They fed them steak and eggs that morning. A hearty meal. But for many of the young men about to storm the beach at Iwo Jima, it would be their last.
Sixty-five years later, Edwin Shapiro hasn't forgotten the horror of it all.
"I think the thing that affected me the most was the landing," he said. "None of us had any idea of what we were getting into … We were so innocent."
The toll of Iwo Jima would be great: more than 26,000 American casualties, among them 6,800 dead, and Japanese deaths reaching almost 20,000.
One of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II, the Battle of Iwo Jima began on Feb. 19, 1945, and continued for more than a month. For the allies, the tiny Pacific island was of strategic importance, key to successful operations against the Japanese mainland.
During the historic battle, Americans fought Japanese soldiers entrenched in underground fortifications. Bombing by the U.S. Air Force and Navy had done little to ease the invasion.
"When we hit that beach, it was chaos,'' recalled Shapiro, 84, then a Marine with the 5th Division.
The volcanic island's terrain made the landing even more treacherous, he said. "You couldn't get a firm footing.''
Japanese fire power rained down on the arrivals.
"I jumped into a foxhole next to a person I'd been with on the ship and he was dead,'' he said.
"I was shaking the first night, I couldn't stop. The next morning, there were bodies everywhere.''
There was little opportunity for proper burials.
"They would take a bulldozer and just dig long trenches,'' Shapiro recalled recently as he sat at the dining room table in his St. Petersburg home.
Janet, his wife of 57 years, keeps track of his World War II mementos. She proudly brought out a framed letter from President Harry Truman acknowledging her husband's service, his Iwo Jima medal, black and white photographs and a copy of a letter he wrote to his family during the final days of the war.
It was she who wanted his story told because his anxiety then, she said, is similar to what "our boys are going through now.''
Sixty-five years ago, though, the sense of victory came earlier for Shapiro and his fellow Marines. On the fourth day after the initial landing on Feb. 19, Shapiro witnessed the second of the two American flags being raised atop Mount Suribachi.
"We were all cheering,'' he said. "We thought the war was over.''
But the battle for Iwo Jima would continue until March 26, and the war itself would not be over until August. He got the news on a ship heading to Japan.
After his discharge, Shapiro went back home to Baltimore to work in his father's bar and restaurant business. Years later, he moved to St. Petersburg and became a successful builder.
These days, the father of three and grandfather of eight volunteers at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, visiting patients with members of the Jewish War Veterans group. He also keeps up with his fellow Marines from Iwo Jima. He'll miss this weekend's 65th anniversary program in Virginia, but is making plans to attend a fall reunion in Biloxi.
"There's very few of us left,'' he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.