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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 5, 2010

Battle for Iwo Jima still fresh in veteran's mind

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Retired Marine Lt. Col. Thomas Kalus of ‘Aiea was an 18-year-old private first class when he came ashore at Iwo Jima’s Red Beach, which he recently revisited, for the epic battle on the Japanese island in 1945.

Kalus family photo

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A 10-part miniseries on HBO

Premieres March 14

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Thomas Kalus

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Thomas Kalus said when he and his fellow 3rd Battalion, 27th Marines came ashore at Iwo Jima, the scene was quiet. "The Japanese general's operating mode was, 'Let them get ashore, and once they get ashore, we'll slaughter them by artillery,' " Kalus said.

Kalus family photo

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Sixty-five years ago, Thomas Kalus was an 18-year-old Marine from Colorado when he waded ashore on the faraway volcanic sands of Iwo Jima during World War II with an M1 carbine and no idea what he'd face next.

He quickly ditched the small-caliber weapon in favor of a much harder-hitting Garand rifle "because I couldn't knock anybody down."

The battle for Iwo Jima has stuck with him much longer. The 83-year-old 'Aiea resident just returned from his third visit to the island following the war.

"At first, the amount of people that were getting hurt and killed, you just thought that was part of the game, but the impact of it hits you when you went to the cemetery dedication, when you saw all those white crosses," Kalus said.

Those were the battlefield crosses for the dead at a makeshift cemetery when the fighting was over.

"All of a sudden you realize, this was serious business," said Kalus, whose introduction to combat came at Iwo Jima. "But when you were 17 or 18 years old, you really don't think about those kind of things. It doesn't come to you until you become a lot older."

The battle for Iwo Jima, fought Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945, was one of the toughest and bloodiest of World War II.

The grittiness of that fighting soon is coming to a new cable TV series.


"The Pacific," which debuts March 14 on HBO, follows three Marines through a series of island battles, including Iwo Jima.

After the 2001 HBO series "Band of Brothers," which focused on the European theater during World War II, executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg decided to create a 10-part series on the Pacific.

The new series picks up events following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. The first episode was aired for about 500 invited guests last night on the fantail of the battleship Missouri.

Spielberg said in a press release provided by HBO that his father and uncle, who both fought in the Pacific, said after "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers," 'What about the boys on the other side of the Atlantic? You're celebrating all those guys from Europe.' "

In the Pacific, Americans "were battling an enemy that fought by rules that we had never in our military history encountered," Spielberg said of the Japanese. "And if they survived that, they still had to contend with malaria, yellow fever and the malaise of existing in a hostile natural environment."

In the first episode, a pipe-smoking Marine lieutenant colonel tells a roomful of noncommissioned officers, "Hitler is not going to be our job — not till they can't whip 'em without us. The Pacific will be our theater of war."

The series was filmed in Australia. To create the black volcanic sands of Iwo Jima, 4,000 tons of black scoria, a pumice-like rock, was mined to recreate the beach.

Thirty-thousand U.S. Marines with the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions went ashore on the nine square miles of volcanic rock and sand to battle 21,000 Japanese dug in and waiting for them.

Flamethrowers and grenades were used to dislodge from caves and miles of tunnels Japanese troops willing to die to defend the island airfield just 660 miles south of Tokyo.

A total of 6,821 U.S. lives were lost. Fewer than 1,000 Japanese survived.


The iconic raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi by five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman was made famous by photographer Joe Rosenthal.

Kalus said he wanted to join the Marines at 17 after a family friend was killed on Tarawa, but he had one brother in the Army and another in the Navy, and his mother wouldn't sign for him to enter the service.

She finally relented, and Kalus went through boot camp and trained with other Marines for the Iwo Jima invasion at Kamuela on the Big Island, on Parker Ranch's steep hills.

There was no shooting when he and fellow 3rd Battalion, 27th Marines landed on Iwo Jima's Red Beach, he said.

"The Japanese general's operating mode was, 'Let them get ashore, and once they get ashore, we'll slaughter them by artillery (and other fire),' " Kalus said. "So the first two hours were pretty quiet — then it opened up and we got a lot of bombardment for the first three days."

He was about a third of a mile from Mount Suribachi, and the Marines were getting strafed by machine gun fire and pounded by artillery and mortars.

Kalus' job was to set up ship-to-shore communications, and a few hundred feet up the beach he and others dug in. Mortars landed within feet of his foxhole.

Japanese kamikaze planes attacked the U.S. ships, and Kalus recalls the lights and fire going up into the air looking like the Fourth of July.


About 20 days into the attack, "things got kind of desperate for the Japanese, and they were taking crazy chances," he said.

"At night they would infiltrate the front lines, and any clump of bushes that was around could have been hiding a sniper," Kalus said. "They were absolutely committed to taking their fair share of Marines out before they gave their life. That was their instruction — kill 10 Marines before you die yourself, and they tried their very best to do that."

Kalus said many of the young Marines, meanwhile, were reckless.

"They would just take chances saving their buddies or trying to get in a position to open fire on (the Japanese) in a pillbox or cave," he said. "They wouldn't even wait to get other Marines in position to provide a base of fire that they could maneuver under. They were just trained that way, I guess. We all kind of figured that you were there to fight and die, if necessary."

Kalus went on to fight at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, and also served in Vietnam during his Marine Corps career. He retired in 1970 at the rank of lieutenant colonel.


For the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, Kalus went back with his son, David, 60, who lives in Oregon, and his grandson, Troy, 25, from the Seattle area.

The retired Marine Corps officer is hard of hearing now and walks with a cane, but he still gets emotional about Iwo Jima.

"My (impression) always has been, and is even more today than before, that the sacrifice that everyone made ..." he said, without being able to finish.

His son, David, noted the toll.

"You can't help but think of all the Japanese and American soldiers that were killed there, that would have had a family and three or four generations (of children)," David Kalus said.