Local Marines among 3rd Division fallen heroes at Iwo Jima in March, 1945

Article written by Stories Behind the Stars.

No World War II battle represents the fighting spirit of the US Marine Corps better than Iwo Jima. In terms of its combat brutality and staggering casualties, it was the worst battle in the history of the Corps.

The Marines’ 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions led the assault of Iwo Jima with key support from the Army and Navy. Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Chester W. Nimitz said that among America’s fighters at Iwo Jima “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

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The non-profit Stories Behind the Stars (storiesbehindthestars.org) has written memorials about each of the fifty-three PA Marines in the 3rd Division who sacrificed their lives during the March portion of the battle’s hostilities. Berks County was home to one of them: PFC George Szilli.

Allied military planners anticipated an “easy time” conquering the enemy, predicting victory in a three-day battle. The reality was a gruesome slog of thirty-six days from February 19 – March 26, 1945 that historians have described as “throwing human flesh against reinforced concrete.”

George Szilli was born on September 4, 1926 in Rockland, Berks County, PA to Hungarian immigrants Frank Szilli, a Works Progress Administration project laborer and stone mason, and Katie H. Plesk Szilli. He had seven siblings: Josephine; Steven, Frank Jr, Joseph, Catherine Rose, Elizabeth Edith, John, and Paul. Szilli was raised in Rockland, PA and graduated from the local high school. He worked as a foundry laborer.

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On February 14, 1944, Szilli enlisted with the Marine Corps Reserves at Philadelphia, PA and attended boot camp with the 6th Recruit Battalion at Parris Island, SC. After training, he transferred to the 2nd Replacement Draft Transient Center at Camp Lejeune, NC to await follow-on orders. In October 1944, Szilli was deployed to the Pacific Theater of Operations and joined Company G, 2nd Battalion, 21st Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, which was already in theater after fighting on the island of Guam. His division’s next combat would be the amphibious assault on Iwo Jima.

D-Day at Iwo Jima was February 19, 1945. The island’s determined Japanese defenders had the most ingenious and deadly fortress in military history. Their miles of interlocking subterranean hideouts, concrete bunkhouses and pillboxes proved to be some of the most impenetrable defenses encountered by the Marines.

Szilli came ashore in heavy surf on the fifth day of the battle. The next morning, the Marines moved out to relieve the 23rd Marines and were ordered to advance on the high ground between Airfields No. 1 and 2. The scarred and pitted terrain made progress slow and costly. On February 24, elements of the regiment were involved in heavy fighting near Airfield No. 2. After going into reserve, the 21st Marines resumed the attack on February 28, advancing rapidly and capturing Motoyama and the high ground above Airfield No. 3. Szilli’s unit continued forward despite heavy losses. As with most of the fighting on Iwo Jima, frontal assault was the method used to gain each inch of ground. During the savage fighting for Hill 382, Szilli was severely wounded and evacuated to the hospital ship USS Samaritan (AH-10).

Szilli died of his wounds on March 2, 1945 aboard the USS Samaritan off the Iwo Jima beachhead.

The ultimately victorious 36-day assault resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead. The 3rd Marine Division suffered 1,131 killed in action and another 4,438 wounded. Iwo Jima was the only US Marine battle where American casualties exceeded those of the Japanese. Enemy combat deaths, however, numbered three times as many as American deaths.

Szilli likely received temporary burial at Iwo Jima’s 4th Marine Division Cemetery. He was repatriated to the United States and laid to rest at the Most Blessed Sacrament Church Cemetery, Bally, PA. Szilli posthumously received the Purple Heart.

Stories Behind the Stars memorials are accessible for free on the internet and via smart phone app at gravesites and cenotaphs. The non-profit organization is dedicated to honoring all 421,000 fallen Americans from World War II, including 31,000 from Pennsylvania. To volunteer or to get more information, contact Kathy Harmon at kharmon@storiesbehindthestars.org or visit storiesbehindthestars.org.

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Berks Weekly
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