The Untold Story of Courage & Sacrifice in the
Shadow of Iwo Jima
Major Van Harl USAF Ret.
The Battle of Iwo Jima, a major event in the Pacific Theater of World War II—and one of the bloodiest in United States history—began on February 19, 1945. But what happened two days earlier has largely been a footnote, until now… The HEART of HELL.
My father is a retired US Navy Master Chief and I spent the first nineteen years of my life living on or near Navy bases.
In the early 1960s we were living in the Norfolk, Virginia area and went to Little Creek Naval Base all the time to shop and use the swimming pool. Little Creek is an amphibious warfare base. In those days there were amphibious ships left over from WWII, stationed at Little Creek Naval Base. The mission of amphibious warfare ships is to put Marines and Soldiers on the beaches of an opposing enemy’s real estate and then move inland to defeat and conquer.
The US Navy became very proficient during WWII at amassing a fleet of hundreds of different ships, pointing them in the direction of enemy held territory , and delivering troops on the beaches.
For the most part they always accomplished their assigned mission, and took the latest island that appeared on the current invasion plan.
However, the cost seemed to get higher and higher the closer the US Navy got to the main home islands of Japan.
I have been aboard an old AKA (attack cargo ship) WWII Liberty ship that was doing an “away all boats” drill. This is where they launched all the small landing craft as if they were going to run them up on a beach and off load a bunch of howling mad Marines. It was exciting and fun to watch. More importantly, no one was shooting at the ship I was on or the landing craft trying to hit the beach. It was training, there was no blood.
In Mitch Weiss’s new book “The Heart of Hell,” he tells the story of a WWII, US Navy amphibious Landing Craft Infantry ship, LCI 449. It is about the crew and the families back home state-side. There is training involving new shipmates and seasoned crew members, but there is also real blood and sadly too much death.
Mr. Weiss wrote the book but, Dennis Blocker, the grandson of one of the sailors who served on the LCI 449, was the backbone of the mission to tell this sad story. Mr. Blocker, after the suicide of his grandfather Cliff Lemke, an LCI 449 sailor, was asked by his mother (Lemke’s daughter) to find out what happened to Cliff Lemke during the war, that so negatively impacted the rest of Lemke’s life.
I spoke to Mr. Blocker at length about his fourteen year quest to find out as completely and with as much detail as possible, the history of the crew of LCI 449. Those shipmates who survived, and those who did not, also to make contact with surviving family members. Mr. Blocker interviewed over 300 crew members, family members, and other Naval personnel who had direct association with LCI 449.
He was able to make contact with family members of the twenty-one officers and men who died on the LCI 449 at the battle of Iwo Jima.
Mr. Mitch Weiss is the author of record for “The Heart of Hell” and it was his ability to make the story of LCI 449 flow to the point you do not want to put the book down. However, the story would have never been written if Dennis Blocker’s grandfather had not served and survived on LCI 449 those first two opening days of Iwo Jima. Had Mr. Blocker’s mother not insisted he seek out, discover and record his grandfather Cliff Lemke’s Navy combat time at sea, and the death and unspeakable destruction, this story would most likely have been lost to the ages
The Japanese army had the LCI gunboats in their sights the moment they headed to the shallow off shore of Iwo Jima. It was two days before the actual amphibious landing of Iwo Jima was scheduled to begin. The LCI gunboats were providing transport and cover for the then new Navy frogmen-specially trained Sailor’s whose mission was to swim to shore, map the obstacles, the underwater explosive mines and document any other information that would be vital to the Marines who would be landing under fire 48 hours later.
The Japanese assumed, incorrectly, that a handful of LCI gunboats sitting just off shore of their island was the beginning of the main invasion of Iwo Jima and they opened up with everything they had trying to destroy those gunboats.
Mr. Weiss, through Mr. Blocker’s research, leads you along a noisy, increasing path of violence and destruction that LCI 449 follows in one after another Naval assault on Japanese held islands. You are introduced to the crew members and I must admit develop an attachment to these real life characters as their lives play out in a time of war. Letters saved by family members greatly helped in telling this story. You know somebody is going to die. You do not know who and you sort of hope as you become vested in the character’s real lives, you quietly picked out, and become attached to, that your favorite sailors makes it home in one piece.
As I told Mr. Blocker, the book sets the reader up for a nice flowing story that slams your senses and hurts the heart, as first one, then nineteen more American sailors and one Marine are violently, and with no chance to recover, destroyed in a matter of minutes.
As General U.S. Grant said in the Civil War, “War is hell” and in this book there is no happy ending. Twenty-one families were emotionally destroyed and many of them never really recovered.
Sailors who did not die came home, told no one what happened and then proceeded to suffer in silence for the rest of their lives. They failed to communicate to their family and friends just how bad it was in total combat for the crew of LCI 449, but perhaps silent suffering is not completely correct. There were the screams in the night that were not explained to the family. There was the destructive drinking and fighting. There were the brushes with the law. There were relationships with family that never got back on the right track from the day the Navy combat veteran got home and only got worse.
Help was not there to be offered to the combat veteran, and perhaps part of the truth was the veteran did not ask for help. They suffered, the family suffered and then they started to die early in life, like Cliff Lemke did when he finally could not deal with the unending emotional after effect of the trauma of his war. His wife, the former young WWII bride, had died and with her death Cliff Lemke’s last bit of strength and emotional support was gone, so Cliff shot himself and left a troubled family to ask “why.”
Mr. Dennis Blocker, after fourteen years, found out “why” and Mr. Mitch Weiss tells that story to you in a way you will not forget.
Support the veteran, support the combat veteran, support the surviving family and remember you may never get a happy ending out of their story or your story.
War will never go away and this story in another location and another time will play out yet again. If it is your story, your life after combat, there will be some kind of ending, even if it is not truly happy. Life must go on and survivors must be helped to deal with their trauma and experience. Sadness is sometimes all you ever get.
Sometimes you sail into the Heart of Hell and you do not sail out.