could send $45 of that to her because I only needed about $5 to live. She was making $5 off of me (laughs).
Why in particular the Marine Corps?
PM: All my life I had a big interest in electricity. When I was a kid I had a short wave radio and I was interested in all things electric. I began to fix all the neighbors radios and as a matter of fact, I got a job in a radio repair shop. The usual trick was to change out the vacuum tube because that’s usually what was broken when they’d need repairs. My father had been a telegraph operator so it somehow got into my genes where I very easily learned Morse Code. I still know it as a matter of fact (laughs). I loved that. I took two tests from the government, both “Radio Telegraph” and “Radio Telephone.” The telegraph test was half reading and half practical where you’d actually send code. Then you had a list of technical questions about the laws regarding what you could and couldn’t do with it. Then they had a similar thing for telephone where you’d get 1st class, 2nd class, or 3rd class and I’d gotten them all. If you had first class on radiotelephone you were authorized to be the general engineer at a radio station. I was really good at it. So when I was looking into the military I was looking for that radioman occupation. When I was in the Marine Corps and on the ship they’d call me over to read the code. They’d say, “Merriman, quick, quick! What’s he saying?”
Anyways, my really good friend went into the Navy. Before he left, I taught him everything I knew really quickly and he got into the radio school. He got a job on a ship and I was pretty jealous. So on my 17th birthday, I got those licenses and my papers and went down to the post office. There was a line in those days because there was a draft. Guys didn’t want to join the Army because they were getting killed the most. There was a line for the Navy and nothing for the Marine Corps. The line was not moving at all for the Navy. Finally, I got to the door after a long, long wait but the line was still not really moving much. A Marine comes walking out of the Marine Corps door and he was in his beautiful dress blues. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m joining the Navy and I’m going to be a radioman on a battle ship.” He said, “We have a radio school in the Marine Corps.” So I followed him and raised my hand and took the oath (laughs). Funny thing because after boot camp they lined us up for our assignments and they said to me, “You’re going infantry.” I said, “No, I have these papers that show I’m going to radio school.” They laughed and said, “Oh, we closed that school a long time ago (laughs).”
What do you remember about landing on Iwo Jima?
PM: You couldn’t move when you got out on the beach at Iwo Jima. The Japanese were locked in on our positions. They let us get out of the boats but once we moved up the beach a few feet we started getting killed. They were shooting at us from everywhere on the high ground and they had the artillery zeroed in on our positions as well. When the guys took Mount Suribachi we didn’t get any more trouble from that position but the other positions on the high ground were all occupied by the Japanese. You’d run back to the landing craft to grab supplies and if your buddies started getting killed around you, you had to go back to your hole and hunker down. There was a lot of that going on. The Japanese were shelling us like crazy while we were laying down on the beach and our frontal assault teams couldn’t get going for days. We thought we were going to die for sure.
Our dead Marines were constantly being brought back to the shore and so there was nothing but panic and chaos. And, all the things you learn in training start to go out the window when you get into battle. You have your sergeants, corporals, and fire team leaders in your chain of command. Then all of a sudden your sergeant is dead. Then you’re saying to yourself, “Well, now what? Where’s Easy Company?" Well, they were decimated too. We watched the shells hit in certain patterns on the beach and we started to get used to the patterns. You’d just hunker down and pray that they weren’t going to hit your position. I remember being with my buddy Joe Messina right beside me. We were trying to unload something from a boat and we saw some incoming artillery so we knew it was time to duck. It was headed straight for us. I went one way and he went the other. I looked over and he was saying the Lord’s Prayer from his position and next thing I know the shell hit his position. Parts of Joe flew up in the air and he was gone. You could run but you couldn’t hide.
What was the train up like for WWII?
PM: Marine Corps training was especially tough because we were draftees and we didn’t want to be there. Most every guy had a wife and family behind in the states or a sweetheart. I was only 17 so I didn’t have anything behind me, but I was the youngest guy in the entire outfit. When you’re young they call you "chicken." The oldest guy was called "pop." Our oldest guy I remember being 44. There was such a mix of different backgrounds. You had a lot of guys there that had been taken away from their families and didn’t want to be there. They wanted to serve their country but they were needed at home. They had farms and real jobs back home where they were very necessary.
And because the depression had been over for a little bit the guys were finally getting jobs then WWII started. And most of them didn’t want to be in the Marines. They’d rather have been in the Army (laughs). You had a group of some really tough guys, actors from Hollywood, and executives at big companies. We definitely had some talent in the group. The DI put us together of course and a lot of these guys were not used to being scolded (laughs). It didn’t go well at all. The Drill Instructor was mad and they’re mad and it’s just not going well at all. He’s in their face and asking them if they want to go outside and settle things and of course none of the guys wanted to fight him (laughs).
Do you remember any instances from your training at Parris Island?
PM: We had boot camp for two months out at Parris Island then went on to Lejeune where we had our infantry school. That was only about a month. I remember before the war one time I was marching and we were supposed to march one way and I went the other. That brought the attention of the DI and he came up to me shoutin' and hollerin'. He asked me if I shaved. I said, “No sir!” He said, “Why not?” I said, “I didn’t need to shave sir.” I was the youngest guy in my outfit at 17 so I wasn't really growing any facial hair. He said, “We have a rule. In the Marine Corps we shave every day and you decided you were too good for that rule!” He picked me up with one hand, hit me on both sides of the neck, and set me back down and I remember just seeing stars. He says to me right after, “I don’t like you! (laughs) You know why?” I said, “No sir.” He said, “Because you look like a Jap and I hate Japs! (laughs)” I laugh about it but I realize now he was just trying to toughen me up and make me a Marine.
What was that feeling when you were on the beach?
PM: I was on the beach for four days. We looked up on the fourth day and the flag was up on the hill. You can imagine what a thrill that was. That was the greatest day of my life. We shot our rifles in the air like madmen. Six hundred ships were out in the water ringing their bells and the Japanese must’ve thought we were crazy (laughs). Despite that, you hear the stories of bravery but I’m sure you’ve seen it. Not everyone was brave out there. There was one guy who just sat there near me on the beach and I shouted at him, “C’mon we’re moving up!” and he said to me, “I’m not going anywhere. I don’t fight.” That was the last I ever saw of him. There were some guys that just wouldn’t do what they were asked. I learned one thing I guess. You can’t tell looking at a guy what they’re going to do when things get serious. Someone has to move ammunition over to some other guys and the first guy runs over and gets shot dead. Then you see really quickly who’s brave. You can’t tell who’s going to be the next in line in those situations. Some guy you consider tough might be hunkered down unable to move and a guy you considered really wimpy is ready to do what needs to be done.
I remember particularly this one guy Joyce. He was a loud mouth you’d never think of as brave. A Jap machine gun had us locked in and we were down in the sand. We kept asking who’d go re-supply some of our other guys with ammo. We had to get ammo to those guys. We were trying to figure out a way where we didn’t have to run through the line of fire and finally Joyce says, “Give me the damn ammo.” He strapped those bandoliers around his neck and he runs about halfway out and they started shooting at him. When they started shooting he stopped and yells at them, “Go ahead you bastards! I quit. Shoot me.” He walked the rest of the way (laughs) and they didn’t hit him. They probably thought he'd lost his mind (laughs).
You could hear the Japs. They were under us in the tunnels and we could hear them talking all the time. The whole island was undermined with tunnels. Sometimes you had to run across a field to get after them and we’d holler when we ran. We stood up to run across this field and we were hootin’ and hollerin’ and shooting. When we get ready to move my sergeant says to me, “When we start moving you start shooting!” and I said to him, “Shoot at what?” He scowled when he looked at me and said, “Just shoot! (laughs)” So we got up and started shooting as we moved. They’re shouting and we’re shouting and that just made us shout louder because we had to outdo them. They finally shut up and we realized we could actually shout them down. We’d yell at them in the tunnels below us, “Shut up down there,” and they’d actually get really quiet (laughs). It was the funniest thing. Sometimes they’d holler at us “Shirley Temple eat shit!” or “Roosevelt eat shit!” or “Bobby Hope eat shit!” We’d holler back at them, “Tojo eat shit, you sons of bitches!” and they’d shut up for awhile (laughs).
What did you think of the Japanese as an opponent on the battlefield?
PM: The Japanese were so tough. They always fought to the death. They were told that they’d die no matter what on Iwo. There is a great movie “Flags of Our Fathers” and I’m actually in the book for a bit. When I was wounded the book says the corpsman went out to get a guy and I was the one that told the corpsman not to go get him. That guy was dead. Anyways, there was a movie made from the Japanese point of view too and that was a wonderful movie. The leadership told the Japanese that when all the American ships came they’d send all their planes and sink every ship. So basically they were told they were bait to lure us before they’d be bailed out by reinforcements. Then they realized there were no reinforcements. At that point, Kuribayashi knew he’d been double-crossed and he knew all his men would die. Eventually, that got down the line and they fought to the death no matter what. That was part of their Bushido Code.
A couple things I remember in particular. We’d get a Japanese soldier in a cave and we’d know he had no ammo so we realized we had a potential prisoner. We’d bring up a loud speaker and a guy that could speak Japanese. We’d offer him water, a cigarette, food, and we’d promise not to hurt them. He’d come out with a hand grenade in each hand trying to take us out. So after awhile, we learned to shoot them as soon as they walked out of the cave. The guy on the loudspeaker would be like, “Guys I’m trying to get you a prisoner here!” and we’d all just open up and shoot that Jap as he walked out of the cave (laughs). We weren’t taking any chances. The Japanese would try to jump into the foxholes at night and they’d hold a grenade against your chest while they blew themselves up. We slept in turns and were always aware this was a possibility. Our forces kept the beaches lit up so there really wasn’t too much darkness. The Navy would fire up their huge flares every five minutes or so then we’d fire our flares up every few minutes as well. We could always see pretty well even though the light was flickering. Those shadows were pretty spooky though when you’re on edge like that.
When the Japanese started running low on ammo they started handing their wounded and sick guys bamboo rods or hand grenades. Those guys would just be wearing loincloths and jump into our foxholes in these banzai attacks. That’s devotion. I remember we found a Jap whose head was sticking out of the sand once so it was one of the first times we actually had a prisoner (laughs). He couldn’t kill us and he couldn’t kill himself. So we roped off the area around him and they told us to go nowhere near him because we know how hard he’d try to kill us (laughs). I was beside him because I was guarding him. I looked at him, he looked at me, and finally, I decide I was going to give him a cigarette. I put a cigarette between his lips and lit it. Guess what he did? He spat that cigarette right in my face. He was trying to kill me with the end of that lit cigarette (laughs). An American guy would’ve taken that cigarette and said, “Thanks! (laughs)” It’s a difference in the mentality.
As a follow-up to that question, what was the toughest thing about fighting the Japanese?
PM: I hardly ever saw the Japanese. They'd be five feet away from you and you'd know they were there but you couldn't see them. That's why it was tough to fight them on top of some other reasons. How can you kill what you can't see? They had that whole island undermined with tunnels so they moved about freely underneath you. Finding them was a nightmare and that's why we started just closing the tunnels with explosives. We had a saying on the island. "No Jap is dead unless you killed them." There would be some Japs with a hundred bullet holes in their body because every time another Marine would go by he'd shoot him just to make sure. That's how much resolve these Japanese soldiers had. They fought to the death every single time. I also remember that they aimed for the head and they often hit it. They were some of the best sharpshooters I've ever seen.
What was the hardest day for you?
PM: I was there for 20 days and we were there for 36 total so I almost made it (laughs). Out of my outfit, which was 139 guys, 2 walked off that island on their own power. The other 137 were wounded or killed. It was complete chaos. We were a pretty good team when we started but things got pretty tough as soon as we hit the beach (laughs). I remember my buddies every single day. I actually owe my life to one of the guy’s bodies that was there with me. He was dead and he fell across me and that shielded me from a lot of the bullets and shrapnel coming in. His name was "Alfred Ciccocilli." A couple years ago I “googled” his family and I found them. I found his family in Pennsylvania and I called them up and told them what happened to him. I think that gave them some closure. They sent me letters and pictures. They were just so happy because to them he’d just disappeared on Iwo Jima. I was able to tell them he died and that he died honorably, most likely saving my life.
What were the days like after the flag raising?
PM: The flag went up on the 4th day and we battled for 36 days. When we saw that flag go up we thought it was all over. We were celebrating and so proud. We all became real Marines that day. Really, though, the battle had just begun. I stayed on the beach for four or five more days. Part of our duty was then to go up to the front lines or get as close as we can and go get our dead. We’d pick them up with a stretcher. Four of us would go up there, put them on a stretcher, and try to get them back without getting shot. The Japanese of course were always watching this because they were in the higher country. It was always awkward because they could see our every movement. We’d duck and hide awhile, find a guy, cover him up with his own poncho, and put him on the stretcher. When we’d carry him, there were four guys on a stretcher. Rigor Mortis had settled on one particular guy we picked up and when we carried him, his hand would fall and clench your arm if you were on that particular handle. Well, we had a thing where one of our guys would get tired and you could holler, “Rotate.” As soon as that hand would fall and clench that particular Marine’s arm he’d yell out “Rotate! (laughs)” It was so spooky. I remember that really well.
The first days were tough because that’s when guys started dying but you’d try to stay busy so you didn’t have time to think about it. You didn’t have much time to feel bad. So at a certain point, they needed six more guys at the front lines and they came down and got me as one of those replacements. At the time, I was new in battle and I remember we joined a company that was just barely off the front line. We were gathered in this little thing that looked like an amphitheater made out of rock. The platoon leader introduced me and he was the nicest most pleasant Southern boy. He’d already seen a lot of action at Guadalcanal. He had this big smile and loud drawl. We looked up to him because he’d already been in battle. We told him, “Tell us what to do.” He said, “We are going to put three of you in each hole. Tonight the Japs will probably come in here so take out your K Bar, stick it in the side of the wall to your hole, and when they come in you pull the knife out of the wall and stab that Jap.” He showed us the proper motion for a good, clean puncture. We looked at him like he was crazy and said, “What? (laughs)” That was pretty scary to us.
The Japanese started running out of water and food. We’d pile up Jerrycans of water to lure them in so we could kill them when they took the water. We’d get up in the morning and nobody had seen a Jap and there would be twelve cans completely gone (laughs). I remember that particular first night though and there was only one way they could get into our hole. Sure enough, they came into our cave that night. I woke up because I was asleep. There was a lot of shouting and there were like ten Japanese hollering with their grenades clenched tight jumping into our holes. I had a BAR and my BAR was setup to point towards the entrance. When I’d woken up, one of the Japs tripped over the front of my BAR but he didn’t completely fall. He was falling and tripping and so he was going to fall but he kept tripping as he fell (laughs). While he was going down, one of our guys Doc Savage who was one of those Marines we called “salty,” shot him eight times before he hit the ground. I’ve never heard a Garand go off like that. I had no clue you could do that with a M-1. I saw that and was like, “Woah, that guy is good! (laughs)” The Japanese had killed our corpsman and killed our captain. There was chaos everywhere.
One of our Marines was shooting and the other guy next to him was throwing a grenade and I remember trying to identify the Japanese and where they were. It was complete chaos. It finally got quiet and we’re just wondering who’s dead and who’s alive. It got really quiet and this other Marine says in almost this “staged” voice to Doc Savage, “Did you get him, Doc?” Doc says very matter of fact, “Yup. (laughs)” I’ll never forget that. The next morning our armorer walks in and bashes one of the dead Jap’s teeth in. He reached into the mouth and pulled out those gold teeth and put them in a bag full of them. We had one guy who collected ears. He wore Japanese ears around his neck. We had one guy named Murphy who’d go out at night with just his K Bar between his teeth. He’d leave his rifle in the hole and just go out by himself at night. We’d holler to each other, “Don’t shoot! Murphy’s going out!” He’d leave the hole then come back later that night and we’d shout again, “Murphy’s coming back! Don’t shoot!” He’d come back covered in blood. He’d kill Japanese soldiers at night and come back and act like nothing had happened. I thought he was crazy.
When we got to Japan as occupation troops, Murphy immediately disappeared and came back wearing Japanese clothes. The whole time we were occupying Japan he wore their clothes and he was always gone. I have no idea what he was doing. Up until those moments he was just like you and me. I don’t know what happened but something snapped in his mind (laughs). Anyways, back to the story. The next night we were trying to figure out how to keep these Japs out of our hole. So what’d we do? We got a dog. It was a Doberman. The corporal goes straight to the entrance and brings the dog with him. He opens up his mess kit and starts to feed the dog. I figured, “Well, I’m going to be here too so might as well make friends with the dog.” I walked up to the dog and I got about a foot away and it just started snarling at me. The corporal looked up at me and said, “ Go away. This dog is a one-man dog and I’m the man (laughs).” That whole night the dog snarled and the Japanese never came in our hole.
So what did you do during the days between these nights where you were entrenched?
PM: We’d advance in the daytime. The Navy would bomb the Japanese for like an hour and we’d run out and attack them while they were still dazed. That was the rule. But they knew we were going to do that, so they hid in their tunnels while we bombed. It just sounded like rain to them and after the bombing they’d come out and be ready for us. We’d run at them and they’d just mow us down all the time. We couldn’t seem to stop them from mowing us down. We’d run out, some us would get killed and we’d be pinned down immediately. We could barely move. There was a lot of that happening on the island. We started getting to a point where we started closing caves. Marines have a system in a fire team. The rifleman would fire into the slit of the cave and that brings the Japanese away from their guns. While he’s doing that, I’d setup as the BAR man always did and start firing into the slit, then they’d bring a Bangalore Torpedo in and fire that.
Then the flamethrower comes in and makes his move. I would immediately step back and so would the rifleman and he’d light that cave on fire. Then a dynamite guy would come in and throw C2 above the cave, holler out “fire in the hole!” and that would officially seal the cave. You’d see smoke coming out the other side and you knew there was another cave to seal (laughs). I carried the flamethrower one day and I was a big, strapping guy at the time but it was still so hard to carry. I'd trained a little to carry it but it was like 80 lbs. so carrying it on Iwo Jima was a nightmare. You were a massive target with that thing on your back too. One of the first dead Marines I picked up had been torched by his own flamethrower. The Japanese had hit his pack and the flesh was completely burned off both of his legs.
So, back to our movement during the daytime. We were working our way up the island in the battle. There’s no such thing as a frontline on Iwo Jima. It was just like the surface of the moon. There was no vegetation or anything else living. We’d just bombed the hell out of that place. We were crawling amongst some rocks and we got to this side of the island where nobody would be at. We took all our clothes off and we jumped into the ocean so we could get cleaned up a little bit. We came back, put on our clothes, and we start working our way back across the island and into the fighting with the Japanese. We were working our way towards them and an American Destroyer pulled up alongside and started shooting at us. They shot the .50 and the 5-inch guns and we just start going crazy. We were waving all kinds of stuff at them but they thought we were Japanese. The guy who is holding the flag in the middle of the statue that you can’t really see, Sergeant Strank, was killed by that friendly fire. Strank was the first guy in that statue to be killed. I remember that moment very well. We’d tease the Navy about those kinds of things but we were actually really mad sometimes. They’d want to help us but they’d just start firing all kinds of crap at the wrong times. Obviously, it wasn’t always like that, but it only takes one time to kill your own guys. It was such a shame when that happened.
Do you remember a particular time where you really felt that sense of duty as a Marine?
PM: There was a machine gunner firing on our position. Our corporal, "Corporal Unger" said to me and two other guys, “You three go around and try to attack him from the side.” We said “okay” and we found a ridge to hide behind. I decided to be the first guy to look up over this ridge. I just remember feeling like I was beaten over the head by a baseball bat. I saw colors and then I saw nothing. My hearing was completely gone. I thought to myself, “I’m dead.” I was lying there and thinking, “This is heaven or hell or I’m on my way.” There was silence and blackness. Pretty soon though I heard someone yell out, “Merriman, you alright?” I thought to myself, “Ah, guess I’m alive (laughs).” I got up, saw my helmet, and realized the cloth cover had been ripped off my helmet. What had happened was the bullet hit right in front of me and ricocheted off my helmet and knocked me out. It flipped me sideways. After that moment, I would never stick my head above a ridge to see what was going on. I’d always stick my bayonet under my helmet and push that up over the ridge-line (laughs). I learned my lesson.
We had an instance where Corporal Unger came to us after we were trying to take some ground. There was a rock some distance away from our position and he said to us, “Okay guys I want you to run and hide behind that rock while we give you some covering fire.” One of our guys ran out there and he got about halfway out while we were giving him cover fire and he got shot dead in his tracks. So he’s laying out there dead. Corporal Unger looks at the guy next to me and says, “Ah hell, well you try it now.” That guy runs out and he gets halfway to the rock and gets shot dead too. Now we’ve got two dead Marines out there. I remember seeing him look at me and I thought, “He’s going to tell me to go out there. The other two just got shot dead.” That didn’t matter to me at all though. I thought, “If he tells me to go, I’ll go.” I had to fulfill my duties as a Marine. Looking back, I think to myself, “What was I thinking?”
The truth of the matter was he was the authority figure and I was to do what I was told. I’d officially bought into the Marine Corps program. I knew I was on that island to do those kinds of things. I was not afraid to go just as those men who died weren’t. I thought, “I have a job to do and I’m going to do that damn job.” Duty. Duty is an interesting thing. But, Corporal Unger looked at me and said, “Hell, this ain’t working (laughs).” I got off and didn’t have to go. I also remember looking at him and thinking, “He’s sending people to die.” I just remember the thought crossing my mind, “I could never be a corporal. I could never send men to their deaths.” Later in my life, I had a very important job as a company president where I hired and fired a lot of people. I had a ton of responsibility in that position. So it was kind of ironic that I found myself in a position of leadership, something I swore I could never do.
I remember at my company we had a guy in El Paso who was always drunk. We’d travel to Mexico on business and he’d drink some more. Our guy in San Antonio would say, “Mr. Merriman you need to put our guy from El Paso in treatment.” I said to him, “That’s none of my business. That’s between him and his family.” He looked back at me and said, “No, you’re the boss. It’s your responsibility.” I said, “Nope, that’s not my job. I’ll fire him but I’m not going to put him in a rehab clinic.” The guy from San Antonio said, “What are you waiting for? Are you waiting to get a phone call where you find out he killed a couple women and kids in a car wreck? Is that what you want?” So I grudgingly flew out to El Paso and told that guy who was always drinking that he had to come with me.
I took him all the way back to Houston. He kept saying to me, “You’re making a big mistake.” I replied, “You’re doing this or you’re fired. You need the job and I need you working for me. I love you, buddy. This is for you.” He said back, “This is bullshit. This is wrong.” I said, “Please just do it for me.” We were both crying when I brought him into that rehab facility. You know, he never forgave me for that. He never accepted that. He came right out of the clinic and drank more. I lost that friendship. If I could go back I’d do it the same, though. I fulfilled my duty. That was something I'd learned on that island years before from Corporal Unger.
What happened on day twenty at Iwo Jima?
PM: We had to cross this little open area on the hill. The sergeant said, “We’re going to run across that space and go get the Japs.” They were really close to us. First, we had the mortars assault that area but that didn’t help at all. Then, we get a message from our captain and he’s telling us, “Move up. You’re holding everybody else back.” They say that all the time (laughs). You don’t want to hold up the rest of the units and they make you feel like you’re holding them up. We were supposedly sagging the line so we ran up and we started shooting. I look over and I see Bezzilek and I hear him scream while half his face is ripped off by incoming rounds. I thought, “Oh my God,” and the sergeant started screaming, “Go back!”
So we take off back to our old positions and I see a rock I can use as cover. I had my BAR on me and I jumped behind this rock. A few seconds later a guy named "Alfred Ciccocelli" jumps behind the rock with me. The Japanese had a Nambu trained on our position, which is this slow, plodding machine gun, but it has some major power. The Nambu had a canister that keeps the shooter from seeing to his right. They’d given us regular rounds, armor piercing rounds, and tracers. Two in each clip were armor piercing and two were tracers. We hated the tracers because they'd just reveal our position. Well, those armor-piercing bullets are covered in copper and they do some major damage. I could tell he had armor piercing rounds firing at us because the rock I was behind was getting smaller and smaller.
All of the shooting stops suddenly except we are both stuck out there. I know that I’ve got to make a run for it so I did what the Marine Corps taught me to do and disassembled my weapon. I buried the bolt in the ground and I turned around and looked at Ciccocelli. He said, “I’m getting out of here,” and he stood up. As soon as he stood up, a bullet went right through his head. He muttered, “Oh,” and slumped over falling on top of me, dead. Then either our side or their side started throwing grenades. Both sides started throwing them at that point. The Japanese grenade is like a coke can. You ignite it by tapping against your helmet. The American grenade you pull the pin and hold the spoon until you throw. We had red cap grenades and brown cap grenades. The red caps were a three-second fuse and the brown fuse is a five-second fuse. Well, of course, we’d never actually wait a couple seconds to throw the five-second grenade. We weren’t taking any chances so we’d just throw it (laughs). They were all falling short but the explosions were definitely lifting me off the ground. I remember they were going off all around me. I remember turning and looking at the ground next to me. Sure enough, there was an American grenade staring back at me.
The Japanese had thrown one of our grenades back and it was right next to me. I thought, “Oh… I’m dead.” It blew up and threw me but somehow I lived. By then I’d already taken off my cartridge belt and was prepared to move. I reached around to feel my back and my hand was wet, sticky, and warm with blood. I knew I was wounded and I knew I had to get out of there. I had to take a chance. I pushed Ciccocelli aside, I took off running, fell immediately, and a stump of a tree went right into my chest. Luckily, I fell close enough to the trench that my guys were able to pull me down into it. The first guy to treat me was actually a corpsman named John Bradley. If you’re familiar with the statue, he’s the only corpsman helping raise the flag. He asked me if Ciccocelli was okay and I told him not to go out there. He wanted to go check on him but Ciccocelli was dead and I knew it. He asked me again, “Are you sure he’s dead?” and I told him I was absolutely positive. By now, it’s getting a little dark. They manhandled me into a stretcher. Four guys dragging me across the rough grounds, pushing me and squeezing me across the land. They put me in an ambulance jeep on the bottom.
They put another wounded guy in the top rack of the jeep. The driver said, “I can’t put my lights on and there are no roads. Are you guys okay because I’m going to be rough.” We said, “Yeah, we’ll be fine.” He started driving and they immediately started shooting at us. Now it’s completely dark. The driver and co-driver both took off running (laughs). Me and the other guy are sitting there wounded and we couldn’t do a damn thing. Fortunately, those two worked their way back to us eventually and started moving again. By then, the Army had come to Iwo Jima so we had some nice facilities and medical tents. They took us by turn into a tent. There was a really bright light above me and I looked up and saw a doctor with slanted eyes. I thought, “Oh, God I’m on the wrong side! (laughs)” I started to move like I was going to jump off the table. He said to me, “Take it easy, take it easy… I’m Captain Lo Li and I’m with the United States Army.” I calmed down and told him what was wrong with me. He told me that morphine was in really high demand so he wanted to know if it was okay if he didn’t use it. I told him that was fine so he went in to pull out the metal fragments. Well when he was back there it started hurting really badly so I asked for him to numb it. He did and then he pulled that metal out and now I have it up on my wall under my Purple Heart. If it had hit a half-inch away I’d be in a wheelchair right now because it just barely missed my spine.
What do you remember about your rehab?
PM: They'd cleared the runways on Iwo Jima finally and they came in with an ambulance plane. I was put on that plane and there were some American nurses and what a thrill that was. Soft-spoken pretty girls all taking care of us. They took us to Guam and we got off there and they put us in a hospital in a big hut. They lined us up according to our injuries, so I was with the guys with wounds in the back. They put us on a hospital ship after that and once again we were in the same ward as guys with similar injuries. The Navy doctor would come in and dress our wounds as best he could. One day he came in and he was dressing all of our wounds and we were all laying on our stomachs. He turned at the door and says to us, "What is it with you Marines and getting hit in the back? Were you all running away?" We all turned around at the same time and threw everything we had at him (laughs).
When I was in Guam I was next to a guy who'd been hit by a Japanese grenade. He was hit right in the backside and the grenade went off really close to him so he had like a zillion pieces of metal in his rear. He was hurting badly and his testicles were really killing him too. The doctor came to change his dressing and started looking at the wound. He started pulling all these pieces of metal out with tweezers. The guy is screaming by now, "Ow, ow!" The doctor keeps pulling stuff out and what had happened was pieces of the grenade had pushed his wallet into his skin. There were pieces of money in there. The doctor is pulling these money pieces out and says to the guy, "Son, your ass is a gold mine!" Needless to say, that guy wasn't laughing (laughs).
What was it like getting back from the war?
PM: All of us Marines and soldiers had one reoccurring thought while we were over there and that was, “Will I get a job when I get back?” A job was like the holy grail. We’d all gone through the great depression and I’d seen my father going from having a good job to no job at all. My father had a good job in Pittsburgh, we had a nice car and a very nice house. We’d had pretty decent money and then went from that to no food in the house at all. I remember seeing people out on the streets with their furniture because the bank had foreclosed on their home. That happened to a lot of people then. I was the only boy and my mother used to say to me, “Go get us something to eat,” and I would go out, climb trees and pick apples and pears to bring back home. My sisters would cut dandelions from people’s yards to eat. We’d eat that. It was the best we could do. My father was humiliated because he couldn’t take care of his own family. Nowadays I don’t think guys would be as humiliated about it. It was a different day back then of course.
My father had come back from WWI and back then they just found billets in the houses of locals. He stayed in a house in France over there and that’s where he met my mother. He got really depressed and with the little bit of money he’d make, he’d drink it away. When he drank he’d beat up my mother. I think there was a lot of that going on during that time. There were a lot of humiliated men. So when I was overseas I was getting fed much better by the military then I’d been fed as a kid growing up. Being in the military was a nice reprieve because that’s how bad it was at home for most of us. So the minute I got home from the war, I went back to my old job at General Electric looking for my same position. I dressed up in my uniform, put it on really nicely, and went back to see my boss.
They were supposed to hold our job for us by law, so I came back asking for my position. My boss was from Germany and I met him halfway up the stairs. He said to me, “Good to see you. I’m glad you made it back from the war. Why are you here?” I said, “Well, I’d like to know if I can have my job back.” He turned on me angrily and replied; “Now why would I do a thing like that? You walked out on me. I had a business to run and you were 17 years old. You didn’t have to go. You double crossed me to do what you wanted to do and now you come to me and you ask me to do you a favor and give you your job back?” I froze. He didn’t care about my purple heart or what I did at Iwo Jima. That meant nothing to him. He considered me a quitter. Luckily, he calmed down and told me to go upstairs and that he’d give me my job back. I wanted to hug him (laughs). He was right though technically. I didn’t have to leave at 17.
What was the occupation of Japan like?
PM: Well, I was wounded during the occupation but I was good enough to go out on patrol. That was the most scared I’ve been all war. We got to Japan as fast as we could to finish them off then they told us the war was over. We were all so happy when they surrendered. We went across the ocean to the main island to occupy Japan and they trained us on how to act when we got there. They talked about what to do and what not to do. The biggest thing from our command group was, “Don’t start World War 3 (laughs).” When we were there at the dock, American ships were coming into Japan that had been to all the various Japanese islands. They had the Japanese soldiers who were now our prisoners on these ships. I remember them walking down the planks onto the dock and those guys were… there’s almost not a word for it…. They were absolutely crushed. They were depressed. They were humiliated. They’d surrendered and their families wouldn’t take them back in their houses. There were no women waiting for them. They were better off dead in the eyes of Japan. They were hated men and they hated themselves too.
Did you suffer from PTSD after your experiences on Iwo Jima?
PM: I was never really afraid on Iwo Jima. I didn't really suffer from PTSD at any point in my life either. I was shocked like anyone else by the speed of battle. I saw a lot of guys die. I went to a movie right before the war started called "Tarawa." They showed those bodies in the movie of our GIs and that was the first time we started to really realize our guys were dying. This actually started some protesting throughout the nation. A lot of people don't think anyone protested WWII but they definitely did. It was a big deal. I remember seeing those dead guys in the movie and I wondered how I would handle it when it came time for me to see it. Sure enough, I landed on Iwo Jima and there were some dead Marines on the beach. I thought to myself, "Well, there's my first dead guy. What am I going to do?" I didn't let it bother me. What can you do? That's a part of being in war. It could've happened to me at any moment.
The only time I was really scared during the war was when we went to occupy Japan. We had no idea what would happen and that fear of the unknown is what really ate me up. I remember seeing all of the eyes looking at us as we patrolled the streets. I thought they were going to come out to get us. I knew I didn't have enough bullets to take all of them out. We were walking down the streets one day at around 3 pm and these streets were very narrow. We got word to just stay where we were so we stopped and did that. We sat down and stayed there 'til the next morning. We slept on that street. That was a very strange moment because we had no idea what was going on. The next day one of our sergeants walked up to a Japanese policeman and told him that we were there peacefully and the war was over. The policeman bowed to my sergeant and my sergeant bowed back. The policeman bowed again and my sergeant bowed back again and that set off a chain reaction of bows (laughs). Finally, my sergeant was like, "Okay, okay, no more bowing. (laughs)"
Was it hard to get over your hatred for the Japanese after the war?
PM: My hatred for the Japanese didn’t last very long. Like I said before, we were part of the occupying force in Japan when the war was over. We were doing all the right things, holding our guns right, obeying the cultural customs, and the Japanese were told to stay in their homes. The Japanese policemen were told they could be on every corner in their full uniform. So when we’d walk the streets it was like a ghost town but there were policemen at every intersection. The Japanese were told that if they had a weapon to bring it to that intersection. In the middle of every single intersection, there were piles of rifles and swords. We stayed about fifteen feet apart on our patrols and we walked by all of the houses and business. You could see the Japanese looking at you through the windows and I just thought to myself, “We’re doomed. They’re going to come out and attack us. We’re on their land and there’s nowhere to go.” But they didn’t.
Well, we finally got leave and we were allowed to go into town. We were allowed to drink beer and walk around. Every town had a red light district and command would tell us not to go in there. They’d tell us, “Those girls are sick and will make you sick so don’t go into the Red Light District.” There were guys that would go in no matter what of course (laughs). It didn’t take long before we went and met those girls. They weren’t what we thought they were. They were wonderful, super sweet, kind, obedient, generous, and they weren’t flippant like American girls. It was a very big change for us. They respected that we were Marines. We’d go to their houses and mama would watch out and make sure we didn’t mess around with the girls too badly (laughs). We’d bring them food and soap and things they didn’t have. I remember they were so grateful for those things. I remember going to a girl’s house when I was over there and I brought a pack of kool-aid. I went to the mother who was preparing this huge meal and said, “This is grape juice.” She looked at me and said, “What?” I said, “You pour it into the water and it changes,” and she wouldn’t believe me (laughs). She couldn’t believe that. She’d never seen that. In two weeks, we grew to love those people. But, I will say this. I will still never buy a Japanese car. I can’t bring myself to do it.
Do you remember anyone in particular that impacted you in the Marine Corps?
PM: Corporal Unger was the Marine that impacted me the most in battle. He was always making hard decisions and those led to some amazing life lessons for me. Those lessons impacted me when I was the president of HISCO, making decisions on a leadership level. I do remember though something that made me laugh about him. We'd go on these long hikes when we were training in Hawaii and he'd just stuff his pack full of beer. I mean that thing was packed to the hilt with beer. He always had beer with him (laughs). He died about a year or two after the war on the streets of Chicago. He got hit by a car and he was probably drunk. He was always drinking. The war really got to him. It bothered him a lot. It affected people differently.
When you got back did you feel detached from society at all?
PM: I felt just the opposite of detached when I got home. I was welcomed home with open arms. We came back to the girlfriends we'd been writing to, the moms that cooked for us before we left, and we were focused on getting a job. Having a job was such a huge thing. I went back to work at GE and most of us were veterans. One guy had been shot down over Sicily, one guy had been a general, one guy had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and then you get back and you're working alongside each other. So, your stories didn't mean anything. Everyone had stories. You were just another guy when you got back. I might've had a Purple Heart and served in the Battle of Iwo Jima but there were other guys with their own tough situations over there. Your record in the military didn't mean anything to the other guy next to you. We didn't respect or disrespect each other. We both had been there so there was nothing to brag about. We didn't really talk about it.
Something else I hear nowadays. "My dad fought in the war but he didn't want to talk about it." I have an answer for that. He did want to talk about it but you didn't want to truly listen. We came home and of course, we wanted to talk about it. Some of the things I'm telling you right now are so bizarre that they probably don't even seem possible. They didn't believe me when I'd talk about combat. It was insulting when their eyes would glaze over and I could tell they didn't think I was telling the truth. So, it made me want to shut down. That's why guys don't like to talk about it. We stopped talking because of that. Now that you come here and show me respect it makes me want to talk to you. My daughter said awhile back, "My father would never talk about the war but he found his division (5th Marine Division) at the reunions and now he won't shut up (laughs)."
What do you remember about your wife?
PM: My wife would often say that God saved me on Iwo Jima just for her. Like other wives of those times she kept house, she accepted the scarce finances early on, she was always a "lady," and would dress up the kids to meet me when I came home from work. When I took some business and job risks she trusted me totally. Then when we succeeded she grew to be included and helpful in my business. I was always humbled to stand with her -- she was generally cheery, charming, energetic and gracious and very pretty. She was proud to be with me and I was proud to be with her.
After 53 years of marriage, I began to notice that she was forgetting --and after some tests, I found out it was Alzheimers, so I moved us to The Forum. They had a "Memory Care" section when the time came so we knew there would be support when she lost her memory. She declined over 5 years and just as the worse began, she fell, broke a hip, and died within a month. It was a blessing for all of us. She had forgotten me and the kids. In many ways, those years were harder than anything I experienced on Iwo Jima.
What would you tell young men looking to get into the Marine Corps?
PM: Joining the Marine Corps will be the best thing you do. When you're a boy you grow up with certain instincts. As a boy, it's natural to start thinking about who you're going to be as a man someday. You wonder if you can keep up with all the other men. Girls put on the heels at five or six years old and want to be ladies. You know there are girls and then there are ladies. A little girl puts lipstick on and wonder, "What's it like to be a lady and when's it going to happen?" When a man joins the Marine Corps and they pin on the EGA (Eagle, Globe, and Anchor) you know you're a man. You can say, "I'm a man." The military will do that for you. You know it because you hung with those other guys and you made it through the fire together. You earned that pin. Ladies don't have that. They used to have cotillions but I don't really think those are a big deal anymore (laughs).
What do you think are the biggest issues nowadays and what would you fix if you could?
PM: There is no real comparison between my time and the time we are living in now. There was a war, the Japanese threat, the German threat, and a real brand of unity in this country. Patriotism was a very real thing. 67 million people died in the war and that was mostly innocents. We got credit as being the greatest generation because we built the schools up and had families and built the highways. Today I worry about democracy dying. It may be doomed. It may be the end of democracy coming. I do believe that things will not get any better than they are today. There will be certain things like medical services and technology that will get better in the future.
However, life in general, will not get better than it is today. There are just too many things out there that can hurt us now. Atomic bombs that can be dropped at a moment's notice by nut jobs that have them, including us maybe (laughs). Then, there are so many diseases that are growing resistant to antibiotics and cures. There is also this massive divide where the laws are so set where it's hard to overcome that. The top 1% is so far away from the other 99%. In most countries when things get that severe, you have a revolution on your hands.
What do you think makes the Marine Corps unique among the branches?
PM: PR. PR makes the Marine Corps unique. We used to tease ourselves about that. We used to say that a squad of Marines was 12 riflemen and a photographer (laughs). We brag and brag on ourselves. The thing about talking big though is you have to do it. It becomes necessary at that point to walk the walk. The Marine Corps talk big. I remember writing to the "Leatherneck Magazine" and telling them that the SEALs do most of our jobs now. We've messed up somewhere along the line where the SEALs are getting all of the good work. I told the magazine, "The Marine Corps needs to shape up. I'm tired of reading about Marines painting schools." If that's all they have to do, bring them home. Give them a rifle and teach them how to kill. That's supposed to be the essence of the Marine Corps. Our job is to scare people. In my day, they used to say, "Send in the Marines." Nowadays they say, "Send in the SEALs." We've lost something over the years. We aren't getting the biggest jobs anymore.
There's another thing that really bothers me about the Marine Corps now. When I was in the Marine Corps there was a general over each division and maybe a couple other staff generals. I looked in a magazine years ago and there were 130 Marine Corps generals. What's that about? I guess they just get older and the Corps keeps paying them. Bring the boys home and teach them home to shoot. I remember the editor wrote me back and said, "Everyone's entitled to their opinion." Two months later I got five replies from people at the magazine telling me I was dead wrong. I remember in that letter telling them, "Toys for Tots? What's that? That's wimpy is what it is." For Godsakes, you're the damn Marine Corps. Start acting like it. We are supposed to be the meanest fighting force in the world. Sending care packages with baby wipes? There's a sergeant out there trying to turn his boys into men and you're telling people to send them cookies, vaseline, and baby wipes. I don't support the troops. The troops are supposed to support me. When I was in the Corps we were supporting the American people. We're babying Marines nowadays. We've lost what we had from back in my time as a Marine. The funny thing is, people who read the magazine and saw my letter started writing me back telling me how right I was (laughs).
Was there a disconnect between the officer corps and the enlisted?
PM: The system of lieutenants coming out of Annapolis just didn't really work. You have these guys who mostly came from money who probably never had a struggle in their life and you turn them into leaders or you try. The LT steps out of school into this hardened unit of Marines and he says, "I'm here and I'm your new leader." He says something like, "From now on we're going to wash our hands at 0500 every morning." He's trying to establish himself. Right away, the junior Marines don't like him. The immediate reaction from the enlisted is, "Who does this guy think he is?" It's very hard for that young lieutenant to get their affection. Battle time comes and he has to lead. He comes up to the front of the lines like a good, young lieutenant should and he says follow me. He's brave in that moment but he gets shot and killed. The guys never really identified with him.
They send up another lieutenant and that's the way it goes in battle. That LT does things by the book, they can't hide, and they get killed early on. So then you've got this sergeant who the guys have been with the whole time. They love him because he understands them. The guys gather around him and trusted him. Here comes the next lieutenant and the guys once again roll their eyes and they grumble, "Great... we've gotta go into battle with him?" It's the same old story. We had occasions in the Marine Corps in battle where our own guys would shoot that lieutenant. That's how much mistrust there was with the officer corps. That's how bad the guys hated that LT. Our captain never came up to the line. He always stayed hidden. He survived but we went through six lieutenants. It's not told about that battle very often but we just ran out of guys.
Fortunately, we got to the end of the battle before we ran out completely (laughs). I was in Fox Company but that didn't matter as soon as we hit the beach. It was complete chaos and my company was decimated the first day. The company structure didn't matter because it was constantly changing. Let's say Jim steps into leadership and before you know it Jim's gone. Then Mike steps into leadership and before you know it Mike's gone. That's the reality of war. Marines are good at that I guess. We're good at banding together and making things work amidst complete chaos. I mention that because I noticed with the Japanese were lost without a leader. We rarely ever captured them alive but when we did they'd tell you everything. They didn't know what to do in those situations because they were told not to be captured period.
What was therapeutic for you post-military?
PM: My wife made me angry about something one night. I'm not one to shout or anything like that when I'm mad. I was sitting at the dinner table and I wasn't happy with the way things were going. I remember she'd just laid the plate down on the table in front of me. I can still see the mashed potatoes and peas on the plate. She laid it down, I walked outside through the sliding glass door, and I flung that thing across the backyard (laughs). I came back in and I said to my wife, "Excuse me," and I walked outside. I started to run just like Forrest Gump did. I ran around the block a few times and I felt so much better after that. I ran again the next day and this was in the days before running clothes.
I still remember I wore jeans and moccasins when I ran (laughs). After that, I didn't miss a morning run for eight years. I ran on the morning of funerals, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and anything else. Nothing would get between me and my morning run. I remember one morning there was just enough path in the snow cleared by the milk man's tires that I used that as my path. My neighbor came outside and yelled, "Merriman you're crazy (laughs)!" I've run a bunch of marathons and I got a medal from the city for hitting 50,000 miles. I've run in over 300 cities and in 4 different countries. Running was very therapeutic for me.
Can you talk about your life a little post military and what that was like.
PM: I was working at GE for awhile when I came back from the war. My boss didn't like me for some reason. He was just a narcissist. He was one of those guys that actually believed some of the crazy things that would come out of his mouth. It was his world and you were just living in it. I started to realize I was eventually going to be fired. He was making complaints about me and going out of his way to make trouble for me. I thought to myself, "This isn't healthy and I have a wife and seven children to take care of." I was scared about the prospect of losing my job. He told me I could buy his other company. He didn't think I was serious when I told him I wanted to buy it. He asked for $10,000.
The next day he was up on the beach and I was up for my run. I was jogging along the beach and he saw me and said, "You son of a bitch, if you can run in that sand you can probably run that company. You can have it." I went down to visit the office in Houston. It was a nice little office with two employees where Minute Maid Park is now. I got back on an Eastern Airlines plane after I'd visited the offices and I met a guy who was a lawyer on that plane ride. I told him what I was up to and he said to me, "Do not give that man $10,000 for crying out loud." I told him, "Well, he's my old boss and even though he's crazy I still consider him a friend so I have to pay him what I told him I'd pay him." He said, "No, no, no... that's over. You need to think about your children and your family. You can't go in there thinking about how much you like him as a friend." I said, "What would I tell him?" He replied, "Tell him you're going to give him a dollar. You have to pray and make it work."
So when I sat down to settle the contract my boss was there with his attorney. We were in Baltimore. We were all sitting in a hotel room and my boss says, "You ready to sign? Did you bring the money?" I said, "Dick, I'm not going to give you $10,000." He said, "Now what? We had a deal Paul. What are you doing to me?" I said, "I'm not going to give you $10,000. I'm going to give you a dollar." He scoffed, "Oh, that's rich! You're going to give me a dollar?" I said, "Yep." He said, "That's crazy." I told him, "That don't mean nothin' to you. $10,000 is going to kill me. I have a family I have to support." I turned on the act and said, "You're just a cheap guy looking to make a buck and my life's on the line here! My family's life is on the line." He looked at me like I was crazy and said, "What the hell's gotten into you?"
I walked out of that office with a new company and a dollar less (laughs). I remember a long time after that, that old boss of mine said to me, "Paul I taught you everything!" I replied, "You taught me what to never do (laughs)." He used to tease and say that he wanted to spend his last dollar as he fell into his grave. He had six children and two marriages. He went to the doctor in Pittsburgh and his doc said he had very bad cancer. He went to one of his kid's husbands who was also a doctor and asked for a secondary opinion. That doctor told him the same thing. He got in his car, drove down the road, and overdosed on pills. He was extreme. The company was in a lot of debt when I showed up and they had only two employees. I just showed up to work every day and treated customers right. I stayed in the office for three or four months. Finally one of the kids in the office said, "You've got to get out and see the customers." So I jumped in the car and started seeing customers. That's how I turned the company around. I talked to the employees about the importance of "we" and not "me." I bought that company for $1 and it's now worth about $200 million. I gradually sold the company back to employees through the stocks I owned.
If you could tell a veteran something about returning to the civilian life what would you tell them?
PM: If I could tell present day veterans something I'd tell them to come back with a good attitude about serving your country. You should be happy that you got to serve your nation. When you get back, you need to realize that it's time to move on with life. Let everyone know in your workplace that your time in combat is behind you and you're not going to give them any reason to feel bad in your presence. Let them know that you're a better person for your service in combat but you're ready to move on and you're happy to be in that workplace. Your combat deployment was educational, a type of sabbatical, and it grew you. Let that be a positive space in your life no matter what happened over there. You need to convey those feelings to your co-workers.
Were you better or worse off for deploying to Iwo Jima?
PM: Very few people really know what you're talking about when you mention the battle of Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima wasn't that big of a deal in the bigger picture. Battle, procedures, and commendations don't really mean that much to the civilian world I don't think. I was just there and I did my job. The bottom line in having been shot at, is that every day is a whole new blessing. I'm just happy to be alive. I hardly ever miss a night where I don't think about how glad I am that nobody's shooting at me. I was desperate every day on that island. I moved one way and they were shooting at me. I moved another way and they were still shooting at me. I survived that and just to know that I can lay down in a bed and pull my sheet over me in a warm bed, is pretty amazing. I think about it now and there are guys in some part of the world right now being shot at. I remember that feeling and it's absolutely horrible.
I remember one time in grade school there was this three step window and it led down to a basement. We walked down these steps to the bottom platform. There was a rat down there right by a Kroger store. My friend and I decided we had to kill that rat for some reason. We found an old broom and we were going to jam that rat up and kill him. I remember he'd run and we'd poke at him. Finally, he went over to one of the corners and he stood up and hissed at us. That rat looked right at us, reared up, and said, "Bring it on." I remembered that rat when I was in combat on Iwo Jima. The Japanese were chasing us, cornering us, and finally I became that rat. I was tired of being cornered and I reared up and did what I had to do.
What do you remember about being a father to your children?
PM: As a father, I enjoyed watching my seven kids grow up to be adults. Every dad learns on the job and there are some great thrills and some big disappointments. I did learn that deep inside they liked being disciplined. It meant they were loved and we always tried to keep things humorous & positive. I used some Marine Corps tactics and I NEVER talked baby-talk to my kids. From day one I treated each child as an adult, even though at that young an age they just stared at me. Their mother built their character.
What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered?
PM: I want to be remembered as the person I try to live to be. I want people to remember a pleasant, active, generous, boy, Marine, husband, dad, and grandad.
One of the greatest moments of impact for me, was Paul's account of being next in line to be ordered to advance when he’d just watched two of his fellow Marines die in a span of about thirty seconds. “At that point, I knew I’d die if I ran out there but by then I’d bought into what the Marine Corps was selling. I’d taken on that sense of duty.” That same sense of duty followed him after he left Iwo Jima and took on a CEO role at a failing company. He created a culture of “duty,” and through this was able to turn a debt-riddled corporation into a company now worth close to 200 million dollars. Eventually, that sense of duty put him in charge of a wife who had succumbed to Alzheimer’s after 53 years of marriage. I remember looking at Paul in his Houston, high-rise apartment and watching him smile as he connected the dots for me. He spoke of a young "Corporal Unger" who ordered men into certain death and how he could’ve never done that himself. Decades later he was in the position of firing men and telling they’d no longer be bringing home a check to their families. He laughed at the irony.
One of the things I'd like most to get across to the audience reading this blog, is Paul's attitude. I don't know that I've ever met a more joyful human being. I kept having this feeling throughout our day together that he was so excited with the way his life had gone up until this point. Even in his vivid account of combat on Iwo Jima he found moments to laugh about amongst the descriptions of horrific close-quarters chaos. I'd laugh with him for awhile then part of me realized the somber sacrifices so many made on that island. The laughter is what makes me a soldier and makes Paul a Marine. The reality is, laughing is much better than crying at the cold, harsh realities of life and death thousands of miles from home. I remember those days leading up to Iraq and wondering what my life would be like post-war, and if I'd even get to experience the gift of making it home intact. How much more so did those thoughts impact Paul as he rode along the choppy waves in his amphibious landing vehicle nearing that hellacious moonscape of Iwo?
I've brought this up before in past blogs but sometimes I try to add too much depth to something that is more beautiful in its simplicity. Paul's rendition of his time at Iwo Jima was about as matter-of-fact as an account can be. There was something about the "Greatest Generation" that didn't find a need to explore the depths of warfare and why they were doing what they were doing. They stepped out into the igneous infernos of a brutal deathmatch and never questioned the necessity of what they were doing. I thank God every day for men like Paul Merriman. Without them, I can say without question I would not be experiencing the freedoms of the greatest nation on earth. So with that being said, I'd like to end this blog by thanking Paul Merriman and the men of the 5th Marines, 28th Regiment. Your sacrifices will not be forgotten by this veteran.