By Matt de Simone Contributing writer
Last Thursday evening at the Fincastle Library, the Botetourt County Historical Society invited Hollis Showalter, a 94-year-old U.S. Marine World War II veteran (4th Marine Division, Company C, 1st BN), to speak in front of its members and other members of the community. He spent an hour telling his story from the time he entered the Marine Corps in 1942 to his final days spent in the South Pacific during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Showalter trained for a year and a half in the military at the same time as President George H.W. Bush before leaving for the far east. “[Bush] was flying high in the sky over the islands of the Pacific and I was crawling across the sands on the islands of the Pacific,” Showalter told the audience when discussing the parallels between his and the 41st president’s experiences. Following “narrow escapes,” Bush settled in the oil fields of Texas while Showalter made a home in the valleys of Virginia.
In 1942, Showalter began his experience in the Pacific Theater of World War II at Guadalcanal, a small island northeast of Australia. For the next 16 months, U.S. military forces worked their way from island to island until reaching the equator. Then, for the next 17 months, Showalter and the rest of the troops continued their “step stone” approach until they reached what Showalter referred to as “the front door of Japan” in 1944.
When talking about the morning he set off for the South Pacific, Showalter told the audience, “One morning, I woke up and looked across the ocean. For far as you can see, there was nothing but ships. If you had a big pair of shoes and real long legs, you could walk from ship to ship across the ocean and never get your feet wet.”
The site still has Showalter puzzled. It wasn’t because he swept across the ocean with an impressive assortment of ships heading for Japan. He’s still wondering why modern, computerized navigational tools can’t get the job done. Showalter jokingly stated, “What I could never understand is that you had this entire fleet of ships moving in a straight line across the ocean. The only thing they had to go by were the stars, the sun, and their instruments. Now, you stick six ships out in the ocean and they all run into each another.” Despite the tragic results of the Pacific Theater of World War II, Showalter told his stories with a lighthearted tone that kept the members of the Historical Society and the local history enthusiasts chuckling throughout his time at the podium.
Showalter displayed an impressive memory of the military divisions— to the number— entering the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945. He also explained the impressive ratios of the U.S. military’s vehicles and rations for every ship. Those in attendance were awestruck at Showalter’s distinct memories of Iwo Jima and how he and the rest of the U.S. military arrived to that point in the war.
“We’ve got three divisions. We put 70,000 Marines on [Iwo Jima]— eight square miles. Each division had 2.66 miles to take care of. The prize was, when you got through with your segment, you were back on the ship. Our casualty rate was one every 90 seconds in the 26 days we were there.” Out of Showalter’s regiment, the 23rd Marines, three of his battalion commanders were killed on their first night.
Showalter continued, “We had them outnumbered three-to-one. Iwo Jima was the only battle that the Marine Corps ever fought where the American casualties were more than the enemy’s. In my division alone, out of 20,000 men, our casualty rate was 9,092. That was almost half of our division. It took us 23 days to cover 2.66 miles across that island. In one day alone, my company lost 62 men.”
One of the more impressive yet saddening statistics Showalter divulged regarded the honors awarded to the men who served in Iwo Jima. The United States awarded 80 members of the military who fought during World War II with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Out of those 80 recipients, 27 fought with Showalter and President Bush in Iwo Jima but only 19 were alive to receive the honor in 1945.
Showalter’s stories reminded the community members in attendance of the importance of the U.S. military and the sacrifices made to ensure freedom. Following his humbling recollection of his experiences in World War II, those in attendance shared their admiration and gratitude for Showalter’s time of service and also their appreciation for those who serve in the U.S. military today.