Every Marine and sailor who fought in the hell that was the Battle of Iwo Jima has his personal history of horrors seen, hardships endured, and losses experienced. But regardless of how terrible that history was, many Iwo veterans—like warriors throughout time—could find dark humor amid the confusion and carnage of combat.
So it was for a Marine and a Navy corpsman, wounded just moments apart in a Japanese shelling, then quickly separated and left to wonder for 45 years what had happened to one another. Only after meeting in 1990 could they laugh at an experience that had been anything but funny at the time.
Charlie Adams and Bob DeGeus were members of Fox Company, 2d Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division.
Adams was an “FM”—a field musician, or bugler, equivalent in grade to a private—assigned to company headquarters. Because buglers were unnecessary on Iwo Jima, he became a jack-of-all-trades. He was a runner and radioman for Fox Company’s commander, Captain Frank Caldwell. He also sealed caves—tossing in satchel charges or guiding tanks to the caves.
Adams had several close calls in face-to-face gunfights with Japanese soldiers. He had a reputation as a veritable magnet for enemy fire, no matter where he was. He attributes his survival to “the luck of the Irish” and credits, to some degree, not being used as a stretcher-bearer, which many field musicians were. Carrying stretchers was arduous and dangerous work.
Bob DeGeus, a PhM3—pharmacist’s mate third class—was corpsman for the company’s machine-gun platoon. When the machine gunners were dispersed to support other elements of Fox Company, DeGeus moved to headquarters as a roving corpsman.
A Radio Blasted, a Watch Exploded
On or about the early morning of 24 or 25 February in the company headquarters area, DeGeus was in a foxhole with senior corpsman Everett Kellogg. A few feet away, in a foxhole he was sharing with a replacement Marine, Adams was preparing his SCR-300 radio for movement as he did every day—replacing its long antenna with a shorter one.
The radio, sitting on the edge of the foxhole, was a prime target for the enemy. Kellogg noted in a 2001 letter that Adams was brave because “carrying that radio around [presented] a special target for Japanese snipers.”
As the company prepared for its day, the Japanese began shelling the area. One shell hit to one side of Adams. A second exploded on the other side. A third shell was a direct hit on the radio, leaving Adams holding only the antenna. At some point, the replacement Marine was killed—a fate typical for many replacements.
DeGeus, who did not know Adams by name, checked him for wounds, finding one in the wrist area. Adams’ watch had been blown apart, and DeGeus removed pieces of it—gears, springs, and part of the casing—embedded in Adams’ skin. DeGeus applied a bandage and was tying it off when another Japanese round exploded nearby, tearing off the back of DeGeus’ shirt, wounding him in the back and shoulder.
A Parting of the Ways
Adams, yelling something like “You’re hit, Doc! I’ll get help,” leaped to his feet and ran in the direction of the Japanese lines. The startled DeGeus could only imagine that Adams was disoriented or that perhaps he simply had “gone crazy.”
In fact, Adams was running to company headquarters to report that DeGeus had been wounded. That done, he intended to return to the corpsman. But Caldwell, knowing the importance of a radio, instructed Adams to get another, assuring him that DeGeus would receive help.
In the meantime, Kellogg had treated DeGeus, who then was evacuated from the island to an attack transport. After surgery on board ship, DeGeus subsequently was treated at naval hospitals on Guam and then in Oakland, California.
Adams successfully obtained another radio, but when he returned to company headquarters he found it inoperative: A Japanese bullet had pierced it. Caldwell sent Adams back to get what would be his third radio of the day. Because Adams was requesting a second radio in such a short period of time, the issuing personnel required him to sign for it. He returned with the third radio intact.
The bandage DeGeus had hastily applied earlier in the day did not hold up. Adams soon discarded it and did not bother to report the wound. DeGeus, himself wounded and evacuated, was unable to report it. Thus Adams never received the Purple Heart to which he was entitled.
Reunion Answers a Lingering Question
Not until 45 years later did DeGeus learn the name of the wounded man he had treated that day on Iwo Jima. At a 1990 reunion of Iwo veterans in Washington, D.C., DeGeus recognized Adams as the Marine who inexplicably, as DeGeus remembered, had run away after the explosion had torn into DeGeus’ back and shoulder. But the question of a Purple Heart for Adams remained unaddressed for another decade.
It surfaced again at the 2001 reunion of the 5th Marine Division in Tucson, Arizona. Several Fox Company men were reminiscing one evening when Adams mentioned in jest that the bandage DeGeus had been unable to apply properly was “the ugliest bandage” he had ever seen.
The remark was overheard by Al Knickrehm, a retired FBI agent who had been an enlisted replacement in Fox Company. He asked Adams if he had received a Purple Heart. Adams said no. Knickrehm said he believed Adams merited the award, noting, however, that he would need documentation from DeGeus.
DeGeus jokingly responded that he would not provide any such statement until Adams apologized for calling the bandage “ugly.”
After the reunion, Knickrehm, unbeknownst to Adams, initiated steps to obtain the award. Knickrehm began with a letter on 29 November 2001 to Caldwell, the former company commander, a retired colonel. The letter summarized what he had heard in Tucson, noting his intent to obtain a statement from Kellogg—the corpsman who had treated DeGeus. He also mentioned an 8 November 2001 letter DeGeus had written in which he said that his request for an apology about the “ugly” bandage had been made in good humor. In reality, DeGeus had written, “We all know how serious [Adams’] experiences were on Iwo Jima and I would not want to give the impression that no matter how slight the wounds, they were not insignificant.” He favored a surprise presentation of a Purple Heart to Adams at the 5th Division’s next reunion and offered to write a statement corroborating the incident.
After receiving that statement, Knickrehm had called DeGeus and asked him for a detailed account of how he and Adams had been wounded. DeGeus responded with a notarized statement and concluded: “It is my opinion that [Adams] deserves a Purple Heart Medal for wounds to his arm and wrist, acquired on or about D+5 during the Battle for Iwo Jima, February 24 or 25, 1945. I treated his wounds then and there and I’ve seen the scars on his arm and wrist more recently.”
Knickrehm forwarded DeGeus’ letter and notarized statement to Caldwell, thinking that a retired colonel’s endorsement would “carry far more weight” in obtaining the award.
In December 2001 Kellogg sent Knickrehm a letter about “those harrowing moments when Charlie Adams and then Bob [DeGeus] were injured by artillery fire.” Kellogg included a detailed statement addressed to DeGeus about the incident.
Caldwell wrote the Marine Corps on 31 January 2002, forwarding the supporting documentation and requesting the award of a Purple Heart. A surprised Charlie Adams received his Purple Heart at the closing dinner of the 2002 reunion of the 5th Marine Division in Kansas City.
Epilogue: Time Takes Its Toll
Everett Kellogg died in November 2010. He never talked much about the war. His statement to DeGeus about the events leading to Adams’ Purple Heart provides a clue about why he suppressed his memories: “Your request [for a statement] has forced me to recall those days that I have done my best to forget for more than fifty years.” He also gave voice to the unanswerable question many, if not most Iwo Jima survivors asked: “To this day I cannot understand how or why I survived.”
Al Knickrehm died in that same month. Caldwell now lives in Rhode Island.
Of the two principals in the saga, Bob DeGeus became a teacher and an artist in Michigan. During the summer of 2010 he sent the author a questionnaire he had completed circa 1995 about his wartime experiences; it included his recollections of bandaging Adams. In an accompanying letter DeGeus noted that earlier in the year he had lost the use of his dominant hand, a sad fate for an artist.
Worse, however, he had long battled leukemia. Ever a modest and humble gentleman, in October 2010 he sent a farewell message via email to his family, friends, and the surviving members of Fox Company.
But Adams, who had remained very close to DeGeus, did not receive the farewell message. When told over the telephone about DeGeus’ message, Adams responded sincerely and gratefully: “You don’t know how much I appreciate you telling me about Bob.”
Bob DeGeus died on 7 September 2011.
Charlie Adams, 87, retired after a successful career as a businessman and farmer. He remains active, although recent shoulder-replacement surgery has temporarily slowed him.
He remains deeply appreciative of Bob DeGeus’ medical care and understands that the rapid-fire sequence of events precluded a textbook job of battlefield bandaging. He is grateful, too, for the efforts of Knickrehm, the retired FBI agent whose efforts ensured that a fellow Marine was recognized for his wounds.
While scars from an exploding wristwatch may still be on Charlie Adams’ arm and tiny pieces of a wristwatch may yet be in his arm, in his mind they will remain the source of lingering memories—memories of a distant, hostile place and time, and of a respected corpsman who risked his life to aid a wounded comrade-in-arms.