Shrapnel and mortars fill the air. Confusion is everywhere. Marines are going down all around. It is 1945 on Iwo Jima. For Don Munger, the...
Shrapnel and mortars fill the air. Confusion is everywhere.
Marines are going down all around.
It is 1945 on Iwo Jima.
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For Don Munger, the memories are so clear and vivid, it’s as if it happened yesterday. And for him, it did.
“I fight that war every night,” said Munger, 85, a trainer at Emerald Downs in Auburn. “Last night, the same way. I lay awake, fighting that war. I don’t call them nightmares, because I’m awake when I do it, thinking about losing buddies and so forth.”
Munger spends the days with his horses. After 60 years in the business, he has no plans to quit training or breeding them on his 37-acre farm in Enumclaw.
The amiable Munger is too unsteady on his feet these days to handle powerful Thoroughbreds. Still, he’s active enough to spend about five hours a day at the racetrack before working until nightfall at his farm. But the South Pacific and World War II are always with him, right down to the U.S. Marine Corps cap and jacket he proudly wears.
While he might rather talk about his horses, on this day the conversation is about the war, a topic he used to avoid discussing.
“I was watching TV, and they said veterans were dying off fast and in a few years there won’t be any,” Munger said. “It said the younger generation should ask questions and talk to the veterans because in a few years all they’ll be able to do is read about it. They also encouraged veterans to talk about it.
“I think one reason veterans don’t want to talk about it is there is no way you can explain it so a person feels what it’s like to have shrapnel buzzing by your head, or seeing one of your friends shot, and there’s no way you can explain it so someone can really feel it.”
Maybe, but Munger is willing to try.
A soldier is born
Munger was four days short of his 18th birthday on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when his mother gave him the news the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The next day he was at the Federal Building in Seattle, ready to serve his country.
“I really didn’t know what service I wanted to join,” said Munger, who went to Auburn High School. “The Navy recruiting office had a real long line, and the Marines had a real short line. So, I said, ‘I’ll go down there first.’ Well, that’s as far as I got. They convinced me I should join.”
Munger was sworn in on his 18th birthday, and was promptly on a train to San Diego for boot camp. His shooting prowess helped get him assigned to a scout sniper’s platoon. In 1943, after extensive training, his platoon participated in taking back the island of Bougainville in the South Pacific.
Munger wasn’t there long before he came across two dead Japanese.
“I stopped and looked at them, and I started to feel a little sorry for them,” he said. “You know, those guys were young, just like I was. And they have a mother, father and a family at home. Then I said, ‘Munger, if you’re going to fight in a war, you can’t think that way.’ And I didn’t from then on.”
A hell of a day, and night
The battle to retake Guam began on July 21, 1944, and lasted about 2 ½ weeks. Munger was lucky to make it past his first 24 hours.
On that first day, he was part of a patrol that left the company to see if any Japanese soldiers were on the right flank. When the group returned, having not encountered the enemy, it discovered a gruesome sight.
“There were dead bodies all over, one guy with his head cut off, another with no arms, and bodies all over,” he said. “They shelled that area while we were gone.”
Occupying a ridge that night, Munger and a close friend he called Johnny (his last name was Johnson) dug a foxhole that would be their home until daybreak. Munger took first watch, then switched places with his friend.
“I settled in not far from Johnson,” Munger said. “Then boy, oh boy, there were explosions all over, targeted at that little area we were in. They were firing all over, concussion and flame and shrapnel flying. I heard Johnny groan and I reached up and shook him and he didn’t respond. I knew he had been killed.
“I drew my feet up and got into a ball as small as I could possibly get. So, gee whiz, shrapnel is flying all around and explosions, and then it quit. At daybreak, I looked and where my feet had been before I had curled up, and the shrapnel had cut it all up. If I hadn’t curled my feet up, I’d have lost them. All I got out of it was a little nick on my wrist.”
But his heart definitely ached.
“After I lost Johnny on Guam, I set up a barrier of not getting too close again,” he said. “You knew you were going to lose some of them and you hated to get too close and then lose your friends.”
A big adventure
The beauty of youth is the feeling of invincibility.
“The night before you hit one of those islands, it’s 3 in the morning, and you’re not sleeping well because you know you’re going to lose some [Marines],” Munger said. “But you always think, ‘They’re not going to get me. They’ll get the next guy, but not me.’ “
Maybe that explains why the Marines craved action, wanted to confront the enemy. That zest nearly got Munger killed on Guam.
A group of Japanese soldiers had been killed at the bottom of a barren hill, and because Munger and a few buddies had some time before their next patrol, they went to the site to take some war souvenirs from the dead Japanese (“Swords were the most coveted,” Munger said.)
The group made it to the dead soldiers when they began getting fired at from the nearby jungle. “We weren’t even authorized to be there,” Munger said.
Munger’s group found cover in a large shell hole, and then the firing stopped.
“I was like, ‘Damn it, they can’t quit,’ ” he recalled. “It seems awfully foolish now, but I walked out in the open at a farther distance, because I wanted to draw fire so I could know where they were at and I could fire. They started firing at me, and later I found a bullet hole in my dungaree jacket. That’s as close as I came to getting shot, that I know of.”
Munger jumped back into the hole and one of his friends was wounded. They fought their way out, but they had to send back for help and more ammunition. A corpsman carrying a stretcher for the wounded man was shot and ended up using that stretcher himself.
“We got out, but it was a heck of a firefight,” Munger said.
Munger said his first two battles were a hell of an adventure.
Iwo Jima was just hell.
That battle began Feb. 19, 1945, and ended on March 26. Munger entered the fighting on the fourth day as part of a rifle company, and is not sure exactly how long he was on Iwo Jima, possibly a couple of weeks.
What he does know is that he was one of nearly 28,000 Allied casualties, having found himself in the middle of antitank fire, hurting his back and suffering temporary partial paralysis to his legs from the concussion of explosions.
But he counts himself lucky he wasn’t one of about 7,000 U.S. soldiers who were killed. Munger said of the 250 in his company, just one made it through the end without being killed or wounded. About 20,000 Japanese soldiers perished on the island before its fall.
“There was so much confusion there,” said Munger, whose back bothers him to this day. “People were getting shot all around you, and you were short of help. You’d have a platoon commander, and he’d be shot and they’d give you another one. You get down to four men out of 12 in your squad and they’d put squads together and you’d have another commanding officer.
“Boy, it was demoralizing losing that many.”
Exhaustion also set in. There weren’t always enough men to pair up in foxholes, leaving no one to trade sleeping shifts with.
“You fought all day, and now you’re up all night,” he said. “And the next day, you got to go again. I got so tired and disgusted one time, there were bullets going over my shoulder and I didn’t even try to take cover. I was so tired, I didn’t even care.”
While it was an island of horrors for Munger, he once got very lucky. His platoon was attacking when it came under heavy fire. Mortars were raining down. Munger said it reminded him of a snowball fight, with little black spots filling the sky.
“They were exploding all around me,” he said. “I looked down and there was a shell hole real close, maybe five or six feet away, so I jumped in the shell hole. I thought, ‘What luck, a ready-made foxhole.’ And here comes another Marine, and he jumped in. That was all right, there can be two of us. Then a third one comes jumping in. Well, that was too many, and you couldn’t say, ‘I was the first one in, so get out.’ So I jumped out and I ran up a little knoll, maybe 50 feet away.
“The shells kept coming in and I was digging like mad, and a shell went right into the hole that I got out of. It got those guys, and I thought, ‘Someone is looking after me’ because I got out of that hole just in time.”
On his final day in Iwo Jima, Munger had to evacuate a soldier who had “cracked up,” having been in charge of taking the personal effects off dead soldiers. That soldier was having a hard time coping, Munger said, “because some of those bodies come back in pieces.”
Munger said when he left that soldier at sick bay, the line of wounded was “about 500 yards long.” On his way back to his platoon, Munger was wounded while taking a shortcut across an airfield.
“I started across it, and six tanks pulled up, our tanks, and I was right on foot among them,” he said. “They stopped and I was right in there with them, and the [Japanese] started firing at them. And I flattened out on that blacktop, because I couldn’t dig in. And the concussion is bouncing all around like rubber balls.
“Then they finally ceased firing and the tanks took off. My back was wrecked, but again I was lucky that I wasn’t hit by any shrapnel.”
After some time on a hospital ship, Munger returned to active duty in the United States. He was to be part of the planned invasion of Japan, but the Japanese surrendered first. It was a battle he was happy he didn’t have to fight.
“Often, people come up to me and thank for me being in the war,” Munger said. “But I’m still alive. How about the ones who died? How can we ever thank them?”
Happily ever after
Munger said he was a horse lover from the day he was born, and spent much of his youth breaking and riding Thoroughbreds outside Seattle. He followed his passion after the war, and began training and breeding.
He has a 10-horse stable at Emerald Downs and another 30 horses on his farm that he owns with Wanda, his wife of 47 years. He has three grown children.
Munger was a fixture at Longacres in Renton — if not among the training leaders — before it closed in 1992. Diamond Villa won two stakes races for him in 1981.
“We’ve had some good years and bad ones, more bad than good,” said Munger, who got his first win of the season at Emerald Downs last month, when Strategic Patience won a maiden race by 10 furlongs. “But a Marine never quits.”
Munger begins each day the same, feeding the pregnant mares on his farm around daybreak. He then heads to the racetrack, where he mixes feed for his horses, checks the physical condition of each one and plots a training schedule.
Back at the farm, you might find him pulling weeds, on his tractor spreading fertilizer or building a fence.
Munger said friends often asked when he will retire.
“I tell people, “I am retired,’ ” said Munger, who owns a trailer court in Auburn. “When you retire, you do what you want, don’t you? Well, I’m retired and I’m doing what I want.”
It typifies Munger’s positive attitude.
“One thing about the war, it makes you appreciate things. You appreciate life, and everything involved with it,” he said. “You don’t appreciate things until you don’t have them, and when you almost lose your life.
“On Guadalcanal in 1943, I was reading an old Reader’s Digest, and there was a little phrase in there: ‘The way to love something is to realize it may be lost.’ And that impressed me and I wrote it on my little stationery box. It’s still in my sea bag, and I’ve always remembered that.”
Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or firstname.lastname@example.org