Note to readers: This is the last in a series of Sauk Valley Newspapers articles on some of the World War II veterans who went to Washington, D.C., Tuesday on the Whiteside County Honor Flight.
STERLING – Oliver Taylor stormed Japan's Iwo Jima with 284 Marines at his side. With barely a scratch, the machine gunner sailed back to Hawaii's Pearl Harbor with just 25 men, only to be redeployed for a planned invasion of Japan.
"It's all a dream now," the 90-year-old Sterling native said of the 30 days he fought for American supremacy on that famed Japanese island, which sits about 650 miles south of mainland Japan and is no bigger than Sterling and Rock Falls combined.
Taylor was one of 37 Whiteside County World War II veterans to have taken the Honor Flight on Tuesday, which flew about 100 area veterans to Washington, D.C., for a tour of the war's memorial and other military monuments.
"I was an especially big target, because everyone wants to lick a machine gun man," Taylor said. "I got that specialist number, and I couldn't get rid of it."
It's been almost 64 years since Taylor ran ashore on Iwo Jima, where he passed his 26th birthday.
"I thought maybe one of them [Japanese soldiers] would bake me a cake or something," Taylor joked. "It's funny now, but it wasn't funny then."
The man who earned himself the nickname "the hand grenade kid" now lives on his own in a tidy Sterling apartment decorated with service photos, enlistment papers and photographs of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Running uphill, through volcanic sand, in a battle that claimed more lives than the storming of Germany's Normandy Beach on D-Day, Taylor said he wasn't scared until he stopped running for his life.
"I stopped in a hole and there were eight holes in my pack," Taylor said. "I wasn't scared until I saw that."
Bullets from heavily fortified Japanese positions whizzed all around him as he sprinted, head forward, toward the nearest hole in the scorched earth.
Allied bombers and Naval artillery "hit that island with everything ... but just made a bunch of holes to crawl in," Taylor said. "It was a bad place."
Taylor returned to Sterling with a fully healed shrapnel injury in his left leg, but he never received the Purple Heart medal for soldiers wounded in combat.
Amid heavy artillery fire on Iwo Jima, a corpsman pulled the wounded Taylor into a hole.
"He wanted to put me in for a Purple Heart. I told him, 'To hell with it – it's just a Band-Aid fix.'"
After his discharge from the Marine Corps, Taylor noodled around Sterling for a couple years, drank too much, and couldn't find much of anything that interested him.
The war was over, and there seemed to be little popular support for much military mobilization, so he decided to reenlist in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, where he was assigned, again, to a weapons company.
But the Korean war was raging, and the United States already had a small force fighting alongside the communist North Korean military, so Taylor again was shipped out of Pearl Harbor, where he joined the U.S. forces already there.
"I'd no more than joined, then they called us up for duty."
His service ended in 1952.
The Honor Flight file
Branch: U.S. Marine Corps
Rank: Private First Class
Terms of service:
■ 1943-1945 in World War II
■ 1948-1952 in Korea
Medals: Taylor has lost track of the "whole box of" medals he won for service in both World War II and the Korean War. "My son's got them somewhere. I don't care about all those ... I never wanted to be recognized."
Employment: Started as a bank teller in the small loans department of then-Central National Bank, now Amcore, in Sterling. He switched to building maintenance when he realized the blue-collar workers were earning more than the loan officers, he said. Worked a few other odd maintenance jobs.