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Joe Pagac: Iwo Jima survivor pushed on despite scars of war

SEMINOLE — Long after the battle of Iwo Jima, Joe Pagac kept two mementos of his time in one of World War II's deadliest battles.

He hung onto his Marine helmet, a neat shrapnel hole on the left side.

And the skull of a Japanese soldier he found on the island lay in his cellar.

Mr. Pagac kept both souvenirs for more than 50 years before relinquishing one of them.

On Feb. 19, 1945, Mr. Pagac, then a 21-year-old paramarine corporal, was in a landing craft bound for Iwo Jima. He had already survived tough fighting on Bougainville Island and the Solomon Islands. Now his 5th Marine Division was preparing to make an assault on Iwo Jima, which, if successful, would allow American fighter planes easier access to Japan.

On the short trip over, Mr. Pagac had a premonition: He would be wounded there, yet survive.

History would later show U.S. forces knew the Japanese were entrenched on the island, but still underestimated the difficulty of taking it. After two days of near-constant shelling, Mr. Pagac took some shrapnel to the head from an exploding mortar that landed five feet from his foxhole.

"I knew I was hit," Mr. Pagac told the Times in 1985. "I was buried in the sand and ash. My hand was shaking. That's how I knew something had hit me. I looked at my hand and it was still there, just shaking. I said, 'Thank God. I guess I'm okay.' "

But he was not okay. He had sustained shrapnel wounds to his cheek and jaw. Another chunk of metal had passed through the fiber lining in his helmet, then the sweatband. It entered his skull, stopping a quarter-inch from his brain.

The war damaged his hearing and left him with a recurrent tremor in one hand. But he survived one of World War II's deadliest battles and nearly seven decades more, just as he had envisioned.

Mr. Pagac, a battle-scarred former Marine who spent some of his last years transporting patients to Bay Pines VA Medical Center, died Nov. 8 at Bay Pines. He was 89.

Mr. Pagac was born in the former country of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) in 1923, and was 10 when his family emigrated to Chicago. He entered the Marine Corps in 1943. His best buddy was Cpl. Harlon Block, the Marine on the far right of the photo of the famous flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi. Block, 21, was killed eight days after the photo was taken. The battle of Iwo Jima claimed the lives of more than 6,800 U.S. forces, including 5,931 Marines, and wounded 17,372 Marines.

After he was wounded, Mr. Pagac returned to civilian life and started a career in marketing and real estate. He married and raised a family. He worked as a marketing director for the Chicago Tribune, then for the wine industry.

He moved to Treasure Island in 1971, where he continued to work as a real estate broker. His marriage of at least 20 years ended in divorce. In the mid 1980s he met Pam Hinds. They would marry and move to Seminole.

Mr. Pagac tinkered in the garage, fixing things. He watched the Military Channel and remained a staunch defender of the American military.

The skull he had found on Iwo Jima remained tucked away near the helmet that saved his life. As a younger man, he had planned to turn it into a table lamp.

That never happened. But in other, more inescapable ways, a war inside continued.

"He had terrible PTSD at nighttime," said Pam Hinds-Pagac, 65. "It was as if he were going after somebody."

He startled at loud noises.

Johnnie Clark, a longtime friend and former Marine who was wounded in Vietnam, understands. "You don't sleep the same. It changes you," said Clark, 63. "There is no way it can't change you. When somebody goes through something like that at a really young age, you give up your youth. You're never young again."

In the late 1990s, Mr. Pagac contacted Japanese authorities about the skull.

"It wasn't something he wanted to keep anymore," his wife said.

He shipped it back to Japan, where it could be buried.