Story behind vet's rifle brings Iwo Jima to life


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Ray Alcorn came home from Iwo Jima in 1945 with two World War II souvenirs.

One was a V-shaped chunk missing from his left ear, courtesy of a Japanese bayonet.

The other was the Arisaka rifle to which that bayonet was affixed.

After being wounded, Pvt. Alcorn wrestled the rifle from his attacker and killed him with it, then arranged to have the weapon sent home to his toddler son in Verona as a war trophy.

"I remember when I was about 13 and playing army with it in the woods," said that son, Pete Alcorn, now 71, of Indiana Township.

After his father died in 1996, he gave the rifle to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, and now it is on display as part of a small new exhibit on the Pacific war.

It's just one artifact among the hall's collections, but like most chosen for display by curator Michael Kraus, it tells an individual story amid the larger backdrop of one of America's most desperate struggles.

The battle for Iwo Jima, another in a long line of tiny Pacific hell-holes wrested from the Japanese, was raging 69 years ago this month.

On Feb. 19, 1945, 30,000 Marines stormed ashore to take on 22,000 entrenched Japanese defenders. By the end of the fighting on March 26, nearly 7,000 Marines were dead.

One of them was another Pittsburgh boy, Martin Maiers of Lawrenceville, whose story is also part of the Soldiers & Sailors display.

He and five brothers all fought in the war; he was the only one who didn't come home, shot by a sniper on Iwo at age 21. The exhibit includes his Purple Heart with gold star and a telegram sent to his parents on Hatfield Street, informing them of his first war wound, suffered on Saipan in 1944.

Ray Alcorn was lucky; he was among the 19,000 wounded on Iwo, but his injuries were not as terrible as many.

The details of what happened to him were never entirely clear, even to his family. He confided in his wife, Marjorie, but like almost all combat veterans revealed only small pieces of what he endured.

"He never really talked about the war at all," his son said.

Iwo Jima was his only combat and it was obvious that he suffered.

"I remember my mom telling me that he had sustained brain damage in the war," his son said. "I don't know if that meant what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. But she said you must never ask him about it. I do remember him sometimes screaming at night. My mom said she sometimes found him out in the yard looking for [enemy soldiers]."

Alcorn was 30 when he enlisted in 1944, much older than most of his fellow Marines on Iwo Jima who called him "Pappy."

He grew up in Verona and had worked on several Civilian Conservation Corps projects during the Depression. When the war came, he was exempt from the draft because he had a good job at Edgewater Steel, he was married and he had a young child.

But his younger brother, Bill, was already in the Marines aboard the USS Essex, a carrier that later saw action off Iwo Jima, and many of his co-workers at the steel plant were off fighting.

He wanted to do his part and joined the Marines in June 1944.

After training in California and Hawaii, he shipped off with the 5th Marine Division for Iwo Jima, although none of the men knew their destination. During training, he wrote many letters home to his wife, but one day he sent one indicating he wouldn't be writing anymore because he was going to be "busy for awhile."

"She had no idea where he was," his son recalled.

On Iwo Jima, Pvt. Alcorn was part of the third wave, which took the worst of it from the 22,000 Japanese defenders who had entrenched themselves in a network of caves and vowed to fight to the death. Which they did.

The Marines could not dig into the black volcanic sand and were exposed to murderous fire.

"He just walked right into it," his son said. "He was the only guy in his platoon to make it."

When he was growing up, Pete Alcorn remembered occasionally hearing his father talk about Iwo with his brother over a few beers.

"I remember him saying he was afraid of the 'screaming mimis' [enemy rockets] and he talked about the smell of the bodies," he said.

His dad also once told him that he'd shot a Japanese soldier in the eye.

On the February day when he was wounded, a shell blast blew him out of his foxhole and knocked him unconscious. When he came to, the Japanese were attacking with bayonets, stabbing the stunned Marines. When one enemy came at him with a bayonet, Pvt. Alcorn rolled to the side as the blade caught him in the ear, taking out a chunk.

During the fight, Pvt. Alcorn managed to grab the rifle and kill his attacker with the bayonet.

He later was airlifted off the island to a hospital ship. For him, the war was over. At Pearl Harbor, his brother received permission to leave the Essex to care for him on the journey to San Francisco.

The Essex had supported the Iwo invasion, but Bill Alcorn didn't realize until later that his brother had been fighting ashore. In California, Bill also made arrangements to send home the Japanese rifle that his brother had taken.

Back in Pittsburgh, Ray returned to civilian life and, like millions of other veterans, went to work. He spent 43 years as a machinist at Edgewater Steel and raised five children with his wife.

He was active in the Verona VFW post and in his later years volunteered at the VA hospital in Oakland.

"He was very proud of his service," his son said.

Marjorie died in 1995, Ray the following year.

In cleaning out the attic, the children found the letters he had written to her, along with photos, medals and other items from the war years. Pete still had the Japanese rifle in his own attic and decided to donate it to Soldiers & Sailors.

It's the kind of relic that Mr. Kraus especially likes because it has a Pittsburgh back story that he can verify.

"We're looking for good artifacts that have local connections," he said.

Iwo Jima was the costliest battle in the history of the U.S. Marines.

The men who fought there are immortalized by the Marine Corps War Memorial, with its statue of the famous flag-raising on Mount Suribachi inscribed with Adm. Chester Nimitz's tribute that "uncommon valor was a common virtue."

It's a heroic image for the ages. But Pete Alcorn said his dad never regarded himself as a hero, and neither did any of his fellow Marines.

"I think if someone had come up to him and suggested that he was a hero, he might have taken a swing at them," he said. "None of these guys considered themselves heroes. They did what they had to do, came home and got on with their lives."


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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