WINTERSVILLE - World War II affected countless people across the globe, and more than 60 million of them lost their lives. Veterans Day is a time to remember the sacrifices of American men and women in uniform, and Leonard V. Masci remembers it all too well.
"Back then when the war broke out almost everybody was involved in something," he said. "You were either in the service or you worked in a war factory."
Masci enlisted with the Marine Corps in 1942 at the age of 18. After boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina, he went for further training in North Carolina and on the West Coast around San Diego.
MEMORIES — Leonard V. Masci of Wintersville looks at a “Good Luck” flag, traditionally inscribed with signatures and well-wishes from family and friends of the Japanese soldier who carried it into combat during World War II. He also kept a “thousand stitch belt,” a piece of cloth with a thousand tiny red stitches, each one sewn by a different Japanese woman, to protect the soldier carrying it. -- Shae Dalrymple
In January 1943, he left with the 3rd Marine Division headed for New Zealand. Sixteen days later, the freighter full of seasick men landed at Auchland. They had been living on a diet of greasy ham and overcooked potatoes, so their mouths watered when they saw local children with pies to sell. Unfortunately those pies were filled with cold mutton, a local delicacy, and most of the men ended up spitting them out.
After a couple months of training, they were sent north to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The main battle there had ended, but the 21st Regiment faced snipers, air raids and stragglers left behind by the Japanese. This was their first real experience with combat.
Masci went on to fight at Bougainville Island. The island, a territory of New Guinea, had been under Japanese control since the spring of 1942. Guadalcanal had been one of the first major offensive moves for Allied forces against Japan, and retaking Bougainville was the next step. The 21st Marines fought in the first phase of the campaign and succeeded in capturing and defending several important positions on the island before the Americal Division of the U.S. Army was sent in.
Masci and the 8th Company returned to Guadalcanal for more training and replacements. They were scheduled to land further north at Guam en route to Saipan a few days later, but the Battle of the Philippine Sea forced them to postpone. This was referred to as the "Marianas Turkey Shoot," because Japanese forces were decimated, losing more than 350 planes on the first day compared to only 23 U.S. planes. Masci and his company spent 54 days on an attack transport troop carrier on the rough ocean before landing on Guam on July 21, 1944.
On one occasion in Guam, he was scouting 50 yards ahead of his platoon when an Allied air strike began.
"When they do this, they put up flags to mark the front line, and then the plane comes in and fires beyond that front line," Masci explained. "Well, I was beyond the front line. Machine gun bullets were hitting the ground behind me. I dove behind a coconut log and it went over top and missed me. I was fortunate."
Once Guam had been retaken after three weeks of engagement, the 21st Marines continued patrols for several months and trained in preparation for "Operation Detachment," the Battle of Iwo Jima.
The 3rd Division arrived on the first day of the battle, and they spent the entire day in small boats being tossed by the ocean, unable to land because of the amount of debris onshore. Once night fell, they were forced to load back onto their ships and try again in the morning. When the sun rose on the second day, the boats could not get much closer than 50 feet from shore. Troops carrying heavy equipment were forced to slog through the waves and black volcanic sand, dodging bullets along the way.
Things did not get easier when they reached the shore. The Japanese were "fanatical," because most would commit suicide rather than surrender. They utilized "pillboxes," concrete bunkers, and an extensive network of caves and tunnels which made them difficult to locate.
"The Japs were almost all underground. You had to dig them out. We covered a lot of caves, blew a lot of them shut, bulldozed dirt over the top," Masci said.
On the fourth day after the initial landing, Masci witnessed firsthand one of the most recognized moments in American history.
"I was down in a foxhole on this rise, and I looked up at Mount Suribachi, and I saw them put the flag up," he said. A photo taken of this event by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal became the most iconic representation of American victory in the Pacific. Masci thought that the fighting might end soon when he saw Old Glory, but it was far from over.
"Every morning you went on attack, and at night you were still under fire from the artillery and mortars," he said. "You don't get used to it, but you automatically react for survival."
After weeks of fighting on Iwo Jima as a squad leader, Masci suffered a blast concussion and multiple shrapnel wounds when he was blown out of a foxhole.
"I had a sliver of shrapnel in the back of my neck that I pulled out myself," he recalls. "That was the end of the campaign for me."
He was evacuated and later received the Purple Heart for his injuries. He continues to deal with the effects of the concussion, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Masci was discharged in Washington, D.C., in 1945 at the age of 21. He went to work for the Diebold Safe and Lock Co. in a machine shop and eventually left that job to join the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Adjusting to civilian life was difficult for him at first, but the strict atmosphere of the highway patrol was familiar. Being trained for the job by a retired Marine captain and a retired Marine sergeant was like "boot camp all over again." After 15 years as a state trooper, he started working at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, where he stayed for 23 years before retiring.
While he was in the Pacific, Masci's sister had connected him by mail with a girl named Gertrude. They wrote letters to each other, and she eventually sent him a picture. When he went on a 30-day leave for the first time in nearly three years, they finally were able to meet in person.
"I thought I better catch her right now before somebody else did," Masci said of the first time he saw her photo.
The next time he returned to the U.S. on leave in July 1945, they were married. Leonard and "Johnnie," as he refers to her, have been married for 68 years, and he still has the letters they shared during the war. They have four children - Carol, Leonard Jr., Terry and Barbara, as well as 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
In the 1950s Masci met Jim McClain and Harold Clutter, formerly enlisted Marines who also fought in the Pacific during WW II. They occasionally got together to talk about their experiences, and over the years the group expanded. In 1995 they decided to pick one day of week to meet regularly, and now there is a table of Semper Fi veterans every Wednesday morning at Lancelot's restaurant in Wintersville. The group meets at 9 a.m., but according to Masci "When you're in the Marine Corps, 9 a.m. means quarter til 9 a.m., not a minute after."
In addition to that group, he is a member of the Tri-State Marine Corps Club, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans.
Every year he celebrates the Marine Corps birthday on Nov. 10 and Veterans Day on Nov. 11 at Friendship Park with the Jefferson County Veterans Association. This year the Marine Corps turns 238 years old, and Masci's 90th birthday takes place two days later.