By Sharon E. Siegel
PORT JERVIS – What do you do when you’re 16, a high school junior, and your country is attacked and in need of help? For Alexander Grech of Port Jervis, and many other young men at the time, there was no doubt what they would do after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Grech said for him, and he's sure many other young American's like himself, it was simply answering America's Call to Duty.
A humble but true hero, Grech said in December of 2015,"Everyone wanted to go get them. Our country had been attacked and manpower was needed. It was our patriotic duty, and we went.”
Just a few weeks later, in January 1942, Grech caught a train from Port Jervis to Jersey City, and then a ferry to New York City to enlist.
“I wanted to be a Marine, so I requested permission from my mother and my school to enlist, which I received,” Grech recalled. “I reported to enlist as soon as I arrived in the city that night. I was then told to report at 8 a.m. the next morning to be sworn in. I was then put on a train to Paris Island, South Carolina.”
The training was tough and the men were not treated all that well, according to Grech. But he didn’t mind. He realized they had to make Marines out of civilians, many of whom, like Grech, were just teens.
During his training months, a call was made for anyone interested in joining the 4th Marine Parachute Battalion to raise their hand. Grech, whose father died as a result of coal mine injury in Pennsylvania and whose mother was raising four children alone during the Great Depression, knew this would pay an extra $50 a month. He quickly volunteered. He was sent to Camp Pendleton in California, where he made one jump before his paratrooper group was disbanded due to budget cuts.
Four Marine divisions had already been deployed, so the government formed the 5th Marine Division Fleet, of which Grech became a part.
“They sent us to Hawaii for training, then to Saipan, an island in the Pacific. We were there with the 3rd and 4th Divisions,” Grech said. “We remained aboard our ship at Saipan. We were there to organize, and although there were all sorts of rumors about where we were going we did not know our destination. We were well aware that it was Iwo Jima by the time orders were given to ‘make the push.’”
Grech was part of Headquarters Company, 5th Marine Division, 27th Marines, 3rd Battalion. It was his battalion’s mission to support the front lines, with an overall sole purpose to secure the island. "The push" began on Feb. 16, 1945. It ended in victory five weeks later, on March 26, with tremendous loss of life sustained on both sides.
“We were on a very small island with little cover,” Grech said. “We had nowhere to hide, and just hoped to stay alive from day to day.”
As American troops advanced inch by deadly inch, they were always on flat, open, sandy areas around a tall volcano where Japanese defenders were very well hidden. With deep caves, holes, tunnels, and paths in which to hide in the volcanic rock of Mt. Suribachi, Japanese fighters had the advantage of looking down on all sides at advancing battalions of Marines. By the time American victory was achieved five weeks after it began, nearly 7,000 Marines and 21,000 Japanese troops had been killed and another 20,000 Marines wounded.
“Some may think the picture of the 28th Marines raising our immortal American flag on top of Mt. Suribachi signaled the end of the battle at Iwo Jima. Although it was a warming symbol to be right there to see it, the fighting had just begun,” Grech said. “Blood started to pour on the second day, and it never stopped.”
That morning John Basilone, a gunnery sergeant in the 27th Marines, 1st Battalion who had previously received a Medal of Honor for heroism at Guadalcanal, was killed by a Japanese sniper. He was telling his men it was time to move out as he was gunned down.
“That was pretty disheartening,” Grech said.
With so much death and destruction all around the tiny island and few places to take cover, Grech said he was never looking for a medal or to become a hero. He was simply there to serve his country and hopefully come home alive.
“It was a chance to do my patriotic duty and to fulfill my dream as a 15- or 16-year-old.
While I lost a lot of brothers during the war, for my country I would it all over again. I have no regrets,” Grech said.
Note: Alexander Grech passed away at age 93 on November 1, 2018. We remember him and so many other young men and women of this Greatest Generation and their brave, unwavering service to our nation.