Ray Sexton was a poster child for war bonds, a Navy Seabee with instinctive leadership skills, and a man who at age 91 still has a prevailing bad dream that turns 70 this month.
It was March of 1945 on the as-yet unsecured Japanese island of Iwo Jima in the South Pacific. Americans from the U.S. Naval 106 Construction Battalion piled onto a flatbed truck for the mile-plus drive to the site of a future airstrip, to make a sweep for land mines.
“The flatbed would hold about 20 guys. I was fortunate enough that there wasn’t any room left on the truck,” Sexton recalled last week in his home of 37 years in Upper Miller Creek. “They didn’t get halfway before it blew up and killed every one of them.”
For his friends and fellow Seabees on the truck there was no time to register what happened, no time to write to their girls back home, no time to philosophize about war and peace, to swing to Tommy Dorsey, to bum a cigarette or thank Mom and Dad.
“There wasn’t a one of them that wasn’t killed,” Sexton said somberly. “In fact, there wasn’t any that lived a minute after the explosion.”
He and another man were perhaps 50 yards away, following on foot. The blast knocked them both down. Sexton’s colleague was carrying a mine detector that was driven into his belly with such ferocity it almost killed him too. Sexton suffered a concussion and counts himself a lucky man.
But he wonders, with that unfathomable, unreasoning guilt that haunts so many war veterans, why he was spared to meet Glenda in Oregon years later, to raise a family and see grandchildren and great-grandchildren born.
By the 1970s, Sexton was head of maintenance at Van Evans Lumber in Missoula and Champion Plywood in Bonner, supervising mill crews of as many as 80 men.
Glenda, who passed away last July, was a hell of a golfer, Ray said. Together they traveled to play Myrtle Beach and Palm Springs. The University of Montana course was their home range, but Sexton said he’s won a 50-and-over tournament at Missoula Highlands for four years running.
“I’m waiting for the season to open to start up again,” he said. “I can still hit it 200 yards.”
So why him? Sexton wonders. Or, more often, why not him in that flatbed truck on Iwo?
“One thing that really comes back once in a while, especially at night, is how lucky I was for not being on that damn truck,” he said.
Ray Sexton was born on Oct. 6, 1923. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, and at age 18 enlisted in the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army. A journeyman machinist, he had the qualifications the Seabees were looking for.
In July 1944, Sexton found himself in the “paradise” of Hawaii at the Pearl Harbor Naval Station. Six months later, the troops were queuing up to sail aboard a reconfigured Liberty ship to Iwo Jima when Sexton was asked to pose for a picture.
“There were, I’d say, 15 or 20 just like me and we went up one after another,” he recalled. “I don’t know why they picked me.”
The print of a handsome, helmeted soldier clutching an assault rifle with eyes skyward to victory was among those the U.S. used to sell $185 million worth of war bonds in World War II.
Sexton recalls watching from his ship off the southeast coast of Iwo Jima as American planes and then warships rained down an intensive bombardment.
He witnessed the initial, massive Marine landings on the morning of Feb. 19 – the first invasion of Japanese soil in history. Some 22,000 enemy soldiers lay in wait on an island just five miles long, but the Americans initially drew little opposition. It appeared the bombing had done its job, Sexton said.
But when the beach head was filled with advancing Marines, the Japanese opened a ferocious defense from heavily fortified positions linked by 11 miles of underground tunnels.
“Then,” he said, “it was just a massacre.”
“Our ship wasn’t too far away from one of the hospital ships. After the third day of landing, we could see one boat after another loaded with injured bringing them out.”
Still, the assault teams made headway. Sexton didn’t see either American flag raised on top of Mount Suribachi on Day 5, though he saw the second one flying. Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of its raising remains one of the most iconic images in the history of war.
By the time Sexton's unit went ashore on Day 17 to build infrastructure for the American base, Suribachi had been effectively cut off from the rest of the island. He was a Machinist’s Mate 1st Class, but his crew called him “master sarge.” The two dozen men in his company relied on his judgment.
“The whole company except for some of the officers, they were all between 19 and mid-20s,” he said. “It seemed like most of them, especially the Eastern people, didn’t have any initiative to do something on their own. They had to be told what to expect. It just came natural to me.”
Their initial job was to get bulldozers, trucks, ammunition and supplies to shore.
“The runways had to have mats, and we worked on that until all the mats and all the gear were out,” Sexton said. “Then they started unloading Quonset hut parts and building new Quonset huts."
The battle of Iwo Jima ended on March 26 after 35 days, though pockets of resistance remained – and so did the 106th.
Sexton spent the next five months helping service the busy airstrips and American base. Just 650 air miles from Tokyo, Iwo Jima provided a critical mid-ocean presence for strikes on Japan’s mainland, including the bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 5.
There were ghastly sights. A D8 bulldozer driven by a friend hit one of the thousands of wash-tub-sized land mines.
“You wouldn’t believe the force of that thing. You know how big a D8 is? It looked like a toy, just tore it up and dropped it in a hole,” he said.
His friend survived for a few days before succumbing.
Japanese survivors remained a constant threat.
“There were so darn many caves and they’d come out at night,” he said. “You had to be alert all the time.”
Sexton was among those called on to survey the caves and tunnels that had been living quarters for the Japanese for months. Now they were strewn with bodies.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “They committed hari-kari and it looked like what they did is they took a grenade and pulled the pin in their belly.”
A narrow-gauge underground railroad ran through the tunnel system to supply the massive labyrinth.
Like many Americans, Sexton came back from the war with a cache of mementos from Iwo Jima – Japanese flags, swords, guns and opium pipes. Some of his collection was stolen on ship, and much of the rest he has given to a grandson, including a set of platinum tiger-like fangs extracted from the mouth of a dead Japanese Imperial Marine.
He speculates that they were implanted either to make the warrior look fierce or as weapons in close combat.
One of Sexton's men was unloading cargo from a ship when he noticed a sailor with “Sexton” on his T-shirt.
“You got a brother named Ray?” the Seabee asked.
Claude Sexton received permission to go ashore to see his older brother. Ray got permission to return to the ship with Claude, where he spent a night of luxury.
“I got a shower and some decent food and a decent night’s sleep. We were still in foxholes at the time on the island,” said Ray, who lost another brother Donald at Guadalcanal earlier in the war.
After the Japanese surrender, the 106th was sent to Yokosuka Naval Base, 60 miles from Tokyo. Sexton was foreman of 14 Japanese workers at a machine shop that had produced torpedoes but now built bicycles.
He remembers fondly how well the Americans were treated.
“They were all friendly,” he said. “Most of the people we encountered, even the troops, didn’t have any grudge against us.”
But the war, and especially Iwo Jima, left scars.
“We were on distilled water all that time, and it ate the calcium right off your teeth,” Sexton said. “I only had one filling in a tooth when I went into the service. When I got out, every week I had to go get a filling, and it got so bad they wouldn’t stay in.”
He’s had a head full of false teeth since 1951.
Sexton said he wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about the war until he sought treatment for anxiety. Why don’t you try drinking a glass of wine or a beer or two? the doctor asked.
“I’ve been drinking beer ever since,” Sexton said. “It really did (help).”
Seventy years later, he retains a sense of achievement.
“I look back at some of the work we did and the men that I worked with,” he said. “They should be mighty proud of what they accomplished, and in my mind I feel pretty proud that the men took me as a leader."