Last Saturday, Ron Scharfe stood atop Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi and looked down at Green Beach.
A thousand yards away and 70 years gone by, the Navy coxswain nicknamed “Rondo” piloted a landing craft carrying 36 Marines to shore, igniting the monthlong battle to capture the Japanese island.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would come back,” the Missoula man said Friday. “The beaches looked a lot better this time.”
Scharfe took the trip with the Greatest Generations Foundation, which he had been introduced to after visiting Washington, D.C., for a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the World War II assault.
At Iwo Jima a week ago, a Marine gave Scharfe a U.S. flag with the condition that he raise it at the top of Mount Suribachi, then take it home with him.
Scharfe has other mementos from the trip around the Pacific, which included stops in Hawaii, Saipan, Guam and Tinian.
In addition to medals for veterans who were at the Battle of Iwo Jima, he brought back small bags of sand from the beach, stones from the top of Suribachi, and a gasket he found on the runway at Tinian, where the B-29 Enola Gay departed on its mission to bomb Hiroshima.
In the cracked concrete of an old bunker on Suribachi, Scharfe left a small flag. He said he and other members of the trip were able to go into the network of caves dug on the island.
The anniversary ceremony on Iwo Jima included a 21-gun salute and a speech by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.
“To be standing on sacred ground, 70 years later, it’s pretty awesome,” Scharfe said.
Along with some of his Chicago friends, a 16-year-old Scharfe enlisted using a blank baptismal certificate taken from a church so he could pass for 17, and join up without a parent's permission.
Scharfe said he had told his mother and father it would be a long time before he was deployed anywhere. Three months later, he was on his way to the Pacific.
Iwo Jima would be his first combat experience.
The night before the assault began, he said the troops were treated to a 3 a.m. steak dinner in preparation for a 9 a.m. landing. Nobody ate.
As a coxswain, Scharfe piloted a LCVP landing ship. Just off shore, the ship struck something in the water. Scharfe’s chest was smashed into the steering wheel, and he cracked his head against the helmet of another person. His nose streamed blood and he could barely breathe. The landing door opened and water poured into the ship. He could see the troops around him, weighed down by their packs and gear, starting to drown.
“That’s when hell opened up,” he said.
Scharfe made it to shore in a larger LCM amphibious landing ship that pulled alongside his ruined craft, while the Japanese troops fired everything from small arms to mortars at the beach.
They had buried drums of gasoline in the sand with the intention of blowing them up when the Americans made landfall.
For the next few weeks, his job became support work, helping ships to lay smokescreens on the beach.
“You grew up really fast. That was the first time I ever saw someone get cut in half,” he said.
After Iwo Jima, Scharfe was part of the assault on Okinawa. As his ship neared shore, Japanese kamikaze planes flew into it. Having survived, Scharfe was stationed at Hiroshima just weeks after the bomb was dropped there. Decades later, he found out radiation from his nine-month stay had affected his thyroid.
After a postwar career with the Chicago Fire Department, Scharfe moved to Missoula in 1974.
“I lost some buddies out there. I got to enjoy what America is about, what we sacrificed for,” he said.
Every few weeks, Scharfe still gets flashbacks, from noises, something around him, the smell of diesel.
“You remember holding someone’s hand, looking down and telling them, 'You’re going to be OK,' and you were lying right through your teeth,” he said.
In the fall, Scharfe is planning on being part of another trip that will take World War II veterans to Okinawa, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo.
“I’m not worried about heaven and hell. I went to hell and I did my stint there,” he said.