by Jim Boyle
It wasn’t until Bill Konop started going to reunions of the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion that he began to speak about his experiences in World War II.
The Elk River man was a runner on the beaches of Iwo Jima while American troops made their third wave on Feb. 19, 1945, which became known as D-Day to the troops there.
This Navy Seabee’s job was to take messages to the platoon leaders on his right flank in what became the bloodiest battle ever waged in the history of the Navy Seabees.
They had a false sense of security as they landed on the beaches with their land cruisers. The blood bath started immediately.
The American troops — a combination of Navy Seabees who were assigned to land with several Marine divisions — began their invasion about 9 a.m. on Feb. 19, 1945. Konop was part of the third, which entered the fray about noon.
“We went in and the ramp to our boat wouldn’t go down,” Konop told the Star News. “It was stuck. So Marines started going over the right side. They either fell in the water or fell back in the boat, shot.”
Hysteria was a clear option, but everyone started going over the left side the boat, including Konop. These men braved the fury and made it ashore, but the rain of Japanese firepower did not cease.
“They had every bit of the beach zeroed in,” Konop told a History Channel film crew that produced show on the Seabees called “Dangerous Missions.”
Mount Surabachi was on their left and a high bluff could be seen on the right. Both directions were heavily armed.
This was despite the fact that Allied Forces had bombed the island for 72 consecutive days and shelled it from battle ships and cruisers for three or four days before the land attack.
“We thought it would be a piece of cake to walk on that island,” Konop said on camera. “But, boy were we wrong.”
Getting set up on the beaches was nearly impossible.
“Trying to dig a fox hole in the volcanic ash was like trying to dig into wheat or grain,” Konop said. “It just kept caving in on you.”
Even the best foxhole, however, would not protect Konop on his mission. He had to get orders to the all the platoon leaders to his right. Another man’s job was to do the same to the left.
Konop would make three, four or five runs. He can’t quite remember. But he vividly remembers his last run.
It was at 5:30 p.m. Troops were still being fired upon.
“It wasn’t like really running,” Konop recalls of the terrifying battle. “It was more like crawling, maybe running a couple steps and diving.”
His last message was a grim order for the troops to maintain their position.
“The troop leaders frowned upon this,” Konop said. “They wanted to move up. It was just a terrible place to be.”
Seconds after he delivered the last order, Konop was hit. He took shrapnel to the face and back and suffered a concussion. He was evacuated to the hospital ship about 6 p.m.
“That was a million dollar wound,” Konop said. “To not be wounded bad and just to get off the island.”
Konop does not believe he was a hero.
“I don’t consider myself a hero,” he said. “I was just a scared 19-year-old Seabee trying to do my job and trying to survive.
“The real heroes are the ones that never came back.”
The Navy Seabees lost 42 men on this mission, including a soldier named Phil Pittsner, who had become Konop’s best friend in the military. Konop was one of 370 wounded.
“This was the most dramatic and bloodiest event in the Seabees’ history,” said Ken Bingham, who’s assembling a book called “Black Hell” to recognize the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion.
A Navy Seabee himself and a Vietnam veteran, Bingham was prompted to do the book by his interest in the Seabees and a desire to tell the stories of World War II before all the veterans are gone.
The Ventura, Calif. man volunteers at the museum at the Port of Hueneme in Oxnard Harbor District of California.
This museum has the largest collection of cruise books.
Bingham retired in 2006 while living as a civilian in Iraq. His goal is to get as many stories published about Seabees as possible.
The death of Pittsner weighed heavily on Konop. The Springfield, Colo. native was the same age as Konop and a good athlete.
“He was kind of an all-American kid,” Konop said. “He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke.”
Konop talks easily of excursions the two made while on liberty together and games of basketball they played as teammates.
What played out on the beaches of the volcanic island of Iwo Jima, however, remained bottled up inside Konop for decades.
“I was pretty tight lipped,” he said. “I thought about it (the invasion) quite a bit, but I didn’t say anything about it.”
Not even to his wife.
The reunions, however, loosened him up, and gave his war experiences a voice.
He will share stories about himself and his harrowing experiences at Iwo Jima at the next WWII History Series event on March 8 at the Handke Center, 1170 Main St. in Elk River. The series is sponsored by District 728 Community Education.
Konop is 85 years old, but you would never know it to see him at work in his office, where he runs a tax preparation business that got its start 60 years ago.
The Navy Seabee vet proudly displays memorabilia from his days in the service and from his job as train station manager for Northern Pacific Railway.
He worked for Northern Pacific before going into the Navy and the railroad company after he returned from the war.
He moved his way up from posts in Flensburg (near Little Falls), Royalton and Big Lake before getting hired to manage the Elk River Depot in 1958.
The depot agent met his wife, June, while working in Big Lake. The two of them married in 1958 and they raised three children together. They now have a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He’s comfortable, dressed in stocking feet and smoking Muriel Magnum cigars he orders by the box through the mail.
Behind him while he’s seated at his desk preparing taxies is a picture of the house he and his two sisters were born in. He came along in 1925. His parents eventually moved the family from the home in Fillbrooke, a small town near Motley, to Sauk Centre. Konop graduated from Glenwood High School in 1943.
He was only 15 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and at first the country drafted 21-year-olds.
“I didn’t think I would ever be drafted, but then they lowered the age to 18,” Konop said.
When he got his induction notice he felt he was destined for the Army, but he liked the idea of the Navy better.
When he heard the Seabees were looking for young men, he reached out to them.
The Navy Seabees are the Navy’s construction force. They are mechanics, builders, engineers and equipment operators. With a wrench in one hand and a rifle in the other, their job was to provide support for the Marines in two ways. “We build, and we fight,” Navy Seabees like to say.
Konop went to boot camp at Camp Peary near Williamsburg, Va. and from there he went to Camp Holiday in Gulfport, Miss. That’s where he met Pittsner. The two of them clicked right away; they were inseparable by the time they were sent to the Port of Hueneme.
All of this Navy Seabee training led up to being shipped out to Oahu, Hawaii. The the time spent in Oahu included playing on the battalion’s basketball team. Konop’s team, aided by the skills of a 6-foot, 6-inch young man named Tom Paul, won all 13 games before getting shipped to Maui for the last bit of training that started on Jan. 1, 1945.
Once Konop’s group reached Maui, he and his buddies were assigned to the Fourth Marine Division stationed in Maui.
That’s also when he finally found out what his assignment would be on the island of Iwo Jima.
Nothing, however, fully prepared them for what they were about to encounter on the beaches at Iwo Jima.
The Allied Forces needed a resting place for broken down B-29 bombers, and this 5-mile-long, 2-mile-wide pile of volcanic rock was chosen as the site of a what would become an emergency runway. It was located half-way between the nearest Allied Forces-controlled runway and the mainland of Japan.
Konop watched the fourth wave enter the island from the hospital ship. Their fate was no better than many in his troop. He watched in bewilderment as many soldiers fell face down as they went ashore. He realized they were getting shot.
“I was the lucky one,” he said.
His friend Pittsner was not so lucky, and that weighed on Konop. He said felt like a coward at times for not visiting his family, but eventually he did make a stop out there.
He spoke to Pittsner’s sister, Peggy. Their mother had died by then.
“She told me she (her mother) had never gotten over it (her son’s death),” Konop said.
Sharing the stories helps ease the pain Konop has felt over the years. It also appears to help his soul to have the story of the Seabees’ ultimate success being told.
Four days after the invasion began — D-Day plus 4 — Marines with the help of the Seabees finally got a foothold on the island. That’s when a small group of Marines under the threat of enemy fire climbed the 556-foot Mount Surabachi and defiantly hoisted the U.S. flag when Konop was on the hospital ship.
That’s when the work of Seabees heated up, as they built a camp to house the troops and began to fix the bombed-out airstrips.
About 1,000 guys worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week amidst continued enemy resistance, according to the History Channel’s “Dangerous Missions” program.
Seabees were under constant sniper and mortar attacks while working on the runway.
On Day 10, however, the first airstrip was completed and not long after that the first B-29 bomber landed.
It has been said that although more than 6,800 soldiers were killed on the island, the lives of more than 27,000 airmen were believed saved because they were able to land crippled aircraft after raids on mainland Japan.
“I would say (the island) was well worth taking,” Konop said.
Bingham agrees and adds something else.
“I think that’s important for these stories to be told,” he said.