In late February each year, my mind reaches back to a little island in the far Pacific called Iwo Jima and a man named Elmer Montgomery. A Bible-toting Maine clerk. We first met on Guam in late 1944 during the final phases of that campaign. I had been ordered to take over logistics for the third Marine Division. We needed a clerk-typist. And, Sgt. Elmer Montgomery reported. Elmer looked like the vindication of the whole Marine Corps personnel system. He wore the stripes of a buck sergeant, but there was nothing tough or fierce about this young Montanan. His sensitive face, deep-set eyes, thin, almost frail figure hardly matched the gung-ho Marine prototype.
As we began to work together, I became more and more convinced that Elmer was the right man in the right job. He typed well, took shorthand, understood administration, kept things moving. He was the perfect man behind the man behind the gun. After Guam was secured, attention shifted to the invasion of Iwo Jima. Work piled high and the hours were long in that little Quonset hut office. But when Elmer did have a moment, I notice he would lean hi chair against the wall and pull a small, white, leather covered Bible from his hip pocket of his fatigues. Wherever the bible fell open in his hand, he would begin to read and find serenity.
I remember one evening when we were working late, Elmer’s glace fell on a stack of books. “I see you have a copy of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat,” he said. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“What’s your favorite verse?” I asked. “I sometimes think that never blows so red, the rose as where some buried Caesar bled,” he responded. He had it perfect.
In February 1945, we sailed for Iwo Jima. After day of fierce fighting, division staff sections were ordered to provide replacements for badly mauled frontline units. I had to provide two. It’s not a pleasant job to pick men trained in support tasks for the “meat grinder”, but I selected the two I thought could best be spared from my supply operation. I was about to send the names to the adjutant when my XO popped into the dugout. Sgt. Montogomery wanted to see me. The sergeant saluted and informed me he had heard about the call for reinforcements. He explained that he wanted to go forward. I’ll never feel right if I don’t go up when I’m needed, he said. “I’m needed now. I’m older than most of these kids. I’ve had a lot of experience looking after myself while hunting back home. I can look after them up forward.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll grant your request, but only because you’re old enough to know what you’re doing and because it means so much to you.”
I never saw Elmer again. A Marine from his front line unit told me the story: The platoon commander had been killed and Elmer was assigned, under a staff sergeant, as assistant platoon commander. The order came to attack. The patched up platoon moved across a slight rise and into a small saucer-shaped area where it was pinned down by a carefully camouflaged Japanese machine gun. If the men tried to move back, the gun would get them. If they stayed, they would soon be blasted apart my mortars. Elmer crawled and rolled within yelling distance of the staff sergeant. “When I draw the fire,” Elmer shouted. “Roll the platoon back over the rise.”
And while the platoon commander was shouting “no”, Sgt. Montgomery stood up and firing his rifle from his hip, walked into the machine gun. They never found Elmer. A few minutes after his platoon reached safety our artillery laid down a barrage on the machine gun emplacement. The big shells churned the ground and everything on it mercilessly. He and his little white, leather covered Bible became, forever, part of the hallowed ground of Iwo Jima. I suppose memories fade and maybe Sgt. Montgomery’s Navy Cross is almost forgotten. But whenever I think back to all the brave men I have been privileged to know, Elmer heads the list. And whenever my eye falls on a copy of the Rubaiyet, I can’t help but believe that if a rose were ever to bloom where Elmer fell, it would be redder than any “where some buried Caesar bled.” Later a Knox-class frigate was named after Elmer that heroic Marine.
Submitted by Fred Collins
Iwo Jima Survivor