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Iwo Jima veteran and National Museum of the Marine Corps docent Frank Matthews shows a group of high school students the place on a map of the island of Iwo Jima where his unit landed and then fought its way north for two hours under fire.

Photo by Mike DiCicco

Iwo Jima vet relives battle with Marine Corps museum guests

2 Aug 2013 | Mike DiCicco

As a group of high school students watched the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ video detailing the voyage of the 4th and 5th Marine divisions from Honolulu to Iwo Jima, museum docent Frank Matthews said, “I was 18 at the time. How old are you?”

It turned out they weren’t much younger than Matthews was when he was on one of those ships, unaware that he was headed toward what would be one of World War II’s longest and most intense battles in the Pacific theater.

Matthews spent 28 days fighting on the Japanese island, and for the last four years, he’s spent around 16 to 20 hours a week in the museum’s Iwo Jima gallery, reliving those weeks as he relates the films, photos and displays to his own experiences.

He’s one of more than 150 docents who volunteer at the museum, most of whom are veterans able to breathe life into this or that gallery or display with their own recollections of the events depicted.

Pointing to a map of Iwo Jima, Matthews showed the students visiting the museum on July 26, 2013, through a summer high school program hosted by Georgetown University, where his unit landed with the second wave of Marines on the south end of the beach and fought its way north for two hours, under fire and in the dark of night.

“That was the only time in my life I’ve ever been involved in hand-to-hand combat,” he said. “I was a skinny kid from North Carolina.” As sword-wielding Japanese troops attacked the Marines, Matthews developed a technique of knocking the swords from their hands with his rifle and then shooting, he told them. “So, I managed to survive the night.”

He related the story of how the first wave of Marines had its numbers decimated, from 900 to 150, and how he and the Marines who came after rescued those survivors and eventually captured the island. Each day, he said, they ventured into the open to draw enemy fire and then returned it, until both sides were nearly out of men.

By the time he was shipped from Iwo Jima to Maui, almost all the island was captured, he said. “There should have been 36 men in my platoon. There was only one. And you’re looking at him.”

The teens were full of questions: Why was he sent to the Pacific instead of Europe? Did he fight anywhere else? What was combat like?

In response to the last question, Matthews noted that his 24th Regiment of the 4th Marine Division had been through four battles before he joined, but Iwo Jima was his first. “I was afraid alright, but I was afraid I was going to do something stupid. I didn’t have time to be afraid of anything else.”

Matthews “does a tremendous job,” said Michele Flynn, the museum’s director. “He’s able to relate to the visitors what it was like to be 19 years old and facing Iwo Jima on the first day of the battle.”

For the last three years running, Matthews has been the top docent in terms of volunteer hours, logging more than 25,000 hours at the museum per year.

“He loves working with people, he loves talking to them, he loves explaining those photos,” Flynn said. “He’s like an Energizer Bunny — he keeps going and going and going.”

Almost every Thursday through Sunday, from morning to early afternoon, Matthews can be found in the Iwo Jima gallery, wearing his navy blue baseball cap, which reads “Iwo Jima veteran” and sports a 4th Marine Division pin and an eagle, globe and anchor. He only takes a break to sit when no visitors are present.

A couple wandered into the gallery, and Matthews was back on his feet. “Good morning, this is the Iwo Jima gallery. The next room is the most interesting room in the museum.”

Pointing out three ships that appear in a film of the first landing on the island — the Nevada, the Tennessee and the West Virginia — he shares with the couple a little-known fact: All three had been resurrected after they were sunk in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and in the intervening years, the Nevada had also been part of the invasion of Normandy.

He insisted this knowledge made the couple part of the “2 percent club,” as 98 percent of Americans are unaware of it.

Matthews appears in two of the photos on display under the title “Flame Warfare.” In one, he wears a magazine for a Browning automatic rifle while a Marine next to him fires a flamethrower. In the next, it’s Matthews firing the flamethrower.

“This guy was killed a couple of hours later, so for the rest of the patrol, I was the only guy who had any flamethrower experience,” he told the couple. “I hated the thing. It weighed 83 pounds. I weighed about 150.”

He added, “I don’t like to look at pictures of myself on Iwo Jima. It’s very distressing — I looked so much better then than I do now.”

In passing, he mentioned being wounded three times and having the corpsmen patch him up without reporting the injuries to avoid being shipped out. When pressed, he said a fragment lodged in his head during the first week, and a grenade nearly cost him his right hand later on. The Japanese had run out of metal and started filling grenades with ceramics and glass.

“It took them three hours to dig the glass out of my hand,” he said. “The worst was an injury to the back, and we don’t know what that was. We think it was friendly fire.”

A round, possibly from a Navy destroyer, hit a group of Marines, instantly killing a handful of them and knocking the rest into the air. Matthews landed on his back and injured two vertebrae, which still trouble him.

A musician who played the keyboards during church services at sea and later went on to earn five graduate degrees in music, Matthews gave up on any ideas of playing the piano professionally after the injury to his hand.

Instead, after graduating from college, being commissioned as a Marine Corps officer and then returning to higher education, he taught orchestra and music history at colleges and universities around California for 40 years.

“I still don’t play [piano] as well as I did when I was 17,” he said. “So what? I don’t do a lot of things as well as I did when I was 17.”

— Writer: mdicicco@quanticosentryonline.com