Private First Class Frank F. Densmore
BAR Gunner, Squad Leader
3rd Squad, 3rd Platoon, D Company, 2nd Battalion,
28th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division
Frank Fred “Denny” Densmore was born on 2 May 1926 in the rural Minnesota community of Dentaybow. Although the almost unknown area is marked as Denny’s birthplace, his true home was in the small farming town of Edgewood, Iowa, the birthplace of his father and location of their family farm. Both his parents hailed from the Hawkeye State but settled in the 500-person town of Edgewood in the early 1920s. Denny’s childhood was that of the rural Iowa farm boy, growing up amidst the wheatfields and endless prairies that surrounded his small but tight-knit community. With aspirations never arising more than taking over the farm someday, His life revolved around finishing school, working the crops, and tending to his girlfriend, Fay, as a then 15-year-old Denny watched the world descend into war after Imperial Japan attacked the United States. Too young to serve, he watched the few boys old and able enough to join march off to places no one in the town had ever heard of. Graduating from high school in 1943 and that October, Denny gave his heartfelt goodbyes to his doting girlfriend and loved ones as he set off to join the United States Marine Corps to do his part in the largest conflict the world had ever known.
Following a few months of basic training, he received his first assignment to the 27th Marine Regiment of the newly created 5th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California. He was only there for a few weeks, however, when he switched to training alongside the Marine Raider Battalion stationed there with whom he served, performing some of his first field training before officially joining his final unit, 3rd Squad, 3rd Platoon, D Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment, in April 1944. For the rest of the year, he primarily trained as a rifleman with his unit but soon became qualified with the BAR and was designated as an automatic rifleman for his platoon. The months were filled with intensive training across the mountainous and rocky southern California terrain. From attacking mock-up bunkers to clearing cave systems, Denny and the 5th MARDIV didn’t know exactly where they would be going, but they could safely assume it was somewhere that would be full of the same.
In late 1944 parts of the division, including Denny’s unit, were shipped to Camp Tarawa near Hilo, Hawaii to act as potential long-range reserves, but the period mostly consisted of further training and preparation work for what would become their true Pacific tour. Denny’s men made the most of their time in the islands, particularly enjoying sporting competitions against other men in their company. Most notably Denny was part of his platoon’s football team for their company tournament and after a tough championship match, he managed to come out on top, earning him and his platoon a wild week-long pass to Hilo and Kona where much partying was had. In January 1945 the time was done and the men boarded up on the USS Missoula to travel to Saipan and then on to their still unknown destination. On 16 February the sea-weary marines finally set their eyes upon their objective as the black porkchop-shaped Volcanic mass appeared off their bow: Iwo Jima.
After three days of making final preparations the day for the landing came, not even learning the name of the island in front of them until the day prior. In the early hours of 19 February Denny and his comrades left the Missoula for LST-390 which would act as their primary landing craft. Although many marines enjoyed the steak and egg breakfast served onboard, Denny was thinking of home as that day was his love, Fay’s, birthday. That morning Denny recalled watching as massive clouds enveloped the island as thousands of tons of American ordnance launched from the ships around him pounded the tiny island into smithereens. Before long a whistle blew and the echoes of “All hands board your landing craft” blasted across the vessel. Denny’s landing ship turned out to be an amphibious tracked vehicle, the LVT, which fit his squad in addition to the machine gunners placed above them to provide covering fire. The drive to the beach lasted roughly half an hour as the ricochet of rounds bounced off the hull, planes roared overhead, and bombardments continuously smashed into the sand they would soon step on. At 0935 they finally hit their section of Green Beach, the southernmost landing zone, as the 7th wave of marines.
The trouble for Denny’s squad started the moment they arrived. First, the ramp of the LVT got stuck and the equipment-ladened jarheads climbed over the side of their landing craft to jump into the surf. Walking up he watched as mortars landed all around him, causing most of their casualties and leaving men crawling, begging for help from marines who had been told they were under no circumstances to go backward. Within the first few minutes Denny noticed the extreme softness of the sand after his heavy gear began to cause him to sink underneath its weight. Throwing off his pack, grenades, and extra ammo, he decided the best way to proceed would be to scavenge his needs off of the marines who no longer needed it–and many lay there on the beach in front of him. The fighting was absolutely fierce as the artillery and machine guns made it nearly impossible to move past the first bluff on the beach, pinning down Denny and his men for hours. At some point he was even lightly wounded himself by some spare shrapnel, however, he quickly returned to duty after a brief trip to a corpsman so as not to leave his platoon-mates without heavy fire support. By the afternoon of the first day, his battalion received its first official assignment, to take the looming 545-foot Mt. Suribachi standing high above them.
Denny’s unit, Dog Company, led the 2nd Battalion advance towards the mountain, supported by divisional M4 Sherman tanks as they faced the wrath of heavily entrenched Japanese forces firing down upon them. Machine-gun fire was brutal and everywhere, slowing their advance to only a few dozen yards at a time. By 1600 of the first day they were getting close to the base of the mountain but still remained pinned by heavy pillbox fire leading them to dig in and make a solid frontline for a more organized advance. On the third day the entire company only advanced about 200 yards even with the support of planes, tanks, artillery, and 75mm half-tracks. The Japanese were dug in well and it took every explosive they could throw, shoot, or drop to knock out each strongpoint. Within the next few days, the battalion made its way to the mountain, leaving only a minimal distance to begin a final attack against the base and then up the mountain itself. On 23 February, five days after the first landing, Denny watched as three men from his platoon were selected to join a larger force from E Company to make a trip up to the top of the mountain. He was not far below, only a few hundred feet when he and the rest of his platoon looked up in wonder to see a small American flag rise up and stand tall at the very top of the black mountain which had once held thousands of Japan’s most loyal warriors. He was nothing less than awestruck, feeling an amazing sense of pride and encouragement knowing the blood that had and would go into making such a simple act possible, an act of victory. That night, rather than stay with their company for food, Denny’s squad decided it wanted to go up to the top of the mountain to see it for themselves. The CO did not mind and after a brief trek, Denny and his mates stood alongside the solitary flagpole and looked out upon the vast island of combat going on in front of them. The view was incredible and they recognized just how spread and vast the enemy before them truly was. Nevertheless, as he sat eating K-rations, Denny could not take his mind off that flag and the thousands of American boys just like him looking upon it from far down below and across the island, seeing a speck of hope in a gloomy, dark land.
With Mt. Suribachi secured the 2nd Battalion was rerouted to make its way across the rest of the island alongside the other divisions with a new specific target of Hill 362A. A cragged outshoot amongst the black hills, the hill was home to a large contingent of heavily entrenched Japanese preventing the effective assault of the rest of the marines. For the next week, the men fought fiercely to draw close to the stronghold meeting bloody resistance. On D+10 a big assault took place against Hill 362A and its sistering Nishi Ridge. A mass banzai charge hit the 28th Marines and the next several days were spent regrouping and driving out pockets of scattered resistance. By this point, Denny had been promoted to a fireteam leader as the company began taking casualties and bold, experienced, men were needed to keep the platoon in order. One night while sitting in their foxholes within one of the many small valleys near the ridge Frank and his team were on watch for the entire platoon. Although the night was dark he managed to spot a group of Japanese soldiers crawling through a ravine towards their company line. He reacted immediately, tossing two fragmentation and a white phosphorus grenade towards the sneaking foes. Although it warded off most of the attackers, some still managed to infiltrate under the darkness. Denny himself shot one that he saw last-minute crawling only 15 feet away from his hole, proceeding to call out to the rest of the company and warn them to “watch close.” Japanese flares launched over the area sporadically, giving brief illuminations over the area. During one of these, another man in Denny’s squad, Dave Davenport, noticed a Japanese corpse that had somehow appeared only a few yards from his foxhole. Between that spotting and the next flare, the body had entirely disappeared. The Japanese did not like to leave their dead in the open and were able to sneak through an entire company’s defenses unharmed to get one.
As daylight broke the battle towards the ridge continued and the marines pushed onward through the crags and valleys leading up to the hill. At one point Denny decided to climb up one of the walls of the valley in order to see what was coming up ahead of them. According to Davenport he watched as a solitary helmet bounced its way down the side of the valley wall all the way into their platoon’s foxhole, followed a few seconds later by a rolling and bouncing Denny rushing as fast as he could down into the valley, now helmetless. “Crap, was up for a look,” Denny exclaimed in his thick Iowan accent, “came down so fast I lost my goddamn helmet. Better’n losing my head though.” By now the company was gaining a steady stream of replacements to fill in for the many casualties they received and combat experience became difficult for them to get as many engagements with the Japanese came at random intervals, in ambushes, rarely able to see the enemy. In one anecdote, however, Denny describes a shooting match he had between himself and a Japanese soldier hiding in a shell hole. The two ducked and weaved as they each popped off shots at each other, bobbing up and down like gophers. He got tired of the game though and ended up throwing a grenade to finish up the little encounter. Another time he recalled fighting against a group of Japanese soldiers holed up in a ditch who was holding up his platoon. As Denny watched for an opportunity he noticed one of the Japanese go to strike his grenade on his helmet, in order to arm it, and right as the enemy did so Denny opened fire and killed him. The live grenade fell alongside its former owner and within a few seconds, all the Japanese in the ditch were no more. The fighting was brutal and Denny found himself leading fresh recruits all throughout it.
Several weeks of intense combat later, towards the middle of March, Denny found himself leading half of his squad through a 700-yard advance up a series of smaller ridges and zigzagging gullies to reach a series of caves which the final Japanese defenders had holed themselves up in. The Japanese had no intention of surrendering as behind them was only the sea, and they truly fought like it. Their fire was intense as snipers and machine guns wracked through marines trying to maneuver through the cragged terrain. Davenport recalled the hectic advance, specifically remembering that he could keep track of Denny’s fireteam by the sounds of his swearing and barking orders rising above the noise of battle. At this point in the battle, only nine of the original men who landed that first day were still with their platoon, and in Denny’s squad, it was only he and Davenport with replacements making up the rest. At one point the squad became pinned down by a Japanese sniper leading Denny to run back and grab a flamethrower to take them out. Upon his return, he took the flamethrower and five other men to make the assault himself. Moving up the left side of the cliff, he took shelter behind large boulders as he and the group dashed roughly 60-75 yards towards the Japanese positions, chucking grenades and shooting flames whenever able. It was probably a 200-yard rush in its entirety according to Davenport, but Denny and his men got to the Japanese and wiped them out, allowing the rest of the squad to move up. At the end of the long draw up to the ridge, Denny and Davenport came across an abandoned Japanese camp, showing fresh marks of recent abandonment. “Hell Dens,” Davenport said, “the bastards are heading for that last ridge too.” The next attack was the 200-yard rush against this final ridge and while the men were digging in to prepare for the assault the next day, Davenport was hit in the back by a Japanese sniper. Some of his last memories before passing out were of Denny rushing over to him and shouting “They got Dave! He’s bleeding like hell!” As Denny dashed to his side he began to hastily apply a bandage to stop the bleeding enough before the corpsman was able to arrive. Now the solo veteran within his squad, Denny assumed the role of squad leader and continued to lead his men through the final two weeks of the battle.
By 24 March the Japanese positions were nearly contained entirely into a small several-hundred-yard radius centered around a large gully on the northwest corner of the island. After two weeks of constant fighting wearing Denny and his men, their company was told they could have a day of rest in the rear a few hundred yards away to recoup for the final advance. As he was exhausted beyond understanding, Denny collapsed immediately upon arrival and fell asleep on the black sand. Several hours later, in the middle of the night, he heard a clamor and awoke to find his company the target of a midnight Banzai charge as they had somehow managed to sneak past the front lines and launch a mass surprise attack against the entirety of the 2nd Battalion. As he awoke he immediately went to grab the BAR beside him and right as he did, saw a loud, bright flash as he suddenly flew up into the air and fell to the ground unconscious. Little did he know, but a Japanese grenade had been thrown and landed right next to his head. The grenade, however, had too much powder inside and thus hundreds of little bb-sized pellets spattered at him rather than the standard, more deadly, fragmentation. One large hunk did find its way into Denny, piercing the top of his spinal column causing severe damage and severing a nerve in his vocal cords. As he lay there he sunk some into the soft sand and miraculously, it somehow congealed his wounds long enough for medics to reach him hours later in the morning, shocked to see this man still breathing. A tank came by the next day and Denny was loaded on top of it with other wounded marines and taken back to the medical transports waiting at the beach. The damage to his spine was serious but recoverable, however, the vocal cord injury left him speechless for weeks, unable to vocalize. In addition, the fragmentation chunk was lodged deep into his spine and the doctors decided that the safest route of action was to simply leave it there in his neck for the rest of Denny’s life rather than risk further injury. The battle for Iwo Jima went on for another two days before the final Japanese forces were taken out, but Denny’s company, D Company, was left with only 18 men standing of the original 355 they had started with on Green Beach. On Denny’s 19th birthday, 2 May 1945, his hospital transport crossed under the Golden Gate Bridge marking his return to the United States. After a few more months in recovery he was officially discharged from the corps and returned home to his family in Iowa.
Almost as soon as he got back Denny proposed to his long-missed sweetheart and married his wife Fay on 25 August 1945. She recalled him crying the day the war ended as church bells rang out in their small town to signal the end of that great and terrible conflict that had left its permanent scars on Denny and so many others. Nevertheless, Denny was still a determined man and utilized the GI Bill to offer him a professional career when his wounds prevented more strenuous work like running the farm. He ended up attending Iowa State College and graduated in veterinary medicine, becoming a practicing vet in 1951. The career served him well and spent most of his practice in Illinois where he was once the vet of Ronald Reagan himself. He was very active in his local Lions chapter and although never having kids, he and his wife took in a younger man from Edgewood who had nowhere else to go as a sort of younger half-brother, helping guide him as he grew into adulthood. Later in life, he moved to Arizona and spent his final days there in retirement. He was still active in his various social groups, including the VFW, and went around speaking about his own experiences on Iwo Jima and the valor that he saw amongst young American boys fighting brutally through its black sand dunes and cragged ridges.