World War II Veteran Martin "Murph" Murphy Shares His Memories of Iwo Jima
Losing a piece of luggage is a nuisance for most people. For Martin “Murph” Murphy of Leawood, it triggered a sequence of events that landed him in some of the fiercest battles of World War II.
“I did Marine boot camp in San Diego,” says Martin, now 93. “After we graduated, trucks pulled up with all of our sea bags piled in front. My sea bag happened to be at the bottom of the pile, and I had a heck of a time finding it. Everybody else was on the trucks before I finally got on the last truck.
“Somebody came out of the hut and yelled, ‘get that last truck!’ They needed somebody for tank school, which is how I got into tanks. Lucky break number one.”
Martin trained in A-4 Sherman tanks at Camp Pendleton in California. These 38-ton tanks carried 75-millimeter guns and a crew of five. He was designated a loader because he was tall and could reach the shells stored beneath the floor of the turret. His crew sailed for Hawaii and didn’t learn their ultimate destination until they were at sea.
“Everybody was guessing where we were going, but of course, nobody knew,” Martin says. “Then we found out it was going to be Iwo Jima.”
The battle, fought from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945, resulted in 7,800 U.S. soldiers killed and more than 20,000 wounded or evacuated. The first hurdle for Martin’s tank was simply getting off the landing craft and onto the beach.
“We hit the beach, and when they dropped the door in the front, the lieutenant went to the left about 100 feet and bogged down,” he says. “Then the sergeant went to the right, full speed ahead, and he bogged down at about the same distance. Then Taylor, an old truck driver from Minnesota, said, ‘Miller, put this in the lowest gear you have. What do you say, guys, should we go straight out?’
“We were going so slow that I didn’t even think we were moving. It seemed like it took us forever to get down that ramp. But when we hit the beach, because we were going so slow, we packed down the sand instead of digging into it. We were the first tank that made it off the beach.”
Martin’s tank was knocked out of service two days later. Headquarters replaced it and ordered them to destroy their first tank, where Japanese soldiers were shooting from the pistol port.
“We didn’t like that, because that was the tank we had trained in for over a year,” Martin says. “We also had stocked it with soda and a fifth of Seagram’s that we hadn’t had a chance to drink, so we didn’t like the idea of blowing up that tank.”
The crew would go through six tanks before the fighting ended.
“I felt safe in our tank, although you are scared all the time. They said, ‘how did you manage to get by?’ I said, ‘we prayed a lot.’ The prayers worked, and I was thankful that I never even got a scratch. You see the guy next to you get shot, and you wonder why.”
After 39 days, the crew returned to Hawaii. While training for their next mission, word came of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the war in the Pacific. Martin was discharged in Chicago and later met his future wife, Audrey, at an American Legion post in St. Louis.
“It wasn’t a long engagement, because I was 28 or 29—and she wasn’t getting any younger, either,” he says.
The couple was happily married for 54 years. They had three daughters—Nancy (who died from cancer in 2000); Patty and Diana; and six grandchildren. One grandson played on Villanova University’s national championship basketball team this spring, and a niece was on the U.S. women’s soccer team that won an Olympic gold medal.
The crew began holding reunions about 20 years after the war and always passed around a bottle of the same whiskey that they had to abandon in their first tank. Although the other members have passed away, the memories have never faded for the man known as Murph.
“The thing I am most proud of in my lifetime is being in the Marine Corps,” he says. “It was a great outfit to belong to, and there is a fine camaraderie among all Marines. They say once a Marine, always a Marine. Very true.”