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George Cattalona « North Carolina's WWII ExperienceNorth Carolina's WWII Experience

George Cattalona

Hometown: Englewood, NJ/Raleigh, NC
Branch of Service:
Marines, 5th Marine Division
Location of Service:

Question: First of all, tell us about the 5th Marine Division and what the division was like, leading up to Iwo Jima.

George Cattalona: The 5th Marine Division was formed in Camp Pendleton in 1944, and it has a total of approximately 23,000 men at the time, divisions were pretty big at that time. And you have three regiments of infantry, one of artillery, and then all the others, the amphibs and the tanks and airplanes and everything else that makes up the total of 23,000 in all, like that.

Question: And when did you join the division?

George Cattalona: I was in the original starting of it. I was stationed in Quantico, Virginia at the time, and they wanted to form it, so they shipped us out. Quantico, Virginia, at the time, we were in artillery training, and also was the OCS school, as well. So they shipped us out, and the first sergeant came out one day, and told us, while we were all in formation and ready to go, he said, “You fellas are going to make history.” And we did.

Question: Tell us about the time leading up to Iwo Jima. What was happening then, when you were getting ready for that particular battle?

George Cattalona: Well, we left Quantico, Virginia, and we took the troop train, the southern route, and we had a diner car with us at the time, but when we hit New Orleans they took the diner car away, and we had to stop and march downtown to a cafeteria and eat supper.

And lo and behold, they had a brewery right next to the train station, and they were giving away beer-by the case, not by the bottle-and guys were carrying one or two cases of beer back to the train. Of course, we had to cross

Texas, and that was two days. So we got through that all right, and we got to Camp Pendleton, and everybody was assigned to a Battery or Battalion. I think it’s Regiment, Battalion, Company, or Battery. So that’s what happened when we got there, and I was in L Battery, 4th Battalion, 13th Marines.

Question: And when did you get your orders? What did they tell you you were going to be doing?

George Cattalona: They just told us to train. They didn’t tell us where we were going or anything else. We had no idea at the time. And we trained there for approximately, I’d say, maybe six months or seven months. And we got aboard trucks and went down to San Diego, got aboard a ship, and we went from San Diego to Hilo, Hawaii-that’s the big island.


Question: Ready? Let’s pick it up. You were in San Diego. What happened after that?

George Cattalona: We got aboard ship, and we went from San Diego to Hilo, Hawai’i, unescorted. We had no destroyer, battleship, aircraft carrier to guide us out there. We did it in five days, and when we got into Hilo, the captain of the ship came aboard, came on the speaker, and said, “Everybody goes in quarantine for 30 days.” One man had spinal meningitis, and at that time of life, that’s one of the first things they did, put you in quarantine, because of the possibilities.

We did that. We left the ship, got on trucks, and we went as far as we could. And then from there we had a hike. I don’t know how far, but I know we didn’t get there until well after midnight. So when we got off the trucks and started to march, the captain said, “We’re going to separate the men from the boys.” And guess who dropped out first? The captain. He was the first one to drop out, and, I think, the only one. So that was one of the things. We got to our campsite for the next 30 days, and of course we went through the routine of light training, no Howitzers or anything else.

So, after doing that, we went back to our original place we should have been, at Camp Tarawa in Hawai’i. Also, it’s also the island that had the volcano that erupted several years ago, and that’s where we trained because, mostly of the volcano mountain and everything.

Question: And at this point in time, you still didn’t know what was ahead for you?

George Cattalona: No, no, we didn’t. The only time we got any inkling of it, I was a forward observer, liaison and I also worked in the computer end-not computers, we didn’t have computers back then. We worked in the direction center. That’s where the commands are sent down from the forward observer position to the direction center, and from there they put it into yards and height and everything, in order to fire the 105 Howitzers, which we had.

And from there, as time went along, I would say probably in October of ’44, we get sort of a map of an island and it’s in the shape of, I would say, a country ham, it looked like. And that’s basically what Iwo Jima looked like. We saw in the newspaper where the aerial bombardments started 74 days before we landed, which is approximately a little over two months. We saw that in the paper, and we came to the conclusion that’s where we were going to go.

Question: So take me up to the day when you made the landing.

George Cattalona: All right. We got aboard ship–I’ve often tried to think back. We were aboard ship; I was, some of the other people in the Battery were aboard LSTs, but I was aboard an APA. I was aboard ship for 45 days; didn’t charge me anything, you know, free ride and everything, so you go.

Question: And at the end of those 45 days, did you end up at Iwo Jima?

George Cattalona: Yes. At the end of the 45 days, we ended up…but also, when we went up topside that morning, it was just a sea of ships out there. They said there were about 800 ships out there, all shapes, sizes that you might need. So we get all ready, and I was going in as liaison, and that is to find a position where the guns are supposed to go. And we had an executive officer of the battery, and so we get aboard the Higgins boat, and you sort of make a circle and go by the man in charge who sends the waves in. He asked about going in and everything else, and he said, “

You go in H plus two,” that is, about 11:00 o’clock, we go in. They wanted to get us there for lunch, so that’s how we did it. And the other good thing we had, we were dry land. We didn’t hit any water. We didn’t have to go marching in through the water or anything else.

Question: How do you describe Iwo Jima?

George Cattalona: Iwo Jima was an unusual island because, one of the things very few people realize or know about is that it was also a sulfur island. Of course, the volcano ash was up and down the beach, and that’s where we landed. The trouble with that was that it wasn’t like our sand at our beaches here in the States. You put your foot down, and you might sink an inch or two. Then you tried to pick that up and take another step. It’s sort of tough, because you had no footing like you would on our beaches, or rocks or whatever you want to call it.

And that had two tiers: you went up one tier, then you’d go up another one, and it’s all volcanic ash. You always felt like you were taking two steps and dropping back one because of the way you had to climb it. And the other thing was, the general on that island that was defending it, he was smart. He let the first two or three waves get completely on shore, up on the hard part. By the way, there was no vegetation whatsoever on that island. It was all rock, but part of it was a sandy rock, because that’s how easy it was for them to dig the tunnels.

They had tunnels galore, and we didn’t know that. The intelligence report never mentioned it. They never killed anybody with the aerial bombardment, 74 days, and three days before that, the Navy bombarded it, so it’s a total of 77 days and they probably didn’t kill a one.

Question: So what did you do once you landed? What happened then?

George Cattalona: Well, we got together and we went towards where the coordinates were on the map that we had, as to where the guns were supposed to be. By doing that, we found the spot we were supposed to be, and whenever the guns came in, which was about four o’clock in the afternoon, we just had to stay around and stay out of the way. We couldn’t hide any place, but you just did what you had to do. And, just like everybody, we were doing our job, what we were supposed to do.


Question: Okay. So the weapons arrive around 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. What happens after that?

George Cattalona: Well, all the guns have to be in their position, and they also have to have sort of sighted in–in other words, we have a common post in the back of them, or something like that, and they key them all in with the telescope on the guns. And then what happens is that, when they’re loaded, they’re loaded with 105 ammunition, and they start firing.

Our guns were firing to the north; the Mount Suribachi was at our back, and that was the main point they had to capture, and they did it in the first four days. They had all kinds of tunnels in there. They even had quarters for the officers to sleep in and everything else–hospital, whatever.

Question: Did you know when they had captured Mount Suribachi?

George Cattalona: Yep. It happened, I think, right around noon time, that I happened to look back towards the mountain, and there was the flag, up on top. I don’t remember whether it was the first one or the second one.

Question: How did that make you feel?

George Cattalona: Great. We had nobody at our back after that, which helped a lot.

Question: What happened after that point?

George Cattalona: Well, the first four days, we were in there, doing whatever necessary to keep the guns firing, the ammunition in place, and everything else, and relieving one another and all. On the fourth day, in the afternoon, I got word I was the first forward observer team, and we got the word that we were going up front on the fifth day–or the next day, however you want to look at it. And it was eight of us, and also at the same time, a company forward observer team from M Battery was going to go up, so we joined forces and went up.

As we were going up, I think we must have gotten maybe 200 yards, maybe 250 yards from the Battery, and we were all together, but they were watching us, and the 37–no, probably mortar shell, 81 millimeters, I think it was, or in that category–landed in the midst of us. One dead, ten wounded, five walked away. And I was one.

My left canteen had a slit in it about that long. I had my poncho over my gun belt, and shrapnel went through that, through my legs, and I didn’t have a scratch. And, unfortunately, the man that was killed was from our Battery, part of [ph] the team. I, the radio man, and the lieutenant, were the only three left. So we got together and we went where we were supposed to go, just the three of us. And we stayed up there for three days, and somebody relieved us. Then you go back.

On the sixth day, we move up a little bit further, and I was in a foxhole near an old pillbox. I was facing this way, and in the back–I don’t know whether it was a hand grenade or a small mortar shell or whatever it might have been–I got a little piece in my left arm, a piece went through my helmet into the liner and flipped my helmet around, and that’s the only scratch I got. My guardian angel was working overtime.

Question: How long were you at Iwo Jima?

George Cattalona: How many days? 28 days. The full time. Now, the extra eight days was the mopping-up. We had no business in that. We left on the 29th day, and we went aboard ship and went back to Hilo, Hawai’i.

Question: Was that the worst combat you saw during the war?

George Cattalona: It was the only combat I saw. In fact, the 5th Division was only in one, and that was it.

Question: And how do you describe that to somebody who wasn’t there?

George Cattalona: It’s hard to describe, because of the way they fought and defended their island, and the way we had to fight, was two different things–way two different things. They had the advantage, because they could see where we were, and we couldn’t see them.

And they way they got around the pillboxes is, they’d get the flamethrower and they’d always have a dynamite charge ready; they’d squirt the flamethrower and push them away from the entrance–or what they could see out–and put a dynamite charge there and blow it. Going back to what happened the first time, when the mortar shell hit in the middle of us, the worst part about that was we went into a command post of infantry, and they just had the same thing happen to them.

Out of the corner of my eye, my right eye, there was something over there. And I turned completely that way, and it was a man, a Marine, that was, from the waist up, his body, the only thing you could see from his waist down. His two feet and the rest of him was blown ____. So seeing that, and going through that, it makes you think how lucky you can be, and that’s what I was. Like I said, I had the guardian angels working double-time.

Question: How important do you think Iwo Jima was, overall, to World War II?

George Cattalona: I think it was very important. I just… The number of planes that were saved was right around 2,300 planes, and out of that, you saved almost 25,000 airmen. If you can get a hold of some airmen that were running bombs from Guam to Tokyo and ask them how vital it was, you’ll find that every one of them was glad to see that island.

During the battle, it was about 35 planes that landed and were saved during the battle. Of course, when everyone landed, they always got a lot of mortar shells, cannons, and everything else.

Oh, I forgot one thing…no, I haven’t, I haven’t gotten that far. The second time I went up, I went up, we were going up, we increased our personnel. I think we took a couple extras with us, wiremen. We were up on a mound, and I was up there, and the telephone rang. And this happened right after they shelled, the first time, the mound. And somebody said he could hear the small cannon they had, where they were loading it and firing away.

So it was the captain calling, and he said, “Where are you at?” I said, “Captain, I don’t know where I’m at, but I’m here.” Of course, that was the wrong thing to say. If I was down there where he was at, he probably would have shot me, but I was a good distance away. He didn’t have to worry about that–I didn’t have to worry about it. And so that was three times I felt like they struck out. So, all in all, we kept going back and forth.

The last time I was up there, I was close to the northern end of it–I would say maybe 100 yards off the northern peak–and I was sitting on a foxhole. And up there, you couldn’t dig foxholes, because the rock was too hard and everything else; they used to pick up rocks and make a square. And I was sitting on one of them, and they were firing the artillery, a barrage–that means that every either 50 yards or every 100 yards they would go a little bit further, a little bit further. And a piece of that fragment from our shells hit my left hand on the back. It didn’t break the skin or anything, but just hit it. I wish I had picked it up, but I didn’t. I didn’t care about it.

Question: Looking back today, how do you assess your involvement in Iwo Jima?

George Cattalona: Oh, very proud. Good experience. And you begin to think, the guardian angels”whoever looked after me–and you met a lot of nice people. In fact, we have our 5th Marine Division reunion in Raleigh August 21st through the 26th of ’07.

Question: What do you tell small children today?

George Cattalona: What do I tell them?

Question: About why World War II was important, why Iwo Jima was important.

George Cattalona: Well, Iwo Jima was important because it was actually all on Japanese soil, which they claim, and so was Okinawa. In fact, we were supposed to go to Okinawa, but we were shot up so bad, I think with like 40% casualties and everything, or maybe it was higher than that, I don’t really remember. And while we were coming back from there, April 1 is when they landed, and we would have been there if we didn’t have so many casualties within our outfit or the whole division.

Of course, we were designated to go.

And the other thing about that island. The Japanese have a certain pride about themselves, and it goes back not years, but centuries. You can read your history books and find out all about the samurai, which was very prominent in those days, and they were brutal. They were masters of torture. And the importance of it? It gave us a leg that they didn’t like. That’s the first time anybody has ever been on their soil, a foreigner, in the way we did it.

And if you think about, with Germany and Japan together, if Germany would have gotten the A-bomb before we did, they wouldn’t have cared two cents. They would have bombed the devil out of us, but we were lucky, fortunate, that we got the right combination together and all. In fact, if Japan would have waited three weeks to surrender, we would have been on the high seas, going to them. It was that close, and they knew it.

Question: Where were you when the war ended, and what did you think?

George Cattalona: We were in Hawaii, almost finishing up our training to hit Japan. And in the island of Kyushu, where I think we would have went, they had tunnels they could put a submarine in, and that’s no small tunnel–all kinds of tunnels throughout that place. We would have one heck of a time. In fact, they always estimated that there would have been a million casualties on each side, and that’s probably 15 or 20 times the number of the people that were killed from the two A-bombs.

And they had to do it, because of the way the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Also, what they did in the Philippines with the Death March–and they have never been called to court to answer for those things, never. Why? Who knows. It might have been in their treaty that they signed. I don’t know.

Question: What did you think when you heard that the war was over?

George Cattalona: Yelling like the devil. In fact, the sentry that was on duty, even though where we were at, we had guards that would guard our compound and everything, and he yelled at the top of his lungs. I can still hear him.

Question: Anything else that you’d like to add that I haven’t asked you about?

George Cattalona: One of the things is that schools today do not talk or teach about World War II, and if they think our country is not right for them, then they should move out and go to the country they would think is better than we are. Freedom is a high price. Not only are men lost, but the money you have to pay out. The children today sometimes don’t even know even the word “Iwo Jima”.

The other thing is, we were in occupation, and at the time, I was at Nagasaki, and I learned something. They had a circus in town, and I didn’t know it. I happened to be walking by, so I went in. They had a dog act, so they would be yelling different names of countries and the dog would go pick up the flag, and he did it religiously. And all of a sudden I hear the word “Nippon, Nippon” and he picked up the Japanese flag. That is the word for Japan in Japanese, is Nippon, and that’s how I learned what the name was.