‘I was scared, scared as hell’

An­thony Lap­kiewicz of Rhawn­hurst re­calls fight­ing in one of the blood­i­est battles of World War II.

World War II vet­er­an Tony Lap­kiewicz talks about what it was like to be a Mar­ine at Iwo Jima, the Ja­pan­ese is­land where a fam­ous pho­to­graph of Amer­ic­an sol­diers rais­ing the flag took place. Mr. Lap­kiewicz is now 94 years old. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

An­thony Lap­kiewicz of Rhawn­hurst re­mem­bers the first time he heard of the Ja­pan­ese is­land called Iwo Jima.

He was just 23 years old, a Mar­ine tank com­mand­er from Burholme who was aboard a ship that had steamed out of the har­bor in Hawaii for parts un­known.

“After two days at sea, they showed us a map,” he said.  “It looked like a pork chop. No one had ever heard of it.”

Soon, though, that small is­land riv­en with caves and covered in vol­can­ic ash, only 650 miles from Tokyo, would be­come fam­ous for one of the blood­i­est battles of World War II. A hard-fought Amer­ic­an vic­tory cre­ated a vi­tal link for U.S. bombers on their way to and from Ja­pan.

On this Me­mori­al Day week­end, Lap­kiewicz, 94, agreed to an in­ter­view over a cup of cof­fee at a North­east Philly diner, where he talked about one of the most im­port­ant days of his life. He brought with him an en­vel­ope with black and white pho­tos of his days as a young Mar­ine, and wore on his head a car­din­al red base­ball cap in­scribed with the words “Iwo Jima.”

It was there, early on the morn­ing of Feb. 19, 1945, that big guns on the Navy ships poun­ded the is­land in pre­par­a­tion for the in­va­sion. Lap­kiewicz and his fel­low Mar­ines were roused be­fore dawn and offered a spe­cial break­fast — steak and eggs.

“I was scared, scared as hell,” Lap­kiewicz re­called. So, he went in­to the gal­ley and got a cook to make him “a Pol­ish break­fast” of eggs and onions.

“How can you keep a steak down when you’re scared as hell?” he asked.

Later that morn­ing, his tank, “The Avenger,” rolled down the land­ing craft’s ramp and onto a south­ern beach. The Ja­pan­ese, from caves, in pill­boxes and from 550-foot-tall Mount Suriba­chi, laid deadly fire on the beaches.

“It was crazy,” Lap­kiewicz re­called of the scene around him on the beach.

A gun­nery ser­geant mak­ing all of $126 a month, he was in charge of the Sher­man Tank’s five-man crew. He ordered the driver to turn right to get the steel-plated hulk onto flat ter­rain.

“The Avenger” had gone about 100 yards when it hit a mine and its tread blew off. Lap­kiewicz and his crew evac­u­ated, and crawled in­to a crater that had been dug by a 16-inch Navy shell. That’s where they spent their first night on Iwo Jima, wait­ing for the re­pair crew that would come with day­light.

His crew, in­clud­ing a tank driver, as­sist­ant driver, load­er and gun­ner, was as­signed to C Com­pany, Fifth Tank Bat­talion, 5th Mar­ine Di­vi­sion. Their mis­sion: To sup­port the 28th Mar­ine re­gi­ment in tak­ing Mount Suriba­chi.

“We were to fire in front of the guys go­ing up Mount Suriba­chi, to provide pro­tect­ive cov­er,” he said.

After five days of fierce fight­ing, the Mar­ines cap­tured the stra­tegic high point. Lap­kiewicz and his crew were about a mile away and did not see the Amer­ic­an flag raised atop Mount Suriba­chi, but they cer­tainly knew of it.

“I thought the is­land was se­cure,” he said. “But the worst wasn’t over yet.”

His tank made an about face and headed to the north­ern part of the is­land. “The Avenger” hit an­oth­er mine, and with Ja­pan­ese sol­diers all around, he and his men had to evac­u­ate. An­oth­er Mar­ine tank pulled up right be­hind and Lap­kiewicz’s crew piled in­side. They were stuffed cheek-by-jowl in­side the tank, but made it safely back be­hind front lines.

There, he was as­signed an­oth­er tank, “The Five Aces,” which was a flamethrow­er. The mis­sion: To shoot flames in­to the caves where the Ja­pan­ese sol­diers were hid­ing, burn­ing them up or caus­ing them to die of suf­foc­a­tion.

“It was dog eat dog,” he said of the more than a month of fight­ing.

The death toll on both sides was very high, as 6,825 Mar­ines were killed, and one in three who landed were either killed or wounded. Vir­tu­ally all 21,000 Ja­pan­ese sol­diers were killed.

Lap­kiewicz sur­vived and re­turned to his base in Hawaii where an off-duty mo­tor­cycle ac­ci­dent pre­ven­ted him from mov­ing up to second lieu­ten­ant. He was dis­charged in 1946. 

He built a life back in North­east Phil­adelphia with his wife, Mar­ie. They had two chil­dren, Charles and Mar­garet. At first, he worked as a guard at the former Cramps Shipyard along the Delaware River, then opened a ho­agie shop in Wissi­nom­ing, across from what used to be called Chink’s sand­wich shop.

He landed a job as a let­ter car­ri­er, lived in Academy Gar­dens, and after a lengthy ca­reer, re­tired from the Post Of­fice in Holmes­burg in Decem­ber 1980.

For 40 years, he marched with the Ferko String Band up Broad Street, play­ing the vi­ol­in no mat­ter how cold the New Year’s Day.

His wife died the same year he re­tired, and he has since made it a point of stay­ing busy, leav­ing his home in Rhawn­hurst three days a week to work out at a gym.

Lap­kiewicz said he keeps in touch with one former fel­low Mar­ine, Myron Czub­ko of Jack­son, Mich. They talk on the phone twice a year, at Christ­mas and East­er. 

But his memor­ies of his Mar­ine bud­dies and what happened on Iwo Jima mostly have faded in the sev­en dec­ades that have passed since the day Lap­kiewicz was too scared to eat steak for break­fast. 

“You think about them every once in a while,” he said. “Usu­ally, I try not to think about it.” ••

Reach ed­it­or Lil­lian Swan­son at 215-354-3030 or lswan­son@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at lswanson@bsmphilly.com.

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