inRetrospect: A Navy Groundbreaker Remembers Iwo Jima
In 1984, in his last operation as Commander of Amphibious Squadron Three, Captain John Frank Gamboa, U.S. Navy (Retired) visited Iwo Jima and conducted a memorial service aboard his flagship the USS New Orleans. The visit is mentioned in Captain Gamboa’s memoir ¡El Capitán! The Making of an American Naval Officer, and he graciously supplied more detail to inReads in honor of this week’s 68th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima.
First, the closing words from Captain Gamboa’s memorial service remarks:
“In these waters of Iwo Jima on the 19th of February 1945, an armada of 485 U.S. Navy ships—more than the total number of ships in our Navy today—conducted an amphibious assault on Iwo Jima. H-Hour was at 9 a.m. and history records that the first wave landed on time. In the 40 years since the events that took place on this island, the terrible cost in human lives on both sides was a noble contribution to the peace and the liberty that the American and Japanese people enjoy today. The glorious deeds of individual bravery and heroism by Marines and Sailors are highlighted by 27 Medals of Honor awarded to them, our nation’s highest award. So it is most fitting that we pause here today, and in our remembrance of our deceased predecessors and their comrades who survived, renew our dedication to duty in the service of our country. May God grant them eternal rest.”
The purpose of Captain Gamboa’s operation was to simulate the evacuation of a U.S. Ambassador and personnel from the embassy compound that was in a dangerous situation and surrounded by a hostile mob. A company of Marines flown in from Okinawa acted as the ambassador and the mission staff. After successfully completing the exercise, Captain Gamboa flew over to the island to pay a call on the Japanese island commander. The commander of his battalion landing team 3/3 was Lt. Colonel Chuck Krulak, USMC, who went on to become Commandant of the Marine Corps. Following are the notes from Captain Gamboa’s journal about his visit to the island that day:
“I went over to the island with the New Orleans captain and the Marine Amphibious Unit Commander to sight-see. The chief petty officers of the U. S. Coast Guard Loran Station on the island took us on a Jeep driving tour that included two of the notorious caves. We drove all the way up to the crest of Mt. Suribachi and viewed the memorial dedicated to the flag raising. It was a unique and sobering experience. The view of the island is remarkable, especially of Invasion Beach. Hard to imagine all the violence and death that occurred on that small place. I collected some souvenirs: a piece of shrapnel near the beach; a spent M1 cartridge from Invasion Beach where the 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment, 5th Marines—the ones who raised the flag—came across the beach. On Mt. Suribachi I retrieved a pebble that was lying next to the surveying brass disc that marks the spot where the flag pole was inserted into the ground when the American flag was raised. The island Japanese commander presented me with a small brass replica of the islands. I presented him with a squadron plaque. On board ship on the flight deck the next morning with ship’s company and the Marine units assembled, the commanders, commanding officer, my chaplain and I, with the island in the foreground, conducted a memorial service to honor all the U.S. Sailors and Marines who died during the battle.”
In the forward to ¡El Capitán!, Senator John McCain describes his Naval Academy roommate’s memoir as “the story of a Mexican-American boy whose parents pursued the dream of a better life for themselves and their children in the United States–a dream that Frank realized to the fullest through a life of service to his country in uniform.”
Captain Gamboa’s story garnered praise from many others inspired by the challenges and successes he describes, including the following from Refugio I. Rochin, Ph.D., Founding Director Smithsonian Latino Center (1998-2002); Professor Emeritus, UC Davis & UC Santa Cruz:
I enthusiastically endorse this book. For the first time in my 40 years as a professor and pioneer in ethnic studies, we have an original account of a first generation Mexican-American U.S. Naval Academy graduate and warship captain.
Frank Gamboa’s refreshing memoir richly portrays his extraordinary journey from California’s Sierra Nevada to the high seas. He relates his family’s blending of their Mexican heritage into an Anglo community; one that abetted his determination to enter Annapolis.
Frank’s performance of duty in warships and shore stations contain insightful descriptions that reveal a dedicated patriot with exemplary leadership skills. His unique perspectives are inspirational.