100 years of memories: Iwo Jima veteran, centennial recalls famous battle

Only have a minute? Listen instead
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
A large American flag waves in the breeze Wednesday, June 14, 2023, along Expressway 83 in Harlingen. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Bill Morgenroth, a retired U.S. Marine and World War II veteran who moved to Brownsville full-time in the 1980s, vividly remembers the assault on Iwo Jima, post-war Japan and having dinner at the White House after the war.

On Sept. 8, his 100th birthday, Morgenroth recalled the Marines bloody assault on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. His memory of World War II, Japan’s surrender and life in the United States during the second half of the 20th century is lucid and then some.

The Marines “wanted me in demolition and they thought demolition would be the reverse of construction so they invited me in. I went in to San Diego for boot camp. In those days boot camp was pretty bad, and from boot camp to Camp Pendleton, California,” he said while sitting in the living room of his home off Paredes Line Road.

Morgenroth remembers standing on the beach on Iwo Jima and seeing the U.S. flag being raised atop Mount Suribachi. A statue was later made based on the iconic Joe Rosenthal photo and stands outside Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. A replica is at Marine Military Academy in Harlingen.

“It was a very bad war. I went in on the first day on a Higgins boat. They had a ramp that would go down and the Jeeps couldn’t get up Mount Suribachi. We were having trouble getting up, and they were shooting down. They put eight wheels on the Jeeps and then they put chains on all eight wheels. Guys would try to push the Jeeps up. We had a bad time at first, bodies everywhere. It was bad,” he said.

In 36 days of combat, the assault killed 22,000 Japanese soldiers. There were 24,053 Marine and U.S. Navy casualties, by far the highest single-action losses in Marine Corps history. Of these, a total of 6,140 died. Roughly one Marine or corpsman became a casualty for every three who landed on Iwo Jima, according to official an official Marine account of the battle.

Morgenroth himself was wounded in the last few days of the battle by Japanese artillery shrapnel and received a Purple Heart medal.

“I used to have dreams. I don’t have them anymore. And really, I’m more for stopping wars than starting wars. I think anything I could do to stop them, I’d do it,” Morgenroth said.

“I was there for the whole invasion minus about two days, so I was there for just about a month, and after Iwo Jima we went back to Hawaii, where we had trained, and we got ready for the invasion of Japan. We were sailing toward Japan and in the meantime Japan surrendered. The A-bomb intervened. Harry Truman was involved in the A-bomb. I guess he was afraid it would give him a bad name because it killed so many people. I wasn’t a Democrat at the time, but I sort of thought he did the right thing ‘cause he saved a lot of people, too,” Morgenroth said.

“We landed on the south end of Japan … a place where they made boats and submarines, and we were the first Anglos that most people there had ever seen. They were afraid of us. They viewed us as conquerors, I guess. If you’d go to talk to a man they would run away. We weren’t fighting them, we just wanted to get to know them. But the women weren’t afraid of us and the kids weren’t. But after I’d been there awhile I got to be friends with them. It worked out fine. They’re just all like the rest of us after you get to know them,” Morgenroth said.

After the war, he returned to Chicago, his wife Gerry and parents Charles and Marie Morgenroth. The U.S. government then sent him to Washington, D.C., for discharge.

Retired U.S. Marine and World War II veteran William “Bill” Morgenroth celebrates his 100th Birthday at his home surrounded by Family and fellow U.S. Marines. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“I went to D.C. by Marine Corps bus, and we didn’t know where we were going. They told us we were going to get discharged. About this time I had dinner at the White House. It was not at a big long table. They had a lot of round tables. They served milk in pitchers. I was surprised to see that, but it was a good meal. And then they got a bus, and I thought they were taking us to Annapolis, Maryland, but they took us to Bainbridge Md. and that’s where I was discharged. It was pretty quick, but I got my first ride on one of those rocket trains at that time. This was all pretty new to us and that train was going 100 miles per hour. And you could sit at the bar on the back of that train and watch how fast you were going” on a speedometer made to look like a clock.

“Everyone on that train was happy. There wasn’t hard-hitting plane travel at that time for civilians. It was packed with people going to victory parties,” he said.

Morgenroth went back to work in Chicago for what was then the Bell telephone system, now AT&T, retiring in 1978.

In the meantime his parents had moved to Brownsville, where they operated the Blue Bonnet trailer park in the 1960s.

Over the years Bill and his wife Gerry travelled to Brownsville many times to visit his parents and moved here themselves in the early 1980s.

After retirement the couple travelled all over the United States and up into Canada in a Winnebago mounted on a Toyota chassis, visiting neighbors, Marine buddies and basically seeing the country.

“We saw a lot of the United States and pretty much of Canada,” he said.

Mechanically inclined, Morgenroth has restored several antique cars, including a 1930 Model A and 1941 Ford.

Morgenroth doesn’t have many regrets about his life over the last 100 years, only regretting that he outlived his wife of 62 years, who passed away 14 years ago.

“I miss her every day,” he said.

Brownsville Mayor John Cowen presents a proclamation recognizing U.S. Marine veteran Corporal William “Bill” Morgenroth bravery during the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima on his 100th Birthday celebration at his home Friday Sep. 8, 2023. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

At his birthday celebration, Brownsville Mayor John Cowen presented Morgenroth with a proclamation recognizing his dedication, courage and service to the country during World War II.

Morgenroth is a big supporter of Brownsville, often touting its warm climate, friendly people and low cost of living. He said the city has a bright future with expansion of the Port of Brownsville, development of liquefied natural gas export terminals and the SpaceX launch facility at Boca Chica Beach.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include Morgenroth’s recognition and awards.