Ivan Thunder: World War, Iwo Jima and the way we were

A marvelous memoir by Ivan Thunder recounts how it really was on the sand of Iwo Jima, a tiny island drenched in the blood of Americans and Japanese fighting for supremacy during the Second World War.

In the 1973 movie The Way We Were, starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, Redford, as Hubbell Gardiner, recites the opening lines of his novel: “In a way he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him.” This teaser always made me want to read more, but of course there was no more.

In one sense, moviegoers who had grown up in the 1950s, the 1960s and the early 1970s could relate to everything coming easy. There was no foreign competition and there were just a couple minor recessions. The United States was at the forefront of all technological change; the United States was the dominant economic power globally. Domestically during those years, there was an explosion of housing developments in suburbia; an explosion of tall buildings throughout the country; cities grew -- like Phoenix from some 65,000 to 1.5 million; there were jet airports; the interstate highway; the growth of Florida, Texas, southern California, Hollywood; new and enormous state universities; and on and on. 
 
At the same time, however, the period of American history between 1962 and 1974 is marked by the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Kennedy; the killings of the Birmingham girls by bomb; the killings of the civil rights workers; the Selma march and its police dogs; the confrontation with Governor George Wallace; the Vietnam War (58,000 Americans dead); Kent State students shot by the National Guard; Jackson State students shot by city and state police; the Watergate hearings and Nixon’s resignation; Roe v. Wade; the Cold War and the missile crisis of 1962. So, given these circumstances, how could a moviegoer who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s or early 1970s relate to Hubbell Gardiner’s novel’s opening lines – how did they or the country have everything come easily?
 
Maybe those lines weren’t meant for the young moviegoers seeing the film in 1973 but for those of fictional Hubbell’s generation. Hubbell had been an officer during World War II. So he, like Ivan Thunder (1913-2010), the author of the recently posthumously released The Pacific War and Battle of Iwo Jima -- Recollections & Essays by a Seabee Lieutenant (see here) grew up in the Great Depression and the Second World War. Let’s reflect a moment on those two periods. 
 
 
The Great Depression was so bad that, in late 2008 and early 2009, the American population and politicians greatly feared that the Great Recession would degenerate into another Great Depression. This fear resulted in Congress appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts and still more hundreds of billions of dollars in (supposed) stimulus. In American history, economic recessions used to be called “panics” – as in the Panic of 1792. Future historians might say that the 2008/2009 Great Recession was indeed a panic. My purpose here is simply to remind us of how great the Great Depression was to have instilled such fear, such panic. Readers can look to other sources for statistics concerning the length of the Great Depression, the percentage of unemployed adults, the depth of the contraction of business, and importantly, firsthand accounts. 
 
And then there was World War II. Not Vietnam, not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not Libya, but a world war, one that commenced just 20 years after the previous world war. Again, readers can look to other sources for statistics regarding its length, the number of countries involved, the number of military and civilian deaths, etc. As for firsthand accounts concerning World War II, readers can check out this new book by Ivan Thunder as well as his previous book. Readers can assure themselves that neither the fictional Hubbell Gardiner nor the very real Ivan Thunder could relate to the opening lines of a novel stating that the country and its World War II warriors had had everything come to them easily.
 
A tribute to Ivan D. Thunder was published on these pages shortly after his October, 2010, death and can be found here.  Let me say here that Thunder grew up in San Francisco. His first name was chosen at his 1913 birth before the Russian Revolution of 1917 and reflected the importance of Russian commerce in California at the time. He used to tell of meeting in San Francisco circa 1920 a Union veteran who had served as a drummer boy during the Civil War. And he would also tell of seeing the celebrations in 1925 of the 75th anniversary of California’s admission to the Union. 
 
He was 16 in 1929 when his family moved from San Francisco to Chicago. You can take the boy out of California but you can’t take California out of the man. He loved redwoods, the California missions, artichokes and tamales, the first names of Latinas, and the story of the engagement of Concepción de Argűello, the most beautiful young woman of Alta California and Russian count Nikolai Rezánov. (The story is told in a ballad by Bret Harte, a book by Gertrude Atherton, and, in 1979, in a Russian rock opera by Alexei Rybnikov and poet Andrey Vozneseknsky.) 
 
Soon after their arrival in Chicago, the stock market crash occurred. His eldest sister continued with her wedding plans and got married the Saturday after the crash. A couple of years later, because of the financial hardship caused by the Depression, this young couple and their two young children moved in with her parents.
 
A family friend paid for Thunder’s tuition at a Catholic high school, Loyola Academy, and Thunder graduated on time in 1932. He was even able, by working various jobs, including those with the Chicago Transit Authority and the 1933 World’s Fair, to attend college (Armour Tech, now Illinois Institute of Technology), graduating in five years from a four-year program.
 
In Thunder’s first book, Her Last Letter (2005), under the pseudonym Michael Dalton (see link here), he incorporated many pictures to tell the story of his working life, including his years in the Panama Canal Zone, his joining the U.S. Navy Corps of Engineers, his military training, and his courtship and marriage. The book ends on the eve of the Iwo Jima landing on February 19, 1945. 
 
In 2006, the year after this first book was published, the Battle of Iwo Jima received a great deal of national publicity. Two movies about Iwo Jima directed by Clint Eastwood were released. One was from the American perspective, Flags of Our Fathers, and one from the Japanese perspective, Letters from Iwo Jima. (Before that, there had been the 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne.) There had been a number of books about the battle, most notably Richard F. Newcomb’s Iwo Jima (1965), but the greater impact of a film is obvious.
 
But, as Thunder would tell grade school, high school, and college audiences, “I lived it.” His new book, The Pacific War and Battle of Iwo Jima -- Recollections & Essays by a Seabee Lieutenant, was finished shortly before his October 2010 death and was just published in December. The book includes many photos, 50 eyewitness vignettes, an English translation of a never-before-published Japanese Marine officer’s diary, as well as historical narrative and analysis. 
 
People would ask Thunder if he saw the flag being raised on Mount Suribachi? No, he responded in his usual quiet manner, “We were all busy working a mile away.” His book describes a number of projects upon which the Seabees were busy working. The most important of these was the very purpose of taking Iwo Jima, namely, for the Seabees to build an airbase close to the Japanese homeland. This work on the landing strips was commenced before the island was secure, that is, before Japanese resistance had ended. As Thunder describes, he and his construction crews were under attack even after the island was deemed secure. Furthermore, before the landing strips were finished, American pilots made emergency landings on them. As unfinished as they were, it was better than crashing into the sea. 
 
Not only did the taking of Iwo provide a base for American bombers, but it terminated the island’s use as a base for Japanese fighters. Before the taking of Iwo, Japanese fighters from Iwo would attack American bombers as they flew past Iwo on their way to the Japanese mainland. Beginning April 13, 1945, it was American fighters, not Japanese fighters, that took off from Iwo -- and they escorted American bombers to the Japanese mainland. As it turned out, on that day, one navigator/bombardier on a B-29 of the 873rd Squadron was on the first of his 26 missions. His son would marry Ivan’s eldest daughter 26 years later. 
 
On the day of the Iwo landing, Thunder was 31. The 18, 19 and 20 year old men under his command respected him. This was evident when they reunited 58 years later in February of 2003 in Biloxi, Mississippi, where they had returned for the first time since the war to one of the places where they had undergone training. The “young” men were now in their late 70’s and Thunder was 89. In his two books, Ivan Thunder wrote about the way they were.    
 
Spero columnist James M. Thunder is a Washington DC attorney. He is the son of Ivan Thunder.   

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